Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman. Scribner, 2014, 384 pages
Alice Hoffman’s new novel is itself an extraordinary thing. The cover photo of some sort of mermaid (Is it a fish? Is it an x-ray? Is it something magical?) sets the stage for the dramatic mix of romance, historical fiction and magic conjured by the talented author of The Dovekeepers and other popular novels. The story takes place in 1911 New York City and is book-ended by the riveting tales of tragic fires that occurred two months apart: the Triangle Shirtwaist factory and the Dreamland Fire on the Coney Island boardwalk.
The world of freak shows, common at the time, is explored through Coralie Sardie and her sinister “scientist” of a father, who runs his freakish museum with all the outsized cruelty of a mustachioed villain plucked from a silent film. He trains Coralie to hold her breath and swim for hours in a tank, exhibiting her as a living mermaid due to her unusual webbed fingers. One night, while swimming the Hudson River, she spies the young, handsome Eddie Cohen, an apprentice photographer, and falls in love at first sight. A Russian Jewish immigrant who has given up on his father’s Orthodoxy and assimilated into the teeming masses of the New York streets, Eddie has learned to fend for himself. He also has developed a reputation for locating missing people. In March, 1911, Eddie finds himself on site to photograph the Triangle fire, and subsequently he is hired to solve the mystery of a girl who disappeared that day but whose body was never found.
Part detective story, part love story and part magical fairy tale, Hoffman’s painstaking historical research adds color and depth to an intriguing story of murder, deceit and family secrets in a changing New York. Readers will be moved by the fascinating characters and the grace with which they overcome what life has brought them: a wolfman, a woman disfigured by acid, an ex-convict who talks to birds, a one-armed animal trainer, a Dutchman living alone in a hut at the marshy end of Manhattan island, a wealthy family whose lives are disrupted by the rising labor movement, and the many observant Jews learning how to survive during the tumultuous times of the early 20th century.
The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s greatest mystery, Sara Davidson. W.W. Norton, 2013, 342 pages
This engaging portrait of popular rabbi and spiritual leader Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who passed away in July, is not biography, but rather a portrait of the spiritual journey undertaken by writer Sara Davidson and her encounters with a remarkable man. While ostensibly about facing death, this affecting discourse on aging well will inspire readers to keep it by their bedsides in order to re-read their favorite chapters.
Davidson, a baby boomer, grapples with caring for her aging mother with dementia, a close call with death in Afghanistan, and her concerns about her own health. In 2009, she got a call from Reb Zalman, the charismatic founder of the Jewish Renewal movement who was living nearby in Colorado. At age 85, he had been contemplating his own death, and wanted to reach out to others to teach them how to examine the profundity of their December years. At the time, Davidson, who calls herself “a skeptical seeker,” was considering “how best to live whatever years were still ahead” and the two began weekly conversations in his home. Reb Zalman called these conversations “The December Project,” and the book Davidson wrangled from her tape recorded sessions is compelling and important.
A sampling of the chapter headings proves the point: What If It Ends in Nothing? Planning the Exit; Can We Choose When to Die? Forgive, Forgive; The Ultimate Letting Go.
Schachter-Shalomi’s life story is interwoven with Davidson’s recounting of their conversations. Born in Poland, he narrowly escaped the Nazis, became a Hasidic rabbi ordained by the Lubavitch movement (but later broke with them), and founded his own movement. Eventually known as Jewish Renewal, it combines meditation and mysticism with music and Hasidic practices. Reb Zalman encourages people to have direct experiences with God. Davidson’s conversations with him are heartrending but also entertaining, due to her ability to capture the delightful personality of her teacher.
The last 20 pages of the book consist of exercises that Davidson says will “help you become more at ease with mortality.” “Taking up the December Project,” says Reb Zalman, “can make each day sweeter and more meaningful. It can also help you accept the challenging times and see their value.” Davidson recommends taking up the project with other people and to start by creating a file or notebook with pages titled “Gratitude,” Forgive,” “Things I still want to do or complete,” and “Intuition.” Reb Zalman has deeply affected the lives of thousands of individuals, Jews and non-Jews, and he will continue to do so as readers take his spiritual end-of-life observations to heart.
Storm, Donna Jo Napoli. Simon and Schuster, 2014, 368 pages
Dystopian novels for teens are big these days. Thanks to their compelling writing, dashes of romance and mature themes, crossover novels like The Hunger Games and Divergent have gained wide popularity among adults. But dystopian novels are usually set in a futuristic society-gone-wrong, not in a mythic biblical past, as popular YA author Donna Jo Napoli attempts in this cleverly re-imagined tale of Noah’s ark. This apocalyptic vision of the well-known story is populated with realistic characters who learn to live by their wits when their world is destroyed.
By the end of the first chapter, 16-year-old Sebah (who is unrelated to Noah and lives miles away from where the ark was built) struggles to survive after losing her home and family in the flood. She takes shelter in a tree along with her small cat and another random survivor, a boy named Aban. They build a raft and hope for the best. When the giant boat floats by in the distance, Sebah figures out a way to get on board with the help of a wise pair of bonobos. But she quickly realizes she must conceal herself from Noah and his quarreling family for her own safety. What follows is a page-turning adventure story that would appeal to anyone who has ever wondered about the logistics on that huge ark with its hundreds of caged animals for 370 days.
Napoli includes a detailed timeline, different than the traditional 40 days and 40 nights, in her author’s notes at the end of the book. As usual for this award-winning author and professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, the research is impeccable and her process is fascinating. A close reading of Genesis, chapters 7– 8, reveals how long it took for the waters to recede after the rain stopped on the 40th night. Certainly a lot can happen in 370 days, and the chapter headings counting off the time help add to the suspense. Napoli’s vivid imagination and vast knowledge of classic myths and stories, along with her understanding of animal biology and behavior, propel this unlikely survival story toward its satisfying, cinematic ending. Although this book is recommended for readers 14 and up due to some violence and sexuality (clearly bonobos enjoy the act of mating), and it may be disapproved by biblical literalists, it will surely find an audience among readers who like their heroines spunky and with the courage to overcome catastrophe and begin life anew.
Suddenly, Love, Aharon Appelfeld. Shocken, 2014, 240 pages
Aharon Appelfeld’s latest novel doesn’t have much of a plot, but it is a beautifully written exploration of the themes of memory, loneliness, and mature love. Although usually the author sticks to European settings, this time he writes about the possibilities of blossoming love between Ernst, an aging Israeli retiree, and Irena, his quiet 30-something caretaker.
Ernst is 70 years old, depressed and tortured by his seeming inability to become a published writer (he is attempting to pen a memoir about his childhood in Czernowitz before the war). This short novel follows his writer’s block and the slow unfolding of Irena’s simple but powerful love. Her devotion serves as the catalyst that will open Ernst’s mind to the memories of his past in Soviet Russia.
Ernst knows he is unwell and Irena’s steady, caring presence initiates feelings of regret for his pre-war Communist philosophy and anti- Jewish actions as a Party rabble-rouser. As he finds his way back to his past, he writes a romanticized version of what was. “Now his life is coming back to him like a spirit returning from the dead, and he knows that it seeks correction,” writes Appelfeld, amid scenes of an idealized pre-war Jewish Romania. Like Appelfeld himself, Ersnt writes and speaks to Irena in German, his first language, and revels in the European café culture of hours lingering over great philosophical discussions that was once prevalent on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Irena is so gentle and innocent, that, this too, is a romanticized notion of what love could, or possibly should, be. Perhaps Appelfeld is writing with longing about an idealized caretaker of his own: “She sees that he struggles day and night, pouring his soul into the long pages that lie on his desk. Why not rest a little from writing? she wants to cry out every time she sees his drained face.”
Born in a displaced persons camp after the war, lonely Irena spiritually communicates with her recently dead parents, Holocaust survivors. She has only a 10th-grade education, which contrasts sharply with Ernst’s. But as his illness overtakes him, and her devotion conquers his writing block, she grows out of her attachment to the past and in her simple way, learns how to just be in the world.
The compelling simplicity of Appelfeld’s prose is particularly enhanced by the beautiful translation by Jeffrey M. Green.