Thursday, August 2, 2012 | return to: lit, off the shelf


Off the Shelf: More titles to add to your summer reading list

by howard freedman

Follow j. on   and 

The days are already shortening, but a bit of summer remains.  Here are more page-turners to add to summer reading possibilities that I suggested in last month’s column.

“One Last Thing Before I Go” is the much-anticipated follow-up to Jonathan Tropper’s 2009 bestseller “This Is Where I Leave You.” Tropper’s specialty is translating the minds of American men when they are not at their best, and his new novel covers the same ground.

His marriage having broken up eight years earlier, 44-year-old failed rock drummer Drew Silver has abdicated most responsibilities, including his relationship to his daughter, and festers in a profoundly depressing apartment complex populated by middle-aged men who have been ejected by their wives. 

freedman_howardThis stagnant existence receives a jolt when Silver is diagnosed with a severe heart ailment that requires immediate surgery. He refuses the procedure, electing instead to use his remaining time to repair his relationship with his teenage daughter, who has just revealed that she is pregnant. As his condition worsens and family members (including his father, a rabbi) attempt to make a case for the surgery, Silver engages in a bumpy and occasionally hilarious ride to connect to a more meaningful life. With its plethora of sex and profanity, this book is not for everyone, but many readers will find it affecting.

Natasha Solomons’ novel “The House at Tyneford” follows 19-year-old Elise Landau as she leaves Vienna in 1938 to take a job as a domestic servant in a manor house on England’s Dorset coast. It is meant to be an interim move that will get her out of Austria until her parents, stuck in Vienna, can secure visas for the entire family to immigrate to America. Once in England, she must adjust not only to a new environment and language, but to the shock of having left a privileged upbringing to become a servant in a country with a rigid class system. 

There is a romance at the book’s center, but what I was drawn to was the rich description of the manor and natural setting, and the portrayal of World War II from a unique vantage point — through the eyes of Landau, whose helplessness as most of her family members are trapped in Austria is poignant, and also of Britons from the entire class spectrum. 

LIT_Rav_smallMaggie Anton’s three-volume series “Rashi’s Daughters” stands among the most popular Jewish historical fiction in recent years.  With the first volume of her new series “Rav Hisda’s Daughter,” Anton shifts her attention from medieval France to third-century Babylonia. The title character is one of the most frequently discussed women in the Talmud, but whom the rabbis never award a proper name. Anton gives her a name and fleshes out her life, immersed in the world of the talmudic sages, and set against the backdrop of war between the Roman and Persian empires.

Set in 1575, Roberta Rich’s “The Midwife of Venice” also casts light on the lives of Jewish women. Hannah Levi is a midwife known for her skills in handling difficult births. When she receives a secret visit from a nobleman whose wife lies close to death in childbirth, Hannah faces a difficult dilemma. She wishes to help the suffering woman, and accepting the large reward she has been offered will help her to ransom her husband, who is imprisoned in Malta.

LIToff_jonathan_tropper_smallBut Jews are forbidden by papal edict to treat Christian patients; if Hannah fails, she will bring the wrath of Venice upon herself and the residents of the ghetto. The story takes many dramatic twists and turns, with Rich effectively conveying the squalor and hostile conditions that Venetian Jews endured during the 16th century.

While on the subject of historical fiction, I’ll mention journalist Matti Friedman’s “The Aleppo Codex,” a history book that reads like a whodunit. Syria’s commercial capital, which has been in the headlines during the past weeks as the site of intense fighting, has a rich Jewish past. This heritage includes the Aleppo Codex — the most authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible — which was created in the 10th century in Tiberias, but resided in Aleppo for six centuries.

LITT_Aleppo_Codex_smallThe book traces the entire story of the codex, but is most provocative in addressing the recent past. There is the question of ownership — the book is in Israel in the hands of the government-funded Ben-Zvi Institute, but many Aleppo Jews feel that it was wrongly taken from their community. But there is the mystery of how over a third of the manuscript vanished.  The institute’s official line has been that the missing pages were consumed in the fire that burned down Aleppo’s historic synagogue during anti-Jewish riots in 1947. 

However, Friedman’s research leads him to assert convincingly that this account is untrue, and that the codex reached Jerusalem in the 1950s largely intact. What happened next is difficult to determine, although Friedman ventures his best hypotheses.  It’s a fascinating controversy that is rattling nerves in Israel today.

LIToff_the_shelf_Tyneford_smallMark your calendars: Jonathan Tropper will give book readings at 7 p.m. Aug. 24 at A Great Good Place for Books, 6120 LaSalle Ave., Oakland; and 7 p.m. Aug. 25 at Bookshop West Portal, 80 West Portal Ave., San Francisco.

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

“One Last Thing Before I Go”

by Jonathan Tropper (352 pages, Dutton, $26.95)

“The House at Tyneford”

by Natasha Solomons (368 pages, Plume, $15)

“Rav Hisda’s Daughter, Book 1: Apprentice”

by Maggie Anton (480 pages, Plume, $16)

“The Midwife of Venice”

by Roberta Rich (352 pages, Gallery, $15)

“The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible”

by Matti Friedman (320 pages, Algonquin, $24.95)


Be the first to comment!

Leave a Comment

In order to post a comment, you must first log in.
Are you looking for user registration? Or have you forgotten your password?

Auto-login on future visits