Fiction and Poetry
Tue, 02/14/2012
Jewish Week Book Critic
A sampling of the season’s new fiction and non-fiction offerings.
A sampling of the season’s new fiction and non-fiction offerings.

Filmmakers Leslie Epstein reprises his character Leib Goldkorn, now a centenarian living in New York City, in “Liebestod: Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn” (Norton, February). This is the first time Goldkorn, who has appeared in Epstein’s work, gets his own novel. Here, the European émigré and successful musician is invited back to his hometown in Moravia. He encounters family surprises including a long line of rabbinical cousins who follow him back to New York, where he plans to stage a grand opera. The title is inspired by the final aria of Tristan and Isolde.

In “The Spinoza Problem” (Basic Books, March), psychiatrist and author Irvin D. Yalom imagines the reasons behind the Nazis’ obsession with the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, through the tale of a Nazi ideologue and his hero.

Ted Heller sets his satiric tale, “Pocket Kings” (Algonquin, March), in the world of online poker, where a writer suffering from writer’s block discovers he has a knack for winning — although not without complications. The author of two previous novels, Ted Heller is the son of Joseph Heller.

Set in San Francisco in the 1970s, “By Blood” by Ellen Ullman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, March) takes eavesdropping as its departure: A professor overhears the conversations next door between a woman and her therapist and secretly tries to solve the mysteries surrounding her time in an orphanage after World War II.

Sayed Kashua, the author of “Person Singular” (Grove, April), is a novelist, columnist and creator of the groundbreaking popular Israeli sitcom, “Arab Labor”; he has been called “the Arab Woody Allen.” His new novel is a story of love and betrayal, mystery and humor too, as an Arab criminal attorney in Jerusalem unintentionally discovers secrets about his wife.

The author of the memoir “Shutterbabe,” Deborah Copaken Kogan, writes about a group of friends returning to Harvard for its 20th class reunion. The title, “The Red Book” (Voice/Hyperion, April), refers to a compilation of self-written autobiographical essays by alumni that are bound and distributed just before the meeting. The carefully penned entries, interspersed in the text, mask complicated truths that are ultimately revealed in the novel.

“That Said: New and Selected Poems” by Jane Shore (Houghton Mifflin, April) features a selection of the distinguished poet’s work, written over five decades. Together, many of the poems tell the story of her childhood in North Bergen, New Jersey, where the family lived above her parents’ dress shop.

Leela Corman’s “Unterzakhn” (Schocken, April) is a graphic novel of immigrant life beginning in 1901, seen through the eyes and adventures of a pair of adventurous Jewish twin sisters on the Lower East Side, from their childhood through coming of age and adulthood. The title is Yiddish for underthings.

Set soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, “Berlin Cantata” by Jeffrey Lewis (Haus Publishing, April), is a story of conspiracy, intrigue, desire and identity told through 13 voices, including an American daughter of Jews who left Berlin, a German journalist, Russian Jews and secret Jews. The novel explores the many shades of German Jewish identity today, the ghosts that linger and the possibilities for reconciliation.

A fiction debut, Jennifer Miller’s “The Year of the Gadfly” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May) brings together a teenage reporter who communes with Edward R. Murrow and a failed microbiologist turned biology teacher, who ultimately discover secrets about their New England town.

“Trapeze” by Simon Mawer (Other Press, May), a new novel by the author of “The Glass Room,” is based on the true story of a young English woman recruited to work as a spy in Occupied France — one of only 53 women trained for combat by the Western allies.

“HHhH” by Laurent Binet (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, May), a first novel by a 39-year-old French professor, was awarded France’s distinguished Goncourt prize and became an international bestseller. Now translated from the French by Sam Taylor, the story — blending history and fiction — features a narrator obsessed with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, known as the Butcher of Prague, who was the chief architect of the Final Solution and, according to rumor, the brains behind SS Commander Heinrich Himmler. The title refers to the expression used by SS officers, “Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich” (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich). The narrator, who has read every article about Heydrich and collected masses of information about his death, ponders how to tell the story of a monster and the discreet heroes who killed him.

Non-Fiction

“The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” by Anne-Marie O’Connor (Knopf, February) features Klimt’s famous and gorgeous painting on its cover. Klimt’s subject was a regal Jewish woman, an art patron, the daughter of a banker, and an intellectual who was married and childless. Both the artist and model died before Vienna welcomed Hitler, and the portrait was a jewel among the artwork pilfered by the Nazis — although they stripped her Jewish surname from the painting when displaying it. The book is a social history that also follows the trail of the painting after the war — it made headlines again in 2006 when Ronald Lauder bought it a century after Klimt completed it, for $135 million.

In “Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, February), Eyal Press delves into questions of moral choice through the stories of four individuals who took great risks, defying authority and convention, in order to do the right thing.  He weaves psychological studies into the narrative.

“Very Near to You: Human Readings of the Torah” by Avraham Burg, translated by J.J. Goldberg (Geffen, February), is a collection of weekly commentary and interpretation of the Torah readings, always underlining the humanity of the text and encouraging the possibility of multiple perspectives. Burg, a well-known Israeli politician, author and television personality, combines classical learning, secular knowledge and personal experience, with an ear toward wide relevance.

“The Last Bright Days: A Young Woman’s Life in a Lithuanian Shtetl on the Eve of the Holocaust” edited by Frank Buonaguiro (Jewish Heritage, March) is a photographic portrait of Jewish life in the 1930s in Kavarsk. As a young woman, Beile Delechky was the town’s photographer at a time when few had cameras. When she left in 1939, she brought hundreds of photographs and dozens of journals, which are also drawn upon in this striking volume.

“When General Grant Expelled the Jews” by Jonathan Sarna (Nextbook/Schocken, March) offers a detailed account of a little-known episode in American history: the decision by General Ulysses S. Grant to order the expulsion of Jews during the Civil War, in 1862. Sarna, an historian and professor at Brandeis University, covers the back-story of the incident and all its repercussions.

In “Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948” (HarperCollins, April), former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright writes from personal and historical perspectives of her early years in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation and the Cold War years, underlining events that shaped her life and career.

“A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor” (Spiegel & Grau, April) by Caroline Stoessinger, with an introduction by Vaclav Havel, is the story of Herz-Sommer’s life and times and steady optimistic outlook. Stoessinger, a pianist and musical director, wrote the book based on interviews with Herz-Sommer, now 108, who still practices piano several hours a day in her London home. Herz-Sommer survived internment in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she played in many concerts for fellow inmates and for the Nazis.

In “Shuva,” (Brandeis University Press, April), Yehuda Kurtzer presents a creative approach to Jewish memory, drawing on classical texts to interpret and understand the Jewish past, forging new connections between memory and history.

The name of one of her favorite songs is the title of singer-songwriter Carole King’s memoir, “A Natural Woman” (Grand Central Publishing, April). It chronicles her life from her Brooklyn beginnings to her success as a performer and activist.

“Jews Welcome Coffee: Tradition and Innovation in Early Modern Germany” by Robert Liberles (Brandeis University Press, April) draws connections between coffee and social change, portraying how coffee influenced the personal, religious and social lives of Jews in 17th- and 18th-century Germany.

“The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King” by Rich Cohen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, May) is the story of the life and controversial career of Samuel Zemurray (1877-1961), the head of United Fruit Company, and his humble origins as a poor immigrant and pushcart peddler of fruit.

“Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders” by Joy Ladin (University of Wisconsin Press, May) tells the story of the author’s transition from man to woman, to a new self. The author, a professor of English at Yeshiva University, candidly discusses her practical, emotional and spiritual challenges.

A true-life detective story about a sacred text, “The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible” by Matti Friedman (Algonquin, May), follows the provenance of the 19th-century annotated Bible known as the Aleppo Codex. Friedman’s account of how the Codex was taken from Syria in the 1940s, later to resurface in Jerusalem, although no longer complete, is full of betrayals, controversy and surprises — and raises larger questions about the ownership and preservation of historical treasures.

In “On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War” (Simon & Schuster, May), Bernard Wasserstein examines the predicament of European Jews in the 1930s, the realities of their lives and the existential crisis they faced, telling the collective story through the narratives of dozens of individuals. The author is a professor of modern European Jewish history at the University of Chicago.