Part of what it means to be an American, lately, is to be a subject of curiosity and concern for people from elsewhere. Friends in Canada and Europe often ask me how I live under the threat of gun violence or accept the loss of what they consider basic human rights. Louis-Phillippe Dalembert’s 2021 novel Milwaukee Blues, out this week in Marjolijn de Jager’s English translation, makes me feel the same way those inquiries do. (more…)
Gabrielle Zevin’s novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow has done just fine for itself, thank you: Since it was published in July, it has made several bestseller lists, the film rights sold at auction for $2 million, and over the next year it’ll appear in about 20 languages. Plus The Atlantic just picked it as one of its top 10 “most thought-provoking books” of the year. (more…)
Though I’ve read Elif Batuman’s novel Either/Or, which recently made The New York Times’ “Notable Books” list for 2022, I can’t tell you whether it’s any good. It’s a novel set at a place and time so drenched in my own memories and regrets—the college I went to, one year before I got there—that I had to give up any hope of evaluating it. (more…)
[Professor and literary critic Josh Lambert serves as a judge for two major prizes for American Jewish literature, meaning he reads as many new American novels by and about Jews as possible each year. In this annual column for Jewish Currents, he reflects on some of the previous year’s most compelling works of fiction that might be considered “Jewish” in one way or another, and what patterns emerged in this reading.]
AS IS OFTEN THE CASE, the new fiction I read over the past year seemed like a slow-motion echo of the news from half a decade ago: not ripped from the headlines, exactly, but carefully cut out, collaged in a scrapbook, meditated upon, and transformed. A number of novels and short story collections released in 2021 deal with gender and sexuality in ways that feel decidedly post-2016. Not coincidentally, this was a year in which scholars began dropping #MeToo into titles and subtitles, and a young philosopher’s exploration of “feminism in the 21st century” was a bestseller. (more…)
THE RUINED HOUSE
By Ruby Namdar
Translated by Hillel Halkin
514 pp. Harper. $29.99.
It’s been a season of reckoning for our high priests, as one after another, in the film industry, journalism, politics, academia and other fields, have been judged and sometimes punished for their sins. How eerie that Ruby Namdar’s strange and exhilarating novel, “The Ruined House,” should appear in English translation just now.
WHAT THE F
What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves
By Benjamin K. Bergen
271 pp. Basic Books. $27.99.
IN PRAISE OF PROFANITY
By Michael Adams
253 pp. Oxford University Press. $17.95.
Every parent has been there, or will be there soon: the moment when your darling 5-year-old says one of the magic words that can transform a PG movie into an R, or earn an N.B.A. star a $25,000 fine.
“Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything,” by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $26
“Seinfeld” aired its finale a little over 18 years ago, but the show hasn’t exactly gone away. Every day, reruns continue to air on stations all over the world, and last year, Hulu coughed up a reported $160 million for the right to stream all 180 episodes digitally. There may be a few television watchers out there who couldn’t pick Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer out of a lineup, but not many. And an enormous number of people, if prompted, can still summarize a dozen episodes’ intricate plots or spool out a series of the show’s catchphrases: “yada yada yada,” “close talker,” “master of his domain.”
What’s left to say about a show that was so celebrated during its nine-year run, and remains so familiar almost two decades later? Quite a bit, it turns out, as evidenced by Jennifer Keishen Armstrong’s “Seinfeldia,” a quirky, readable chronicle of the so-called “show about nothing” created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. (more…)
Prestige is often what we’re talking about when we talk about literature.
Literature, after all, was for a long time understood as that subspecies of writing, per Raymond Williams, “‘substantial’ and ‘important’” enough to merit the name. Determining and debating what counts has always been one of the central activities of literary critics and scholars. Some of the most influential works of literary history published in the last decade, like James English’sThe Economy of Prestige and Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters, have focused their attention squarely on the creation and use of prestige within the literary field.
English and Casanova do not simply accept some vague sense that a work of literature is prestigious, or argue that it should or shouldn’t be, but rather examine how prestige has been conferred or accrued, and what it can accomplish. This approach marks them as part of a species of literary history that can be traced back through the canon wars, histories like Richard Brodhead’s Cultures of Letters, and Pierre Bourdieu’s essays on literature and art, where the investment of an object with “symbolic capital” is never assumed to be inevitable, but is understood as the effect produced by actions taken by players and various forces at work in the “cultural field.” One needn’t subscribe to anything like orthodox Bourdieuianism to acknowledge that institutionalized hierarchies of value, acknowledged or not, continue to play out in virtually every journal article and book review and proposal and pitch.
With this in mind, it would be hard to overstate the importance of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (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…)