Off the Shelf: Three works of fiction

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Sometimes the books in a multi-book fiction review have a common denominator. Other times, they feature works that don’t easily fit into other reviews. This is one of those times. The only thing these books have in common is some Jewish content. They include short stories by a former Soviet Jew, a novel about lies of omission and a philosophical mystery focusing on a Midwestern Jewish/Muslim cult.

“Knockout Beauty and Other Afflictions”

After finishing a collection of short stories, I sometimes contemplate whether there are underlying themes that tie the works together. At first, that didn’t seem true of Marina Rubin’s “Knockout Beauty and Other Afflictions” (Crowsnest Books). Then it occurred to me that most of her characters did have one thing in common: they felt as if there was something missing from their lives. That made for a connection based less on plot than on emotion.

That’s clear in the most Jewish themed story, “You Can Live with This Nose,” a powerful four-page tale. The narrator and her friend Marigold are attending services at an LGBTQ synagogue to which Marigold belongs. The narrator announces that her mother has given her $10,000 to get a nose job, something of which Marigold disapproves because she thinks her friend is beautiful just as she is. The story plays off the discovery of what people can and can’t live with once they understand the realities of their lives.

Many of the stories offer interesting plot twists. For example, “Jaula” tells of a writer whose work only gets serious consideration once it’s rumored she slept with a major writer. However, the reality of the situation is unusual and clever. The two page “Jupiter” offers a clever and funny twist at its end, even though that twist was something readers should have expected. “Man in a Fedora,” one of the longer works at more than 30 pages, portrays the danger of self-delusion. The discovery that someone she knows has died sends the main character on a search to learn more about her elusive friend. The main character in “Valentino” is obsessed with shopping, although the clothing she buys doesn’t make her happy. 

The stories in “Knockout Beauty and Other Afflictions” are well done and offer interesting insights into the characters’ lives. This is Rubin’s second excellent collection, making her a writer to watch. 

“I Meant to Tell You”

Few are ever completely truthful when dealing with family and friends: we often tell small lies – even if only to say we like a haircut – in order keep our relationship on an even keel. However, lies – whether of omission or commission – can also undermine relationships. That’s true for several people in “I Meant to Tell You” by Fran Hawthorne (Stephen J. Austin University Press). The question then becomes whether these relationships can weather the truth after it’s revealed.

The first lie of omission occurs when Miranda neglects to tell her fiancé, Russ, that she was once arrested for kidnaping. Since she was helping an Israeli friend, Ronit, and her daughter escape an abusive husband, the charges were pleaded down and not supposed to appear on her records. Miranda felt unable to tell Russ about what happened because it seems as if that event occurred in a different lifetime. She was more worried about her mother and late father’s history: they were active in the anti-war movement in the 1960s and were sure to have FBI files. But Russ is working as a lawyer for the federal government and being screened by the FBI so her crimes come to light.

Russ does not react well to the revelation and the two take a step back before deciding on their future. Miranda moves from their apartment to the house where her mother, Judith, and her stepfather, Bill, live. However, once there, she learns Bill has left her mother for a younger woman. Judith can’t bear to tell Miranda’s two half-siblings about the betrayal. Then, when Judith learns the truth of Miranda’s situation, she feels the need to confess to her own lies: to tell Miranda the true story of Miranda’s father.

The novel moves back and forward in time, telling of Miranda’s life in the early 21st century, Ronit’s story in the late 1980s to the mid-1990s and Judith’s tale from 1968-70. The novel concludes with Miranda forced to live with the full knowledge of the faults and frailties of her friends, family and herself. The shuffling of time and personal perspectives made “I Meant to Tell You” feel disjointed at times and its many twists and turns did not always feel realistic. However, they still managed to be surprising and moving, leaving readers caring more about the characters than they might expect. 

“The 12th Commandment”

Many people look to religion for answers when faced with tragedy. That’s true for Zeke Lager, a magazine writer and editor, who returns to Ohio for the funeral of a college friend who died by suicide. Some mutual friends have remained in the area, allowing him to reconnect with people he hasn’t seen in years. However, the real reason he extends his visit after the funeral is due to a murder connected to a religious sect known as the Donme – something that could be a great basis for a magazine article. In “The 12th Commandment” by Daniel Torday (St. Martin’s Group), Zeke must not only learn if the correct man was convicted of the crime, but whether the Donme can offer him the spiritual meaning he’s been seeking since the death of his friend.

Nathan the prophet, the leader of the Donme, has been accused of murdering his son for breaking the 12th commandment: telling outsiders secrets about the religion. The need for secrecy is found in the group’s history: it’s an offshoot of Sabbatai Sevi’s 17th century messianic movement. When told to convert to Islam or die, Sevi converted. However, while some of his followers became outwardly Muslim, they still practiced Jewish rituals privately. The Donme offer similar practices with one major addition: they harvest a product that helps them reach a mystical state. 

What seemed a simple murder case becomes more complex when Zeke is threatened by local teenagers, whom some Donme feel are the true murderers, and those who fear an article in a national magazine will stir up trouble by bringing unwanted attention to the town. Zeke also must sort out his own feelings about the Donme, something that not only complicates the article he is hoping to write, but his relationship with his college friends.

“The 12th Commandment” is suspenseful and contains an excellent and surprising plot twist, while still providing an ending that feels true to life. Readers, though, do have to tolerate long passages that Zeke narrates while under the influence of hallucinogens, which is never my favorite thing to read. However, as a novel of suspense and an interpretation of a religious community, “The 12th Commandment” qualifies as a success.