13 Spring Reads
A new crop of books this season promises intriguing characters, great story telling and lots of ideas worth thinking about or discussing with your book club friends.
Early in her career she was lambasted for being “too Jewish,” yet as we learn in author and cultural historian Neal Gabler’s brief and powerful biography, Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity and Power (Yale Jewish Lives), she turned her unique qualities to her advantage. Gabler examines the groundbreaking career of the iconic Brooklyn-born singer, songwriter, actress and director suggesting that Streisand’s success is tied to her being an outsider, as a Jewish woman and a woman with unconventional looks, style and vision.
Helen Maryles Shankman’s debut collection of linked stories, In the Land of Armadillos(Scribner), is set in 1942 in occupied Poland, a time that much has been written about. Shankman’s voice, however, is new and noteworthy. While many of the events in Shankman’s stories are based on her family’s history, she shifts the reader’s perspective with exquisite writing that mixes fact, folklore and invention. Shankman’s creative gifts extend to another arena: She is an accomplished artist whose commissioned portrait of then First Lady, Hillary Clinton, was presented to the White House.
Arlene Heyman’s stories were written over a period of 30 years, beginning when she was a student of noted American-Jewish author and Pulitzer Prize winner Bernard Malamud at Bennington College. In her debut collection, Scary Old Sex (Bloomsbury), Heyman, a psychiatrist, looks deeply and knowingly into the messiness of lives – complex relationships, intimacy, aging and sex, and what is often unspoken. Many of her characters are older women. Her story, “In Love With Murray,” is dedicated to Malamud’s memory.
That her daughter Becca, a medical student, is dating the son of a family of Rothschilds (yes, those Rothschilds) makes Sylvia Gold a very happy woman. She is even happier to learn that her potential in-laws are joining them for the Passover Seder. This indeed is a night different from every other night, as Brenda Janowitz depicts in The Dinner Party (St. Martin’s). Another potential in-law is at the table as well, but Sylvia is less enthusiastic about that family. Along the way, she comes to learn about new dimensions in the Passover story, about setting oneself and others free and letting go of the past.
Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor (Melville House) is a splendid novel about family, friendship and identity. Shira Greene is a single mother living with her daughter and a gay friend. She is also a translator with a career that feels stalled as she works temporary jobs wherever she finds them. A telegram changes everything: a Nobel-prize winning Romanian-born Italian poet asks her to translate his new book and that turns out to be a puzzling mix of prose and poetry. Cantor’s own mastery of language and ability to convey deep meaning with a light touch makes for great reading.
Set in 1950s Brooklyn, The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman (St. Martin’s) is the story of two women and their children, born two minutes apart during a 1947 blizzard in the house their families share. The two mothers are married to a pair of brothers, and the novel follows their entangled lives. This sparkling debut novel is inspired by stories the author heard in her childhood.
The self-deprecating heroine of Fat Chance by Aviva Orenstein (Quid Pro Books) is hard not to like. Set in a suburban community, the novel tracks the path of a single mom with a great job and a quirky sense of humor as she copes with the loss of her father, a difficult teenage son and an ongoing struggle with weight. Ultimately she finds her way to better times, to feeling newly comfortable, as she says, in her ample skin. This is Orenstein’s first novel; she has had a successful career as a law professor and comes from a family of rabbis.
The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s), translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris, is a multi-generational family saga spanning four generations of women in Jerusalem, including a healer, a housecleaner, and the title character, a woman thought to have the best legs in Jerusalem. This richly-detailed novel of long-buried secrets was a bestseller and prize-winner in Israel and is going to be made into a feature film.
The Beautiful Possible by Amy Gottlieb (Harper) is an insightful first novel about faith and ideas, love and loss. Gottlieb writes of the triangular connections that develop when a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary introduces his fiancée to his study partner, a German refugee who lost his family and spent the war years in India. Questions of Jewish thought are woven seamlessly into this decades-spanning story.
Told with compassion, The Houseguest by Kim Brooks (Counterpoint) is a vibrant debut novel, set in America on the eve of the country’s entry into World War II when Jewish refugees are desperately trying to escape Europe. At the outset, a rabbi in Utica, New York convinces a local junk dealer and his family to take in a European refugee, the volatile and charming actress of the book’s title. As the characters feel the impact of the war in Europe, they each reach out in their own way to fight.
While much has been written about art stolen during the Holocaust, Lauren Belfer takes a different tack in And After the Fire (Harper). She imagines the discovery of a stolen Bach cantata in the papers of a deceased World War II veteran. The man’s niece sets out to trace its provenance over generations with the intent to return it to its rightful owner. With many threads masterfully intertwined, the novel is a mystery, love story and historical drama.
As Agata Tuszynska, a Polish poet and historian who grew up in the Communist era, uncovers her family’s unspoken Jewish history she approaches a new understanding of herself. Her memoir, Family History of Fear, translated from the French by Charles Ruas (Knopf), details her experience of learning for the first time, at age 19, about her Jewish background, after growing up Catholic.
But You Did Not Come Back (Atlantic Monthly Press) by Marceline Lordan-Ivens, translated by Sandra Smith (who has translated the novels of Irene Nemirovsky), is a brief, unforgettable memoir addressed to the author’s late father. that was a bestseller in France and hailed as an important new work on the Holocaust. When she was 15, she and her father were arrested in occupied France. Though he managed to send her a note when they were separated and sent to concentration camps, he did not survive. She has said that his death overshadowed all of her life. The author, an actress, screenwriter, director and activist, can recall the note and its slanted script, but doesn’t remember the exact words, only that it probably spoke of hope, and arrived too late.