- A Spy By Nature, Charles Cumming
- The Spanish Game, Charles Cumming
- Before I Go To Sleep, S. J. Watson
- Sister, Rosamund Lupton
- Crazy U, Andrew Ferguson
- Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love, William Kolbrener
- The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt, ed. Ruth Andrew Ellenson
The best book of this batch is, unfortunately, probably the one with the least popular appeal. Kolbrener’s book of essays integrates serious analyses of modern life with both Judaic and secular scholarship – from Aristotle to Wordsworth. Each essay is short, but over the course of the book he builds a picture of his intellectual and religious commitments that is quite appealing*. He believes in an adult, mature, committed Judaism that relies on a scholarly understanding of Judaic texts, but also on a deep connection to a larger intellectual culture, and the human insight to understand what kind of life is meaningful in the first place. Although I’m not as observant as he is, his larger goals match up quite well with mine. I’ll be returning to these again and again, I suspect – starting with reading his essay on Passover at my Seder table this year.
The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt was a bit of a mixed bag, despite pushing plenty of my intellectual buttons. The problem wasn’t the content; the essays were very good, individually! Horn talks about “teacher love” in Judaism, and how powerful it can be as a way of connecting to new ideas. Kalinsky’s story of marrying a German was powerful, dark and far beyond cliche. Shanker made me deeply proud of my big damn mouth. Unfortunately, the book was less than the sum of its parts. Read in a single sitting, the essays reinforce each others’ most stereotypical aspects, weakening the experience as a whole. I’d strongly recommend the book, but don’t read it like I did. Dip in, read an essay or two, and then take a break. I think you’ll get more out of it in the long run.
Finishing up the non-fiction here, Crazy U didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about the madness of the college application process. I enjoyed Ferguson’s story, even though I periodically cringed at his attempts to motivate his son. However, if you aren’t, say, obsessively interested in the sociology of college applications, you can probably give this one a pass.
On the fiction side, Before I Go To Sleep was the clear winner. It falls into the “gimmick thriller” category, because its protagonist suffers from a rare memory disorder that means she has trouble forming new memories. My personal bar is higher for gimmick thrillers, but Watson clears the bar by a mile. He creates a believable character who truly experiences and re-experiences the anguish of her condition. He’s also brilliant at ramping up the tension through apparently mundane experiences and the details of daily life. Recommended, assuming you don’t mind your thrillers psychological!
That’s not to say the other three weren’t good; they just weren’t as good. Cumming has pacing problems. His spy novels start with lovely slow build-ups that include both the everyday tensions of espionage life and excellent action scenes that leave you wondering. His resolutions, though, come just a bit too fast for you to wrap your head around. He loves the “But wait! There’s another layer!” trick, but doesn’t understand that you need more than a page or two between revelations to make that satisfying. Sister is a fairly straightforward “Who killed my sister?” novel, but it’s well-executed and does an especially lovely job of portraying the relationship between the sisters. Their shared family history is pivotal to the plot, as is the narrator’s slow realization of her self-deceptions about the relationship.