The Sacred and the Profane

December 9, 2005 | , ,

Like her prize-winning debut novel, “In the Image” (W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), Dara Horn’s remarkable second work spans generations, continents and languages. “The World To Come,” which will be published in January 2006 by W.W. Norton, centers on former child prodigy Ben Ziskind and his twin sister, Sara, who live, love, mourn and steal art in contemporary New York. Tracing the mysterious provenance of a Marc Chagall painting, the book also relates the real-life tragedy of the Yiddish writer known as Der Nister (the Hidden One), who was murdered by the Soviets before completing his masterpiece. Horn recently discussed the new book with Josh Lambert, who reviews contemporary Jewish fiction for such publications as the Forward, the San Francisco Chronicle and Canada’s Globe and Mail, among others. (more…)

Plot Tanks as Characters Speak in Foreign Idioms

September 24, 2005 | ,

On Beauty
By Zadie Smith
Viking Canada. 400 pages. $34.

In September, 2002, Zadie Smith, the British novelist, went to Harvard. She was 27, and had published her first novel, White Teeth, not long after graduating from Cambridge to acclaim and huge sales on both sides of the Atlantic. A follow-up, The Autograph Man, appeared a month after she moved to Boston, where she was offered a fellowship at Harvard University to write a collection of essays, The Morality of the Novel. The book does not appear to have been published.

Smith’s third novel, On Beauty, describes a year in the life of the Belsey clan, who orbit a university called “Wellington,” which may not be Harvard but looks, smells and sounds a whole lot like the Ivy League school. (more…)

Tearing Down Walls

September 17, 2005 | , , ,

A Wall of Light
By Edeet Ravel
Random House Canada. 256 pages. $36.95.

Imagine having to hold your breath every time you ride a bus or sit down at a restaurant, for fear of an explosion. Or being born in the same stinking refugee camp where your grandfather was born. If this were your life, who would expect you not to be angry, depressed or spiteful? How could you begin to live without fear and hate?

Such questions of trauma and recovery are at the heart of Edeet Ravel’s A Wall of Light, a thoughtful and heartfelt novelistic meditation on contemporary Israel’s past and present. (Click here for a PDF of this review.)

Yo Mameloshn!

September 1, 2005 | , ,

Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods
By Michael Wex

St. Martin’s. 304 pages. $24.95.

It’s been called folksy and quaint. It’s been labeled a dialect and dismissed as “jargon.” Even its defenders tend to admit that it died 50 years ago. Yiddish, nebekh, has suffered so much defamation of character that it could probably win a libel suit.

If Yiddish ever does sue, its first expert witness will be Michael Wex. (more…)

The ‘Canker in the Soul’ That Ate Away at Roth’s Writing

August 14, 2005 | , , ,

Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth
By Steven G. Kellman
Norton. 372 pages. $25.95.

Henry Roth’s literary career is a testament to the power of a book review. His first novel, “Call It Sleep,” sold modestly when it was published in 1934, and didn’t approach national prominence. Three decades later, the critic Irving Howe penned an unusually positive and prominent review, and despite having been out of print for years, the book began to leap off the shelves. (more…)

Another Slight Chapter in the Story of Exile

June 15, 2005 | , , ,

Raymond + Hannah: A Love Story
By Stephen Marche

Harcourt. 212 pages. $14.

One of the oldest old saws about Jewish dislocation is attributed to Yehuda HaLevi, a physician and Hebrew poet who lived in medieval Spain. “My heart is in the east, and I am in the furthermost west,” he wrote, and over the centuries this line of verse has been echoed, appropriated, twisted, and alluded to by Jews in every corner of the globe to express their feelings about exile and home.

Stephen Marche’s debut novel, Raymond + Hannah, offers the latest spin on this classic plaint. (more…)

A Late Pioneer Is Still Pushing Boundaries

May 22, 2005 |

The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion
By Will Eisner
142 pages. W. W. Norton. $23.95.

What’s so comic, exactly, about comic books? As far back as the Golden Age, when the form flourished in the hands of mostly Jewish American young men, relatively few of the word-and-picture narratives to which we ascribe this label have been primarily concerned with humor. The dominant modes have been action, mystery, horror and romance. Still, silly as it sounds, even when they aren’t the least bit funny they’re known as comics. (more…)

The Next War

May 4, 2005 |

“The Jews are one people—their language is Yiddish,” I. L. Peretz said in 1908, declaring the language war that was already raging in coffee houses, magazines, and political meetings in Europe and Palestine. Yiddish, which could not claim to be the tongue of Sephardim, saw a brief rise and devastating fall, and Hebrew won. But a century later, it is beginning to seem possible that we may hear an equally chutzpadik intellectual make such a statement about English. (more…)

What Is Jewish Humor?

May 1, 2005 |

Defining humor of any kind is a bad business to be in. The minute you lay down a rule, you can be sure that some schmuck will tap you on the shoulder and say, “Ahem. What about Danny Kaye? Nahman of Bratslav? How could you leave out Larry David? Are you joking?” Like a wannabe stand-up comic on his first open-mike night, all we can do is try. (more…)