Each of these five new novels has a strong message or theme. Some themes are disturbing, such as Rwandan genocide or abusive institutions. Others just get you thinking, raising more questions than answers.
But here’s a question: Do fiction readers want a strong message, or just a good story? Does a story work if the message dominates it? Do readers like their history or intellectual challenges couched in a novel or are novelists just writing for book club discussions? (And doesn’t your book club just sit around and drink wine after spending 15 minutes talking about the book?)
The Explanation for Everything, by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin, $24.95)
Stuck in a small college in a small town, widower Andy Waite is sure his life is about to turn around. He’s trying hard to get the mice in his lab to become alcoholics, but finds they are merely social drinkers who merely nap after a few nips. Still recovering from the death of his wife, he’s raising preteen girls, and fending off fundamentalist Christian students who insist on drawing him into the battle between evolution and intelligent design. Everything is going well until Melissa — one of those aforementioned students — walks into his office and into his life. Challenging him to accept her independent study to scientifically prove intelligent design, he accepts, catapulting his life and his work into a deep moral crevasse.
Good Kings Bad Kings, by Susan Nussbaum (Algonquin, $23.95)
The winner of a Bellwether prize for socially engaged fiction manages to keep a lighthearted tone while telling this distressing story of disabled young adults trapped in an insidious system that keeps them institutionalized, sometimes against their will. Using multiple points of view, the author reveals the plot at a steady pace through the thoughts and observations of the young people and the institution’s employees. Even with shifting perspectives, the story is easy to follow and absorbing. While the main characters are vindicated, Nussbaum leaves us wondering about these institutions and who is running them — for a profit — an issue very much in the news today.
Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron (Algonquin, $14.95)
Is any book about genocide a Jewish book? The Jewish content here is limited to two minor characters and, one assumes, the author’s heritage. That aside, this prizewinning book (Bellwether Prize, an Amazon best book and No. 1 Indie Pick) about a young Tutsi man who only wants to become an Olympic competitor in track for his beloved country, Rwanda, draws us in even as we dread the awful events we know will happen. Through Jean Patrick’s eyes and experiences, we see the hatred and civil conflict swell as he holds on to the last vestiges of his naïveté, hoping literally and figuratively to run away, as the violence grows. The eternal question about genocide comes to mind: How can this happen, and how important is it that we continue to bear witness? While we and Jean Patrick witness the near unspeakable, the author is smart enough to also bring us the joys of love, family and hope. The book is dense and detailed, but readable, and only suffers from what appear to be multiple endings.
The Almond Tree, by Michelle Cohen Corasanti (Garnet, $14.95)
Ichmad Hamid, the narrator of this fictional memoir, becomes a bridge between Palestinian and Israeli worlds. The opening, in his village in 1955 when his baby sister wanders into a minefield, is bound to make readers squirm. Some Jewish readers might give up at this point — this reviewer almost did — but while the subject is often painful, Corasanti uses her narrator to illustrate the problems, perils and occasional good that define Israeli-Palestinian relations. A brilliant science student, Ichmad’s parents and village ensure that he has a good education. His career becomes our hope for peace as he studies with an Israeli physicist and ends up a successful professor in the U.S. while trying to help his family and his people back home.
The Wayward Moon, by Janice Weizman (Yotzeret, $14.95)
The least disturbing of this selection still brings to mind a pressing question: Could the events described in this book really have happened to a Babylonian teenage girl in the ninth century? If you suspend a little disbelief, you will be intrigued and entertained by Weizman’s imaginative tale. The book opens as Rahel is waiting and eager to meet the boy who she will marry. Before that can happen she is forced to flee and, disguised as a boy, she sets out on a journey to escape detection and save herself, with varying degrees of success. Weizman must have done a lot of research for this book and through her protagonist’s eyes she explores an interesting time, the Golden Age of Islam, and its effects and influence on the Jewish and Christian cultures within it.
Whatever is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist, by Helene Aylon (Feminist Press, $29.95). The author is a visual and conceptual artist whose work has been exhibited around the world. Her writing is casual, but the story is fascinating as she explains the influence of her Orthodox girlhood and how she struggles, even as a grandmother herself, to try to make her mother happy by integrating her Judaism into her work. The black-and-white photos probably don’t do her work justice, but provide an excellent and necessary complement to the written word.
Future Tense (Schocken, $15.95)
Britain’s chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks never lacks something interesting to say, and the same applies to this book, which is about his 30th volume. Surprisingly, Sacks encourages us to remember Judaism’s place and role in the entire world and tells us to commit ourselves to stand alongside our kindred of all religions, and non-believers, too. Our obligation to tikkun olam — to repair the world — is an obligation to the entire planet.