Book Reviews, Literature, Poetry

Texts to the Holy – Rachel Barenblat

Texts to the Holy

Rachel Barenblat’s Texts to the Holy approaches some of the most serious topics with the lightest of touches. Barenblat’s linguistic dexterity gently guides her readers through an examination of faith. It is a brilliant example of how words can keep our feet on the ground while our minds and hearts explore more ephemeral ideas.

Barenblat’s poems bridge literature and liturgy, and reading them slowly are a meditative practice. Prayer book editors, clergy, and others who are looking to incorporate contemporary writing into their religious services, may find Barenblat’s work to be exactly what they need.

Barenblat successfully avoids the pitfalls of cliche and over-familiarity, protecting the sophistication of both her subject and writing. The collection will likely resonate more profoundly with a mature reader, acting as an effective foil to one’s personal life and spiritual experience. The close partnership between poetry and reader may mean that this text may be difficult to use in a larger educational setting. However, Barenblat’s work deserves a wide showcase as an example of the power of modern Jewish poetry.

Book Reviews, Literature

My Mother’s Son – David Hirshberg

My Mother's SonDavid Hirsherg’s debut novel My Mother’s Son is a celebration of family in all its complex imperfections. The narrative centers around a retiring radio personality, Joel, telling his own story about growing up in post-war Boston. Local and international politics, the relationships between Joel’s Jewish and other large ethnic communities in the city, a public health crisis, and the drama surrounding the local baseball team all shape his childhood and understanding of his world.

Joel has a strong cast of supporting characters that bring humor, depth, and vibrancy to the young man’s story. The book is as much about how Joel gains maturity in understanding himself as it is about his becoming more aware of the people around him. Hirshberg succeeds in crafting characters with full personalities without allowing them to become caricatures of themselves.

Notwithstanding Harry Potter, it’s been a long time since I the story of a 12 year old boy has engaged me so fully and emotionally as Hirshberg’s novel has done. While there were points in the novel where I wished the author would pick up the pace, I also appreciated that as the story develops, it maintains multiple levels of truths that readers can only tease out slowly. The story of the family develops over generations. It wouldn’t be fair to expect Joel to discover all its intricacies without taking some detours.

Anyone who grew up in a Jewish community in the shadow of the Holocaust will likely find a great deal to relate to in Joel’s story. Anyone with ties to the city of Boston or who has strong memories of major league baseball in the 50s won’t be able to read this book without strong feelings of nostalgia. Even as Joel’s story is very much his own, the family’s immigrant history and network of connections contribute to the universal nature of this book. My Mother’s Son isn’t just the story of Joel and his family, but the story of a generation.

BooksandBlintzes received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this novel from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

 

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

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.