Book of Numbers By Joshua Cohen & The Book of Stone: A Novel By Jonathan Papernick

070315_mishmash_bookIt’s summer, that time of year when everyone drops everything they’re doing, finds a quiet stretch of sandy shore and spends all day delving into their new favorite books. Or maybe not. But whatever your plans, there’s no denying that the season brings a bumper crop of literary offerings, plus an abundance of lists telling you which ones you “must read.” Here’s new books whose authors and/or themes provide some fun Jewish flair — just right for a beach read or an everyday
coffee-break escape.

In “Book of Numbers,” the prolific, 34-year-old Joshua Cohen presents his fourth novel in less than a decade, with a protagonist who is also a Jewish novelist named Joshua Cohen — only this nebbish is hardly prolific. With mounting debts, he agrees to ghostwrite the memoir of the eccentric, billionaire founder of a Google-like tech firm (who is, as it happens, also named Joshua Cohen). What follows is part thriller, part family drama and part sex comedy — but primarily it’s a pointed deliberation on what it means to live in the age of search engines, smartphones and constant surveillance.

“The Book of Stone,” meanwhile, proves that in the gray gap between good and evil, there’s almost always a great story. After his successful collections of short fiction, author Papernick has gone longform with this psychological thriller that explores the evolution of the terrorist mindset and the complexities of religious radicalism (and, yes, that’s radicalism of the Jewish kind). This may not be an uplifting tale of faith reconsidered — “The Book of Stone” ain’t Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon” — but it’s an engrossing read about a sorrowful soul whose search for meaning leads to a very dark mission.

The Seven Good Years: A Memoir By Etgar Keret Riverhead Books, 175 pages

062615_mishmash_bookBefore writing his seminal book “Der Judenstaat,” Theodor Herzl, the father of the modern Zionist movement, was a writer of a literary form known as the “feuilleton.” These were short articles or essays, usually collected as a supplement to newspapers, consisting of literature and art criticism, discussion of the latest fashions and trends and social gossip, and sometimes also stories, poems or personal musings.
It was a journalistic form that was immensely popular in Europe but never really caught on in the English-language press in the same way.

The short essays by Israeli writer Etgar Keret collected in this slim volume show that the “feuilleton” remains alive and well in Israel. Herzl would probably be pleased and proud. Well-known for his stories and graphic novels in Hebrew, Keret is also highly valued in France, the home of the feuilleton, where in 2010 he was honored by receiving the Chevalier Medallion of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In the United States, he is just beginning to make a mark and has appeared several times on the NPR show “This American Life,” which perfectly fits his somewhat sardonic take on the world.

These short essays cover the period from around 2005 to 2012 between the birth of the author’s son and the death of his father. They are slight but witty — usually with a gentle sting in the tail. They offer some insights into Israeli society but they are really the musings of an interesting and engaged person trying to make sense of the world around him.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind By Yuval Noah Harari HarperCollins, 416 pages

061915_mishmash_bookYuval Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” already an international nonfiction bestseller, guides the reader across a vast, yet entirely accessible framework that draws on biology, anthropology
and psychology to describe the dominance of Homo sapiens over other human species and
systematically details all that we have accomplished — for better or for worse — during the past 70,000 years.

Harari carves the millennia into three periods: the cognitive, agricultural and scientific revolutions and outlines their effects on human development. He describes, for instance, that because the Homo sapiens brain successfully evolved and gained the ability to comprehend abstract thought, it enabled the establishment of “imagined orders” such as the rise of governments, empires, religions and capitalism that permitted the growth of
civilizations.

He writes, “A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them.”
Just as that concept begins to sink in, Harari whisks you off to another development such as the language of numbers, the spread of written communication or the marriage of science and empire, when things — historically speaking — really started to heat up.

A delightful and thought-provoking read, Harari’s narrative of humankind draws surprising conclusions across modern, historic and prehistoric concepts and even includes humor at times. Reading “Sapiens” will affect how you think about everything around you.

Words Without Music: A Memoir

Words Without Music: A Memoir By Philip Glass Liveright Publishing Company, 416 pages

In New York in the 1960s it wasn’t unusual for struggling artists to do odd jobs to make a buck until the next big break. Philip Glass drove a cab. He also worked as a plumber, in a steel mill, did construction and cleaned homes. It wasn’t until he was 41 that he was able to give up day labor and earn a living full-time making music, he reveals in his new memoir.

Seventy-one years ago in Baltimore, the artist as a young boy studied the flute and tailgated on the piano lessons of his older brother, Marty. Father Ben’s record shop exposed young Philip to the blues, jazz, “hillbilly music” and the “modern” classical music of the time, notably Shostakovich and Bartük.

Baltimore in the late 1940s, early 1950s was a place where it was possible to see an occasional yard sign reading “No Dogs, No Jews.” Homeless Holocaust survivors who made their way there found temporary refuge in the secular Glass household. His parents’ values of “kindness and caring” influenced Glass, and today he helps to preserve the culture of Tibetans in exile as a board member of Tibet House US.

Glass studied at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, then left for University of Chicago and didn’t look back. It was 1952. He was 15 years old. Chicago had an art scene that Glass found intoxicating. He continued his piano studies with Marcus Raskin and then went to Julliard.

Glass has since composed over 25 operas, soundtracks for feature films and award-winning documentaries, symphonies, concerti and string quartets.

 

Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance and Hope By Wendy Holden Harper, 385 pages

060515_mishmash_bookEva Clarke likely is the youngest survivor of a Nazi death camp. She was born April 29, 1945, as her mother, Anka Nathanová sat atop a heap of sick and dying women on a wagon entering Mauthausen, where prisoners were worked, beaten, thrown and shot to death in a quarry atop a hill overlooking one of the loveliest spots along the Danube.

Anka weighed 70 pounds. Eva weighed three.

Although Eva wouldn’t know for decades, two Jewish women and their infants also were on that train. Hana Berger Moran was born April 12 in a slave-labor factory to Priska Löwenbeinová a teacher and accomplished linguist from Bratislava, Slovakia. Mark Olsky was born April 20 amid coal-car filth to 70-pound Rachel Friedman, who married into a textile-business family and was one of the last Lodz ghetto deportees.

These survivors’ descriptions by Wendy Holden, an experienced author and former newspaper reporter, convey the shock, terror and bewilderment of innocent women suddenly immersed in an unimaginable hell where they sometimes stood naked in mud and rain for hours. Too late to interview the mothers, Holden weaves their written, oral and recorded accounts, plus an array of historical records, into a spellbinding story of perseverance amid systematic abuse as expendable inputs in war’s machinery.

It proves that even seven decades later, surprising Shoah stories emerge.

There is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Nonfiction By Saul Bellow, edited by Benjamin Taylor Viking, 544 pages

052915_mishmash_bookAptly named, Benjamin Taylor’s collection of nonfiction by Nobel-winning novelist Saul Bellow can seem like its title: 512 thought-provoking pages of Bellow on life, aspirations, disappointments, creativity and himself.

Taylor, a college teacher and award-winning author, provides a spectrum of Bellow’s topics, including a trip across a tense, weary 1948 Spain and a drive past miles of Illinois cornfields where Bellow says one can “recall Joseph’s brethren in the lean years and think how famine has been conquered here and
superabundance itself become such a danger that the government has to take measures against it.”
Some pieces sparkle, among them the brilliant 1983 “In the Days of Mr. Roosevelt,” which resurrects the feeling of the Depression and analyzes FDR’s effect on a traumatized nation.

Some disappoint, among them “On Jewish Storytelling,” which too much discusses Jews writing in one place or language instead of another. Some are long contemplations of the writer’s craft, difficulty and social position. A virtue of this extensive compilation is that a reader uninterested in one piece can quit and turn to the next.

Some of the most-captivating pieces are Bellow talking about his life and work. The 1975 “An
Interview With Myself” includes an anecdote about accepting an award from Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley for “ Herzog,” which Daley hadn’t read. “Art is not the mayor’s dish,” Bellow says. “I much prefer his neglect to the sort of interest Stalin took in poetry.”

Ravensbruck By Sarah Helm Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 633 pages

052215_mishmash_bookWelcome to hell on earth.

This Nazi nightmare is called Ravensbruck, a slave labor camp for women. The prisoners worked and lived in unspeakable conditions, were fed almost nothing and abused by their guards; when they
became “useless mouths” (Nazispeak for those unable to work), they were gassed, shot or simply sent into the cold, naked, to freeze.

Most of the inmates were women the Nazis considered troublemakers or potential troublemakers. Jewish women were there early, before the Germans decided on the Final Solution. They were treated worse than the other groups, but not murdered, until they were sent to the death camps in 1942.

Like a good historian, the author, a journalist by training, lets the reader know what is going on of importance outside the concentration camp. But the book primarily focuses on the lives of some of the prisoners and a handful of the guards. Not much evidence exists from the camp itself, as the Nazis burned the files of the women during the final days before it was liberated by the Soviets. From letters written from inside the camp, from memoirs — published and unpublished — and from many interviews with camp survivors and their descendants, Helm reveals the secrets of this lesser-known Nazi prison.

As brutal and inhumane as the Nazis designed Ravensbruck to be, the Nazis could not extinguish the humanity of many prisoners.

Take, for example, Yevgenia Lazarevna Klemm, a teacher from Odessa. She told her fellow prisoners during their long march to Ravensbruck: “You’ll be all right. You are Red Army girls. We are prisoners of war. Remember that.”

All Who Go Do Not Return By Shulem Deen Graywolf, 310 pages

050815_mishmash_bookShulem Deen’s journey from Skverer Chasid to Brooklyn unbeliever is a fascinating, disturbing memoir of loss — loss of faith, family and a once-certain future.

His former community, taught not to question, might see his exile as punishment for having tasted from the tree of secular knowledge, but it’s not that simple.

“There was no moment, no solid line across time to which I could point and say: ‘That’s when I became a nonbeliever,’” he writes.

But buying a tape player for his children and his eventual, inquisitive use of its radio begins his exposure to a world avoided in New Square, N.Y., a Chasidic haven 30 miles north of New York City. For Deen, one transgression leads to another: public libraries, encyclopedias, the Internet, even television. Ideas he’s accepted as absolute truths — such as creation — become dubious. His doubts grow in long discussions with fellow Skverer Chezky Blum, who teaches — out of town — classes in rational belief.

The family’s move to nearby Monsey doesn’t go well; his wife Gitty and the children become increasingly isolated. A tearful divorce ends their 15-year marriage, Gitty moves back, and slowly the children begin seeing him as the goy they’ve been taught to shun, even abhor.

Deen relates this calmly, neither gloating in worldly superiority nor wallowing in self-pity. But it is impossible not to feel his anguish.

The book is an unforgettable story of the power of belief — both the beliefs that bound Deen to his community and the questioning and unbelief that broke those bonds. Heartbreaking, it is absolutely spellbinding.

Léon Blum, Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist By Pierre Birnbaum

050115_mishmash_bookHitler reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, Mussolini consolidated his hold on Italy, and Franco began his conquest of Spain. Nazism and fascism were ascendant. But in France, the situation was very different. A socialist Jewish intellectual became the head of the French government. For a brief moment, while much of Europe spiraled into a Nazi and fascist pit, France, with a Jew at its helm, went in a different direction.

French-Jewish historian Pierre Birnbaum has published a 2014 study of LÈon Blum, France’s first ó but not last ó Jewish prime minister. The small volume has just been translated into English. It provides Americans with an opportunity to become acquainted with Blum, a figure little known in America but of tremendous importance to both France and the Jewish people.

Birnbaum’s book is primarily concerned with explaining Blum’s political philosophy and his
intellectual contributions to French and Jewish thought. The volume does not provide a specific chronology of the life of Blum nor is it easy to follow for those not very familiar with 20th century French history. However, Birnbaum’s book provides critical insights into the intellectual makeup of a Jew who was a pivotal figure in French history.

On the whole, Birnbaum’s subject stands out as a humanist in an age that sought to destroy large swaths of humanity. He advocated for the welfare of individual workers when the predominant force of the time was unbridled nationalism that denigrated the individual. He was a proud Jew when Jews were being vilified and then exterminated. He epitomized the best values that France had to offer at a time when France itself joined in the worst excesses against those values.

A Good Place to Hide By Peter Grose

042415_mishmash_bookBooks and an acclaimed documentary film have made the French Huguenot village of Le Chambon and Pastor André Trocmé well known for sheltering Jews from the Nazis and their Vichy France collaborators.

But some books have been criticized as inaccurately portraying how Le Chambon and its surrounding villagers and farmers saved thousands.

Peter Grose seeks to set things straight in “A Good Place to Hide,” a very readable account benefiting from corrections by two wartime residents, Catherine Cambessédés and Nelly Trocmé Hewitt, the pastor’s daughter, who lives in St. Paul, Minn.

There’s “no reliable way of knowing when Jews began arriving on the [Vivarais-Lignon] plateau in significant numbers,” Grose says. “No records were kept, official or unofficial; nobody asked questions; nobody gossiped; nobody was in charge; nobody had a policy, a plan or a piece of paper laying down the rules. The process was haphazard, spontaneous, clandestine, burgeoning and unstoppable.” Nobody asked payment, either.

Pacifist Trocmé’s determination to save lives was endorsed by his congregants and helped by
the cohesiveness and isolation of the plateau, which “straddled no strategic route from anywhere to
anywhere” and wasn’t occupied.

The story is sufficiently familiar to need no reciting, but Grose provides some notable observations.

Although brevity makes “A Good Place to Hide” something of an overview, and Grose distractingly injects himself occasionally, it’s an enlightening and presumably accurate story. Here is a fascinating  account of how, in a time when decency was in short supply, “on the plateau, it triumphed.”