Books
Tue, 02/15/2011
Jewish Week Book Critic
David Bezmozgis’ first novel, “The Free World,” is set in Italy.
David Bezmozgis’ first novel, “The Free World,” is set in Italy.

NON-FICTION

The award-winning non-fiction writer Melissa Faye Greene is now in her 21st year as an elementary school parent. She’s someone who feels most alive, “most thickly in the cumbersome richness of life, with children underfoot.” She loves the Atlanta Symphony, but is moved to tears by a sixth-grade band “when the children play the C scale together for the first time.”

When her oldest four children started going off to college, she and her husband began expanding their family, adopting five children over eight years from orphanages in Ethiopia and Bulgaria. Their home now is a lively and loving mix of languages, cultures, races, genders and ages, captured in her new memoir, “No Biking in the House Without a Helmet” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May). Greene, the author of the highly praised “Praying for Sheetrock” and “The Temple Bombing,” presents a domestic comedy about a family — often mistaken for a scout troop — that tries to live in harmony. While she’s neither prescriptive nor pedantic, her book could be a primer on wise and sane parenting — and she underlines how large and small acts of kindness change the world.

The next two titles in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series are not biographies like most of the previous volumes, but books sharply focused on events. Published on the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking Nazi war criminal trial in Israel, “The Eichmann Trial” by Deborah E. Lipstadt (Schocken/Nextbook, March) is an analysis of the trial in historical perspective. Lipstadt writes of his dramatic capture in Argentina by Israeli agents, profiles the prosecutors and judges, highlights the significance of the testimony of survivors and looks at the influence of Hannah Arendt and her views. A professor of history at Emory University, she also reflects on her own experience in court, when she was sued by Nazi denier David Irving, as reported in her award-wining book “History on Trial.”

“Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza” by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole (Schocken/Nextbook, April) depicts the journey of discovery of the most important cache of Jewish manuscripts ever found, in an Egyptian geniza, a storehouse for worn-out texts. The authors portray the scholars who brought these documents to life and also explore the significance of the documents and all that they convey about centuries of Jewish life.

German author Mirjam Pressler presents another geniza story. “Treasures from the Attic” (Doubleday, April) sheds new light on Anne Frank, her diary and family. Pressler, who did the first translation of the “Diary” and has since become an expert on the Frank family, had access to more than 6,000 documents, letters and photos of the Frank family found in the attic in the Basel home of Helene Elias, the sister of Anne Frank’s father Otto Frank. This was the home where Alice Frank, Anne Frank’s grandmother, lived after she fled Germany in the early 1930s; her home was the family’s central post office.

Steven Weitzman refers to his new biography of King Solomon, “Solomon: The Life of Wisdom” (Yale University Press, March) as “unauthorized.” That doesn’t mean, as in biographies of celebrities and other public figures, that he didn’t have his subject’s cooperation (he did not, nor have any other scholars). He explains that the book is different from “both pious versions canonized by religious tradition as well as secular ones endorsed by university professors” in that he rejects the “certitudes of religious tradition as well as the intellectual confidence of secular scholarship, learning from both perspectives in many ways but ultimately aiming to go beyond them.” In looking anew at Solomon’s life, he offers answers to many questions about the accomplished and wise king, and writes of Solomon’s significance to Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Another biography, by the noted art historian Gail Levin, “Lee Krasner: A Biography,” (HarperCollins, March) is the first ever written about the modern master and trailblazing woman artist. Included are many never-before-seen photographs of Krasner and her art and her life with her husband, Jackson Pollock.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World” (Houghton Mifflin, March) by James Carroll, author of “Constantine’s Sword,” is a history of Jerusalem, depicting how religion and violence have fueled each other over centuries. He explains that this is a book about two Jerusalems, “the earthly and the heavenly, the mundane and the imagined,” a doubleness that shows up in the city’s many tensions, While he excavates the past, he grounds the narrative in the “the story of how humans living on a ridge about a third of the way between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean have constantly been undermined by the overheated dreams of pilgrims who, age in and age out, arrive at the legendary gate with love in their hearts, the end of the world in their minds, and weapons in their hands.”

Marc Raphael opens his new book, “The Synagogue in America: A Short History” (New York University Press, April) by reporting that when George Washington was elected president of the United States, leaders of all six synagogues in the new nation sent him notes of congratulation. He responded to four of them in a single letter and wrote individual letters to two of them. In 1789, more than a century after Jews first came to these shores, the 1,500 members of the community “proudly announced their religious institutions to the country and were recognized by its new leader.”

In the first ever study to look at American Jewish history through its synagogues, Raphael looks at the changing role of the synagogue from colonial days when it was the central address of the community to the present, when other institutions also dominate. Reporting on synagogues in cities and suburbs around the country, he writes about prayer, rabbinic leadership, architecture, fund-raising, feminism and social life.

“God of Me: Imagining God throughout Your Lifetime” by Rabbi David Lyon (Jewish Lights, April) guides readers through Jewish texts that speak of a personal relationship with God. Rabbi Lyon shows how one’s understanding of God evolves over a lifetime, through maturity, possible struggles of faith and the challenges of modern life.

“Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial” by Janet Malcolm (Yale, March) is the story of the Queens trial of a Bukharan Jewish woman accused of murdering her husband. She’s a doctor; the husband is an orthodontist; and the killing took place in front of their 4-year-old daughter. Malcolm conveys the deep tragedy of the case in compelling detail.

 

FICTION

“The Free World” by David Bezmozgis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April) is the first novel by the author of the award-winning collection of stories about the life of a contemporary immigrant family from the former Soviet Union, “Natasha.”

Bezmozgis, who was born in Riga, Latvia, bases his novel in a chapter of Jewish immigrant history that rarely appears in fiction. The story is set in Ladispoli, Italy, a village on the outskirts of Rome, where Jews leaving the former Soviet Union who don’t want to go to Israel wait for immigration papers to come through to go elsewhere. He writes of a large extended family encountering Italy, with new adventures of love and freedom, while waiting and waiting for their future to begin.

“All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories” by E. L Doctorow (Random House, March) includes six stories that have never appeared in book form along with a selection of classic tales by the author of “Ragtime.”

By the award-winning author of “Light Fell” and translator of Meir Shalev’s “A Pigeon and a Boy,” “When We Danced on Water” by Evan Fallenberg (Harper, June) opens in a Tel Aviv coffee bar “so small that it cannot be called a restaurant and barely even a café.” There, an 85-year-old ballet dancer who studied with Balanchine and later heads the Tel Aviv Ballet (whose talent as a child saved him from the Nazis) encounters a middle-aged waitress. She’s a veteran of the Israeli army who returned to Israel after spending years in Berlin with a Christian boyfriend. This is a novel of memory, art and love.

“Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman” by Minka Pradelski, translated from the German by Philp Boehm (Metropolitan Books, April), is a first novel about Holocaust survivors and their children and the unfolding of stories between them. Here, a young woman tries to figure out the mysterious inheritance — an incomplete set of dishes in an old suitcase — left to her by an aunt. Unpacking stories provides the clues.

Ilana Pick’s novel about an affluent Jewish family in the German part of Czechoslovakia in 1938 trying to escape is inspired by the story of her own grandparents. “Far to Go” (Harper) shifts between wartime and afterwards, exploring loyalty and betrayal, courage and love.