Book Reviews

The Book of Love and Hate – Lauren Sanders

Lauren Sanders - Book of Love and HateThe title of Lauren Sanders’ novel, The Book of Love and Hate, nearly perfectly describes my feelings about reading it. Sanders’ writing is razor-sharp, a stark contrast to the intentionally fuzzy edges of her characters and setting. As Sanders flings her readers along on the protagonist’s jumbled attempt to find the truth about her father, we understand just how illusory the truth can be.

In The Book of Love and Hate, nothing is exactly as it seems. Sanders’ characters are complex, muddled by dysfunctional family relationships, substance abuse, Olympic ambition, wealth, and politics. She covers them with a layer of grittiness that matches the roughness in her depiction of Israel. Sanders uses Jennifer Baron as the constant narrator, but as she goes back and forth between Jennifer’s present and past. The challenge of tracking the time actively works against the consistency of Jennifer’s voice.

Sanders shows that she is a master in drawing in her readers, and relentlessly pushes the boundaries of suspense and credulity. Reading The Book of Love and Hate was alternately deeply frustrating and shockingly refreshing. I wanted to read it on the beach in Tel Aviv, soothed by the waves while surrounded by the crackling vitality of the city. Reading it in my home by myself was far too quiet. And reading it was hard work. Sanders’

book rewards readers who appreciate the craftsmanship of writing, rather than the simplicity of a straightforward plot. If you are prepared to accept this balance of investing your intellectual curiosity while surrendering control to the author’s whims, The Books of Love and Hate is a knock out. Less adventurous readers should consider themselves forewarned.

Books and Blintzes received a copy of this book from LibraryThing.com in order to compose this review. This review only reflects the views of its author.

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Book Reviews, Culinary Arts

Modern Jewish Baker – Shannon Sarna

Modern Jewish Baker Cover

As an avid fan and follower of Shannon Sarna on The Nosher, I have been looking forward to the September release of her cookbook Modern Jewish Baker for months. And I mean “looking forward to” at the pre-ordered, delivery tracking, and mailbox stalking level. Even with such great expectations, Modern Jewish Baker did not disappoint.

The book is divided into 7 main sections with “master recipes” for challah, babka, bagels, rugelach, hamentaschen, pita, and matzah. Sarna keeps it simple, in the organization, photography, and typeset, rightly focuses the reader’s attention on the recipes and directions, resulting in a user-friendly cookbook. While the design makes it coffee-table display worthy, you’re better served keeping it handy and using it in the kitchen.

Throughout the book Sarna celebrates her Jewish heritage and brings diverse ingredients to the table. She raises the standards of Eastern European favorites to new culinary heights, with a decidedly cosmopolitan approach and international flair.

The recipes are so clear, and the results so delicious, that anyone who loves Jewish baked goods will find a way to incorporate Sarna’s work into their Shabbat and holiday menus, and will want to make enough for the rest of the year too. My family inhaled the onion jam babka and balsamic apple date stuffed challah so fast on Rosh HaShanah that I’m afraid of what might happen if I don’t bake them again next year. Actually, I suspect that my freezer is about to start working harder than ever. Sarna expects her readers to have access to a well-appointed kitchen, but the ingredients and timing proved more important than the equipment. Modern Jewish Baker is a gift to bakers who are willing to experiment, and who appreciate the solid back-up of detailed directions. Sarna has clearly done her homework in the kitchen, and the result is a book with the power to create mouth-watering Jewish memories for generations.

Book Reviews, Literature

Sons and Soldiers – Bruce Henderson

sons and soldiers“I’m Jewish, sir, and I’m going to fight Hitler”.

These are the words of my great-uncle Col. Bernard J. Finestone z”l, who along with my grandfather Seymour Shuchat z”l, great-uncles Menassah Miller z”l, and Leonard Silver z”l, and many other extended family members fought in different branches of the Canadian Armed Forces during WWII. Some shared their experiences willingly, while others hesitated. Some passed away before they had the chance to tell their stories.

My thoughts continuously returned to their memories as I read Bruce Henderson’s Sons and Soldiers. He tells the stories of the “Ritchie Boys”, German-Jewish refugees who escaped to the United States during the 1930s then joined the American army when the U.S. entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Henderson follows them from the time their lives are first impacted by Hitler’s ascent to power until after they return from their tours of duty. Because he begins when his subjects are still teenagers in Europe, the book includes a rich description of the diversity of Jewish life in Germany before the war. The representations of Jewish families of different socio-economic backgrounds, in rural and suburban settings, and various religious observance are especially helpful in preventing the individual stories from melding into one another. One of the pitfalls of trying to follow multiple protagonists is keeping everyone straight, and Henderson’s detailed backgrounds sharpened each one’s narratives.

These differences become blurrier once the activity moves from the soldier’s training to their deployment. As the author turns his focus to their military activities, for he which necessarily relies on tactical and specific terminology, as well as increasing references to particular geographic locations, he challenges readers who are less familiar with the intricacies of American actions on Europe’s battlefields. Those who have a strong understanding of the historical context will certainly be moved by the way Henderson weaves the individual stories into the tapestry of the war. Those who don’t are far more likely to get lost in the details.

Henderson’s skills as a historian and writer move the action of Sons and Soldiers along at a quick pace. It’s possible to dip in and out to read select passages, which makes the book an ideal choice for high school and college curricula. Instructors could easily incorporate Henderson’s work into class readings, and it could serve as a focal point for increasing awareness of the Jewish community’s participation in the American military.  Perhaps most importantly, it will honor and nourish the memories of a generation whose courage and commitment deserves, at the very least, this masterfully crafted literary monument.

Books and Blintzes received a complimentary copy of this work in order to write this review. The opinions contained herein are exclusively those of the writer.

 

Book Reviews

The Forever Letter – Elana Zaiman

Rabbi Elana Zaiman is passionate about making connections. Her book, The Forever Letter, will convince any writing-shy scribbler that putting words onto paper (or typing them into a computer) is the most effective way to communicate what is in our hearts to the dearest people in our lives. Zaiman has been teaching and speaking on the topic for years, and her experience is evident in the book’s clarity and organization. She includes the questions, writing prompts, and detailed process notes that empower the reader to use it to write their own letters. While I read it as an e-book, many will prefer to be able to jot down their thoughts and ideas in the margins as they go.

This book does stir the pot with readers’ emotions. Zaiman uses her extensive professional background as both a pulpit rabbi and chaplain to challenge readers with difficult and intimate questions. The paradox of Zaiman’s forever letter is that it may be most valuable to its writer and reader at the time when it may be most difficult to write and read it. Forever letters can be a tremendous source of comfort and a powerful tool for connecting to the important people in our lives. But they are time consuming and thought-intensive to write, which makes it difficult to have them handy at times of crises. Forever letters could certainly be the basis of the sage Hillel’s famous teaching “don’t put off what you can do today”.

The tradition of the Jewish ethical will forms the backbone and background for Zaiman’s work, but she separates her explanation of this practice in an appendix at the end of the book. Readers who are less familiar with Jewish ethical wills and their history may find it useful to review this appendix before jumping into forever letters. Other readers may prefer to read it first as it more firmly grounds Zaiman’s book within the world of Jewish practice. Still others may overlook it altogether, particularly if they are more interested in the book as a practical resource for writing letters of their own.

Because the book’s subject matter is so deeply personal, Forever Letters is best left to the reader’s discretion. Parts of it could be useful for discussion and counseling with families who are planning life cycle events, and close friends will also appreciate having a trusted reading buddy with whom to reflect. Forever Letters is not a beach read, but as we begin to look towards the High Holidays, it could lead to a profound experience of possibilities in the new Jewish year.

I received a copy of this e-book via NetGalley specifically for the purpose of writing a review. The thoughts and opinions in this review are mine alone.

 

Book Reviews

The Afterlife of Stars – Joseph Kertes

A story a person tells about his life can never express the fullness of this experience. This seems to be the starting point for Joseph Kertes’ novel about a young Jewish boy’s flight from Hungary at the time of the Soviet invasion in 1956. Along with his family, the 9 year old protagonist Robert Beck, escapes from the only home he has known, becoming a refugee in Western Europe, and eventually arriving in France. As a result of this journey, he learns how his family survived the Holocaust, and the long and lasting shadows this trauma has cast over them all.

Kertes writes from Robert’s perspective, effectively capturing the child’s focus on his present. This point of view contributes both a sense of simplicity and immediacy to the novel, making it sharper and more intense. However, Kertes occasionally uses sophisticated language and turns towards ephemeral thinking, which are sometimes inconsistent with the mental and emotional maturity of his narrator. Robert’s main foil is his older brother Attila, who at 13 seems to be more honestly stuck between childhood and adulthood. As a reader with little direct experience with boys of these ages, it was difficult for me to evaluate if their interactions were realistic. My book club shared mixed reports. Our collective ability to be caught up in the book definitely hinged on our individual abilities to connect with the central relationship between the two brothers.

Kertes is not afraid to use vivid imagery and direct language to tell Robert’s story, and the historical context is as much a character in the book as the family members themselves. Younger readers who may be less familiar with the history of the Cold War may find themselves wishing for more information about the Soviet takeover of Hungary. However, the part of Kertes’ narrative that details the family’s escape from the Nazis with the help of Raoul Wallenberg and its impact on the family’s post-war life is breathtakingly effective in highlighting the historical continuity of Jewish life in Europe.

Kertes may be drawing significantly on his family’s own experiences, or at the very least, is personally steeped in the history that he is writing about. I almost wonder if some of the linguistic inconsistencies would be resolved if the book had actually been written in Hungarian. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the post-war history of European Jewry, well-written historical fiction, and what it’s like to be a 9 year old boy.

 

Book Reviews

Rebbe ~ Joseph Telushkin

Joseph Telushkin’s 2014 biography of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson is an exquisitely detailed and thoughtful description of the the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s life and his influence on the international Jewish community. As a semi-outsider in the Crown Heights and Chabad orbit, Telushkin writes with a reverence for what the indefatigable Rebbe accomplished, without glossing over the controversial aspects of his leadership.

I picked up this title while browsing through the Kindle Deals of the Day earlier this year, and was surprised by how quickly Telushkin drew me into the Rebbe’s story. I have never been affiliated with Chabad, the Rebbe died when I was a teenager, and I have some strong reservations about the movement’s organizational structure and theology. Event still, reading this book was a deeply moving personal experience. The Rebbe’s leadership, his mission to reach out to Jews around the world, and his vast celebrity, fundamentally shaped what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century. Telushkin’s writing brings the Rebbe’s imprint on my Jewish life into sharp focus.

I especially enjoyed reading about the Rebbe’s years as a university student in Europe before the Second World War and his emphasis on connecting individually and intimately with Jews seeking his guidance.  I was less interested in the controversies relating to his accession to to the position of Rebbe, and the legal battle surrounding the Chabad library. And as impressive as the Rebbe’s influence among political and religious leaders truly was, Telushkin’s continuing references to such relationships threatened to become tiresome. I wish that Telushkin had included more information about the Rebbe’s wife, Chaya Mushka, but I can’t blame him for not including material that doesn’t exist. As a celebration of the Rebbe and his work, I appreciated every detail that provided context about how the Rebbe was able to become such an inspiring leader.

Telushkin’s writing is engaging and accessible, although some readers may find the Yiddish terminology difficult. Readers who have exceptionally strong opinions about the Lubavitcher movement may struggle with Telushkin’s portrait of its structures. This biography should be required reading for aspiring clergy, and would be a useful tool for Jewish lay leaders who want to understand the interplay between leadership and community-building. The book has the power to move readers in surprising ways.

 

Book Reviews, Literature

King Solomon’s Table – Joan Nathan

45 seconds. That was how long it took me to get to the front door, open the box, and start reading after I go the alert on my phone that Amazon had delivered Joan Nathan’s latest cookbook, King Solomon’s Table. In this sequence of events, I broke a number of house rules: 1. my phone was on the table during dinner; 2. I looked at the messages on my phone during dinner; 3. I opened a non-birthday package at the table in the middle of dinner; 4. I was reading during dinner. Luckily only the four year old mini-bookandblintz was home with me that evening, and she doesn’t particularly care about those rules. She was more than happy to join in the fun and announce that each picture looks delicious. And she was right.

It’s impossible to read this book without thrilling over just how far kosher cookbooks have come. This volume is nothing less than an exultant celebration of the art, the clarity of writing, the range of available ingredients and the diversity of Jewish food in cookbook form. A quick comparison between this book and the three other Joan Nathan cookbooks sitting on my bookshelf kicks the party into high gear. This book has a polish and sophistication that cooks could only dream of Jewish Cooking In America was published 50 years ago.

As I read through the volume, my joy came as much, if not even more so, from the stories and descriptions that accompany each recipe.  Nathan has achieved an impressive balance between presenting functional instructions for food preparation, a travel and professional memoir, and a textbook on the history of Jewish communities and their appetites. The only potential fault is in the possibility that younger readers may find it more difficult to relate to her scenes of delightful domestic cooking without finding it just a bit twee. Nevertheless, I think this cookbook belongs on the shelf in every home that considers itself to be connected to the Jewish heritage. King Solomon’s Table would make an excellent gift for anyone taking a new step as a Jewish cook, from an epicurean bar mitzvah boy to a downsizing retiree. Basically, anyone with a kitchen and a willingness to try cooking something other than toast.

I have yet to try cooking any of the recipes myself, but I expect the book to prove user-friendly. While the recipes are grouped by meal, course, and ingredient (breakfast, starters, salads, meat, etc.) I suspect that one of the unique attributes of this collection is the versatility of so many of the dishes to be eaten and served at different times and places. As diverse cultural practices and local ingredients dictated traditional foods and when they were eaten, readers will inherit this wider array of options, allowing for even greater creativity. I will, of course, follow up with this review to show off the results of my experiments.

There is just one question that this book leaves unanswered. As a native Torontonian, the blueberry buns Joan Nathan associated with my hometown are less familiar to me than the exquisite “cheese bagels” we enjoyed during our trips to Montreal to visit my grandparents. These pastries, relatives of the humbler cheese danish, are shaped liked horseshoes, have a ricotta/cream cheese filling, and are ideally finished with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. I can only imagine that the author does not have the recipe, otherwise I must beg her to add it to the next edition.