Posts Tagged ‘David Liss’

What books would you give as holiday gifts?

November 27, 2010

I’ve had this conversation a lot lately. Someone asks, “Read any good books lately?” and I am at a loss.

I read constantly, almost all of it fiction. But strangely, I don’t end up with a lot of things to recommend.

Partly that’s because I read a lot of novels for “work.” They have a theme or structure similar to what I’m working on, so I want to check them out. Or they’re new and getting lots of publicity (e.g. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall). Most of the time I’m underwhelmed.

But I just finished a couple of books that I loved. Loved enough to want to give as holiday gifts. So I figured, why not make a list of some books that I could envision giving as gifts this year?

Here’s a short list of books that I enjoyed enough to want to share. They were either published/updated in 2010, or else I read them for the first time in 2010:

  • Someone Not Really Her Mother, by Harriet Scott Chessman. This is one of the books I just finished and loved. It’s a novel about how the Holocaust filters down through three generations of women – centering on the grandmother Hannah, sole survivor of a family of French Jews who is now living in a nursing facility in Connecticut with dementia that makes her past more real to her than her present. It is subtle, beautifully written, and wise. The bad news: It came out in 2005 and is now out of print. The good news: Of course you can still find copies on the web.
  • By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham. Cunningham wrote The Hours, his novelistic homage to Virginia Woolf, and this new novel of his also reminds me of Woolf. If you don’t like interior monologue, stay away!  It’s an insightful look at the marriage and midlife self-doubt of an art gallery owner and his wife, who are thrust into crisis when her eternally-adolescent and gorgeous younger brother comes to stay with them.
  • The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. A cancer doctor who is also a terrific, accessible writer, Mukherjee leads us through the history of the struggle to understand and cure this dreaded disease. I found it really interesting to see how my own experiences with cancer (for instance, my mom died of ovarian cancer in 1986) fit into the bigger picture of what was happening at that time in cancer study and treatments. It’s an illuminating look into the process and politics of medical research in general. And any non-fiction book that holds me for 470 pages has got to be well written.
  • My Lie: A True Story of False Memory by Meredith Maran. Imagine if one of the girls who made the Salem witch accusations later wrote a memoir admitting she had been making it all up. That’s what Maran has done, only her accusations were of incest rather than witchcraft. Maran, a progressive Berkeley writer, tore her family apart in the 1980s when she became convinced that her father had molested her. Over time, she realized that she had succumbed to the group-think of her feminist, abuse-conscious milieu and she tries to make amends. A fascinating inside look at how an otherwise smart, skeptical person can be sucked into mass hysteria.
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I mentioned this book in my recent interview with Rabbi Mates-Muchin. Bryson’s scientific explanation of how life on Earth manages to exist is, to me, the definition of a spiritual book. There’s a new edition out which costs more but has lots of nifty diagrams and pictures – I just bought it for a friend’s 60th birthday.
  • The Devil’s Company by David Liss. This is Liss’ third novel about Benajmin Weaver, a Jewish boxer-turned-detective in early 18th century London. I absolutely love this character, a noir-style outsider to his society, and I love Liss’ crime/mystery plots centered on the machinations of early capitalism. Smart, gripping, fascinating! If you haven’t read them, start with his first one, A Conspiracy of Paper.
  • This is Where I Leave You (or anything else) by Jonathan Tropper. Tropper writes funny, clever novels about alienated young men who are forced by circumstances to reconcile with their dysfunctional suburban families. Having read three, I’m starting to feel like they are all a little too similar. But he makes me laugh out loud – which is not easy.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy by Stieg Larsson. Okay, no point giving these as gifts because everyone in America and Europe has read them already. And they’re not great literature. But I tore through them– great beach reads even without a beach.
  • Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Earlier this year I blogged on this book about the post-Katrina tributions of a Syrian-American family in New Orleans. You can read that post here.
  • To the End of the Land by David Grossman. Okay, I just started it so I don’t have an opinion yet on this new novel by one of Israel’s top writers. But I really want to like it. Does that count?

Hmm. It seems like I must have read some other novels this year that knocked my socks off.  But nothing pops into mind right now.

How about you? What books did you read this year that you loved enough to want to share?

Cruise ships to the Jewish past

April 8, 2010

There is no frigate like a book To take us lands away

-Emily Dickinson

Over the past few months, I’ve started seeking out historical novels with a Jewish theme. I’m defining “historical” arbitrarily as pre-20th century: No Holocaust books. No Israel books. No bildungsromans a la Call It Sleep set on the Lower East Side. 

I’m looking for books set in a past that is too distant for journalism, too distant for handed-down family stories.

I’m looking for novels that will bring to life parts of Jewish history that I barely know. 

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is a wonderful example. I read it years ago when it was just becoming a

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

word-of-mouth bestseller. A reinterpretation of part of Genesis from a woman’s perspective, it tells the story of the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Diamant paints a vivid picture of life in tribal Canaan, including the red tent where women secluded themselves during their menstrual periods. She’s written other novels since then – including a new one called Day After Night about Jewish refugee women who immigrate illegally to Palestine in the 1940s – but none, in my opinion, as good as The Red Tent

Some others I’ve read in the past year or so: 

  • David Liss’ economic mysteries – Jewish protagonists in early mercantile Europe (1600s to early 1700s). I love these! Three of Liss’ novels feature a former boxer named Benjamin Weaver who has a love-hate relationship with the Jewish community that he grew up in, and a wonderful noir-type outsider’s perspective on the aristocratic ballrooms and fetid slums of London. The first novel in this series is called A Conspiracy of Paper. In addition to the British series, he  has a novel called The Coffee Trader set among the Portuguese Jewish commodity traders of Amsterdam.
  • People of the Book. Geraldine Brooks wrote a non-fiction New Yorker piece in 2007 about the Sarajevo Haggadah, which was written and illustrated in Spain in the 1300s and amazingly survived civil wars, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain etc. With People of the Book, she uses fiction to imagine the people who might have created and preserved the Haggadah. I’ve loved Brooks’ other non-Jewish novels – March and Year of Wonders – and this one was interesting historically but didn’t quite work for me as a story.
  • Rashi’s Daughters by Maggie Anton. I was so excited to stumble across this – the first book in a trilogy about the women surrounding the famous 11th century Talmudic scholar Rashi. “Another Red Tent!” I thought – but I was disappointed. There’s lots of detail about daily life in the Jewish quarter of a medieval French town, but very little plot. Basically Rashi’s oldest daughter grows up, studies Torah with him, gets married: Things move forward without any narrative arc, no driving conflict, no build-up to a climax. Plus the writing was pedestrian. I didn’t like it enough to look for the sequels.
  • The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia. Another one that gave me high hopes – Jews! Prague (where Sam and I are going on vacation this summer)! Sixteenth-century political intrigue! Murder! But alas, another disappointment. The lead character is a young Talmudic scholar, and Wishnia did a good job in integrating Talmudic references into his thoughts. But I felt there were gaps in his portrayal: I didn’t quite understand his past or what was going on with him internally. And the murder-solving part of the book seemed to involve a lot of rushing hither and thither, without much ingenuity.
  • As a Driven Leaf, by Milton Steinberg. Rabbi Steven Chester, with whom I’m doing my Bat Mitzvah study, calls

    As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg

    this the best Jewish historical novel ever. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I just finished it and really enjoyed it. It’s set in the rabbinic era of Jewish history – the early 2nd century when Rome occupied Palestine but Jewish legal-religious structures such as the Sanhedrin were still functioning. The lead character is a young rabbi who is torn between faith and reason, between his Jewish roots and Greek philosophy. I must admit this period of history had been a grey fog to me – I’ve never really known what people meant when they talked about “the sages” or the Sanhedrin or people like Rabbi Akiva – and As a Driven Leaf really made this much more visible and clear. The author, Milton Steinberg, was a brilliant American rabbi who died in 1950 at the age of 47 and had a pulpit at the Park Avenue Synagogue, across the street from where I grew up in New York.

That’s all for now! I just ordered a thriller called The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (set in 1506 Spain), and am trying not to set my hopes too high. I’ll give you a full report once it arrives and I’ve read it.

How about you – do you have favorite literary frigates that have carried you happily into the seas of Jewish history?

Or maybe a Titanic that you wish you’d never boarded?

Spenser, orphaned

January 20, 2010

One of my favorite writers died unexpectedly on Monday – Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser detective novels. 

Parker didn’t fit the pattern of authors I typically like. For one thing, I don’t usually read crime fiction. And most of my favorite authors tend to write nuanced psychological novels: The rare detective novels I like are by people like David Liss who offer so much fascinating historical and psychological detail that the crime part seems almost incidental. 

Parker’s Spenser novels, on the other hand, are pure noir detective. They’re pretty predictable and formulaic. And they are light: I used to marvel at how much white space his publisher let him pad his pages with. His chapters are only three or four pages long. You can get through a Spenser novel in about 87 minutes.

But what a wonderful 87 minutes! 

Parker’s books were like a welcoming, dependable friend. I could count on a moderately interesting plot, amusing dialogue, a smidgen of social commentary, but most of all the familiar and very engaging voice of Spenser as narrator.

Spenser was a classic insider-turned-outsider – onetime cop who couldn’t live with the rules and hypocrisy of the system, and so struck out on his own. He was both arrogant and self-deprecating at the same time. For instance, Spenser describes trailing a suspect in the most recent novel, The Professional:

I went every day to Pinnacle Fitness.  I had to be careful. If I improved my body further, the paparazzi would begin following me. So I worked out sparingly and spent a lot of time watching the snugly dressed young women, looking for exercise tips.

Spenser was cynical about institutions, politicians, the rich and pretentious, the young and beautiful, to name just a few. He was happy to diss his own clients to their face – often with such deadpan wit that they didn’t even realize they were being mocked. Yet under that cynical surface he carried a strong personal code of ethics.

I loved the repartee. I loved the point in nearly every book where Spenser would do something risky, ill-advised or economically self-destructive to follow his code of ethics. I loved the spare writing: For aspiring writers seeking a vaccine against verbosity, Parker is right up there with Hemingway.

I also loved Spenser’s continuity and evolution through the 37 novels Parker wrote about him, starting in 1973. Spenser developed friendships with Boston police and gangsters who learned to respect his peculiar integrity. He settled into a deep unmarried monogamy with psychologist Susan Silverman.

But I wanted him to evolve more. After all these years, Spenser was getting middle-aged. Maybe more than middle-aged. Occasionally there were hinted references at this: He didn’t have the physical stamina that he used to have. But I kept waiting for age to hit him seriously – the detective who could no longer detect.

What would that mean for his self-identity? His life? I was tired of the same romantic routines with Susan, the same joking conversations with his tough killer buddy Hawk.

I was ready for Spenser to grow up, by which I meant grow old.

I thought it was coming. I thought Parker would face up to it, just as Spenser always faced up to the dark side of things. I hoped Parker would bring the series to an end – a conscious, plotted, controlled end.

And now he won’t. Spenser is effectively orphaned, a creation without a creator. The New York Times obituary said that there are two more Spenser novels in unspecified stages of the publishing process. But Parker wasn’t anticipating his own death; he was apparently in excellent health. So I suspect these two last novels will be more of the same. Which will be lovely, for the 87 minutes it takes me to read each one, but will leave things feeling unfinished.

Spenser the lost boy. Remaining 65 – or whatever age he is – forever.

I am so sad that Robert Parker is gone. Because I love the books, and there won’t be any more after these next two. Because Parker was so talented and productive: The Times said that he died of a heart attack at his desk, where his routine was to write five pages every day except Sunday.

And because I won’t get to see Spenser grow old. We lost two people this week – both Parker and Spenser. And I won’t get to travel any further down the road with either of them.