Thursday, November 22, 2007

Jewish Historical Fiction

A while ago, I asked the readers of this blog for book recommendations. I've been slowly going through the list (not in order) and have found some real gems there.

One genre that seems to have caught my attention is Jewish Historical Fiction. I recently read two books that fit that genre and a third about a year ago -- and greatly enjoyed all three.

Chana recommended Sarah by Orson Scott Card. I was a bit wary of this choice. I loved Ender's Game, but felt the other three books in the series (Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide and Children of the Mind) didn't quite measure up to Ender's Game. Nonetheless, I decided to give it a try and was pleasantly surprised. It presents the story of Sarah in an interesting fashion, trying to fill in details that the Torah is silent on. For example, he has several chapters dedicated to the time that Sarah spent in Pharaoh's palace (he places her there for a year, something that I'm fairly certain most Jewish commentaries would deny). It also portrays her childhood and her first meetings with Abram and his family. Overall, it's an extremely well-written book.

However, as good as that was, I was blown away by the next book that I read, Rabbi Milton Steinberg's As A Driven Leaf, recommended by "Just Me." As A Driven Leaf is a historical look at the life of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, more commonly known as the heretic Acher. Rabbi Steinberg takes the historical sources and accounts about Acher and weaves them into a tragic tale of his life. Aside from the sympathetic light shown on the character and the intellectual struggles that he goes through, the book also gives the reader a very real sense of what daily life was like in Israel during the period of the Tana'aim. This was truly an excellent book.

About a year ago, a friend recommended James Michner's The Source. The Source is a series of short stories held together in a frame. The frame story centers around an archaeological dig at a tel in Israel known as Makor (the Source). The archaeological team digs through the tel and finds various artifacts from dates ranging from the Israeli War of Independence to over 9000 BCE. Michner then goes and tells the story of each artifact and how it ended up at the tel. I wasn't all that interested in the frame story (I didn't care which one of the archaeologists the girl ended up with), but I found the historical stories fascinating. It was quite interesting watching the society evolve from a simple stone-age cave dwellers, through pagan pantheism to the Judaism of the Patriarchal era and onward through the long history of the land of Israel and to see the differences in the daily lives of the characters over time.

In the end, I highly recommend all three books.

By the way, in case anyone hasn't noticed yet, you can keep track of what I'm reading. Thanks to Psychotoddler, I've become aware of Library Thing and have added it to my blog's sidebar. As I read new books (which happens very frequently), I'll add them to my library. Feel free to click on my library to see my comments on the books I've read.

Lastly, please feel free to recommend more books. :)

The Wolf

(Full disclosure: if you click on the links to Sarah or As A Driven Leaf, or any of the pictures in the Library Thing sidebar and buy something from Amazon, I earn a few cents.)


Anonymous said...

Hey Wolf,

I just read two amazing novels by Khaled Housseini: "The Kite Runner" and his newest "A Thousand Splendid Suns". I promise you, if you like historical fiction, even non-Jewish historical fiction, you will not be disappointed. Both books moved me deeply, even to tears. Both also shed a new light of life in Afghanistan pre and post 9-11. Both are fast reads because the books will be devoured. They are that good.

Let me know if you read them. Seriously worth it!

Lion of Zion said...

i don't read too much fiction, but as a driven leaf was one of the best i've ever read.

i love chaim potok (although his themes are very repetitive)

also jack london' seawolf

Anonymous said...

Just so you know, Orson Scott Card is a lunatic Mormon. Not stam a Mormon, a lunatic Mormon.

Reb Yudel said...

I don't know what Card is now, but in his youth he used to be a Hamevaser Mormon -- orthodox but modern. He may have become Centrist as he grew older.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

the only Orson Scott Card book i've read, which was really really good, was Pastwatch: the Redemption of Christopher Columbus.

See Chana the Curious Jew's review of As A Driven Leaf here and here.

PsychoToddler said...

I agree with you on the Card books. The other two came out of left field.

Our youngest son (Out of Ammo) is a big fan of the Turtledove books. He just skipped into HS this year. He was laying in his bed, reading one of those alternate history books, when one of the rebbeim came by and confiscated it right out of his hands.

He said it was the scariest experience of his life.

Reb Yudel said...

Confiscating Turtledove?

Maybe he should try some Yeshivish alternate history. There's a novel by ArtScroll in which a young assimilated Jewish Viennese journalist goes to France to cover the Dreyfuss affair and is so shocked by the antisemitism he discovers that he dedicates his life to.... studying with Samson Raphael Hirsch!

Perhaps this counts as haredi fantasy rather than alternate history; true alternate history would require a sequel in which Hitler was defeated by the Hirschian factions in the German military, since, without any Zionists around, God had no cause to bring the Holocaust. Or some such tripe.

mnuez said...

As A Driven Leaf touched me deeply on so many levels. It was extraordinary to hear Milton Steinberg explore his own tortured Jewish journey through his presentation of Acher's story, all the while journeying with ME on my own tortured Jewish journey. It was like being engaged in a brotherly multi-generational conversation of the highest import and passion.

The very end of the book made me cry, and more than once.


Joels W. said...

I read the source and wasn't very impressed. Michener had people do most of the research for him, not that he wasn't a gifted writer.

I also sensed subtle anti-semitism by his portrayal of some of the characters.