2016, pp. 320, $26
Paul Goldberg’s debut novel, The Yid, may remind many of its readers of the movies of director and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino, and especially his 2009 World War II film Inglourious Basterds [sic], in which a French-Jewish cinema proprietor and a Jewish-American military squad work together to assassinate Hitler and others. Like that film, Goldberg’s novel begins with a shocking, comic scene of aestheticized violence, and then it proceeds to tell the story of a cadre that assembles with the aim of assassinating Stalin in early 1953.
Sensible as the comparison might be, The Yid isn’t just Tarantinoism applied to late-Stalinist Russia, though. It’s more like what you might get if you crossed the iconic filmmaker with the novelist Dara Horn, author of The World to Come (2006), among other books. Horn’s novels, which regularly win Jewish book prizes, delight audiences with how much history they manage to pack in. That makes sense if you know that Horn’s initial ambition, when she set out to become a writer, was magazine journalism. Maybe this helps to explain why Goldberg, who has been a working journalist for 35 years, produced something similar upon turning to fiction: an easy-to-read patchwork of scenes and flashbacks that advance a narrative but also make it possible for him to fold in a few dozen historical tidbits and personalities. (more…)
How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel
By Leah Garrett
Northwestern University Press, 275 pages, $34.95
Which works of Jewish literature do we remember, and which do we forget?
The story we like to tell about American Jewish literature in the mid-20th century is that in the 1950s, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth leapt to prominence with books that pulled off the trick of making Jews’ experiences relevant to everybody. Those writers remained prominent for half a century, and Roth, the only one still alive today (though allegedly retired), can still make the Internet take notice by griping about Wikipedia orhaving a birthday party. Over many productive decades, these three writers picked up every major prize open to Americans, from the Pulitzer to the Nobel.
Even before this “breakthrough,” though, Jewish writers were already doing just fine, thank you. (more…)
There was an unanswered question at the heart of the first season of Transparent, the TV-show-not-for-TVs, produced by an Internet retail behemoth, that earned so much love last year. It was a question apparent from the show’s title sequence, but no one, despite a vast ocean of thinkpieces and increasingly rapturous reviews, seemed to ask it directly. And yet it’s the question that Jill Soloway, the show’s creator and director, has devoted the show’s second season to answering.
Want to know what it is? Watch the title sequence again with me—or, better yet, watch it with Slate’s Stephen Vider. As he points out, the clips you’ll see are “culled mostly from video clips of bar and bat mitzvah videos from the 1960s to the ’90s,” but there are also a few shots from Frank Simon’s The Queen (1968), a “rarely seen and ground-breaking documentary of the 1967 New York Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant” and “one of the earliest screen portrayals of the lives of ‘female impersonators.’” Vider expertly explains how important that documentary footage is, rooting the show’s representation of a transgender woman’s journey in the history of transgender activism and its capture on film.
But there’s another question one could ask: Why all the bar and bat mitzvahs to begin with? Why should this groundbreaking, frankly activist show about a transgender woman’s journey be so deeply Jewish? (more…)
Here’s the moment that tells you everything you need to know about Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, the feverishly anticipated, eight-episode comedy series debuting on Netflix on July 31. It’s when two of the counselors at Camp Firewood, in Maine, challenge each other to a “shofar dick sword fight.” (more…)
A summer camp I attended as a teenager has lately been burning up my Facebook feed. (more…)
By Ben Lerner
Faber & Faber, 256 pages, $25
Call it the “Zuckerman effect,” after Philip Roth’s most famous fictional alter-ego: A young writer breaks out with a smart, entertaining novel that allows or even encourages his readers to confuse its fictional protagonist with its author. Then comes a follow-up, which plays even more forcefully with the line between fact and fiction, both because it is natural for the writer to examine his newfound condition using the tactics that made the first book a hit, and also because the literary market is prepared to pay him handsomely in the hopes that his celebrity, such as it is, represents potential sales.
In other words, what happened to Roth after “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and to many other writers both before and since, is now happening, writ relatively small, to Ben Lerner. (more…)
Your Face in Mine by Jess Row
Riverhead Books, 384 pages, $27.95
Jess Row’s first novel, “Your Face in Mine,” has an inevitable quality to it. Can it really have taken this long for a writer to connect the increasingly widespread conversation about the construction of gender that’s raised by trans-rights activism — which recently reached another watershed when Laverne Cox, a trans actress, made the cover of Time magazine — to that most primal of American subjects, race? (more…)
A surprising number of people have a professional interest in something they call “kosher comedy.” Now, there’s something compelling about the idea of a God-fearing stand-up, even more so than a pious painter, novelist, filmmaker, or musician. Notwithstanding the plot of Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, you can always paint mountains or abstractions and not encounter any serious second-commandment objections. You can narrate, on the page or on screen, the gender-segregated lives of good people and still pass religious muster. You can sing or even rap about your faith in Hashem, and it doesn’t sound absurd—or, at least, not inevitably so. But comedy is fundamentally irreverent, isn’t it? How can one square that with religion?
The answer, for the most effective of contemporary Orthodox comedians, is that you simply don’t. (more…)
For the past decade or more, American literary critics have been either celebrating a “memoir boom” or wringing their hands about it. Some said the boom was just a marketing campaign, and others wrote it off years ago. But surely the genre’s moment can’t be totally over if the most zeitgeisty character of our day, Hannah Horvath of HBO’s “Girls,” aspires to publish not novels or film scripts, but personal essays.
Life-writing is, of course, nothing new for Jews. (more…)
“Visible City,” by Tova Mirvis
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $24
Tova Mirvis is hardly the first Jewish writer to pine, in exile, for a land that she’s left. Still, there’s something fetching, even touching, about the wistfulness of a Jew relocated to Boston, longing for the Upper West Side – which is what inspired Mirvis’ new novel (her third), “Visible City.” (more…)