Murder, family drama, love, war, self-exploration and friendship — they’re all conversation fodder during Jewish Book Month at Main Point Books.
This is the third time the Bryn Mawr bookstore, which celebrated its second anniversary this year, is observing Jewish Book Month. It will feature a plethora of authors appearing through Dec. 6, including Jennifer Weiner, Sigal Samuel, Surya Green, Michael Solomonov, Peter Golden, Julia Dahl and Helen V. Reese.
Reese is a first-time novelist. Her book, Project Ex — which Reese signed copies of at Main Point on Nov. 8 — focuses on Lydia Birnbaum, a Jewish psychotherapist who offers relationship advice — even though she herself is single. A research project Lydia starts on Facebook gets out of hand when an investigative reporter, Jared Abrams, decides to look further into Birnbaum’s life.
Birnbaum also just happens to be in her 50s, which was important for Reese, since not many female protagonists are in that age group.
“My protagonist is 50 and mature, and still sexy and smart and still having a ball,” Reese said. “I just hope that people see women of any age can enjoy life and find challenges.”
The book — which Reese said has a Jewish “flavor” due to her own background as someone formerly Orthodox but still practicing Judaism, and to Birnbaum’s own Jewish neuroses — is funny and relatable.
She used Birnbaum’s age to change the conversation and show “that not all women of a certain age are talking about menopause,” she explained. “They’re kind of settled into things. Lydia is very adventurous. That was important to me: to put that out there, for people to have a lot of fun with it.”
It was also important that she wouldn’t “blindside” anyone, which anyone who’s ever read a Nicholas Sparks novel, for instance, is particularly familiar with. It’s one of Reese’s biggest pet peeves, she said, “when it’s a lighthearted novel and three-quarters of the way through, someone gets cancer or dies and it blindsides me. I wanted to be true to that. [Lydia] has her angst and goes through some stuff, but it isn’t a novel with a lot of tragedy.”
Reese first started what became Project Ex 12 years ago, though she spent the majority of the last five years truly putting her focus on the project.
The inspiration came from one particularly bad night.
“I saw an announcement about a writing group at a local bookstore, and I wrote this page-and-a-half about a date from hell I had been on,” she remembered. “It was about a therapist who just turned 50 who returns home from this date — the people were hysterically laughing. They were like, ‘We want to know more!’ ”
Julia Dahl has seen her own fair share of crimes, which gave her inspiration for her novel, Invisible City, and its recently released sequel, Run You Down.
In Invisible City, Rebekah, whose Chasidic mother abandoned her after she was born to return to her religion, works on the murder case of a Chasidic woman, knowing full well that the murderer may run free, since the NYPD has a habit of bowing to the ultra-Orthodox community and may not complete an autopsy.
Dahl was raised by a Jewish mother and a Christian father, which forced her to grapple with her identity. Her background is one piece of what she was planning talk about at Main Point on Nov. 12 before a medical issue caused her to no longer be able to attend. She was also going to cover what draws her to write about hot-button topics like gun violence, homosexuality and mental illness in her novels. Her own connection to homosexuality in the Chasidic community in New York was in a way what inspired these stories.
“I was living in a more Jewish neighborhood,” she recalled. Her landlord was a Chasidic man. “We were with the real estate agent to see the apartment we ended up taking, and he said, ‘I need to tell you something about the apartment — the man who lived here before you committed suicide.’”
While that shocked her, the price was right, and “there were no signs anyone had died there or anything like that.” However, her “morbid” curiosity in the fullest sense of the word got the best of her and she began to investigate who the man was.
Through talking to neighbors and going through the man’s junk mail that was still being delivered to the apartment, she discovered that he was a teacher — a married Chasidic man from Borough Park — and that he was gay.
“I don’t know if he was found out or shunned or if he left his family, but he ended up dying alone in the apartment,” she said.
She didn’t know Rebekah’s story would become a series when she first began, but Dahl is already almost finished the third installment. She is contracted for a fourth, but she isn’t sure yet if it will be another piece of Rebekah’s story or be something new.
Peter Golden has tackled everything nonfiction and historical with the biographies and works he has written, including Quiet Diplomat, about industrialist Max M. Fisher and O Powerful Western Star! about the history of the Cold War and its connection to the rise of Soviet Jewry.
His debut fiction novel, Comeback Love, was published in 2012, and he returned to fiction with the release of Wherever There is Light earlier this month, which he will discuss with readers at 7 p.m. on Dec. 2.
The story follows Julian Rose, a Jewish bootlegger who worked with gangster Longy Zwillman before going into real estate, and Kendall Wakefield, an aspiring artist whose mother wants her to stay and work for the historically African-American college her grandfather helped found.
A love story, the novel follows Julian and Kendall’s relationship over decades, from New York to Paris and more between 1938 and 1966.
“A lot of my work has been in those time periods,” said Golden, a Newark, N.J. native who currently teaches at the University of Albany. “[I’m] interested in the pre-war world and immediate postwar world.”
The book came about thanks to Golden’s curiosity about the large number of Jewish professors who were fired from German universities in the 1930s. To continue teaching elsewhere, they needed to be sponsored and have a visa to escape the impending war. This became the inspiration behind Julian’s father’s character, Theodor.
Theodor is hired, and therefore rescued, by Kendall’s mother at her college in South Florida, which she started on the land that was once the plantation on which her father, a former slave, was born.
The subject matter allowed Golden to explore prejudice, which both Jews and African-Americans at this time faced in different ways, and see it in the way Julian and Kendall would have.
“There used to be signs in the lobbies: ‘No Jews, no Negroes,’” Golden said. “I wanted to take and look at them in a lot of different circumstances — the late 1930s in south Florida, and the Greenwich Village art scene and problems that occur there between them. They both go off to the war, and then I wanted them to be in Paris — what would happen to them without being surrounded by all that prejudice?”
He’s looking forward to seeing what others take away from the story, as it is often different from what the author sees.
“The difference between the intent of the writer and the reaction of the reader — I can’t tell you how often how different that is,” he said. “I’m always amazed at what people see.”
The full calendar of events for Jewish Book Month can be found at mainpointbooks.com.
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