Books
Tue, 09/04/2012
Jewish Week Book Critic
“Sons of the 613”
“Sons of the 613”

Fiction

The first novel by young Israeli writer Shani Boianjiu, “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid” (Hogarth, September) follows three friends from an Israeli village near the Lebanese border who grow up and attend their makeshift high school together, and then go on to do their army service, all the while keeping up their connection. Impressively, Boianjiu, who was born in 1987 into a mixed Iraqi and Romanian family and who studied at Harvard after completing her military service, wrote this novel in English. The book was selected by the National Book Foundation for its 5 Under 35 Award.

“Sons of the 613” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September), by Michael Rubens, is a young adult novel by a humorist and former producer of the Daily Show. The main character Isaac, like the author, grew up in Edina, Minn. As he is facing his bar mitzvah, Isaac’s parents leave him in his older brother’s charge when they go on a trip, and his brother invents a new series of challenges for him to prove that he’s ready to become a man.

At age 96, Herman Wouk returns with a new novel, “The Lawgiver” (Simon & Schuster, October). The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Caine Mutiny” spins an epistolary novel about a group of people making movie about the life of Moses in the present. The story emerges from letters, memos, emails, tweets and text messages. This is his first novel since 2004. His heroine may be a contemporary incarnation of Marjorie Morningstar.

“The Middlesteins” (Grand Central, October), by Jami Attenberg, is a novel centered around a Jewish family in suburban Chicago, particularly on the food-obsessed — and memorable — Edie Middlestein.

“The Polish Boxer” (Bellevue Literary Press, October), by Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead, is a novel about a professor of literature in Guatemala — like the author — who tries to understand his grandfather’s past, including his numbered tattoo from Auschwitz. The plot involves a Serbian-Gypsy pianist, a Mayan poet and a young Israeli woman traveling in Central America.

In “The Goldberg Variations” (Scribner, October), bestselling author Susan Isaacs writes of family complexities when a 79-year- old successful Santa Fe businesswoman woman begins to think about a succession plan, and turns to the three grandchildren she hasn’t yet gotten to know very well. 

“Phoebe and the Ghost of Chagall” (MacAdam/Cage, October), by Jill Koenigsdorf, is a debut novel inspired by the author’s love of Chagall’s artwork. The story revolves around a Chagall painting found in an alley during the liberation of Paris.

“Zoo Time” (Bloomsbury, October), by Howard Jacobson, is a novel about love from the author of “The Finkler Question.” The main character is a Jewish middle-aged novelist named Guy Ableman, whose first novel is about a zookeeper and his lustful monkeys. Lots of discussion of Jewish identity here, too.

“The Other Side of the World” (Two Dollar Radio, November), by Jay Neugeborn, is an episodic novel of mystery, set in Borneo and Brooklyn and on the coast of Maine, highlighting and exploring complex relationships.

Non-Fiction

“We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism: Ashamnu and Al Het” (Jewish Lights, September), edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, is a study of the confessional prayers recited throughout the Yom Kippur service. Featuring the traditional Hebrew text and modern translation, this volume, the third in the Prayers of Awe series about the High Holy Day liturgy, includes essays and commentaries by 40 rabbis, scholars, poets and theologians including Erica Brown, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Rabbi Daniel Landes, Ruth Messinger, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Marc Brettler.

“The Scientists” by Marco Roth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, September) tells of a childhood on the Upper West Side, with Roth as the only child of a doctor and classical musician. His father was silently suffering from AIDS, and the family’s world changed as he faced the worst effects of the disease. This is also a memoir of reading, as Roth tries to understand his father through the books he read.

“Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country — and Why They Can’t Make Peace” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, September), by Patrick Tyler, presents a portrait of Israel’s military culture, from the founding of the State to the present. Tyler, a longtime correspondent for the Washington Post and THE New York Times, writes, “Once in the military system, Israelis never fully exit.”

“The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning” (Schocken, September), by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, is an argument for the compatibility of science and religion and the necessity of both in order “to see the universe in its three-dimensional depth.” As he writes, “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what them mean.” The book is more about monotheism than Judaism, as Rabbi Sacks confronts the major challenges to faith.

“Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand” (Houghton Mifflin, October), by William J. Mann, traces the rise of the young Jewish woman from Brooklyn, who, at age 24, began starring on Broadway and in films. Mann, who has written biographies of Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, reports on “Funny Girl’s” New York years and her continuing fame.

“Sailing in Kansas: An American Jewish Memoir” (White Poppy Press, October), by Kathy Green, is a story looking back at family and place. Green grew up in Leavenworth, Kan., the daughter of a father who fled Germany in the 1930s (after boat racing for the Kaiser) and a mother who was part of the third generation of her family to live in the Middle American town. The author, an educator in Boston whose husband is the president of Hebrew College, lets readers know early on that she is suffering from Parkinson’s.

A memoir, “Do You Dream in Color: Insights form a Girl Without Sight” (Seven Stories, October), by Laurie Rubin is a story of blindness and light. Mezzo-soprano Rubin, who has performed internationally, has been blind since birth and explains that she has always experienced color. As a child, she learned to ski and play music and sought to fit in with those who had sight. Overcoming many obstacles, she was most comfortable later on in the world of opera. (See story in Music section on page 40.)

“The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person” by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner (Schocken, October) is the latest book in the Nextbook series. Rabbi Kushner addresses challenging questions about the text, faith and God.

“The Future of the Jewish People in Five Photographs” (University of Nebraska, November), by Peter S. Temes, showcases a provocative approach to the critical questions facing the Jewish people, using five photographs to frame key questions. The photos include a view of two Chinese Jews reading a Torah in Kaifeng in 1910 and the well-known shot of Abraham Joshua Heschel on the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. Temes, the author of many books, draws on history, literature, and his experience growing up in Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn, addressing issues of demographics, religious experience, the balance between survival and virtue, the exercise of power and the meaning of sacred texts.

“Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame” (Twelve, November), edited by Marc Tracy and Franklin Foer, features writers David Remnick, Jonathan Safran Foer, Buzz Bissinger, Shalom Auslander, David Brooks, Stephen Pinker, Judith Shulevitz and others offering observations and opinions about significant Jewish athletes, coaches, team owners and broadcasters.

In “Superman is Jewish: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way” (Free Press, November), Harry Brod — who learned to read through comic books — pursues the links between Jews and superheroes. He investigates the secret identities of the most prominent superheroes and shows how their particular roles reflect the place of Jews in American society. He also considers how so many of the creators of superheroes were Jews, like Jerry Siegel and Stan Lee, and how they integrated their Jewish identities and creativity. Brod is a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa.

“Jews and Words” (Yale, November), by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Sulzberger, is a personal reflection on the transmission of verbal content across generations, by the noted Israeli novelist and his daughter, a historian. They draw on scholarship and conversation, touching on topics of individualism, women’s roles, continuity and humor, linking back to Jewish texts. This is a companion book to “The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, Volume 10: 1973-2005.” Volume 10, edited by Deborah Dash Moore and Nurith Gertz, is the first volume to be released in a new series, 10 years in the making.

In his signature style, Oliver Sacks looks deeply into his subject, “Hallucinations” (Knopf, November) and presents a view of hallucinations, beyond mere madness, at many levels. He draws on his experience with his own patients along with historical and literary descriptions, and looks at what hallucinations reveal about the structure of brains and their cultural and personal influences. Sacks is a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University and the author of many books.

“Singer’s Typewriters and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture” (Nebraska, November), by Ilan Stavans, is a collection of literary essays by Stavans, an Ashkenazi Jew who grew up in Mexico and is now a professor of Latin American and Ladino Studies at Amherst College. He writes about, among other topics, Yiddish and Sephardic literatures, translation, storytelling and also includes conversations with other writers.

“Open Heart” (Knopf, December), by Elie Wiesel, is a memoir reflecting on life’s losses and accomplishments, inspired by recent critical heart surgery. Translated from the French by Marion Wiesel.