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On the Bookshelf

Beach reads of all stripes

Josh Lambert
July 19, 2010
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

The incongruity of Tisha B’Av—a day of mourning during a period otherwise reserved by Americans for pool parties and cookouts—can make it difficult to attain a properly somber mood. If you need help getting down, or just desire a new perspective on the fast day’s ancient rituals and searing prayers, the brand new Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot (Orthodox Union, June) offers the complete Tisha B’Av service in Hebrew, along with translations by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, plus a rich, elaborate commentary on the kinot adapted from transcripts of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s teachings. Expertly assembled and competitively priced, if the book covered a less depressing topic—“My foes applauded while my limbs drooped/ as they trampled upon my heroes” captures the general tone here—its publication would be cause for jubilation.


After the fast, the ocean, lake, and poolside await. If you’re Neil Klugman’s cousin Doris, that means, of course, another go at War and Peace; if you’re the gleam in the eye of desperate American publishers, it means you’ll purchase one of this summer’s crop of so-called “beach reads”: novels, unlike Tolstoy’s, simple enough in structure, language, and plot to be interrupted at regular intervals by the delivery of a daiquiri. And, like such drinks, the books, Jewish examples included, are served up in a variety of flavors—romance, family, coming of age, history, mystery, thriller—and combinations thereof.

Let’s start with one part family drama, one part romance: In Fly Away Home (Atria, July), chick-lit stalwart Jennifer Weiner introduces a wronged political wife, à la Silda Spitzer or Jenny Sanford, whose highly publicized foibles lead her to new self-confidence and healthier relationships with her grown daughters. One hopes, though, that unlike Weiner’s previous bestsellers, which feature resilient Jewish women struggling with their relationships and body image, this one does not result from “writing what you know.”


Even heavier on the family drama, but with a light touch: Susan Shapiro’s Overexposed (St. Martin’s, August) features a photographer (she “thinks she’s the next Diane Arbus”) who has happily escaped her nebbishy Midwestern family (“I don’t belong here,” she told her mother as a child) for Manhattan. The twist: Her WASP mentor marries her younger brother and transforms herself into the sweet Jewish daughter (or “JAP wannabe”) that the narrator’s parents always desired.

Sharon Pomerantz’s Rich Boy (Twelve, August) likewise features a Jewish kid from the hinterlands—in this case, Oxford Circle in Philly—who lands himself in the bosom of Manhattan’s monied class. Pomerantz drew inspiration from her days shining shoes on Wall Street (as she recounts in a rather slick video trailer. One book blogger has named it her “top beach read of the summer”—whether or not that’s a compliment to a debut novelist aspiring to a career in serious literary fiction.


One part romance, one part family, one part murder: Susan Isaacs’ As Husbands Go (Scribner, July) centers on Susan B Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten, the Long Island wife of one catch of a plastic surgeon (“he’s hot in that Jewish-short-guy way,” as one of her friends phrases it) found “stabbed in the chest with a long, pointed pair of scissors” in a prostitute’s apartment. Teaming up with her grandmother, Ethel—who long ago had abandoned her daughter, Susan’s mother, to marry a Miami owner of Honda dealerships—the narrator seeks to uncover the unvarnished truth about her husband’s death and life.


Then there are the contemporary thrillers, both foreign and domestic, which demonstrate that nothing says summer fun like brutal murder. In the former category, The Rembrandt Affair (Putnam, July) is Daniel Silva’s 10th novel featuring Israeli spy-cum-art-restorer Gabriel Allon, this time trailing both a murderer and a stolen Rembrandt portrait. In the latter category, Hangman(Morrow, August) is Faye Kellerman’s 21st to feature the husband-and-wife sleuths Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus, who must solve the murder of a “party girl” and decide whether to send a kid to Jewish day school. What else really need be said? The publisher is already calling the novel a bestseller, weeks before it goes on sale.


A fresh corpse can help to turn the pages of a historical drama, too. University of Oregon emerita historian Barbara Corrado Pope sets her second novel, The Blood of Lorraine (Pegasus, July), in the midst of the Dreyfus Affair, in late 1894. Assigned to a post in Nancy, Pope’s detective, Bernard Martin, must solve murders that provocatively reflect the politics of his time: that is, accusations that local Jews have fiendishly murdered an infant—un petit blood libel français, on peut dire—as well as what appears to be a revenge killing of an upstanding Jewish community member.

Knowing a little about Kamran Pasha’s background, it’s no wonder that his historical swashbuckler, Shadow of the Swords (Washington Square, July), positions a Jewish woman—Miriam, a niece of Maimonides, a femme fatale during an era of much fatality—at the center of the Christian and Muslim conflict of the Third Crusade, which Pasha retells from a Muslim perspective. Born in Pakistan, Pasha has spent time in two incomparable meccas for American Jews, Borough Park and Hollywood. Plus, as he tells it, the first and most influential movie he remembers seeing as a child was The Ten Commandments.


Of course, not all the novels published during the summer months fit the patten sketched here. Gary Shteyngart’s
Super Sad True Love Story (Random, August), for example, is not your average techno-dystopian pornographic slapstick tale of Jewish-December/Korean-May romance; it also conveys the gustatory insights of a writer increasingly turning out to be the Brillat-Savarin of his generation. Likewise concerned with appetites, technologies, and the curious place of Jewishness in a dizzying moment in U.S. history, Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector (Dial, July) concentrates on two sisters not in Shteyngart’s near-future, but in the very recent past, 1999 to 2002, with all its technological boom-time frenzy: a period when even Berkeley’s hasidic rabbi might have bought stock in an Internet start-up. Sharp-witted and charming as these novels are, you can read them on the beach. They’re just not the sort of light fare intended to be forgotten by Thanksgiving.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.