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When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant
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When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

by Linda Grant

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3951427,097 (3.57)1 / 144
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Golly, I just love this book. ( )
  laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
This book won the Orange/Women's Prize for fiction and it is easy to see why. The writing completely drew me in to a world that I never would have visited before. There are stories out there about Israel and Palestine, but few have had the power to pull me to one side of the issue without making me wonder what happens to the other side. That, of course, sounds bad, as if this book isn't well rounded or is one sided, but it is the type of story that really has to be one sided in order to be properly told.

I don't know that there is a way for me to properly describe the writing or how it was so powerfully true that you felt as if you honestly were the main character, going through life in a new country, fighting a struggle that she wasn't quite aware of until the end. When I put the book down I felt as if I had traveled to Israel in the time of the story, which is something that is sometimes very hard for writers to do. Getting the reader to a country is easy, getting them to that country through time itself isn't always as simple as it sounds. This book truly felt like a time machine. It is something that everyone should experience. ( )
  mirrani | Jan 3, 2015 |
I loved this book and recommend it whole-heartedly. I think it should take its place among the classics of English-language Jewish literature. It’s written beautifully: thoughtful, wry, occasionally poetic.

It’s the story of a young British woman coming to Israel after the war, before it was called Israel, before it was a country, when the British were running around in khaki shorts trying to govern it. The heroine, Evelyn Sert, is young, orphaned, and used to being different from the people around her. She’s not only Jewish, but illegitimate, with no clear family history. In order to reinvent herself, she goes to a country which is also in the process of inventing itself.

The atmosophere in this book is so powerful that you feel that you’re eating, drinking, smelling and touching Tel Aviv. Besides being a love song to the city, this novel has a gripping plot. And the author has a way of sketching a character in just a few words and making the person come alive.

( )
  astrologerjenny | Apr 24, 2013 |
Is there any end to the history of which I am completely unaware? Linda Grant’s evocative and fascinating coming of age story of both 20 year old Evelyn Sert as well as the state of Israel, had me furiously turning pages as I learned, at the feet of a masterful storyteller, about one year (1946) in the history of the country carved out of British-run Palestine after WWII.

Sert leaves Britain posing as a Christian tourist, visiting the Holy Land, because it’s the only way she can get a passport as the UK has severely limited the number of passports available to Jews headed for Palestine. After finding the grueling life on the kibbutz not to her liking, she ends up in the teeming metropolis of Tel Aviv where she takes on a job as a hairdresser utilizing the only skills she possesses. To appeal to the British nationals who frequent the shop, she assumes the identity of Priscilla Jones, and gives up her Jewish identity. Meanwhile, after work, she is Jewish Evelyn Sert and she hooks up with a Jewish man who is not exactly what he seems and soon involves Evelyn in providing information about the salon’s British customers. Her role as a spy in this underground army, fighting for the nation that is about to be born, results in circumstances that put her life in danger.

Grant is so adept at evoking this time and place in history that it proves to be quite breathtaking. Her description of Tel Aviv suggests the birth of a brand new city:

”I saw apartment buildings of two or three or occasionally four stories, all white, dazzling white, and against them the red flowers of oleander bushes. Flat-roofed white boxes, I saw, though sometimes their corners curved voluptuously like a woman’s hips and two buildings facing each other like this, on a corner, reminded me of a pair of ship’s prows sailing out into the dry waters of the street. They were houses like machines, built of concrete and glass, not houses at all, they were ideas. I saw walls erected not for privacy but as barriers against the blinding light; windows small and recessed, each with a balcony and each shaded by the shadow cast by the balcony above it; stairwells lit by portholes, reminding me that we were by the sea.” (Page 71)

Grant has written a book, in luminous prose, that is first and foremost a pursuit for understanding---of culture, of race, of patriotism, of sexuality---and has placed it side by side with a setting of raging chaos that grabs you by the throat and drags you along to witness the birth of Israel under a fading British regime. The fact that I knew so little about this bit of history was just icing on the cake. Very highly recommended. ( )
6 vote brenzi | Jul 21, 2012 |
29. When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant (2000, 262 pages, read June 4-10)

Evelyn Sert was born and raised in England, but never felt English. Her mother was a Jewish immigrant from a Baltic Sea country, and she never met her father. Given a chance to go to British-controlled Palestine and help build the not-yet-independent Jewish state in 1946, she doesn’t hesitate, she has nothing to lose.

I read this as part of my prep for my soon-to-come travels to Israel. So, I was ready to learn, and mentally ready to be taken by this book; and I was, completely. But then what a world this was. The Jewish side is a world full of recent immigrants, a vast sea of Jewish refugees from around Europe all with different histories, many the darkest of dark. They include extreme and idealistic Russian communists, Holocaust survivors, old men shorn of their careers and their livelihoods, and the young anxious to push ahead, desperate to get the British out. In this Tel Aviv anyone looking backward is lost. The future has no past here. Instead, the nascent Israel is rearing to go forward, ready to show the world the mistake the Germans made, ready to make the perfect country, in so many distinct and contradictory ways of perfection.

On the British side are the imperial police of the fading empire manning an impossible place that Britain really doesn’t want anything to do with anyway. Many of Grant’s best characters are English. And, broken down to its bones, this is maybe more a novel about the English watching all this happen.

And out there somewhere, mostly outside of this book, are the Palestinians.

Linda Grant has a way of instantly creating atmosphere and I was simply lost in this book. The world would shut out, as I fell into Grant’s tour through all this, switching back and forth from English to various Jewish settings. I can now recommend Grant, but, as a caveat, I suspect few readers will get quite as into this book as I found myself, being Jewish and proactively curious specifically about Tel Aviv.

As a side note, the end is puzzling. I didn’t mind except that it took me away from Tel Aviv and left me wondering instead about Evelyn Sert. But she is quite a character here too. ( )
2 vote dchaikin | Jul 4, 2012 |
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For Michele and John
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When I look back I see myself at twenty.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0452282926, Paperback)

In April 1946, a 20-year-old East End London hairdresser named Evelyn Sert sets out for Palestine. "This is my story," she writes in When I Lived in Modern Times, which won Linda Grant the 2000 Orange Prize. "Scratch a Jew and you've got a story." Her account is no less complicated than that of any other displaced European Jew in the postwar years. Separated from her family, she searches for some kind of reliable identity in an inhospitable new land--and in shining, Bauhaus-influenced Tel Aviv, she finds that she is more English than Israeli. Lo and behold, she becomes Priscilla Jones, a peroxided Londoner with an absent policeman husband. She is at her most "real," it seems, when pretending, and revels in her ability to be entirely accepted among the English women whose hair she cuts and curls. Outside of their petty and casually anti-Semitic circle, meanwhile, she struggles with Hebrew, the heat, the unfamiliar food, and an alien way of life.

In Palestine, of course, the English are the enemy. Evelyn is soon drawn into a world of shifting identities, lies, and secrets by her passionate Zionist boyfriend, Johnny. Even then, she is never quite sure which side she is on, or where she belongs. All of this makes her a prototypical inhabitant of Linda Grant's Tel Aviv, a city of contradictions and of hope. More to the point, Grant's heroine is a fully believable figure, a chameleon of a kind readily recognizable to those of us who grew up as part of the seismic displacement of peoples that accompanied World War II--and, alas, to anyone who has been caught up in the more recent exoduses from Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania. --Lisa Jardine

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:31 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

It is April 1946. Evelyn Sert, 20 years old, a hairdresser from Soho, sails for Palestine, where Jewish refugees and idealists are gathering from across Europe to start a new life in a brand new country. In the glittering, cosmopolitan, Bauhaus city of Tel Aviv, anything seems possible - the new self, new Jew, new woman are all feasible.… (more)

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