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.

 

 

Book Reviews

Tell Me How This Ends Well – David Samuel Levinson

Getting ready to read Tell Me How This Ends Well was sort of like being stranded in traffic without knowing why. I requested an early reviewers copy from LibraryThing.com, based on the description, and was alternately looking forward to the indulgence of reading it, and worrying about the dysfunction and ugliness it may contain. As it turned out, my instincts were right on. In Tell Me How This Ends Well, David Samuel Levinson has written a sharp, funny, and chaotic book. With substantial characters and a spectacular sense of setting, Levinson provides readers with a beautiful literary mess that’s impossible to leave unfinished.

The messiness is clearly intentional, and it comes mostly from the characters. This is a diverse and dysfunctional family, all with strong personalities and hidden (and not-so-hidden) personal agendas. It is a difficult balance between highlighting the individual quirks of each family member without entering into the absurd. To his credit, Levinson succeeds in drawing distinctive characters and relationships that nod towards Jewish stereotypes,  but that never become caricatures. The book’s timeline, with most of the action taking place over the period of a few days, is tremendously helpful to its organization and flow. Although memories regularly intrude into the narrative, the tightness of the timing keeps everything focused on the plot.

Most of the book takes place in Los Angeles, in 2022, which creates a strange sense of reality. The book is set linguistically and technologically firmly in the present, but with just enough catastrophe in the next 5 years to make it look foreign. The result is a chilling combination of anti-Semitism and an isolationist United States meeting reality tv.

Tell Me How This Ends Well will likely appeal to the same readers as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am. Levinson’s writing style is more narrative than Foer’s dialogue driven work, and at *only* 400 pages, it is a less intimidating commitment. The two books are complimentary, but a book club will probably find Levinson to be less divisive, while raising many of the same discussion points.

 

Book Reviews

Conviction – Julia Dahl

One of the most fun parts of writing book reviews is getting to read books that are outside of my usual comfort zone. Because we like to keep things positive here on Books and Blintzes, you will never hear about the duds. But every so often a book arrives at my doorstep that surprises me as just being the right book at the right time. Conviction, the third installment of Julia Dahl’s Rebekah Roberts mystery series, was just that book.

Being too impatient for most mysteries, I had missed Dahl’s acclaimed debut installment, Invisible City. The good news is that Dahl includes enough of the characters’ back stories in Conviction to make sure readers can get up to speed quickly. So go ahead and read Conviction first. Then, when you’re hooked, you can go back and enjoy the other two books.

This book caught my attention because of its setting. Investigative reporter Rebekah Roberts is drawn into the story of a gruesome murder that took place in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn shortly after the riots in the summer of 1992. Now, 22 years later, she’s exploring the possibility that the wrong person was convicted. This gives Dahl a platform to incorporate not only the politics of the relationship between the Hassidic and African-American residents of Crown Heights in 1992, but also to highlight the issues of gentrification, police brutality, and the ongoing tensions in race relations that have intensified rather than disappeared. Readers interested in the way that the media portrays local events and the crime beat will appreciate Dahl giving them a front row seat to the action.

Dahl drives Conviction with strong characters and respect for the communities she portrays. Her straightforward prose keeps the pages turning, and aside from a generous sprinkling of Yiddish and Jewish religious terms, the book is accessible to anyone who might enjoy a crime novel. I will confess that even though the Conviction held my attention enough that I burned through it in less than 24 hours, I still flipped forward to read the ending when I was halfway through. Without any effort, I was able to think of five other people who I knew would be interested in this book. I will be enthusiastically sharing my copy, which is just about as good as a popular mystery can get.

 

I received a free pre-release ARC from the publisher, Minotaur Press, in order to write this review.

Book Reviews

The Genius of Judaism – Bernard-Henri Lévy

For readers who are interested in the French Jewish community, current trends in Western philosophy, and biblical scholarship, The Genius of Judaism is a rare gift. Author, activist, and thinker Bernard-Henri Lévy presents as his core thesis the idea that the Jewish people exists because of its relationships with other nations. Without the Jews, there can be no gentiles. Without the gentiles, there can be no Jews. Destined to be the eternal “other”, Jewish communities around the world and throughout history have been tasked with, and must continue to, navigate this dynamic for the purpose of human religious, civic, and social development. No pressure, right? From here, Lévy provides an intriguing analysis of anti-Semitism, Zionism, and what all this means for Israel and the international Jewish community.

Considering the scope of Lévy’s topic, his attention to detail is striking. He includes a range of specific examples of laws, events, and headlines encompassing Jewish history from the Exodus from Egypt to the present. The result is dizzying in its breadth, as well as making it impossible to read without reflecting on the news of the day. Lévy may or may not have been able to foresee the results of the 2016 US Presidential election, but reading this book in its political aftermath is an almost revelatory experience. For better or for worse, much of Lévy’s writing sounds as if it may be better suited to being presented as a lecture. His words contain a passion that makes a reader want to hear more, but also come across as slightly disorganized. It’s also necessary to caution readers that parts of this book are deeply immersed in philosophical and academic language. Having a strong background in 19th and 20th European philosophy is almost a prerequisite to reading certain chapters.

While the philosophical discussion may be beyond the understanding of most lay readers, Lévy’s musings on the existence and role of the State of Israel and his interpretation of the biblical Book of Jonah are both fascinating and accessible. His understanding of Israel and the Book of Jonah jump off the page as animating for any adult education or study group – the floors of the halls and classrooms where readers meet to discuss these topics might shake from the impact of the resulting intense discussions. To a certain extent, The Genius of the Jews is really two distinct works: the deeply intellectual and philosophical study of Jewish history and texts, and the deeply emotional and spiritual extrapolation of what it means to be Jewish across history and in the 21st century. This book will make any reader reflect on the Jewish experience, and the lucky reader will have someone with whom to share their insights along the way.

For the purposes of writing this review, the reviewer received an electronic advanced reader copy via NetGalley.com.

Book Reviews

Almost A Minyan – Lori S. Kline & Susan Simon

almost-a-minyanAnd now for something completely different – children’s literature. Kline has packed her latest picture book, Almost A Minyan, almost to bursting with themes of Jewish prayer, community, mourning, ritual items and egalitarianism. Set in a small town that sometimes struggles to meet the quorum of 10 adults needed to make up the minyan, or quorum for community prayer, a young girl observes her father’s daily participation. Unabashedly egalitarian, both in the narrative and illustrations, the full inclusion of women in the minyan is presented as normative. Families and organizations who share this view are especially likely to appreciate this depiction of Jews and their communities that reflect their realities.

On a slightly discordant note, Klein uses the Yiddish terms, spellings, and pronunciations for most Jewish labels, for example, “synagogue” is always “shul”. While these insider terms seem to contradict the book’s commitment to inclusion, Klein’s consistency in their use, as well as their repetition in the story, quickly familiarizes them to readers who are not of Ashkenazic descent. A glossary at the end of the book provides clear descriptions of these terms and their linguistic origins – a phonetic pronunciation guide could also be a helpful tool.

Simon’s detailed illustrations are vibrant and contribute strongly to the emotional impact of the story. Their bright colors and realism will capture younger readers, making this book an excellent choice for families with children of different ages. A single caveat is that the story deals directly with the death of a close family member. Parents and caregivers should use their judgment and evaluate its appropriateness for their intended audiences. On the other hand, Kline and Simon’s treatment of the topic give their work the potential to be an empowering resource for grieving families.

Together Kline and Simon have crafted a book about Jewish life that is accessible, thoughtful, and memorable. Children will enjoy being carried away by the illustrations and rhyming language. Parents and educators will appreciate the detail and opportunity to share pictures and words that reflect the richness of Jewish ritual and community. It is well worth a look by librarians and community organizations who seek to add cultural diversity to their children’s collections. All told, Almost a Minyan is a solid example of children’s literature that will give readers the ultimate gift – the opportunity to create memories of learning together.

For more information about this book and to pre-order, go to the Publisher’s website www.sociosights.com. Books and Blintzes received an advance review copy for the purposes of writing this review.

Book Reviews

Turning Homeward – Adrienne Ross Scanlan

 

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GR Book Link

In a much needed change of pace from Mischling, Adrienne Ross Scanlan’s lovely memoir Turning Homeward explores the connections between finding our place and the physical world in which we make our homes. Having relocated from New York to Seattle, the author addresses the challenges she faced in deciding to set down roots, and how her immersion in her natural environment acted as the catalyst for her process.

 

Through Scanlan’s eyes readers will follow hiking trails, observe changing landscapes, and learn the careful art of trying to count and safeguard the Pacific salmon population. Her love for the outdoors and the simple, non-judgmental way in which she describes her activities will have readers reaching for their most comfortable walking shoes and favorite trail mix. Neither snow, nor sleet, nor rain, will be able to keep you indoors. Trust me. I read this in New Jersey in the winter.

Scanlan’s experience is also shaped by her Jewish tradition, and particularly, her commitment to tikkun olam. Her attention to the meaning of this teaching, and explanation of what it means to her as a “hope that meaningful action was possible” brings clarity to her work. Although Scanlan was raised in a religiously observant home, her description of how she came to adopt tikkun olam as her central Jewish belief is remarkably devoid of anger or bitterness. Her respect for the more ritualistic aspects of Jewish life is apparent throughout her story. Scanlan may spend the day of Yom Kippur helping to restock a lake with salmon eggs, but she does so as an action that is meaningful to her. She does not prescribe that others adopt her ideals. Rather, she shows how she discovered and tries to live by what she has learned about her need for home, nature, and faith.

With a writing style reminiscent of Annie Dillard and Anne Lamott, Scanlan’s words have a delicacy that will gently carry readers along on her journey. A short read that can be enjoyed anywhere, it has the power to transport readers to the place they cherish most. Jewish readers may especially appreciate reading it around the holiday of Sukkot, as its themes of shelter, hospitality, and changing seasons will make it especially relevant at that time. As part of a larger adult education class on the value of tikkun olam or the relationship between Judaism and the environment, Turning Homeward will provide a novel and refreshing text.

To connect with Adrienne Ross Scanlan, please visit her website : adrienne-ross-scanlan.com. She is available to talk with book clubs either in person or via Skype. Details can be found at http://adrienne-ross-scanlan.com/book-clubs/. Mountaineer Books is currently offering a 20% discount for this title (all versions) for purchases from their website with the code TURNHOME at checkout when ordering online.

Book Reviews

The Conversations We Never Had – Konis

 

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Book Link

The Conversations We Never Had encompasses the challenges of memory, family, and legacy. A record of the author’s conversations with his grandmother Ola, a Holocaust survivor, in the last few years of her life, Konis presents the delicacy of opening up questions to worlds and experiences, and how uncovering these stories brings ever more questions than answers. The result is bittersweet – the sense of a deepening relationship, a joy in understanding, a relief in forgiveness – and the knowledge that there will always be conversations that haven’t been had, stories that haven’t been told. The Conversations We Never Had showcases the risks and gifts of opening up in a family where the promise of closure is inevitably false.

Since it is written as a series of conversations, Konis maintains the tone of storytelling throughout the book. The almost accidental way in which these conversations began allows some lightness in a way that more planned interviews sometimes lack. This is not a methodical, orderly “History” writ large, but a splendidly messier collection. While Konis’ conversations with Ola follow a chronological arc, they naturally follow tangents, ebb and flow with the comfort of the participants, compounding the realism of the stories. Konis allows himself moments of humor and disbelief, giving readers permission to wonder at the truth, completeness, and motivations of both Konis and Ola in what they share.

Readers with family roots in pre-Holocaust Europe will undoubtedly find a great deal to relate to, and may be inspired to dig deeper into their own stories. A familiarity with the historical context will certainly be helpful to all readers. Readers who are mourning the recent loss of a loved one or who have experienced trauma related to their family’s shared Holocaust stories should carefully consider if this book will not be too triggering.