Off the Shelf: Miscellaneous fiction for fall

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

A family mystery

Matt Goldman is best known for his wise-cracking Nils Shapiro detective series. However, as “Carolina Moonset” (Forge) shows, Goldman also excels at portraying family connections. Although the narrator, 46-year-old Joey Green, prefers using humor rather than expressing real emotion, he is greatly affected of the deterioration on his father, Marshall, who is suffering from dementia. His visit to Beaufort, NC – once his father’s home town and where his parents moved after their retirement – offers his mother some relief from her caregiver role.

After urging his mother to travel with a friend to a pickleball tournament, Joey spends time alone with his father, who makes disturbing statements about his youth in Beaufort. Joey knew it was not easy being Jewish when his father was growing up, but he never asked for details of his father’s early life. His glimpses of that time just seem interesting at first, although after a murder is committed, Joey must discover what really occurred in order to protect his father. 

The sections that focus on the mystery are excellent and offer more than enough potential suspects. There is also romance with the visiting daughter of a neighbor (both she and Joey are divorced) that is well done. But the core of the novel is Joey’s relationship with his father. Their initial connection is beautifully captured when Marshall and Joey spend the day fishing: Joey notes, “A friend once told me women have face-to-face relationships and men have shoulder-to-shoulder relationships. Men do things like watch football and go fishing. My relationship with my father was, in most ways, just like that. We spent time together. We did not interact in a deep way.” When Joey learns about his father’s past, this work becomes a moving family drama.

Exploring your own story

A boy or a girl? When Charlie Minkoff is born in 2006 with intersex traits, the doctor wants to immediately perform surgery in order to fix what he sees as a problem. Fortunately for Charlie, his grandfather, Oscar Wolf Minkoff thinks Charlie is perfect as he is and refuses to let the doctor touch him. The majority of “The Full Catastrophe” by Méira Cook (House of Anansi Press), though, takes place when Charlie’s 13. At this point, he’s basically on his own: his beloved grandfather now lives in a nursing home and his artist mother focuses more on her art than her son (and is rarely home). He does check in his elderly neighbors in the rundown apartment building in which they live, and his mother’s best friend helps him, at least when she is between long distance trips in her truck. At least his dog, Gellman, is waiting for him when he arrives home from school. 

Unfortunately, his school life is not much better: no one wants to be friends with him and he’s often called ugly. But something interesting happens when Charlie takes a course in “Ancestry Studies”: he’s unable to write an autobiography and instead focuses more on Oscar. This leads him to the realization that Oscar never had a bar mitzvah because of the Holocaust. Finding a rabbi, the two study together in order to have a joint ceremony. But life is never easy for Charlie and complications – everything from learning the real story of his father and mother’s relationship to a jealous friend of Oscar’s at the nursing home – turn his life upside down. 

“The Full Catastrophe” is filled with quirky, but engaging, characters and the description of the bar mitzvah is sweet and moving. The last section of the novel went in an unexpected direction and didn’t, at first, seem to fit the rest of the work, although when thinking about it later, offered a different view of Charlie. This quibble, however, did not detract from the many pleasures this novel has to offer. 

Changing one’s path

Solomon Fields’ life is a mess: he lives a vapid existence in New York City, writing ad copy for products he doesn’t believe in and living with a woman who seems to have no inner life. When a family emergency occurs, Sol is forced to take stock of his life. In Alexander Maksik’s “The Long Corner” (Europa Editions), this crisis leads him to accept an invitation to an artist colony called The Coded Garden, which is located on a tropical island. Although the leader of the colony hopes Sol will write an article about his visit, Sol makes no promises, knowing that the real reason for his acceptance is to escape his current life.

But even on an island, Sol can’t help reviewing his relationship to the two most important people in his life: his grandmother, who encouraged his journalism and love of the arts, and his more practical mother, who was once a left-wing radical, but now supports right-wing policies in Israel. Both wanted him to do something different with his life, although they tried to push him in different directions. Although Sol did once write an award-wining article about a famous artist, his career stalled in an economic downturn, which is when he began to write ad copy. 

Sol finds Sebastian Light, the leader of the colony, deeply disturbing. Sebastian is a mystery: he refuses to reveal anything about his life before he came to the island and purchased the land on which The Coded Garden is located. He invites artists to live free at no cost: not only are they supported and free to do whatever work they wish, they are also supposed to reinvent themselves (including changing their name). Sol is not sure if the colony is an Eden for artists or an unhealthy cult. 

“The Long Corner” is difficult to define because, while it has a satirical slant, it’s also filled with real emotion. Sol is not always an attractive figure, which adds to the novel’s depth. The work takes place during the Trump presidency and definitely comments on different American ideas of purity and art. But what stands out is Sol’s connection to the matriarchs in his family: the pull between their ideas may ultimately help him to find his way.

Finding her place in Salerno

While I didn’t see the 1952 movie version of Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe: A Romance” when it hit theaters – I hadn’t been born yet – I do remember watching it on TV sometime in my youth. What made no sense to me was Ivanhoe’s choice of the vapid Christian Rowena (played by Joan Fontaine) over the beautiful and warm Jewish Rebecca (played by Elizabeth Taylor). I’m guessing the same problem arose for those who read the book, something Esther Erman notes in “Rebecca of Salerno: A Novel of Rogue Crusaders, a Jewish Female Physician, and a Murder” (She Writes Press). Although at first I hoped the novel would be a rewrite of “Ivanhoe” told from Rebecca’s point of view, it instead follows her life after that novel, when she and her father leave England.

Although having read (or seen) “Ivanhoe” will help readers better understand Rebecca’s emotions, those who haven’t can still appreciate Erman’s work. (For anyone looking either to learn the plot of Scott’s work or to refresh their memories, Wikipedia offers a good summary. I know because I skimmed it before starting this novel.) Rebecca and her father first travel to Barcelona to stay with family before Rebecca moves to Salerno, where she attends medical school and makes a life for herself. Still mourning the loss of her first love, Ivanhoe, Rebecca declares she will never wed.

In the 13th century, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in peace in Salerno, that is until crusaders camped there on their way home from the Middle East. When a visiting rabbi is accused of murdering one of the crusaders, Rebecca refuses to believe he is guilty. But she is well aware of how quickly a country can turn hostile to Jews. The duke of Salerno must find someone to punish, even if it isn’t the person who actually committed the murder. Helped by the widower Rafael, who has often sought Rebecca’s hand in marriage, Rebecca searches for the true murderer. 

“Rebecca of Salerno” offers an interesting mystery and engaging characters, but the best parts of the novel offer discussions about the true meaning of justice. That includes deciding which is more important: the right of an individual versus the needs of the greater community. Should one be sacrificed for the good of the other? That makes this book an excellent choice for book clubs, especially those whose members enjoy discussing ethical issues.