The 1960s and its shifting societal attitudes are a common thread in four new novels of Jewish interest.
Closest to home is Issaquah author Jane Isenberg’s newest mystery-cum-historical novel, The Bones and the Book (Oconee, paper and on-demand, $14.95). Isenberg, who we just profiled as one of our five women to watch, is the award-winning author of the Bel Barrett mystery series and of a memoir about teaching.
The 1965 Seattle earthquake makes an unexpected widow of Rachel Mazursky, but it also uncovers a leather bag of bones and an unsolved murder in Seattle’s underground. There’s also a diary in the bag, written in Yiddish. Suddenly in need of both employment and diversion, Rachel offers to translate it for a University of Washington professor and becomes absorbed in the life of Aliza Rudinsk, a young Jewish immigrant who came to Seattle in 1890. While Rachel wrestles with the translation, she wrestles with her new circumstances in a world that is still prejudiced against working women. Rachel finds parallels in Aliza’s world as she doggedly pursues the circumstances of Aliza’s death.
Moving back and forth from the 1960s to the late 1800s gives the author a chance to explore the roles of women in both eras, along with creating a page-turning mystery. (The novel had to be set no later than the ‘60s, says the author, or the bones would have decomposed.) Isenberg researched extensively, and the book is filled with wonderful details about Seattle of both eras and other tidbits about clothing and immigration that lend an authentic touch.
Andrew Goldstein’s The Bookie’s Son (617 Books, paper, $14) offers an interesting contrast, set in a tough Bronx neighborhood in 1960 and told from a guy’s perspective. The press release reveals that this wonderful story is based on the author’s memories.
Twelve-year-old Ricky Davis tells the story. Ricky’s family does not live the idyllic life pictured in old TV shows. His father is a small-time bookie indebted to the Mob, which has brought a constant threat of danger into his family’s life. Young Ricky is determined to rescue them, particularly his beloved mother and grandmother, with both funny and disastrous consequences. He remains sweetly naïve despite dangers of neighborhood bullies and sociopathic gangsters, all while preparing — barely — for the biggest danger of all, his Bar Mitzvah.
The author’s varied career has included organic farming and Zamboni driving. Now he’s given us a very promising debut novel.
Poet Alan Shapiro’s first novel, Broadway Baby (Algonquin, paper, $13.95), doesn’t fully live up to expectations from the author of more than 10 books of poetry. The main character, while riddled with faults, is intriguing enough to keep the reader going, but the writing is flat, never developing the emotional tension and relief expected of a novel.
“Broadway Baby” does make important points about a number of issues, all worthy of discussion. Perhaps Shapiro was just trying to do too much in a short book.
Miriam has been damaged by distant parents and the anxious grandparents, Holocaust survivors, who raise her. Growing up in the 1950s, she abandons dreams of a stage career for a conventional life and marries too young. Confined and suppressed by societal expectations, although she doesn’t really know it, Miriam pushes her middle son to become a musical theater performer.
Shapiro states in his notes, “personal experience is not art, and art is not personal experience,” but the reader suspects this is a memoir in disguise. The book disparages Miriam, who is indeed carping, critical, thoughtless and unsympathetic, but also struggles to understand her and the family and society in which she grows up. Her inability to connect with, or even understand her children, is tragic, but until the very end she inspires no other emotional response, besides cringing, in the reader.
Twelfth & Race by Eric Goodman (U of Nebraska, paper, $18.95) doesn’t take place in the ‘60s, except for an opening flashback that is crucial to understanding the rest of the book.
Thanks to an identity theft, the life of white Jewish Richie Gordon takes an unusual turn when he starts dating the black woman who is the ex-girlfriend of the man who stole his wallet.
When a white man dates a black woman in a racially charged (fictional) city in Kansas, questions of identity and belief are bound to arise. On top of that, Richie discovers something about himself and his family that radically changes his self-perception. After a young black man is shot and killed by police and the city erupts in riots, Richie has to make some choices about where his loyalties lie and what family really means to him.
These books, upon reflection, share another common thread. Even with a male narrator or protagonist, they are about women, women who by personality or circumstances are unusual or quirky, just a little outside of the norm.