• Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past with Its Last Wandering Shepherd by Sam Apple

    A journalist who traveled from childhood memories to adult memories from urban NY to Austria’s highest peaks in search of Hans Breuer, Yiddish folk singer and “last wandering shepherd of Austria.” Apple manages to seamlessly tie shepherding and Yiddish into his questions about post-war Austria and contemporary anti-semitism in Europe suspensefully and full with satisfaction.

  • The Jewel Trader of Pegu by Jeffery Hantover ** (of 4)


    A Sixteenth Century Jew from the Venetian ghetto travels to the east Indies to trade for Jewels so we can compare the lives of Jews in anti-Semitic Europe (Abraham must wear a yellow cap when he leaves the ghetto), Buddhists in Pegu, and Christian traders.  I can’t put my finger on it, but the book lacks depth.  The characters are superficial, the love story between Abraham and the local rice farmer, Mya, can be seen a hundred miles off, and the religious comparisons feel heavy handed.  There are better books to read on Jews in the Middle Ages.  Start with A Journey to the End of the Millennia.

  • Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb **** (of 4)

    Adolph Eichmann, architect, planner, and executor of “The Final Solution” for the Jews escaped to Argentina at the end of the World War II.  It took 15 years before Mossad and Shin Bet operatives for the young state of Israel discovered his whereabouts, kidnapped him, and returned him to Israel for trial.  That trial placed the Holocaust on the world stage.   From the start of the book to its final page Bascomb lets the facts speak for themselves.  Without over dramatization he recounts the words of Holocaust survivors who have become defenders of the new state of Israel.  They explain their plans and the risks required to kidnap a Nazi on foreign soil.  Simultaneously, Eichmann provides his twisted explanation of the need to eliminate the Jewish people.  The Spartan account is chilling and riveting.

  • The World to Come by Dara Horn *** (of 4)

    On the plus side I learned a lot about Chagall. Dara Horn writes well. She channels the great Yiddish authors like Peretsky, Singer, Sholom Aleichem, and Nachman of Bratslav. She has compiled a modern version of the angst, absurdity, folklife, and culture of Yiddishkeit. But on the minus side Horn has also created a story that wanders aimlessly, sometimes is senseless to the point of distraction, and admits the entrance of the supernatural (yes, these are all features of the great age of Yiddish literature) in ways that divert her story rather than move it along. September 2008.

  • A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell ** (of 4)

    It chronicles the Italian resistance to the Germans during the last two years of WWII. A very positive review in Publisher’s Weekly, and it was read as “One book, One City” in Erie, but I didn’t finish it. Russell’s research is outstanding, I could feel it on every page, but the plot was well, plodding, and I didn’t learn much after I realized that Italians were not really Nazi supporters in WWII. After that the Jews suffer, Germans are evil, countryside Italians are friendly peasants, and keeping track of all the characters in Russell’s multi-threaded narrative is just a bit too much work. October 2007.

  • The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer ** (of 4)

    OK, I admit it. I’m tired of reading books about the evils of Islam. It’s enough to make you think there’s a conspiracy of publishers each searching for the next great novel of Islamic terrorists, brutal prison guards, violent husbands, and psychologically tortured ordinary citizens. After reading this overrated book about a Jewish gemologist in Iraq imprisoned after the Iranian revolution and tortured while his family waits helplessly and anxiously I was left wishing for more complexity. Sofer hints at deeper characterizations, but doesn’t quite make good. The gemologist, for example, really did turn a blind eye to the Shah’s evil secret agents. The prison guards did have mixed feelings about their obligations to the revolution, their families, their own security, and to justice. Yet, for me, the characters felt flat, surprising, since I suspect much of the book is an autobiographical account of the author’s father. (Makes me doubt she has another critically acclaimed book in her.) Perhaps I’m poisoned reading this book back to back with A Thousand Splendid Suns but I am issuing a challenge to editors: surely there are some level headed Muslims living in the Middle East. Let’s hear their stories. January 2008.

  • Prisoners by Jeffrey Goldberg *** (of 4)

    Goldberg describes himself as a Zionist, former peace-nik, with an insatiable wish to meet people who want to kill him because he is Jewish. As a regular contributer to the New Yorker he’s an excellent writer with an ability to meet face to face with leaders of Islamic Jihad, the Taliban, and Hamas. In this book Goldberg is best when he’s doing journalism, describing the hell of Ketziot prison for Palestinians swept up by the IDF and in the end of the book when he refuses to relinquish his search for a Muslim Palestinian willing to put friendship with a Jew before desire for revenge. I had to wade through a long middle section of memoir that I didn’t quite care about. September 2007