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Monday, March 31, 2008

Journey Through the Quintessential Immigrant's Tale

Title: Kisses from a Distance
Author: Raff Ellis
Genre: Memoir

Reviewed by Hani Bathis for the Beirut Daily Star
Tuesday, February 26, 2008, Beirut, Lebanon


Raff Ellis' 'Kisses from a Distance' delves into the lure of migration, a subject that resonates deeply for nearly every Lebanese family today

BEIRUT: Lebanese-American author Raff Ellis' "Kisses from a Distance" unfolds like a quintessential immigrant's tale. It follows a Lebanese story that is as relevant and familiar to today's Levantine audience as it would have been 100 years ago. Over the book's 311 pages, which are peppered with relevant and exhaustively researched history, Ellis tugs readers along on a journey down the snow-capped mountains of Lebanon, over land, across seas and oceans and into many strange and distant ports. The story anchors in New York and allows readers to experience the anxious excitement of the wide-eyed immigrant as he steps off the boat and sets foot in a new country for the first time.

In "Kisses from a Distance," Ellis chronicles a very intimate family history - his parents' marriage and migration to the United States and their struggle to raise a family and make ends meet in the small town of Carthage, New York, during the Great Depression. Ellis also gives readers a glimpse of Lebanon ravaged by war, famine and disease. But he also reveals the ways in which the country encompasses boundless hope and countless tales of courage, triumph and success.

That success, in particular, reflects the dogged determination of Lebanese immigrants to persevere against all odds, an attribute which continues to serve their adopted homelands well. The author's story is just one of innumerable ordinary, untold epics, a highly personal account of a sad history, presenting a proud and fiercely independent people who are all too often caught up in the region's tectonic political shifts.

The genesis of Ellis' family epic came after the death of his mother, when he discovered more than 200 letters among her personal affects. The letters from friends and family span 60 years, starting in 1925. They begin with traditional Lebanese greetings, and many kisses: "Kisses from a distance ... We kiss your cheeks ... I kiss you many times from this distance," thus inspiring the title of the book.

The real-life dramas unfolding between the pages of these letters, especially in the last half of Ellis' book, make for a very compelling read, turning "Kisses from a Distance" into a veritable page-turner.

The author's visits to Lebanon, his meticulous research and his tenacious quest to trace his family's roots - and those of all the characters involved in this complex story - further enrich the narrative. The well laid-out book, which is Ellis' first full-length effort, is divided into 41 chapters ranging from four to 12 pages.

Angele [the author’s mother], a prolific letter writer and a proficient linguist, corresponded regularly with her family in Lebanon, mostly with her brothers Youssef and Khalil, her sister Miriam and her mother Adela. Through their letters back to Angele, readers of Ellis' account learn of her death her new life in America, her pining for Lebanon and her unhappiness in marriage. The letters also peel back layers of her personality and in particular her religious fervor, which was a great source of comfort for her in the many family arguments that erupted over money and property.

As expressed in "Kisses from a Distance," the subject of migration resonates deeply for nearly every Lebanese family today, more so than at any time since WWI. Once again, many of Lebanon's youth are seeking work in foreign lands to escape the instability and uncertainty in their home country. And one suspects that when and if they return, they too, like Toufic [the author’s father], will be both disappointed and dismissive.

Through her correspondence with her family, Angele learns of their struggles and frustrations, too. She learns of her sister Miriam's untimely death from a burst appendix, her younger brother Khalil's passing and her mother's worsening health until her ultimate demise. Angele watches from a distance as one after another of her loved ones perish.

The real-life dramas unfolding between the pages of these letters, especially in the last half of Ellis' book, make for a very compelling read, turning "Kisses from a Distance" into a veritable page-turner.

The author's visits to Lebanon, his meticulous research and his tenacious quest to trace his family's roots - and those of all the characters involved in this complex story - further enrich the narrative. The well laid-out book, which is Ellis' first full-length effort, is divided into 41 chapters ranging from four to 12 pages.

As expressed in "Kisses from a Distance," the subject of migration resonates deeply for nearly every Lebanese family today, more so than at any time since WWI. Once again, many of Lebanon's youth are seeking work in foreign lands to escape the instability and uncertainty in their home country. And one suspects that when and if they return, they too, like Toufic [the author’s father], will be both disappointed and dismissive.

Raff Ellis' "Kisses from a Distance" is published by Cune Press, distributed in Lebanon by Levant, and available in the States in special edition hardcopy at www.raffellis.com, and in paperback at Amazon.com.

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