Off the shelf | Etgar Kerets uncommon memoir and other good reads

For those seeking the right book to read on the plane or the beach this summer, here are three possibilities, all related to Israel.

Etgar Keret is Israel’s most prominent author under age 50, deservedly celebrated for his short, smart and original pieces of fiction. His new book, “The Seven Good Years,” is billed as a memoir, but is a fittingly unconventional one. A series of tales and reflections, it begins at the time of Keret’s son’s birth and concludes shortly after his father’s death.

The book is a pleasure to read, abounding with the dark, dry humor and embrace of absurdities that help make Keret such a popular international writer. But it also makes palpable the anxieties that often accompany diurnal existence in Israel — whether as blunt reality, such as when victims of a terror attack are rushed into the hospital where Keret’s wife is giving birth, or as angst, such as the dispute between Keret and his wife over their 3-year-old son and what they will do when the time comes for his military service.

Keret’s portraits of his parents offer some of the book’s most affecting moments. His father endured World War II by hiding in a hole for nearly two years, while his Warsaw-born mother was the only member of her family to survive. Their experiences, and their will to continue in spite of them, loom large in Keret’s consciousness, and clearly inspire him. And the hilarious story of how they met is worth the price of admission.

Jessamyn Hope’s debut novel, “Safekeeping,” is set in 1994 and follows 26-year-old serial substance abuser Adam on an unlikely mission from New York City to Israel. Adam is having difficulty coping with his grandfather’s death, and with his own feeling of responsibility for it. He fixates on a letter his grandfather kept with a unique sapphire brooch that had been handed down in his family. The letter indicates that, while living on a kibbutz following his rescue from Nazi Germany, his grandfather had loved a woman named Dagmar and attempted to give her the brooch, only to have it returned to him. Adam is determined to find Dagmar and give her the brooch as a way of making restitution to his grandfather.

Adam appears at the kibbutz with the intention of staying only a few days. But when nobody knows of a Dagmar, he stays on as a dishwasher while doing his detective work, becoming increasingly involved with the motley residents. They include an ambitious young woman from Belarus who had invented a Jewish ancestor in order to exit the Soviet Union; a painfully shy volunteer from Montreal with an obsessive-compulsive disorder; a gifted musician doing army service; an Arab farmworker who dreams of starting a restaurant; the kibbutz secretary who puts privatization on the communal agenda; and the secretary’s mother, one of the kibbutz founders, who stands by her socialist principles but is losing the strength to champion her cause.

It’s a compelling novel, and Hope has a gift for creating fully realized characters. Some readers, though, may find themselves frustrated by a few of her narrative decisions — notably an untidy ending.

Israeli author Yitzhak Gormezano Goren’s novel “Alexandrian Summer” takes place in 1951 among bourgeois Sephardic families in the author’s native city of Alexandria, Egypt. Ten-year-old Robby’s family is hosting the Hamdi-Ali family of Cairo, who have come to the cosmopolitan coastal city for the summer to enable their son David, a successful young jockey, to compete in the horse races. David quickly develops an interest in Robby’s sister. Meanwhile, David’s neglected younger brother leads Robby and other boys into sexual experimentation.

Joseph, the Hamdi-Alis’ patriarch and a former jockey himself, is the book’s most interesting and most tragic figure. A Turk who converted from Islam to Judaism to marry the woman he loved (and who was disowned by his family as a result), he becomes increasingly untethered over the summer, perhaps paralleling the dissolution of his world.

Goren brings to life a time and place lost to history. Egypt’s military coup the following year would put an end to this cosmopolitanism, with Jews soon disappearing from the picture entirely through exodus and expulsion. However, the novel’s portrait of this vanished world is not all sentimentality. In the lifestyle of the Jewish bourgeoisie, we recognize a disregard for Arabs and for the poverty in which most Egyptians lived. And among Egyptian Arabs we see ample contempt for Jews, which finds a frightening outlet upon David’s defeat of a celebrated Arab jockey.

I have not mentioned that this newly released book is actually from 1978. Novelist and playwright Goren is a significant figure in Israeli letters, having won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Literature in 2001, but this fine new translation by Yardenne Greenspan is his first book to be rendered into English. Kudos to New Vessel Press and the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature for publishing significant Israeli works that would otherwise be inaccessible to most readers.

“The Seven Good Years” by Etgar Keret (192 pages, Riverhead Books)

“Safekeeping” by Jessamyn Hope (371 pages, Fig Tree Books)

“Alexandrian Summer” by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren (200 pages, New Vessel Press)

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

freedman-howard
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.