"The Beach at Galle Road" by Joanna Luloff

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Happy families, with bright, live-wire teenage daughters and cricket-mad sons, suffer and become obliterated in Sri Lanka’s endless civil war. The usual family aspirations of university educations and good marriages evaporate as war’s mayhem sweeps the island.  

Joanna Luloff’s The Beach at Galle Road is a series of linked short pieces that one can read as a unified novel. That is certainly the effect Ms. Luloff achieves as the last few stories conclude what is a harrowing story of loss.

The eponymous road, which runs parallel to a beach, becomes a metaphor for risk and change as we read of the sister of a central character driven to madness by her husband’s bizarre need to shame and abandon her. Shame arises from strict societal mores throughout this collection, but these concerns begin to fade as the stories shift to the Tamil population, which bears the brunt of depredation on all sides: war from the government side, and purges from the rebellious Tamil side. The issues escalate to life and death as boys are whisked off to the fighting and their mothers turn up dead and floating in the river.

One theme deals with Westerners who have come to Sri Lanka, volunteering to teach or tend to the sick. The local customs and strictures baffle them, just as their behavior shocks the locals. This idea dominates the earlier stories, but the shift to the Tamil side of the conflict leads to loss, starvation, child combatants, and suicide in a smooth and well-executed swing in the stories.

This collection touches us because we know all too well of the loss and madness of war. These truths are brought home to us in this memorable and very honest collection.

"Hawk Quest" by Robert Lyndon

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In Hawk Quest we follow the epic journey of a small and shifting group of questers literally around the ends of the earth: from England to the west coast of Greenland, over the northern cape of Norway and into Russia by way of the White Sea. The year is 1072 AD, the Conqueror’s Normans remain busy subjugating Britain (through the time-honored means of rape, murder, and arson); the Seljuks have routed the Christians at Manzikert (in present-day Turkey); and Vallon, the intrepid leader of a motley, undermanned party, must try to stay one step ahead of the law.

Historian and enthusiastic falconer Robert Lyndon never lets you rest. One death-defying adventure follows hard on the heels of its predecessor. The small group must escape the British Isles with the law after them, get out of a feud in Iceland, battle North Atlantic tempests just to return east after capturing birds of prey in Greenland, and race the season’s onslaught in the Arctic Ocean. Then the real fun starts.

Through it all, the narrative energy never flags. Mr. Lyndon manages to fill a book three times the normal length and leave the reader ready for more. Because of its incessant tides of trouble and the party’s sometimes miraculous escapes therefrom, you will keep turning page after thrilling page.

What sold me on this book was the promise that Bernard Cornwell fans will like it. It does remind one of Mr. Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles: it has the same bright verisimilitude; the characters are just as real, and just as highly skilled and heroic.

This is outstanding escapist fare. It will transport you, if I may be allowed to say that about a book portraying an epic journey. And will leave you hoping to see the characters reunited, however improbable its conclusion makes that.

"Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde" by Rebecca Dana

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There are two people the title of Rebecca Dana’s memoir Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde, which is appropriate in this book, for it spins around an axis pulled taut between opposite poles. Rebecca Dana, a reporter for the Daily Beast and Newseek, and formerly with the Wall Street Journal, has assembled not only an unstintingly honest exposé of her searching self, but also an étude on such subjects as life lived “in deferment” and the significance of something called “communities of meaning.” This book surprised me; it swept me up with its soulful exploration of faith and virtue.

Ms. Dana begins by laying out in honest terms her ambition to emulate Carrie Bradshaw, the heroine of TV’s wildly successful Sex and the City. Her dream of capturing and living the glamorous life grows out of a middle-class upbringing long on scholastic achievement but short on familial love. When her ideal urban romance falls apart she finds, against all her instincts, an apartment in a Brooklyn neighborhood dominated by an arch-conservative Jewish sect, the Lubavitchers. Hesitantly she moves in with a larger-than-life young rabbi from Russia, called Cosmo. Cosmo is very dramatic about his sex life (it’s a struggle), his grooming (subject to change), and his faith (quickly evaporating). This character and his milieu allow the author to slow down and understand other facets of life, like home and faith.  

And here we find the axis on which this energetic narrative spins. Ms. Dana’s attraction to Manhattan’s glitz and glamor must suddenly compete with the appeal of the hearthside joys of family, which are a revelation to her. She shows a very discerning eye when it comes to her new acquaintances; she recognizes the degree to which Lubavitcher women are restricted in their lives, but she can also cull wisdom from scholarly men in the community. From one she picks up the concept of communities of meaning, in which groups hold common values and goals, and use common spectra to measure worth. She also posits that her current need to scrimp and work extra hard for a promised payoff has a direct parallel in the Jewish faith, in which believers defer joy in this life for rewards in the hereafter.

The author even manages to structure her memoir like a novel. Late in the story, her boss Tina Brown organizes a high-profile conference of highly celebrated and influential women, focusing on violence against women. Amid talks given by African women recounting rape and mutilation, seminars conducted by Melanne Verveer, United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, and Barbara Walters, Ms. Dana is taken up by how noble and uplifting the gathering is. While imagining what it would be like to go to a picturesque, out-of-the-way corner of the globe to end conflict and free women from oppression, she finds herself seated next to Candace Bushnell, the beautiful and classy creator of Sex and the City. Ms. Bushnell’s attendance at the conference, and her patient suffering of the author’s fawning, unite the book’s two thrusts, and provide Ms. Dana with an understanding and appreciation of her own way forward. The author handles the moment in a very assured and honest way. It’s really gutsy, and it works really well.  

Ms. Dana yolks her superior intellect and her no-holds-barred honesty into a powerful team, and the result is a gratifying ride indeed.