Who by Fire

( 15 )

Overview

Bits and Ash were children when the kidnapping of their younger sister, Alena—an incident for which Ash blames himself—caused an irreparable family rift. Thirteen years later, Ash is living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel, cutting himself off from his mother, Ellie, and his wild-child sister, Bits. But soon he may have to face them again; Alena's remains have finally been uncovered. Now Bits is traveling across the world in a bold and desperate attempt to bring her brother home and...

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Who by Fire

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Overview

Bits and Ash were children when the kidnapping of their younger sister, Alena—an incident for which Ash blames himself—caused an irreparable family rift. Thirteen years later, Ash is living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel, cutting himself off from his mother, Ellie, and his wild-child sister, Bits. But soon he may have to face them again; Alena's remains have finally been uncovered. Now Bits is traveling across the world in a bold and desperate attempt to bring her brother home and salvage what's left of their family.

Sharp and captivating, Who by Fire deftly explores what happens when people try to rescue one another.

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Editorial Reviews

Aryn Kyle
“Impossible to put down, Who By Fire is a remarkable tale about fear and forgiveness and the bonds that hold a family together even as its members are falling apart. It’s a beautiful novel.”
Katrina Kittle
“This book got hold of me and wouldn’t let me go, and it’s haunted me ever since I finished. I cannot wait for whatever’s next from Diana Spechler.”
Cristina Henriquez
“Told with grace, humor, and astonishing candor, this is a novel that will break your heart. To call it an extraordinary debut doesn’t do it justice. This is an extraordinary novel, period.”
Booklist
“Bits’s adventures as she attempts to bring her brother home and deal with the ensuing family crisis provide this above-average debut novel with plenty of dramatic tension. Add this one to recommended lists of dysfunctional families in fiction.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“[A] compelling debut novel . . . Spechler’s characters are engaging, and her contemplation of a family in anguish is affecting.”
Boston Globe
“Impressively executed...[The characters’] voices are strong and convincing...Spechler is a talented writer who transcends melodrama and cliche with striking sensitivity and delicate touch.”
Booklist
“Bits’s adventures as she attempts to bring her brother home and deal with the ensuing family crisis provide this above-average debut novel with plenty of dramatic tension. Add this one to recommended lists of dysfunctional families in fiction.”
Boston Globe
“Impressively executed...[The characters’] voices are strong and convincing...Spechler is a talented writer who transcends melodrama and cliche with striking sensitivity and delicate touch.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“[A] compelling debut novel . . . Spechler’s characters are engaging, and her contemplation of a family in anguish is affecting.”
Publishers Weekly

In her affecting debut, Spechler raises the question of whether, in rescuing others, we risk ruining ourselves. Thirteen years after the abduction of youngest child Alena at the age of six, the remaining members of the Kellerman family are still deeply damaged by their shared loss. The irresponsible oldest daughter, Bits, seeks out random sexual encounters with near strangers to fill the voids in her life. Son Ash, meanwhile, dabbles in a variety of compulsive behaviors before settling on Orthodox Judaism, cutting himself off from the rest of the family and moving to Jerusalem. The mother, Ellie, enlists the help of a charismatic stranger to help save Ash from what she views as a cult, and when Alena's remains are discovered, Bits determines to bring Ash home for their sister's long-overdue memorial service. Told in alternating chapters by Bits, Ellie and Ash, the narrative is notable in large part for how little these family members actually interact with one another despite the drama that confronts them all. Though the ending is overly tidy, Spechler's debut raises provocative questions about religion, violence and the resilience of families and individuals. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Spechler situates her first novel 13 years after the disappearance of six-year-old Alena Kellerman. The narrative explores the aftermath of Alena's probable abduction and murder, revealing the coping mechanisms each family member assumes to escape survivor guilt and grief. The father's eventual abandonment of the family only heightens their loss. Bits, Alena's older sister, pursues a promiscuous path in Boston, while brother Ash is attracted to all manner of dogma. Raised a liberal Jew, he is eventually led to Orthodox Judaism, a move his mother, Ellie, likens to joining a cult. The story begins not long after Ash has renounced his family and traveled to Jerusalem to join a yeshiva and study the Torah. Ellie's compulsion to control her children leads her to concoct a deceitful tale about the recovery of Alena's remains. She even enlists a cult expert to assist in returning Ash to the United States. Ultimately, Ellie's dishonesty leads Bits on a desperate journey to retrieve her brother from the Holy Land. Spechler's characters are lovable despite their numerous faults, and the story is not just dark but funny. Split among the three family members, the rich and varied narrative offers readers many avenues for enjoyment. Recommended for all libraries.
—Faye A. Chadwell

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061572937
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/23/2008
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 5.54 (w) x 10.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Diana Spechler

Diana Spechler received her MFA from the University of Montana and was a Steinbeck Fellow at San José State University from 2004 to 2005. Her fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, Moment, Lilith, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Who by Fire

Chapter One

April 12, 2002

I'm sitting in Friday evening rush-hour traffic, staring out the window at the Charles River, and listening to the news. A bomb detonated in Jerusalem. A man speaks in panicked Hebrew. Another man talks over him in English: "How are we supposed to live like this?" they say in overlapping languages.

It's been eleven months since Ash clapped a yarmulke on his head, dropped out of college, went missing, and then one week later turned out not to be missing. Where he turned out to be was Israel, at a yeshiva, ready to spend the rest of his life studying Judaism. (Judaism! In Israel! A real pioneer, my brother.)

I call Ash from my cell phone and get his voice mail. Ash's voice mail annoys me. It's in Hebrew, for one thing, which is absurd considering he almost didn't get to have a bar mitzvah because he wouldn't learn his Torah portion. I don't know Hebrew, but I can tell by the way he speaks it that it's not right. It sounds distinctly American. In his message, he calls himself Asher. That's what he goes by now.

Maybe he's traveling. His last letter said something about traveling during Passover vacation. Is it still Passover vacation? I'm trying to remember that letter, but I can only remember the package that he sent with it: dried prunes, dried apricots, bright orange sticks of dried papaya.

On his voice mail, I say, "Isn't this getting a little ridiculous? Isn't it about time to come home?" I don't hang up right away. I listen to the silence in the phone, half-expecting an answer and hating the feeling. You can waste your whole life half-expecting the impossible.

The phone isringing when I get to my apartment, and I know it's Ash. I can feel him sometimes.

But it's not Ash. It's my mother, calling from New Jersey because she just heard the news.

"I can't reach him," I tell her. "But I'm trying. Don't worry."

"Bits," she says, "don't do this. Don't do this to me."

"I'm sure he's fine," I say. "Don't cry."

"You're sure? Here I'm about to have an attack, and you're sure! Call his yeshiva," she says.

I sit on the kitchen floor and lean back against the stove, propping the soles of my feet on the refrigerator door that I've never decorated. My apartment, in general, is kind of austere. I've just never known whose pictures to display, what sort of artwork I love enough to live with. Looking out my window at Allston, at the CITGO sign flashing and the traffic I'm not sitting in and the umbrellas in a million different colors on rainy days . . . it's enough for me. How much can a person ask from a place? "I'm not calling his yeshiva, Mom." I tell her that we should keep the lines free, in case Ash calls us. You can still convince my mother that she needs to do things like keep the lines free. "Good Shabbos," I say, even though that's not the kind of thing I say.

My mother says, "What's so good about it?"

Once I hang up, the gnawing feeling hits, like I've forgotten to do something or I'm supposed to be somewhere. It's the feeling I used to get as a child, when my mother would stand at the kitchen sink, her back to me, screaming at the window, "Where is she? Where the hell is she? Just tell me that!" It's an anxiety that my mother still ignites in me, although it's not about Alena anymore; these days, it's about Ash.

A familiar urge starts poking at me like a finger. Don't call Wade, I tell myself. Don't start cruising through chat rooms. Chat rooms are for weirdos. People with hobbies. Child pornographers. Do something else. Anything else. I drag the vacuum cleaner into my bedroom and turn it on, but I'm afraid I won't hear the phone ring, so I turn it off. I should exercise. Exercise is supposed to be calming. But I'm not much of an exerciser. After ten push-ups, I can't go on. I lie on my stomach, listening to my heart beat through the carpet. I get up and pick up the phone.

Oh, fuck it. I'm entitled. Just this once won't kill me. I dial Wade. "Come over," I say. Wade and I work together at the Auburn School. As my mother would say, he's no rocket scientist. But he serves a purpose.

"What's wrong?" he asks.

I press the phone harder to my ear, feeling my skull throb against the receiver. I squeeze my eyes shut and see explosions of color. "Just come," I say. "Hurry."

When I hang up, I go through the junk drawer in the kitchen until I find Ash's letter. It's dated by the Jewish calendar: 16 Nisan 5762.

Bits, I went to Rosh Hanikra. The waves blow against the grottoes at night. It's so beautiful. I was really close to Lebanon. You could look through a fence at it, but you couldn't cross over. Back to Jerusalem tomorrow. I just learned this: When we die, G-d will ask, why didn't you taste all My fruits?

He won't spell out "God" anymore. In my head, I start composing a letter to him. I'll sign it, Love, B-ts.

The intercom buzzes. Maybe Wade is one of God's fruits. So I will taste him. Whatever.

Wade hasn't changed from work. He's still dressed up like a gym teacher: a Red Sox sweatshirt, warmup pants with a stripe down the side, a whistle around his neck. He smells faintly of perspiration. I reach up and put my fingers in his short brown hair. He asks again what's wrong. "You sounded—"

"Nothing's wrong," I say. "It was a trick. I just wanted to get you here quickly." I grab a fistful of his sweatshirt and pull him toward me. We sink to the hardwood floor in the entryway. I straddle him.

Who by Fire. Copyright © by Diana Spechler. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 15 )
Rating Distribution

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Sort by: Showing all of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 11, 2008

    Such a moving and powerfull book

    What a journey! This book had me by chapter one and didn¿t let go. I literally finished it in a day. It is not a happy, quirky, fluffy story. It is real, gritty, and at times disturbing. I know these characters, I recognize them in my friends, family, and in myself. This book will draw you in and make you really think, change allegiances, and leave you off with a new perspective.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 4, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Fine First Novel

    The story was novel, engaging and the writing style crisp and sharp. Spechler's use of three separate characters who view and live thru the same life experience but from different points of view is extremely effective -- similar to Barbara Kingslover's Poisonwood Bible, and offers us as readers the opportunity to make our judgement as to what is "true". Be warned -- you will want to keep reading thru to the end so prepare to spend a few hours!

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 14, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Smart, sharp writing & great plot

    Who by Fire tells the story of Ash and Bits, a brother and sister whose younger sister Alena had been kidnapped more than a decade ago. When their mother informs them that her remains have finally been discovered, it's up to wild child Bits to go to Israel and convince her now Orthodox Jew brother to come home for a memorial service-no easy feat as he's been out of touch with the family since entering the yeshiva.

    The book is told from shifting perspectives, really getting into the minds of the various characters. I'm no expert on Orthodox Judaism, so I can't comment on how accurate the scenes in Israel might be, but I do know that I couldn't put this book down.

    None of the characters are particularly lovable, at least not for me, but that didn't stop me from devouring this book-I believe it's called the train wreck syndrome. What I mean is that each character is a bit (or a lot) of a mess-the book itself is far from a train wreck. Indeed, it's fabulous.

    The plotting, pacing, and writing all shine; I particularly love Spechler's conversational, down-to-earth writing style, which you might not expect in a book with such deep subject matter. Spechler shows that humor has a place everywhere, even when dealing with heavy topics, and this is something that I firmly believe as well.

    I give this books five espresso cups out of five. I simply couldn't stop reading, and as I wrote to Diana after I finished, I then found myself imagining what happened to the main characters-the true sign of a great book.

    ~Michelle Fabio
    bleedingespresso.com

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 18, 2008

    Gripping debut novel

    What a gem! Spechler's debut novel addresses complicated issues including religion, guilt and family tragedy with style, grace, and unique prose that is highly addictive. Her vivid character development and alternating narrative voice forces the reader to form an intense love/hate relationship with each character. Impossible to put down, yet worthy of being savored, Spechler is a refreshing reprieve from other young female authors today. Who By Fire is the best book I have read in ages, and I look forward to seeing what's to come from this immensely talented new author.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 2, 2014

    I liked and disliked this book all at once. I like the story lin

    I liked and disliked this book all at once. I like the story line but did not like that there was no resolution with a main part of the story. The book is more of an emotional journey than an actual story. I think the characters had character traits that were very dislikable but I did find myself understanding them- I don't necessarily agree with the choices that author had them make- like having sex at 10 (Bits), self-imposed isolation (Ash), and constant nagging (Mom). Additionally, I had a really hard time understanding the language of Judaism. This book was so steeped in tradition and language heavy, it was often hard to understand the words in context. I am not Jewish and have little background knowledge, which made this a hard read. At first I would reread, but by the middle of the book I found myself skimming areas that had religious information. To me, it just was not essential to the storyline. While appreciate the author's desire to include religion as part of the foundation of the story, this should be title religious fiction. I am not raving about this book but I would say if you have an understanding (or want to explore) Judaism this would be a good read..

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  • Posted October 29, 2011

    Couldn't put it down. (:

    This book quickly sucked me in. It was so unpredictable and I just LOVED it. I would definitely recommend this great novel.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 3, 2011

    Interesting use of perspective

    Throughout the book, the author constantly shifts the point of view between a mother and her two children, Bits and Ash. I found it a little "game" almost to figure out the perspective at the beginning of each scene.

    I know very little about Orthodox Judaism, or Judaism at all for that matter, so I feel like a side benefit of reading this book was that I became educated on some different Jewish holidays, traditions, phrases, etc. I found myself googling a bit as I read.

    The plot of this novel is very slow, however- it's more of an emotional exploration than much of a story. Although Spechler developed her quirky characters well, I didn't find any of them very likeable or redeeming, which I enjoy in the books I get to read in my quite limited spare time as a teacher and mother of a one year old.

    Great title, by the way, and I like the way it ties into the book.

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  • Posted August 31, 2011

    Predictable

    Kept my attention for the most part but very predictable and not much depth.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2008

    Loved it!

    Absolutely could not put it down. Can't wait to see more by this talented new author.

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    Posted July 24, 2011

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    Posted December 30, 2011

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    Posted February 16, 2012

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    Posted October 4, 2011

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    Posted November 2, 2011

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    Posted September 29, 2011

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