Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book Reviews: The Pious Ones and The Rise and Fall of Great Powers

Being back in the U.S. has opened back up the world of book reviewing for me, which has me giddy like a schoolgirl. I am a bibliophile, and, as Ash becomes a bit more independent and has a consistent sleep schedule, I actually get to read the books that are sitting on the coffee table, couch, dining room table, side table ... 

First up is The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America by Joseph Berger. You see, I frequently go into Barnes and Noble and peruse the bookshelves, search out the books at the library or on publisher sites, then get ready to read, read, read. The Pious Ones was one of those books, and a publisher was kind enough to send along a review copy. 

That being said, the truth of this book is that I'm simply not enjoying it. One chapter in and I felt like the author was skimming the surface of what I was expecting to be an in-depth and honest look at a subset of the Jewish population. Then again, I was expecting something in the vein of Sue Fishkoff's amazing look at, for example, the Chabad community in The Rebbe's Army. I was sorely and sadly mistaken. The stories in The Pious Ones are shallow and paint broad strokes across a community that is so fascinating, deep, and unique. 

In short, this book left me frustrated and annoyed. I expected so much more from such a mighty title/subject. 

In the world of fiction, I just finished reading The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman, which I found on my own accord and read simply for the pleasure of it (no sponsorship or review copy involved). I saw this sitting on a new-releases shelf at the local library while Ash was squirming in my arms, and from the moment I started reading it, I couldn't put it down. 

A story of mystery, intrigue, family, and identity, this book follows the bizarre life of a girl named Tooly. The chapters hop from the present day back to the 80s and the late 90s, as well as the early 2000s while Tooly tries to find her bearings in a world that seems to throw her around willy nilly without much explanation -- but that doesn't seem to bother her. 

I found myself desperate to figure out the cast of characters, all mysterious, strange, and tied together through one unassuming, special girl. I honestly didn't figure out the storyline until a chapter or so before the big reveal came, and even then there were things that I couldn't have even imagined or suspected. 

Although I haven't read The Imperfectionists, Rachman's first work, I have to say he's a very creative writer, dedicated to the storyline but utterly committed to developing a cast of characters at arm's length. 

Up next on the list? I've received a review copy of Rabbi Shlomo Brody's A Guide to the Complex, which from the dozen or so chapters I've read so far is one of the most comprehensive, detailed, and accessible samples of halachic (Jewish law) responses I've ever encountered. I've also started reading The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, which is a pretty quirky and honest look at life on the Lower East Side of NYC from the perspective of a (fictional) Russian-Jewish refugee. 

Have your read any of these books and have thoughts? Let me know. Also: If there's a book you think I must pick up, please let me know!