What I’ve Read This Month – July 2013

Books Bought:

  • Fujitive Pieces – Anne Michaels (Kindle)
  • Shutter Island – Dennis Lehane
  • Moscow Rules – Daniel Silva
  • Bad Boy – Peter Robinson
  • Daniel – Henning Mankell
  • The Lincoln Lawyer – Michael Connelley

Books Read:

  • ללכת על דגים – חיים נבון
  • מרוקו – אבי טולדנו
  • Fujitive Pieces – Anne Michaels (Kindle)
  • מבוא לתפילות ישראל – חננאל מאק
  • צימר בגבעתיים – אשכול נבו
  • Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini – Giorgio Bassani

The month of July marked an (almost) Kindle-less month. The reason is rather prosaic: I read four books in Hebrew and one book in Italian – languages not readily available in my Kindle. Although it felt good holding physical books once again, each book with its own feel, weight and smell.

“ללכת על דגים” (“Walking on Fish”) is a novel by Haim Navon, a young liberal rabbi. It tells the story of a young couple, Shiri and Yoshi, who are about to get married, but then discover a deeply buried family secret: Yoshi may be a mamzer. According to Jewish law, a child born of adultery to a married woman is a mamzer and cannot wed an ordinary (non-mamzer) Jewish girl. If this rumour is true, Yoshi cannot marry Shiri.

Hence begins the search for the truth, buried somewhere in the old Polish village where Yoshi’s great grandmother allegedly did some seriously forbidden fooling around. While the search goes on, different family members from both sides react differently to the crisis. As the story unravels, the true face of each family member emerges. As expected, there is a happy end (and a rather expected one, to those versed in the details of what defines a mamzer).

Navon knows how to weave a story, although I’m afraid this book will be relevant for only a small group of people. Unless one ignores the Jewish aspects of the story and reads it like any other love-relationship-crisis novel.

I bought this book, “Morocco” by Avi Toledano, thinking it was something else altogether. I was mistaken on two fronts. First, I thought it was a non-fiction book about the lives of Jews in Morocco. As my entire family is from Morocco, and I was born there myself, I thought it would be interesting to read about my roots. Second, I thought the book was written by a once famous Israeli singer, of Moroccan birth, so the famous name on the cover caught my eye and piqued my interest.

Wrong on both counts. This is a novel, telling the story of a wealthy family of Moroccan Jewish traders and of their final years before leaving the country for Israel. And the author is apparently not the semi-famous singer. Never mind. It’s not a good book. The story is only half interesting and the writing is rather poor. As with many Jews of Moroccan origin there are too many references to “how good life was there” and to “how we were all dealt a bad hand”. In short, too much whining and too little good prose. I would have given this book a miss had I not mistaken it for something it never was.

A friend recommended “Fujitive Pieces” by Anne Michaels long ago, and I finally got round to reading it.

This is the story of a Jewish boy, Jakob Beer, who is rescued from the ruins of his native Polish town after hiding from the Nazis who murdered his entire family. His rescuer is the unlikely Athos, a Greek geologist who happened to have been in the area. The relationship that develops between the boy and the man as they return to Greece and try to build a new life together, is the background of this novel. Haunted by visions of his murdered family, Jakob leans on Athos to find a new meaning. Athos teaches him to love language and scholarship, thus building Jakob into a man.

Michaels is a poet and you can tell that by reading this book. The prose is poetic, and that is not a compliment. Although some passages are beautiful to read, as a whole the poetic style is somewhat overbearing. I found it to be too distracting and sometimes a little “forced”. It is as if Michaels wants to impress the reader with her literary gift, even if the style does not match the story. I found it difficult to finish this book.

Hananel Mack teaches Talmud at the Bar Ilan University in Israel. He has written several “popular” books about Judaism. This book, “מבוא לתפילות ישראל” (“Introduction to Jewish Liturgy”) is the transcript of a series of lectures given on radio by Mack.

The book covers Jewish liturgy from the very basics, such as the Shema and the Amida, to prayers of the high holidays and traditions regarding the reading of the Torah and other rituals. It is a comprehensive introduction and I can only assume a good one for someone not familiar with Jewish prayer. For me, I had to skim through most of the book as there was almost nothing new I was learning from it.

“צימר בגבעתיים” (“Bed and Breakfast”) is the third book by Eshkol Nevo that I read, and his literary debut. Unlike “Neuland”, which I didn’t like much, I really enjoyed this book.

This is a collection of five short stories and one novella. The novella – “סרטנים בעננים” (“Crabs in the Clouds”) is easily the best story, and could have been published as a book by itself. The story is written in short passages narrated in the first person by the characters. Yoni is a young man who, like many Israelis before him, goes on a months-long holiday in South America after his military duty and before he starts “real life”. His experiences there with hallucinogenic substances lead him to discover truths and, well, hallucinate (hence the “crabs in the clouds”). Around him are members of his family and friends who tell their own stories – each in his own particular voice and style – which intertwine with Yoni’s. It is a very touching novella.

The other short stories are OK. Nothing special.

“Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini” (“The Garden of the Finzi-Continis”), by Giorgio Bassani, is not a new book. It was published in the 1960s but has since become a classic of Italian literature (the edition I read was published by Mondadori under the “Modern Classics” series).

The book is narrated by a young Jewish man in his early twenties (who remains anonymous throughout the book) from the town of Ferrara in northern Italy. His story is centered around the Finzi-Continis, a wealthy family inhabiting a huge villa surrounded by an even bigger garden, in which many of the book’s scenes are set (hence the name of the book). It is a story of adolescent love, the love of the narrator to Micòl, the young daughter of the family. But it is also a story of the lights going out on the Jewish community of Italy, as the racist laws put in place by Mussolini gradually shunned them from public life. Throughout the book the personal relationships are intertwined with the political upheavals in Europe on the eve of the Second World War. As the narrator tells us in the beginning of the book, when he visits the family mausoleum in the local Jewish cemetery, none of the Finzi-Continis survived the war.

The main story of the book is the narrator’s struggle to belong and his impossible love for Micòl. But for me the most touching part of the book is the penultimate chapter, where the narrator has a short conversation with his father after his relationship with Micòl ends. The father, whom the narrator had mostly shunned for many years in trying to distance himself from the lower status of his family, offers a few words of wisdom and comfort to his grieving son. Suddenly our hero realizes how perceptive and understanding his father really is and how much he depends on him for support. The chapter ends with the two embracing each other. The book is worth reading if only for this short chapter.

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