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Short takes

By Amanda Heller
Globe Correspondent / August 23, 2009

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AN EXPENSIVE EDUCATION
By Nick McDonell
Atlantic, 256 pp., paperback, $24

Harvard may not actually be the center of the universe, but this polished thriller by Nick McDonell plays along with the localized delusion that it is.

Michael Teak, a recent Harvard graduate and secret agent gone undercover in East Africa, arrives in a Somali village in time to witness a massacre of suspicious provenance. Teak’s treacherous handlers - Harvard men all, it would seem - pin the outrage on an insurgent leader, Hatashil, an explanation that does not satisfy the wary Teak. Meanwhile, back in Cambridge, academic superstar Susan Lowell has just won a Pulitzer for her book on Hatashil, an honor she gets to enjoy for about five minutes before her probity and her scholarship come under attack. Two undergrads fill especially ironic roles: David Ayan, a Somali scholarship student desperate to garner all the perks and privileges of the Harvard experience, and his girlfriend, a languid Beacon Hill beauty who is covering the Pulitzer contretemps for the Harvard Crimson.

Smoothly commuting from the Porcellian Club to the backwaters of Africa, McDonell crafts a sophisticated potboiler with an Ivy League patina. In particular his characterization of Teak as a spy precociously ready to come in from the cold raises “An Expensive Education’’ above the common run of page-turners.

RASHIBy Elie Wiesel
Translated, from the French, by Catherine Temerson
Schocken, 128 pp., $22

In or around 1040, a century before Maimonides, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac was born in Narbonne in southern France. Known in posterity by the Hebrew acronym Rashi, he would become renowned for his sensitive readings of biblical texts, the law of the Jewish people, which would inform and influence Bible commentary into our own day.

What Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, Mellon professor in the humanities at Boston University, recognizes in this long-ago scholar is essentially a fellow humanities professor. With gratifying depth and grace for such a short work, he summarizes Rashi’s championing of the humane values of his religion and culture: peace, justice, learning. He marvels at Rashi’s close readings a millennium before New Criticism advanced the concept, and at the medieval rabbi’s understanding of a very modern-sounding, benevolent God whose law is beautiful in its rationality and must always be interpreted as such.

Above all, in this miniature history Wiesel dramatically evokes life within the precarious yet thriving Jewish communities of western Europe in the Middle Ages and mourns eloquently along with Rashi the arbitrary destruction of those communities by marauding Crusaders, a cruel 11th-century fate foreshadowing the 20th-century horrors to which Wiesel has borne courageous witness.

IT FEELS SO GOOD WHEN I STOP
By Joe Pernice
Riverhead, 288 pp., $25.95

On the run from his three-day-old marriage, the narrator-hero of this unexpectedly touching novel by musician-songwriter Joe Pernice has fled to Cape Cod, the place where, in a manner of speaking, he grew up.

We get to know him in flashbacks sketching his college years; his life in New York, where he has been waiting tables while waiting for his rock band to catch fire; and his relationship with his strong-willed girlfriend, which against his better judgment he allowed to accelerate into marriage. Now, as he rusticates on the Cape, only three things are helping him keep his head above water: his toddler nephew, for whom he baby-sits while his sister and brother-in-law are busy splitting up; a sad, solitary woman who begins to lean on him for companionship; and a rusty pink bicycle long since abandoned by his sister, a symbol of simpler days before adulthood landed on him like the proverbial ton of bricks.

Talking ’bout his generation, Pernice is in his element. The narrative is built on quips and quirky metaphors, ending with a poignant image of the quixotic slacker: a troubled young man on a pink bike pedaling like mad for the Bourne Bridge.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

AN EXPENSIVE EDUCATION By Nick McDonell

Atlantic, 256 pp., paperback, $24

RASHI By Elie WieselTranslated, from the French, by Catherine Temerson

Schocken, 128 pp., $22

IT FEELS SO GOOD WHEN I STOP By Joe Pernice

Riverhead, 288 pp., $25.95

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