I was excited by the opportunity to review “The Book of Life” by new author Stuart Nadler (Bay Back Books, September 2011). After all, it is being billed as a collection of short stories that “present men and women dealing with their sins and failings, their infidelities, their griefs, their missed opportunities at love, and, ultimately, their hopes for redemption.” What better book to review in Elul, the month in which we pray that God will write us into the Book of Life, forgive our sins, and grant us redemption?
The book is comprised of short stories about people who are vaguely Jewish. By that I mean they are called Jewish in the book, and in a couple of the stories a rabbi appears, but none of the main characters are religious or observant. It left me wondering why the characters were called Jewish at all, since none of the plot lines depend on this nuance, save the story in which a synagogue fires its rabbi and wants to evict him from his home.
Technically, the author is a good writer. His stories all have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There are no glaring grammatical errors, and the writing is clear and easy to follow. However, I’m sad to have to report that the book was a huge disappointment.
It’s the subject matter that is the problem.
The book is filled with unpleasant people doing unpleasant things. I would have no problem with that, if there were some growth in the characters, or some lesson to be learned. Instead, it’s just one story after another of people knowing they’re doing the wrong thing, doing it anyway, and suffering the consequences, as well as people who are talking past each other, rather than listening to each other or expressing what’s really going on.
Because none of the characters showed any growth, the stories became quite predictable. By my count, only two of the stories did not contain people committing adultery. In one of those stories, the only characters were two brothers, thus precluding any hanky-panky. In the other, a married man slept in the same bed with his former girlfriend, and wanted to have sex with her, but she turned him down.
The stories were all about people who knew what they ought to do, and knew what they ought to say, but somehow they acted as if they were powerless to do so. This is not the kind of thing I would expect in something called “The Book of Life.” Rather, I would expect some show of courage, some attempt to do the right thing, some kind of growth or purpose.
The only good news I have to offer is you can find new copies of this book on Amazon.com for under $4, and used copies for under $3. You won’t have to pay the full retail price of $13.99. So if you want to dive into a sense of powerlessness and purposelessness before the High Holy Days, here’s your big chance to do so at a bargain.
Disclosure of Material Connection, required by the FTC: TC Jewfolk received a complimentary review copy of the book.