This week's pick is brought you by Erika Dreifus,
Media Editor at Fig Tree Books
COMPULSION: A NOVEL, Meyer Levin (with a foreword by Marcia Clark and an introduction by Gabriel Levin)
(To be released: April 14, 2015)
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: This reissued classic is a riveting and literary thriller about the basic drives that compel us to act in the name of good or evil. Based on the Leopold and Loeb case of 1924 – once considered the crime of the 20th century – Meyer Levin’s Compulsion presents both an incisive and nuanced psychological portrait of two young murderers. Part of Chicago’s elite Jewish society, Judd Steiner and Artie Straus have it all: money, smarts and the world at their feet. Obsessed with Nietzsche’s idea of the superhuman, they decide to prove that they are above the laws of man by arbitrarily murdering a boy in their neighborhood — for the sheer sake of getting away with the crime.
Compulsion is narrated by Sid Silver, a budding journalist at the University of Chicago and a fictional surrogate for Meyer Levin, who was a classmate of Leopold and Loeb and reported on their trial himself; like Sid, Levin became enmeshed in the case while covering it. Early on, a pair of Judd’s horn-rimmed eyeglasses is found at the scene of the crime. Authorities slowly begin to unveil other pieces of evidence that suggest the young men’s guilt. When their respective alibis collapse, Artie and Judd each confess. Fearing an anti-Semitic backlash and anxious to be viewed first and foremost as Americans, the Jewish community in Chicago demands steadfastly that justice be served.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: This book sold over one million copies back in the 1950s when it was first published, but I hadn’t read it until I joined Fig Tree last summer; reading it turned out to be much more of a pleasure than responsibility. I’m a history buff, but I didn’t know more than the bare outline of the Leopold and Loeb case before I read this novel. And if, like me, you’re a fan of courtroom dramas, you’ll be fascinated by the legal strategies and courtroom scenes: The chief defense attorney, based on his real-life counterpart Clarence Darrow, hires a slew of psychoanalysts and begins to construct a first-of-its-kind defense—that Artie and Judd are not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. Whole segments of the courtroom sections are taken directly from the trial transcripts (and Darrow was quite the lawyer). Plus, our edition features a simply gorgeous introduction by one of Meyer Levin’s sons, poet and translator Gabriel Levin, in addition to an insightful forward by attorney-writer Marcia Clark.
THE BOOK OF STONE: A NOVEL, Jonathan Papernick
(To be released: May 12, 2015)
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: A searing psychological thriller set in pre-9/11 Brooklyn in which a family’s dark history and an estranged son’s attempt to find meaning and purpose converge. Matthew Stone has inherited a troubling legacy: a gangster grandfather and a distant father—who is also a disgraced judge. After his father’s death, Matthew is a young man alone. He turns to his father’s beloved books for comfort, perceiving within them guidance that leads him to connect with a group of religious extremists. As Matthew immerses himself in this unfamiliar world, the FBI seeks his assistance to foil the group’s violent plot. Caught between these powerful forces, haunted by losses past and present, and desperate for redemption, Matthew charts a course of increasing peril—for himself and for everyone around him. From the author of The Ascent of Eli Israel and There is No Other, The Book of Stone examines the evolution of the terrorist mentality and the complexities of religious extremism, as well as how easily a vulnerable mind can be exploited for dark purposes. Lyrical and incendiary, The Book of Stone is a masterfully crafted novel that reveals the ambiguities of “good” and “evil”.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: It’s difficult to think of a novel that’s as timely as this one. Yes, the book’s action is set before 9/11, but much of what animates the plot—how a young man can be won over to extremism—exudes an utterly contemporary resonance. I read this book with ever-increasing dread and unease, and I agree with the advance readers who have pegged it as likely to ignite some very lively debates and discussions.
SAFEKEEPING: A NOVEL, Jessamyn Hope
(To be released: June 9, 2015)
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: A profound and moving novel about love, the inevitability of loss, and the courage it takes to keep starting over. It’s 1994 and Adam, a drug addict from New York City, arrives at a kibbutz in Israel with a medieval sapphire brooch. To make up for a past crime, he needs to get the priceless heirloom to a woman his grandfather loved when he was a Holocaust refugee on the kibbutz fifty years earlier. There Adam joins other troubled people trying to turn their lives around: Ulya, the ambitious and beautiful Soviet émigré; Farid, the lovelorn Palestinian farmhand; Claudette, the French Canadian Catholic with OCD; Ofir, the Israeli teenager wounded in a bus bombing; and Ziva, the old Zionist Socialist firebrand who founded the kibbutz. By the end of that summer, through their charged relationships with one another, they each get their last chance at redemption. In the middle of this web glows the magnificent sapphire brooch with its perilous history spanning three continents and seven centuries. With insight and beauty, Safekeeping tackles that most human of questions: how can we expect to find meaning and happiness when we know that nothing lasts?
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Simply put, this book is gorgeously written, populated by distinct and memorable characters and absolutely marvelous dialogue. As I read it, I couldn’t help thinking of Amos Oz’s kibbutz stories and the ways in which Safekeeping, too, so magnificently creates a world that may be foreign to so many of us—I’ve never lived on a kibbutz, myself—and yet so richly vivid and palpable. (In my fantasies, I get to put a copy of this book in Oz’s hands myself.)
Erika Dreifus is Media Editor at Fig Tree Books, a new publishing company specializing in the best fiction on American Jewish Experience (AJE). She is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories (Last Light Studio), which was named an American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title (for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature), a Jewish Journal “Notable Book,” and a Shelf Unbound “Top Small-Press Book.” Erika is also an essayist, poet, and book reviewer, as well as the editor/publisher of The Practicing Writer, a free monthly e-newsletter on the craft and business of writing.