Book Reviews, Literature

Enchanted Islands – Allison Amend

Enchanted Islands Amend

The question of independence is at the center of Allison Amend’s novel Enchanted Islands. Loosely based on the memoirs of Frances Conway, the book explores the struggle of a woman creating a life for herself, straddling the conventions of her time.

Born to a poor immigrant (Polish) Jewish family in the mid-western US, Frances never quite has a place to call her own. Her friendship with Rosalie, the daughter of an established German Jewish family highlights every limitation, even as she discovers that things are not always as they appear. As young women the two friends leave their hometown together, but after Rosalie’s betrayal, Frances decides to make her future on her own.

Frances remains an isolated character, a position that gives her the freedom to take on her adventure with the military intelligence. Away from society and the constraints of expected behavior, Frances finds a sort of peace. Or gets as close to being comfortable in this world as she is ever going to be.

Amend’s novel has a sense of disarray and incompleteness that complements Frances’ independent spirit. The world is an untidy place, and any single person who must live in it necessarily lives in that messiness. Amend is at her best as a writer describing the natural world of the Galapagos. She captures the connections between the islands and the surrounding trade and political infrastructure with clarity and succeeds in highlighting the uniqueness of her setting.

Readers who enjoy American military and social history will most appreciate this book. Amend’s characterizations of the Jewish community slant towards the cliche and are a weaker aspect of the novel. The diversity of its characters and military connections provides lots of potential for book club discussions. It is difficult to read this book without considering one’s personal experiences and understanding of WWII, the military, the Jewish community and sexism. Readers who are open to allowing Amend to plumb the depths of their memories will be rewarded with an imaginative and touching book. Others will find that they prefer to leave these complexities buried.

Advertisements
Book Reviews, Literature

The Soul of a Thief – Steven Hartov

The Soul of a Thief HartovSteven Hartov’s The Soul of a Thief offers readers an intentionally sparse and unsatisfying story of a young Jewish officer conscripted into the army of the Third Reich. Set in France in the winter of 1944, Stephan Brandt’s commander Colonel Erich Himmel has realized that the Germans are going to lose the war and enlists Shtefan’s help to carry out the plan that will allow him to escape the victor’s justice when the war ends.

Hartov moves the action along at a quick pace, deftly maneuvering between battle scenes, describing the mundane routine of army camp life, and unfolding the love triangle that threatens to undo his hero. Hartov relies on simple language, and it adds a necessary crispness to the narrative. While it may strike some readers as impersonal, in general it helps the reader to understand the objectivity with which Shtefan is trying to tell his story. Shtefan’s role in the army, indeed his whole character, requires that both he and the reader maintain an emotional distance from the events as they unfold. This tension between being willing to acknowledge the depth of feeling and hiding this truth even from yourself ultimately provides the backbone to Hartov’s novel.

While Shtefan’s abstraction keeps readers at arms length, his love interest, the Jewish French woman Gabrielle, grabs the limelight and emerges as the story’s true protagonist. The Soul of a Thief offers readers a portrait of gender and sexual politics that Holocaust and World War Two literature often glosses over. Gabrielle’s connection to her identity and her ability to act with clear intention provides a strong foil to Shtefan’s detachment. I can’t help but wish that Hartov will return to tell us the same story from Gabrielle’s perspective.

This book will most likely appeal more to those who enjoy a good spy thriller than richly detailed historical fiction. The people and their ruses, not lengthy descriptions of the French countryside under occupation, that drive Hartov’s book. Readers hoping for a thoughtful and suspenseful account of one person’s experience will most appreciate The Soul of a Thief.

 

BooksandBlintzes received an electronic copy of this title from NetGalley.com for the purpose of writing this review. The opinions presented belong only the post’s author.

 

Book Reviews

Casting Lots – Susan Silverman

Casting Lots is the story of family. How it is created, what it means to belong, and perhaps most vividly, how it changes with time. In this memoir, author Susan Silverman describes her journey as a mother of internationally adopted children. With exceptional emotional clarity, Silverman writes about how the process of adopting her sons from Ethiopia affected her as an individual, and in all her family roles of wife, birth mother, sister, and daughter. Her attention to these webs of relationships added a deep sense of humility and vulnerability to her writing. Silverman’s willingness to share in such authenticity provided solid grounding to an emotionally powerful book. I do not think it is possible to read this book without reflecting on the roles we play in our own families. Readers should be prepared to make personal discoveries both for the better and the worse.

I received this book as a “Parent’s Choice” through the PJ Library program. As I read it, I especially appreciated the underlying themes of inclusion and the primacy of love in establishing Jewish families. Silverman’s story indirectly, but powerfully, challenges the out-dated and limiting community expectations of nuclear families in Jewish life. In Silverman’s book, our families are built with love, compassion, friendship, and kindness. Understanding does not always come easily. Racism, sexism, and fear are present and painful enemies. The world in which we want to raise our children is not the one we navigate every day.

I suspect that more experienced parents will find more depth in Casting Lots than those just starting out on their parenting journeys. The book has the potential to be a remarkable resource for extended families, provoking meaningful conversations among parents, siblings, and older children. Silverman provides practical and supportive insights into the systems of international adoption, and those considering such a step will likely find it encouraging. And all readers will remember that each of us is capable of feeling and sharing so much more love than we ever thought possible.

Book Reviews, Literature

The Weight of Ink – Rachel Kadish

The Weight of InkFeaturing rich history, beautiful prose, magnetic characters, gender politics, and healthy doses of heresy and mystery, Rachel Kadish’s latest novel The Weight of Ink has it all. Even at 550 pages long the book can barely contain all that Kadish has packed into it, and yet the result is a mesmerizing work of fiction. Personally, it was love at first sight of the cover.

Every aspect of Kadish’s book is artistically nuanced. She maintains an impressive linguistic and cultural authenticity as her narrative moves from England in the 1660s, to the early years of the State of Israel, and 21st century British academia. The most remarkable example of this is the letters that her characters write to one another in the 1660s, and the contrast with the academic papers and emails they write in the 2000s. Kadish nimbly maneuvers between writing styles, adding depth to her storytelling, making the book a pleasure to read.

Although the book is long and complex, it is never boring. To Kadish’s great credit, she portrays each of the characters and settings clearly enough that they remain distinct and easy to follow. The real challenge of this book is following the theological and philosophical arguments that flow across borders and centuries. A minimal background in the history of the English, Dutch, and Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities is tremendously helpful. A minimal background in the theology of Baruch Spinoza, Shabbetai Tzvi’s messianic movement, and academic libraries also makes it easier for the reader. Kadish explains these elements with clarity and concision, and the precision of her historical research is worth celebrating all on its own. The amount of detail in this book makes it necessary to read it very slowly, have the luxury of reading it in several very long stretches, or simply the willingness to read it more than once. I’m happy to be in the last category, although the next time I’m on a long flight this is the book I’m bringing.

On a final note, The Weight of Ink provided the most dynamic conversation of any of my book club’s selections in at least 5 years.  There is so much to talk about in this book, readers would be well advised to make sure they have someone with whom to have these conversations. Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink is simply a book you will want to read and share with everyone you know.

 

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.

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.