One-Minute Book Reviews

March 24, 2013

Francesca Segal’s Award-Winning First Novel, ‘The Innocents’

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“Any Jewish holiday can be described the same way. They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”  

The Innocents. By Francesca Segal. Voice/Hyperion, 282 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

Francesca Segal airlifts the plot of The Age of Innocence from New York to London in this tale of young Jews whose mating habits, like their Friday-night dinners, tend to be “Ashkenazi by way of Marks & Spencer.”

Anyone who has read Edith Wharton’s book may see much of the action coming and hear an echo of its theme — the power of tribal customs to thwart individual desires — in its namesake. But Segal finds an inspired setting for her first novel in the endogamous world of well-to-do Jews who eddy around Golders Green in the age of iPods and Bernie Madoff.

The young lawyer Adam Newman has just become engaged to the sweet but unimaginative Rachel Gilbert when he falls under the spell of his fiancée’s glamorous and dissolute cousin, who has arrived from New York amid rumors of a scandal. Like Wharton’s Newbold Archer, Adam would rather dabble in love than embrace it, so the outcome of his attraction is never really in doubt. And the appeal of his story lies not in high suspense but in its intelligent and gently satirical portrait of the food-rich rituals that sustain or stifle its characters: the circumcisions, Purim parties, Shabbat dinners, Yom Kippur break fasts, and vacations at Red Sea hotels with buffet tables that serve chocolate mousse in champagne classes at 8 a.m. “Any Jewish holiday can be described the same way,” Rachel’s father says. “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” If that sounds glib, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen gives it context when she explains calmly why she doesn’t fast on Yom Kippur. “I have fasted,” she says, “enough days in my lifetime.”

Best line: No. 1: “Ha. God. For someone who does not exist He has caused me a great deal of trouble.” Ziva Schneider, Rachel’s grandmother No. 2: “the menu was traditional Ashkenazi by way of Marks & Spencer.” No. 3: “Just as when he spoke to Nick Hall, he had the sense of other Londons swirling past and beneath and above him of which he was only liminally aware.”

Worst line: From the moment that a Jewish son enters secondary school, “there is the constant anxiety that a blue-eyed Christina or Mary will lure him away from the tribe.” This lightly satirical line may be true, but Mary fell out of favor as a name for Christian girls a half-century ago.

A reading group guide with discussion questions for The Innocents appears on the publisher’s site.

Published: June 2012 (Voice/Hyperion hardcover), paperback due out in May 2013.

Furthermore: The Innocents won the most recent National Jewish Book Award for fiction in the U.S. and the Costa first novel prize in the U.K. You’ll find more on The Age of Innocence in an excellent blog about the book by Liverpool Continuing Education students. Segal talks about The Innocents and its Costa award in an interview with Simon Round.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.

(c) 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 6, 2012

Do You “Celebrate” or “Observe” Passover and Easter? Quote of the Day

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I’ve been celebrating Easter all my life, but I paid little attention to the difference between “celebrate” and “observe” until I read S.I. Wisenberg’s breast-cancer memoir, The Adventures of Cancer Bitch (University of Iowa Press, 2009). It includes this quote from the comedian Lenny Bruce:

“Lenny Bruce said Jews observe; goyim celebrate.”

February 24, 2012

Albert Marrin’s ‘Flesh and Blood So Cheap’ – A Children’s Book on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and Its Aftermath

The true story of a blouse-factory disaster that killed 146 people, mostly young women

Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy. Knopf, 192 pp., $19.99. By Albert Marrin. Ages 10 & up.

By Janice Harayda

Four hundred thousand people lined the streets of New York on a rainy day in 1911 for the funeral procession of the victims the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Nearly all of the dead were young, female Italian or Russian immigrants. And nearly all are known today, if they are known at all, for how they died rather than how they lived.

This excellent book shows how the victims lived — in their home countries, on ships bound for America, and in New York tenements — and how they found a legacy in workplace reforms that eased the shocking conditions that led to their deaths. It focuses on the Italian Catholic and Russian Jewish garment workers at the Triangle blouse factory in Lower Manhattan.

But Albert Marrin makes clear that the 146 victims of the fire shared hardships with people from other countries — especially Greece, Hungary, Romania and Poland — who became the grandparents of baby boomers. And if children see this book as the fascinating story of a tragedy that better safety rules could have prevented, their elders may find in it a part of their family history. Many adults have heard that their grandparents came to America “in steerage,” the lowest deck that held the steering cables for ships, but know little about what that means. They might gain a new respect for their elders’ fortitude if they knew that throughout the transatlantic crossing, two- to four-hundred steerage passengers shared two toilets.

Best line: Many. An example that deals with the garment industry at the time of the Triangle fire: “Textile workers, often 9- and 10-year-olds, tended the looms that wove the thread into cloth. Textile machines lacked safety devices like guardrails and automatic shutoff switches. A machine might pull in a child, grown drowsy and careless with overwork, crushing limbs or worse.” Flesh and Blood So Cheap also has a fascinating discussion of the similar conditions that exist today in other countries. The book quotes economist Jeffrey D. Sachs of Harvard, who argues that banning child labor and closing sweatshops throws poor people out of work, which can hurt them. Marrin writes that children “had no place to go” after garment-factory owners in Bangladesh fired them: “To survive, many lived on the streets as beggars. Many others became prostitutes or starved.”

Worst line: “Eventually, the partners [of the Triangle Waist Company] paid the victims’ families $75 for each life lost” in the fire. Actually, that’s a good line  — and money couldn’t compensate for these deaths — but you wonder what $75 would be in today’s dollars.

Published: February 2011

Furthermore: Flesh and Blood So Cheap was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for young people’s literature. Albert Marrin’s website describes his other works of juvenile nonfiction.

Read an excerpt from Flesh and Blood So Cheap.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs by New Jersey Monthly.

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 14, 2010

Julie Orringer’s ‘The Invisible Bridge’ – A Saga of Love and Labor Camps in Hungary in World War II

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A Holocaust novel with honorable aims and a high schmaltz factor

The Invisible Bridge. By Julie Orringer. Knopf, 602 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Reading this novel is like riding a slow-moving steam locomotive from Hungary to France and back as Nazi atrocities spread across Europe. Everything passes your window at the same speed, whether Hitler’s tanks are rolling toward Budapest or pygmy goats are eating a forgotten handkerchief in a garden in Nice.

Julie Orringer makes an honorable but sluggish effort to bring life to this a saga of three brothers and their extended families, whose members move in and out of love and labor camps between 1937 and 1945. Her novel is a sister under the skin to The Help: As Kathryn Stockett exhumed the cruelties of the Jim Crow era, Orringer recalls the brutalities of the Munkaszolgálat, the required national labor service program for Hungarian Jews, whom the law barred from serving in the armed forces. Her story develops the worthy theme that a will to live isn’t enough when disaster looms: You also need luck.

But Orringer is overmatched with a story that has nearly 250,000 words, about 190,000 longer than an average novel. Her plot relies heavily on coincidences, and her cliché-strewn prose resembles that of an overzealous editor for InStyle (“a warm apricotty soprano”). She asks us to believe that Hungarians of the 1940s used words like “empathy,” “energy conglomerate,” and “We’ve got to talk.” And her book abounds with redundancies such as “the triple-beat lilt of a waltz” (as though some waltzes had four beats) and “a perfect manmade oval artificially cooled by underground pipes” (as though pipes could provide cooling that wasn’t “artificial”). The overwriting slows the pace enough turn the novel into an oxymoron: a potboiler that never comes to boil.

Brian Hall offered more insights into Hungary in Stealing From a Deep Place (Hill & Wang, 1989), a travel memoir that includes a brief analysis the national anthem, the title of which can be translated as “Please God, Save the Magyar.” The text of the song comes from a 19th-century poem and has lines that say, in effect: This nation has suffered enough for all of its past and future sins. Hall wonders: What must a country have endured to believe it has paid not just for its past sins but for any it might yet commit? And his brief comments on the anthem may tell you as much about the Hungarian character as anything in The Invisible Bridge. Instead of providing fresh perceptions, Orringer’s story of the invisible bridge between generations confirms the lessons of Hall’s and many other books: Hungarians and Jews have suffered in unique and enduring ways.

Best line: Andras Lévi, one of the three brothers at the heart of The Invisible Bridge, quotes an architecture teacher: “Speed is the enemy of precision.”

Worst line: No. 1: “And he took her to bed and made love to her as if for the first time in his life.” A cliché, padded with “in his life,” that suggests the schmaltz factor in The Invisible Bridge. No. 2: “a layered egg-and-potato rakott krumpli.” Krumpli means “potato” in Hungarian, so this is another redundancy. It’s like saying “a bacon-and-cheese cheese sandwich.” No. 3: “It was a nightmare version of a fairy tale.”

Recommendation? The Invisible Bridge is likely to appeal most to extremely patient readers who want to learn about an aspect of the Holocaust slighted in mass-market fiction, the plight of Hungarian Jews in World War II. The book may also appeal to people who look to historical novels more for a wealth of period details than for a well-paced plot or believable characters.

Published: May 2010

Furthermore: Orringer also wrote the short-story collection How to Breathe Underwater. The Invisible Bridge, her first novel, was inspired by the life of her grandfather.

Read an excerpt from The Invisible Bridge.

Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 12, 2010

Good Passover Books For Boys and Girls Ages 4 and Up

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Cover of Wonders and Miracles by Eric KimmelA picture book and an anthology explain the Seder and more

Miriam’s Cup: A Passover Story. By Fran Manushkin. Illustrated by Bob Dacey. Scholastic, 32 pp., $5.99, paperback. Ages 4 and up.

Wonders and Miracles: A Passover Companion. Written and Compiled by Eric A. Kimmel. Scholastic, 144 pp., $18.95. Publisher: 4–8. School Library Journal: 9–12. [See further discussion of ages below.]

By Janice Harayda

Many children’s books about Passover cover essentially the same material, including the story of Moses and his sister, Miriam, and why some  families place a Miriam’s Cup next to the Elijah’s Cup at the Seder, the Passover meal. Among those with staying power:

Miriam’s Cup is a picture book that refracts the Passover story through the eyes of a modern family preparing for the holiday. Before guests arrive for the Seder, Mama Pinsky tells her daughter, Miriam, about the “the prophet you are named for.” Mama’s account focuses on the biblical heroine’s role in events more often associated with her brother Moses — his discovery in the bulrushes, his flight from Egypt, the plagues of frogs and other afflictions, and the parting of the Red Sea.

The text of Miriam’s Cup is at times stilted. The Pinskys are modern enough to have a Miriam’s Cup at their Seder, but Miriam Pinsky calls her parents “Mama” and “Papa” as though living in the early 20th century. And although Fran Manushkin never says so directly, her book has a feminist slant. (Anybody who doesn’t recall seeing Miriam on the list of prophets in that Bible-as-literature class in college may want to read the entry about her on Wikipedia). But Bob Dacey’s bold watercolors draw you in quickly and help to offset the effect of the anachronisms, and the book includes a bonus: the words and music to Debbie Friedman’s “Miriam’s Song” based on Exodus 15:20–21.

Wonders and Miracles won a National Jewish Book Award  and is, in effect, a children’s coffee-table book – an exquisite collection of poems, stories, prayers, recipes, and more – that befits the high reputation of Eric A. Kimmel, who wrote the Caldecott Medal runner-up Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. His Passover anthology doen’t include a complete Haggadah, the collection of readings used at the Passover meal. Instead Kimmel walks children through each part of the Seder, explaining why it matters with the help of beautiful illustrations spanning three centuries – from an Egyptian tomb painting to contemporary photographs of three versions of a Miriam’s Cup (silver, glass, and clay).

If the publisher and School Library Journal disagree on the ages for this book, it’s because Wonders and Miracles has something for all. J. Patrick Lewis’s simple rhyming poem “Spirit of the Seder” would suit preschoolers. Gershon Levine’s story “And You Shall Teach Your Children” makes a good introduction for adolescents to the Soviet Jews known as “refusniks” who lost their jobs or were investigated by the secret police if they tried to practice Judaism or move to Israel. And adults might appreciate the recipes for almond macaroons (“a lovely change from the traditional coconut macaroons”) or both an Ashkenazic and Sephardic charoset.

For all its virtues, this book has such an unexpected dust jacket I might have missed it if a children’s librarian hadn’t put it in my hands when I asked for “the best Passover books.” The cover comes from the gifted Bagram Ibatoulline (creator of the crucified rabbit for Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane). Ibatoulline shows Moses and Aaron in red tunics that make them look like – there’s no getting around this – Santa Claus, with seraphim and cherubim above and below them. An editorial note traces the cover influences to the Amsterdam Haggadah “illustrated by a Jewish convert who copied his illustrations from a Christian source.” And while the winged angels might confuse some children about Jewish beliefs, in a sense the cover brilliantly reflects the spirit of this book. On his first page, Kimmel tells us that Passover is ancient and modern, solemn and joyous, and timeless and ever-changing. It is, in other words, “a holiday filled with contractions.”

Ages: The publisher recommends Wonders and Miracles for ages 4–8 while School Library Journal suggests 9–12. Both are right. But very young children might destroy this book while some 11- and 12-year-olds might be too old for some of it. I would probably give it to 6-to-9-year-olds or as a “family” gift.

Published: March 2006 and Feb. 1998 (paperback and hardcover editions of Miriam’s Cup) and Feb. 2004 (Wonders and Miracles, hardcover only available).

This is a repost of a review that appeared in slightly different form in 2007. You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she often comments on children’s books.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 28, 2009

A Traveler Without a Compass – Tamar Yellin’s ‘Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes’

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An English novelist who has won international awards maps the life of a “perpetual foreigner” in the world

Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. By Tamar Yellin. Toby Press, 156 pp., $22.95.

By Janice Harayda

You can tell a lot about God’s sense of humor by the people he gives money to, an old joke says. Literary awards suggest that heaven has a lot of whoopee cushions. So what are we to make of the news that the Tamar Yellin won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, worth $100,000, for her first novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher?

Perhaps that God has put away one of the whoppee cushions. I haven’t read Yellin’s first novel, but Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes is a wonderful book. This collection of ten linked short stories deals with characters who are displaced – geographically, psychologically, linguistically – in unnamed but slightly exotic lands. You can read it as a study in modern alienation from the self, a portrait of a world full of perpetual travelers without a compass, who may come from any faith.

But Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes also works as an allegory for the Jewish diaspora in the 21st century, a meditation on a people often unable to find the Messiah within as they wait for the Messiah from without. In the story “Asher” an old man lives alone in an urban apartment building of faded splendor, where he obsessively checks his mail, reads the papers, and listens to the radio, waiting for a report that never comes. Once in a while, he says, “it would be nice to hear some good news”: “We interrupt this bulletin to announce the coming of the Messiah.” That the old man lives on a street named for Simon Peter, the first pope, suggests that Yellin intends specifically to show the plight of Jews adrift in a Christian world.

Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes unfolds as a series of chronological episodes in the life of a wandering narrator, a “perpetual foreigner” whose name and sex are never given – a character we meet as a 9-year-old in thrall to a ruthless nomadic uncle and last see as an old traveler facing death alone in a distant land. Each story works as part of the whole and as a stand-alone parable about the cost of rootlessness, including a misplaced trust in people or talismanic objects used like New-Age crystals. The magical realist story “Issachar” may nod to Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah with its tale of a student named Genie who may be invisible, an apparition, or a hallucination.

Yellin writes about complex ideas in an appealingly direct and engaging prose style. There is nothing pretentious or stuffy about her stories, which would make for fine reading aloud. The tales have their roots in the ancient idea of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel but require no familiarity with it to be enjoyable. The stories often have a mystery at their heart, which adds to the suspense, and a twist or half-turn at the end. Yellin was born and lives in the north of England, and it is heartening that a writer of her skill has won major international honors. It is also startling that she has never made the shortlist for Man Booker Prize, given some of the trifles that have appeared on it. That neglect may support, however obliquely, some of the ideas about the place of Jews in the world that Yellin develops in this book.

Best line: “I thought that at last I was beginning to be cured of restlessness, though perhaps I was merely beginning to be cured of youth.”

Worst line: “There are birds, the albatross for example, that spend their entire lives in the air.” This is a good metaphor for the narrator and other characters in this book who, figuratively speaking, spend their lives in the air. But the line isn’t strictly true – albatrosses nest on land and rest on ocean waves – and for that reason slightly confusing, particularly given that it appears on the first page. You aren’t sure whether the author is taking creative license or trying to establish the narrator as unreliable.

Reading group guide: Available on the Toby Press site.

Published: September 2008

Read an excerpt from Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes.

Furthermore: A review in the Sept. 1, 2008, issue of Library Journal said that this book is “recommended for all libraries.

About the cover: Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes will appear soon in the “Rating the Book Covers” series on this site. In the meantime, a question: Does this “A” book have an “A” cover?

The review of Clara’s War that was scheduled to appear this week will be posted in early June.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

October 10, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Why Did the Swedish Academy Announce the Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature on Yom Kippur? Cultural Insensitivity in Stockholm

Did you look at the lists of the bookies’ favorites for the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature and think, “There’s no way Philip Roth or Amos Oz is going to get the award this year”? I did for an obvious reason: The Swedish Academy said it was going to announce the winner on Yom Kippur. And I couldn’t believe the Academy would be so religiously tone-deaf as to ask a Jewish writer to take a call from the judges — and face the ensuing media onslaught — on a high holy day. The judges would have looked like cretins even if the winner had been too overjoyed to object. In naming the day of the prize, the Academy all but told Roth and Oz to forget it.

The question is: Why did the Academy decide to announce the winner on Yom Kippur in the first place? To my knowledge no important literary prizes are awarded on major religious holidays. That timing may reflect a literary reality as much as a respect for people’s spirituality: Writers get so few prizes that they deserve to be able enjoy them when they do.

To much of the world, the Nobel Prize in literature represents high culture and Hollywood stands for low. But even the Academy Awards presenters don’t hand out the Oscars on Easter. By deciding to award the literature prize on Yom Kippur, the Swedish Academy has made Hollywood look like a pillar of good taste.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 21, 2008

Death Be Not Stoned – Elisa Albert’s First Novel, ‘The Book of Dahlia’

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A gifted writer sends up, among other things, the cult of “positivity” in cancer treatment

The Book of Dahlia: A Novel. By Elisa Albert. Free Press, 276 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Dahlia Finger has a Glioblastoma multiforme, the type of malignant brain tumor that killed 17-year-old Johnny Gunther in the classic memoir Death Be Not Proud. And you could read The Book of Dahlia as a send-up of that and other books that ennoble – deservedly or not – young people who have catastrophic illnesses

There is nothing noble – or so it might seem — about the anti-heroine of Elisa Albert’s first novel, a 29-year-old unemployed stoner who lives in a bungalow in Venice, California, bought for her by her well-off father. Dahlia describes herself, with only slight comic exaggeration, as “vile, self-absorbed, depressing, lazy, messy, spoiled” and “probably mentally ill.” She is also sexually irresponsible and relentlessly profane.

But Dahlia has perfect pitch for the absurdity – and cruelty — of much of the advice inflicted on cancer patients. The propaganda is exemplified by It’s Up to You: The Cancer To-Do List, a guilt-inducing advice manual that she got soon after her diagnosis. If you don’t get better, it suggests, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough to show “positivity” or find the “bright side.” (Bad luck, apparently, has nothing to do with it.) Each chapter in The Book of Dahlia takes its title from one in It’s Up to You and satirizes a psychological cliché — “Reframe,” “Heal Yourself,” “Find a Support System” – often with merciless accuracy.

All of this is more interesting than the parallel story of how Dahlia became such a slacker. That tale begins with her parents’ courtship on a kibbutz. And involves somewhat predictable explanations — cruel mother, callow older brother, kind but ineffectual father – that emerge as Dahlia undergoes radiation, chemotherapy and more.

But if The Book of Dahlia has less unity How This Night Is Different, Albert’s wonderful collection of short stories, it also has higher ambitions. Young writers typically find humor in safe topics, such as designer shoes or clueless bosses. Few have the courage to take aim at larger – or worthier — targets than Albert does in this book.

Best line: Dahlia has had a half dozen or so casual dates with a man named
Ben when she learns she has cancer. Her parents cast him immediately as her “boyfriend”: “Margalit and Bruce were just thrilled that Dahlia appeared to have a boyfriend. This happy news could almost elbow out cancer. How much more poignant to die an untimely death in the throws of a blossoming relationship!”

Worst line: Albert could tighten her grip on point on view. Most of her story is told from Dahlia’s point of view. But at times the story goes inside the heads of others, such as Dahlia’s father: “Bruce ached for his daughter’s lack of a mother, and had tried to do everything in his power to distract her.” You could argue that at such times, Dahlia has internalized her father’s point of view so that it’s now hers. But because we don’t know if how she has internalized it, the lines are distracting.

Published: March 2008 www.elisaalbert.com.

Furthermore: Albert also wrote the short story collection, How This Night Is Different www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/22/.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com

March 6, 2008

Newly Exposed Fake Holocaust Memoir Shows ‘Narcissistic Disregard for the Suffering of Actual Jews’ — Another Reason to Read Defensively

Filed under: Memoirs,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 pm
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Love and Consequences isn’t the only memoir just exposed as a fake. Last week Misha Defonseca admitted she made up Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years (Mt. Ivy, 1997). Blake Eskin has a good story about it in Slate www.slate.com/id/2185493/, which says the book got a blurb from Elie Wiesel. The AP reported that Defonseca said through her lawyers: “This story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving.” Defonseca claimed to have been a Jewish child who, aided by wolves, wandered through Europe looking for her deported parents. In fact, her parents were Belgian Catholic resistance fighters killed by the Nazis and she just “felt Jewish.” Eskin rightly argues in Slate that her pain doesn’t justify a book that shows “narcissistic disregard for the suffering of actual Jews.”

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 1, 2007

Eric Kimmel’s ‘Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins’ and Other Good Children’s Books About the Festival of Lights

A Caldecott Honor Book and others by Eric Kimmel that offer more than eight days of fun

By Janice Harayda

For a holiday that Jewish scholars regard as minor, Hanukkah has produced at least one major children’s book and others that shine like a just-polished silver menorah.

The best is the Caldecott Honor Book Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (Holiday House, $6.95, paperback, ages 4–8). Eric A. Kimmel’s spirited text finds its inspiration in exploits of Hershel of Ostropol, a quick-witted, itinerant Jewish folk hero who lived Eastern Europe in early 19th century.
In this picture book Hershel must outsmart goblins who haunt an old hilltop synagogue and annually spoil Hanukkah in the valley below though tactics such as blowing out villagers’ candles and throwing their latkes on the floor. He triumphs through an ingenious mix of humor, intelligence and feigned indifference to their powers. (When the king of the goblins tries to intimidate Hershel by asking him if he knows who he is, he quips, “I know you’re not Queen Esther.”) The entertaining text is not flawless: A seam shows where Kimmel seems to have edited out the stories of a few goblins who appeared in longer version.

But Trina Schart Hyman’s pictures have their usual rich, luminous beauty – like that of fine stained glass windows – and lift Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins into an aptly ethereal realm. Schart Hyman is one of few picture-book artists can make dark tones rest as lightly on their pages as Tomi Ungerer’s did his great Moon Man.

Kimmel www.ericakimmel.com has also written at least a half dozen other widely respected picture books about Hannukah. One that’s out-of-print but worth tracking down at a library or elsewhere is The Magic Dreidels (Holiday House, $6.95 paperback, ages 4–8), illustrated by Katya Krenina, the engaging story of a boy named Jacob who encounters a goblin who gives him several magic dreidels, the four-sided tops that children spin during Hanukkah.

A picture book that is in print Kimmel’s The Chanukkah Guest (Holiday House, $6.95 paperback, ages 4–8), a folk-tale–like story of an old woman with failing vision who lives on the edge of a forest and serves her Hanukkah latkes to a bear she mistakes for her rabbi. First published in Cricket, The Chanukkah Guest www.holidayhouse.com isn’t in the same league with Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins or even The Magic Dreidels. But it tells an amusing story about a friendly bear that’s likely to appeal to 4- and 5-year-olds who enjoy tales such Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood. Another picture book that remains in print is Kimmel’s turn-of-the-century tale, When Mindy Saved Hannukah (Scholastic, $5.99, paperback, ages 4-8). I haven’t seen it, but you can find reviews on Amazon www.amazon.com that give a good sense of its story.

Kimmel’s holiday offering for older children is A Hanukkah Treasury (Holt, $20, ages 9-12), illustrated by Emily Lister, a collection of songs, poems, recipes and more. I haven’t seen this one, either, but admired his book about Passover, Wonders and Miracles: A Passover Companion Scholastic, $18.95, ages 9-12) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/24/. That beautifully produced anthology, though recommended by its publisher for school-age children, had some material that would appeal to preschoolers, too.

If you can’t find these books, ask a bookseller or children’s librarian to show you other books by its author, about Hannukah or another subject. Kimmel has been writing for decades and enjoys a well-earned popularity. While the appeal of many Hannukah books won’t outlast the holiday, Kimmel’s stories are seasonless.

Reviews new or classic children’s books appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reivews. You can read other reviews of children’s books by clicking on the “Children’s Books” category below the “Top Posts” list at right. Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who spent 11 years as the book editor of a large daily newspaper.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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