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New Reviews

Friday, January 04, 2013 | Permalink
This week's reviews:


JBC Bookshelf: Most Anticipated Spring 2013 Titles

Friday, January 04, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

January is one of my favorite months at the Jewish Book Council. Not only do we announce the National Jewish Book Award winners and finalists (soon...), but we also get to browse dozens of catalogs and hundreds of review copies to prepare for our year in Jewish books. Our lists are already full of promising soon-to-be-published titles, so be sure to keep tabs on us for the latest in all things Jewish literary. How do you keep tabs on us, you ask? Good question. A few ideas:

  • Participate in our monthly Twitter Book Club with
  • Check out new Visiting Scribe posts each week, where authors share the backstory behind their books, items that just didn't make the cut, reading lists, thoughts on current events, excerpts, previews, Q&As, and more
  • Sign up for our weekly email and receive recommended reading and updates on the newest JBC reviews
  • Browse our Pinterest boards
  • Check our calendar for Jewish literary events in your area
  • Need a theme for you book club this year? Look no further.
  • For additional resources, visit here.

Now, to start the year off right...a few titles I'm most looking forward to this spring (a small sampling of what's to come!):

Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, Emily Raboteau (January 2013, Atlantic Monthly Press)

The Tin Horse: A Novel, Janice Steinberg (January 2013, Random House)

Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories, Ben Katchor (February 2013, Pantheon)

The Wanting: A Novel, Michael Lavigne (February 2013, Schocken Books)

In the Land of the Living, Austin Ratner (March 2013, Reagan Arthur Books)

The Retrospective, A. B. Yehoshua (March 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built, Mark Russ Federman (March 2013, Schocken Books)

A Nearly Perfect Copy: A Novel, Allison Amend (April 2013, Nan A. Talese)

Mothers: A Novel, Jennifer Gilmore (April 2013, Scribner)

Harvard Square: A Novel, André Aciman (April 2013, W. W. Norton & Company)

The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel, Helene Wecker (April 2013, Harper)

Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, Jessica Soffer (April 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

I Can't Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays, Elinor Litman (April 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Helga's Diary: A Young Girl's Account of Life in a Concentration Camp, Helga Weiss; Neil Bermel, trans. (May 2013, W. W. Norton & Company)

A Dual Inheritance: A Novel, Joanna Hershon (May 2013, Ballantine Books)

The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris
, Jonathan Kirsch (May 2013, Liveright)

Who Will Die Last: Stories of Life in Israel, David Ehrlich (May 2013, Syracuse University Press)

A Summer 2013 Preview:

Claudia Silver to the Rescue, Kathy Ebel (June 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet, Nathan Schneider (June 2013, University of California Press)

Paris France, Gertrude Stein (June 2013, Liveright)

A Fall 2013 Preview:

A Guide for the Perplexed, Dara Horn (September 2013, W. W. Norton & Company)

A Broken Hallelujah: The Life of Leonard Cohen, Liel Leibovitz (Fall 2013, W. W. Norton & Company)

The Oath, Martin Fletcher (Fall 2013, Thomas Dunne Books/St.Martin's Press)

The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, Jeremy Dauber (October 2013, Schocken Books/Nextbook Press)

Book Cover of the Week: Oral Pleasure

Thursday, January 03, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In Oral Pleasure: Kosinski as Storyteller, published last month by Grove/Atlantic, Jerzy Kosinski's late widow, Kikki, collects interviews, lectures, and transcriptions of media appearances of the legendary literary figure:

Related: "Out of Atrocity, Art" by Ruth Franklin (A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction)

Shades of Privilege and Deprivation

Wednesday, January 02, 2013 | Permalink

Justine Hope Blau, a writer of screenplays and books, has an MFA from Columbia University's School of the Arts. Her memoir Scattered: A Mostly True Memoir is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

People would often underestimate me if they knew that my parents hadn't taken good care of me, so I used to be covert about the six years my family was chronically homeless and the years I spent in placement with the Jewish Child Care Association. People assumed I couldn't drive, or had never been to Fire Island or didn't know French—that kind of thing. And I’d get touchy because people who grew up underprivileged tend to be thin-skinned.

Now I've written a childhood memoir, Scattered, so my story is out. And while most people give me a lot of credit for transcending such challenges, friend-of-my-youth Jacqueline Heagle is quick to give me perspective.

“You are a spoiled brat,” she reminds me.

Jacki thinks my experiences with my family roaming around public spaces like libraries, the Automat and Central Park, wandering around the United Nations and midtown Manhattan, having older brothers who went to college and told me stories, reflects a world of privilege. She quips that I’m showing off.

Jacki and I met at the Pleasantville Cottage School when we were 11. I was an emergency case, placed in the same 5th grade class with her on June 17th, 1967, two weeks before the end of school. A few months later she was sent to a group residence in Westchester, but we were reunited in a group residence for teenage girls in Rego Park, Queens, when we were 14. We lived together there for three years.

Jacki found it painful to read Scattered because it made her feel jealous. She grew up rarely leaving her Brooklyn neighborhood and apartment overlooking the noisy elevated subway line; her family was on welfare and the big treat was to get pizza when the check arrived. She has written eloquently about how she eagerly awaited being sent to “The School” and finally got to go when she was eight. Jacki felt that she was reborn when she arrived at Pleasantville. She remembers the first day she got there, how she climbed her first tree and ate her first fresh apple. She hardly ever went home or saw her parents after that.

The Jewish Child Care Association provided that safety net for Jacki, and for me. After Jacki left the residence, she was on her own, but still the JCCA helped her pay for college. And when she decided to leave college, they helped her pay for beauty school. She earned her living for decades as a hair stylist and raised her two sons with far more advantages than she had.

The Jewish Child Care Association didn't get everything right. Corporal punishment was accepted, and there are stories I hear, and believe, of a few cottage parents sexually preying on children. But most of us feel that Pleasantville provided a feeling of safety and security for us.

So how do I feel about being exposed by the book I felt driven to write? Is the world made by colliding classes, power structures and degrees of respectability, or do I see it that way because of how I got here? It’s so confusing, my past, and where it has brought me. I’ve been trying to sort out the confusion for a long time. When a child is torn from her world, and forcibly placed in another, she is likely to learn fast to observe who’s got power, who doesn't and how to manage in the new system. So I've spent a lot of time either being resentful of my disadvantages, or feeling guilty because of my privilege, and somehow both.

I think the extreme worlds of my childhood, between the U.N., the libraries and cheap hotels, a mother with grandiose notions but neglectful habits, gave me a unique ability to read society and the social world around me.

Visit Justine Hope Blau's website here.

Your Graphic Novel and Mine

Friday, December 28, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ilan Stavans wrote about the problem with academic writing and asked: Is there a Jewish literary renaissance? He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’m a passionate lover of the graphic novel.

I grew up in Mexico City. As an adolescent, my weekly literary diet included comics of all types. There were the usual suspects from the United States: superheroes of various calibers, such as Superman and Batman, as well as funny characters like Archie and Sabrina. But the comics I cherished the most were locally made or imported from other parts of Latin America: Kalimán, La familia Burrón, Condorito, Mafalda… Like other readers, I saw my own social, political, and historical dilemmas reflected in them.

Recently I traveled from one book fair to another promoting El Iluminado, a graphic novel I wrote (with Steve Sheinkin), set among the crypto-Jews of the Southwest. Scores of writer friends I met were surprised I had accepted to experiment in this field. “Isn't it for younger people?” one of them asked. “Theirs is the generation of the moving pictures…” I laughed, telling him about my uncured devotion to comic strips as well as mammoth narratives. “The readers of Don Quixote are always young, aren't they? And Cervantes’s imagination was quite cinematic. Were he alive, I’m sure he would be a fan of graphic novels.”

“Did you like Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay?” another inquired. Not really, I said, it is both long and longwinded. The message was clear to me, though: Why hadn’t I written a straight book about my comic-book education?

The answer is straightforward: I’m interested in the graphic novel for its fresh yet ancient combination of image and word. They are at their best when addressing a historical issue head on, like the ones created by Will Eisner, Art Spigelman, and Joe Secco. The genre is still in its infancy. In the last few years it has thrived precisely because of the experimental drive of its practitioners.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His most recent books are the collection of essays Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture (University of Nebraska Press, 2002) and the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic Books, with Steve Sheinkin).

Academic Freedom Is Wasted on Academics

Wednesday, December 26, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ilan Stavans asked: Is there a Jewish literary renaissance? He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Sometimes when I’m congratulated for writing well, the praise comes with a sense of theft, as if someone like me who has spent decades in academia—I started teaching when I was just out of college—should be expected to say things in muddy, incomprehensible ways.

I understand the qualm. Academics are known for their pedantic style. This is particularly the case in the humanities, where, given the universal topics, one would expect the opposite. Scholars for the most part write obscurely for a small audience—minuscule, really: less than half a dozen peers. To show off, they become convinced that arguments need to be labyrinthine and the language unintelligible.

This awful mode is learned in graduate school. Unfortunately, judging by the sample of the latest crop of scholars, there doesn't appear to be an end to this education to obfuscate.

Truth is, it isn’t a matter of style. The problem, in my opinion, is the fear to be honest, to say what one thinks elegantly and persuasively when the occasion prompts. In other words, this handicap is related to the fear of speaking one’s mind. Graduate school, again in the humanities, is a hindrance: it teaches future teachers to hide behind cumbersome theoretical frameworks. The pleasure to read, to write, to think is sabotaged by the obligation to align oneself behind a doctrine.

Yes, I’m convinced academics are timorous people, I’m not sure if more or less than everyone else, but in our case it shows because of the privileged position in which we find ourselves. Given the extraordinary opportunity to speak out, they burry their head underground. Academic freedom is wasted on academics.

Feeling suffocated, I have sought role models outside academia as well as in the liminal zone where the classroom and the outside world meet: Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Henry Luis Gates, Jr., Morris Dickstein… That is, I have tried to follow figures capable of simultaneously speaking to two audiences, the one within and the one outside campus.

Each of them has responded to the needs of his time. What they’ve shown—to me, at least—is that the dividing line between insiders and outsiders is nothing if not artificial. The two audiences exist only in our mind. When we exile them from there, these become one.

To write well is to express oneself with clarity, precision, and conviction. And to be humble: one must irrevocably assume the reader—all readers—to be our equals. To think otherwise is an exercise in solipsism.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His most recent books are the collection of essays Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture (University of Nebraska Press, 2002) and the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic Books, with Steve Sheinkin).

New Reviews

Tuesday, December 25, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews:


Is There a Jewish Literary Renaissance?

Monday, December 24, 2012 | Permalink

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His most recent books are the collection of essays Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture (University of Nebraska Press, 2002) and the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic Books, with Steve Sheinkin). He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I hear repeatedly that Jewish literature is undergoing a renaissance. The statement puzzles me.

I can’t think of a period over our last 3,000 years of history—yes, since the Bible began to take shape as a compendium of folktales—when Jews haven’t been part of a literary renaissance. We’re always dying…and leave a record of our near extinction. Indeed, Jewish literature thrives because it is constantly said to be on its last stand.

We write the apocalypse: no sooner does someone announce our demise, we do everything possible to prove it wrong.

Ours, no doubt, are apocalyptic times. Not since 1945 has anti-Semitism been more noxious than it is now. All of us Jews are seen as parasites in countless places. The hatred against us wasn’t cured after the Holocaust; it simply went commando.

We’ll unquestionably survive the current climate of animosity, although not without casualties: we’ll be again be physically decimated, not to say psychologically bruised. It has taken us a long time to think ourselves out of the Holocaust. Our next survival will also require enormous stamina.

That’s the eternal cycle in which we’re actors. The theme of Jewish history—and its literature—is the dialectic between creation and destruction.

We’re textual creatures: our primary relationship with the world isn't material but textual. We’re simultaneously authors and characters in a larger-than-life narrative. And texts connote languages. Every chapter in our history is delivered in another language. I don't see a literary renaissance today in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Polish, Russian… Our current mode, our lengua franca, is English. In fact, English is
what Yiddish was a century ago: our portable homeland.

That habitat isn’t eternal; it will perish, just as others did before.

What puzzles me about the present-day literary renaissance is its hubris: American Jews believe they their sheer drive can overcome anything. Yet no diaspora in Jewish history has been more insular, and more monolingual too. Our literature is a testament to our arrogance.

A measured life is defined by the awareness of its own shortcomings.

Check back on Wednesday for Ilan Stavan's next post for the Visiting Scribe.

A Jewish Thanksgiving in Avalon

Friday, December 21, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Harry Brod wrote about Jews not have a "middle range," speaking backwards, a couple of sayings with which he disagrees and why he always has a valid passport. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Every Thanksgiving I think of the Thanksgiving scene in the 1990 film Avalon, one of Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical Baltimore films. Avalon tells a multi-generational tale of a Jewish family, ranging from the immigrant generation who arrived at the start of the twentieth century to the Americanized generation of mid-century.

At the large family Thanksgiving gathering a feud develops between the two brothers of the central, transitional generation because they start the meal before the arrival of the older brother. The family tries unsuccessfully to soothe him by explaining that they waited but couldn’t delay the meal any further because the young kids were getting hungry. The two brothers end up not speaking because the older brother remains so deeply offended that they carved the turkey without him.

As I watched the movie I realized that the scene makes no sense. In this Jewish immigrant family, how on earth did Thanksgiving, and the question of who carves the turkey, attain such monumental significance that it splits apart a family who have managed to stay together through so many difficulties? And why is the kids’ hunger such a problem? Thanksgiving dinner is usually earlier than standard dinner time, so why are they so hungry? And if they are hungry, just feed them. What’s the big problem?

Then it hit me. My family didn’t look like that at Thanksgiving. My family looked like that at Passover, right down to the kids table added at the foot of the long dinner table at which the adults sat.

Now I understood the scene. It wasn’t about a turkey. The offending insult was that they had started the seder without waiting for the head of the family. And the seder ritual was why you had to start on time so the kids wouldn’t be too hungry. They’d have to sit there, bored and with food right in front of them, but not being allowed to eat until interminably long prayers were over. They’d be miserable, and if the kids are miserable, then so too are the adults taking care of them. So they had to start the seder on time.

By de-Jewifying the scene, transplanting it from Passover to Thanksgiving to make it more “universal,” they’d rendered the story incoherent. It annoys me no less now than it did then.

Harry Brod is a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of Superman is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way (Free Press; November 2012).

New Reviews

Friday, December 21, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews: