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From My Bookshelf: German for Travelers: A Novel in 95 Lessons

Last week, the fall issue of Jewish Book World arrived in my mailbox, and I was delighted to see that it included my first review for that publication. Jewish Book World packs in a LOT of reviews each quarter, so most of the pieces are relatively short. Here’s my take, in its entirety, on Norah Labiner’s German for Travelers: A Novel in 95 Lessons (Coffee House Press, 2009):

In ninety-five brief chapters, this novel acquaints us with an extended family and its secrets, past and present. In 2005, a letter from a woman claiming to be their great-aunt prompts Jewish-American cousins Eliza Berlin and Louisa ‘Lemon’ Leopold to travel to Germany. There, at the beginning of the previous centruy, their great-grandfather, Dr. Jozef Apfel, was a prominent psychoanalyst. The novel reveals secrets and traumas within the lives of the cousins as well as the truth behind their great-grandfather’s most mysterious case, that of ‘Elsa Z.’ At various times, the reader will notice what seems to be the sparest of expository prose (the body of one chapter consists of a single twelve-word sentence); occasionally, there is a page-length paragraph; some sections particularly impress with their use of dialogue or detail. Although some readers may initially find it difficult to track all the characters, overall, the novel is extremely engaging, shifting in time and place with artful connections and literary grace. Chronology [included].

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