Some Good Books, Fall 2017 Edition Part 1

The weather is getting cooler and the days are getting shorter, so it’s time to lay low and dig in to some good books. Here are some recommendations from my last batch of reading, with more coming in a separate post soon. I’ve been trying to make my way through the Man Booker shortlist, so the first three here are from that list, along with two others. (Full disclosure: I didn’t read the winning book – maybe more on that in a subsequent post.) Enjoy!

4 3 2 1  by Paul Auster 
41wb0c9MpVLThis magnificent book left me speechless by the end.  Shortlisted for the Man Booker, this novel is impressively muscular, bold, and massive in scale. It’s also very male (yes, there are female characters but they’re always assessed by how much the main character wants to sleep with them), not what I usually love. But love it I did. This is a huge novel, both in terms of page count but also ambition. Auster begins with a character, a sort of Jewish American everyman, born to two parents, grandson to grandparents, none of which is particularly remarkable. Their family history is recounted, including how their family name is arrived at, based on an old Jewish joke we’ve all heard. But from there it gets really interesting, if at moments somewhat confusing (keep plugging through – don’t give up!). Each subsequent chapter is divided into four, as in 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, and so on. Each of those four subchapters is a different trajectory of the life of the main character, four different possible routes through life he could have traveled, depending on circumstances, choices, and quirks of fate. There’s a pinch of Philip Roth, a little John Updike, even some Forest Gumpian travels through American history with the main character being in just the right place at the right moment. Though it may sound contrived, Auster is a master and in his hands this construct is heartbreaking, engaging, funny, and poignant. And by the conclusion, he has brought it all together so elegantly so that it suddenly all makes sense. Don’t be put off by the size – the effort is well worth it. ©©©

History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund

51nKDlBJFKLA Man Booker shortlist title, this is one weird, fairytale-like novel. Written in an almost-but-never-quite-confusing elliptical style that wraps around itself in the telling, this is both  a coming of age story of Linda, a young teenager living a solitary, rural life at the edge of a lake in Northern Minnesota, and also a story about parenting, and how parents do, or don’t, take care of their children. Linda’s parents are former members of a failed commune who stayed on when everyone has left. She lives on a dirt road edged by sumac trees and spends a great deal of her time alone, in the woods or in a canoe. There are two tales of possible wrongdoing at the heart of the plot – a pedophile teacher on whom she develops a strange obsession, even a fondness, and a family of city people who come to stay at their country cabin across the lake with their four year old son Paul. There are hints right from the beginning that tragedy is going to strike, with mentions of a future trial in which Linda will play a role. As the story spins out, with glimpses along the way of Linda’s adult life, she tests out ideas about friendship, loyalty, love, and sexuality. This book is delicately beautiful, in a way that seems like it might crumble when touched, and yet there is a tough center at the heart of it that holds it all together. ©©

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid 

5158SOMkg7LHaving read this long before the Man Booker list was published, I was thrilled to see it wind up on the shortlist (its also a finalist for the Kirkus Prize). This hauntingly gorgeous novel could not be more timely, which is quite a feat given how long it takes to write and publish a novel. This one too had a fairy tale quality to it – almost like a modern day refugee version of Hansel and Gretel. Nadia and Saeed are two young people who meet in a city in a middle eastern country. At first their lives are almost recognizably universal as they study, work, smoke pot, and become increasingly intimate. But things change quickly as the unrest of civil war dramatically changes the landscape of their city and their lives. Soon their lives have turned upside down as they deal with checkpoints, violence, scarcity, and fear. Like so many others in that situation, they decide they have to leave and get out to the West, and they discover a network of secret doors that lead to other countries. The technique of metaphoric made real employed by Hamid is similar to the model used in Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead in which he envisions an actual railroad running underneath the ground to take slaves to safety. There are no boats or planes or weeks of walking to get to the West, here there are actual doorways that open up onto new vistas and possibilities, though not always with expected outcomes. Nadia and Saeed make their way through several landings as they cope with the uncertainty of life as unwanted strangers. Each exit and entrance changes them, and they painfully figure out how become themselves in the process. ©©©

Anything is Possibleby Elizabeth Strout 

51aLxQqr2ILIt’s always a good day when there’s a new Elizabeth Strout book published, and this one is based on a particularly delicious construct. In her most recent book before this one, My Name is Lucy BartonStrout wrote about a woman who had left a troubled family background to move to New York, where she marries, has children, and eventually winds up in the hospital. While in the hospital, her estranged mother comes to visit her and they talk about people they know from back home. This novel, Anything is Possible, is about those people whose names dot the pages of My Name is Lucy Barton, as does Lucy herself. This book is really a collection of loosely connected stories about all the different people spoken about by Lucy and her mother, including her sister and brother. And many of the stories recounted here connect in different ways to Lucy and the persona of Lucy, that is, someone who left their hometown to go to New York and write books, someone who “got out.”. There is even a reference to a character going into a local bookstore and seeing Lucy’s book, with the cover described exactly as the actual cover of My Name is Lucy Barton. Strout has created a complete ecosystem with these two books that ping off of each other. But even without the connection to My Name is Lucy Barton, these tales are beautiful, moving, and so intricately, precisely, heartbreakingly crafted. ©©©

Stay With Me, by Ayobami Adebay0

41AWMZPIADLSet in Nigeria, this energetic first novel tells the story of a marriage from the perspective of both the wife and the husband. Yejide and Akin meet as students and fall in love, despite familial and societal pressures that might keep them apart. And yet a simple romance this is not. There is a secret, or really a series of secrets, at the heart of this marriage that is revealed little by little as the story progresses, and it is only at the end that all becomes clear. It is above all a love story of two people trying to protect each other and themselves, a story of passion and shame and the falsehoods we tell in order to keep everything from crashing down around us. And as the narrative switches perspectives back and forth, it is also a tragic story of how much can go wrong between women and men when pride and customs and historic cultural norms and gender roles get in the way of trust and open communication. The writing is full of beautiful descriptions of longing and sensuality, the way people look at and see each other, and what happens over time as a result of deep anger, grief, and hurt. I look forward to seeing more from this author. ©©

Rating System

©©© – Amazing Book, dazzling, blew me away

©© – Great Book, deeply satisfying

© – Good Book, but I wanted it to be even better

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We’re All In This Boat Together – Rosh HaShanah, 2017

This is my sermon from the Rosh HaShanah evening service at Congregation B’nai Olam in Fire Island Pines, NY. I’m posting it here by request, with thanks to my readers and editors, to those who provided inspiration, and to those who listened to it with open minds and hearts. 

IMG_1085It was finally time. Shlomo and his husband Shimi had been planning this trip for so long. And they both really needed a vacation. The day of the trip, they were so excited they could hardly wait to board the ship.

They got to the port easily and boarded. Everything was going well – the sun was shining, the water was a sparkly blue, the seats were comfortable, the view was spectacular.

Shlomo leaned back against Shimi and smiled. “This is so lovely,” he said. “Thanks for making this happen.”

And Shimi smiled back. “It will be so nice to relax for a while.”

They were far out at sea when Shlomo looked over at a man across from him. At first he thought he was seeing things, but then he realized, no, the man across from him indeed had a drill. And he was drilling a hole beneath his seat.

Shlomo leapt up and called out, “Hey, what are you doing?”

The man turned to Shlomo and said, “Don’t worry, I’m only drilling under my own seat, not yours.”

Shimi saw what was going on, and jumped up too. “Please, don’t do that!”

The man ignored them and kept at it.

“Stop that right now!” Shlomo yelled.

The man turned to Shlomo and Shimi. “What business is it of yours what I do to my seat?” he asked.

“Please stop,” Shlomo pleaded.

Again the man brushed him off. “I like to see the water underneath me when I travel. What do you care? I’m not touching your seats.”

Shlomo turned to Shimi. “What should I do?” he whispered. “I want us to have a nice vacation.”

“I know,” Shimi whispered back. “But we have to get him to stop.”

So again Shlomo tried to stop the man. “What you’re doing makes no sense. It’s dangerous.”

The man still went on drilling. “Stay out of my affairs!” he yelled at Shlomo and Shimi. “This is my seat, I paid for it, and I have the right to do what I want to it!”

Again, Shlomo and Shimi exchanged looks.

“Sir, you must stop right now!” Shlomo said.

The man looked up. “Go enjoy your vacation. Go find other seats. Go do whatever you want, but mind your own business. Why can’t you leave me alone?”

“But don’t you realize,” Shlomo asked, “That if you drill under your own seat, the water will rise up through the hole and flood the whole boat. What you’re doing endangers us all.”

(adapted from Midrash Rabbah, Lev 4:6)

This ancient Jewish story comes to us from the midrash – with a little modern spin of course. But I didn’t choose it just to share a sweet Jewish folktale – there’s something profound embedded in this story.

Jews have long understood that we’re all in this together. We understand that the hole under your seat in the boat will sink us all. Over and over, throughout the Torah, we are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the orphans and widows. Thirty-six different times the Torah tell us to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. In the context of the time it was written, the Torah teaches that everyone in a society is bound up together, that the fate of some is the fate of all, and that the powerful have a responsibility to help the powerless. Our sages understood that when one suffers, we all suffer.

Another story. It’s a Friday night at the synagogue. An angry mob marches by. The synagogue calls the police and asks for protection, but are turned down. The police have their hands full and protecting the synagogue doesn’t really seem like a big deal given what else is going on. But as this mob marches past the synagogue, they chant “the Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil.” They threaten to burn down the synagogue. That evening the synagogue goes on lock down until they can safely get everyone out the building. Thinking the worst is over, on Saturday morning the congregation gathers again for services – there’s a bar mitzvah. And meanwhile, armed militants carrying swastikas on flags march around the building yelling “Sieg Heil.” And more of the chants of the night before – “Jews will not replace us.” “Blood and soil.” And as the mob outside swells in numbers, the synagogue chooses to quietly, carefully, take the Torahs out the back door and drive them away to safety. Havdalah services are cancelled because they decide it is too risky for Jews to gather together. This story is not from Germany, circa 1937. This happened a few weeks ago, in Charlottesville, Virginia. This story happened in 2017, here, in this country, land of the free and home of the brave.[i]

I’m not an alarmist. In my almost 20 years as a rabbi I have never given a sermon about antisemitism. But things have changed so much since we were together here a year ago. I never in my life thought something like what happened in Charlottesville could ever happen again, and certainly not in this country. And yet what was unimaginable a year ago has happened.

Antisemitism is alive and well in an America in which racism and bigotry are becoming more and more mainstream and normalized. Along with the national rise in hate crimes, this past year has seen there has been a tremendous rise in antisemitic incidents in schools, playgrounds, cemeteries, and synagogues across America. Suddenly it’s become clear that we’re in the boat too, that this boat is surrounded by racists and misogynists and homophobes and transphobes and science-deniers and white supremacists and the KKK and antisemites, and that it’s taking on water. And we have a choice to make about how we’re going to respond.

It’s not that I didn’t know antisemitism existed. But I naively felt that, for the most part, at least in the United States, antisemitism was part of history. Unlike the world into which our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents were born, as Jews most of us experience tremendous privilege and great opportunities. I’m not saying that everything about our lives is good and easy – not at all – but it’s probably fair to say that for most of us, being Jewish has not been the thing that’s gotten in the way.

I didn’t raise my children to be afraid as Jews and I didn’t raise them to define their Jewish identities in relationship to anti-Semitism. That is, as a rabbi, as a Jew, as a mother, I’ve always felt strongly that Jewish identity should be based on pride in Jewish values and history and accomplishments, in the enjoyment of living a Jewish life of holidays and rituals and yes, good food, and not as a response to the ugly reality of anti-Semitism.

Jewish identity should be about joy, about love, about pride – about how the foundational values and customs of Judaism enhance our lives and give it meaning, not about how we’re hated, not about our suffering. “Because they hate us” is not a good enough reason to be Jewish. We should be proud to be Jewish for the positive reasons: because being Jewish brings us joy, because it brings meaning and purpose to our lives, because we love the music or the sacred texts or the food or the jokes or the culture of study and question-asking or the tradition of storytelling or the drive to make the world a better place.

I put it to you that in these precarious times, just to be proudly Jewish is a form of protest. In this new year, even as we work to keep the ship from sinking, fight antisemitism on a personal level by owning your Judaism, by taking pride in it, by being a Jew publicly. Even as we work to help others stay afloat, find a reason and a new way to claim your Jewish identity. Even as we reach out a hand to the drowning, use core Jewish values as a way to frame the choices you make in your life. For that too is a form of resistance.

But these steps are not the end of what it means to own our Jewish identity.

That day in Charlottesville tore the lid off the quiet contagion of anti-Semitism in America that had been festering in the dark. Anti-Semitism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Where’s the antisemitism, there’s white supremacy, racism, homophobia, and bigotry of all kinds.

When rights are taken away from anyone, they’re taken away from everyone.

When hate is allowed to flourish, it pollutes us all.

Intolerance and hate and the deliberate diminishing of equality under the law are infections that threaten the freedom of us all.

There can be no moral equivalency when it comes to hate and its accompanying violence – it is simply wrong and must be condemned. When a moral equivalence is made about groups whose mission is hate and intolerance and exclusion, and those who protest such groups, we are all harmed. There is no excuse and no context that makes that kind of comparison acceptable in a democracy founded on the principles of equal rights for all.

Even as we respond to antisemitism by living our Judaism out loud and without fear, we must also find common ground with others who find themselves on the receiving end of hate, racism, and suspicion, even if we don’t completely agree with their outlook or values. It is our responsibility to remember that there are people with fewer resources than we have, and less recourse than we do, who rights are threatened or being taken away. Our tradition is clear:

Im ain ani li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? – We must speak up for ourselves.

And if I am only for myself, what am I? – But we can’t only be for ourselves. We have a responsibility to help others.

So in this new year, it is time for us to show up for others as we also commit to showing up and speaking up for ourselves. As we enter this annual period of reflection and self-examination, we must ask: How can I fight antisemitism by taking pride in being a Jew? Or, because I know we have many beloved participants here who aren’t Jewish, what role can you play in eradicating this disease of anti-Semitism? But it doesn’t stop there. Because we know what it is to be hated, to be feared, to be oppressed, to be a stranger, and because Judaism demands of us that we respond with compassion and justice, we must go on to ask: what more can I do to fight hate and intolerance against all people? What role can I play in speaking up for the powerless or voiceless? If not us, then who? And if not now, when?

[i] https://reformjudaism.org/blog/2017/08/24/you-think-it-couldnt-happen-your-synagogue-so-did-i

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Pussy Grabs Back Deviled Eggs for Passover

IMG_0773I don’t like vulgarity. I love words – written, read, spoken. My professional life as a rabbi and an editor is based on words and their import. Words and how they’re used matter, and are to be carefully considered.

When my kids were small, I was that principled mother who insisted on using the proper words for body parts, not euphemisms. And later I was that feminist mother of teenagers who insisted on not using words that demean women. It’s true that I often use a certain “inappropriate” swear word for emphasis. Admittedly, it’s not one of my better qualities, especially at work, and especially given my profession. I like to say that I use it because I’m from the mean streets of Brooklyn, before Brooklyn was cool, as if that gives me license.  Truthfully though, my fancy private school education belies any right I have to speak like that, despite my Brooklyn origins – I do indeed know better. But to me – rightly or wrongly – the use of that word always seemed different than using female-gendered words in demeaning ways. The words “pussy” or “cunt” (I can’t believe I even just typed those words!) has always greatly bothered me, in particular when used to disparage people of any gender. Somewhat prudishly, I had a hard time even saying those words.

And then suddenly “pussy” entered our national vocabulary. We had to hear a presidential candidate talk about pussy grabbing on an endless recorded loop that played for days. We thought, we hoped, that on Election Day we would grab back and show him a thing or two about the power of pussy – that pussy could grab back. We weren’t going to let him and those other misogynist predators out there own our agency or run our government.

My sister and niece at the March with the pussyhats I knit for them.

My sister and niece at the March with friends, in the pussyhats I knit for them.

And then Election Day came and as shock set in, resistance started to bubble up to the surface. Women’s marches were planned not only around the country but around the world, and someone came up with the idea for pussyhats (thank you Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman).  I started to knit, and I started to use the word pussy in every day conversation as we processed what was happening.

I’ve become much more comfortable using the word pussy now as a way to hold, rather than lose, power. And so for Passover, the holiday that is about counting our blessings, celebrating our agency as free people, and calling out injustice, and that is also a holiday about using food to tell our stories, I created a new dish: Pussy Grabs Back deviled eggs. They’re hard boiled eggs marinated in pickled beets so they turn pink, filled with a beet/yolk mixture with a kick of jalapeño and decorated with their own little pussyhats.


Pussy Grabs Back: Deviled Eggs with a Kick 

1 dozen eggs, hard boiled and peeled

1 cup apple cider vinegar

2 Tbsp sugar

1 tsp salt

4 cooked and peeled beets

1/4 cup mayo

1/4 cup strong mustard

1 jalapeno pepper, cut up, or to taste (depending on how spicy you like it)

1. Boil 2 of the beets with the vinegar, sugar, salt. Once it reaches a boil, let it cool. The liquid should be bright pink.

2. When the liquid is cooled, place the peeled, hardboiled eggs into the liquid. Let the eggs sit in the liquid, refrigerated, for several hours or overnight.

3, Removed the eggs and discard the liquid. They eggs should now be tinted pink. Slice the eggs in half and placed yolks in a bowl.

4. Chop the remaining 2 beets. Reserve 1/2 a beet and add the rest to the yolks. Add in mayo, mustard, and jalapeño. Mix together well with hand mixer or in food processor.

5. Spoon or pipe the yolk/beet filling into the eggs.

6. Cut the remaining 1/2 a beet into small chunks, and then divide the chunks into triangles. Decorate each of the egg fillings with two triangles.

Refrigerate until you’re ready to serve.

 

 

 

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Filed under Feminism, Passover, Recipe, reproductive rights

Nevertheless, She Persisted: A New Passover Dish

IMG_0724This year there will be an additional vegetable dish on my seder table, a colorful, savory roasted cauliflower pie called Nevertheless, She Persisted. It’s an homage to the too-often underestimated cauliflower, as well as a shout-out of gratitude to the women who persist every day, under all kinds of conditions, and often against those who underestimate their strength.

Passover only comes once a year but it is a defining piece of what home means to me. Over the years I have figured out how to cram the maximum number of people in my house for seder. It’s admittedly not the most comfortable seating, it’s crowded and noisy, but the guests keep coming back so it can’t be too terrible. When I was briefly thinking about moving last year, one of the main considerations of a new place to live was that it be large enough for seder. A crazy consideration given that it’s one night a year, but there it is.

I prepare for weeks, with everything spreadsheeted out, lists made and crossed off, multiple runs to different stores, the freezer at full capacity. I bow in humility to those who do it all in two or three days. Me, I can’t do it without major obsessive planning and preparation.

The menu stays more or less the same from year to year, with a few innovations here and there that get woven into the mix. It’s a meat meal, for which this vegetarian concedes to cook (meaning: buy, touch, and interact with) meat in act of love for the family and guests. I’ve never tasted my brisket, but they seem to like it and ask for more.

While the menu hasn’t changed much, what has changed dramatically in the last few years is the definition of family. In recent years, and in what felt like one fell swoop, I went from being part of a grouping of four, to one. As a result, I’ve begun to think about ways to keep the seder familiar, while also making it more “mine”.

So this year I decided to try something a little different. I’m still making all the standards that appear on the menu every year, but I’m adding something for myself.

I’ve been asked by many over the last few years if I was going to move, if I was going to sell my house, if I was going to stop doing seder. Isn’t it a lot to manage by myself, I’m asked. And the answer to all of those is – yes, it is a lot to manage, all of it by myself, but no, I’m not moving and I’m not giving up hosting seder. Maybe someday, but not yet. In the meantime, I’m learning, and I’m adapting. My skill set has grown dramatically, as has my toolbox, both literally and figuratively. My ability to graciously accept help when it’s offered has also increased, and I’m learning that paying for help is sometimes ok as well.

That brings me back to the cauliflower pie. Though it’s often overlooked and certainly often overcooked, cauliflower is quite a glorious, versatile, and nutritious vegetable. This new dish for my seder table is a bold, colorful, and fiery dish that draws on spices from different pockets of Jewish history and is deeply satisfying, while being fairly light and healthy (it’s also carb-free, and therefore gluten free). From my perspective, there’s no such thing as too much cauliflower, and it’s a good antidote to the usual heavy, meat-focused Passover dishes. And given the state of the United States at the moment, there’s also no such thing as paying too much attention to women’s roles, women’s voices, women’s rights, and our bold, colorful, fiery persistence against those would underestimate our strength.

Roasted Cauliflower Pie

2 heads of cauliflower

3 Tbsps sweet paprika

1 Tbsp cumin

4 shallots, chopped

4 garlic cloves, chopped

Olive oil

8 eggs

2 Tbsps chopped parsley

salt and pepper

  1. Cut cauliflower into florets. Place in Ziploc bag with 2 Tbsps paprika, cumin, salt, and olive oil, enough to coat the cauliflower. Close the bag and shake until all the florets are a nice reddish yellow.
  2. Oil a cookie sheet and toss the cauliflower onto the pan. Spray some oil on top of the florets as well. Roast at 425 until they’re starting to brown.
  3. While they’re roasting, sauté chopped shallots and garlic in oil until golden.
  4. In a bowl, beat eggs. Add in chopped parsley, shallot and garlic mixture, and remaining Tbsp of paprika. Add salt and pepper. Mix well.
  5. When cauliflower is roasted, placed into oiled baking dish. Pour egg mixture on top and make sure all the cauliflower is covered.
  6. Bake at 350 for an hour or until all the egg is cooked and browned at the edges.

 

 

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Spring, Hope, and Passover Pistachio Lemon Cookies

IMG_0091Renewal. Rebirth. Green shoots breaking through the dirt. Known also as Chag HaAviv, “the Spring Holiday,” Passover is part religious ritual, part people-building exercise, and part springtime rite.

Whether it arrives in cold, rainy March, or flowerful April, Passover always manages to lift my heart. Its arrival reminds me to hold on to hope, no matter how dreary the winter has been, no matter how gloomy things look. Hope, Passover teaches, is right around the corner. The days will get longer, the flowers will bloom, things can get better.

After a very difficult personal year in which I didn’t know what the contours of my life were going to look like, I decided to plant bulbs in my garden. I didn’t even know at that time that I’d still be in that very house to see them come up months later in the spring, but it was a stubborn act of hope in the future. And by that next spring I got to see the flowers burst into glorious color right in time for Passover.

This Passover recipe is one of my favorites because of the bright green color, and the lemony flavor and smell. These cookies taste of spring, and hope. Pistachios are an ancient near eastern food, mentioned in the Bible, and feature prominently in Persian Jewish cooking. They speak of our historical past – where we’ve been and the resilience we’ve managed to harness to get from there to here, despite the obstacles. And the yellow lemons speak to the potential that the future holds – the possibility of brightness and light, the warm sunshine of the coming spring and summer.

Now it’s a year later and it’s been another difficult winter, but this time on a national and international level. Our national leadership has dramatically shifted and suddenly women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, climate justice, and much more are under attack. Ant-semitism is on the rise. We’re living in a world of alternative facts and cowardly leadership. And while refugees are being denied entry to this country and children are washing up on beaches, we’re bombing Syria for “moral reasons.” My bulbs are coming up again but the world is upside down.

Needless to say, these cookies are not going to solve the world’s problems. But they do provide balm for the soul and some hope for the future. And maybe that hope can give us strength to keep doing our part to heal this broken world.

Pistachio Lemon Passover CookiesIMG_0723

 6 c ground pistachios

6 egg whites

2 c sugar

Juice of one lemon

rind from 2 lemons

  1. In mixer, combine ground nuts, eggs whites, lemon juice and sugar.
  2. Grate rind from two washed lemons and fold into mixture.
  3. Use cookie scoop or spoon to place on pan lined with parchment paper.
  4. Bake at 325 until brown around the edges.

Makes about 5 dozen cookies. (And they’re gluten-free!)

 

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Some Good Books, Fall 2016 Edition Part II

Sometimes escaping into a good book is just the right thing to do. To that end, here are some good books to explore as the weather gets colder and the world gets darker. Unintentionally, there are interconnected themes in this particular group of books which make them interesting to read back to back. There’s a lot about mothers and daughters, or the absence of mothers and what that does to daughters. There are also connected threads about what it is to be a girl, and what it is to be an adult woman. And in the midst of all that, there’s one very brawny, very masculine book. There’s so much work to be done in the world, but time to renew and refresh the soul and the imagination is important too. Grab a blanket. Dig in.

The Summer Without Menby Siri Hustvedt  ©©©

41ovnmq2uel-_sx337_bo1204203200_Poet Mia Frederickson is forced to re-examine her life after her husband of many years surprises her with the news that he wants to take a break from their marriage. After a breakdown and hospitalization in a psychiatric ward, Mia goes to spend the summer in her hometown near her mother, a resident in a senior home. The book brings together interwoven strands of Mia’s life that summer, as she gets to know women at different moments of the life cycle. There is her mother’s group of friends at the home, known as the Five Swans, fiery, creative, and opinionated women at the end of their lives who have created a new community with each other out of loss and change, one of whom Mia creates a particular bond with. There is her younger neighbor, a mother of two small children in a bad marriage to an angry, mostly absent man. And then there are Mia’s poetry students, a group of adolescent girls who prey on each other’s vulnerabilities while trying to articulate their angst and aspirations. It is all of these women, as well as Mia’s daughter back home, who are present in the summer landscape of Mia’s life as she tries to pick up the pieces and figure out what comes next. As the title indicates, men are offstage, though the shadow of Mia’s husband looms large. So too does another disembodied male, Mia’s mysterious philosphically-inclined texter. This brainy, literary novel is full of well-placed references to books and poetry, but it’s really about the texture of women’s lives, and the role of men in those lives.

Hystopiaby David Means  ©©©

51sgtorydgl-_sx331_bo1204203200_This Man Booker longlist title is a hard but rewarding read. This is a book within a book, ostensibly written by returned Vietnam vet Eugene Allen who needs to find a way to give voice to his wartime experience as well as personal pain. The period is the late 60’s, and JFK is still the president, having survived several attempts on his life. The country, like its president, is wounded and grim, hopelessly enmeshed in Vietnam for the foreseeable future. The government has established the Pysch Corps, an agency assigned with managing the mental hygiene of a traumatized nation. An complicated system, involving drugs and therapy, has been developed to help returning soldiers deal with their horrific memories and emotional scars. Meanwhile Michigan has been set aside as a territory for those vets too shattered by their Vietnam experiences to function in open society. The plot is complicated and circular, but the themes of freedom, memory, and trauma create a powerful vision of the destruction we cause not only to those we fight in wars in faraway lands but also in our own society while at war. There’s a macho, muscular quality to this novel which fits well into the war novel genre, but underneath that is some real tenderness.

The Mothers, by Brit Bennett ©©©

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This soaring first novel by Bennett is, as the title reveals, about mothers. The lack of mothers, poor mothering, the inability to be a mother, good mothers, communal mothers, the choice not to become a mother, the unexpected reality of motherhood. All kinds of mothers dance through the pages of this novel about Nadia Turner, a now motherless teenager about to go off to college. Nadia’s mother has abandoned her, taking her own life without even leaving a note or a clue to why. Nadia knows that her mother’s own life took a sharp turn when she accidentally became pregnant with Nadia, and she is tortured by the idea that she was her mother’s undoing. Their church, the Upper Room, is the center of their small black community in Southern California. Nadia’s father is a regular at the church, where there a group of older women, the mothers, who look after the community. Their voices form a kind of Greek chorus throughout the book, commenting on what they say and what they think they know. Nadia has a summer fling with Luke, the pastor’s son, who walks away from her when she becomes pregnant. This sets off a chain of events that impacts on many lives around them. During that last summer at home before she sets off for the rest of her life, making it out of the community due to her intelligence and good grades, she becomes fast friends with Aubrey, another motherless girl. But their lives are full of secrets that grow in the spaces left by their unmotheredness, until the secrets spill out and threaten the stability not only of their lives but of the lives of the church and the community. Bennett has created a compelling story and strong characters, and there are some amazing lines that make the whole book worth it even with those other plusses.

The Girlsby Emma Cline  ©©
517fj1m6rjl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Evie Boyd is a bored, awkward teenager in California in the late 1960’s.  Her parents are wrapped up in their own post-divorce lives, and don’t have a lot of time for her. Meanwhile the wold is in upheaval and societal norms are being questioned out beyond the confines of Evie’s existence. She yearns for something more meaningful than her mercurial friends and the embarrassing crush she has on her best friend’s older brother. When she comes across a group of older girls living in a nearby commune led by a charismatic man, she is attracted to the thrill of being part of their group. She is drawn to their abandonment of norms, and their aura of freedom. There is one girl in particular who fascinates her, Suzanne, on whom she develops an obsessive crush. She so wants her approval and attention that she will do anything Suzanne asks. Craving acceptance and nearness to Suzanne, Evie becomes increasingly drawn in to the group and their unique approach to right and wrong. What starts with a sense of summer-camp like fun becomes increasingly desperate and dangerous, until she winds up in the middle of the kind of horror from which there is no coming back. This novel manages to both portray the quotidian loneliness of a teenage girl and her desire for approval, while also depicting the kind of group-think that leads to acts of terrible violence.

Eileenby Ottessa Moshfegh  ©©

51pxzi2ebdl-_sx328_bo1204203200_Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this strange, creepy novel was a gripping read. On the very first page the narrator tells the reader that this is story of how she disappeared. There is no suspense, therefore, in the final outcome, but there is great suspense in the how and why. The main character, Eileen Dunlop, lives with her abusive, alcoholic father. He is delusional, a retired cop who sees people out to get him in the shadows. He can’t be trusted to go outside and so Eileen hides his shoes in an attempt to keep him at home, running out to the liquor store as needed to keep him well-suppplied with gin. Their life together is one of misery, played out against a backdrop of Eileen’s mother’s death, a disgustingly dirty house, mean spirited conversation and accusations, and repressed urges. Eileen works as a secretary at a private correctional facility for boys, where she is essentially ignored and overlooked. Her friendless life is about as grim as possible until a new teacher arrives at work. Rebecca Saint John is everything Eileen is not – beautiful, charming, captivating. Eileen is completely taken in by Rebecca’s attentions. She is so enthralled, hungry for companionship, and flattered by Rebecca’s interest in her that she gets pulled in to a scenario beyond her control. That fateful event provides the spark that Eileen needs to instantly leave her life behind forever. It is only as a much older woman that, as the narrator of this story, she looks back and remembers what was.

Hot Milkby Deborah Levy ©©

51fjvtjak1l-_sx329_bo1204203200_This novel about a tortured and torturing relationship between a mother and daughter was another Man Booker Shortlist book. Reading this book was a claustrophobic experience, which may admittedly say more about me than the book itself, but it was not a pleasurable read. But I can see why it’s gotten so much praise. This is a textured, smart book about the power of mothers over daughters, and about the need for daughters to break free. Sofia is a mess, an anthropologist whose life is stalled. She spends her days caring for her mother’s endless maladies and trying to figure them out. These maladies are described in such a way that it really isn’t clear whether her mother is indeed quite sick physically, or if the issues are primarily psychological – and it doesn’t really matter because either way, her mother is in charge. Her mother, abandoned by Sofia’s father, can’t walk, among other things. She has literally lost the ability to move forward without Sofia’s help. They travel to a special clinic on the sunny coast of Spain for treatment, and while there Sofia begins to consider her own needs and write her own future. The deeply stifled rage of each of the main characters radiates off the pages. That this was a painful read surely attests to the power of the writing.

Rating System

©©© – Amazing Book, dazzling, blew me away

©© – Great Book, deeply satisfying

© – Good Book, but I wanted it to be even better

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Some Good Books, Fall 2016 Edition Part I

It’s been a tough few weeks and doesn’t look like it’s going to be getting any better for at least four years. There’s a lot to do. But we also need to take care of ourselves.  Even as we begin to figure out what part we’re going to play in the months and years to come, we have to keep feeding our minds and souls. So read a book. Or two. Or five. Here are some suggestions. More to come soon.

The Underground Railroadby Colson Whitehead  ©©©

61m3xrjb9ll-_sx327_bo1204203200_This gorgeous, heartbreaking book was on President Obama’s summer reading list and it’s not hard to see why he thought it was a worthwhile read. (Remember when we had a president who read books?). In this novel, Whitehead takes on our shameful history of slavery in America. But this is not simply a tale of victimization and cruelty. Whitehead’s characters, especially Cora, a motherless girl on the edge of womanhood on a Georgia plantation, are the center of this story of survival and resilience. Slavery and racism are the reality in which this novel is set, but this is a tale of struggle, kindness, and hope in the midst of horror. As Whitehead’s characters come to life on the page, so too does the mechanism of escape, the underground railroad, itself a full-blown character in the book. The dream of a way out of oppression and degradation is so real for the characters that the escape route itself becomes real, an actual railroad with train cars that zigzags underneath the earth on its way toward freedom. Danger is the constant companion of hope, both as real as the tracks that lay hidden underneath homes and streets and mountains. There are many Americas in this book, an idea that is even more resonant in this post-election season of sorrow. Whitehead depicts head on the blindness with which the slave era was afflicted that allowed some people to believe that all humans were not equal and to thus treat other people as property without rights or agency, a legacy that lives with us still.  Whitehead shines a light on these different Americas that existed within close prolixity to each other, and are times literally just below or above or out the window or behind a wall, but were hidden from each other unless you know where to look. This novel reminds us not only how far we have from the days of slavery, but how far we still have to go to break down the barriers that exist in this country.

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett  ©©©

51xlrajhsxl-_ac_us160_At a recent book talk, Patchett revealed that this powerful novel is based on her family. That fact is all the more meaningful once you’ve read the book and know that, among other things, the story contained within Commonwealth involves a book that gets written about the family in the book. So yes, it’s a book about a family about a book about a family. When talking about how much of it was really about her family, she had a great comment: None of it is real, and all of it is true. That’s just a perfect way to talk about writing fiction. But this novel is much more – it is complex, involved, and has a long arc. It starts with a wonderfully random, mundane moment – a lawyer shows up with a bottle of gin at a christening part for the baby daughter of a cop he doesn’t really know. It is a moment that winds up changing the trajectory of many lives, ending marriages, starting other marriages, and the naming of a child. Siblings, love, trust, guns, and Benadryl are all important themes that run through this richly woven novel of moments that on their own often seen quotidian, but add up together to a beautifully complex portrayal of family connections, alliances, and betrayals over several generations. Patchett is a master of imbuing the mundane with enormous consequences, and revealing how one seemingly insignificant act can dramatically shift the course of many lives.

H Is for Hawkby Helen Macdonald  ©©©

51fjfqmnabl-_sx327_bo1204203200_I don’t typically read nonfiction in my free time, as that is how I spend much of my work life.  But I made an exception for this book upon the enthusiastic recommendations of two smart friends who are both great readers. They were right – it was worth it. (Also, it’s on many best book of the year lists and a finalist for many awards, so they weren’t alone in their enthusiasm for this book). Helen Macdonald is a British academic who became unglued by the death of her father. In the midst of despair, she decides to go through with a long deferred dream to get a hawk and train it.  There is much beautiful description in the book about the joy and agony of training her hawk, Mabel, and wonderful connections to T.H White and his fascination with hawks. As an adolescent I was captivated by White’s Once and Future King and still vividly remember Merlyn transforming Wart, who would later become King Arthur, into a hawk as part of his training to become a good and worthy king. So I loved all the Arthurian and T.H. White references. But putting those specifics aside, this is really a book about grief. Throughout the process of obtaining and training Mabel, Macdonald is in deep mourning. She experiences periods of significant self-doubt and feelings of worthlessness, all familiar parts of coming to terms with loss. Her connection to Mabel and her single-minded dedication to training the hawk ultimately being her back into a life whose contours have been permanently reshaped. This may sound very odd, but it is a magnificent, if quirky, depiction of the anguish of losing a loved one, and is well worth the read.

The Guineveres, by Sarah Domet  ©©

unknownIn a great coincidence, four girls named Guinevere all wind up at the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent school. Each girl is called something different – there is a Gwen, a Vere, a Ginny, and a Win – but it is their common name that brings these four unwanted girls together.  In the austere school run by nuns, the girls form a tight friendship that helps them manage the severity of their daily life, and deal with having been abandoned by their families. Each girl has an origin story which unfolds over the course of the novel, and each story is heartbreakingly sad. These origin stories are woven together with imagined and extraordinary stories of heroic but tragic women saints. Together the girls plot their emergence into the world upon turning eighteen, and buoy each other’s daily existence. They get into trouble and cover for each other, share fantasies about life outside the convent and reassure each other that someday their lives will be better. Things begin to change when four severely wounded, unidentified soldiers are brought to the hospital wing of the convent to convalesce.  The girls each adopt a comatose solider, hoping that he will be their ticket out, and imagine themselves to be in love. These soldiers without names or identities are blank slates upon whom the Guineveres can write their own fantasies. Desperate for affection, these girls lavish love on their soldiers, refusing to believe that the futures of these young men are bleak at best, for they desperately need something to give them hope. Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say that futures never turn out as expected. But this is a beautiful tale of friendships that blossom out of sadness and desperation, and of the ways that hope and love grow in the crevices of suffering.

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi  ©©

51urygarell-_sx328_bo1204203200_This book is both a great family story spanning several generations, and also a wonderful look into life in the pre-State and early statehood years in Jerusalem. Written originally in Hebrew, this novel was a bestseller in Israel. The story centers around four generations of women in a Sephardic Jewish family. The narrator, Gabriela, is desperate to learn more about her mother Luna, a beautiful but distant figure who never loved her the way a mother should. She has heard about a curse on the women of the family, and she sets out to investigate. Her journey through the family history takes her into stories about her great-grandmother Mercada, a healer, and her grandmother Rosa, who cleaned houses for the British. The history of Jerusalem, and the language and culture of the Sephardic Jews of Jerusalem, are also themselves significant characters in this novel. Yishai-Levi paints a rich and detailed picture of a culture and way of life at a particular time in history. As Gabriela sifts through the family history, she uncovers hidden scars, painful secrets, and ill-fated love stories deeply intertwined with time and place. Each of the four generations has lived through a time of great change and tragedy, and each has reacted to it differently. If you’re interested in Jewish history, or in the history of Jerusalem, or just looking for a compelling inter-generational story, this one is highly recommended.

Rating System

©©© – Amazing Book, dazzling, blew me away

©© – Great Book, deeply satisfying

© – Good Book, but I wanted it to be even better

 

 

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A Sukkot Harvest Recipe: Balsamic Roasted Squash With Pears and Pecans

foliageWhen my kids were growing up, we put up a sukkah every year. It wasn’t necessarily the most beautiful or creative sukkah, but there it was, in our Brooklyn backyard. In the last few years, as my life has taken some unexpected turns and the kids have gone off to college, I haven’t had a sukkah. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t bring Sukkot to my table. A weekend spent in the midst of the beautiful fall foliage in Massachusetts was a great opportunity to bring some fresh squash home.  This hearty and aromatic fall dish is a perfect addition to a Sukkot meal. It will also make your kitchen smell amazing.

Balsamic Roasted Squash with Pear and Pecans 

Preheat oven to 425.

  1. squash-dish1 medium to large delicate squash
  2. 1 large, firm pear
  3. 1 onion
  4. 1 Tablespoon baharat (a middle eastern spice blend that typically includes cinnamon, cloves, allspice, coriander, cumin, and pepper)
  5. 2 Tablespoons crumbled pecans
  6. 2 teaspoons balsamic glaze
  7. Olive Oil
  8. Salt and pepper
  9. Parmesan, Romano or Asiago slivers (optional)

Cut all vegetables into medium chunks.

Coat baking dish with olive oil.

Toss vegetables with additional olive oil, baharat, salt and pepper to taste.

Bake until vegetables are nicely browned and soft, about an hour.

Remove from oven and sprinkle with pecans.

Top with ribbons of balsamic glaze.

If wanted, toss cheese slivers on top.

Enjoy!

 

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Honey Cake for a Sweet New Year

14470609_10154465613400822_6699187027675087114_nPart of my sermon writing and service preparation ritual is baking. Though I am not a congregational rabbi, this is the one time a year when I regularly have congregational responsibilities. For the last 18 years I have served as high holy day rabbi at Congregation B’nai Olam in Fire Island Pines. For the weeks leading up the holy days, in addition to my regular work responsibilities, I spend a good chunk of my nights and weekends preparing to lead the congregation.

I bounce between the computer and the oven, trying to be productive on both fronts. The baking helps ground me as the high holiday prep sets me aloft – it’s a good balance. Both activities are different aspects of the holiday observance. One is about the soul and the intellect, the other about the worldly sphere of taste, smell, and visual pleasure. I have never tested this theory but it often seems that I could not do one without the other; they are two sides of the same experience, a sort of necessary duality. Food for the soul and inspiration for the body.

Every year, as I enter the process of soul-searching that is part of my sermon writing and preparation, I also search cookbooks and blogs for the best honey cake recipe. And as I’ve done so, I’ve tweaked and added to various recipes. I’m not a fan of dry, practically tasteless honey cake (or dry, tasteless sermons either, for that matter). So I’ve been going for a moist, dense, savory-sweet cake with depth. The recipe has got to include strong coffee, brandy or applejack, and crystalized ginger.

I think that I found it this year. The following recipe may just hit the spot. To give credit where credit is due, it is based very loosely on a recipe from Mimi Sheraton, but it is adapted quite a bit. Whether you are a sermon-writer, t’filah leader, outline-preparer, storyteller, cantor, rabbi, chanter, shofar-blower, communal leader, or communal participant, may your service to the community be sweet, full of depth, and nourishing. Shanah tovah u’metukah. 


The Best Honey Cake

 (Adapted from Mimi Sheraton)

2 cups dark honey

¾ cup black coffee, brewed double strength

3 tablespoons mild vegetable oil

1 cup crystalized ginger cut up into small pieces

4 extra-large eggs

¾ cup sugar

3½ cups sifted all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1½ teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ cup brandy or applejack (I prefer applejack)

½ cup ground almonds

  • Preheat the oven to 325˚ F. Oil 2 small loaf pans.
  • Put the honey in a large, heavy saucepan and slowly bring to a boil over low heat. Add half the ginger and mix it into the honey. Let the honey mixture cool, then stir in the coffee and oil.
  • Beat the eggs with the sugar in a large bowl until they’re lighter in color and thick in texture. Stir in the honey-coffee-ginger mixture. Add the flour, along with the salt, baking soda and powder, and spices, into the batter. Add brandy and mix in.
  • Pour the batter into the oiled pans. Sprinkle almonds and cut up pieces of crystalized ginger on top.
  • Bake until the top is golden brown, about 1½ hours. The edges will brown a long time before the centers are done so insert a knife or toothpick to test. Cool in the pans, or wrap in foil and pans refrigerated for up to two weeks before serving.

The longer the cake waits uncut, the more flavor it develops (within reason). It can last a few weeks if refrigerated.

It’s also easy to double (or triple or quadruple). Make a bunch of small loaves to give as gifts at Rosh HaShanah.

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Some Good Books, Early Summer 2016 Edition

Summer time hopefully means more time to read. Here is a round up of some recent novels that have been keeping me busy.  A few are big, weighty books (and I don’t mean their physical size), some have more modest ambition. But they’re all worth a read. For more on the rating system, see below.

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota ©©©

41pcO-RsW8L._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_This Man Booker short-listed novel follows the fortunes, or misfortunes, of a group of four young Indian immigrants to England. Each of their stories is followed from India as they try to make new lives and new identities in a generally inhospitable and strange environment. These interwoven stories are poignant and heartbreaking, each in its own way. The characters each want, and need, different things; they are each moved to act by different motivating factors. Along the way they bump up against each other and their stories become intertwined. In the end, each  finds a way out of the challenges of hunger, loneliness, and hopelessness, though in unexpected ways. These are both coming-of-age stories, and the familiar territory of grim immigration tales. Yet neither of those descriptions does justice to the painful journeys of all four of these young people trying to make their way in an uncertain world, the weight of familial desperation,  geo-political realities, religion limitations, and cultural expectations on their shoulders.

Gold Fame Citrus by Clair Vaye Watkins ©©©

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Since this book was named best book of the year by the Washington Post, NPR, Atlantic, and many other news outlets, it jumped its way up to the top of my to-read list. This novel portrays a terrifying dismal dystopian future in the United States of severe shortages and drought. Southern California is a ruined, parched, unsustainable ghost of its excessive past now under military control. The two main characters, Luz and Ray, subsist as squatters in a former starlet’s mansion full of useless luxuries but few necessities. They dream of heading east but the trip through the western states, now one enormous shifting dune sea devoid of life, is dangerous and unsanctioned. But when they come across an odd toddler and take her under their care, they decide to do what they can to improve their chances of a future, and they set out across the desert. Part adventure saga, part apocalyptic nightmare, part cautionary tale, this story of their trek and the people they encounter in the wilderness is a fantastical futuristic journey. There are echoes of some of the best of Ray Bradbury’s martian landscape imaginings, except that this is all the more terrifying for taking place in the United States of a very close future. Beyond the narrative arc of the individual characters, this novel presents a vision of what could be that is as highly original and compelling as it is disturbing. The descriptions of the world Luz and Ray inhabit, what they see along their trip, the charismatic leader and his tribe that they encounter, and in particular the Amargosa Dune Sea, are rich in imagery and imagination, simultaneously horrific and terrifyingly gorgeous. This book truly is a must-read.

Valley of Strength by Shulamit Lapid ©©

51SzkC3hNeLI read this novel in Hebrew years ago, albeit haltingly, so I was excited to see it in English. It is a classic of Israeli literature, a beautifully told tale of the Jewish settlement of the Galilee in the 1880’s. As a historical novel, it provides background about the backbreaking work involved in creating what eventually became Rosh Pinnah. It is rich with depictions of the intellectual battles fought at that time over the different settlements, and the ideologies, finances, and politics behind them. The narrator Fania is an immigrant from Russia, a survivor of a progrom in her hometown that killed her parents and left her pregnant at 16. Upon arriving in Jaffa she meets Yehiel, who takes her home with him to a settlement known first as Gai Oni to help him raise his two children, whose mother has died. In Israel this novel is seen as an early feminist work, as Fania is an independent woman who goes against communal constraints in a number of ways, including creatively finding opportunities to help her family’s finances. Though the translation seems a bit abrupt at times, it is well worth the read for the underlying love story between Fania and Yehiel, and for the way it brings to life the reality of that time in the history of the country that comes to be Israel. It was a good reminder that any romanticized image we have today of all the Jews getting along and working together to establish Israel was as untrue then as it is now – the story is filled with fights and arguments between all the various Jewish groups on the basis of ethnicity, religiosity, and ideology. This is a must-read for anyone interested in Israeli fiction, women’s fiction, and a peek into early modern Zionism.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood ©©

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In another, but completely different, dystopian future, resources are extremely limited. Jobs have dried up and the cities have descended into chaos. Gangs roam freely and no one is safe. Charmaine and Stan live in their car, having had to give up their house, and though Charmaine is lucky enough to have a job at a strip joint, they are barely surviving. Charmaine learns about Consilience, a planned community which guarantees employment, housing, and safety. She convinces Stan to join up and be part of this visionary community which she sees as their way to have a secure future. Consilience is based on the premise that its members spend half their time living and working in the town, and half their time as voluntary prisoners in the town’s jail. Residents share apartments, with one couple in place and the other in jail, back and forth. They are sold on the idea that this isn’t a regular prison – there are no scary or violent prisoners, and it’s all rather civilized and pleasant. But there is a terrifying underbelly to this grand vision which becomes clearer as the novel progresses. Each in his or her own way, Charmaine and Stan get caught up in what is really going on behind the scenes of the placid every day life of Consilience. On a human scale, this novel poses many questions about love, control, passion and compassion. But is also poses some of the big questions that underlie many works of dystopian fiction: what happens to our society when human lives and human rights are sacrificed on the altar of the profit-driven insatiable greed of big business? This novel can momentarily veer into predictability and preachiness, but it is generally smart, well crafted, and wonderfully imaginative, and well worth a read.

The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis ©©

4113iaNuRYL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This complicated, complex novel about a former Russian dissident who is now a disgraced Israeli politician was a winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award and received much praise from other corners as well.  Baruch, formerly Boris, has left Israel and his family in the middle of a tense political moment, running away to the resort town of Yalta with his young mistress. While there, he comes across the very man who had sent him to the Gulag many years earlier. The past rises up to meet him, shedding light on the principled but flawed man he has become today. He encounters his betrayer at the very moment that he himself has betrayed his wife and children and made off with his mistress. He must come to terms with the trajectory of his life and the result of choices he made as a young man as he faces his own aging. The framing of this novel is about the good versus the bad, the right versus the wrong, truth versus lies, youth versus age, and yet nothing, and no one, is all one and not the other. Someone who has spent his life on the side of justice and truth, a man who can’t be blackmailed, a man whose life has been shaped by big ideas and taking stands on often unpopular beliefs, is the same man who has let down those closest to him, his wife and children. Funny, poignant, slightly snarky, sometimes uncomfortable, and highly intelligent, this is well worth the read.

The Glass Wives by Amy Sue Nathan ©

51JEPGjrvWLThis book is based on a great premise. Richard Glass has died suddenly in a car accident. He leaves behind a wive, their baby, and an ex-wife and their twins. The wives are not friends, which is understandable since Richard was involved with the second wife while still married to the first. Anger, hurt, and frustration ensues, and there is some welcome humor in the midst of the family’s grief. The ex-wife, Evie, would like the second wife, Nicole, to go away and leave her alone. But out of financial need, sorrow, and the wish to keep their children (who of course are siblings) connected, they wind up joining forces  and creating a new kind family. It is somewhat less Hallmark-y than it sounds though it does lean in that direction. But the writing does not soar; the novel lacks  the kind of sparkle and nuance that would lift it beyond the level of just a good story.

The Promise by Ann Weisgarber ©

51YUsTIE1JLIf you’re looking for some enjoyable historical fiction for your summer reading, this is a good one. This novel tells the story of the terrible 1900 flood in Galveston, Texas, in which thousands of people were killed in one day. Told from two points of view, the place and the time come to life. At the heart of the novel are two very different women: Catherine, a talented and Oberlin educated pianist who has committed adultery with a married man in Philadelphia and is now being shunned for it, and a local woman, Nan, who only knows this reality. Out of desperation, Catherine renews correspondence with an old acquaintance, Oscar, who has a young son and has just lost his wife. He invites her to join him at his farm outside of Galveston as his wife, and out of desperation, she agrees. Nan meanwhile is ensconced at Oscar’s, looking after him and his son as a promise made to the deceased wife, who had been her dear friend. Once Catherine arrives, naturally the two women clash in classic city mouse versus country mouse style. As Catherine acclimates to a harsher life than anything she has ever known, real love develops between her and Oscar, and she begins to make inroads with his son, but things remain complicated between the two women. All of this is backdrop for the big storm which quickly changes the course of events for all the people of the Galveston area. The characters and their story are compelling, but the real drama is the storm itself. Weisgarber builds steam slowly so that even though we know what actually happened, the tension builds as the storm rages on, and the consequences still manage to come as terrible surprises.

Rating System

© – Good Book, but I wanted it to be even better

©© – Great Book, deeply satisfying

©©© – Amazing Book, dazzling, blew me away

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