As the kids get ready to go back to school, it’s time to reload our grown-up backpacks with some new reads by Jewish (Jew-ish) authors and celebrities.
“The Sabbath Soul: Mystical Reflections on the Transformative Power of Holy Time,” edited by Eitan Fishbane (Jewish Lights, paper, $18.99). Drawing on Hasidic teachings, Fishbane selects texts to enhance the appreciation of Shabbat, from candle lighting and Kiddush to sacred eating. The author has translated a number of sources previously unavailable in English.
Tops on this quarter’s list is the entertaining and touching “The Bar Mitzvah and the Beast: One Family’s Cross-Country Ride of Passage by Bike” by Matt Biers-Ariel (Mountaineers, paper, $18.95). When the author’s son, Yonah, refused to have a Bar Mitzvah, shunning religion in that recalcitrant teenage manner, his parents told him to come up with another significant way to mark his Jewish adulthood. They settled on a cross-country bike ride from California to Washington, D.C. to present a petition on climate change to Congress. At first it’s just father and son, but when little brother Solomon insists on coming, mom (Djina) has to join, too. Solomon is too small to ride alone so Matt purchases an older model tandem bike with a temperamental personality that leads it to become “The Beast” of the title.
Adventures and general discomforts befall this family as they schlep across the midsection of our nation in the hottest possible weather, but it’s a learning and bonding experience, a rite of passage for all, and makes a great story.
“The Legend of Shane the Piper: A Novel Memoir,” by Rick Spier (Moon Donkey, paper, $8.50). This local author has clearly done a lot of work (read: therapy) toward personal improvement, and shares his and his family’s history of dysfunction in a tough-talking, entertaining fashion. Spier focuses on his undergraduate life at Dartmouth, where lot of drinking was involved, resulting in the typically bad events that follow a lot of drinking. His relationship with his parents — a different kind of horror story — is a big part of his account as well. The author’s connection with Judaism is minimal, through his stepfather who raised him, but he gives it honorable consideration adding it, and the specter of the Holocaust, to the complicated equation of his family history. Spier cleverly calls this a “novel memoir,” allowing him to fudge some details and protect himself, too.
“The Guttenberg Bible,” by Steve Guttenberg (Dunne, cloth, $25.99). This memoir of life in Hollywood in the 1980s is much like the actor: Cute, fun and entertaining. Guttenberg stresses his working-class Massapequa (Long Island) roots, and is most entertaining when relating his parents’ kibitzing conversations on the phone. Guttenberg’s early success in Hollywood involved an elaborate ruse of pretending to be Michael Eisner’s son, but he insists he hasn’t let Hollywood go to his head. Like his career, the book is a bit inconsistent, ranging from well written to choppy, yet it’s perfect for fans of behind the-scenes Hollywood. Guttenberg scrupulously refrains from the negative and makes a point of complimenting many of the support staff that really makes a movie run. But where’s the Jewish content? Aside from his use of “G-d” and learning that Leonard Nimoy makes stuffed cabbage (Nimoy’s mother’s recipe), Guttenberg sadly ignores his Jewish roots.
Famous people writing books
“Beyond the Sling,” by Mayim Bialik (Touchstone, cloth, $23.99). Best known as the star of the long-running 1990s sitcom “Blossom,” and as Amy, the non-girlfriend of Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory,” Bialik is also a neurobiologist with a doctorate from UCLA and an overarching interest in child development. This book about attachment parenting draws on her personal parental experience and her interest in the human brain to counsel parents on the best way to bring up baby. Bialik stresses a reliance on instinct (rather than books — like this one?) and advises on some areas of most parental concern, including breastfeeding, sleeping and discipline, all supported by brain-based research. Just in case you might think she’s arrogant, she repeatedly stresses that she is not perfect. It’s the brain, stupid.
“The New Rules,” by Bill Maher (Blue Rider, cloth, $26.95). Subtitled “a funny look at how everybody but ME has their head up their ass,” fans of the late-night TV comedian will enjoy this long collection of short reflections on life. Others may not appreciate the irreverence. To assess this book I turned to a more rigorous consumer of popular culture, one of my 17-year-old sons, Ethan. He calls the book, “funny, crude, sometimes spot-on,” adding that not every piece is amusing and it’s not a book to sit and read. “Just open it up randomly,” he advises. In other words, it belongs in that basket of reading material you keep in your bathroom. Caveat: By his own admission, Maher’s father is Jewish and his mother raised him Catholic. The entertaining website “Jew or Not Jew” gives him a score of eight out of 15.