On My Nightstand: Books That Prizmah Staff Are Reading
The Secret Book of Kings
By Yochi Brandes
This novel takes place during the time between the Books of Samuel II and Kings I. Early on, we meet Shelomoam, a young man who is growing up in the tribal lands of Ephraim. He’s struggling to understand why his family is scared of soldiers and tax collectors, and why he’s in trouble for trying to help those less fortunate. Along the way, he learns that his parents are keeping a big secret, prompting him to set out to discover his own identity in the grander scheme of the Kingdom of Israel.
The story also tells of Michal, the daughter of King Saul. After marrying King David, Michal has lost her whole family, feels ignored by her husband, and becomes concerned for the future of the nation. She’s also guarding a secret about Shelomoam. Eventually, when the two meet, Shelomoam learns the truth about his birth and identity, which sets into motion his destiny as a future king.
The author’s story turns much of the canonized narrative on its head and opens up a world of possibilities about the people of Judah and Israel as they seek to establish a strong kingdom in the land promised to them by their forefathers.
reviewed by Ely Winkler
By Joshua Henkin
This novel centers on the meteoric rise of Columbia professor Spence Robin and the marital and familial complications that arise when he is diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s at the peak of his academic career. Most of the story is told through the eyes of his wife, Pru Steiner, a younger spouse forced to serve, prematurely, as long-term caretaker for an ailing and increasingly withdrawn spouse.
Morningside Heights is partially autobiographical. Son of legendary Columbia law professor Louis Henkin, the author grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and attended Jewish day school as well as Jewish summer camp (where this reviewer met him). The book serves as a paean to the neighborhood of Henkin’s childhood, coursing with its many famous sights and sounds. The novel also possesses some poignant spiritual moments. Pru, who grew up in the Midwest, eventually seeks out the comfort of a synagogue and the connection it provides to her more religious upbringing.
Henkin is a gifted writer who understands the complexity and nuance inherent in all family relationships. While his story lines are understandably somber, they usually end on an upbeat and optimistic note. Morningside Heights is no exception.
reviewed by Dan Perla
The Parted Earth
By Anjali Enjeti
We start with a love story between a Hindu girl, Deepa, and a Muslim boy, Amir, set in Delhi in the wake of ethnic violence of the partition of India and Pakistan. Because of the partition, the two are forced apart, Amir to Pakistan and Deepa to England. The story picks up with Deepa’s granddaughter Shan, having only once met her grandmother, befriending another woman who has also been affected by the violence in the wake of the partition.
The novel delves deeply into the generational impact of the partition. The author beautifully shows how trauma does not disappear because time has passed; it is simply stored differently throughout the generations. Shan journeys to find her grandmother; she grows by embracing her family’s and her own past rather than ignoring it. The storylines can get confusing, bouncing back and forth between characters and generations. Still, the author’s care and sincerity in depicting the intergenerational trauma of the partition of India makes the book well worth its while.
reviewed by Rebecca Cohen
By Qian Julie Wang
Told through the eyes of a child, this debut memoir provides a unique perspective on being an undocumented immigrant. Wang came to Mei Guo (“beautiful country,” a term for America in Mandarin) in 1994 at the age of seven. She writes about the challenges of adapting to a new country: seeing her mother (Ma Ma) and father (Ba Ba), who were professors in China, work backbreaking jobs earning pennies. Extreme poverty, hunger, sweatshops, racism, humiliation and the daily fear of being found and deported echo through the pages, and the pain and struggle is palpable.
At times, it seems hopeless, and yet this is a story of resilience, adaptability and perseverance through trauma. Wang teaches herself English and finds solace through books. Some moments resonated with me; checking out stockpiles of Babysitter’s Club books and taking care of a Tamagachi, for example, is something I too did as a preteen. Her family’s story is a poignant reminder to always practice compassion and empathy, as we don’t know what others are going through.
The memoir ends when she’s 12, leaving us yearning for more. Wang and her parents became naturalized citizens just before the 2016 election. She is now a Yale-educated lawyer and founder and leader of the Jews of Color group at Central Synagogue in New York, where she is also a member of the racial justice task force and the social justice reform leadership.
reviewed by Traci Stratford