Our compilation of summer books offers everything from page-turners to politics — all with a Jewish connection.
By Sandee Brawarsky
The Gospel According to Lazarus by Richard Zimler (Peter Owen Publishing/IPG) is an imaginative retelling of how Jesus brought his friend Lazarus back from the dead and then how Lazarus struggles to regain his previous identity, flashing back to the boyhood and close friendship of the two in Nazareth. The novel recounts the story of the last week of the life of Jesus, through the perspective of Lazarus. Zimler, who lives in Portugal and is the author of The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon and other novels, brings mysticism and historical research to his telling.
In celebration of the matriarch’s 70th birthday, the extended Feldman family take a cruise together in The Floating Feldmans by Elyssa Freidland (Berkley). Not exactly a celebration, the time sequestered together afloat on the Ocean Queen is filled with eating and feuding, as family secrets, rivalries and tensions surface. In alternating voices, the story unfolds with compassion and humor.
Set in a weight loss camp for adults in a Vermont mansion, Waisted by Randy Susan Meyers (Atria Books) tells of a group of women determined to lose extra pounds who agree to be filmed as they take part in a program promising dramatic results. This is a story of sisterhood and self-respect as the women conspire against those in charge.
Julie Zuckerman’s debut, The Book of Jeremiah (Press 53), a novel in stories full of rich imagery, spans the life of a regular guy named Jeremiah — son of Jewish immigrants, professor of political science, husband, father — over eight decades, showing his determination, missteps and inspiring humanity.
A first novel set over three continents and spanning four generations, The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker (Delphinium Books) is the story of an American family, emigrants from the Indian enclave in Nairobi. The family has many secrets when they are forced to return to Nairobi by an unforeseen accident. One of the secrets is that their son’s Jewish-American girlfriend, who is with them in Kenya, is already his wife. As she unfolds this family saga, Acker, founder and editor-in-chief of The Common, considers family ties, cultural misunderstandings, immigration, empathy and love.
Death and Other Happy Endings (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking) is the fictional debut of 62-year-old author Melanie Cantor, who previously worked as a celebrity press agent before hosting a television series on home design in Great Britain. In this romantic comedy, a woman who is told she has a terminal illness with three months to live sets out to put her affairs in order with unusual candor through letters to her ex-husband, ex-boyfriend and difficult sister.
The Song of the Jade Lily by Australian writer Kirsty Manning (Morrow) is a historical novel that opens in Shanghai in 1944, flashes back to Vienna and Australia in 1938, and then ahead to London in 2016, and then back to Australia and Shanghai as well. This is a story of refugees, friendship, hardship, love, loyalty and courage that recreates wartime Shanghai and its Jewish refugee community.
A first novel of historical fiction, A Bend in the Stars by Rachel Barenbaum (Grand Central Publishing) opens in 1914 Russia as war is in the air and life is increasingly difficult for Jews. A pair of siblings — she is studying to be a surgeon and he is a physicist racing Einstein to prove relativity — face the tough decision as to whether to stay or leave, and how to protect each other and all they have learned. When he goes missing, his sister risks all to fight for him in this story of love, adventure and science.
The Rabbi Finds Her Way by Robert Schoen with Catherine deCuir (Stone Bridge Press) is a career coming-of-age story, as a young Reform rabbi joins a large California congregation as associate rabbi. The novel opens up the world of a female congregational rabbi, with some familiar scenes and unusual twists.
The sprawling Hotel Neversink is the crown jewel of the Catskills, founded in 1931 by a Jewish immigrant family who used every penny they could find to buy the grand mansion on top of a hill. Told through the voices of family members and others who have passed through the grand hotel, Adam O’Fallon Price’s The Hotel Neversink (Tin House) follows the family over a century, through ambitious undertakings, mysterious vanishings, family secrets, comedy, love stories and a younger generation’s desire to keep the place alive.
A first novel set in 1666 by an author who has published acclaimed short stories, The Organs of Sense by Adam Ehrlich Sachs (Farrar, Straus, Giroux) explores science, politics and family dynamics, layered with philosophy, historical facts and humor. Here a blind astronomer using the longest telescope ever built, encounters the young math genius Gottfried Leibniz, just before the predicted time of a solar eclipse said to result in total darkness.
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is a collection of stories by rediscovered literary voice Bette Rowland (Public Space), who received many awards decades ago and then largely disappeared from public notice until the end of her life. Rowland, born in Chicago and championed by Saul Bellow, who was for a time a lover, observes life with empathy and humor, in the tradition of Grace Paley.
The Volunteer: One Man. An Underground Army and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz by Jack Fairweather (Custom House) is the nonfiction account of a Polish resistance fighter who infiltrated Auschwitz, organized a rebellion and assassinations of Nazi officers, smuggled out information and then managed to slip out of the camp to report on what was going on there. The author, who has been a war reporter for the Washington Post and other papers, explains that the story was erased from the historical record by Poland’s communist government and has remained unknown until now.
A debut novel by an American writer living in Israel, Make it Concrete by Miryam Sivan (Cuidono Press) is the story of a writer who ghostwrites the stories of Holocaust survivors, on tight schedules. Friends encourage the writer, an independent spirit, to do something different, as she is haunted by the ghosts of personal and communal history. The story she wants to tell most is that of her mother, also a survivor, whose own story is tightly held.
Julie Orringer’s anticipated novel The Flight Portfolio (Knopf) is based on the true story of Varian Fry, an American journalist who helped rescue thousands of Jewish refugees during World War II, including many artists and writers. Set in France and opening at the Chagalls’ home, the novel is filled with suspense, history, art and a love story.
Based on extensive research into true events — the massacre of a French village in June 1944 — Armando Lucas Correa’s novel, The Daughter’s Tale (Atria), is set between New York City and Berlin, unfolding a story of family, love, sacrifice, survival against odds and reckoning with the past. The novel is inspired by the true story of a Holocaust survivor Correa met after the publication of his first novel, The German Girl, based on the true story of the S.S. St. Louis, a transatlantic liner offering Jews safe passage out of Germany.
An untold story of World War II, Scholars of Mayhem: My Father’s Secret War in Nazi-Occupied France by Daniel C. Guiet and Timothy K. Smith (Penguin Press) tells of Guiet’s father, who worked clandestinely behind German lines in France to coordinate aid for the French Resistance and also lead missions against German military efforts. Guiet learned that his father had been in the CIA, but only at the end of his life did his father, a native French speaker, begin to tell of his successful missions during World War II. Guiet was the only American involved in a unit of Britain’s Special Operations executive code-named Salesman. The unit parachuted into France the day after D-Day and organized an army of 10,000 Resistance fighters. Daniel Guiet and Smith, a reporter and editor, spent several years researching and documenting this story, including Guiet’s written account of his wartime experience.
Mistress of the Ritz (Delacorte) is a novel by Melanie Benjamin set during World War ll, inspired by the courageous story of Blanche Azuello, a Jewish-American woman who created a new identity for herself in Paris, where she worked undercover for the French Resistance and played hostess at the Ritz Hotel, serving Nazis.
Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story (Abrams Books) by Leslea Newman and illustrated by Amy June Bates is a heart-warming and heart-wrenching story about Gittel and her mother coming to America. It is based on Newman’s grandmother and a family friend, among many other children. The spare text works well as a read-aloud, and the book is beautifully designed and illustrated.
In Saving Hanno: The Story of a Refugee Dog (Holiday House Books), geared to readers ages 8-12, Miriam Halahmy tells the tale of 9-year-old Rudi, who escapes Nazi Germany on a Kindertransport to England. He wants to bring his dachshund, Hanno, but cannot, yet his family finds a way to smuggle Hanno to London. When the German invasion seems imminent and many British citizens start euthanizing their pets, Rudi and other kids are determined to save their furry friends.
When Charlie, 12, starts doing research on her namesake, Great-Aunt Lottie, a violin prodigy, she uncovers details that may conclude that maybe Lottie did not die in the Holocaust. In Searching for Lottie (Holiday House Books) by Susan L. Ross, for ages 8-12, pieces of the puzzle fall into place in this intriguing, intergenerational mystery.
Based on true events, Francesco Tirelli’s Ice-Cream Shop by Tamar Meir, beautifully illustrated by Yael Albert (Kar-Ben), is the story of a young boy who loved eating ice cream from his uncle’s cart and then opened his own shop years later in Budapest. During the war years, he closes the shop and hides Jews and others in danger, saving lives.
Kol Hakavod: Way to Go by Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh and illustrated by Sarah-Jayne Mercer (Kar-Ben) provides appealing examples of respect and small kindnesses that can be shared.
Newcomers in an Ancient Land: Adventures, Love, and Seeking Myself in 1960s Israel by Paula Wagner (She Writes Press) is a coming-of-age story by a writer who travels to Israel with her twin sister at age 18 to learn more about their father’s Jewish background. She falls in love with the land and the language, and her life is transformed during a momentous era.
Chutzpah: Why Israel Is a Hub of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Harper) by Inbal Arieli, a leader in Israeli high-tech and co-CEO of True Synthesis, is a leadership assessment and development company, connects the country’s economic success — with its high concentration of startups — to the way Israelis are raised in a culture of risk-taking, independence, creativity and resiliency.
Jerusalem: City of the Book by Merav Mack and Benjamin Balint, with photography by Frederic Brenner (Yale University Press), explores the hidden libraries and archives of the city and the librarians who care for them, unfolding the history of the city through ideas developed there over centuries. The book opens with a quote from Jorge Luis Borges, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
In his latest book, Defending Israel: The Story of my Relationship with my Most Challenging Client (All Points Books/St. Martin’s Publishing Group, out in September), high-profile lawyer and professor Alan Dershowitz recounts behind-the-scenes stories and incredible “mock trials” he has done in defending a land he learned to love at summer camp in 1948. An ardent supporter, he is not above harshly criticizing Israel when he disagrees with its actions. He also chronicles changing attitudes toward Israel and offers a new way of thinking and defending the Jewish homeland.
The detailed story surrounding an act of brutal international terrorism in 1985, An Innocent Bystander: The Killing of Leon Klinghoffer by Julie Salamon (Little, Brown) delves into the destinies of three families whose lives were upended by this event. Klinghoffer had boarded a cruise ship with his wife to celebrate their anniversary and was shot and then thrown overboard in his wheelchair. Researching the events, repercussions and the search for justice, Salamon interviews most of the participants who are still living, including one of the hijackers, and creates a powerful and provocative narrative.
The Spiritual Gardener: Insights from the Jewish Tradition to Help Your Garden Grow, a first book by Andy Becker (Tree of the Field Publisher) includes gardening tips, stories from the author’s garden, quotations and teachings from Jewish texts and reflections on the bitterness of horseradish and sweetness of raspberry jam and more.
In Jerusalem on the Amstel: The Quest for Zion in the Dutch Republic, Lipika Pelham (Oxford) provides a portrait of 17th-century Amsterdam, with its prosperous Sephardi community during the Dutch Golden Age, when the seeds of Zion were nurtured. The author, a journalist and documentary maker for the BBC and other broadcasters, also sought out the descendants of this community in the present-day city.
Nancy Kalikow Maxwell’s Typically Jewish (Jewish Publication Society) provides an original, down-to-earth, earnest look at pressing questions about identity and culture faced by the Jewish community, looking at the way Jews live their lives.
In Edna’s Gift: How My Sister Taught Me to Be Whole (She Writes Press) Susan Rudnick, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, looks back at her family history and the experience of growing up with a younger sister with developmental challenges. Throughout their intertwined lives, Rudnick’s sister has taught her the most important life lessons.
In This Hour: Heschel’s Writings in Nazi Germany and London Exile by Abraham Joshua Heschel, foreword by Susannah Heschel (Jewish Publication Society) is a collection of early writings by the great rabbinic figure and important Jewish thinker, written before he found refuge in the United States. The pieces — about Jewish education, the rabbis of the Mishnaic period, a biography of a medieval Jewish scholar, reflections before the holiday and reflections on issues like prayer and suffering — haven’t been previously published in English. The foreword by Susannah Heschel and notes by scholar Helen Plotkin are particularly compelling.
Mah Jongg Mondays: A Memoir About Friendship, Love and Faith by Fern Bernstein (JAG Designer Services) is the true story of five suburban women coming together weekly to play an ancient Chinese game, forging deep friendship around the table and supporting the author through difficult times. Those who play the game, or remember their mothers playing, will be touched by this first book by Bernstein, who teaches in her synagogue’s religious school and teaches yoga in the preschool.
In The Plateau, anthropologist and performer Maggie Paxson (Riverhead Books) probes ideas about human goodness, selflessness and sacrifice as she closely studies an area in south-central France, where villagers have a long tradition of providing refuge to strangers, particularly during World War II and continuing today.
On God’s Radar: My Walk Across America is Robert Schoen’s (Stone Bridge Press) account of his journey on his own across the country on foot, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, across more than 1,600 miles and 14 states. He sets out after the death of his 96-year-old father and makes connections in unusual places, finding generosity, compassion and some great stories. The book is in the form of a travel journal, highlighting his adventures and spiritual pathways.