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

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

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.