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Summer Reads

Here are some books to linger with on long flights or when you unwind on the beach.

By Sandee Brawarsky
June 2011 

Many of us book lovers are also book voyeurs – it’s great to peek at what other people are choosing to read on long flights or at the beach. Each summer, there’s usually a particular beach read that’s seen all over, but beyond that, the variety is endless: I’ve even seen someone studying a volume of the Talmud on a Long Island beach. Here, I offer some recommendations of new books, fiction and memoirs, to linger with on those long afternoons, filled with light.

Skinny (Harper, $14.99) has the perfect setting for a summer novel: a city girl escaping the sidewalks of New York City (and an uncertain romance) for a job at a summer camp in South Carolina. But Diana Spechler’s camp in this novel is a special place for overweight girls who want to lose weight—or whose parents think they should drop some pounds. Gray Lachmann, the new counselor, has grown heavier and more food-obsessed since the death of her obese father. She feels guilty for her father’s death and almost as though she’s inherited his hunger. Spechler, the author of the novel Why By Fire, explains that she has had some eating disorders in her own past. She has fun depicting the world of girls whose idea of a summer afternoon has nothing to do with exercise or sporting a bathing suit and also, more seriously, captures what it really feels like to have a complicated relationship to food and body weight. Spechler spent ten weeks working—undercover—at a camp for overweight girls, although she has said that the owners of the camp are quite pleased with the book.

Vaclav & Lena (Dial Press, $15), from first-time novelist Haley Tanner, is set at the beach, that is, the Brighton Beach neighborhood in Brooklyn now home to a large population of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. This is an unusual love story:  The title characters meet as young children and  have their first play date at the Wonder Wheel, at Coney Island’s amusement park on the boardwalk. The outgoing Vaclav loves magic, and the shy, sweet Lena becomes his assistant as the two perform magic shows in their neighborhood. They seem inseparable, and then one day Lena disappears. Tanner’s young husband died of cancer just before the book’s publication, and she has said that her own great love inspired the novel, that her husband’s presence is on every page.

With its length (more than 700 pages) and its wartime setting in Europe beginning in the late 1930s, Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge (Vintage, $15.95) might not seem like typical summer reading. But Orringer’s beautiful prose and gripping story of romance, family and loyalty set in Paris and Budapest and featuring the appealing characters Andras Lévi, an aspiring architect, and Klara, a ballet teacher with a painful past, is so absorbing that it is seems ideal to linger with on a lanquid summer afternoon.

Orringer’s book was inspired by stories of her grandparents, as was Alison Pick’s novel, Far To Go (Harper Perennial, $14.99). Pick writes about an affluent secular Jewish family in World War II Czechoslovakia. In fear of the approaching Nazi army, they find their gentile friends in their village turning their backs on them, but their governess steps up to help. Pick weaves past and present, as she reveals the family’s fate, detailing their courage and the competing powers of love and  betrayal.

Talia Carner’s novel, Jerusalem Maiden (Harper, $14.99) is set in the heavenly and earthly city, in the early years of the 20th century. Esther Kaminsky is a talented young woman, born into a poor ultra-orthodox family in Mea Shearim. As a young girl, she is torn between the heavy responsibilities she feels to marry and have children, and her own artistic yearnings; she is more interested in drawing than speculating about potential matches, like her school mates. For Esther, the openness of Paris, which she has secretly read about, seems preferable to the regulated life she faces in Jerusalem. Carner, formerly the editor of Savvy Woman magazine, has a sharp eye for historical detail, as she portrays Esther’s struggles with questions of faith, destiny, ritual, spiritual life and freedom.

Fans of Jennifer Weiner will enjoy her latest novel, Then Came You (Atria, $26.99), the story of four women and one baby. The tale of romance, rivalry and longings entertains as it raises intriguing questions about surrogacy. Wiener showcases her trademark humor and understanding of women’s lives and concerns.

Adena Halpern‘s Pinch Me (Touchstone, $14.99) is about a young woman who elopes with the handsome man of her dreams, and then discovers that perhaps it was all a dream. Her handsome husband seems to be married to someone else, doesn’t recognize her, and is selling drainpipes for a living, rather than practicing medicine as he had in their marriage. Halpern is the author of 29 and The Ten Best Days of My Life, now being made into a movie.

Some new memoirs also make for compelling reading. Molly Birnbaum was someone who read cookbooks in bed, obsessively researched recipes online and then cooked intricate dishes, all while studying art history as an undergraduate. Once, she baked a different apple pie every week for months (making her friends very happy) until she perfected the recipe. For certain, she knew that she wanted to be a chef. After working in restaurants, she was about to begin studying at a distinguished culinary academy when she was in a terrible car accident. As a result, her sense of smell was destroyed, as she recounts in Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way (Ecco, $24.99). She writes of giving up cooking and then rediscovering her sense of smell, with a renewed sense of intuition, improvisation and creativity in the kitchen.

The House on Crash Corner…And Other Unavoidable Calamities by Mindy Greenstein (Greenpoint Press, $20) is a series of interlinking stories about growing up as the daughter of Holocaust survivors in Brooklyn. Even as she writes about her parents’ habit of gambling and their rising debt, her voice is funny, tender and compassionate. The author, a clinical psychologist and psycho-oncologist, goes on to write about her own adventures as a mother and wife.

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the New York Jewish Week and editor of its new monthly publication, Text/Context: Fresh Encounters With Jewish Tradition. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Jerusalem Post.

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