Book
Wed, 09/11/2013
Jewish Week Book Critic

Fiction

Award-winning novelist Dara Horn has written a fourth novel of ideas, “A Guide for the Perplexed” (Norton, September), intertwining two stories set in different eras and playing off an important text with the same title written by Moses Maimonides, also known as the Rambam. One story, set in the past, relates to Solomon Schechter and his search for the Cairo genizah; the other involves a software designer who invents software called Genizah that categorizes and preserves the past, creating a personal archive of memory.

“Lineup (HarperCollins, September) by Israeli writer Liad Shoham is a fast-paced legal thriller, beginning with a brutal rape in a Tel Aviv neighborhood. This is the American debut for the writer known as “Israel’s John Grisham,” who is also a partner in a Tel Aviv law firm practicing commercial law and litigation. This is a tale of mistaken identity, organized crime and a disgraced detective seeking redemption.

Ruchama Feuerman King’s second novel, “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (NYRB Lit, September), is set in Jerusalem, where several lives intersect — souls that would only meet in the heavenly city, whose ancient stones and relics inform this multi-leveled story. 

“Margot” (Riverhead, September) imagines that Anne Frank’s sister has survived Bergen-Belsen and is living in Philadelphia concealing her true identity, just as “The Diary of Anne Frank” is being shown in movie theaters all around.

From bestselling author Jonathan Lethem, “Dissident Gardens” (Doubleday, September) is a family saga about three generations of New Yorkers with utopian dreams. At the novel’s center are a Jewish mother, a communist living in Sunnyside, Queens, and her daughter, who’s more interested in the counterculture of Greenwich Village. Lethem, the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, is the author of “Motherless Brooklyn” and other books.

In “The Gallery of Vanished Husbands” (Plume, September), Natasha Solomons, author of “The House at Tyneford,” introduces a woman abandoned by her husband in a conservative London Jewish community in the 1960s. Solomons captures the times, as her character tries to carve out a new identity in the art world.

“Between Friends” (Harcourt Houghton Mifflin, September) is a collection of new stories by Israel’s award-winning and celebrated author, Amos Oz. For these eight interconnected stories, Oz returns to the setting of the kibbutz, where he began writing in the late 1950s.

“Some Day” is a first novel by Israeli film director and screenwriter Shemi Zarhin (New Vessel Press, October), who has made many award-winning films, including, most recently “The World is Funny.” Here, he presents a family tale depicting troubled, realistic lives, all part of Israel’s larger story, set in the city of Tiberias. The novel features several generations, and among their members are a 7-year-old boy in love with the girl next door, and his mother, who mourns the loss of literary figures as her own husband is unfaithful. 

Private investigator V.I. Warshwaski returns in “Critical Mass” by award winning crime writer Sarah Paretsky (Putnam, October). Here, the sharp-tongued Warshawski helps a close friend, a Viennese-born doctor who escaped to London on a kindertransport in 1939. The pre-World War II backstory involves the race to harness atomic energy, and also reflects the author’s interest in her own family’s history.

In “The Remains of Love” by bestselling Israeli author Zeruya Shalev (Bloomsbury, December), a Jerusalem woman near the end of her life is flooded with memories from her past — her childhood on a kibbutz and her life raising her own two children. Shalev, an editor in an Israeli publishing house, tells the story of a family and its longings, disappointments and dreams, which reflect those of Israel.

Non-fiction

‘Believing and Its Tensions: A Personal Conversation about God, Torah, Suffering and Death in Jewish Thought” by Rabbi Neil Gillman (Jewish Lights, September) is a brief and clear summary of a life’s wrestling match with challenging questions. Rabbi Gillman, an emeritus professor of Jewish philosophy at The Jewish Theological Seminary and author of many books, presents a compelling theological statement.

Already receiving news attention, “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler” by Ben Urwand (Belknap Press, September) draws upon previously secret documents, revealing the complex web of active connections between the Hollywood studios including MGM, Paramount Fox, Warner Brothers, United Arists, Universal and Columbia (mostly headed by Jews) and the German government in the 1930s. For reasons made clear in the book, the studios agreed not to make films that attacked the Nazis or condemned their persecution of the Jews. Urwand reports that Hitler watched movies every night, and found notes of his opinions.

The biblical story of the Akedah, or God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, is explored anew in “But Where Is the Lamb: Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac” by James Goodman (Schocken, September). Written in an engaging contemporary style, “as a reader, a son, a Jew, a father, a skeptic, a historian, a lover of stories, and a writer,” Goodman adds his own analysis to observations about how the story has been understood over the centuries.

“I Kiss Your Hands Many Times: Hearts, Souls, and Wars in Hungary” by Marianne Szegedy-Maszak (Spiegel & Grau, September) is a family memoir, detailing the author’s parents’ stories — and their vanished world — in pre- and post- World War II Europe, and in America. Her mother’s wealthy family was in hiding; her father, who had been an anti-Fascist in the foreign ministry, was sent to Dachau. Based in part on letters written between her parents from 1940 to 1947, this is a love story, and also a national story of Hungary’s complicated relationship with Jews.

Trying to build bridges between their two faiths and peoples, L.I.-based Rabbi Marc Schneir and Queens-based Iman Shamsi Ali present “Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation about the Issues That Divide And Unite Muslims and Jews” (Beacon Press, September). Each man was raised in orthodoxy, and here they tell the story of their friendship and shared hopes. President Bill Clinton wrote the foreword.

The award-winning author of ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners” uses the devil as a metaphor for global anti-Semitism — a devil who “has inflamed minds and hearts the world over” — in his expansive new book, “The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism” by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (Little, Brown, September). Goldhagen, who sees a meteoric upsurge in anti-Semitic expression over the last decades, particularly the last 10 years, shows how digital technologies are encouraging the rise.

Presenting an uncommon history of Israel, Yossi Klein Halevi follows the lives of seven members of Brigade 55, several of whom are photographed in the iconic photograph of 1967 when they captured the Western Wall. In the years since then, these men — among them, religious Zionists, kibbutzniks, a businessman and a poet — have gone in different directions, across the political spectrum — and the nation has become deeply split. A journalist and author, Klein Halevi captures the details so well, along with the epic national story, in “The Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation” (Harper, October).

Joshua Safran, author of the memoir “Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid” (Hyperion, October) is an attorney, writer and occasional rabbi. He was featured in the documentary “Crime After Crime,” about his critical work in freeing a woman sentenced to life in prison in a domestic violence case. Working on that case forced him to recall events in his own unusual and chaotic childhood amidst mostly well-meaning revolutionaries and renegades. He spent the 1970s and 1980s in communes and cabins, witnessing his mother being beaten up by an alcoholic husband. Safran began attending school regularly when he was 11 and saw education as his way out. This is an uncommon story of coming of age and, also, return to Judaism.

“Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah” edited by Roger Bennett (Workman, October) is an original look at each of the weekly Torah readings, written by young artists, writers, actors, musicians and other creative types, who bring their own interests, talents and insight to the biblical story. Contributors, who are part of the Reboot network co-founded by Bennett, include Joshua Foer, Larry Smith, Jill Soloway and others.

A new title in the Nextbook Jewish Encounters series, “The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye” by Jeremy Dauber (Schocken, October) is the first comprehensive biography of the novelist, playwright, journalist, essayist, editor and giant figure in Yiddish literature who has been called “the Jewish Mark Twain.” Dauber, a professor of Yiddish at Columbia University, analyzes stories in his collected works (28 volumes) and letters and untangles his way through the great writer’s life and his own inventions, his particular embrace of tradition and modernity.

Columbia Journalism School professor Alisa Solomon, who directs the Arts and Culture program, offers a lively analysis in “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof” (Metropolitan Books, October). She describes how 50 years ago, Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye and his daughters — and the struggles over “Tradidion” in contemporary times — came to Broadway. The blockbuster “Fiddler on the Roof” garnered awards and was the longest-running show of its day. 

Feminist leader, scholar, psychotherapist and bestselling author Phyllis Chesler looks back on a most dramatic chapter of her life in “An American Bride in Kabul” (Palgrave, October). While in college in New York, she met an Afghan man and married the Omar Sharif-lookalike, anticipating a life of cultural adventure, travel and love. But when she returns with him to his homeland, life isn’t as she expected — her passport and freedoms are taken away by his family, and she is under a form of house arrest. She does manage to escape and return to the U.S. Over the years, she has stayed in close touch with her ex-husband, and has spent much of her life dedicated to helping other women.

“Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields” by Wendy Lower (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October) records the role of women in the Nazi machinery of destruction, as plunderers, direct witnesses and also killers. Revising accepted history, Lower draws on archival research and interviews with witnesses, revealing the darkest side of female activism.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman and chair of the Democratic National Committee, offers practical advice for resolving tough national issues, in “For The Next Generation: A Wake-Up Call to Solving our Nation’s Problems,” written with Julie M. Fenster (St. Martin’s Press, October). Wasserman Schultz grew up on Long Island and is the first Jewish congresswoman ever elected from Floria. She shares policy suggestions on energy, health care, jobs, education and more, from the point of view of a parent — a Jewish mother, in fact, of three.

The title, “The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero”  (HarperOne, October) is the first clue that this is not the David taught in Hebrew School. Joel S. Baden, who teaches Old Testament at Yale Divinity School, untangles the “real” David from the hagiographic narrative of David’s life as depicted in the Book of Samuel. What’s there to untangle? For starters, Baden stresses that David maintained his kingship through political and sexual deceit and even murder. No surprise to anyone who reads the text, perhaps, although it may ruffle some traditional feathers.  Baden highlights the distinction between David the historical reality and David the cultural construct.

Is there a place on earth that has been dug up more than Jerusalem? “The Archaeology of Jerusalem: From the Origins to the Ottomans” by Katharina Galor and Hanswulf Bloedhorn (Yale University Press, November) surveys over 3,000 years of building in Jerusalem. Using diagrams, photos paintings and maps, the authors provide a scholarly guide to Jerusalem’s sacred, civic and domestic architecture, whether a plan of Dome of the Rock or a reconstruction of a triple-arched late Roman wall.

Winner of the inaugural Natan Book Prize, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” by Ari Shavit (Speigel and Grau, November) depicts the defining moments of Israel’s past, though portraits of pioneers, immigrants, army generals, peaceniks, Palestinians, scientists, settlers and others, across religious, economic and political spectrums. Shavit, an Israeli columnist and writer poses key questions about the State’s present and future.