By RAbbi Rachel Esserman
The Vestal N.Y. Reporter 

Some summertime reading


The summer heat can become so enervating that it’s too hot to move; fortunately, though, it’s never too hot to read. In fact, reading is a great way to escape the heat.

“Jo Joe”

When 13-year-old Judith Ormond moves to a small town in Pennsylvania to live with her white, Christian grandparents, she faces true prejudice for the first time. The problem? Not only is she Jewish, but biracial. After finishing high school, Judith promises never to return. However, she breaks that vow 17 years later when an anonymous message arrives saying her grandmother needs her help. Unfortunately, Judith returns too late: her grandmother is already dead.

In “Jo Joe” by Sally Wiener Gotta (Pixel Hall Press), Judith finds herself revisiting the violence and hatred that filled her teen years, in addition to discovering family secrets that might just change the course of her life.

The reason behind Judith’s introspection is an unexpected bequest in her grandmother’s will, which leaves her feeling dismayed and betrayed.

She starts to take action against the only person she ever allowed to break her heart: her high school boyfriend. Unfortunately, her decision creates dissension, not only with the newly formed Jewish community in town, but with the friends of her grandparents. When events occur that make her fear for her life, Judith learns surprising things about the town she longs to leave behind.

Wiener Gotta does a wonderful job creating moving and powerful scenes. While parts of the plot were predictable, there were still some unexpected twists. The best part of “Jo Joe,” though, is Judith. Her pain, joy and fear were so palpable that I found myself getting angry over the slights and hardships she faced. In fact, it didn’t take long before she felt like a friend, someone I wanted to console and help. The novel is perfect for book clubs since it offers numerous topics—from prejudice to forgiveness—to discuss. However, what readers will want most is to befriend its marvelous main character.

“City of Slaughter”

Life in the early 20th century can be brutal. Fourteen-year-old Cassie Akselrod learns that lesson early when her parents are killed in a pogrom. Seeking to escape the dangers of the Russian Pale, Cassie decides to immigrate to New York City with her younger sister, Lilia.

In “City of Slaughter” (Fithian Press), Cynthia Drew follows the two young women as they make their way to the Lower East Side and try to free themselves from poverty and despair.

Cassie is an interesting character whose growth and development are the core of the story. While her early life makes it difficult to open herself emotionally to the people she meets, Cassie does find herself drawn to the Labor Movement, particularly those who support equal pay for women. However, politics only forms part of the plot: the large cast of characters includes sweat shop owners, gangsters and con artists, in addition to fellow immigrants who are also looking to improve their lives.

Although “City of Slaughter” is filled with tragedy, the absorbing plot keeps the pages turning, while at the same time successfully portraying its characters’ complexity. Those who love reading about the Lower East Side in the early 1900s may want to explore Drew’s imagining of the time period.

“The Other Side of the World”

While mixed reactions to a book are not uncommon, I had great difficulty deciding how I felt about “The Other Side of the World” by Jay Neugeboren (Two Dollar Radio). When the narrator, Charlie Eisner, returns to the U.S. from Singapore after the death of his close friend Nick, his first stop is to visit his father, Max, a writer and retired professor.

To his surprise, Charlie finds one of his father’s former students, Seana, living in his house. Seana is not only a successful writer, but controversial and unpredictable in print and life. When she and Charlie travel to offer their condolences to Nick’s family, Charlie finds himself re-evaluating his relationship to his friend and his connection to Seana, in addition to deciding whether or not to return to his job in Singapore.

Parts of “The Other Side of the World” are wonderful: The vivid descriptions of settings—from the neighborhoods of New York City to the wilderness of Borneo—are extremely well done. The author’s excellent analysis of Charlie’s relationship to his father forms the emotional core of the book. However, the violent events that occur were severely disturbing (to say more would spoil the plot), as was the fact they are never adequately discussed or examined. That made it difficult for me to appreciate the novel as a whole.

“Zix Zexy Stories”

Somewhere there is a perfect audience for Curt Leviant’s “Zix Zexy Stories” (Texas Tech University Press). Leviant is capable of great descriptions and clever plots. The story “The Golden Necklace”—which features an architect who makes an unexpected and surprising discovery at a conference is Europe—is also very moving. “Say It Isn’t So, Mr. Yiddish” uses an ingenious plot device to perform a character assassination of Israeli professor Shmulik Gafni, while pretending, at the same time, to defend him from a charge of adultery. Teenage friendship and lust form the core of “Mooncake,” which also focuses on the fear of anti-Semitism. A nasty American version of a French farce—including locked doors and confused identities—can be found in “The Metamorphosis of Freddy Cole.”

Unfortunately, I soon grew tired of these tales, which featured men who not only confused lust with love, but saw women only as objects of desire. The wise-guy narration also grated at times. Yet, objectively, I can appreciate what Leviant accomplishes in these seven stories. That also left me with a question: why does the title say “Zix” and not “Zeven”?


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