Short-story aficionados have new choices in three interesting and very different collections with Jewish themes.
Fans of veteran crime novelist Fran Kellerman will be pleased to find two previously unpublished works from the Decker/Lazarus series (featuring an observant, crime-fighting couple) in The Garden of Eden and Other Criminal Delights (Warner, cloth, $24.99), as well as two personal essays.
Each piece begins with an introduction by the author, providing a personal glimpse into his life and thoughts. Kellerman always blends suspense with a Jewish conscience.
Two collections from debut authors offer complete contrasts in writing style and content, although both Elisha Albert’s How This Night is Different (Free Press, cloth, $18) and Zalman Velvel’s The King of Shabbos and Other Stories of Return (Square One, cloth, $24.95) feature Jewish characters, Jewish themes and Jewish angst.
Albert is young but very skilled, with an MFA from Columbia University, where she now teaches. Her depiction of American-Jewish life is carved with a sharp and pointed knife and is often funny, but her characters tend to be cynical and disaffected. She’s been compared to Grace Paley and Philip Roth for her thorny approach.
In the opening story, a young father is preparing for the bris of his firstborn, but his wife has locked herself in the nursery with the baby and won’t speak to him. We proceed to a naïve tourist looking for Jews in Portugal, a young woman whose best friend has suddenly become observant, and a neurotic couple on the verge of divorce.
Velvel’s ever-cheerful, modern Hassidic tales tip the scales in the other direction. The former Wall Street real-estate speculator rediscovered religion and turned to writing stories to express his thrill. Velvel’s characters aren’t all happy, but his endings are. In most, a variety of troubles are resolved by faith, charity and, yes, hope.
Velvel’s best piece comes at the very end. A personal essay called “The Care and Feeding of a Beard” shows he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Writing full-length fiction is a promising young Briton named Naomi Alderman. An Orthodox resident of London’s close-knit Hendon neighborhood, it’s here in the United States that she sets her tale.
In Disobedience (Touchstone, cloth, $24), Ronit Krushka, an only child estranged from her father, a respected rabbi, is living a secular life in New York. After returning home when her father dies, Ronit is reunited with her closest childhood friend — so close that their relationship sparks a firestorm of rumor and speculation.
Alderman begins each chapter with a relevant Jewish teaching, then continues with the story in the third person, followed by Ronit’s first-person narrative. The author is neither a Pollyanna nor preachy, but paints a portrait of two worlds that are sometimes critical and never cynical.
Israeli author Amuna Elon has published numerous children’s books and short stories, but If You Awaken Love (Toby, paper, $14.95) is her first novel. Her 40-something protagonist, Shlomtzion, has been haunted for 21 years by the rejection she experienced when her beloved fiancé, Yair, ended their engagement.
The story of her life since that devastating moment unfolds in Shlomtzion’s haunted and evocative voice after she learns that her daughter is going to marry Yair’s son. For 21 years, our main character has been talking to Yair in her head and now she is forced to see him again.
Another first-time author, Pam Jenoff, is an expert on Poland and the Holocaust, who served as vice consul to the U.S. State Department in Krakow, Poland. She’s woven her experience and interest into The Kommandant’s Girl (Mira, paper, $13.95).
Just after the Nazi occupation of Poland, Emma Bau’s husband goes underground to fight with the resistance. Passing as a gentile, Emma becomes secretary to a high-ranking Nazi officer who soon falls in love with Emma, as she struggles to accomplish the most difficult tasks of helping her husband and the resistance.
The Kommandant’s Girl illustrates the horrors of Nazi occupied Poland, bringing a touch of adventure to a difficult period in history. Jenoff provides a fast paced read, a great eye for historic detail and a hopeful ending for her characters.
Finally, a moving story memoir by journalist Peter Godwin. Godwin has written a previous book about growing up white in Zimbabwe, but When a Crocodile Eats the Sun (Little, Brown, cloth, $24.99) explores his current concern for his aging and ill parents who refuse to leave Zimbabwe despite political and economic turmoil. When a long-held family secret is revealed — his father, the consummate Englishman, is actually a Polish Jew who escaped the Holocaust while studying in England — Godwin takes on the task of trying to find out what happened to his dad’s family.
Godwin eventually begins to see parallels between his father’s losses: the first homeland where he was born and the homeland of his choice.