The Lie

082214_mishmash-bookBy Hesh Kestin
Scribner, 240 pages

“The Lie” may be fiction, but it definitely reads like reality, perhaps because the author, Hersh Kestin, spent two decades as a Middle East foreign correspondent. Kestin, an 18-year veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, quickly pulls the reader into a political, and emotional, story that could very well be happening now in Israel. The story follows Dahlia Barr, a tough-as-nails left-wing attorney who has dedicated her life to defending Arabs accused of terrorism. Her life takes a major turn when she is offered a unique position within Israel’s security unit. Dahlia begins settling in to her new role and is informed that Hezbollah has kidnapped her son. The story continues with her trials in dealing with such a difficult and painful situation while still maintaining her role in the government. I was captivated from the prologue to the book’s final sentence. I even reread the beginning just to make sure I had not missed any details. I highly recommend “The Lie.” It was an intriguing read that opened my eyes wider to the current situation in Israel.

Merchant of Words: The Life of Robert St. John

081514_mishmash-bookBy Terry Fred Horowitz
Rowman & Littlefield, 412 pages

Terry Fred Horowitz has written one of the most riveting and entertaining books of an unsung giant of American journalism, Robert St. John. For more than half a century, St. John traveled the world in search of breaking news long before the onset of 24-hour news cycles — in an era in which some of the most incisive reporting was done by lone wolf, on-the-ground freelance writers who, in search of an unfolding scoop, were frequently required to dip into their own pockets for international airfare.

But it was not always a hand-to-mouth existence. At the height of the London blitz in 1940, for example, St. John shared pride of place with Edward R. Murrow in reporting, in awesome detail, the air war over London between the Royal Air Force and Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Despite a close relationship with St. John, Horowitz never allowed himself to become a sycophant for his subject.

A very slight stumbling block to the book were the rare inaccuracies. The author wrongly attributes Hubert Humphrey’s decision to publicly break with President Johnson over U.S. conduct of the Vietnam War as sometime in August 1968. That event, in fact, took place on Sept. 30, 1968 in a widely covered Humphrey speech in Salt Lake City. But such blotches should not prevent you from reading “Merchant of Words.” Horowitz has done himself proud.

Data, A Love Story: How I Gamed Online Dating to Meet My Match

080814_mishmash-bookBy Amy Webb
Dulton Adult 2013, 304 pages

In the age of online dating, this book takes a new look at an issue that millions of daters generally leave up to fate. Sick and tired of hearing things like “ true love will find you”  and “ stop being so picky,”  digital strategist and author Amy Webb takes matters into her own hands. This memoir tracks her data-filled journey, as she works to prove the fallibilities — and possibilities — of online dating algorithms. While this book is not a typical how-to dating manual, Webb provides groundbreaking ideas and insight into how to find your perfect match.

One drunken night, after her latest disappointment (and a thorough amount of grief from her Jewish mother and sister), 30-something Webb sits down and creates a painstakingly detailed wish list. Though this detailed “ pickiness”  is antithetical to all of the dating advice she has received, the clearly defined parameters are actually her first step in gaming the system.

Utilizing the same mathematical formulas that work for her in her professional life, Webb begins to slowly crack the code of making matches.

This book is not for mathematicians but for realists. Anyone who has been through the arduous process of searching fora mate will breathe a sigh of relief to see a method in the madness. The analytical but humanly told memoir follows Webb through some intense and often humorous data-crunching sessions.

Yes, there are algorithms and bell curves involved, but this book still manages to be extremely user-friendly and readable.

Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel

080114_mishmash_bookBy Joshua Muravchik
Encounter Books, 281 pages

With Israel battling both terrorists in the Gaza Strip and a sea of public opinion that more often than not casts the Jewish state as the aggressor in its conflict with the Palestinians, Joshua Muravchik’s new book couldn’t come at a more prescient time.

A fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Muravchik traces the international community’s about-face in a span of little more than 40 years, noting that after the Six Day War in 1967, the world largely viewed Israel as the biblical David opposing a regional Goliath in the surrounding Arab states. But several factors, including economic self-interest on the part of the European powers and the United States and the adoption of the Palestinian narrative in the corridors of academia, have led to Israel being castigated instead of lauded.

On the whole, this work is a refreshing dose of criticism against those who choose to ignore the existential threats Israel faces on a daily basis. That he’s no big fan of late Palestinian academic Edward Said is clear — and his attributing to Said a new academic narrative is plausible — but the dozens of pages devoted to what amounts to an academic critique of Said’s work is a bit unnecessary in a larger historical depiction of changing world attitudes to Israel.

His chapter on the election of Prime Minister Menachem Begin seems to criticize Israel for taking matters into its own hands by distancing itself from years of Labor Party rule. This is particularly odd, given that he spends the first half of the book cataloguing the dramatic shift in the west’s thinking in the years prior to Begin’s election.

Ultimately, King David showed himself in the years that followed his improbably defeat of Goliath to be much more than a pipsqueak shepherd. He was a strategist and a politician par excellence. Perhaps the best takeaway from Muravchik’s book is that, just as worldwide pro-Israel sentiment reached a crescendo in 1967 before turning inexorably toward the Arab side, the pendulum may indeed swing back. There has already been evidence of this in media reports and diplomatic embraces of Israel’s “right to self-defense” over the past several weeks.

But world attitudes, as this book demonstrates, are fickle. While not stated — Muravchik in fact seems to endorse the view that Israel ultimately needs the world on its side — one reading of the past four decades would conclude that at the end of the day, Israel must control its own destiny.

Mussar Yoga

072514_mishmash-bookBy Edith Brotman, Ph.D.
Jewish Lights Publishing, 191 pages

Though the earliest references to the Jewish spiritual practice of mussar date to ancient times, the focus on ethics re-emerged in the 19th century when revered scholar Rabbi Israel Salanter of Lithuania and his disciples formalized its study, creating a Mussar Movement in Germany and Russia. Amid religious persecution of the Jews in the early 20th century, the movement languished, but in recent years, mussar has enjoyed a revival in some Jewish circles.

In her 2014 book, “Mussar Yoga,” local author Edith Brotman posits that when practiced together, mussar and yoga, a spiritual tradition originating in Hinduism and Buddhism, “open a new pathway to developing greater wholeness.” Brotman writes that both traditions encourage self-study, self-improvement, ethical living and, ultimately, a closer relationship to the divine.

In “Mussar Yoga,” Brotman articulates the histories and philosophical underpinnings of each discipline, illustrating how much the two practices share in common and how well they complement each other.

Brotman writes in a clear, concise and conversational style, making “Mussar Yoga” a pleasure to read and easy to understand. The book includes real-life examples, photos that demonstrate yoga poses, journaling and discussion topics and guided meditations. Those who seek greater peace, meaning and fulfillment would do well to give “Mussar Yoga” a read.

Phoning Home: Essays

071814_mishmash_bookBy Jacob M. Appel
University of South Carolina Press, 177 pages

Jacob M. Appel is many things: a physician, an attorney, a bioethicist and, if he’s telling the truth in the selection of self-deprecating essays, a forlorn lover obsessed with finding out why the flurry of different individuals in his life do the things they do.

The searching isn’t limited to others, however, as by the end of each essay — they do everything from examine the juvenile hijinks of a crank-calling 7-year-old to juxtapose the immigrant experiences of both of Appel’s grandfathers to critique the state of modern health care as too focused on prolonging life, no matter the consequences — Appel discovers some new truth about himself.

“When one includes the possibility of posthumous influence, no human being ever reaches
his or her half-life,” he concludes in “Divided Expectations,” published originally in the Chattahoochee Review in 2012 and appearing in “Phoning Home” as the last of the book’s 13 essays. “We are all approaching our half-life — me as I write this essay, you as you read it. Mercifully it remains forever beyond our reach.”

While at times, Appel may come off as the “pseudo-intellectual” one ex-girlfriend says he is, his observations seem fresh and biting at the same time. His is an urban, frequently Jewish world, where the longing for personal connection is challenged by an anonymous sea of millions of nameless souls. That the tinge of hope remains is a refreshing discovery.

The Lion’s Gate

071114_mishmash-bookBy Stephen Pressfield
Sentinel, 430 pages

Taken on its own terms, as “hybrid history,” “The Lion’s Gate” is an engaging immersion in the experiences and emotions of participants in Israel’s first three wars.

Steven Pressfield, author of 12 previous books, interviewed 63 people over the course of 370 hours and sliced their recollections into chronological placement.

“The focus is deliberately personal, subjective and idiosyncratic” and limited to a few units, he said. He didn’t attempt a standard history or “pretend to document the ‘facts’ of the [1967] war,” and he acknowledges up front that memory can be imperfect.

What he wants, he says, is “to be in the cockpit, inside the tank, under the helmet … the event as the man or woman experienced it.”

Pressfield’s unconventional approach saw him editing and sometimes rewriting interviewees’ words, using material from their books and even from a documentary and weaving them into spoken narratives. Done with interviewees’ agreement and our knowledge, that’s OK, but readers need caution.

“The Lion’s Gate,” with maps, photos and an index, is well worth reading. It’s a compelling account of the achievement and feelings of an outnumbered people armed with enough competence, determination, weapons and courage to prevent a promised annihilation.

All Fall Down

image003By Jennifer Weiner
Atria Books, 400 pages

Clearly, Jennifer Weiner is doing something right. With best seller after best seller, she’s obviously got a gift. So, why do most of Weiner’s books leave me feeling sort of underwhelmed? Perhaps it’s because the experience of reading them is like being inside of my own head.

If you’re an educated, liberal, upper-middle-class, middle-ageish Jewish woman living in a suburb on the East Coast, you’ve probably had all the thoughts and many of the experiences Weiner describes in her novels.

“All Fall Down,” Weiner’s newest novel, has many of the trappings of her previous books. But this time around, the book deals with issues more serious than planning a successful bat mitzvah.

Its heroine, Allison Weiss, a Jewish 40-something graphic designer turned blogger who grew up in a somewhat dysfunctional family outside of Philadelphia, is married to her dream guy.

To the casual observer, Allison has it made. But in reality, she’s a train wreck. Caring for her high-strung 5-year-old daughter is way more than she bargained for. Allison’s marriage is deteriorating, her father’s Alzheimer’s is worsening, and her mother is an emotional mess. No wonder Allison has become addicted to prescription painkillers.

Weiner skillfully maintains the balance between the character’s wry sense of humor and the seriousness of her illness. “All Fall Down” is an enjoyable read laced with an important caveat: Addiction can happen to anyone.
— Simone Ellin

One Nation Taken Out of Another

062714_mishmash-bookBy Zackary Sholem Berger
Apprentice House, 59 pages

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Yiddish is on the rise, even as those well versed in the Eastern European tongue seem to be on the decline. And Zackary Sholem Berger’s new collection of poems demonstrates that the mamaloshen of the past is a sufficient medium with which to reflect upon the issues of today.

For sure, Berger, founder of Yiddish House LLC and local children’s book translator who also happens to be a physician, is not the first Yiddish poet. And this rough collection of verse — it also includes some English poems — is not the most polished of works. Produced by Apprentice House, which bills itself as the nation’s first entirely student-managed book publisher, the volume feels more like a notebook than a tome of poetry, but therein lies its charm.

Ultimately, poetry is a reflection of the thoughts and struggles, as well as insight, of its author; just as the at-times emotional reactions to it are a reflection of the reader. Berger’s work succeeds in challenging perceptions, whether one perceives that Yiddish is a dying language or that biblical stories aren’t meant to be used as vehicles for irreverent commentary.

To quote from just one poem, “The Ballad of Nadav and Avihu”: “We were told to rejoice. And rejoice we did! Squeeze the juice from life, they bid. Climb to the top of the Tabernack. Coal your pan and don’t look back.”

Never Say A Mean Word Again: A Tale from Medieval Spain

062014_mishmash_bookBy Jacqueline Jules
Wisdom Tales, 32 pages

Rare is the children’s book that, by virtue of its illustrations and story, can be vaulted into the ranks of the classics, those stories such as “Where the Wild Things Are” that can cross across generational divides and hold up to the discerning tastes of ever-fickle toddlers.

“Never Say a Mean Word Again” has the potential to join these greats.

Inspired by a medieval legend about the Jewish poet Samuel Ha-Nagid, the highest royal adviser in Muslim-controlled Granada, Jacqueline Jules’ prose — backed by the rich illustrations of Durga Yael Bernhard — tells the story of the grand vizier’s son, Samuel, who struggles against the wiles of Hamza, the insolent son of the tax collector. His father’s sole advice? “Make sure Hamza never says a mean word to you again.”

While at first the boy wants to extract punishment, in time he befriends Hamza; indeed, the two boys never again fall prey to conflict.

It’s a tale of peace badly needed in the troubled hours known as bedtime. But be forewarned: One of the childhood insults mentioned in the book will for sure have your kids roaring with laughter.