Off the Shelf: Three short novels by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

As much as I love sinking into a long novel, there is something satisfying about a short work. In addition to the feeling of accomplishment that comes with finishing a book, a short novel usually has a more narrow focus, which surprisingly can allow the author to write in more depth about something of interest. This leads to a paradox: there may be fewer pages, but as many ideas to consider as in a longer work. The three short novels in this review feature a blind astronomer, a bride who doesn’t want to get married and a detective who discovers that truth cannot banish hate.

“The Organs of Sense”

Ever read a novel that you know readers will either love or hate? Take for example “The Organs of Sense” by David Ehrlich Sachs (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Some will find this a delightful, philosophical treatise on human nature and the different ways we perceive the world; others will despair at its long meandering paragraphs filled with repetitious, indecipherable nonsense about those same topics. I was on the borderline between the two before I got swept away by the rambling speeches of a blind astronomer whose eyes have been permanently removed for reasons the reader learns of only toward the end of the novel. 
The work is ostensibly based on an unpublished account written by the real-life Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz before he became famous. In 1666, Leibniz travels to meet the astronomer, who is rumored to be Jewish, because he’s predicted that a four-minute solar eclipse will take place, although no one else agrees with his prediction. Leibniz plans to not only learn if the eclipse does occur, but to discover if a blind man can truly see the stars. For his efforts, he’s treated to a monologue in which the astronomer narrates his life story, a remarkable and strange tale of art, war, princes and kings.
So, readers will be divided as to whether this work is brilliant or babble. While I’m not certain it’s brilliant, it was good fun and included a clever ending that made me laugh out loud.

“And the Bride Closed the Door”

Nervous jitters are not unusual for someone getting married. Locking your door and barricading yourself in your bedroom is less common. That’s what occurs in Israeli novelist Ronit Matalon’s “And the Bride Closed the Door” (New Vessel Press). Although her groom, her mother, grandmother and cousin are in the apartment, she refuses their entreaties to open her door. Her only explanations for her behavior are the statement “not getting married” and a curious poem whose relevance no one can decipher. When the groom’s parents arrive at the apartment, things become more hectic as his mother worries about the cost of the wedding hall and whether or not they need to cancel all the arrangements. Attempts are made to talk to the bride, which include a visit from a psychologist who works for “Regretful Brides,” but none of them work. By this point, the groom wonders if life wouldn’t be better if he, too, had locked himself a room.
“And the Bride Closed the Door” manages to be funny and serious at the same time as the members of both families try to deal with the stress caused by someone’s simple refusal to open her door. Matalon shows the different sides of these characters as they try to balance the emotional fallout with the practical aspects of dealing with whether or not to cancel the wedding. What is interesting is that, in 128 pages, readers learn much about all these characters, except for the bride whose actions are the impetus for the story. The unknown in a novel usually leaves me feeling unsatisfied, but not in this case: This odd story was strangely and pleasantly appealing.

“The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols”

A book featuring Sherlock Holmes and Jewish content: anyone who knows me knows that I would be asking for a review copy. “The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols” by Nicholas Meyer (Minotaur Books) has Holmes and Dr. Watson helping the British Secret Service discover whether a secret cabal with plans to control the world exists. Many readers will already know what published material caused this concern: “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” It’s comforting for Jewish readers that Holmes immediately recognizes the work as nonsense. It’s less comforting that it takes Watson longer not to be swayed. Holmes and Watson head to Russia to discover its author in order to discredit the material. However, some are willing to kill in order to keep that secret safe.
While “The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols” is not great literature, it is fun to read. The detective and his friend are joined in their travels by the real life Anna Strunsky Walling, who plays a major role in helping them discover who wrote the “Protocols.” Other real-life characters appear, as does mention of the Russian persecutions of the Jews living in its territory. This easy-to-read work does make a serious point about how, even though the “Protocols” have been proven a fake, the work continues to be published in the 21st century.