Book review: Spring books for the fall season – part one

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Even when I tell myself, “Don’t ask for any more review copies,” another book appears that just looks so interesting I can’t resist. Plus, a number of publishers and publicists have been sending me novels even before I request them. Now, I don’t always feel obligated to review those – after all, there are only so many hours in a day – but when they look appealing, I find myself adding them to the pile and saying. “I’ll get to all of these someday.” What that means is I’m definitely behind in my reading. The novels featured in both parts of this review were published this spring.

“Safekeeping”

A kibbutz in Israel and a medieval sapphire brooch serve as the knot connecting a disparate group of characters in Jessamyn Hope’s wonderful novel “Safekeeping” (Fig Tree Books). The year is 1994 and Adam, a drug addict hoping to make reparation for his sins, has traveled to Israel to find his Holocaust survivor grandfather’s long-lost love. Adam plans to give her the brooch, which he believes will allow him to start a new chapter of his life. At the same time, another lost soul – Claudette, a Canadian Catholic in her 30s – arrives to spend the summer. Claudette, who grew up in an orphanage and remained there for most of her adult years, finds herself at a loss for how to survive outside the strictures of an institution – something complicated by her obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Already living on the kibbutz are several characters who interact with Adam and Claudette. Ulya, a Russian immigrant who falsely claimed to be Jewish, hates the dreary daily chores and longs to escape to Manhattan. She wonders if Adam could be her ticket to a new life. Ofer, a teenage soldier, dreams of attending Julliard and the Yale School of Music. His desire to compose music allows him to survive his unit’s tours of the West Bank. Perhaps the most complex character is Ziva, one of the founders of the kibbutz, who is fighting to keep it from deserting its socialist origins. The struggle forces her to review her past, causing her to wonder if her life’s work was a waste.

Although Hope does a terrific job connecting the various plot lines, it’s the characters who spoke to me. I found myself caring deeply about them – particularly Claudette and Ofer – as they discover hidden depths within themselves. The author shows how small moments can make a large difference in people’s lives and how their actions – even if they can’t change the world – matter in themselves. By the end of the novel, I was so absorbed that it was a jolt when someone spoke to me; I couldn’t wait for them to finish so I could return to the kibbutz. While some readers may wish they knew more about the characters’ futures, I found the ending satisfying: it leaves many of them ready to face the next stage of their lives. I hope this moving novel is just the first in a long career.

“The Pinch”

Fans of Steve Stern probably won’t need to read this review because they’ll have already finished his new novel, “The Pinch: A History” (Graywolf Press). Stern again continues his style of Jewish magical realism, offering two interconnecting story lines: one focuses on Lenny Sklarew, who lives in 1968, while the other details the life of Muni Pinsker, who arrived in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century. The two tales connect when Lenny finds himself mentioned in a history of the Pinch written by Muni decades before Lenny was born.

The Pinch is a once thriving Jewish section of Memphis that’s almost deserted by the 1960s. A drug dealer and a loser, Lenny lives in a dilapidated building and helps out at a bookstore run by a Holocaust survivor. It’s there Lenny finds a copy of “The Pinch: A History.” While reading the book, he begins seeing the area through two lenses: one of the present day and one of the past. That past belongs to Muni, who traveled to the U.S. from Russia after escaping from a prison camp in Siberia. Both men are looking to impress women: Lenny uses his knowledge of the Pinch to help Rachel Ostrofsky with her research, while Muni can’t help but notice the young woman walking on a tightrope outside his window. The tale also contains Jewish mystics, an earthquake that only affects the Jewish section of town, Jewish elementals (also known as imps or demons) and a trip to the underworld.

“The Pinch” is filled with extravagant and meandering subplots, and fantastical moments. If you like a realistic, straight narrative, this is not the work for you. If you’re willing to follow Stern on his magical journey, then you may enjoy this novel as much as I did.

“The Making of Zombie Wars”

At first I was puzzled by Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Making of Zombie Wars” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). This is the first of Hemon’s works I’ve read and it seemed an odd novel for such a highly praised author. Then, suddenly, it became clear: the work is a satire, something I discovered when I found myself laughing at the absurdity of the plot.

The main character, Josh Levin, is a nebbishy mess who wants to be a screenwriter. Although he’s in his 30s, he’s done little with his life and seems unable to sustain a relationship. His one success is finding ways to turn everything that happens to him into a synopsis for the screenplay. Unfortunately, his attempts at writing usually end after a few pages and he’s never produced a complete work. Josh’s life takes a different turn when he becomes involved with a student in his adult English-as-a-second-language class. That turns his life into a bad movie, with a plot line that proves far more interesting and dangerous than anything he’s written.

“The Making of the Zombie Wars” reminds of me of a particular type of film, the one you know really isn’t very good, but which is still fun to watch – mostly because of the moments that make you wince. There’s a weirdness to Hemon’s work that will appeal to those who enjoy his brand of satire. However, readers may also find it hard to root for someone who so successfully torpedoes his own life.