The idea of summer reading dates back to the 19th century, when a new middle class was discovering the idea of summer leisure. Writers began setting new novels at summer resorts and vacation destinations, and painters captured the moment, with women in flowing summer dresses reading on porches, hammocks, and at the seaside. In “Books for Idle Hours: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading” (University of Massachusetts Press), Donna Harrington-Lueker draws on publishing records, readers’ diaries, and popular novels to describe the phenomenon. She quotes novelist Charles Dudley Warner, a friend of Mark Twain, who wrote, in 1886, “As certainly as the birds appear, come the crop of summer novels, fluttering down upon the stalls … as welcome and grateful as the girls in muslin.”
This season’s new titles include updated novels in this 19th-century tradition, as well as works of history, biography, literary fiction, and memoirs, well-suited for airline as well as subway travel, the beach, or the great indoors.
“Newcomers in an Ancient Land: Adventures, Love, and Seeking Myself in 1960s Israel” by Paula Wagner (She Writes Press) is a coming-of-age story by a writer who travels to Israel with her twin sister at age 18 to learn more about their father’s Jewish background. She falls in love with the land and the language, and her life is transformed in this momentous era.
“The Spiritual Gardener: Insights from the Jewish Tradition to Help Your Garden Grow,” a first book by Andy Becker (Tree of the Field), includes gardening tips, stories from the author’s garden, quotations, and teachings from Jewish texts and reflections on the bitterness of horseradish and sweetness of raspberry jam and more.
“Jerusalem: City of the Book” by Merav Mack and Benjamin Balint, with photography by Frederic Brenner (Yale University Press), explores the hidden libraries and archives of the city and the librarians who care for them, unfolding the history of the city through ideas developed there over centuries. The book opens with a quote from Jorge Luis Borges, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
A detailed story of an act of brutal international terrorism in 1985, “An Innocent Bystander: The Killing of Leon Klinghoffer” by Julie Salamon (Little, Brown) delves into the destinies of three families whose lives were upended by this event. Klinghoffer had boarded a cruise ship with his wife to celebrate their anniversary, and was shot and then thrown overboard in his wheelchair. Researching the events, repercussions, and the search for justice, Salamon interviews most of the participants who are still living, including one of the hijackers, and creates a powerful narrative.
“The Volunteer: One Man, An Underground Army and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz” by Jack Fairweather (Custom House) is the account of a Polish resistance fighter who infiltrated Auschwitz, organized a rebellion and assassinations of Nazi officers, smuggled out information, and then managed to slip out of the camp to report on what was going on there. The author, who has been a war reporter for the Washington Post and other papers, explains that the story was erased from the historical record by Poland’s communist government, and has remained unknown until now.
In “Edna’s Gift: How My Sister Taught Me to Be Whole” (She Writes Press), Susan Rudnick, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, looks back at her family history, and the experience of growing up with a younger sister with developmental challenges. Throughout their intertwined lives, her sister has taught her the most important life lessons.
“In This Hour: Heschel’s Writings in Nazi Germany and London Exile” by Abraham Joshua Heschel, foreword by Susannah Heschel (Jewish Publication Society), is a collection of early writings by the great rabbinic figure and important Jewish thinker, written before he found refuge in the United States. The pieces — about Jewish education, the rabbis of the Mishnaic period, a biography of a medieval Jewish scholar, reflections on issues like prayer and suffering — haven’t been previously published in English. The foreword by Susannah Heschel and notes by scholar Helen Plotkin are particularly compelling.
An untold story of World War II, “Scholars of Mayhem: My Father’s Secret War in Nazi-Occupied France” by Daniel C. Guiet and Timothy K. Smith (Penguin Press) tells of Guiet’s father, who worked clandestinely behind German lines in France to coordinate aid for the French Resistance and also lead missions against German military efforts. Guiet learned that his father had been in the CIA, but only at the end of his life did his father, a native French speaker, begin to tell of his successful missions during World War II. Guiet was the only American involved in a unit of Britain’s Special Operations Executive codenamed Salesman. The unit parachuted into France the day after D-Day and organized an army of 10,000 Resistance fighters. Daniel Guiet and Smith, a reporter and editor, spent several years researching and documenting this story, including Guiet’s written account of his wartime experience.
“Jerusalem on the Amstel: The Quest for Zion in the Dutch Republic” by Lipika Pelham (Oxford) is a portrait of 17th-century Amsterdam, with its prosperous Sephardic community during the Dutch Golden Age, when the seeds of Zion were nurtured. The author, a journalist and documentary maker for the BBC and other broadcasters, also sought out the descendants of this community in the present-day city.
In “The Plateau,” anthropologist and performer Maggie Paxson (Riverhead Books) probes ideas about human goodness, selflessness, and sacrifice, as she closely studies an area in south-central France, where villagers have had a long tradition of providing refuge to strangers, particularly during World War II, and continuing today.
Inbal Arieli, who is a leader in Israeli high-tech and co-CEO of True Synthesis, a leadership assessment and development company, connects the country’s economic success — with its high concentration of start-ups — to the way Israelis are raised in a culture of risk-taking, independence, creativity, and resiliency in “Chutzpah: Why Israel Is a Hub of Innovation and Entrepreneurship” (Harper).
“The Gospel According to Lazarus” by Richard Zimler (Peter Owen Publishing/IPG) is an imaginative retelling of how Jesus brought his friend Lazarus back from the dead, and then how Lazarus struggles to regain his previous identity, flashing back to the boyhood and close friendship of the two in Nazareth. The novel unfolds the story of the last week of the life of Jesus, through the perspective of Lazarus. Zimler, who lives in Portugal and is the author of “The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon” and other novels, brings mysticism and historical research to his telling.
A first novel by a distinguished journalist and Maplewood local, “Fleishman is in Trouble” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Random House), is the story of a Manhattan marriage and divorce, carefully observed, funny and compassionate.
In celebration of the matriarch’s 70th birthday, the extended Feldman family take a cruise together in “The Floating Feldmans” by Elyssa Friedland (Berkley). Not exactly a celebration, the time sequestered together afloat on the Ocean Queen is filled with eating and feuding, as family secrets, rivalries, and tensions surface. In alternating voices, the story unfolds with compassion and humor.
A first novel set in 1666 by an author who has published acclaimed short stories, “The Organs of Sense” by Adam Ehrlich Sachs (Farrar, Straus, Giroux) explores science, politics, and family dynamics, layered with philosophy, historical facts, and humor. Here a blind astronomer using the longest telescope ever built encounters the young math genius Gottfried Leibniz, just before the predicted time of a solar eclipse that would result in total darkness.
“Death and Other Happy Endings” (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking) is the fictional debut of a 62-year-old author, who previously worked as a celebrity press agent before hosting a television series on home design in Great Britain. In this romantic comedy, a woman who is told she has a terminal illness with three months to live sets out to put her affairs in order with unusual candor through letters to her ex-husband, ex-boyfriend, and difficult sister.
“The Song of the Jade Lily” by Australian writer Kirsty Manning (Morrow) is a historical novel that opens in Shanghai in 1944, flashes back to Vienna and Australia in 1938, and then ahead to London in 2016, and then to Australia and Shanghai as well. This is a story of refugees, friendship, hardship, love, loyalty, and courage, that recreates wartime Shanghai and its Jewish refugee community.
A debut novel by an American writer living in Israel, “Make it Concrete” by Miryam Sivan (Cuidono Press) is the story of a writer who ghostwrites the stories of Holocaust survivors, on tight schedules. Friends encourage the writer, an independent spirit, to do something different, as she is haunted by the ghosts of personal and communal history. The story she wants to tell most is that of her mother, also a survivor, who hasn’t shared her own account.
Set in a weight loss camp for adults in a Vermont mansion, “Waisted” by Randy Susan Meyers (Atria Books) tells of a group of women determined to lose extra pounds who agree to be filmed as they take part in a program promising dramatic results. This is a story of sisterhood and self-respect as the women conspire against those in charge.
A first novel of historical fiction, “A Bend in the Stars” by Rachel Barenbaum (Grand Central Publishing) opens in 1914 Russia, as war is in the air, and life is increasingly difficult for Jews. A pair of siblings – she is studying to be a surgeon and he is a physicist racing Einstein to prove relativity — face the tough decision as to whether to stay or leave, and how to protect each other and all they have learned. When he goes missing, his sister risks all to fight for him in this story of love, adventure, and science.
“The Rabbi Finds Her Way” by Robert Schoen with Catherine deCuir (Stone Bridge Press) is a career coming-of-age story, as a young Reform rabbi joins a large California congregation as associate rabbi. The novel opens up the world of a female congregational rabbi, with some familiar scenes and unusual twists.
The sprawling Hotel Neversink is the crown jewel of the Catskills, founded in 1931 by a Jewish immigrant family who used every penny they could find to buy the grand mansion on top of a hill. Told through the voices of family members and others who have passed through the grand hotel, Adam O’Fallon Price’s “The Hotel Neversink” (Tin House) follows the family over a century, through ambition, mysterious vanishings, family secrets, comedy, love stories, and a younger generation’s desire to keep the place alive.
Sandee Brawarsky is the culture editor for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.