Book reviews: Book of Esther; Garry Brown’s Greatest Hits

Friday, June 24, 2016


By Emily Barton

Tim Duggan Books



The Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43, in which the Soviet Union inflicted a major defeat on German forces in one of WWII’s bloodiest clashes, has been well documented over the years. But what if the nation that first fought with the Nazis’ during their drive to the East had been a Jewish state over 1,000 years old?

That’s the premise of Emily Barton’s new novel, “The Book of Esther,” a genre-bending story and alternate history that combines elements of fantasy, adventure, biblical tales and Jewish legends. In Barton’s casting, the Jewish state of Khazaria, composed of parts of modern-day Ukraine, southern Russia and the Caucasus region, is grappling with an invasion from the forces of Germania in the summer of 1942.

And the unlikely heroine of the novel, 16-year-old Esther bat Josephus, is a Jewish Joan of Arc who believes Khazaria’s leaders don’t grasp the full scope of Germania’s threat not just to their country but to all Jews. Esther decides she must fight for her country, even if doing so means bucking her father’s will and breaking every rule governing acceptable behavior for Khazar women.

Barton, who lived in Northampton and taught fiction writing at Smith College from 2013 to 2015, has drawn for inspiration on the real Khazaria, a trading empire in that region from roughly A.D. 650-950 in which it’s believed the ruling class converted to Judaism in the 8th century. Her novel’s title comes from a story in the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament about a girl who becomes queen of Persia and saves the Jewish people from genocide.

But Barton’s Khazaria is a creation all her own, a curious mix of old and new: there are telephones, modern warships and “aerocraft,” but carrier pigeons are a common form of communication and slaves are still kept. Then there are mechanical horses, which run on gasoline but have strange life-like habits; golems, men made from clay and brought to life by magic; and flying machines with flapping wings activated by a pedaling pilot.

Esther is a spirited and likeable character, prey to the sudden mood swings of many adolescents. She's the daughter of one of Khazaria’s leading officials, and her father expects her obedience, part of which involves her impending, arranged marriage to the future chief rabbi. But Esther, convinced her father and his staff don’t understand the depth of the Germanii threat, takes off on a mechanical horse in search of a fabled village of kabbalists — magical Jews.

Her goal: have the kabbalists turn her into a man so that she can become a warrior and lead an army against the enemy.

It’s a wild tale, with plenty of humor, action, and a bit of confused adolescent romance thrown in for good measure. There’s also a more serious element. The author of two previous novels set in the past, Barton says her new book is in part a response to what she calls “this weird and growing outpouring of anti-Semitism” taking place in many parts of the world today. 

Emily Barton will read from “The Book of Esther” on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley.


By Garry Brown

Levellers Press


When Garry Brown joined what was the called The Springfield Union as a sportswriter in the summer of 1950, Ted Williams was the centerpiece of the Red Sox lineup, Harry Truman was president, and the Korean War had just begun.

Sixty-six years later, the retired Brown is still contributing a regular sports column to what’s now called The Republican. Over the years, he wrote so many words for the newspaper that he decided it was time to put some of them into book format.

In “Garry Brown’s Greatest Hits,” published by Levellers Press of Amherst, Brown has compiled some of his favorite columns and stories for the Springfield papers, covering over 64 years of journalism. His “Hitting to All Fields” column has been a staple there since 1973.

But though Brown has written widely about sports over the years, his larger subject is the one called life, and the pieces he’s selected for his book, presented in random order, reflect that.

The first one, for instance, recalls several days he and his wife spent in New York City in September 2001, as he covered a Red Sox-Yankees series — and how they left New York by train less than two hours before terrorists turned the city and the world upside down.

Brown also writes about his family, about high school athletes and growing older, about telling moments in Springfield history — what one critic calls “the stuff of life, love and what it means to be human. On the field and off.”

Garry Brown will sign copies of his “Greatest Hits” at a book-launch event Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in Springfield in the American International College Hall of Fame room.