Eight short stories. All of them sad. Englander pitches his stories to test the limits of love in binding marriages, ageless friendships, families, and neighbors. Two matriarchs of Israel’s settler movement are asked if they can continue to stand by one another as personal tragedies and then national tragedies overtake them. Childhood friends from yeshiva are reunited after one has become an ultra-orthodox Israeli and the other the mother of a secular son in Florida. Now both married they sit with their husbands and prod one another: for whom would they would sacrifice themselves to save another’s life? Holocaust survivors pass a lifetime in an Israeli shuk acting upon, but not speaking of the unspeakable. Englander’s stories make us think about our own boundaries and sometimes about what in the world he is up to when, for example, he places a protagonist in a peep show staring first at his Rabbi and then at his mother. The author’s directive is that relationships are untrustworthy.
Murder on the Kibbutz by Batya Gur **** (of 4)
There are several reasons to read murder mysteries. After all, the expectation upon opening the book is something really awful must happen before the story can really begin. To make a mystery worth reading, of course, the puzzle of figuring out who dunnit must be simultaneously complex and fair to the reader — no random murderer can suddenly appear in the final ten pages, for example. Great mysteries also teach you something about a time or location you otherwise couldn’t know about, and very few mystery writers are better than Israel’s Batya Gur. In Murder on a Kibbutz her detective Michael Ohayan is called upon to investigate the murder of a kibbutznik, which in Israel is exceptionally rare. Gur peels away the layers of the onion that make up a family-like group of 300 people who care about one another, share everything, and despise one another as only family members can. What I can say, having lived on an Israeli kibbutz, is that every page of description is microscopically accurate, the characters are almost too real to be fictional, and the mystery is hard to solve.
The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret **** (of 4)
Somewhere near the end of Keret’s memoir covering the seven years between the birth of his son and the death of his father, Keret writes about his experience living in a narrow house in Warsaw, Poland. The invitation to live in the house comes from a Polish architect who felt compelled to construct a house for Keret that matched the building codes of Keret’s short essays. The house is tiny, only four feet wide, efficient, fitting between two existing buildings, and yet bursts out the top. It is three stories in height. And as life imitates art and vice versa Keret’s recounting of his stay in the house is at first odd and funny and finally brings you to tears when it turns out the house is constructed in the gap between the former Warsaw Ghetto and the slightly less Nazi-occupied parts of Poland. Keret’s mother, a young girl during WWII, made nightly runs, at the risk of death if she were ever caught, to collect what food she could for her family, all of whom save Keret’s mother, died. No other writer can wring so much emotion, plot, or character from only three pages. In this, Keret’s first book of nonfiction, layer upon layer of the humor and tribulations of living in contemporary Israel, a country of profound joy and horror, capture a man and his country like few others.
Safekeeping by Jessamyn Hope ** (of 4)
Safekeeping is a description of common characters residing on an Israeli kibbutz in the late 1990s. At the center of the story is Adam, a drug addict from New York city, on the lam and carrying a 700-year-old brooch. He stumbles into Ulya, a sexy, ambitious Russian immigrant to Israel, who feigned a Jewish identity to escape the confines of Russia only to find herself trapped in a tiny country and inside an even tinier commune. Claudette, is a French Canadian volunteer with an unrelented case of OCD. Ancient, dying, Ziva represents the Israeli pioneers that fought for the country’s independence and social identity. There are Arab workers and young soldiers sent to keep peace on the West Bank. Everyone is indeed universal: I met a variant of each one on Kibbutz Ketura when I live there. In the end, however, despite the meticulous notes that Jessamyn Hope must have taken when she lived on her kibbutz, very few of the characters feel complex enough to fully engage our sympathy. Not even the brooch.
The Attack by Yasmina Khadra **** (of 4)
The Arab wife of a Bedouin Israeli physician straps a bomb to her waist and blows up a restaurant where Israeli children are celebrating a birthday party. The shocked physician, after performing emergency surgery on the survivors, embarks on an investigation to learn how his wife arrived at her decision. Khadra makes us compare the life of a successful Arab doctor, feted by Israeli establishment, his wife who has been given everything by her husband’s success except the capacity to live fully freely in Israeli society. Khadra’s entrance into the minds of suicide bombers emerges clearly even after the book has been translated from its original French. March 2007.
A wonderful little novella that I listened to on tape about a botanist who arrives in Palestine in 1909 (I think) is quickly surrounded by six lovely and lovable Jewish women and his abiding love for his childhood sweetheart.
Not great writing, but very informative about the checkpoints in Middle East before the Second Intifada made them even worse.
O Jerusalem by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
Very engaging history of Israel war for independence.
Six Days of War by Michael Oren *** (of 4)
A very thorough, detailed and extremely informative account of the 1967 Six day war in the Middle East.