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Book Bag: ‘The Book of Jonah’ by Joshua Max Feldman; ‘The Escape of the Faculty Wife and Other Stories’ by Hugh Hawkins

THE BOOK OF JONAH

By Joshua Max Feldman

Henry Holt and Company

joshuamaxfeldman.com

Joshua Max Feldman, Amherst Regional High School class of 1997, has led a varied life since leaving town. He’s lived in England, Switzerland, and New York City, working as a freelance editor and penning a number of plays.

But Feldman, who now lives in Florida, has made his biggest splash in the last few months with his debut novel, “The Book of Jonah.”

Based loosely on the biblical tale of the same name, “The Book of Jonah” is at once a pastiche of a hot-shot New York lawyer and his upscale world and a deeper story of the search for understanding and meaning in the world — as well as an examination of what our relationship with God, or the divine, can mean.

Jonah Jacobstein seems to have everything going for him. Smart, good-looking, and at 32 well on his way to making partner at a prestigious Manhattan law firm, he has a beautiful longtime girlfriend in Sylvia, an equally beautiful mistress in Zoey, and a cool iPhone he can’t live without. His biggest dilemma is trying to figure out how to handle the conflicts in his love life. Raised Jewish, he has little connection or interest in his heritage.

But disturbances soon begin appearing in Jonah’s comfortable world. While waiting out a rainstorm in a subway tunnel, he’s cornered by a Hasidic Jew who reminds him of the Old Testament tale of Jonah and the whale and the dangers of a lack of faith: “Wouldn’t you rather be counted among the righteous when the arrogant are washed away?” Then, at a party, Jonah is overwhelmed by a sudden, frightening vision of New York laid waste by floods and earthquakes.

As Jonah tries to grasp the meaning of this terrible image, his life begins to spiral out of control. Believing God is trying to tell him to live with more integrity, he confesses his infidelity to Sylvia, tells his cousin her fiancé may be gay, then contacts an investigative reporter to reveal shady doings at his law firm — leading to his abrupt firing. Sylvia, with whom he’s about to sign a lease for an apartment, is not happy with Jonah’s admission of cheating.

“ ‘You are so stupid,’ she said simply. ‘You are so, so stupid.’ She sighed audibly. Then she picked up the electric stapler on the table and slammed it against Jonah’s face. ‘You are so f...ing stupid!’ she screamed as he nearly tumbled over in his chair. She threw the stapler on the table and it exploded apart in a cloud of staples.”

Jonah becomes adrift, traveling to Amsterdam, then Las Vegas, trying to understand what’s happened to him. Along the way he meets Judith, a fellow lost soul whose previous life — brilliant young art scholar headed to a doctoral program at Princeton — was derailed by 9/11, in which her parents died. Judith, whose story is told intermittently along with Jonah’s, has become hardened because of God’s seeming indifference to her parents. When she and Jonah cross paths, their lives will be changed yet again.

“The Book of Jonah” has received strong reviews from numerous critics; The Washington Post calls it “a beguiling debut novel” that melds an often-comic touch with a thoughtful examination of moral issues. Amazon, which named the novel its best book of February, says Feldman’s story “is more than a religious parable. It’s a universal, timeless tale of loss and the longing for meaning.”

THE ESCAPE OF THE FACULTY WIFE and OTHER STORIES

By Hugh Hawkins

Small Batch Books

Although he made his mark primarily as a historian, former Amherst College history and American studies professor Hugh Hawkins has also explored different kinds of writing over the years. His memoir, “Railwayman’s Son,” examined his childhood in Kansas and Oklahoma, and this collection of short stories springs from memories of his adult life.

“The Escape of the Faculty Wife,” published by Small Batch Books of Amherst, spans the decades from World War II to the Iraq War; they’re grouped by locale — campus, hilltown, army barracks — rather than chronologically. The ten stories are like snapshots, small moments frozen in time, like the portrait of a professor in “After the Lecture” who just wants to work on his new book one afternoon but keeps getting interrupted by pesky students, colleagues and phone calls.

In “A Day With Bad News,” the story’s narrator, who has just buried his wife, looks back on a day the previous year when things looked brighter, his wife’s cancer seeming to be in remission. They had taken a hike from their home in a “New England hilltown” on a warm September day; the narrator had gotten a hint from the local mail carrier that something big — something serious — had taken place that morning, but he’d resisted learning anything about it at the moment. He makes it a point not to turn on the radio.

Later that afternoon, though, the couple opens up their local newspaper to discover terrorists have crashed two hijacked airliners in New York City, destroying the World Trade Center towers. “George told me when he brought the mail,” the narrator tells his wife. “Forgive me. I wanted to shut the world out a little longer.”

“So we could have our beautiful day,” his wife responds.

Hawkins, who lives in Plainfield, taught at Amherst for 43 years before retiring in 2000. He is the author of several other books, including studies of American social history and higher education.

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