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Jewish Themes and Stories in 2014 Books

Revisiting our coverage of notable books published this year

Stephanie Butnick and Elissa Goldstein
December 02, 2014

It’s December, which means it’s officially the season of end-of-year round-ups. The New York Times today published the 100 Notable Books of 2014, a whopper of a literary listicle from the editors of the New York Times Book Review. The list is extensive and impressive, and features a number of Jewish writers, stories, and themes.

On the list is Rivka Galchen’s short story collection American Innovations, which our literary critic Adam Kirsch called a “vital, intelligent collection.” David Yaffe interviewed Galchen about the collection, and she told him, “With almost all my stories, I have an intuition that things are going to fit together. And then I go over them again and again, and they usually turn out to be like secret correspondences—secret even from me, for at least five to seven drafts. The parable is not being able to get past that censor in yourself. Our censors can be very eccentric, and they can deform things.”

In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast details the sadness, frustration, and guilt she felt witnessing the decline of her parents’ health at the end of their lives. Vox Tablet spoke to Chast about the “poignant and often unexpectedly hilarious account.” And our art director Esther Werdiger reviewed the book over at Jewcy, describing it as “an intense, humorous, and frequently painful exercise in catharsis.”

Memoir, as a form, has its skeptics, however, and in April, Kirsch asked, “Who will vindicate the novel in the face of the memoir’s commercial and literary claims? Who will prove that the techniques of fiction can give us all the dangerous charge of reality, and more—that fiction can actually get deeper into reality than memoir, which has its own set of conventions and blind spots?” The answer he offered, and that The New York Times confirms as worthy, is Zachary Lazar’s I Pity the Poor Immigrant. The book weaves together the stories of the “Mob’s accountant” Meyer Lansky; an Israeli writer’s murder; and the life of an American journalist.

Lovers of illustrated narratives will also appreciate Anya Ulinich’s graphic novel, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, which explores the experiences of immigration, early marriage, divorce, motherhood, and online dating. The title, a reference to the Bernard Malamud story, hints at how the book plays with literary history, with abundant references to writers and novels. In an interview with Jewcy, Ulinich described the book as “definitely semi-autobiographical,” and offered male readers some OKCupid profile tips. (Hint: everyone says they love Sylvia Plath, so don’t.)

Russian Jewish American literature, all the rage right now, is well-represented on the Times’ list as well. Boris Fishman’s debut novel, A Replacement Life, tells the story of a twentysomething aspiring writer trying to extract himself, with varying degrees of success, from the post-Soviet Brooklyn neighborhood of his family. He spoke with Vox Tablet about what attracts him to his grandparents’ generation, and with Jewcy about Russian hirsuteness, pick-up lines, and the immigrant experience.

Joining A Replacement Life is Gary Shteyngart’s memoir Little Failure, which Sasha Senderovich called a “touching meditation on the origins, nature, and limits of humor.” Also, it turns out Shteyngart was “the most Republican kid on the planet”—a card-carrying member of the NRA at the age of 11.

Yelena Akhtiorskaya, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1992 at the age of 6, told Jewcy about the inspiration for her much-praised debut novel, Panic in a Suitcase: “A lot is based on my life… One is being totally fascinated by Brighton Beach—loving it and at the same time realizing that it’s a very absurd and sad place. The second is the dynamics of a claustrophobic, suffocating, chaotic family, which functions as a unified monstrous being.”

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein’s environmental manifesto, is on the list as well. “Klein’s analysis of what has gone wrong with the environmental movement, and why most political and economic leaders don’t take meaningful steps to address a pressing crisis, is illuminating,” Heather Rogers wrote of the book this fall.

The Times likewise praises another non-fiction title, Eichmann Before Jerusalem, by the German scholar Bettina Stangneth. The book, writes David Mikics, “shows us, for the first time, in great detail, and in his own words, that Eichmann knew exactly what he was doing.”

Time to get reading.