This week's reviews:
From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women between Religion and Culture
Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate
Superman Is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way
In 2011, I was a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Thanks to this honor, I was invited to speak at several Jewish book groups all over the country. I would hate to keep the expertise in Jewish book groups all to myself, and so, forthwith, here are:
1. Jews buy books. I don’t know what the statistics are on this, but I’d guess that Jewish women are singlehandedly floating the entire publishing business. They even buy hardcovers.
2. The mad dash at the end of your reading is not to have you sign your magnum opus for posterity, but rather to partake of the slightly dry coffee cake.
3. Members of the JBC Network read your book, and if they don’t like it, they will let you know.
4. Everyone claims to know someone who they want to set you up with, but no one ever follows through on it.
5. It is acceptable to order bacon-wrapped scallops at a pre-reading dinner.
6. In every group, there is always someone who knows my mother.
7. Most people know my father too.
8. The questions I get asked most often: How do you think of your ideas? Did you have to do a lot of research?
9. The two questions I get asked least often: What do you like to eat for breakfast? Why are so many in your generation marrying outside the faith?
10. If you think you’ve met someone before, it’s probably just that she looks like one of your cousins.
So why would a nice Jewish girl not write nice Jewish fiction? My last book, Stations West, was about Jewish immigrants in 19th century Oklahoma. It was very “Jewish.” It was so Jewish it was nominated for the Sami Rohr Prize (but not so Jewish that it won). One would expect that my next book would be even more “Jewish.” Yet, on the outside it perhaps doesn’t appear to be.
The book jacket calls my new novel A Nearly Perfect Copy "a smart and affecting novel of family and forgery set amidst the rarefied international art world. Elm Howells has a loving family and a distinguished career at an elite Manhattan auction house. But after a tragic loss throws her into an emotional crisis, she pursues a reckless course of action that jeopardizes her personal and professional success. Meanwhile, talented artist Gabriel Connois wearies of remaining at the margins of the capricious Parisian art scene, and, desperate for recognition, he embarks on a scheme that threatens his burgeoning reputation. As these narratives converge, with disastrous consequences, A Nearly Perfect Copy boldly challenges our presumptions about originality and authenticity, loss and replacement, and the perilous pursuit of perfection."
There is also a subplot involving a famous ceramicist Holocaust survivor and an art dealer seeking reparations for European Jewish families whose art was stolen by the Nazis. But the main protagonists aren’t Jewish. I would argue, though, that it is still a Jewish novel.
Stations West’s characters were outsiders who, through successive generations, never managed to assimilate into American culture. Similarly, Gabriel is a Spanish artist who feels othered by his language and culture. Despite the fact that he’s resided in Paris almost longer than in his native Spain, he views French culture from the outside looking in. The other protagonist, Elm, is likewise alienated, first, because her branch of her illustrious family is out of favor and second because her grief at the death of her son has created a rift between her and reality. She is no longer able to relate to others in her family or at work.
This experience of being simultaneously outside a culture while attempting to assimilate is a particularly Jewish one. The struggle with issues of national identity, of feigning integration in your own country is one that we all deal with every day, and this way of viewing the world—in the case of A Nearly Perfect Copy, a world created by a Jewish author—makes this book in its own way as Jewish as my first novel. Well, almost as Jewish.Read more about Allison here.
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
Welcome to the April 2013 Jewish Book Carnival! To start of this month's edition, a few links of note from the Jewish Book Council's own website:
- Read about the 2013 winner of the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature here
- Join Jewish Book Council and Jewcy for our next #JLit Twitter Book Club with Ben Katchor on April 29th
- Read Allison Amend and Austin Ratner's "Kvetchy Correspondence" for the ProsenPeople here
- Check out our Earth Day Reading List
- Leora Wenger reviews Ester and Ruzya
- Over at "The Book of Life," a podcast interview with Emily Bergman, member of the ALA Sophie Brody Award for Jewish literature
- Lorri M. reviews Doublelife: One Family Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, a book that most people can relate to, whether Jewish or otherwise
- Kathe Pinchuck, who blogs at "Life Is Like a Library," writes about meeting two authors and a film maker
- In honor of National Poetry Month, Kathleen M. Bloomfield shares a poem by Marge Piercy and writes about her recent move to DC
- Over at "Rhapsody in Books," Jill Broderick reviews The Imposter Bride (read Jewish Book Council's review here)
- "Needle in the Bookstacks" interviews Rabbi Joshua Garroway about his latest book, Paul’s Gentile-Jews: neither Jew nor Gentile, but Both, which explores the formative years of Christianity
- On My Machberet, Erika Dreifus recommends three books that are new this spring: Ayelet Tsabari's The Best Place on Earth, Rebecca Kanner's Sinners and the Sea, and Merrill Joan Gerber's The Hysterectomy Waltz
- AJL has created a Jewish Library Advocacy Kit to assist libraries as they educate their communities about the value of their services. The kit includes materials that can simply be handed to administrators, as well as documents to be adapted and recrafted for each library's individual situation. The pdf may also be found here.
- At "Bagels, Books and Schmooze," Susan Curtis reviews The Lost Wife, Raquela, and Haven. Also, check out her post in honor of Ruth Gruber here.
Finally, Sami Rohr Prize finalist Haim Watzman, whose books are now available as e-books, shares four stories from his forthcoming book of short stories:
People ask me how much research I had to do on art forgery for my new book A Nearly Perfect Copy. The answer is: a lot. Some of it was even necessary. Some of it was just procrastination.
To that end, I wandered into the Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme in Paris on one hot day, more in search of a bathroom than in search of wisdom. But, reader I found both (and if you’ve been to Paris, you know how valuable a quality public bathroom is).
The exhibits were what you’d expect (Sephardic artifacts, Vichy government deportation narratives, synagogue records, suitcases—Jewish museums always have a lot of suitcases…), but the true gem here is the library. It’s small but comprehensive, and the librarian was exceedingly helpful when I asked for information
I’m not sure I found anything I couldn’t have found in other English language archives, but this pleasant air conditioned afternoon in a quiet and free study space made me think of two things.
First, there are an extraordinary number of Jewish museums. I am in the middle of a project with two friends in which we visit every museum in the five boroughs of New York City (a project that started out interesting and fun and has deteriorated into a duty as we slog through the last 29 museums. You can find a blog about the project here). There are seven Jewish museums out of the 110 museums in New York (eight if you count the Tenement Museum, ten if you count museums founded by Jews). No other ethnicity or culture or religion has as many museums devoted to it (and we’re not even counting memorials, which are not technically museums).
There are of course many reasons for the proliferation of Jewish museums: there is the rich history of the Jewish presence in New York; museums can be seen as a response to the Holocaust’s attempt to wipe out Judaism. But there is also the long history of Jewish involvement in the arts.
A subplot in my new novel A Nearly Perfect Copy is the attempt to gain reparations for art stolen from Jews during the Holocaust. These attempts continue in real life, and encounter thorny legal issues. How can a family prove ownership when the records were destroyed? How do you award a painting to what is now dozens of inheritors? What if the current owners acquired the painting by legal means? Who determines the value of the paintings, and what government should be responsible for paying reparations? In my book, characters exploit these complicated ethical issues for their own financial benefit.
Though I ultimately chose not to focus on this battle (other books, fiction and non have done an excellent job of chronicling the theft—particularly from dealer and collector Paul Rosenberg—and the Nazis’ interest in art), it is worth thinking about the Jewish connection to art.Read more about Allison here.
The Mothers is the first book I’ve written that does not primarily consist of Jewish characters. It’s a little weird that with my first book—where there are pretty much only Jews, even in the department stores and hotels, at the theater and the market—I had no idea I was writing an American Jewish novel. I was just telling this family’s extensive story. I was writing an American story.
This book is also an American story. But similarly, I had no idea that this book was dealing with “cross cultural issues,” which is what some reviewers and readers have reported. I wrote a book chronicling a couple’s struggle to have children. But what I didn’t realize is that, because they are from different backgrounds—the wife, Jesse, is Jewish, the husband, Ramon, is first generation Italian and Spanish—they handle their highs and lows of their experience differently. Though her family has not been particularly observant, Jesse’s memories and her experiences are distinctly Jewish, in addition to being particularly American. She has memories of Passovers with her family, as well as growing up with her sister in suburban Virginia. She remembers the seventies when her mother working was an unusual situation. Her mother was one of the few women she knew who held a job.
Ramon is European and his experience—of speaking many languages and traversing a European landscape embedded in the past—differs from Jesse’s. The two argue over how they will raise the child they don’t even yet have. They don’t know the gender or the race of their potential child, nor do they know where in the country he or she will come from, or when, and still these issues of identity and how the child will be raised are of huge concern to them.
What happens when how we raise our children becomes an intellectual pursuit? Jesse has had more time than most to think about what it means to be a mother. As we know, it all becomes clear once a child arrives, but Jesse is stuck in a zone where she can only think about the future hypothetically. What is lost and what is gained from a shift in cultures? As a mother, what will she bring with her from her past? What will she choose or be forced to leave behind?
Do writers always know what we are writing? No. I am always—always—surprised by what readers take from my books. And they catch things that a writer doesn’t. This book is about Jesse’s struggle to become a mother, but it is also about a marriage. Because this is a story about two families joining up. It’s about sameness; it’s about difference. It’s about being yoked to another and about being freed. I think this is a story about wanting. But you, reader, might find an entirely new and other story being told.Jennifer Gilmore's newest novel, The Mothers, is now available. Read more about her here.