What would be worth organizing your entire life around for the slimmest chance of success? In Brezhnev-era Russia, a rumor spreads that the celebrated composer Selinsky is returning from the West for a single concert. Waiting for endless months in the faint hope of obtaining a precious ticket powerfully affects the lives of one family and those they meet while standing in The Line. As in The Dream Life of Sukhanov, Olga Grushin here reveals her gift for emotive and beautiful language. This time she evokes the mood of the Thaw, with its cautious hope and lingering suspicion, its artistic appreciation, and its harsh and sometimes brutal pragmatism.
In The Cookbook Collector (Dial, $15) Allegra Goodman tells the story of two sisters, Emily and Jess, close, but opposites in almost every way. The novel begins as Emily is about to take her Internet startup public, making its investors millionaires overnight. Emily’s boyfriend is involved in a similar venture in Boston, and their relationship is stressed by jealousy, ambition, and distance. Meanwhile, Jess works in a used-book store in Berkeley, owned by a cryptic man who made millions in Microsoft. The novel takes place between 1999 and 2001, and Goodman deftly evokes the dot-com bubble, its burst, and the 9/11 attacks, making them as fresh and startling for the reader as they are for the characters. This is a truly amazing book.
Every family comes with its own peculiar baggage, but what the Karps carry includes The Frozen Rabbi (Algonquin, $13.95). Yes, a live, preserved 19th-century Polish rabbi. Eliezer ben Zephyr isn’t a blood relation of the Karps, but he’s their responsibility nonetheless. It all started back on a stormy day in 1889, when the rabbi went into a trance, was struck by lightning, and fell into a lake, which then froze. With the madcap logic of a tall tale and the literary charm of magic realism, Steve Stern interweaves the Karp family history with the rabbi’s long journey from the Old World to the New, the dual narratives meeting at the point where a power outage allows the rabbi to thaw and climb out of the freezer. He then adjusts to 21st-century Memphis better than anyone could have guessed, opening a mega-synagogue in a mall and becoming a media sensation, much to the consternation of young Bernie Karp, who’s trying to get used to adolescence and figure out what he believes.