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…)
Filmmakers had been adapting Philip Roth’s work long before Isabel Coixet transformed The Dying Animal into Elegy. When Roth was just twenty-two, his story “The Contest for Aaron Gold,” published first in the Fall 1955 issue of Epoch and then in that year’s Best American Short Stories, was presented on television by Alfred Hitchcock. Roth has disallowed the story’s republication in the half-century since, and the filmed version can be viewed only at UCLA’s archives (or, for the less scrupulous, in a bootleg version), so very few of even Roth’s most committed fans have read or seen it. Roth’s only other short story to be filmed, “Expect the Vandals,” is equally obscure; but at least its bizarre movie version can be added to your Netflix queue. (more…)
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 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…)
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…)
By Ruchama King
St. Martin’s Press. 256 pages. $23.95.
The Orthodox women at the center of Ruchama King’s first novel are hot and bothered. And not just because of their underwear, although the book does reveal that “underneath black, dour Hasidic clothing lurked a pack of slinky sex kittens.” (pdf…)
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…)
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…)
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…)
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…)