Off the Shelf: Three genres

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Graphic novel

When I read a novel about the search for the lost Ark of the Covenant, I expect the plot to head in one of two directions: either stark realism or otherworldly mysticism. Rutu Modan’s graphic novel “Tunnels” (Drawn and Quarterly) leans toward the former, but some of its characters focus on the latter. What the graphic novel does best is offer a view of the many different facets of contemporary Israeli society.

Nili, the novel’s main character, finally sees a chance to continue the archeological expedition her father began decades before, but had to stop for political reasons. He was searching for the lost Ark of the Covenant, which Nili believes she will find if she can continue in the tunnel they explored when she was a child. She doesn’t have enough money to hire a regular crew to do the work. Instead, she finds a religious nationalist, who brings with him a group of young men who believe finding the ark will bring about the coming of the messiah. But their work does not go unnoticed: Nili’s father’s archrival at the university wants Nili’s brother to spy on her so he can claim the find. Nili also reunites with a childhood friend, a Palestinian whose father used to work on the dig, something that adds yet another dimension to the work.

“Tunnels” does a wonderful job allowing readers to feel not only a sense of place, but gives insight into some of its characters’ lives. The plot is more complex than that of many graphic novels, but it’s never too difficult to follow. Its inclusion of Jewish legends and contemporary politics creates an excellent mix. My only complaint is that the print dialogue is smaller than I would have liked, but I found it easier to read as my eyes grew used to it. There are some interesting plot twists and the work’s conclusion was a wonderful surprise. 


Spy novel

I don’t read many spy novels. The moral ambiguity featured in many of these works often means there is little different between the good guys and the bad guys’ behavior. While moral questions are raised in S. Lee Manning’s “Nerve Attack: A Kolya Petrov Thriller” (Encircle Publications), its hero seeks to do the right thing, even though it’s not always clear what that means.

This is the second novel in the series and, although I haven’t read the first one, Manning gives enough background that readers won’t feel lost. Kolya Petrov, a Soviet Jew who came to the U.S. when he was a teen, used to work for an American intelligence agency. Unfortunately, the agency’s actions caused great harm to him physically and mentally, and threatened the life of his fiancé, Alex. Now retired, he’s unhappy in his work as a lawyer, but, at least, he doesn’t fear for his life. That is, until he and Alex are attacked while visiting her family, which seems to be tied to a recent nerve gas attack. The only way to find answers is for Kolya to return to Russia with his childhood friend Dimitri. There is one problem: he is the agent who put Dimitri in prison 10 years prior. Can he trust his former friend or is this a complicated way for Dimitri to get his revenge?

The action in “Nerve Attack” is fast paced and the pages turned quickly. The plot twists and turns made for interesting and enjoyable reading. I also liked that, while characters did make morally ambiguous decisions at times, there were at least a few who considered both the means and the end. However, the results of some of the most debatable decisions were my favorite moments.


Short stories

Misunderstanding, miscommunication and misogyny underlie many of the stories in Corie Adjmi’s excellent “Life and Other Shortcomings” (She Writes Press). This work of semi-connected stories (some characters appear in more than one story) take place from the 1970s through contemporary times. What seems clear is that the difficulties women face in life and relationships has not changed for the better.

A perfect example of this is in the collection’s first story, “Dinner Conversation.” In order to maintain her relationship with her husband and his friends, Callie monitors her every move so as not to make waves. Even after the birth of her children, she gave into her husband’s demands, rather than following her own instincts. While at first she wonders if she’s living a double life (her real feelings and her public feelings), she realizes that what’s happened to her is far worse: She no longer knows what she feels.

Not every story features a man ruining a woman’s life. In “All You Touch,” a younger Callie finds herself exploring her life and sexuality with (a man who is not looking to take advantage of her. The despoiler in “Happily Ever After” is a woman who is “enchanted” by a young man in love with his Porsche, a car that brings him joy. That story reads like a reverse fable, one that offers no happily ever after. “Shadows and Other Partially Lit Faces” tells of Callie’s husband Dylan, who, while he loves his family, is some nights unwilling to go home. That is understandable, although readers may not forgive what he does at the end of the story.

“The Devil Makes Three” is the most positive of the works and the one with the most Jewish content. Iris is an Orthodox Jew, married with six children, who finds herself using the computer for the first time. While online, she joins a chat room and converses with someone who causes her to rethink parts of her life. Rather than making her want to leave her life, she now looks for ways to improve it, particularly her connection to her husband. 

Most of the stories are not especially cheerful. I found myself thinking, “Boy, am I glad I’m not married if this is what married life is like.” Adjmi focuses on the less pleasant aspects of life, but her work is so well done, I still found myself appreciating these well-crafted tales.