A Little Something for the Summer?

The Forward's Beach-Read Picks

Published June 02, 2010, issue of June 11, 2010.
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Forward staffers and contributors share their picks for beach-friendly reads. The offerings include historical fiction, a three-author memoir about unconventional paths to motherhood and a collection of darkly humorous essays.

NOVEL, AND FRESH

The Invisible Bridge
By Julie Orringer
Knopf, 624 pages, $26.95

In a field as crowded with artistic representations as the Holocaust, it’s easy to assume that there is nothing new to say. Julie Orringer reminds us that there always is, so long as there are individual stories to tell.

Her new novel, “The Invisible Bridge,” is a brilliant vessel for one such tale. Andras Lévi, a young Hungarian Jew who studies architecture in Paris in the late 1930s, discovers love with an older woman before being deported to a labor camp in his homeland. This wallop of a novel is loosely based on Orringer’s grandfather and is the follow-up to her 2003 celebrated story collection, “How to Breathe Under Water.” As in her modern stories, here Orringer covers the darkest matters with a tender authority while imbuing her characters with the subtle, endless dimensions of love and suffering.

The world of young Lévi and his brothers is expertly rendered: from the beleaguered rural Hungary of their youth to the sleek, speeding trains of Europe and luxe Parisian structures, to the stark concrete camps that keep people against their will. It’s an arduous charge, and Orringer has succeeded: She’s written a Shoah novel that is gripping, fresh and worth remembering and, unlike much of the ephemera consumed poolside this summer, this novel will endure.

— Allison Yarrow

Listen to a podcast interview with author Julie Orringer here.


GENDER JIHAD IN NON-FICTION

Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming The Middle East
By Isobel Coleman
Random House, 352 pages, $26

Isobel Coleman’s optimistic portrait of Muslim women struggling for greater religious, political, economic and social freedom presents stormy debates that have clear and lively Jewish counterparts. The women of the five Islamic countries highlighted in the book, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, fight against patriarchy, invisibility and discriminatory religious law and for the legitimacy of female religious leaders. Their battles raise wider questions, too, about the costs of secularism and the protection of cultural memory.

It is easy to feel inadequate reading these tales of bravery and dedication: Muslim women standing for election or in forced exile, women who have been intellectually suffocated or whose family members have been assassinated. But Coleman’s purpose is more positive: to show that the seeds of a “gender jihad” — empowerment for women in the Muslim world, often using the language of Islam — are being sown. Islamic women are starting to disentangle centuries of custom and tradition from the putatively egalitarian “essence” of the religion itself.

Jewish women have at least a generation’s head start on this type of empowerment. But from these modest beginnings to announcing that we are witnessing the “last gasp of patriarchy” is a leap too far, even if women of all denominations might devoutly wish it.

— Esther Solomon


HISTORICAL FICTION IN DE-NILE

Light of My Eye
By Paula Jacques
Translated by Susan Cohen-Nicole
Holmes & Meier, 260 pages, $24

Paula Jacques’s first novel to appear in English throws readers into the hot, dusty, haunted world of Egyptian Jews in the 1950s. After the war in Europe, racial tensions were brewing in Cairo, still under British rule. Between the collapse of the Egyptian monarchy and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power, Egypt’s Jews were viewed as invaders by many barely literate Arabs, who were forced into crippling poverty, often having to pray in run down mosques.

The riots and sociopolitical shifts of the time are captured through the eyes of preteen Mona Castro. Her large, eccentric family and their struggle to maintain their Jewish and Egyptian identities are wrapped up in her own coming of age. Though her family is steeped more in superstitious tradition than religion, they turn to the synagogue instead of fighting back, sparking Mona’s rebellion. She flees an affair with an Eastern European Jewish refugee and the crowded bazaars with her overbearing relatives, in search of other adventures.

Jacques’s tone leaps between playful and somber, laced with colorful language that belongs to a lost world. Mona’s mother, who plies her with stuffed zucchini, and father, who feverishly smokes opium and argues the fate of Egyptian Jews, are vital and at times violent characters who embody the desperation around them. Seeing all this through the eyes of a wise child, often bitterly angry at the seemingly senseless adults around her, provides a vivid insight into a dying world.

— Royal Young


CYNI-PLEX ESSAYS

It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Me
By Ariel Leve
Harper Perennial, 304 pages, $13.99

Ariel Leve’s self-narrated world in her weekly-column-turned-book, “It Could be Worse, You Could Be Me,” is split between New York City and London, and her disposition is caught somewhere between. While Leve’s pessimism is signature New York, her dry London wit is what redeems the author, by providing dark comedic insight into her world.

Leve’s columns are arranged into a series of short essays on topics ranging from romance and friendship to modern social graces and even medical conditions, for which the author has a particular affinity. While clearly not created initially as one body of work, various friends and characters — like her foil, an ultra-adventurous father who lives in Southeast Asia — make recurring appearances and underline a false sense of loneliness.

Leve’s dark humor is best digested in small parts, not necessarily consecutively, and, unfortunately, the book lacks arc. At the end, Leve is as cynical as she begins and has convinced the reader, as the title says, to be thankful you’re not Leve.

— Devra Ferst


TRIPLE MOTHERHOOD

Three Wishes
By Carey Goldberg, Beth Jones, Pamela Ferdinand
Little Brown, 288 pages, $24.99

Sure, we’re told to “be fruitful and multiply,” but that’s much easier said than done for those who find themselves approaching 40 and unattached. It’s the situation Boston-based writers Carey Goldberg, Beth Jones and Pamela Ferdinand found themselves in a few years back. One by one, each woman made the decision to undergo artificial insemination rather than let her reproductive years pass her by.

Carey purchased vials of sperm only to fall in love and, in short order, go on to make babies the old-fashioned way. She passed the sperm on to Beth. And when Beth found herself in a romantic relationship with suitable father material, she gave the vials to Pamela, who also found love before she could make use of the sperm.

The three women’s circuitous, often-painful journeys to motherhood is the subject of their new memoir “Three Wishes,” for which the authors took turns writing chapters. Each woman is a wordsmith in her own right. Their voices and their very similar stories blend together seamlessly — perhaps too seamlessly, as it is sometimes difficult to keep track of their individual trajectories. But, ultimately, their tightly braided stories are as inspiring as they are absorbing.

— Gabrielle Birkner


STORIES OF DAMSELS IN DISTRESS

Alone With You: Stories
By Marisa Silver
Simon & Schuster,164 pages, $22

In “Temporary,” the opening story in Marisa Silver’s new short story collection, a young woman named Vivian, who was adopted as a child, has recently relocated to Los Angeles. By day she finds herself working as a temp in an adoption agency, and by night shares an illegal warehouse with a new acquaintance named Shelly whose jobless, bohemian lifestyle is funded by family money.

In the story, Vivian considers blocking the adoption request of a set of parents she finds unsuitable, despite the fact that this is far beyond the purview of her position, while recounting the final days of her own adopted mother. Vivian is neither dull nor apathetic, but is instead, like a student of yoga or martial arts — on the outside she looks relaxed, even possibly bored, but on the inside she is filled with intent — spine straight, strong yet agile.

A simple line can be drawn between Vivian and many of the female characters in the eight strong stories in Silver’s book, all of whom oscillate between impermanence and permanence as they deal with personal matters like illness, infidelity, and parenting. With a delicate touch, Silver presents her characters in the slow process of personal growth, somewhere between action and inaction, both mentally and physically. We witness them navigating through the layers of their individual situations, carefully peeling away complications, and, occasionally, resting in their folds.

— Elissa Strauss


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