The recently completed Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center provided a great opportunity to stock up on books as Chanukah gifts. But if you skipped the A Cappella Books table at the JCC and need some last-minute presents for the readers in your life, here are some of the options from the festival.
For a Spouse or Married Friend
Judith Viorst, best known to young parents as the author of the children’s classic “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” appeals to the empty-nesters in her readership with “Wait for Me … And Other Poems About the Irritations and Consolations of a Long Marriage.”
A sweetness runs through the poems, usually with a large dose of Viorst’s trademark humor. She shows us the annoyance of a spouse interrupting to finish sentences and retelling the same stories over and over again and the resignation of passing that spouse on the way to and from the bathroom in the middle of the night as you grow old together.
In a poem dedicated to widows, she also reminds us that no matter how silly and frustratingly repetitive life can be decade after decade with the same person at your side, it’s better than the alternative.
(“Wait for Me,” Simon & Schuster, 96 pages, $16.99)
Dr. Ruth Westheimer, America’s best-known sex therapist, talks more about her own life than relationships in “The Doctor Is In,” but she can’t help but dish out some good advice along the way.
Some of the best came in the interview she did with Marcia Caller Jaffe for the AJT: “If your first marriage doesn’t work, don’t give up hope. Keep trying. But don’t ever think you can change a partner. Young people today work too hard and need to make time for evening dates or things to do together that are pleasurable to both.”
(“The Doctor Is In,” Amazon Publishing, 192 pages, $24.95)
For a Prepper
TV newsman Ted Koppel became a household name because of a crisis, the Iran hostage situation, which launched his “Nightline” news show in ABC in 1980. So perhaps it’s not surprising that in semiretirement he has found another potential crisis to write about in “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.”
Koppel’s book is a warning about a disaster that could happen tomorrow, next year, 10 years from now or never: an attack that takes down one or more of the three major electric grids serving the United States.
There are valuable elements in “Lights Out.”
Koppel makes a compelling case that a foreign nation, a terrorist organization or a lone-wolf troublemaker at any time could use the Internet to cause the kind of blackout this nation has never seen, affecting many states and tens of millions of people for weeks or months. In a version of the nuclear age’s mutually assured destruction, Koppel argues that interdependencies deter Russia and China from such a cyberattack, but an isolated nation such as North Korea has nothing to lose.
Koppel shows how utterly unprepared the federal government is for a grid collapse, and he examines various ways individuals and organizations, including the Mormon Church, are preparing for any long-term disaster, including a failure of the grid. Many are interesting, and some are impressive, although not necessarily repeatable for someone who isn’t rich or a Latter-day Saint.
Koppel is weakest in his assessment of the consequences of throwing major urban areas into the dark for weeks or months. He might be right that the death and destruction would be catastrophic, but, for good or bad, there’s no way to know for sure unless it happens.
(“Lights Out,” Crown, 288 pages, $26)
For a College Student
Faye Kellerman gained a fan base with her Los Angeles-based murder mysteries solved by Orthodox Jewish couple Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus. Now that Kellerman has moved them to a college town in upstate New York for semiretirement, the mysteries involve academic pressures that should feel familiar to any college student.
In “The Theory of Death,” the initial mystery is why a brilliant math student killed himself — if he killed himself — but Kellerman spends much of the novel exploring academic jealousies, pressures to publish, fears of intellectual theft and plagiarism, and conflicting claims of credit. She also delves into the problem of sexual relationships among colleagues and, potentially, between teachers and students.
We also get a glimpse at the conflicts that can arise between top-level academics and religious observance. In this case, the culture clash involves Mennonites, but Rina points out the parallels for observant Jews.
As a bonus for students facing exams during or just after Chanukah, one character struggles throughout the novel between the need to study for finals and to do anything else more interesting in the world. Fortunately, “Theory of Death” is a quick read, so it shouldn’t take too much time away from your student’s test prep.
(“The Theory of Death,” William Morrow, 384 pages, $26.99)
For a Graduate
More than 70 percent of students who are nearing or recently reached college graduation share one thing: debt, an average of about $35,000 for each student who needed loans to get through school. So it’s natural for new graduates to feel pressure to find and race along the path to success.
Two recent books from Jewish Atlantans can help them not only achieve financial success, but, more important, find happiness and career satisfaction.
Joey Reiman’s “Thumbs Up!” lays out a five-step approach to living a better life, including giving the middle finger to fear. He advocates approaching the life with wonder in the quest for meaning.
In a similar vein, Mike Wien’s “The Specific Edge” promotes achieving success in business and life by pursuing your passion to find what sets you apart from everyone else.
Both books should help new graduates, as well as people facing midlife career changes or deciding whether to leave the corporate world for something entrepreneurial, recognize that financial success is a side benefit of doing work you love. And both books should be valuable companions for the new graduates for decades to come.
(“Thumbs Up!” BenBella Books, 222 pages, $19.95; “The Specific Edge,” self-published, 120 pages, $14.95)
For a Musician
The musical highlight of the Book Festival may have been the appearance by Steve Katz, one of the founding members of Blood Sweat & Tears, who played songs in addition to talking about his memoir, “Blood, Sweat, and My Rock ’n’ Roll Years.” Katz’s book is a good option for someone who likes to listen to music, particularly someone who came of age in the 1960s or ’70s.
In a novel that bounces between contemporary times and the period from the 1930s through World War II, the unifying theme is power of music for those who create it.
Violinist Julia Ansdell’s discovery of an unpublished waltz called “Incendio” in an antiques shop in Rome sparks the action, and it’s a sign of her passion for music that she believes the difficult, unusual piece is somehow cursed and is compelling her 3-year-old daughter to commit violent acts.
Yet her obsession pales with the importance of music to Lorenzo Todesco, a genius Jewish violinist who comes of age in Venice just before World War II. He plays a violin passed down through six generations of his maternal family, and his father is an acclaimed violin maker. And he falls in love, albeit with a Catholic girl, in the course of preparing for a violin-cello duet competition with her.
Anyone can appreciate the well-paced story of the Holocaust, those in Italy who resisted it, and the life- and love-saving role of music, but only a devoted musician will fully understand Gerritsen’s characters. Gerritsen even composed her own “Incendio,” available at her tessgerritsen.com, to accompany the book.
(“Playing With Fire,” Ballantine, 250 pages, $28)
For a Dog Lover
Most dog owners will testify to the extraordinary intelligence, instincts, and, above all, devotion of the four-legged members of the family. Atlantan Robert Weintraub’s “No Better Friend: One Man, One Dog, and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in WWII” proves that those canine abilities are not merely projections and wishful thinking.
Weintraub tells the tale of Judy, an English pointer born in a kennel in Shanghai in 1936 and soon mustered into the military life as the mascot of an English gunboat plying the Yangtze River. Despite her breeding and the hopes of the sailors who bought her, Judy proved to be worthless as a hunting dog, but she was fantastic at sniffing out danger, whether a big cat waiting to pounce on sailors searching for food ashore, a pirate vessel hoping to catch the English seamen asleep, or a Japanese aircraft planning a bombing run.
A run-in with a Japanese soldier when she was a puppy briefly living on the streets left Judy with a lifelong dislike and distrust of the Japanese, yet somehow she survived more than three years as a prisoner of war. The military men she spent her life with loved her enough to bring her from Shanghai to Singapore, to take her along during the desperate escape from Singapore, to keep her with them through the sinking of ships and more efforts to avoid the Japanese at sea, and to protect her from their Japanese captors on the island of Sumatra.
Judy was a recognized war hero, largely through the efforts of her best friend, an RAF radarman named Frank Williams, who met Judy during their time as POWs. Weintraub’s book is Williams’ story in addition to Judy’s, as well as the history of the highs and lows of the British military against the Japanese in the Pacific.
It’s a tribute to Weintraub that you can’t read “No Better Friend” without admiring Judy and her fellow British POWs.
(“No Better Friend,” Little, Brown and Co., 400 pages, $28)
For a Lawyer
Famous Jewish lawyer Alan Dershowitz takes an unusual approach to a brief biography of the first Jew in “Abraham: The World’s First (But Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer.”
Dershowitz shows how in one person, Abraham managed to set a precedent for at least five types of Jewish lawyers, including a couple of negative versions: the lawyer who coaches his witnesses to lie, as Abraham twice did in persuading Sarah to claim to be his sister instead of his wife; and the court Jew lawyer who does what he’s told to protect his position, as Abraham did when he accepted G-d’s orders to sacrifice Isaac and to go along with Sarah’s plan to get rid of Ishmael.
The book is light and bright when dealing with Abraham, although more insights come from the extensive endnotes than the main text. The true value of the book, for lawyers and nonlawyers alike, comes when Dershowitz applies the Abrahamic templates to Jewish lawyers (and one noble non-Jew) through history.
Coming from a man who held the Felix Frankfurter professorship at Harvard, the critical examination of Frankfurter and how he failed to stand up for his fellow Jews during the Holocaust is particularly valuable.
Working on the theory that one reason so many Jews become lawyers is that Jews are so often on trial, Dershowitz also examines some famous Jewish defendants through history, including Jesus, Alfred Dreyfus and Leo Frank (just don’t pay too much attention to the details he offers on the Frank case).
(“Abraham,” Schocken Books, 204 pages, $26)