On the Page: ‘Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde’ by Rebecca Dana and ‘Jungleland’ by Christopher S. Stewart

Rebecca DanaJujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde

Rebecca Dana

(Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 288 pp., $25.95)

The cover of Rebecca Dana’s charming, frequently hilarious memoir, Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde (Amy Einhorn Books, 288 pp., $25.95), features a single slice of bacon—a fitting image for a book about two Jews lost in New York. It turns out that the only real bacon consumed in this book is not only raw, it’s eaten by Cosmo, a Russian rabbi who has no congregation but is “the smartest employee at the Fast Trak Copy Center” in Crown Heights.

Cosmo doesn’t belong there, no more than Ms. Dana belongs in the mouse-infested apartment they share. A refugee from Pittsburgh, Ms. Dana is the daughter of chemists who studied plastic and rust. Ms. Dana knew she was meant for New York: her world revolves less around God than “atoms, molecules, and clinical depression.” Her dream life in Manhattan had come true—she is a journalist (originally in these pink sheets!), has the right hair and shoes at last, and has juice-cleansed her way to 212 thinness.

While Ms. Dana writes about fashion all day—she’s embarrassed that she can’t cure a cleft palate, but really likes clothes—her handsome boyfriend hooks up with other ladies. When Ms. Dana discovers his treachery, she finds the cheapest apartment available, splitting the rent with Cosmo, the ultra-Reform Jew, in the center of Brooklyn’s Orthodox community.

Her experience with this odd Russian is punctuated by his colorful expressions—“You could be from Mars for that price”—and his disaffection from Judaism. Meanwhile, Ms. Dana dips a toe into religion, attending a few classes at a local center and a handful of shabbats in Crown Heights. It’s a shame that she is unable to find a middle ground between the Jew-lite of her childhood and the full-on corset of Crown Heights. I wish she had tried jujitsu just once with Cosmo, if only for comic value. But the months in Crown Heights restore her, and Ms. Dana returns to her life in Manhattan, grace and terrific humor intact. — Rebecca Kurson

JungleandJungleland

Christopher S. Stewart

(Harper, 288 pp., $27.99)

Midlife crises often take the form of, say, a hot rod in the driveway. Not so for Christopher S. Stewart, whose squeamishness about settling down occasioned a trip through the jungles of Honduras’s Mosquito Coast (during a coup, at that) in search of a lost city.

He takes his inspiration from the explorer (and, later, WWII spy on a mission to kill Hitler) Theodore Morde, who made a similar quest in 1939 and claimed to have found the Ciudad Blanca, but died before he could tell the world where it was. The chapters alternate between Mr. Stewart’s reimagining of Mr. Morde’s adventure and an account of his own.

Though daring, Mr. Stewart has little in common with Indiana Jones besides a pronounced fear of snakes. As the author observes, that comparison is better made to his traveling companion, archaeology professor Chris Begley, who at one point cures a fever by diving into a crocodile-infested river. Not that this is especially new territory for Mr. Stewart, an editor at The Wall Street Journal (and a former editor at this newspaper) whose journalism has often been of the adventure variety. But it is his modesty and ability to articulate his fears that make him an appealing narrator. (About those snakes: he panics when he forgets to bring leg guards to the jungle and improvises with a pair of soccer shin guards.) A biographical note indicates that he “doesn’t plan on returning to the jungle anytime soon.” A pity for readers, who will have to be patient. —Sarah Douglas