Chabon Returns, Still Crusading for Fun in Literature

May 29, 2004 |

The Final Solution
By Michael Chabon
Fourth Estate. 144 pages. $16.95.

Depending on their authors’ predilections, so-called “literary” novels are often unsettling, disturbing, enlightening or tragicomic. They are not, in the main, much fun. Fun is left to hacks, those genre writers who churn out the chick-lit blockbusters, weepy romances, thrillers, sci-fi fantasies and blood-and-guts horrors that dominate the best-seller lists.

Michael Chabon is the shining exception to this rule. (more…)

Up and Down, Over and Out

May 28, 2004 |

The Place Will Comfort You: Stories
By Naama Goldstein
Scribner. 224 pages. $22.

In her debut collection of short stories, “The Place Will Comfort You,” Naama Goldstein explores the emotional effects of displacement from American to Israeli culture and back again. As an epigraph and symbol for the constant flux of migration to and from Israel — the shuffle of ideologies and practicalities played out by a few thousand migrants each year — Goldstein chooses the verses from Genesis 28, in which Jacob dreams of a ladder standing on the ground, reaching up to the sky, with “angels of God ascending and descending on it.” (more…)

A Boatload of Languor and Dreaminess

May 27, 2004 |

House on the River: A Summer Journey
By Nessa Rapoport
Harmony Books. 146 pages. $22.

In literature’s most ambitious exploration of the collision between Canada and the Jews, “Solomon Gursky Was Here,” novelist Mordecai Richler conjured Ephraim Gursky, a highly Bronfmanesque patriarch and explorer who so influences Inuit tribes that they don taleisim long after his death. Reading that novel and a couple of Richler’s others, one senses the author marshalling all his creative energies to deliver something richly, and uniquely, Canadian Jewish.

Nessa Rapoport takes an alternate route toward a similar destination in her memoir, “House on the River.” (more…)

The World According to Oskar

May 26, 2004 |

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Houghton Mifflin. 368 pages. $34.95.

Our great authors were once the ultimate parents. Starting with the Bible and on down to the grand tradition of the realist novel, narration and knowledge have gone hand in hand. Writers such as Honore de Balzac and Jane Austen felt they understood the world and, as good fathers and mothers, considered it their duty to instruct us in its ways.

Jonathan Safran Foer might be the first great writer of our new century, and he represents the opposite notion of authorship. (more…)

Telling It Like It Is By Telling It Like It Ain’t

May 25, 2004 |

The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin. 400 pages.

Philip Roth can write anything. And he can write it very well. He’s an unparalleled humorist in Portnoy’s Complaint, The Great American Novel and My Life as a Man, displaying comic exuberance that is the literary equivalent of Woody Allen channelling the Marx Brothers. He’s also a moral historian. His finest portraits of American life — Goodbye, Columbus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral and The Human Stain — capture the sounds, stories and ideologies of the 1950s, ’70s and ’90s with striking precision.

And in yet another set of novels, Roth is a master fabulist who delights in telling tales that are deliberately and disturbingly unreal. The Ghostwriter contains a haunting fantasy about Anne Frank riding out the Second World War in her cramped bunker and appearing, years later, in rural Massachusetts. What if, Roth asks, Anne hadn’t perished? Who would she have become? The Counterlife presents five mutually exclusive iterations of the lives of its characters, and Operation Shylock introduces a doppelganger Roth who advocates the transfer of Israeli Jews back to Eastern Europe. Spinning out these unbelievable stories, Roth exhibits fiction’s power to reveal truth without being true. He tells it like it is by telling it like it ain’t. (more…)

In the Great Masters’ Shadows

May 13, 2004 |

Old School
By Tobias Wolff
Knopf. 195 pages. $22.

What’s in a Jewish name?  Quite a bit, in some cases.  Just ask Bernard Schwartz, Issur Danielovitch, and Nathan Greenberg, who became stars as Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, and George Burns.

Tobias Wolff never reveals the name of the narrator of his slim new novel, Old School, but it becomes relevant that it isn’t as unmistakably Jewish as, say, Levine. (more…)

Couple Finds Room for Love, Rebellion in Orthodox Judaism

May 11, 2004 |

The Outside World
By Tova Mirvis
Knopf. 283 pages. $24.

Tova Mirvis’ lighthearted second novel, “The Outside World,” features young lovers who come together despite the differences in their backgrounds. This isn’t exactly “Jungle Fever” or “West Side Story,” though: Tzippy Goodman and Bryan Segal are both, after all, Orthodox Jews. It’s just that Tzippy was raised in a traditional Orthodox home, while Bryan grew up Modern Orthodox. This distinction is subtle but significant. Bryan’s father removes his yarmulke before entering the Manhattan law firm where he works, and expects his son to return from yeshiva in Israel ready for college. The family’s Modern Orthodox lifestyle can be summed up by Y.L. Gordon’s Enlightenment-era advice: “Be a man in the street and a Jew in your tent.” (more…)

A Fabulous, Bald Jew

May 9, 2004 |

Collected Stories, Volume III
By Isaac Bashevis Singer
Edited by Ilan Stavans
Library of America. 899 pages. $35.

The Anglo-Jewish author and playwright Israel Zangwill, who was once perhaps the most famous Jew in the world, remarked around the turn of the last century that Yiddish literature was “rich in men of talent, and even genius, whose names have rarely reached the outside world.”

Oy, how times have changed. (more…)

Desperately Lost Americans Find Themselves in Prague

May 9, 2004 |

The View from Stalin’s Head
By Aaron Hamburger
Random House. 245 pages. $12.95.

If recent literary fiction is any indication, Prague is giving Brooklyn a run for its money in terms of attracting young, disaffected American Jewish men. Gary Shteyngart’s “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” returns a post-Soviet Manhattanite slacker back not to the St. Petersburg of his birth, but to a thinly-veiled Prague, and Jonathan Safran Foer wrote the first draft of “Everything Is Illuminated” in an apartment there. Now another young American Jew, Aaron Hamburger, has published a collection of stories about the expatriate experience in the Czech Republic, in “The View From Stalin’s Head.” (more…)

“The Toughest Kid in Hebrew School”

May 5, 2004 |

Natasha and Other Stories
By David Bezmozgis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 147 pages. $18.

In its darkest years, the Soviet Union swallowed up some of the most promising writers of the 20th century. As readers, we’ll never know exactly how much was lost, but it’s natural to wonder. What if Isaac Babel, the Russian-Jewish master of the modern short story, hadn’t been executed by Stalin’s goons? What if he had escaped Russia to a somewhat friendlier environment — like, say, suburban Toronto in the 1980s?

David Bezmozgis’s Natasha and Other Stories reads like the product of that ridiculous hypothetical. (more…)