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Monday, April 30, 2012

PASS it on OVER!

A review of three great books just right for Passover (or for any other time of year).

I was going to originally write this post during Passover.  Though, I didn't quite finish one of the books in time and I wanted this to be a review of some good literature not something 'hokey pokey' just for Passover.  Just because the three books happen to revolve around Passover somewhat, they are very different.  What makes one book's usage of Passover Seders different from others?  Let's find out.

The Matzo Ball Heiress 
by Laurie Gwen Shapiro

This book is all about the dysfunction and family drama that arises at Passover time.  For those who aren't 'members of the tribe', at Passover, Jews sit down and have a Seder, which is like a Jewish Thanksgiving.  The only differences is that on Passover, there is lots of reading, lots of waiting (for food), and lots of drinking (of wine).  You can see how things can get a bit melodramatic, what with a bunch of Jews together who are all starving and drunk.  You get the picture!

Heather Greenblotz, the main character, is the heiress of the Greenblotz Matzoh company fortune.   However, she doesn't want to merely sponge off of her inheritance; her main career is being a documentary film maker with her friend and business partner, Vondra Adams.  Despite her family pedigree, a Heather Greenblotz Seder consists of her eating a ham and cheese sandwich in front of the tv, alone.  Thus, the whole non-Seder and the fact that  Heather doesn't talk to her family much, contradicts the Greenblotz franchise motto: 'Buy Greenblotz-Because family is everything'.    

Heather's life begins to unravel when she agrees to televising a Greenblotz family Seder (the first in a long long time).  Obviously, Heather doesn't think this is such a good idea; her family fights like cats and dogs on Creatine (which makes you super aggressive, ps).   Between a matzoh ball and a hard place, Heather must try to track down and gather her crazy family together for the first ever televised Greenblotz Seder.  This, however, is much harder than it seems.  

Heather's father, Solomon Greenblotz is now an openly gay man living in Amsterdam with a Dutch erotic photographer.  Heather's mother,  Jocelyn is taking an Amazon cruise to study with shamans and healers.  Jake, her cousin, is cohabiting with a non-Jew, Shioban who, to the public, is always introduced as Shoshanna Greenblotz.  Greg, Jake's brother, lives in Florida and loves women, fishing, and having fun in the sun.  It doesn't help that Greg's current girlfriend is named Amy Hitler.  So, having slim pickins, Heather must try to find non-family members to attend the Seder. Throw that in with the project of taking on: a smarmy stoner high school film intern, having a complicated romance with the kosher camera man, and also having to lie about the whole truth of the Greenblotz family- these circumstances make for one very Tums inducing Passover Seder.

I give this book four out of five matzoh balls.  It is funny and quirky, laugh out loud at times.  However, I also cannot help to identify it somewhat as 'chic lit'.  Now, I don't believe so much in that genre, but there are books that appeal more to women than men.  There's a steamy (in my opinion), all too graphic sex scene.  Sex really perfumes this book and keeps it into the land of light reading.  What also keeps Shapiro's book from being more highbrow is the light-hearted fluffiness surrounding the female protagonist's perspective.  Women in this book seem only to think about sex (so do the men by the way).  The characters, however, are wild, fun-loving, and very cleverly drawn out.  The whole Seder debacle reminds me of a Christopher Durang play, wacky with intelligent dialogue.  I can see many scenes of this book, by the way, playing out on a theater stage.  My wife tells me that there is rumor of a stage production in the works of Shapiro's book.  How splendid!  I think this book would translate really well to the stage and I'd pay good money to see it, like Jerry Springer meets Shalom in the Home.

These Days Are Ours
by Michelle Haimoff


I love this book!  It is rare to find a piece of fiction that can fit inside so many genres of literature.  This book is first and foremost 'Jewish' in that most of the characters ARE Jewish.  However, it is  definitely a commentary about how social class and religion cohabit within American society.  The book is also 9/11 fiction, as it is set in post 9/11 NYC.  There are not many books that can pull of existing in multiple worlds, but this book does just that.

I had a hard time putting this book down.  Instantly, I identified with the main character, Hailey, a wealthy post-college grad living in New York's Upper East Side.  However, Hailey is a lot more than just a 'Jewish American Princess'.  She strives to be something and wants to get a job so she can earn her own keep.  She doesn't want to rely on her parents' fortune from their work with Conde Naste magazine.  Hailey wants to do things on her OWN terms.  That is something any 20 or 30 something can relate to; breaking away from one's parents and past is never easy.

Hailey basically only has her friends, Randy, Katie, and Jess, to rely on.  They go out to hung-over brunches and stay out at bars for late night drink-a-thons.  However, these friends all share the similar experience of growing up within the upper crust circle of New York City, so they understand each other.  Hailey may not like the fact that her friend, Katie, texts her brother, Adam and that they have an on again off again booty call relationship.  Hailey freaks out when she hears that her brother almost OD's and hears it from Katie, not Adam.  

The lack of direct communication between characters makes for quite complex and fragile relationships.  Which, while we're on the subject, brings me to point out how much I appreciate the relationship between Hailey and her mom.  I find it sad that Hailey sits in an often empty apartment and turns on music in different rooms in order to feel less alone.  Hailey's mom is one of those people who acts busy in order to feel fulfilled and less empty.  She goes to Barney's and drops money on shoes like it is her job to do so.  Hailey pines for the days when her family was a unit, but now they have been pulled apart from divorce.  What makes it worse is that Hailey doesn't hear the truth about her parents' divorce from her mother or father.  She hears it from Adrian, a guy she meets at a Passover Seder and then falls in love with.  It seems unreal that she would hear about her dad's affair through gossip, but in New York's upper crust society, this is totally possible. 

Hailey deals with both the pressures of 'keeping up with the Schneiders' and worrying about getting blown up.  Being rich in post-9/11 New York is quite a tall order.  It is interesting that through the book, Hailey has to fight her fear that is a result from 9/11.  She secretly hopes the terrorists will strike again so she can run through Central Park and fall into the arms of Brenner, a perfect Jewish ten in her book.  She, however, realizes, like with everything else, that Brenner and his family are not perfect either.  Their photograph with a Golden Retriever and white picket fence is only a glossy veneer.  Hiding beneath are the same imperfections and dysfunction within Hailey's own family.  Hailey learns that Brenner's mother is trapped in a marriage she wants out of, as she confides this to Hailey drunkenly during a party.  Nothing is at it seems, which is a theme I definitely appreciate.

Hailey faces difficult turmoil as a result of hiding what people don't see and living up to other people's expectations.  Being rich is not worry-free in Hailey's mind; if she wants success, she must earn it.  She Hailey wants to get a job so she can prove that she isn't just another wealthy trust fund baby who shops by day and drinks/parties by night.  She also has to deal with the less than perfect family dynamic.  Hailey, luckily, finds solace in her relationship with Adrian, a boy from outside New York City who has more realistic qualities than Brenner, the guy Hailey is obsessed with and wants to marry.  Soon, however, Hailey realizes that her fantasy about Brenner is a little girl crush.  It is her relationship with Adrian that begins to form substance, as he consoles and listens to Hailey; he seems to be the only one with his head on straight who offers good advice.  I actually identified as much with Adrian as with Hailey.

Which brings me to point out how much I like that the voice is not distinctly male or female.  Usually, you can tell what gender the author is.  However, in this case, Michelle Haimoff might as well have been a pen name.  The female voices are authentic, but so are the male ones.  Both genders have their issues.  I applaud Michelle Haimoff, especially in that she is a feminist blogger.  However, it is refreshing to see that she is an authentic feminist in that she understands the complexities and complications behind men and women.  She doesn't rail against men the entire time, nor does she present women as superior (though they are) and flaw-free.  There is a balanced and truthful portrayal of both men and women in this book.

I give this book a definite five out of five matzoh balls.  It seems, at first glance, to be another book about rich people and their problems or post 9/11 New York.  However, there is so much hiding underneath the surface, much like the characters themselves.  I could easily see this book being made into a movie.  The scenes are well described and I can picture these characters walking the streets of NYC.  Truly a must read!

All Other Nights
by Dara Horn

What I love most about this book is the merging of seemingly divergent topics, The Civil War and Judaism.  Why don't people often put these two things together?  After all, Judah P. Benjamin, a character in the book was an actual person AND the very first Jewish Cabinet member in this country's history.  He was a Confederate politician who, toward the war's end, argued that slaves in the Confederacy should be freed.  Benjamin was also only the second Jew to serve in the US Senate (for the state of Louisiana).  At Southern succession, he was made attorney-general of the Confederacy, then Secretary of War, and lastly Secretary of State.  Just to read about real people from history, who are also Jews, who played a very significant role within the context of the Civil War is thoroughly riveting.

Therefore, the opening scene, where Jacob Rappaport (the main character) sits in a barrel on a boat to Louisiana having enlisted with the Union army.  He does this to escape being married off, as a business transaction, to a 'homely' 17-year old girl who still plays with her dolls.  Jacob's family are wealthy mercantile New York Jews who are engaged in export/import on the East Coast.  Jacob soon discovers that he is talented as a Union soldier, and he is soon enlisted as a spy.  So, as he arrives in New Orleans, he has one mission, attend a family Seder to track down and kill Harris Hyams, a Confederate spy who is also his Aunt Elizabeth's husband.  Judah Benjamin will also be attending the Seder, as he is Harris's first cousin.  Should Jacob betray his family bloodline or his country?

Jacob's next mission is in Richmond, Virginia where he must win over the heart of one Eugenia (Jeannie) Levy who, with her sisters is involved in a Confederate spy ring.  Jeannie's family is also Jewish and involved in the business world which makes Jacob's job even easier, as he helps Philip, Jeannie's father, fix his books and save his business to which he is indebted and softened concerning   Jeannie's courtship by Jacob.  Jeannie's sisters are all quirky: Charlotte (Lottie) has been engaged multiple times, Rose speaks in cryptic code, and Phoebe is an expert whittler.  These are all separate skills that the Levy sisters use to operate their spy ring.  Adding gravity to the matter is the fact that Jeannie's ex-fiance discovers Jacob is a spy and will sell him out in order to win Jeannie back.  

Jacob soon discovers that the Levy sisters (at least most of them) have actually been spying for the Yankees and not the Confederacy.  However, Jeannie's true identity is mistaken and suddenly Jacob's wife and the mother of his unborn child is thrown into a Union prison.  Jacob must continue his work as a spy working with the Union, each passing day pining after Jeannie Levy, a mission that he fell in love with.  The book has many quick twists and turns that keep you reading.  You never are sure what will come next.  How will the now looming situation that Jacob is in, resolve itself?  Will Jeannie and Jacob see one another again?  This book is a labyrinth of suspense and spy-tingling mystery.

I give the book 5 out of 5 matzoh balls.  I read it a year ago, and still, the scenes and characters are vivid in my memory (which is not typical since I have really bad detail recall).  This book uses facts from history, as Dara Horn was once the fact-checker for American Heritage magazine.  Did you know, for instance that General Ulysses S. Grant sent out a proclamation to expel every Jew from the Department of the Tennessee, which included parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi, solely because Grant believed them (ALL Jews in the area) to be 'war profiteers'.  So, yes, Ulysses S. Grant had some anti-Semitic beliefs. Dara Horn expertly merges fiction with fact, and cleverly weaves a plausible historical fiction.  Most of the events in the book did not happen, but they could have.  If you are a history buff or just love a good spy novel, then this book is surely for you.  It is smart, well-written, and tells a great story (very similar to how Big Fish is told as a piece of film).  The Civil War and Judaism do not keep exclusive company anymore!

matzah-tastically yours,


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