On the Bookshelf
Austen, Dickinson, blintzes, and Prague
Women writers have, now and again, cultivated an air of mystery: recall that Jane Austen originally wrote as Anonymous, Mary Ann Evans as George Eliot, and Anne Desclos as Pauline Réage. In Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles (Rutgers, January), the first substantial biography of the woman born Tybile Lerner, Lousiana State University professor emerita Panthea Reid answers some of the questions that cluster around the author of Tell Me a Riddle, Yonnondido, and Silences. How did Olsen become a canonized master, having written so little? (As Margaret Atwood once put it, “Few writers have gained such wide respect on such a small body of published work.”) More perplexingly, how did the Omaha-born, “hell-cat” daughter of Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants transform herself first into a Communist ideologue, then into a stay-at-home mom, and finally into an American feminist icon?
An Amherst, Massachusetts, homebody who scribbled thousands of brilliant verses that went almost entirely unpublished until after her death in 1886, Emily Dickinson has, unlike Olsen, inspired countless biographical treatments. Jerome Charyn’s The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel (Norton, February) is hardly unique in constructing a work of fiction around Dickinson’s life and legacy—see, among many others, Rose MacMurray’s Afternoons with Emily (2007), Judith Farr’s I Never Came to You in White (1996), and Joyce Carol Oates’s short story, “EDickinsonRepliLuxe”. Charyn’s novel is just the first such project written by a prolific ping-pong enthusiast raised in the Bronx among “very poor, violent Jews.”
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Does it dignify Bruce Eric Kaplan’s cartoons a little too much to compare their compression, their mordantly precise wit, to Dickinson’s extraordinary poems? Probably. But among New Yorker cartoonists, at least, BEK, as he signs his drawings, distinguishes himself as the preeminent poet of emotional isolation. In his latest collection of one-panel cartoons, I Love You, I Hate You, I’m Hungry (Simon & Schuster, January), he continues to nail the excesses of Jews and all those non-Jews Lenny Bruce would have called Jewish. And no wonder his characters are hungry, if they’re picky eaters like their creator: “I absolutely hate blintzes,” he once told the Forward, years ago. “I can’t say one positive thing about a blintz. I used to try and taste it every now and then as a kid, and I think one time it made me vomit.”
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In 1990, People labeled Cathleen Schine “a modern-day Jewish Jane Austen.” Schine apparently took that designation to heart: she has modeled her latest novel, The Three Weissmans of Westport (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February) on Sense and Sensibility. Revisiting her childhood Connecticut hometown, Schine casts in the role of Mrs. Dashwood a 75-year-old who has been summarily dumped by her husband of half a century and exiled from Manhattan and supplies her with two daughters whose romantic confusions fill out the plot. Transforming Elinor and Marianne into Jewesses might have surprised Austen, but it can hardly be called outlandish in an era of Austen/monster mash-ups, one of which folds “a gigantic man-eating jellyfish” into the sisters’ story.
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No less so than women, male authors present their fair share of mysteries, often quite literally. Take Ian Sansom’s series of whodunits set in Northern Ireland, starring Israel Armstrong, a London-born Jewish sleuth and bookmobile driver. In The Bad Book Affair (Harper, January), the fourth entry in the series, the disappearance of a politician’s 14-year-old daughter after she borrows Philip Roth’s American Pastoral from Amstrong’s bookmobile casts suspicions on the librarian, giving Sansom a peg from which to hang another one of his satirical yarns. One just hopes the missing girl meets a kinder fate than Merry Levov.
With The Fifth Servant (HarperCollins, January), meanwhile, Kenneth Wishina spins the sort of mystery that presumably occasioned Laura Miller, Salon’s intrepid book columnist, to impose on herself “‘ironclad’ rules against [reading] novels about . . . rabbis in Prague”. Setting the scene in the late-16th century in that fabled city, Wishnia tasks a Polish yeshiva bokher with explaining the bloody corpse of a Christian child as something other than a Jewish ritual murder, thus saving the community from the fury of the mob and the wrath of a Holy Inquisitor. Voilà: the detective as substitute Golem.
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As prominent as Prague has been in the imaginations of contemporary Jewish novelists, Czernowitz has been obscure—it’s the sort of city that few American Jews could locate, even with the help of Google Maps (tip: search for Chernivtsi, just north of the Romanian border with Ukraine). Site of the most important Yiddish conference ever assembled, but also the “Vienna of the East” in which many assimilating Jews embraced German language and culture, the city remains the object of longings and genealogical research for its former residents and their descendants. When Carl and Lotte Hirsch agreed in 1998 to return to the city with their daughter, Columbia University professor Marianne Hirsch, Carl explained it as an educational venture: “Marianne doesn’t have a Heimat [home], and we want to show her ours because ours is also in some ways hers.” That trip and others that followed have resulted in a rich, thoughtful book about that Heimat and its legacies, a collaboration between his daughter and son-in-law, Leo Spitzer, titled Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory (California, January).