Jewish Book Month is an international celebration of Jewish books--broadly defined, of every type. Its origin can be traced to Fanny Goldstein, a librarian at the Boston Public Library West End Branch, who in the weeks before Chanukah in 1926 promoted Jewish books as ideas for gifts.
I believe Fanny Goldstein had a great idea, not only in terms of books as gifts, but in designating a time of year to explore the work of Jewish writers and delve into stories that touch on the incredibly diverse nature of the Jewish experience. And the timing is right, because reading in winter has its own specific appeal--and I suspect that many of us will be hunkered down inside even more than usual this year.
With that in mind, here are some recent books of note and a soon-to-be-released title to watch for.
The Tenth Muse
by Catherine Chung
Earlier this year, Catherine Chung's second novel,
The Tenth Muse,
was named a finalist for the Jewish Book Award. It is as fast-paced as a thriller, if thrillers were about unsolved mathematical theorems, academic ambition, the gains and losses of subverting societal expectations, and secret family histories.
The story is about a brilliant mathematician raised in Michigan in the 1940s. Even as a child, she is keenly aware of her talent--and frustrated by the obstacles she faces due to her gender and mixed-race heritage. She builds a ham radio with her dad, learns the Chinese tale of Princess Kwan-Yin from her mom, and thinks of life through the lens of mathematical proof. Her prized possession is a handwritten German notebook filled with quotes and equations, given to her by her father from his time serving in World War II. (It's worth noting that even though our protagonist is a math genius, you don't need to know anything about mathematics to understand--and savor--this book.)
Although fictional, she quests to solve the real Reiman hypothesis, one of the great mysteries of mathematics, studying and surrounded by a fascinating cast of historical mathematicians and scientists.
Yet the Reiman hypothesis is just one of a number of puzzles in
The Tenth Muse.
There are questions about who owns knowledge and to whom we owe loyalty, as well as a cross-generational mystery of an exceptional border-crossing family, rooted in mathematic collaborations and the events surrounding World War II.
The Lost Book of Adana Moreau
by Michael Zapata
This debut novel by Chicago-based writer Michael Zapata has gotten a lot of attention, including being named a "best book" by
. And that makes sense, because this book--called "vertigo-inducing" and "cosmic" by
The New York Times
--is for book geeks. If you grew up reading science fiction paperbacks on summer break, this is a book for you.
On the surface,
The Lost Book of Adana Moreau
is about a missing second novel by a self-taught Latin American science-fiction writer named Adana Moreau, who dies before the book is released to awaiting fans. Decades later, the manuscript is found in Chicago, in the home of a character roughly based on Studs Terkel, as his grandson Saul -- an Israeli-born Jew who works in a Chicago hotel -- goes through his things after his death. Along with a friend named Javier, Saul heads to New Orleans to try to track down Adana's son, a theoretical physicist missing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
This book is multi-layered and filled with both real and imaginary literary references on everything from pop culture to Greek myth. There are stories within stories within stories, about immigration, alternative worlds, the Great Depression, and pirates. But it is in the places between the stories, the points of transit and connection, that the book's message is found.
The Lost Shtetl: A Novel
by Max Gross
The Lost Shtetl,
the recently released debut novel by Max Gross, is about a
that time forgot; isolated, untouched, and unchanged; passed over by the Holocaust and Cold War; with its residents still unaware of cars, electricity, and the internet. But when a domestic dispute spirals out of control, the town begrudgingly crashes into the 21st century. The author is being compared to Michael Chabon and Gary Shteyngart, with the book being called "great fun, packed with warmth, humor, and delightful Yiddish expressions" (
) and "a riveting narrative about the cost of living in one's own time" (
Betsy Gomberg reads (and sometimes writes about) Jewish books. She is Spertus Institute's Director of Marketing and Communications.