On the Bookshelf
Running away: From Mossad-appointed time-travelers to daughters of famous novelists, these summer reads offer a healthy dose of escapism
Summer seems as opportune a time as any for publishers to drum up interest in fantasy and adventure: If people didn’t want escapism, would they be so ardent about planning beach vacations? Lev Grossman’s The Magician King (Viking, August) addresses itself to this desire to get away, intertwining the wonderment of a world very much like the one in C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader with some of the most emphatically unmagical details of urban life (like, sigh, Track Changes). A sequel to the 2009 best-seller, The Magicians—a book that inspired one critic to wonder “why there is no Jewish Narnia”—the new novel will likely earn Grossman more of J.K. Rowling’s maturing fans and, if nothing else, confirm him as the most commercially successful of the many authors in his own family.
Asked by a ThrillerFest attendee whether his new novel, The Twelfth Enchantment (Random House, August), would be “Lev Grossman-esque,” David Liss demurred but went on to clarify that he does respect The Magicians: “What I really appreciated about that book was he wanted to really grapple with what Harry Potter novels don’t: Which is, if this stuff were real, what does it mean psychologically? What does it do to the human psyche to be able to perform these incredible things?” Liss has been known, until now, for page-turning historical fictions involving financial chicanery in which Jews regularly feature, including a character based on the 18th-century pugilist Daniel Mendoza. His latest book introduces otherworldly magic into a setting familiar from Jane Austen’s novels (but Liss does this much more thoughtfully than all those recent slapdash Austen homages).
Edward Ifkovic’s Escape Artist (Poisoned Pen, June) offers escapism without any actual magic: It’s the second of Ifkovic’s novels to feature Edna Ferber as a sleuth, and it takes place when the middlebrow-novelist-to-be is still a 19-year-old cub reporter, unaware that literary fame awaits her. As if it’s not compelling enough just to imagine the woman who would grow up to be the author of Fanny Herself and So Big as a detective, Harry Houdini also co-stars. Ifkovic sets the tale in Appleton, Wisc., where Ferber and Houdini both spent time; the latter claimed, falsely, to have been born there, rather than in Budapest.
First published in England in 2008 to some acclaim, R.J. Ellory’s crime thriller A Simple Act of Violence (Overlook, June), like Ifkovic’s mystery, features a Jewish sleuth. One of Ellory’s two D.C. homicide detectives, who pursue a serial killer with C.I.A. ties, is said to be “holding onto [his] Jewish heritage by [his] fingernails”; the other cultivates a relationship with an elderly couple, “these strange old Jewish folk, like surrogate parents.”
In Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, satirical exaggerations and impossible paradoxes reflect not flights of fantasy but the insanity of war as filtered through Heller’s dark sense of humor. In a new memoir, Erica Heller describes what it was like to be on the receiving end of that sense of humor when she growing up, as the author’s daughter, in a landmark building on New York’s Upper West Side. Titled Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22 (Simon & Schuster, August), the book dishes on the life Heller lived after writing one of the most celebrated novels of the 20th century, including his meals with such luminaries as Mel Brooks and Zero Mostel.
There are traumas even more impossible to comprehend than the absurd military campaigns Heller immortalized, and techniques drawn from literary fantasy can serve as the means for making sense of such historical events. Or so Jenni Adams argues in Magic Realism in Holocaust Literature: Troping the Traumatic Real (Palgrave Macmillian, August), in which she attends particularly to recent international best-sellers by young writers, including Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.
Of course, pulpy thrillers (not to mention the Indiana Jones movies and lots of video games) love to ladle supernaturalism into stories that are ostensibly about the menace of Nazism, too, simply to gin up readers’ interest. In The 34th Degree (Simon & Schuster, June), for example, Thomas Greanias sends an Israeli counterterrorism expert, fresh from a time-traveling expedition to ancient Judea, back to the year 1943, where he can snatch a lost book of the Bible and its supernatural powers out of the hands of the S.S.
Is it less fun when fiction addresses the issues of the day responsibly, without fantasy, as in Amy Waldman’s The Submission (FSG, August)? Here, the “grandson of a Russian Jewish peasant” chairs a committee tasked with selecting the design for a 9/11 memorial. In Waldman’s rewrite of current events, the winning architect is an American Muslim (rather than the IDF veteran whose design was actually chosen); much hang-wringing and political point-scoring ensues. The chairman’s wife notes, for example, that “a Muslim country would never let a Jew build its memorial,” while a Bangladeshi woman notes that “an American designed our parliament in Dhaka” (an American, it should be said, whose birth name was Leiser-Itze Schmuilowsky). While Waldman draws upon her experience as a journalist for the New York Times and Atlantic, the novel, like any work of fiction, does partake of the prerogatives of fantasy—if only in the sense that it allows her to explore intense questions of local and global politics without being hampered by any pesky facts.
An exhibit in Tel Aviv surveys the changes in Israeli history, and the nation’s self-perception, through the once-popular medium of decorative dolls