A comically astute but often overdone sendup of Jewish American culture.

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SUSHI IN RAMALLAH

An American Jew travels to Israel as part of a sponsored tour in this debut farcical comedy.

Adam Solomon has seen better days—he just got kicked out of law school; he’s on the outs with his grandfather after he quits a family enterprise; and he’s about to embark on a trip to Israel as part of The Sababa Project, an excursion designed to entice American Jews to fall in love with their spiritual homeland. As Momo Kafritz, the eccentric millionaire who “operates the largest America-to-Israel travel organization in the world,” explains, home can only be defined by love, and in this case, “JEWISH LOVE” is the only kind that really counts. Lieberman manages a satirical punchline in nearly every sentence—his group of travel companions is largely interested in maniacal drug and alcohol consumption and the relentless pursuit of casual sex. Adam has his own trysts—he quickly romances Liora, the disaffected daughter of Momo, and Sarai, a DJ grieving over the recent loss of her child’s father. Only armed with “broken, badly sprained Hebrew,” Adam obsessively tries to track down a high-tech ambulance his family’s philanthropic organization donated—it was his idea, though he received no credit for it—which seems to have been turned into a heavily armored tactical vehicle. Meanwhile, his sassy bus mate, Caitlin Cohen—from the vehicle, she catcalls Israeli soldiers, “Let’s make Saba-babies together!”—tries to find some passable sushi, a search that takes her to the dangerous occupied territory.  The author’s plot is frenetically paced and comically manic—he describes Adam’s travel mates as a “group whose babka-toting mothers have reared them on a steady diet of nerves and anxiety.” And when Adam is asked whether his own mom is “a Jewish mother,” he responds: “She loves mah-jongg and worrying about stuff like that.” The strongest parts of the book deliver a lacerating irreverence—Lieberman is unafraid of caricaturing even the most sacred pieties, a tendency that is tantalizingly transgressive. In this regard, his novel, at its best, is reminiscent of Céline and, more recently, Paul Beatty. In addition, Lieberman succeeds, within the indefatigable absurdity, to raise some serious questions about the elusive nature of identity for a diaspora, and the split between secular Jews and orthodox religious adherents. But in place of a coherent plot, the author supplies a meandering road trip, and that narrative shiftlessness can be exhausting. Moreover, he bombards readers with a swarm of one-liners, and that too becomes more tedious than comical; the jokes themselves are often silly rather than clever. For example: “I tried to go to the bathroom but it was occupied,” a character named Eric starts. “JUST LIKE THE TERRITORIES!” Apparently the exclamation mark isn’t enough to signal to readers this is a joke—too much of the book is written in the heavy-handed spirit suggested by that promiscuous capitalization.

A comically astute but often overdone sendup of Jewish American culture. 

Pub Date: March 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-62429-177-7

Page Count: 289

Publisher: Time Tunnel Media

Review Posted Online: March 4, 2019

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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