Adolph Eichmann, architect, planner, and executor of “The Final Solution” for the Jews escaped to Argentina at the end of the World War II. It took 15 years before Mossad and Shin Bet operatives for the young state of Israel discovered his whereabouts, kidnapped him, and returned him to Israel for trial. That trial placed the Holocaust on the world stage. From the start of the book to its final page Bascomb lets the facts speak for themselves. Without over dramatization he recounts the words of Holocaust survivors who have become defenders of the new state of Israel. They explain their plans and the risks required to kidnap a Nazi on foreign soil. Simultaneously, Eichmann provides his twisted explanation of the need to eliminate the Jewish people. The Spartan account is chilling and riveting.
Parrot and Olivier in America *** (of 4)
At the end of the 18th Century, following the French Revolution, Olivier, a French aristocrat modeled on Alexis de Tocqueville arrives in America accompanied by an earthy British compatriot called Parrot. The plot, such as it exists, is a tool to carry the young, arrogant Frenchman and the luckless Parrot from Philadelphia to New York and Connecticut. Together they discover and describe the invention of American democracy, capitalism, restlessness, and Protestantism. But they also reveal burgeoning conflicts over race, individual versus state’s rights, female emancipation, and the fine line between an honest dollar earned in a free market and the theft, insider trading, and crookedness available in a marketplace without regulation. There is enough humor, tawdriness, compassion, and suspense to carry the book even in places where plot and raison d’être take a vacation.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon **** (of 4)
Hard to say if this book plays in Peoria, but Chabon prepares a perfect rendition of two genres: 1940s noir detective novels and Yiddish culture. A murder occurs in a sleazebag motel on the wrong side of the tracks in Sitka Alaska, home to Jews who were permitted to settle there after Palestine failed as a Jewish state following WWII. Arab – Israeli conflicts are replaced by Chasidic – Tlingit ones. The hard-drinking detective drinks slivovitz from the old country instead of whiskey; chasidic hoodlums hang in gangs on street corners discussing how to launder stolen money and what’s the talmudic way to kosher pots; and the detective has to follow his chief-of-police, ex-wife (he’s still in love with her) on his hands and knees through an escape tunnel, but all he can think about is how much he misses being able to bite her tushy. The parody holds for the entire book and the more you know about murder-mysteries and Yiddish culture, the more you’ll enjoy it. June 2007.
The World to Come by Dara Horn *** (of 4)
On the plus side I learned a lot about Chagall. Dara Horn writes well. She channels the great Yiddish authors like Peretsky, Singer, Sholom Aleichem, and Nachman of Bratslav. She has compiled a modern version of the angst, absurdity, folklife, and culture of Yiddishkeit. But on the minus side Horn has also created a story that wanders aimlessly, sometimes is senseless to the point of distraction, and admits the entrance of the supernatural (yes, these are all features of the great age of Yiddish literature) in ways that divert her story rather than move it along. September 2008.
A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell ** (of 4)
It chronicles the Italian resistance to the Germans during the last two years of WWII. A very positive review in Publisher’s Weekly, and it was read as “One book, One City” in Erie, but I didn’t finish it. Russell’s research is outstanding, I could feel it on every page, but the plot was well, plodding, and I didn’t learn much after I realized that Italians were not really Nazi supporters in WWII. After that the Jews suffer, Germans are evil, countryside Italians are friendly peasants, and keeping track of all the characters in Russell’s multi-threaded narrative is just a bit too much work. October 2007.
The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer ** (of 4)
OK, I admit it. I’m tired of reading books about the evils of Islam. It’s enough to make you think there’s a conspiracy of publishers each searching for the next great novel of Islamic terrorists, brutal prison guards, violent husbands, and psychologically tortured ordinary citizens. After reading this overrated book about a Jewish gemologist in Iraq imprisoned after the Iranian revolution and tortured while his family waits helplessly and anxiously I was left wishing for more complexity. Sofer hints at deeper characterizations, but doesn’t quite make good. The gemologist, for example, really did turn a blind eye to the Shah’s evil secret agents. The prison guards did have mixed feelings about their obligations to the revolution, their families, their own security, and to justice. Yet, for me, the characters felt flat, surprising, since I suspect much of the book is an autobiographical account of the author’s father. (Makes me doubt she has another critically acclaimed book in her.) Perhaps I’m poisoned reading this book back to back with A Thousand Splendid Suns but I am issuing a challenge to editors: surely there are some level headed Muslims living in the Middle East. Let’s hear their stories. January 2008.
QBVII by Leon Uris
About a trial of a libelous author who writes about Nazis, autobiographical. Uris is a class-act story teller making big books go by quickly.
Prisoners by Jeffrey Goldberg *** (of 4)
Goldberg describes himself as a Zionist, former peace-nik, with an insatiable wish to meet people who want to kill him because he is Jewish. As a regular contributer to the New Yorker he’s an excellent writer with an ability to meet face to face with leaders of Islamic Jihad, the Taliban, and Hamas. In this book Goldberg is best when he’s doing journalism, describing the hell of Ketziot prison for Palestinians swept up by the IDF and in the end of the book when he refuses to relinquish his search for a Muslim Palestinian willing to put friendship with a Jew before desire for revenge. I had to wade through a long middle section of memoir that I didn’t quite care about. September 2007
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth *** (of 4)
No writer captures anxiety, apprehension, fear, and hopelessness better than Roth. I cannot think of a happy or fulfilled character in a single one of his books so to read Roth is to experience a descent into discomfort. His characters are so believable, however, and his writing so captivating there is no turning away once you begin. Plot Against America is a perfect vehicle, a midrash, on what might have happened in the U.S. if American patriotic hero, vocal anti-Semite, and Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh had defeated Franklin Roosevelt at the outset of Germany’s European conquest. October 2009.
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks **** (of 4)
An extensively researched fictional account of the survival of the Sarajevo Haggadah, the luminescently illustrated (that alone is unusual for a Jewish book) account of the Jewish escape from Egyptian bondage read at the Passover Seder. First printed in the1480s the book survives the Inquisition, 400 years of European travel, World War I, an attempt by the Nazis to steal it from the Sarajevo library in World War II, and the seige of Sarajevo. The story of the book conservator created by Geraldine Brooks to provide the clues to the Haggadah’s history is a little too modern, but it is forgiveable because the historical accounting is simultaneously so well researched and richly portrayed. February 2008.