Monday, December 15, 2014

New York Times Top 100 Books of the Year: Enchanted Connections

‘The Magician’s Land,’ by Lev Grossman

Review By Edan Lepucki

If Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” was like “The Secret History” crossed with “Harry Potter,” and if its sequel, “The Magician King,” was a descendant of “The Chronicles of Narnia” (with a touch of the 1990s flick “The Craft” thrown in), then what cultural mash-up does Lev Grossman conjure in “The Magician’s Land,” the trilogy’s final book? I can’t tell you, because I was too thoroughly swept away by this richly imagined and continually surprising novel to be concerned with cute comparisons.

“The Magician’s Land” is the strongest book in Grossman’s series. It not only offers a satisfying conclusion to Quentin Coldwater’s quests, earthly and otherwise, but also considers complex questions about identity and selfhood as profound as they are entertaining.

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Monday, December 8, 2014

The Mathematician's Shiva

A Novel by Stuart Rojstaczer; Review by Miriam Bradman Abrahams for Jewish Book Council

This wonderfully quirky novel celebrates the life of a famous, fictional mathematician, Rachela Karnokovitch. She is a Polish émigré to Madison, Wisconsin, a professor who is rumored to have solved the million-dollar Navier-Stokes Millenium Prize problem, and to have taken the solution to her grave.

When her son Sasha, who narrates the novel, sits shiva with his father, uncle, and cousin, surpris­ing things happen. Hordes of mathematician friends and enemies of Rachela come to pay their respects. Though some are genuinely bereaved, others are hoping to find any hint of the solution to the million-dollar problem. Sasha’s long-lost daughter from a short-lived marriage shows up at the shiva as well, bringing her own daughter, a granddaughter Sasha knew nothing about. Although Sasha and his father are both published researchers in their own right, their accomplish­ments pale in comparison with Rachela’s and they are proud and protective of her legacy. Sasha’s account of his mother’s funeral and shiva, while dealing with his new-found progeny and the crowd that descends on his home, is interspersed with chapters from Rachela’s memoirs, A Lifetime in Mathematics, which describes the incredible hardships of her life in Poland, her strong deter­mination to survive, the benefits of skiing in icy cold weather, and the cutthroat competitiveness among mathematicians. This bittersweet novel, which depicts family loyalty and the love between a mother and son, is reminiscent of Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You in its humorous descriptions of human relationships, eccentricities, and challenges.

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Monday, December 1, 2014

Chanukah Romance

The Listopia votes are in.  Here are the top "Romance Novels set around Chanukah" from Goodreads


1     Festival of Nights  by Cara North
2     A Candle for a Marine  by Heather Long
3     A Candle for Nick by Lorna Michaels     
4     A Very Scandalous Holiday      by Nancy Fraser
5      Scenes From A Holiday by Laurie Graff

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Alice Hoffman Finds Humanity in Odd Places

By Stewart Kampel for Hadassah Magazine

To exploit people disfigured by birth or disabled by circumstance by putting them on display for thrill seekers seems politically incorrect today, but a century ago it was a common spectacle at amusement park “freak” shows. Alice Hoffman reimagines that world in The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Scribner; read our review), a love story that blends mystery, cruelty and history in a rich amalgam of reverie and reality.

Complex characters, scarred emotionally and physically, spin through this novel like active figures on a carousel, testaments to the vivid imagination of the author and her painstaking historically accurate scene-setting—the primitive labor conditions that sparked the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, for example, and the tragic fire that destroyed Dreamland, a Coney Island attraction later that year.

Odd figures populate the story, from the sadistic Professor Sardie, a fake scientist who runs the misnamed “museum,” to his daughter, Coralie, a talented swimmer born with webbed feet who is exploited as a “human mermaid” by her father, to the curious Eddie, a well-meaning photographer who is estranged from his Orthodox Jewish father. And there are more.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Boris Pasternak, the CIA, and the War of Ideas

The Man Who Dared

by Algis Valiunas for Commentary

“To live your life is not as simple as to cross a field.” Even in English this line sounds Russian. It is in fact one of the most famous lines of 20th-century Russian poetry—the final line of the poem “Hamlet,” which was attributed by its author, Boris Pasternak, to the hero of his 1957 novel, Doctor Zhivago. The line is a rueful witticism intended to resonate with those who are all too familiar with this world of sorrows. So is the voice of experience addressing innocence, a parent offering instruction to an adolescent who will probably understand it only after he has suffered from the consequences of his own ignorance. And it is the voice of a Russian speaking to Russians, who he knows will take his meaning implicitly. And it is also the voice of a Russian who hopes to educate free men elsewhere who are unschooled in the deceit and terror of Soviet tyranny and stand in need of a stiff dose of reality.

“[War’s] real horrors, its real dangers, its menace of a real death, were a blessing compared with the inhuman reign of the lie.” This, too, is Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago, one of the greatest novels written in the Soviet Union. Edmund Wilson, who was not given to intemperate transports, wrote at the time, “Nobody could have written it in a totalitarian state and turned it loose on the world who did not have the courage of genius.” Robert Conquest, the great English historian of Soviet tyranny, appropriated that ringing final phrase of Wilson’s for the title of his own invaluable 1961 book, which was re-titled The Pasternak Affair in its American edition. And now we are reminded of how much can be at stake in the writing of a mere novel, with The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book (Pantheon, 368 pages), by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, the national-security editor for the Washington Post and a teacher at St. Petersburg State University, respectively.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

My Salinger Year

A Memoir by Joanna Rakoff; Review by Jamie Wendt for

Joanna Rakoff’s memoir about her year working at a New York literary agency provides wonderful and oftentimes humor­ous insight into the nitty-gritty of the ‘90s publishing world. On the cusp of the technol­ogy age and the new millennium, Joanna finds herself in an office with typewriters instead of computers, dim lighting, no copy machine, and a boss set against modernity who seems to have worked at The Agency forever.

As a recent college graduate in her early twenties, Joanna is captivated by the New York literary scene. She wants to live like a writer, excited by the idea of being a starving artist on a tiny salary that eventually causes her to move into an apartment without heat or a sink. Her overbearing and aloof boy­friend, Don, is also a writer and calls Joanna “bourgeois” for only having read certain literary classics. Joanna struggles with finding a balance between achieving her own literary and career ambitions and spending time with her boyfriend.

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Monday, November 3, 2014

We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry, A Documentary History

Author:  Gary Philip Zola; Review by Carol Poll for Jewish Book Council

"Rabbi Abraham" was a term of endearment used by Jewish supporters of President Lincoln, writes Gary Philip Zola in his fascinating book, We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry: A Documentary History. It was a nickname much like the term "Father Abraham" popularized in the Union Army. "The sixteenth president was arguably the first man to arrive in the White House having fraternized with a considerable number of Jews prior to assuming the presidency," reports Zola.

Lincoln's relationships with Jews date back to his political activities before his presidency. The Jewish community of Lincoln's era was predominantly composed of German-speaking Jews who arrived in the United States in the mid-1830s and the 1860s. Many of the immigrants had been "activists" in the liberal revolutionary movements of their homelands. The failure of the revolutions in their home countries and the reactionary responses drove them to seek economic opportunity and the democracy promised in the American Constitution. Many settled in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin and quickly seized the chance to be participants in the "hurly-burly world of politics on the frontier" and in the debate over slavery in America. This was also the world of the legislator and future president Abraham Lincoln.

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