Our summers have markers, memories that trigger a specific time: The summer of the walk on the moon, Hurricane Bob or the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles; personal events like a high school prom, a kitchen renovation or a houseguest who long overstays.
“It was that summer,” begins the first story in Lesley Dormen’s engaging novel of linked stories, “The Best Place to Be” (Simon & Schuster), “the summer we were 50 and the little Cuban boy went home to no mother, not the first West Nile virus summer but the second, the Hillary and ‘Survivor’ summer, you know that summer.”
Grace Hanford, the narrator of the stories, is a New York woman who’s “50 and holding” and thinks and talks a lot about relationships, aging, dining, finding a place in the world. This first book from the 60-year-old author is written in an appealing conversational style that makes for great summer reading, with prose that’s smart and sophisticated and humor that’s subtle and memorable.
Books are also summer markers. There’s the summer of discovering Philip Roth, or rereading Chekhov or Mark Twain. This summer, much-awaited novels from Michael Chabon (“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”) and Nathan Englander (“The Ministry of Special Cases”) are available, as are other absorbing new works of fiction and nonfiction, memoirs, historical fiction and mysteries.
“People only find out what you what them to find out,” Roberta, the woman at the center of Patricia Volk’s charming and funny new novel, “To My Dearest Friends” (Knopf), was known to say. When she dies of cancer, a deep secret is revealed to two of her closest friends, who are brought together only by her death. These are women in their 50s, who have, as they know, the gift of perspective. Volk, author of a very funny memoir about her restaurant family, “Stuffed,” writes knowingly about women and friendship, in all its mystery, with a wink and a big heart.
A first novel, “Petropolis” by Anya Ulinich (Viking) is an outstanding coming-of-age story, beginning in a mining town in post-glasnost Russia and moving from suburban Arizona to Brooklyn. Sasha Goldberg is a young, awkward, overweight Jewish girl with a demanding mother who’s a Russian beauty and a father who left them behind when he made his way to America. Sasha, too, makes her way to America, as a mail-order bride, and then abandons her fiancé and searches across America for her father. Sasha’s adventures, including a stint as maid for an Orthodox family, are very funny, providing an outsider’s keen perspective on America. The author, who was 17 when her family immigrated to the United States, received an master’s of fine arts in painting from UC Davis.
Another debut, Lauren Fox’s “Still Life With Husband” (Knopf), is a bittersweet story of marriage, friendship and loyalty. Meg is married to her college sweetheart; at 30 she’s not so sure she wants to have children but he keeps letting her know that he’s ready. The kind of person who has always played by the rules for all of her life, Meg decides she’s going to break some.
Joyce Carol Oates’s latest book, “The Gravedigger’s Daughter” (Ecco), is set in the years following World War II, in the part of upstate New York where the award-winning author grew up. In her 36th novel — dedicated to her grandmother, “the gravedigger’s daughter” — Oates tells of an immigrant Jewish family who escapes Nazi Germany; their daughter, Rebecca, is born on the boat in New York harbor. The father, who was a high school teacher in Munich, finds work as a gravedigger, and the family lives in squalor. This is the story of Rebecca and her journey in America through violent times and personal reinvention.
“Charity Girl” (Houghton Mifflin), by Michael Lowenthal, is a novel based on a little-known and disgraceful episode in American history: During World War I, 15,000 American women suspected of having venereal disease were imprisoned. While some were prostitutes, others were charity girls, young working-class women who dated soldiers and sailors, trading companionship for a night out.
Lowenthal creates an unforgettable character in Frieda Mintz, the 17-year-old daughter of Jewish immigrants who runs away after her religious, widowed mother tries to marry her off to an older man. While working as a wrapper in a Boston department store, Frieda meets a soldier from a wealthy Boston family. Once he is found to have venereal disease, she is sent to a detention home in a former brothel, where she suffers but also finds real friendship while still pining for her soldier. Lowenthal, who teaches writing at Boston College and is the author of two previous novels, beautifully evokes an earlier era. Raising provocative questions about freedom, the novel is powerful and timely.
Set in medieval England, “Mistress of the Art of Death” by Ariana Franklin (Putnam) is an intriguing historical novel and forensic mystery. When four children are murdered in Cambridge, Catholic townspeople blame their Jewish neighbors, who are then placed under the protection of King Henry. The king asks his cousin, the King of Sicily, to send the best expert to help them, and he sends an unlikely but highly trained and brilliant Italian doctor — a “mistress of the art of death” named Adelia — accompanied by a Jew and Muslim. The first murder mentioned is based on actual events surrounding the 1144 death of William of Norwich, which prompted the accusation of ritual murder. Ariana Franklin is the pseudonym of British writer Diana Norman, a former journalist who has written biographies and historical novels. This book is the first in a series featuring Adelia.
L.A. resident Mindy Schneider transports readers back to the summer camps of their youth in a hilarious memoir, “Not a Happy Camper” (Grove Press). Conned into attending Camp Kin-A-Hurra in the backwoods of Maine by the owner, who promised a sunny, activity-filled paradise, Mindy instead finds a rainy spot where the bathrooms usually don’t work and the schedule is “do anything you want any time you want, unless you just want to do nothing.” But she doesn’t mind: Her goal is to find a boyfriend and to be kissed before the last night of camp. Her bunkmates in 1974 are a mix of the bookish, boy-crazy, guitar-playing and quirky, including one who calls herself Autumn Evening Schwartz. Rich in atmosphere, the book might be read after curfew, by flashlight.
Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.