BookBrowse Highlights

This week, in our Editor's Choice review, we look at David Hopen's debut novel, The Orchard. Part coming-of-age story, part thriller, the novel follows teenager Ari Eden as he moves from an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn to a Miami suburb and finds himself in a dangerous situation as he questions the strict religious rules that have always governed his life. Our "beyond the book" article examines the Jewish legend of Pardes, which plays a critical role in the plot.

We also invite you to download our new report, Book Clubs in Lockdown, which features information gleaned from an October survey of more than 4,500 readers, 3,400 of whom are in book clubs. If you took part in the survey -- thank you!

Also, do check out the First Impressions books now available for members to request and our upcoming Book Club discussions (which are open to all).

Very best,
Book Clubs in Lockdown
In October 2020, we surveyed more than 4,500 people, over 3,400 of whom are currently in a book club to find out how book groups are adapting to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

You can download the full report for free at, and when you have done so, please do share with your friends.

Among much more, you'll discover:

  • How book clubs are responding and adapting to the events of 2020
  • Where book clubs are meeting and what precautions they're taking
  • The good and not so good aspects of meeting virtually
  • What book clubs are—and are not—discussing this year

If you'd like to read a summary of the findings as they pertain to publishers, I recommend this week's Publishers Weekly Soapbox article (please do "like" if you find it interesting).
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Editor's Choice
The Orchard
by David Hopen

The first half of the novel, in which the now-adult Aryeh provides a first-person account of his formative years, is pure set-up. He introduces the audience to the heavily constrained world of Torah Temimah ("The Torah is Perfect"), a school he says is "single sexed, with a black-and-white dress code, thirty boys per grade and a reputation for functioning as an academic travesty." Later, he relates his culture shock at the new, academically challenging school in Florida, his first unsupervised coed party and his first love. Aryeh also reflects on his blossoming friendships with the four most popular boys in the neighborhood, including the mysterious Evan Stark. His love-hate relationship with Evan provides the primary tension throughout the novel, with similarities between the two (both are far more intellectual than their peers, both fall for the same girl, etc.) leading to a not-so-friendly rivalry. Even the similarity of the boys' names — Eden and Evan — is a subtle nod to how they're two sides of the same coin, a sort of yin and yang.

At about the halfway mark, the tone of the narrative changes, moving beyond a basic coming-of-age story to a fascinating exploration of how people — Jews in particular — experience the presence of God. The plot hinges on an ongoing private seminar held for the boys by Rabbi Bloom, the school's principal, during which they discuss how various philosophers viewed humanity's relationship with God. The most pivotal moment in the novel comes with a discussion of the legend of Pardes, the "paradisal orchard of Torah knowledge." An ensuing debate sends the five students on a trajectory that will alter the course of their lives forever. ... continued
Beyond the Book:
The Legend of Pardes
The word "Pardes" comes from the ancient Persian word pairidaeza, which refers to an enclosed garden. The Pardes legend can be found in the Tosefta, an anthology of laws attributed to Jewish sages gathered between 0 and 200 CE, and the Talmud, the central book of rabbinic law, the first component of which — the Mishnah — was published around 200 CE. The legend is traditionally interpreted as a warning against the study of mysticism, and is meant to contrast the actions of three historic scholars — Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and Acher — with the ideal, Rabbi Akiva.

The rather cryptic story goes like this: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher and Rabbi Akiva entered the orchard. "Entering the orchard" has been commonly interpreted to mean that the four attained a kind of spiritual elevation or mystical experience, though it is not clear what exactly that experience was. Ben Azzai looked and died. Ben Zoma looked and was harmed. (Some versions of the story flip the fates of Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma.) Acher cut down the plantings. Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace. Although the story is generally thought to be allegory, the four men mentioned actually did exist and were well-known during their lifetimes. ... continued
Ecco. Novel. 480 pages. Published Nov 17, 2020
BookBrowse Rating: 5/5, Critics' Consensus: 4.5/5
Review and article by Kim Kovacs
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At BookBrowse, we believe that the very best books don't just entertain and engage, they also enlighten, wrapping us in their world, giving us a window into the lives of others or a mirror to reflect on ourselves. These are the books we seek out and feature on BookBrowse, both fiction and nonfiction.
Published every Thursday, BookBrowse Highlights is one of BookBrowse's four free newsletters. We also publish Publishing This Week every Sunday; and Book Club News and Librarian News monthly.
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