Book Review: Summertime and the reading is easy, part one

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Ah, summer: time to kick back and relax. And yes, of course, read. The song that keeps going through my mind is George Gershwin’s "Summertime," whose soothing melody makes me want to sit on my front porch and just watch the world go by. Of course, even when enjoying the sun and blue sky, it’s not unusual for me to be itching to open up a book. There have been so many novels published recently featuring Jewish characters or plots, that it’s hard to keep up. So even in the season when "the living is easy," there’s more than enough reading to keep me busy.

"The Little Russian"

 

Berta Lorkis is materialistic, self-centered and egotistical. While not someone you’d want to be your best friend, she makes for a fascinating main character in Susan Sherman’s first novel "The Little Russian" (Counterpoint). The early 1900s are a dangerous time to be Jewish in Russia. Pogroms threaten Jewish villages and no one of any age is safe. Yet, Berta focuses instead on her personal plight, longing for the years she spent in Moscow with rich relatives and refusing to settle into her small town life as the daughter of the local grocer. When Herschel Alshonsky, rumored to be a rich merchant, comes to town, the unexpected happens: Berta falls in love. Yet, Herschel has a secret life: He is a member of the Bund, a group supplying guns to Jewish villagers so they can protect themselves. His activities will have a profound impact on their lives.

Covering more than 20 years, "The Little Russian" focuses on the changes and difficulties Russian Jews faced in the early years of the 20th century, including World War I and the Russian Revolution. It features slices of Russian Jewish life and customs that were unfamiliar, including the notion of the house Jew, who acted as a buying agent for rich Russians. The section taking place during the revolution was particularly exciting and scary, making me extremely grateful that my relatives had already left Russia.

"The Little Russian" is a good, solid historical novel. Sherman does a wonderful job showing Berta’s many layered personality: Sometimes I wanted to shake her for being so self-absorbed, while other times her determination and dedication were inspiring. This is a good choice for book clubs since readers’ feelings about Berta – whether they love her or despise her – should generate a good discussion.

"The Stranger Within Sarah Stein"

 

What happens when a perfect life is shattered by divorce? That’s the question facing 12-year-old Sarah Stein in Thane Rosenbaum’s new novel "The Stranger Within Sarah Stein" (Texas Tech University Press). Sarah was perfectly content with her life in TriBeCa, even though she knew her chocolate-maker mom and her artist father weren’t always getting along. When her mother moves, Sarah is forced to divide her time between her two parents. She soon develops a split identity, behaving differently depending on whom she’s spent the night with. Soon a disturbing thought crosses her mind: Does a real Sarah even exist anymore? The beginning of an answer comes when she is befriended by a homeless man, who has a magical way of being wherever she needs him. Yet, this mysterious stranger also has his own agenda.

Although aimed at the young adult audience, Rosenbaum’s novel also provides food for thought for adults. The supernatural elements are so smoothly integrated with the larger, very realistic story that I easily accepted them as factual. Parents will want to share this with their teenagers for what could be some very interesting conversations.

"Interview With a Jewish Vampire"

 

I’m not a big fan of vampire novels. Yes, they’re really popular now, but I just don’t get the appeal. However, the publicity material I received for Erica Manfred’s "Interview With a Jewish Vampire" (Fredonia Communications) made me laugh so hard, I couldn’t resist asking for a review copy. The main character is zaftig 40-something divorced Rhoda Ginsburg, who meets Sheldon, a handsome and sexy Chasidic vampire, through JDate. She figures that even though he’s one of the undead, he’s Jewish. Sheldon was turned into a vampire by the original Dracula, an antisemite who thought changing an observant Jew (who is forbidden to eat blood) into a blood-sucking vampire a great joke.

Rhoda does have more to worry about than whether or not she and Sheldon are a match made in heaven (if that’s an appropriate phrase for a romance including a vampire). She’s extremely anxious about her elderly mother, who needs another operation. There might be a way round the surgery, though: If Sheldon turns her mother into a vampire, then she could live forever. Of course, things don’t go quite as smoothly as expected and the two lovers must deal not only with Miami’s wild nightlife, but rogue vampires.

Although "Interview With a Jewish Vampire" doesn’t qualify as a great literary novel, lovers of chick lit and vampire tales should find it a winning combination. Manfred’s writing is so exuberant, it will make readers excuse any faults in prose and plotting (although it could have used a good editor, if only to correct the numerous misplacements of quotation marks). This is a great book for the beach or the front porch.

"The Fallback Plan"

 

Moving back in with your parents is no college student’s dream. Yet, with the economy in bad shape, more 20-somethings are living with their folks after they finish school. Sometimes not finding a job is just the luck of the draw. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for Esther Kohler, the narrator of "The Fallback Plan" (Melville House). In her senior year as a theater major, she... well, to explain would give away important plot revelations. Let’s just say Esther doesn’t always use her best judgment when making decisions. That might also explain her physical and emotional attraction to a violent idiot (I used another word in my notes that can’t be printed here), who is also antisemitic.

Because she has no job prospects, Esther’s parents convince her to babysit a 4-year-old whose mother is an artist. Esther becomes a little too involved in the family’s life, although doing so helps her realize what it really means to be an adult.

Stein’s funny prose saves Esther from being a pathetic whiner. The novel’s opening paragraphs are absolutely wonderful and its self-deprecating tone kept me turning pages even when Esther’s erratic behavior sometimes irritated me. Even more surprising is that, by the end of this short work, I was rooting for Esther to take her next step.