Summer Reading 2007
What we’re reading
What are you reading? Post a comment and let us know.
- Sara Ivry, Senior Editor: Nahum Glatzer and A.B. Yehoshua
- Eryn Loeb, Staff Writer: Ellen Willis and Judy Blume
- Jonathan Rosen, General Editor: Benny Morris and Leonard Michaels
- Amy Rosenberg, Books Editor: Benjamin Tammuz and Yasmina Reza
- Julie Sandorf, Director: Amy Dockser Marcus and Esther Schor
- Joanna Smith Rakoff, Editor in Chief: Joan Silber and Laurie Colwin
- Julie Subrin, Podcast Producer: André Aciman and Sayed Kashua
- Rachel Sugar, Intern: Lara Vapnyar and Philip Roth
- Ellen Umansky, Features Editor: Tamar Yellin and Moacyr Scliar
- Stephen Vider, Associate Editor: Alessandro Piperno and Alan Hollinghurst
I’m reading: Nahum Glatzer was a name I knew growing up. As the child of a professor of Jewish philosophy, I heard it uttered with reverence, as were the names of other older professor types—proper, accented men of European origin, usually accompanied by kind, abiding, and proper wives of similar background. When I came upon Glatzer’s memoirs recently, I eagerly took the book off the shelf and opened it up, wanting to understand more about the constellation of immigrants who helped build Brandeis University, some of whom occasionally sat in our living room and became, in my imagination at least, intellectual fathers to my own dear old dad from Brooklyn.
and rereading: Having read A.B. Yehoshua’s The Lover as a teenager, I forgot much of what transpires, but I remember being transfixed by the exhaustion, obsession, and dislocation in which its protagonists seemed to be drowning. Yehoshua published the book, his first novel, in 1977, four years after the Yom Kippur War, and fatigue from battle hovers throughout like a haze. This was the first Israeli novel I’d ever read and its style, using alternating narrators, undergirds the isolation the characters, Jews and Arabs alike, feel from everything. Among the principals are Adam, a mechanic; his schoolteacher wife, Asya; and their insomniac adolescent daughter. It’s no spoiler to say there’s a lover in the mix; a mysterious expat returned to Israel who’s briefly manipulated by Adam to take up with Asya, their own marriage asunder since the death of a first child several years before.
I’m reading: When Ellen Willis died last fall, the pioneering feminist critic left behind a body of work in which the personal and political are inextricable. A standout of her essay collection Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope and Rock-and-Roll is the long “Next Year in Jerusalem” (1976), which details Willis’s “intense confrontation with my own Jewishness” in the face of her younger brother’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism. In “The Myth of the Powerful Jew” (1979), the self-proclaimed “anti-anti-Zionist” rails against anti-Semitism. Also included here is her truly brilliant 1976 essay on Janis Joplin, which, like nearly everything she wrote, resonates powerfully decades after its publication.
and rereading: A beach read set in a beach town, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself is the spirited story of its 10-year-old heroine’s life in Miami Beach in 1947. Sally is curious, adventurous, and clever enough to get herself into the best kinds of trouble. She’s also haunted by the Holocaust (at least what she understands of it), fantasizing about rescuing her Tante Rose from the concentration camp where she perished, and suspecting that a neighbor may be Hitler, cleverly disguised. Blume crafts this material in a way that’s compelling—and often deeply funny—but never heavy-handed. Whether or not you read it back when it was age-appropriate, it’s a book that grows with you.
I’m reading: This summer I will be in Israel and I’m taking along Benny Morris’ Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001. I am curious to read the work of someone who was once a posterchild for post-Zionism, who has since appalled some of his former champions by writing in the New York Review of Books that Arafat and Palestinian rejectionism sank Oslo. He’s also taken to expressing the view that Ben Gurion ought to have expelled more Arabs while he had the chance. In short, he has become a post-post-Zionist; he hasn’t disavowed his earlier work, merely placed it in an even darker context that verges on the apocalyptic.
and rereading: The short stories of Leonard Michaels have been important to me ever since I took a writing class with him twenty years ago at Berkeley and read “Murderers,” about a few Jewish boys who sit on a roof and watch their rabbi have sex. Like David Bezmozgis, who wrote so beautifully about Michaels in this space not long ago, I felt jolted awake by his work, which functioned as a kind of touchstone of literary authenticity for me. Michaels’ stories have just been republished by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and I am looking forward to going through them again and encountering not only the terse power, Yiddish inflections, wise-ass wit, and unexpected moral intensity, but my own memories of being a graduate student at Berkeley, dreaming of dropping out to write.
I’m reading: A love story, a spy thriller, a subtropical setting—what more could you want in a beach read? In 1981, Graham Greene called Benjamin Tammuz’s Minotaur “the best book of the year.” Its protagonist, an Israeli secret agent, falls in love with a young woman on a bus. Putting his sleuthing skills to work, he discovers her name and address and writes to her anonymously, thus beginning a secret, decade-long correspondence. The book promises, in the course of the characters’ epistolary interaction, digressions on music, the Mediterranean, the history of Israel, and the immigrant experience there.
and rereading: Yasmina Reza’s novels have languished in the shadow of her overwhelmingly successful play, Art. This one, Reza’s third, is worth reading for the same reasons that Art was worth seeing: It’s a taut, trenchant meditation on the nature of art, memory, identity, and failure, and it manages to be both deadly funny and deadly serious at the same time. In a moment of middle-aged angst, Adam Haberberg, a secular Jew who fondly recalls childhood Passovers but otherwise has lost touch with his heritage—and most other things outside of himself—sits down on a park bench in Paris and ponders his miseries: His writing career is a flop, he’s been diagnosed with a retinal thrombosis, and his wife is probably having an affair. Enter Marie-Thérèse, a high school acquaintance whom Adam had barely ever noticed. The details of her boring existence send Adam into a rage, unfathomable until it becomes clear that it’s his own ordinariness he fears. Not the lightest summer reading ever, but it will make you laugh at your own failed ambitions.
I’m reading: Growing up, Amy Dockser Marcus spent half her summers in Jerusalem. As an adult, she learned Hebrew and returned to that complicated city as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. In this lively, engaging book—warmly received by critics earlier this year—she offers a snapshot of the culture and politics of polyglot Jerusalem at a crucial moment: the Ottoman Empire on the brink of dissolution; World War I and the British Mandate just around the corner; armed conflict near Jaffa providing a glimpse of the troubles to come. Dockser Marcus, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for her coverage of cancer patients, explains that she shares “the quiet idea that in rethinking the past, it is sometimes possible to rethink the future.”
and rereading: (Full disclosure: This book is part of Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters Series, published in conjunction with Schocken/Random House. Forgive us for tooting our own horn.) Like most of us, I knew little about Emma Lazarus—other than that she’d penned the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”)—before opening Esther Schor’s smart, passionate account of her life. Born to great wealth, Lazarus was a feminist and a Zionist before such words were even coined. Rising to literary fame while still in her teens—Emerson and Henry James were among her admirers—she went on to devote her considerable energies to the Russian Jewish immigrants then arriving in New York by the thousands. Schor makes vivid both the divergent worlds Lazarus traversed and the manifold ways in which contemporary women still struggle with the same issues she faced.
I’m reading: Joan Silber’s icily precise debut novel, Household Words, won the Pen/Hemingway Award in 1981, but fell out of print and into obscurity, where it remained until 2001, when Silber’s collection of linked stories, Ideas of Heaven, was nominated for the National Book Award. Set in the 1940s and 50s, the novel explores the interior life of Rhoda Taber, a briskly modern housewife and mother, smug in her sense of herself as sophisticated (she teaches French, after all), pragmatic (she has no use for her husband’s passion for Chekhov), and prosperous (she has successfully escaped “the old-fashioned odor of boiled vegetables and spitting fats, the traces of ignorant people cooking away the vitamins,” and the guttural rise and fall of Yiddish that permeate her immigrant parents’ Newark tenement). Silber is a bold and unsentimental writer, unafraid of portraying her characters’ most mundane or private moments; the result (so far) is a profound and fully-textured depiction of “the loneliness of those who are natural with no one.”
and rereading: Published in 1982, on the heels of the women’s movement—and novels like Fear of Flying, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, The Women’s Room, and, come to think of it, Household Words—Laurie Colwin’s second novel was viewed as something akin to a domestic fairy tale. Twenty-five years later, with droves of Harvard-trained lawyers leaving the work force to perambulate Bugaboos, Family Happiness seems to have been eerily prescient, despite the references to ocean liners and these confounding new devices called computers. Polly Solo-Miller Demarest, “the perfect flower of the Solo-Miller family,” has a handsome husband, two adorable children, a vast apartment on Park Avenue, and a tight-knit family that gathers every Sunday, with cinematic quirkiness, for lox on toast points, bagels, presumably, being too déclassé for “old, old Jewish families, the sort that are more identifiably old American than Jewish.” She also has a lover, because—of course—all is not quite as blissful as it would seem. Colwin carefully lays out the various ways in which Polly has been programmed to serve her family and the greater good, rather than herself. But ultimately Polly’s crisis is spiritual, rather than political. “In a synagogue there was no one to confess to,” she reflects, upon wandering into a neighborhood church, “and if you could not forgive yourself you were lost.”
I’m rereading: André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name is a steamy account of 17-year-old Elio’s infatuation with Oliver, an American grad student who spends the summer with Elio’s family at their Mediterranean villa. Sayed Kashua’s Let It Be Morning follows an Arab-Israeli journalist (like Kashua himself—he’s a columnist for Ha’aretz) as he moves with his wife and baby back to his Arab village after a 10-year absence. No sooner do they arrive than life there devolves into chaos in the wake of an unexplained Israeli military blockade.
The two novels, seemingly dissimilar, have a lot in common. Both authors delve into questions of identification—with a particular family, an ethnicity, a religion, a nationality, or a lover. Not surprisingly, Kashua’s book is more despairing, Aciman’s more romantically inclined, but both go far deeper than one might expect.
I’m reading: I missed the initial Vapnyar frenzy a few years ago, so I was thrilled to return from abroad (Moscow, in fact!) and discover her waiting. The title story, There Are Jews in My House, recreates the blank-walled, boiled-potatoes reality of Nazi occupied Russia. As the war drags on, Galina, a Russian woman hiding her Jewish best friend, begins to resent her silences, her wealth, and her trembling hands, and contemplates turning her in. If the rest of the collection is anything like this first story, then it promises more characters—a shy Moscow math instructor forced to teach sex ed to a class of girls more experienced than she is, a 9-year-old boy discovering the complications of adult sexuality while acting as his grandmother’s translator—drawn with rare honesty and precision.
and rereading: Despite my high school English teacher’s best efforts, I resisted Philip Roth—until I stumbled upon The Ghost Writer for a dollar in a used bookstore. Snowed in at the secluded Berkshire home of his literary idol I.E. Lonoff, Nathaniel Zuckerman finds himself in the midst of domestic drama involving Lonoff, his wife, and a mysterious house guest who bears a striking resemblance to Anne Frank. Alone in Lonoff’s study, Zuckerman ponders his family, his art, and his Jewishness, as his musings give way to a shocking—and hilarious—fantasy life. Certainly, the first in Roth’s now famed Zuckerman series is old news to plenty of readers, but it has an emotional—and intellectual—resonance that bears rereading (if only in preparation for the last Zuckerman installment, to be published this fall).
I’m reading: The Genizah at the House of Shepher, Tamar Yellin’s rich, absorbing first novel—equal parts history, family drama, and mystery. Shuttling back and forth in time, the novel tells the story of the Shepher family through the eyes of Shulamit, a biblical scholar from England, who returns to her grandparents’ bungalow in Jerusalem after an extended absence and finds, hidden in the attic, an ancient document. Yellin is a generous writer with a wry, exacting touch. “Of all the cities of the world Jerusalem has one of the shabbiest gates of arrival, and coming or going one is greeted by graves,” she writes.
and rereading: Moacyr Scliar’s slender, fabulist Centaur in the Garden is a delight, as sly and engaging as it is wise. Its hero is Guedali Tartakoswky, the beloved fourth child of Russian immigrants who settled in Southern Brazil in the early part of the last century as part of Baron Hirsch’s grand utopian plan. When Guedali is born, his parents see “a robust, pink baby” from the waist up, a horse from the waist down. Much of the novel’s bittersweet comedy and pathos arise from Guedali’s attempts to fit in (“the boy was born with a defect,” Guedali’s father says to the mohel, an understatement if there ever was one), and yet Scliar’s novel is a serious one, an enduring parable about Jewish identity in Latin America, a meditation on being caught between two worlds.
I’m reading: A runaway hit in Italy, Alessandro Piperno’s The Worst Intentions traces the dimming fortunes of the Sonninos, a clan of Roman Jews too preoccupied with sex to remember the days of the Finzi-Continis. This summer it comes out here, translated by Ann Goldstein, and what little I’ve read so far convinces me that the comparisons to Philip Roth understate not only Piperno’s delightful perversity, but the precision of his satire. The monster here is no Mrs. Portnoy, but an angry, adulterous patriarch—a Holocaust survivor, by the way—who has no qualms asking his 12-year-old grandson to drop his pants so he can check his fitness for erotic conquest.
and rereading: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty reads like the exquisitely wry novel E.M. Forster might have written had he lived to witness the rise of Margaret Thatcher and AIDS. It follows a young gay man named Nick Guest who rents a room in the home of Oxford classmate Toby Fedden. One detail—Toby’s mother Rachel descends from a wealthy Rothschilds-like banking family—initially mystified me. On second reading, her Jewish roots provide a sly counterpoint to Nick’s journey. One of the novel’s essential questions is whether Nick will always remain a guest in the Fedden family—and whether homosexuals can ever feel at home in England. The same question might easily have been asked about Rachel’s forebears only a century before.
In 1843, British novelist Grace Aguilar was a household name on both sides of the Atlantic. So how come we’ve never heard of her?