Book review: Spring into fall – part two

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

There’s something intensely satisfying about watching a pile of books slowly melt away – at least, if it’s because you’ve finally found time to read them. Unfortunately – well, maybe not unfortunately – my stack continues to increase at almost the same rate it decreases. Even though I’ve reviewed six books in the two parts of this review, I think more than six books have not-quite-magically appeared on my shelf. That’s good news, though, for those who enjoy this column: I’m not going to run out of reading material anytime soon.

“The Book of Stone”
Some characters are so throughly unlikeable that even when you can sympathize with their circumstances, you feel repelled by their behavior. When Matthew Stone – the main character in Jonathan Papernick’s “The Book of Stone” (Fig Tree Books) – tries to turn his life around, it’s still difficult to root for him. Fortunately, Papernick creates such a gripping narrative that I felt compelled to learn not only how the plot would be resolved, but the ultimate choices his main character would make.
Matthew is mourning the recent death his father, Judge Walter A. Stone, and buries himself in a friend’s apartment – wrapping his father’s judicial robe around himself for comfort and reading through Walter’s books to discover what he should do with his life. Although he seems to have deliberately alienated his father when he was alive, Matthew still craved his approval – something he feels he never received, even when he was behaving well. Matthew decides to redeem himself by becoming involved with a group of religious extremists Walter supported. Although the FBI seeks his help in preventing violent actions by the group, Matthew searches for the path he feels his father would have taken.
“The Book of Stone” is set in pre-9/11 Brooklyn, which adds to the drama because, at that point, no one was sure which extremist groups were the most dangerous. Papernick takes readers deep inside Matthew’s mind – a not-always-pleasant place to be – showing how someone who is unstable can be easily manipulated by those who don’t have his best interests in mind. The question is, which of those seeking his help truly care about him? That answer may surprise and astound readers.

“Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate”
Letty Cottin Pogrebrin’s new novel, “Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate” (Feminist Press), contains both a snapshot of a past era and the entryway into a contemporary debate. Zach Levy, born in 1950 to Holocaust survivor parents, makes them two promises: he will grow up to be a mensch and marry someone Jewish in order to have Jewish children. This latter point is particular important to Zach after he learns that he once had a sibling, an older brother, who died in the Holocaust. Yet, years later, he must decide an important moral issue: What matters more, family connections or religion?
Zach initially fulfills both the promises to his parents: he becomes a lawyer at the ACLU and marries a Jewish woman – one whose ideas are as liberal as his own. He’s not a practicing Jew – his main form of connection to the Jewish religion is guilt. His belief – either in God or any other type of “ism” – is weak. When his marriage dissolves through no fault of his own, Zach remains passive at first, until he decides that the one child he has isn’t enough. Looking to date Jewish woman, he’s unable to find one to suit him. Then Zack meets Cleo Scott, an African American activist, who is the perfect women for him in all ways, but one: She’ll never convert to Judaism nor raise a child Jewish. When Cleo becomes pregnant, Zach faces the worst moral dilemma of his life.
While I can understand the guilt Zach feels for his Jewish legacy, it also feels like an idea from a previous decade – one before the current trend in intermarriage and general assimilation of the liberal Jewish community. Yet, his decision about what religion his child should practice is one currently being discussed, especially in light of that trend and the growing number of multi-faith families. Zach is an appealing character because he really is a mensch, if a bit of a neurotic one. While readers may argue about the choices he makes, Pogrebrin clearly shows which side of the issue she supports.

“The Sunlit Night”
The sweet, unusual love story found in “The Sunlit Night” by Rebecca Dinerstein (Bloomsbury) feels as otherworldly as the island in the Norwegian Sea where the characters find themselves. Alternate chapters tell of how an American – 21-year-old college graduate Frances – and a Russian immigrant to the U.S. – 17-year-old Yasha – arrive and meet in the sunlit north.
Frances is already planning her Jewish wedding when her boyfriend abruptly breaks up with her. Now, instead of traveling with him, she accepts an apprenticeship at an artist colony in the Arctic. Frances is not only escaping her broken relationship, but family troubles: her parents’ marriage is in flux and both oppose her younger sister’s engagement to someone who isn’t Jewish. The artist colony is far different from what Frances expects, but she finds life there intriguing. Yasha and his father, Vassily – who immigrated to Brooklyn – have been waiting for Yasha’s mother to follow them for almost a decade. When Vassily learns he needs heart surgery, he arranges for the two of them to visit Russia in order to see his brother’s family and to find his long-lost wife. Something unexpected occurs during the visit and Yasha travels to the Norwegian Sea to fulfil a promise to his father. Frances and Yasha meet, and find themselves drawn to each in other in spite of their differences.
Dinerstein writes beautiful prose, but her descriptions give the plot a dream-like essence, which distanced me from the characters. That meant that the idea of the book appealed to me more than its execution. However, while re-reading individual sections for this review, I was reminded just how well Dinerstein writes. So, my feelings about the novel are mixed and unsettled. Readers looking for a warm, endearing love story may find “The Sunlit Night” a perfect fit.