The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern – Book Review

The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern
Published by Algonquin Books, an imprint of Workman

The Karps are not a particularly religious family, nor are they particularly interested in their Jewish heritage. Influence and money are really bigger motivators in their lives. That is why it is a bit surprising when their son Bernie discovers an old man in their meat locker and learns that he is a rabbi who was overcome by an ice storm while praying and has been protected by the family for years. Not long after that, the power goes out and the rabbi is suddenly thawed. From here the story splits into a dual time period narrative, following Bernie’s ancestors from the time they took possession of the icy holy man up nearly through the present day, and examining the antics of the newly released rabbi, who gets himself into quite a lot of trouble.

I am very much of two minds about “The Frozen Rabbi.” The premise, certainly, is fascinating. I also loved most of the historical timeline. By following the lives and trials of the family sheltering their frozen mystic, readers got a good glimpse of the lives of Jews in small European towns over the last 150 years or so. The family was forced to move from place to place due to pogroms and general hatred, eventually leaving for America before the horrors of World War II.

On the other hand, I simply could not connect with the modern storyline. Initially the idea that the rabbi turned worldly and very much like Bernie’s father, while Bernie was inspired by the rabbi’s existence to learn about his heritage and become very spiritual was intriguing. However, the constant repetition of Bernie’s spirit floating away from his body and the rabbi being SHOCKING! got old quickly, and it felt that, for a long time, not much plot was advanced.

“The Frozen Rabbi” is quirky and funny and interesting, but really just wasn’t for me – as evidenced by the fact I had no problem putting it down for 2 weeks with only 80 pages left. Still, it was well-written and if the premise intrigues you, it might just be worth a read.

Buy this book from:
Powells.*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*
Amazon.*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

My First Thanksgiving – Saturday Story Spotlight

Welcome to Saturday Story Spotlight, my new feature where I discuss books my husband and I are reading with our son, Daniel. These are books that he, we, or all of us particularly enjoy, since we are definitely reading more than one book a week! Also, if anyone is interested in helping me make a button for this feature, please let me know.

My First Thanksgiving by Tomie dePaola
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin

When I was looking at Thanksgiving books for Daniel this year, I went in two directions. One book I bought was a flashy turkey counting book with crinkly turkey feathers, the other was Tomie dePaola’s “My First Thanksgiving.” I’m not going to lie, part of the reason I’m writing about dePaola’s book is because we seem to have lost the crinkly feather book somewhere in Daniel book piles after a couple of readings and I cannot recall the title but, surprisingly, it never really captured his attention like I thought it would.

I originally bought “My First Thanksgiving” on the strength of Tomie dePaola’s name alone. To  be completely honest, I thought that it looked a little boring, especially for someone Daniel’s age. My original intention was that this would be for the future and the flashy Thanksgiving book would be for this year. Surprisingly, though, Daniel actually seemed to enjoy this one, which gives the young child version of both the first Thanksgiving and basic modern American Thanksgiving traditions in a few concise pages, more than the other. I think it had a lot to do both with the laconic yet informative style, and with dePaola’s trademark fabulous illustrations.

dePaola proves that you don’t need to be flashy to create a great children’s book, and I can definitely recommend “My First Thanksgiving.” What are your kids’ favorite Thanksgiving picture books?

Buy this book from:
Powells.*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*
Amazon.*

Source: Personal copy
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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C Street by Jeff Sharlet – Audiobook Review

C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy by Jeff Sharlet, narrated by Jeremy Guskin
Published by Hachette Audio/Little, Brown and Company, both imprints of Hachette

Synopsis:

If you think the religious fundamentalists who most threaten American values live in the Middle East, Jeff Sharlet has some news for you: there is an elite religious-political organization who is a much greater threat to the essence of America than any foreign fundamentalists wielding bombs and aircraft. Perhaps you assume that Sharlet is referring to the Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin and her ilk, but no. Instead, Sharlet is writing about an organization thoroughly entrenched in establishment power called The Family, about whom he has previously written a book (titled, appropriately enough, “The Family”). The same organization that began the National Prayer Breakfast, which most politicians in Washington fail to attend at their own peril. The Family takes much of its mission from Acts 9:15:

But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. (NIV)

Which it strangely interprets to mean that it ONLY needs to minister to and attempt to convert ‘the kings,’ which in the United States evidently means governors, senators, presidents, and congressmen. So, they do their best to convert and ‘help’ those in power, with the idea that someone is in power not because of any of his or her own deeds but solely because God put him or her there. This, of course, means that the ends justify the means in any situation and power should be gained and maintained at all costs, since clearly God ordained this power structure. It probably gives you a good enough idea of their mindset to tell you that they idolize Hitler and Lenin for the power that those men had, although they of course say they want to use this power for Jesus.

In addition to a description of the The Family itself, Sharlet also discusses their religious-political progeny in Uganda who are trying to enact legislation to criminalize homosexuality to the point where ‘aggravated’ homosexuality (repeat offense) will be punishable by death and ‘promotion’ of homosexuality will be punishable by imprisonment. The section on fundamentalism in the military – it is particularly well entrenched in the Airforce – was also particularly frightening for the degree to which it is part of the establishment and people of other religions are harassed.

Thoughts on the story:

I listened to this about a week before Halloween and boy, I cannot imagine anything scarier. You want to give me nightmares? Skip the zombies and vampires, give me men in the highest ranks of power in this country, and influencing those in the highest ranks of power in this country who emulate the power of Hitler and Lenin. That being said, I thought that Sharlet communicated this threat in a very clear manner, both in terms of organization and language. The one thing I thought odd was his re-imagining – twice – of speeches which Mark Sanford might have given, had his lies and infidelities not been discovered. In the midst of such a factual and well-researched book, these suppositions seemed out of place and perhaps even inappropriate. Other than that, though, it was all very well done, as well as compelling (and absolutely terrifying). I should note, that even as a Christian myself I was absolutely horrified by the confluence of political power and religion here.

Thoughts on the audio production:

I wasn’t entirely sure about Jeremy Guskin at the beginning of “C Street,” but I grew accustomed to his style after about 5 minutes and actually really appreciated his narration. He did include vocal variations for emotion and expression, but primarily kept his voice steady, without becoming monotone. I thought it served Sharlet’s journalistic background and style very well.

Overall:

I definitely recommend this book if you are interested in the intersection of power and religion in America. Whether the audio or print is preferable probably depends on how in-depth you wish to go into Sharlet’s account. I was happy just letting everything wash over me – I was horrified enough as it was – but other have said they would have preferred this in print so they could take time with the details. Your call.

Buy this book from:
Audible
Powells: Audio/Print*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound: Print*
Amazon: Audio/Print*

This review was done with a book received from the publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

Haunted by Chicago History – Guest Post by Kelly O’Connor McNees, author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott

When you start paying attention to history, history starts following you around everywhere you go. And it’s not a silent companion. There’s the city you see and the city that once was, residing just out of sight. No bridge or street corner or neighborhood block is without a story, and once you’ve made it known to the universe that you’re interested in this sort of stuff—by, say, writing a historical novel—these stories seem to come pouring into your life.

A few blocks from where we live in Chicago, for example, notorious mobster “Big Tim” Murphy—famous for orchestrating a robbery of $400,000 from a Pullman mail train—was gunned down in front of his house when he answered the door in June of 1928. The main road in our neighborhood (and many others on the east side of Chicago), Sheridan, is named for the Civil War general who restored order after the Great Fire in 1871. As you can see, a simple afternoon stroll conjures up one phantom after another.

The ghosts currently haunting me reside in this striking pink stucco building in the shape of a Maltese Cross, on the corner of Sheridan and Bryn Mawr in the Edgewater neighborhood.

This condo building is all that’s left of the luxurious one-thousand-room Edgewater Beach Hotel, built in 1916 by the Chicago architects Benjamin Marshall and Charles Fox—also know for designing the Drake. For the next thirty-five years or so, the Edgewater Beach Hotel was the most glamorous ticket in town. The icons of the era opted to stay here, from Sinatra to FDR and Eisenhower to Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Lou Gehrig, and Marilyn Monroe.

The hotel offered guests a private bathing beach and an eleven-hundred-foot promenade, along with on-call seaplane service to downtown. But it’s hard to imagine why they would have wanted or needed to leave the grounds.

The place offered a formal dining room able to accommodate twelve hundred guests, plus an outdoor marble ballroom, golf and tennis courts, chocolate factory, soda fountain, post office, flower shop, and even its own film and radio studio. Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller both played here to packed rooms. When Gandhi stayed, the chef prepared special vegetarian meals and made sure fresh goat’s milk was delivered to his room each morning.

You know what’s coming next, and it’s a heartbreaker. Eventually, the glory faded. New, more modern hotels sprung up downtown, and in 1951, the city of Chicago began to extend Lake Shore Drive north of Foster, cutting off this magnificent development from the beach—its major selling point. Business tanked and, eventually, the hotel was sold and its older buildings torn down. The remaining structure contains ground-level retail space and condos up above. Their sagging window-unit air conditioners dot the pink façade. Every day, hundreds of people walk by without giving a thought to this building’s former glory.

———————

Thank you to Chicago writer Adam Langer for his Reader piece “Remembering the Edgewater Beach Hotel,” which was reprinted here and Chuckman’s Chicago Nostalgia for the old postcard images.

Kelly O’Connor McNees’s first novel, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, was published in April by Amy Einhorn Books / Putnam. Kelly lives in Rogers Park and takes lots of walks that include frequent stopping to write things down on index cards.


The Report by Jessica Francis Kane – Book Review

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane
Published by Graywolf Press

In 1943, a shelter in Bethnal Green, London became the site of the largest civilian accident of World War II. Citizens of Bethnal Green, anticipating a retaliatory air strike, crowded into the station. Before 9pm, 173 of them were dead, although the Germans did not bomb London that night. After the accident, there was much finger-pointing in many directions: from the lack of light and the late arrival of the constable to the general existence of Jewish refugees. In order to quell unrest, the government appoints the young and popular local magistrate, Laurence Dunne, to conduct a private investigation. He works with surprising speed to create a report he hopes will mend the broken ties of the city in general and Bethnal Green in particular.

When I picked up “The Report,” I expected a competent novelization of a fascinating historical event and mystery. I also expected the account to be somewhat dry, if interesting, based both on the less than titilating title and the fact that it is essentially the story of how a governmental report came to be. Still, I was interested enough in the Bethnal Green tragedy, of which I had never heard before, to give it a go.

How wrong I was to be expecting something dry!

Kane takes an ensemble cast of characters and manages to make all of their stories compelling, without spending so much time on character development that she loses the thread of the story. A major element in this success is the inclusion of a secondary storyline, that of a documentary film maker – who has his own ties to the tragedy – who contacts Dunne to enlist his help in a documentary that will memorialize the 30th anniversary of Dunne’s report. This storyline serves as a nice foil to the primary storyline,  moving events along and explaining what is necessary, without being overly expository.

“The Report” is a surprisingly compelling novel about a seemingly unlikely subject. A fabulous read if you are at all curious to explore history and human nature. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells.*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound
.*
Amazon
.*

This review was done with a book received from the publisher for review.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.