‘Yiddish for Pirates’

Gary Barwin

Vintage Canada

You’ve probably never met a narrator like the one in Gary Barwin’s new novel, “Yiddish for Pirates.” His name is Aaron. He’s about 500 years old. He speaks Yiddish. Oh, and he’s an African Grey parrot.

Unfortunately, due to the fact that I grew up with Disney movies, the voice in my head was that of Gilbert Gottfried and his parrot alter ego, Iago.

But that’s not Barwin’s fault. And it didn’t take away any enjoyment of this creative and hilarious historical fiction.

“Yiddish” tells the five-part swashbuckling tale of young Moishe, whose attraction to the sea leads him from his shtetl to a ship’s crew and on to new worlds. Along the way, he meets characters such as Christopher Columbus, whose 1492 voyage takes center-stage later in the novel, when Moishe joins him on his quest. (We all know how that turns out, though “Yiddish” provides its own spin.)

Aaron provides colorful commentary throughout, telling jokes infused with Jewish humor. Aaron also tells tales of escape and revenge as he and Moishe find themselves in increasingly dangerous situations. When he becomes separated from his “shoulder” (Moishe’s shoulder), he introduces the reader to characters and places seen from a unique bird’s-eye view.

Through it all, Moishe is on a quest to rescue his love, Sarah, who's been captured for being Jewish.

Beneath the jokes and scenes of wonder — along with parrot coitus, believe it or not — are themes of persecution and perseverance. Barwin balances realistic descriptions of the lives of Jewish Spaniards during the Inquisition with a bustling narrative of Moishe’s adventures and adolescence. —M.S.

‘Dinner at the Center of the Earth’

Nathan Englander

Alfred A. Knopf

Nathan Englander’s new book reminds me of an old “Saturday Night Live” bit — a fake commercial about Shimmer Floor Wax. Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner play a married couple arguing over whether Shimmer is a dessert topping or a floor wax. Product spokesman Chevy Chase settles the disagreement by telling them it’s both. Problem solved!

The problem with Englander’s “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” is that, like Shimmer, it tries to do too many things at the same time — and not always well.

At times, “Dinner” comes across as a romantic novel. At other times, it’s a political thriller. And there are enough farcical moments to make you question what you’re reading.

Characters include Prisoner Z, who’s been held for more than a decade somewhere in the Negev Desert; we learn via flashbacks that he’s an American spy who gave away Israel secrets.

There’s also a comatose Israeli leader known as the General; his caretaker Ruthi; her son, a prison guard responsible for Prisoner Z; and a Palestinian named Farid who’s trying to fund anti-settlement programs.

Englander tries to mesh all these storylines, but doesn’t entirely succeed. The fact that he adopts the trend in television and movies to flash forward, flash backward and, seemingly, flash sideways, just seems to muck up the works.

A more linear storytelling style would have paid dividends as the framework for a good tale is evident. —A.G. JN

Marissa Stern and Andy Gotlieb work for the Jewish Exponent, a publication affiliated with the Jewish News.

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