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BOOKed: Fiction for the Fall

September 13, 2013
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Fall is a busy time for many of us with back-to-school and back-to-back Jewish holidays. So in this BOOKed column, we've put together a selection of novels and even a children's book that won't require too much time to read, especially once you get hooked on the story lines. 

These recommendations are brought to you by a team of voracious readers in our community who volunteered to offer their thoughts on the latest and greatest Jewish books. (If you're interested in contributing, simply email us to find out how to get involved.)

While this column focuses on fiction, we hope to appeal to a wide variety of tastes and will be including nonfiction books in future columns, as well. All of the books featured here are either written by a Jewish author or contain Jewish themes. 

The Dinner
By Herman Koch
(292 pages, Hogarth Publishers)

Although The Dinner takes place almost entirely over the course of one meal at a posh Dutch restaurant, there is nothing simple or boring about this novel. Written in first person, the story is told through the thoughts of Paul Lohman as he dines with his wife, brother and sister-in-law. 

During this journey through Paul's mind, you feel his disdain for his brother, a fake, showy politician, and his love for his wife and son. You can clearly picture how the waiter points to the food with his pinky. And you learn that the couples' teenage sons have committed a heinous act, however, they have yet to be discovered by the authorities. What Paul and his family will do to protect their children will make you question your own values and ethics. 

"We have to accept that there are real monsters out there," Koch writes. "Monsters who should never, under any condition, be released."  What if these statements described you or someone you know? What would you do to protect yourself or someone you love?

Many reviewers have understandably compared this book to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and William Landay's Defending Jacob. But Koch's novel is even more disturbing. The characters are unlikable and the storyline is upsetting. You will want to put the book down, but you won't be able to stop reading because you'll need to find out if justice is served. 

The time you spend in Paul's mind is thrilling, disconcerting and exhilarating. You will keep thirsting to know more even after you really shouldn’t want to know more. The writing is smart and the ending unexpected. This story will stay with you long after it is finished. 

- Karen Eckstein-Sarkissian and Melissa Rosenthal 

Margot
By Jillian Cantor
(352 pages, Riverhead Trade)

Margot is a fictional account of what might have happened had Margot Frank, Anne Frank’s older sister, survived the Holocaust. In Cantor’s tale, Margot moves to Philadelphia, conceals her past and her Judaism, and gets a job as a secretary for a Jewish lawyer.  (I got a kick out of this because I worked in Center City as a paralegal for many years, so I got to imagine what the city and the legal profession was like during 1950s.)

The novel opens in the spring of 1959 when a movie version of The Diary of Anne Frank has just been released to great acclaim. Margie Franklin, the American name Margot has adopted, doesn't want to see or talk about the film, hoping to keep her distance from the past. 

Written in the first-person, you experience Margot’s nightmares, flashbacks, survival guilt and doubts about her religion. In some novels, you want to know what happens so badly, you might skip paragraphs or even pages, but you won't do that with this one. In Margot, you want to hear her every thought and listen to her pain. You cannot turn away — not because you want to gawk, because you want to soothe and comfort her.

On a personal note, I found the book deeply moving. Since I was born 20 years after the Holocaust, my perception of its horrors came from fuzzy, intangible images that I saw in books, worn-out newsreels and films. Even Anne Frank's diary ends at her capture by the Nazis, so you really only know what she experienced in hiding. I never really thought about the aftermath, which was even more horrible, or the others with whom she hid. Margot changed that, re-educating me about the Holocaust and making it more real. 

- Karen Eckstein-Sarkissian

Claudia Silver to the Rescue
By Kathy Ebel 
(256 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Take the title of this debut novel with a dose of sarcasm because the dysfunctional main character is hardly capable of keeping herself afloat, let alone rescuing anyone else. The presumed rescuee is Claudia's younger sister, Phoebe, who comes knocking on her apartment door after running away from their remarkably aloof mother. For her sister's sake, Claudia presents herself as a stable support system, of course not mentioning that she's "borrowing" money from her best friend after losing her job and having an affair with said friend's father. 

From Claudia's cold-hearted mother to her professional failures to her taste for ridiculously unsuitable older men, the miserable circumstances of her life seem ludicrous at first. Surely real people have spiraled through similarly disturbing situations or even screwed up their lives after making far worse decisions. Still, Claudia's actions just don't always ring true for how a college-educated young woman like her should presumably act. 

If you can get past the absurdity, however, you will eventually become engrossed in Claudia's dramatic misfortune. You might wince at the repeated bad choices she makes, but, like watching a train wreck, you won't be able to look away. You might even start to find her flaws endearing or root for her to take at least one right step. 

In addition to wondering what Claudia will mess up next, Ebel's dense, witty prose will draw you in. She manages to create dramatic moments that are both uncomfortable and funny at the same time. The dialog is quick and clever; the descriptions loaded with detail. Perceived lack of plot authenticity aside, expect an entertaining page-turner. 

- Deborah Hirsch

Starring Jules (As Herself)
By Beth Ain
(145 pages, Scholastic)

Your family will simply fall in love with this fabulous children's book about 7-year-old Jules Bloom, who lives in New York City with her parents and younger brother, Henry. 

Jules has a unique sense of style and a personality to match.  On her first day of school, she decides to wear "a blue-and-white striped long-sleeve shirt, violet corduroy overall shorts with red poppies all over them, navy tights with turquoise polka dots, argyle knee socks, and light up high-top sneakers."  You can just picture how colorful she looks.

The story begins with Jules being "discovered" by a talent agent while out to dinner with her family.  As Jules blows bubbles with a straw into her milk and sings a jingle about fizzy ice cream cones, a "movie-star beautiful" woman tells her that she has a lot of pizzazz and invites her to audition for a commercial. 

Find out how Jules fares at her audition, meet her "old" and "new" best friends and follow along as her parents help her navigate through several dilemmas in this fantastic story. You will especially enjoy all of the lists that Jules writes. ("I write a lot of lists because if I didn't I would lose track of the one million things that fly in and out of my brain," the little girl explains in a "biography" on Ain's website.) 

In her first book, Ain has created a sparkly, energetic character that children of all ages will love. Her conversational, run-on writing style is fantastic, and she leaves you eager to find out what happens next when the book ends. Thankfully, Jules' story will be told over a series and the next installment, Starring Jules (In Drama-Rama), is expected to be released this month.

- Melissa Rosenthal, with input from her 8-year-old daughter, Molly

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