Jennifer Traig, author of Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria, is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.
This New Year I’ll be grateful if there’s very little new. Last year there was far too much. Within a single week, I got married, got pregnant, and published a memoir. Six weeks after that I was dragged across the country to live in a house I’d never seen, in Ann Arbor, a place I’d visited just once.
I didn’t know what I was getting into at all. That single visit had been a Potemkin Village tour over a perfect summer weekend. My husband had only brought me to the nice places, the vegetarian restaurants and bead stores he knew I’d like, and he’d coached his friends to lie about the weather.
But now we were living here, and I wasn’t very happy about it. I was also fiercely home- and morning-sick. And so I spent the first few months sulking in bed and reading, by which I mean watching TV mostly but also sometimes reading. Usually the book in question was a doorstop biography of Marie Antoinette. I identified with the royal teenage newlywed. When she married, she also had to leave everyone and everything behind, even her name and underpants. I, at least, got to keep those.
After a little while, I decided it might be a good idea to go back on my antidepressants and get out of bed. And when I did I was surprised to find that I actually really liked Ann Arbor. In the month or so before we left Berkeley our block was cordoned off because of an in-home murder; our car window was bashed in and our things stolen; and a visitor found a small packet of heroin on our stoop. That doesn’t happen here. Yes, it snows a lot, but that just gives you a good excuse to stay home and read.
Which is the other thing I like about Ann Arbor. This is a town of readers, the place where Borders began. It’s also a town of writers, home to Elizabeth Kostova and Phoebe Gloeckner. Loads more pass through, like Ryan Harty, Julie Orringer, and Josh Henkin, whose lovely Ann Arbor novel Matrimony I’d read as preparation before my move and my marriage.
And then there’s Danit Brown. The month we moved she published Ask for a Convertible, a collection of linked short stories about a young Ann Arbor transplant that became my instant favorite. Saddled with a name that guarantees years of classroom torture, Osnat moves from Tel Aviv to this strange and snowy place with as much good cheer as I did, which is none. It’s a perfect book, wry and funny, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I loved every word, but these most of all:
Maybe it would be like all those movies where the guy brings home a girl he handpicked expressly to piss his parents off. Her father, Osnat knew, had once pulled the same trick and brought home a Catholic woman, but he’d just wanted money for a convertible. He was nineteen, and this strategy had worked for two of his friends, he’d told Osnat. It didn’t for him. His mother―Osnat’s grandmother―had simply taken the girl’s coat and fed her some brisket and some apple pie. “You’re not mad?” Osnat’s father had asked her afterward, and she’d said, “Do you think I’m blind? Or maybe you think I’m stupid?” Then she added, “My son, the pimp.” This always made Osnat’s father laugh. “And this is why you should never blackmail,” he liked to say. “You want a convertible? Ask for a convertible.” And when Osnat finally did, he told her to get a job like everyone else. “This is Michigan,” he’d said. “You don’t need a convertible.”
The funny thing is, now that I live in Michigan, I see convertibles all the time, way more than I did in, say, California or Israel, places where the climate actually permits roofless cars. I can only guess this is due to the same sensibility that leads Michigan to have more public golf courses than any other state, although we have some of the worst weather. And that’s another thing I like about this place, and I wonder if it’s why Brown still lives here, too: there’s a certain native convert-ability, an eagerness to seize the day when things are fair, and to adapt when they’re not. Osnat eventually figures out how to do this, and I’m figuring it out too.
You put the roof up. It’s not that hard.
Jennifer Traig is the author, most recently, of Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria, as well as Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood, and Judaikitsch: Tchotchkes, Schmattes and Nosherei, and the editor of The Autobiographer’s Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir. She lives in Ann Arbor.
Convertibles in the Snow
The Book of Life Is Shelved in the Jefferson Wing