Boris Fishman to read from, discuss his New York Times 'notable' novel

Fishman is no stranger to Cedar Rapids area

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Author and New Yorker Boris Fishman is no stranger to Cedar Rapids.

The summer after his freshman year at Princeton University, Fishman flew to Eastern Iowa with his roommate, Cedar Rapids native Adam Sorensen.

“I have such fondness and affection for that summer. Isn’t there a sculpture that marks the City of Five Seasons? Winter, spring, summer, fall and time to enjoy. I thought that was capital.”

Book critics find Fishman and his writing pretty capital too, as Fishman’s remarkable novel, “A Replacement Life,” received rave reviews and landed on the New York Times’ list of 100 Notable Books for 2014.

Despite his gift, Fishman — born in 1979 to a Jewish family in the former Soviet Union — never intended to become a writer.

“I grew up in a traditional Eastern European household. Everyone knows the stereotype: My parents want me to pursue a career in law, medicine or finance. And I so badly wanted to be one of those people,” he laughs. “Or one of those people who could successfully suppress my true ambitions to do that.”

Thankfully for readers, that didn’t work out.

Fishman’s novel is the story of Slava Gelman, a struggling writer whose grandfather asks him to fabricate details of his World War II experiences so the family might secure Holocaust reparations.

While the plot is not taken from his own life, the novel is autobiographical in some ways, says Fishman, whose family immigrated to the United States when he was 9.

“Emotionally, spiritually, existentially, the questions asked are from your life. But factually, it’s invented. I didn’t forge claims for my grandpa or anyone else.”

The novel deals with some big questions: “Are truth and justice all the same thing? How do you honor elders whose definition of honor is different than yours?” as well as some powerful themes, such as how war can have a different impact on different generations.

“This novel is about my grandparents’ generation because I struggled with this idea that even though they didn’t invite it and were perfectly ordinary people, they were tested in a way that my generation has not been tested at all. ... People grew up there shaped by 20 million people being lost, between civilians and soldiers. The idea of possible threats coming from everywhere was nurtured by the war and then amplified by the Cold War.

“Fast forward to 2015 in the United States. We’ve had 15 years of war, but it really does not meaningfully touch the lives of so many people here. ... We have not been confronted with an existential threat.”

And while Fishman’s novel includes heavy topics, he moves through them in a manner true to his Russian and Jewish heritage — with humor.

“Humor plays a huge role in Russian culture. ... Russian humor is darker (than American humor). It’s earthy. Russian humor could only come about through a country that has seen tragedy and loss.

“I grew up with that humor all around me. If I was going to go deep into that community, there was no way I was going to do it without humor.”

And there was no way Fishman was going to return to the Midwest without making a stop in Cedar Rapids.

After all, he has community here, too.

“I’ll be staying with the Sorensens,” Fishman said.

Book readings

Boris Fishman will read from, discuss and sign copies of his novel “The Replacement Life:”

Cedar Rapids: 2 p.m. Feb. 22 at Barnes & Noble Bookseller, 333 Collins Rd. NE

Iowa City: 7 p.m. Feb. 23 at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

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