Weeks of rain and inconsistent temperatures has many eagerly awaiting summer’s arrival, but whether you are heading out from the Steel City or using the upcoming solstice for a staycation, the weather is always right for a good book. Here is a look at what several members of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle staff are reading.
Dinner at the Center of the Earth
By Nathan Englander
I have been a fan of Nathan Englander since his 1999 debut collection of short stories, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.” So, when I saw that a review copy of his newest novel, “Dinner at the Center of the Earth,” had made its way to the Chronicle’s offices, I grabbed it.
Part spy thriller, part magical realism, part political fiction, the novel spans time and place, shifting rapidly from 2002 — during the midst of the second intifada — to the summer of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, and moving from Paris to Berlin to a prison cell in the Negev to Ariel Sharon’s hospital bed, to even inside the mind of the comatose general himself. It took me a few chapters to appreciate the method to the author’s madness, but once I did, I couldn’t put the book down.
At the center of the book is Prisoner Z, an American Jew turned Mossad agent, who is being held for years in a remote desert outpost for treason with no hope of release. We eventually learn how he got there, but not without first being asked by the author to examine principles of loyalty and to take a hard look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the continuous cycle of terror and retribution. PJC
— Toby Tabachnick
Book of Job: A Commentary
By Solomon B. Freehof
(Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1958)
Schmoozing, sparring and sauntering in the sun are so many of summer’s staples. Unsurprisingly, those exercises are as old as time itself. The classical tale of Job, a man who seemingly has much, loses much, is rewarded and endures an existential and theological search of biblical proportion, may not seem like typical poolside reading, but while scouring a local library I found this gem that illuminates any setting.
“Book of Job: A Commentary” is written by Solomon B. Freehof, a historic Pittsburgh rabbi who predated the pulpit of Rabbi Walter Jacob at Rodef Shalom Congregation. Freehof influenced and charted the American Jewish experience by updating the “Union Prayer Book,” served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and authored more than 700 responsa.
His take on Job is instructive, grappling with a text that inherently wrestles with itself. Between its characters’ ponderings, Job offers a look at seismic struggles. In his commentary, Freehof presents one particular thought that for me, generated substantial pause: “Every author is the child of his time…There are certain phrases which are characteristic of a certain age; certain social conditions which reflect themselves in a man’s description of his ideas; certain range of ideas are the product of the development of knowledge in his day. No writer can escape his own era.”
For a rabbinic icon who sought space within the corpus of classical writings — or even a Jewish journalist — such words never rang so true. PJC
— Adam Reinherz
By Kim van Alkemade
Set in 1920s New York, Kim van Alkemade’s “Bachelor Girl” weaves together the stories of three very distinct characters: Helen Winthrope, an aspiring actress as she recovers from an illness that nearly crippled her career and left her family in debt; Albert Kramer, a gay man trying to simultaneously embrace and shun his identity as he works to become a businessman; and Colonel Jacob Ruppert, a millionaire who owns the New York Yankees.
All three have their fair share of secrets, which unfold slowly as the reader navigates through their world of business, sports and theater, all as their relationships to one another change.
The book is written in a meandering tone, putting the reader squarely in the shoes of the characters, drawing all the attention to whatever crisis is at hand, whether that is a lack of proper dress to wear to the dog show or a leaked secret to The New York Times about the new Yankee Stadium.
While Ruppert remains a relatively shadowy character throughout most of the book, Winthrope and Kramer immediately develop extreme personalities as headstrong, independent, determined and often misguided. Kramer works desperately to hide his sexuality from his boss, but also seems to constantly strike up relationships with those connected to the business. Winthrope, though proud of her position as a “career girl,” is drawn to the role of a traditional mother but continuously takes steps to endanger that future.
As the characters work through tumultuous life events, van Alkemade writes with such elegance and poise that it is easy to feel disconnected from the chaos of their lives, making the book a relaxing read. Though set nearly a century ago, the main characters’ struggles with issues of identity, insecurity, love and family mirror the same issues many people face today, and the lessons they learn do not slip by the reader unnoticed. PJC
— Lauren Rosenblatt
Treasures of The Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan
By Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck
(Penguin Books, 2006)
When one spends a good part of one’s day every day immersed in the Jewish world, it’s refreshing once in a while to take a vacation via a good book. There are few parts of the world as remote from the Jewish world — and remote from the rest of the world — as the Kingdom of Bhutan.
In a recent article in Condé Nast Traveler, the writer asked an eclectic set of ambassadors to the United States to discuss one book that they would recommend that someone traveling to their country read ahead of time to better understand their country. The ambassador of Bhutan recommended this book, a personal memoir written by the country’s queen mother.
Long isolated from most of the world, this landlocked Himalayan land was essentially a medieval Buddhist kingdom until the 1960s. The author, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, remembers a happy childhood growing up in a mountain village with lots of family and festivals but no electricity, plumbing or paved roads. She takes the reader on the amazing journey of Bhutan becoming more developed and somewhat more open, all just in the span of her own life. Despite these profound changes in society, the author says that the Bhutanese still retain their deep ties to their land and their culture, which is deeply integrated with their religion, a form of Buddhism closely related to Tibetan Buddhism.
Despite the profound differences between us, it seemed reminiscent to me of the enduring attachment that many Jews hold to the land of Israel and Judaism.
Bhutan contains a wide variety of geography populated by a multitude of ethnic groups, and a long history of mythological as well as historical events. For much of the book the author describes her travels throughout the country, seeing historical and religious sites as well as visiting many of the distinct ethnic groups that populate the isolated mountain valleys of the highlands. Throughout it all she shows a cheerful and loving attitude towards her homeland, with lots of details that make the country and its peoples come alive for the Western reader.
The King of Bhutan’s overall policy of national development emphasizes happiness and preservation of the quality of life, including protecting the environment, over pure economic development. Not surprisingly, the queen mother supports this policy unreservedly and speaks glowingly about how wonderfully it is working.
If this all sounds too good to be true, it is. Readers of the Chronicle may recall that Jewish Family and Community Services has helped Pittsburgh’s community of Bhutanese refugees. These refugees are not the majority ethnic Bhutanese or Buddhists; rather, they are the minority ethnic Nepalis and Hindus who had migrated into the lowlands in recent history. The ethnic Bhutanese majority didn’t want to see Bhutan’s identity become diluted and so pressured many of these ethnic Nepalis into fleeing the country.
Clearly this volume is not a clear-eyed analysis of modern Bhutan. What it is, however, is an informative and entertaining look at modern Bhutan from the perspective of its majority population, and for that it is worthwhile. PJC
— Jim Busis