On the Bookshelf
Distinguished poets and undistinguished cops
In the world of The Wire, Jews play exactly three roles in the justice system: slimy lawyers for gangsters and drug dealers, idealistic assistant DAs, and undistinguished cops who rarely merit screen time. Steven M. Forman’s protagonist, Eddie Perlmutter, is one of the latter, a Boston cousin of Jay Landsman—a Jewish cop, in other words, with a bit of a temper and a few unfortunate habits, such as referring to his penis as “Mr. Johnson” and conversing with it on a regular basis. In Forman’s second Perlmutter novel, Boca Mournings (Forge, February), the 60-year-old retiree stays active by foiling the plans of neo-Nazis, medical scammers, and Russian mobsters.
In genre fiction, cops have no exclusive claim on the solving of crimes, of course. In the seventh entry in Ian Morson’s series of novels set at Oxford during the Dark Ages, Falconer’s Trial (Severn, February), a French Jewess named Saphira Le Veske steps up to prove the innocence of her lover, the titular Falconer. An Oxford regent master accused of poisoning a woman with a medicinal potion, Falconer relies on Le Veske and other sympathetic souls to discover the culprit while he’s locked up. Meanwhile in Debbie Viguié’s The Lord Is My Shepherd (Abingdon, March)—the first in a projected series of “Psalm 23 Mysteries”—Rabbi Jeremiah Silverman partners with a Presbyterian church secretary to hunt a serial killer striking, repeatedly and blasphemously, during the Passover and Easter holidays. Unlike Harry Kemelman’s somewhat nebbishy Conservative rabbi/sleuth David Small, Silverman, a member of the Reform movement, boasts substantial hand-to-hand combat skills thanks to his years in Israel.
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Jews and Christians, foiling evildoers together: just wishful thinking? Edward Kessler’s An Introduction to Jewish-Christian Relations (Cambridge, February) suggests that while visions of interfaith camaraderie would have flown in the face of theological and social realities for most of the last millennium or so, in the 20th century, and particularly in recent decades, “Christianity, so long an instigator of violence against Jews, rediscovered a respect and admiration for Judaism, and the once close relationship, which had become a distant memory, has been to a large extent restored”—while Jews, for their part, have realized “that partnership with Christianity is possible.”
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Melissa Broder works as a publicist, and she clearly knows a thing or two about marketing books in this age of indifference to literature; her exploits have included a stint in a hot-dog suit at BookExpo. She has cannily given her first collection of poetry a title that evokes Portnoy’s Complaint and Woody Allen and generally just sticks in your head: When You Say One Thing But Mean Your Mother (Ampersand, February). The tone ranges from Onion-headline jokey (“Man, Age 35, Wears Sellout T-Shirt on Varick Street”) to the potentially liturgical (“Next Year in Jerusalem”) or eccentric (“Jewish Voodoo”).
Edward Hirsch has had the sort of career that a young poet like Broder probably shouldn’t even daydream about. Having won prizes ranging from NYU’s Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award to a MacArthur Fellowship, Hirsch reached a wide audience with 1999’s How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry and currently serves as president of the Guggenheim Foundation, in which capacity he doles out grants to deserving artists and writers around the world. All that, and he still makes time to compose moving poems like “Elegy for the Jewish Villages,”, which appears in his 2008 collection Special Orders: “Gone are the villages where the wind joined Biblical songs/ with Polish tunes, where old Jews stood in the shade/ of cherry trees and longed for the holy walls of Jerusalem.” Hirsch’s The Living Fire (Knopf, March) culls selections from all seven of his collections, published since 1981.
Another eminent American Jewish versifier, Maxine Kumin, once pronounced in somewhat Malamudesque fashion that “writers are all secret Jews.” She’s a not-so-secret Jew herself: though she attended convent school as a child and lives a pastoral New England life, Kumin has never shied away from writing about her heritage, even going so far as to compose a series of “tribal poems.” A thoughtful commentator on feminism, animal rights, and the business of poetry, Kumin has published many essays, and The Roots of Things (Northwestern, March) presents a selection of the finest of these.
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André Aciman aspires to poetry, but settles for prose: as he once told an interviewer, “I always felt that prose was a ‘concession’ to our times, to modernity, to America, a way of ‘compromising’ with the hard-and-fast, nuts-and-bolt, here-today-gone-tomorrow, fast-track, come-as-you-are, say-what-you-please world everyone took to be the real world. Prose was a demotion. I wanted poetry.” Not that the prose he produces has been second-rate: Michiko Kakutani called Aciman’s 1994 memoir of his Jewish family’s life in and exodus from Alexandria, Out of Egypt, “exquisite.” Aciman’s new novel, Eight White Nights (FSG, February) begins with the meeting of a man and a woman at an Upper West Side cocktail party on Christmas Eve, and continues to follow their courtship, of sorts, until New Years’ Eve. That the two characters repeatedly attend and discuss the films of Eric Rohmer—whom Aciman eulogized recently in the New York Times—not only establishes the verisimilitude of Aciman’s Manhattanites, but also reflects how deeply he draws inspiration not just from poetry, but also from the screen.