The ProsenPeople

Book Cover of the Week: The Female Persuasion

Friday, September 15, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Natalie Aflalo

While Meg Wolitzer's newest novel won't be out until next spring, the cover of Female Persuasion has already sucked me in like some sort of psychedelic vortex. The book has been described as "electric" and "multilayered," just like its jacket's seventies-inspired graphic. According to early write-ups, the concept of desire is central to the story. I think the cover really captures the obsessive, addictive quality of desire in its repetition and dizzying brightness.

Also: Is it just me or do the triangles remind anyone else of the Illuminati symbol? The book is supposed to be about power, ambition, and influence. Hmm...

The Dignity of an Empty Parking Lot

Friday, September 15, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Minna Zallman Proctor, taking inspiration from Virginia Woolf's short stories, wrote about the blog post as literary form and imagined the interior lives of two strangers in a coffee shop. Today, in her last post, she ruminates on bodies, and the struggle to align our outer selves with our inner selves. She has been blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

For beyond the difficulty of communicating oneself, there is the supreme difficulty of being oneself. This soul or life within us, by no means agrees with the life outside of us.
—Virginia Woolf, “Montaigne”

I love when we watch TV shows I’ve already seen because I can fall asleep with impunity, awkwardly arranged on our crummy couch. It’s better than shifting miserably for ninety minutes trying to find an adequate arrangement of throw pillows to relieve the hot throbbing at the base of my skull. So much easier to just pass out. It’s after eleven anyway.

I was brilliant and energetic last night. Between Foyle’s War and bed, I thought to take three ibuprofen and also to ice my neck. I slept better than I have in weeks and didn’t need to move cautiously in the morning, lest my head roll off my body.

I dreamed that I was doing cartwheels across a sun-drenched lawn, every part of my body arching muscularly against the vortex. Every time I inverted, diving down like a superhero toward the grass, my left arm gave way, over and over again.

My friend Diane and I took the kids to a park in central New Jersey for a hike last week. It was a promising morning, the sunlight dappled and clean, the blue air freshly washed from three days of rain. It was a bit of a drive to get out of the city and we all gasped dramatically as we turned off the highway onto a country lane dotted with pretty stone farmhouses and geese ponds. We hadn’t had a GPS signal for miles by that point, and made our way by feel to the park entrance. 

Just as we turned in, the skies opened up. “It’s just a summer storm,” we said merrily to the children. “It’ll clear up.” “They said it wasn’t going to rain until four,” Diane reassured me. “Who knew it was going to rain at all?” I protested, and then laughed because the drops kept coming down faster and harder. We pulled the car into a good spot, under a tree, near the trail maps, and then watched through the sheets of rain as drenched families emerged from the park, shirts wet to transparency, hair plastered to forehead, soft sneakers extruding little puddles around each footfall. “I cannot believe our timing,” I repeated absurdly. “It’ll pass,” offered my daughter fantastically.

The children ate their sandwiches and then decided that the best way to wait out the storm would be to change into their bathing suits (an elaborate process that involved arguing about who goes first, shouting loudly, diving over the seat into the way back, kicking the car roof on the way, exacting solemn oaths of not looking, and then shouting some more because it was all taking too long), and play in the rain. Nature’s sprinkler! It was a grand idea.

I sat in the driver’s seat, gnawing without pleasure on a gluten-free meal bar. It had been a long August. I had slept too much and too little, hadn’t worked as much as I needed to, and only had sporadically satisfying solutions for quality family time. I was frequently irritable, icing my neck, or distant, engaged in endless conversation with my imaginary friend, Mandy Patinkin.

The night before I’d barely slept, nor had I slept much the night before that. I was exhausted but cheered by how beautiful it was even in the downpour. Diane ate shortbread cookies and pressed cool water bottles to her forehead, trying to ward off a migraine. We watched the children frolic in the parking lot. We were proud of their resilience and antics. I tried to calculate how much extra energy I would need to just get out of the car and join them.

“Why aren’t you going out?” I asked my son, who of the three children had resolutely decided to stay in the car and just watch. “They’re having so much fun,” said Diane. “I have my dignity,” he answered unsurely.

I’ve been working for the last five years with my godmother on a book about her life in twentieth century music. Last spring, soon after we’d sent the completed manuscript off to the publishers, she took a spill in her garden. She’s in her nineties now, outlived all her siblings and all but one of the great musicians we gossip about in her memoir. Pierre Boulez and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies both managed to die within months of each other and just as we wrote the final chapters. There were many instances over the course of our project when she would lash out at me for my leisurely pace. “Minna,” she would email me, “I’m going to die before we finish this and that will be on you.”

“Minna,” she emailed me, “I fell in the garden. It was scary.”

Later she described to me how she’d been picking beetles off the roses and just tripped. She described the event as if it happened silently and in slow motion, as it must have been on the soft carpet of her lawn that sunny morning. She is so small and round, I imagine that from inclining over a rose petal to the ground must not have been a great distance. She told me that she stayed there where she fell, flat on her back among her flowers, staring up at the blue sky. First, trying to figure out if she’d died, then just to see the sky and feel her body against the ground. Hours passed. And then she got up again. Nothing broken, just some bruises.

I love to dance—if that’s what you can call what I do. It feels more like thrashing into entropy, swinging my limbs fast and high, releasing myself from the horizon line. Barking at the volume and heavy beats. Leaping into shapes, stomping, landing hard with my bare feet. I’m here, my feet insist to the ground. Feel me as I feel you. It’s not dignified in the least. I danced this summer at a university event, out in the formal garden. There was a split second, a reckless movement, and I tossed my head too fast, too suddenly. I caught sight of the full moon out of the corner of my eye, in an instant felt my neck crack, the sound splitting up between my ears and the gleaming moon exploded into so many dizzying flashes of pain. Keep dancing, I told myself. If I didn’t stop, it would mean that nothing had happened.

I regret, though the moment is now long gone, not getting out of the car in the rainstorm. Regret not grabbing my son by the hand and making him run with me in the rain. No one would have seen. What’s the cost of sheer sensation? It was only a few minutes, after all, before the wet clouds blew away and the golden light of a late summer afternoon flooded our eyes.

Minna Zallman Proctor is a writer, critic, and translator who currently teaches creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she is also editor in chief of The Literary Review. Her most recent book is Landslide: True Stories. She is also the author of Do You Hear What I Hear? An Unreligious Writer Investigates Religious Calling and has translated eight books from Italian, including Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives. She lives in Brooklyn.

On Why You Must Never Depend on One Coffee Shop

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Minna Zallman Proctor wrote about Virginia Woolf's short stories and the blog post as literary form. Today, taking inspiration from the narrator in Woolf's "Street Haunting" who attempts to inhabit the minds of the people she passes on London's streets, Minna imagines the interior lives of a couple in a coffee shop. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

But, after all, we are only gliding smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.
Virginia Woolf, “Street Haunting”

There is a couple in the coffee shop where I'm working today who are talking about running away together. I’m trying hard not to eavesdrop, forcing their perfectly audible conversation to muddle itself in my ears, the way you can make your vision blur by relaxing your eyes. But the mutter and rhythms of their conversation is just as revealing as specific words would be. Sometimes they stop talking entirely, reach across the small table to hold hands and stare deeply at each other, at a length that only belongs to the besotted. The prolonged gaze that would make a friend look away or bore a spouse. Between these two, the looking feels like a hungry tattoo, imprinting this stolen time. Because neither one has actually abandoned their real lives. This is stolen time in a crude and absurd coffee shop—forged bohemian in a neighborhood of immigrants, pensioners, taxi drivers, and substitute public school teachers—with amber light bulbs, putty colored walls, a series of seventeen provisionally framed sketches by a local artist hung in a distressingly uneven horizontal line…

He’s older than she is by some years. Bald and white grey, in a short sleeve chambray button-down that fits loosely, timeless casual, over khakis. He’s wearing socks under his sandals. She’s in jeans and an expensive, form fitting fleece. Clogs. Her curly hair is pulled back into a ponytail and held off her face with a brightly colored headband. She has her back to me but I can see from this angle that she has beautiful cheekbones and practical glasses. Her earrings are from a museum gift shop.

It’s pouring out and still early morning. Even though I’m only catching snatches of conversation, I know they are talking about how to make big decisions. Talking about the way people in their lives, a son maybe or sister, are resilient. Anticipating consequence. At one point, he tells her the story of a great betrayal. I don’t mean to listen—but up look up accidentally from my book and catch him wiping tears when he says, “He was the best friend I’ve ever had.”

Tall, grown men crying breaks my heart. Nothing else makes me want to solve everything in the world that can’t be solved more than a crying man, not even when my own children weep (children always weep). “I either want to come back to Brooklyn,” she says suddenly, “or Boston.” I understand, I think. “But do you have another offer in Boston?” he answers and there’s more silence before she answers with a long discourse on failings that I can’t hear but think would sound too familiar if I did. Boring to hear one’s own endless neuroses rehearsed once that first shock of recognition has evaporated.

They stand to leave. They embrace with great affection and sadness, for letting each other go, for having to let each other go. Affection so chaste and enduring. The physical contact of a lifetime. I see now as he turns from her and walks out the door, upright and bravely inclined as tall people are, before he even hits the street, against the rain. Leaving her standing behind, phone already in hand, preparing for the next moment of her day. I see now what’s been grotesquely evident all along, they are not lovers, they are father and daughter.

Minna Zallman Proctor is a writer, critic, and translator who currently teaches creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she is also editor in chief of The Literary Review. Her most recent book is Landslide: True Stories. She is also the author of Do You Hear What I Hear? An Unreligious Writer Investigates Religious Calling and has translated eight books from Italian, including Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives. She lives in Brooklyn.

Cat Without A Tail

Monday, September 11, 2017 | Permalink

Minna Zallman Proctor is the author of Landslide: True Stories, out September 15th from Catapult. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Writing the occasional piece, such as this one, is a special kind of torture. Not least because I’ve had in mind for as long as I can remember putting names to forms that the term “occasional piece” actually and officially described something literary (and not a piece of furniture). And that “something” would correlate to a blog post—a gorgeous lineage that would have taken its primordial urge in vast antiquity, philosophy and spiritual writing, taken form under Montaigne and rolled forward steadily gathering variations on substance and style through Virginia Woolf, to the contemporary moment. Though if the writing has been a shapely snowball descending through the centuries, its labels have been troublesome entropic pebbles. I have decided to call this an “occasional piece” for the same decorative reasons that I decided my book of personal essays should be referred to not as personal essays but as true stories and although there were moments in the course of writing them that I was convinced I was advancing theories of narrative forms, I was more accurately writing memoir. Oh, for the days when everything long was a novel and everything short a story.

There are three most important tools for an essayist, or memoirist: truth, storytelling, and observation. Though classified historically as automatic writing or stream-of-consciousness, seldom as memoir, Virginia Woolf’s occasional pieces are paragons of intricate and sensitive observation, in which the evolution of her perception is always the story itself, and truth breathes like an organism in her perfect transparency.

Virginia Woolf tossed them off—my fantastical perception. I have this (potentially ahistorical) idea that in the period before blog posts, the occasional piece was an exercise, a writing calisthenic that Woolf performed muscularly between novels. She was exercising her pencil—why a pencil? Because it was the pursuit of a pencil that led her out walking “half across London,” late afternoon, in “Street Haunting.” “No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one.” Though widely anthologized, however, I can’t read “Street Haunting” with pleasure. To me it reads too much like work, like sweaty, impeccably executed calisthenics and a treatise on observation: “The eye is sportive and generous; it creates; it adorns; it enhances.”

Her pencil led her in brilliant circles. Frequently cited as Woolf’s first published “short story,” “The Mark on the Wall,” is more than story or essay in any classical sense a dramatic musing. I have a colleague who lectures eloquently about “The Mark of the Wall,” singing out in his lectures the brutal devastation of the First World War—the voluminous compression of a war story seen in a spot. As devastating the final shrinking of all life, all those young boys’ lives lost, to a mark on the wall, I can’t read that magnificent piece as anything but an indictment of domesticity. This pencil at work, flying over the pages, almost orgiastically as it searches for what, or rather where, the mind will lead, I hold my breath every time because I know what’s coming—they always do in real life. There’s “a vast upheaval of matter and someone is standing over me—.” Her husband has walked into the room, the scene, onto the page. The spell is broken as it always is when a writer is absorbed back into life. The piece must end because that was the time allotted by circumstances to the thought, the journey, the door on the room of her own, after which there must be resolve. It is only a piece and inspired yet formed entirely, as blog posts must also be, by its occasional-ness.

My heart instead belongs entirely to “The Death of the Moth.” For in this very small piece a battle is waged for significance, vastness, and eternity by a very small moth—“He was little or nothing but life”—and the moth wins. Because in the course of this most remarkable account, Woolf transforms the moth: “Watching him,” she writes, “it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body.” Here Woolf ignites a cosmology, a spiritual transcendence, the link between her ability to see, witness, observe and what’s vast and unseeable, what makes faith.

With her pencil, Woolf prods at the moth in her window frame, as if by righting its tiny body, she could suspend its death throes. “I lifted the pencil again,” she writes “useless though I knew it to be.” But a moth, coming to the end of its life cycle, doesn’t need saving from death—the gesture is useless—it needs, we need, its life to be saved from insignificance. Which she does, ultimately, by lifting her pencil and putting it to paper—a moth, a testament, the book—immortalizing the moment, this moment, and linking it to eternity.

Can one hope that in all these words, this proliferation of words that fills every screen and waking moment, there are some few, exquisite ones that can stop time long enough to see God?

Minna Zallman Proctor is a writer, critic, and translator who currently teaches creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she is also editor in chief of The Literary Review. Her most recent book is Landslide: True Stories. She is also the author of Do You Hear What I Hear? An Unreligious Writer Investigates Religious Calling and has translated eight books from Italian, including Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives. She lives in Brooklyn.

A Year of Memoirs

Friday, September 08, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Tova Mirvis wrote about the value of personal writing. Today, she delves into the many memoirs she read before writing her own, The Book of Separation, out later this month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Before I could write a memoir, I needed to read.

I was primarily a fiction writer and read mostly novels. But before writing The Book of Separation, I decided to spend a year reading only memoir. I asked friends and fellow writers for suggestions. I made lists and assembled a stack of books. I kept a notebook where I wrote about what I could learn from each memoir. How did the author structure the story? How did the author make use of flashbacks? How did the author create a compelling voice?

I began by re-reading two of my favorite memoirs: Devotion by Dani Shapiro and Aftermath, by Rachel Cusk. I loved Devotion for its probing questions and compassionate voice, Aftermath for its blunt force honesty. I had turned to these books for comfort as I navigated my divorce and leaving my Orthodox Jewish world, and my copies were well-worn, passages underlined, pages creased.

From there, I set out. Memoirs of childhood. Memoirs of addiction. Memoirs of divorce. Memoirs of coming of age. Memoirs of excursions and adventures. I scribbled notes in the margins, folded down the corners of pages I wanted to return to.

There were books whose stories haunted me – the voice of the writer pained, honest, bold. Reading them, I felt like I understood not just the author’s story but the world around me more deeply: Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped; Alice Sebold’s Lucky; Pang-Mei Natasha Chang’s Bound Feet and Western Dress; Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story.

There were books that parceled out wisdom about how to forge a genuine self: Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick; Through the Door of Life, by Joy Ladin. My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff was a coming of age story so sure-handed and moving that I devoured it in one sitting. In Cabin, Lou Ureneck turned the process of building a cabin into a pensive, moving exploration of family and growth.

Some books, like Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come, I read more than once. This memoir, about Fuller’s divorce set against the backdrop of her African family and upbringing, was lush and piercing. On each page, I stopped to take in a moment of beauty. “In the end, at least in this end,” she wrote, “the world beyond me and the world inside me could no longer exist in the same place and I broke.”

I underlined and underlined.

I was particularly interested to read memoirs of leaving the ultra-Orthodox world, especially Shulem Deen’s searing, masterful All Who Go Do Not Return, and Leah Vincent’s bold, powerful Cut Me Loose. In both, the pain of forging a change and the bravery required to do so was apparent on every page.

These bore much in common with memoirs that explored leaving other religious worlds. Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong describe the author’s journey to becoming a nun and then the slow leaving of her convent. What captivated me was her portrayal of the mystery and power of religious faith even as she describes the slow encroachment of doubt. I also loved Losing my Religion by William Lobdell, a Catholic journalist who covered the Catholic sexual abuse cases and whose faith was burned away as a result.

I savored Not That Kind of Girl by Carlene Bauer, which traces her desire to be a good girl inside her Evangelical Christian world, and the process by which she came to question her role there. In this book, the author’s voice jumped off the page and carried me into a world that was both foreign and familiar. “As far as I could tell,” Bauer writes about the official church teachings, “that was the only story told by the officious soul, and the real and true sadness had been excised for a more mellifluous account....”

I folded over this page. My Orthodox Jewish upbringing in Memphis was a world far from hers, yet I knew the feeling that parts of your experience were not permitted. The particulars might have varied, but the emotional truths landed close to home.

In all these memoirs, I found a common theme: the transformation of the self over time. In many of these memoirs, the author leaves one world and begins to make way for another. The kinds of leavings varied – leaving a religious world, a childhood, a destructive way of being, a former self. But in all, there was a palpable sense of the loneliness that comes with change and departure.

This was a feeling I knew well. In the years of leaving my marriage and religious community, I felt more than anything the sense of the known world receding – the way it looks when you set sail from a fixed shoreline and move into something that is uncertain and unmapped. Throughout those years, I wondered: did anyone around me feel this way too?

The answer, for me, came in these memoirs.

Reading memoir helped teach me how to write memoir. But most of all, my year of reading helped me feel a little less alone in the world. Now, when I look at these books on my shelves, I think of the authors as fellow travelers. These memoirs are books to take with you on the journey across.

Tova Mirvis is the author of the memoir The Book of Separation. She has also published three novels: Visible City,The Outside World, and The Ladies Auxiliary which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children. Visit her website here.

New Reviews September 8, 2017

Friday, September 08, 2017 | Permalink


Holding Each Other's Stories: Why Personal Writing Matters

Tuesday, September 05, 2017 | Permalink

Tova Mirvis is the author of The Book of Separation, a memoir, out later this month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Never read the comments, my writer friends all advise when publishing a personal essay online. Wise words, and I followed them when, several years ago, I wrote an essay that ran in the New York Times about my Orthodox Jewish divorce ceremony in which I realized that I was leaving not just a marriage but the religious world in which I was raised.

But I hadn’t expected the flood of emails.

When the essay was published, I happened to be on a hiking trip in Corcovado National Park, in a remote region of Costa Rica. It was a trip where for a week, I was cut off from the world—I had hiked fourteen miles into the rain forest, spent two nights at a ranger station, then traveled by boat to an eco-lodge in Drake’s Bay where sloths hung from trees and toucans and scarlet macaws flew past.

I checked my phone only once—in the sole spot at the edge of the forest where there was reception, and saw an email from the Times editor that the piece would run the next day. I was excited, of course, but also worried about putting the most private, painful part of my life into the world. I’d never felt so vulnerable, on the verge of such exposure.

On a laptop borrowed from another guest at the eco-lodge (in an attempt to be fully away, I’d left mine at home) I answered the copy editor’s queries. I sent a heads-up email to my family letting them know about the essay. But finally, in this remote locale where the word looked like it had been painted entirely green, there was nothing to do but let go. 

When I came back to everyday life, I had hundreds of`emails waiting for me. A few were from people I knew, but mostly they were from strangers old and young, of all religious backgrounds, sharing with me their stories of change and transformation. I had prepared myself for the cruelty of the comments section, but I hadn’t expected this.

One letter after another saying, I too have felt trapped. I too am on the brink of upending my ordered life. I too have forged a painful change. People I didn’t know, saying I am holding your story, and in exchange, handing me theirs. It’s all too easy to feel cut off inside the remote locales of our own lives; to look at those around us and only see the well-constructed exteriors; to dash off the mean-spirited response to someone else’s experience; to lose sight of the fact that inside everyone around us, some painful question is being asked. But by telling a story in which we are made vulnerable, we are holding out a hand, making a connection, offering a direct point of entry into our lives.

A few months later, I started writing the memoir which eventually became The Book of Separation, expanding on the story I’d told in the essay. I still felt afraid – inside me were the voices of censure and judgment, my own internal set of trolls, casting eternal judgment. In order to write, I summoned that rain forest in my mind, a place where I could quiet that swirl of thought. I kept those emails as a rebuttal to those naysaying voices, and reread them, to remind myself of the ways that telling our stories can help us see, really see, ourselves and those around us.

Tova Mirvis is the author of the memoir The Book of Separation. She has also published three novels: Visible City,The Outside World, and The Ladies Auxiliary which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children. Visit her website here.

Header image courtesy of stephXstitch

New Reviews September 1, 2017

Friday, September 01, 2017 | Permalink

Seven Books That Capture the Breadth of Jewish Experience

Friday, August 25, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Devorah Baum wrote about five books that counter the "negative" narrative of Jewish literature and the twelve most stereotypical Jews in literature. Today, she explores seven books that capture the breadth of Jewish experience. She is the author of the book Feeling Jewish (a Book for Just About Anyone), out this week from Yale University Press. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Israel ZangwillChildren of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People

A book of portraits and scenes of late nineteenth century Jews in London on the cusp of modernity and modernisation. This book by the so-called ‘Jewish Dickens’ was a best-seller, in part because it managed to do two opposing things at once for distinct audiences: it opened up a closed world, that of the poor immigrant Jews, to non-Jews and assimilated middle-class Jews, thus creating pathways for understanding between groups that appeared ‘peculiar’ to each other, while at the same time opening up vistas to the world beyond the ghetto for the Jews residing within it.

Aharon AppelfeldFor Every Sin

Appelfeld is one of the greatest writers of imaginative fictions relating to the Holocaust. His prose has an uncanny feel to it, which conveys something of the state of loss, displacement and exile that characterizes its author’s own strange position vis a vis language: he had to learn to speak a smattering of different languages in order to survive the war alone as a child in Europe before he arrived in Israel and made of Hebrew something at once entirely modern, or even modernist, and yet in such a way that his writing still retains the depth and significance of its scriptural sources. While this is apparent in all his work, it’s in his novel For Every Sin that the tortuous relationship of the survivor to language rises to a theme.

Hannah ArendtThe Jewish Writings

I might also have suggested Walter Benjamin’s Jewish writings, but the political and philosophical engagements with which Arendt treated her own and others’ experiences of the most dramatic chapters of modern Jewish history, and the way in which she both sparked and responded to the controversy that public Jewish intellectuals invariably provoke when they reflect back on themselves, reveals how critical it is to investigate the Jewish position in history and society - not only for Jews, but as the recent revival of interest in Arendt’s writings on totalitarianism imply, critical for all.

Eva Hoffman – Lost in Translation

While there are many wonderful memoirs of Jewish emigration from the end of the nineteenth century up to the end of the twentieth, Hoffman’s searingly honest, affecting and psychologically perspicacious account of her loss and rediscovery of herself in a new place and a new language has been enthusiastically embraced by all manner of readers – from Jews, to people from other immigrant backgrounds, to people who, though not literally displaced, feel themselves to be peculiarly adrift, lost and uprooted in the rapidly changing modern world.

Amos Oz – A Tale of Love and Darkness and/or Sarah Glidden - How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less

Oz’s beautiful memoir, which functions simultaneously as the story of his own life and that of the young state he grew up in, seems to capture every shade of Israeli experience - the love and the darkness, the dream and the nightmare. And because there really is such profound love here, as well as darkness, those who are ordinarily inclined to see only one side of the picture, whichever side that is, may find in this book a means of encountering the thorniest of subjects somewhat differently.While Sarah Glidden’s graphic memoir of her time on a ‘Birthright tour’ reveals how, behind the propagandistic messages to which she and her fellow travelers were subject, the individuals she meets in Israel are all far more complex and divided than is generally admitted by the spectrum of political positions and opinions with which they tend to get represented.

Nathan Englander – What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

A short story collection entering boldly into features and temperaments that broadly characterize Jewish life and experiences today. There is a great deal of Jewish self-critique here, but also a sense in so many of these stories of the blind alleyways and limitations that circumscribe just about any political, religious or social position, particularly in those cases where identities appear too sure of themselves. This is not a writer who judges others from a sense of his own moral superiority. Rather, his deep immersion in the post-war Jewish ‘psyche’ and predicaments sees him attempting, in these stories, to find a way through the modern maze – which, in the first case, requires us to comprehend its maziness as clearly as possible.

Edmond Jabès – The Book of Questions, Vol 1.

Jabès’ handling of the Jewish experience brings new meaning to Jews as ‘people of the book’. For Jabès, Jewish existence and survival is indistinguishable from the condition of textuality. By invoking questions that anticipate neither answers nor resolutions, the binaries that permeate our conventional habits of thought are all deconstructed in this sublime work such that we can no longer draw the dividing line between Jew and non-Jew, between home and exile, between religious and secular, between belief and non-belief, between poetry and prose, between mind and body, between ancient and modern, between life and death.

Devorah Baum is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Southampton, UK, and affiliate of the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations. She is the co-director of the documentary feature film The New Man (2016). Find out more about her book, Feeling Jewish, here.

New Reviews August 25 2017

Friday, August 25, 2017 | Permalink