The Heavy Hitters
Some of the biggest names in contemporary fiction — both in the U.S. and in Israel — have new books out all at the same time, only one of which is in paperback. That’s OK, though: Hardbacks make better gifts anyway. Easier to wrap.
Start with the latest from Jonathan Lethem (“Motherless Brooklyn; Fortress of Solitude”), whose new book, “A Gambler’s Anatomy: A Novel,” tells the suspenseful story of Bruno Alexander, a backgammon hustler who travels the world from Berlin to Berkeley with his parasitic manager. Vogue called the novel “delightfully weird,” which is sort of Lethem’s m.o., while the Chicago Tribune described it as a “strange and wondrous” act of channeling Thomas Pynchon and Ian Fleming.
If you want to get more serious, try the newest from Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”; “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”). “Moonglow: A Novel” is based on an experience from Chabon’s own life, when he visited his grandfather on his deathbed in Pittsburgh. (Chabon graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh.) Here, the unnamed grandson hears stories
of his grandfather’s life, from early 20th-century Jewish South Philly to a penal colony in upstate New York to a retirement home in Florida. Obsessed with spaceships, World War II and postwar, post-traumatic survival, “Moonglow” was named an Amazon Best Book of November 2016, whose reviewer called it “an intensely personal story uplifted by the shifting tectonic plates of truth and memory.”
While Chabon’s book reflects on Jewish biography, it’s not nearly as marinated in the Jewish experience as “Here I Am,” the latest by Jonathan Safran Foer (“Everything Is Illuminated”; “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”), whose very title references the story of Abraham and Isaac in the book of Genesis. The doorstop-length novel, now out in paperback, tells the story of a Jewish family in crisis, and the way their Jewish identity, religious beliefs and connection with Israel informs their lives. Author Lev Grossman, writing for Time, compared “Here I Am” to “Middlemarch,” while other critics have likened the author to Roth, Bellow and Malumud.
As Safran Foer reflects on the American Jewish responsibility toward Israel, one of the Jewish state’s most important writers, Amos Oz, has just published his own new novel, “Judas” — his first full-length work since “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” The novel, which centers on three misfits living in a mysterious old house in Jerusalem in 1959, serves as an allegory, of sorts, for the evolution of the state of Israel, and offers a new spin on the biblical story of Judas. “One of the most triumphant novels of his career,” wrote the Forward.
Along with Oz, the famed Israeli author of the novel “A Pigeon and a Boy” also has new work out. In his latest translated work of fiction, “Two She-Bears: A Novel,” Meir Shalev writes of a schoolteacher in present-day Israel who’s trying to unravel a mystery that took place on a moshava in 1930, in the early British Mandate of Palestine. According to official accounts, three farmers committed suicide in the same year. But were they all suicides, really? What is the truth about these men living in rural Israel? Elaine Margolin, writing in the Jerusalem Post, called “Two She-Bears” “a masterful work that explores with great insight the mysteries that surround male closeness.”
The Graphic Thinkers
There was a time, before Art Spiegelman came along, when people thought graphic novels were just collected comic strips: frivolous and light. Then Spiegelman wrote “Maus,” about the Holocaust, and the medium proved its worth for exploring even the most difficult topics.
Now there are a plethora of weighty, meaningful graphic novels by Jewish authors, many of whom were recently featured in a panel called “Ink Bleeds History: Reclaiming and Redrawing the Jewish Image in Comics” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
One of the panelists was Miriam Libicki, author of “Toward a Hot Jew.” Libicki grew up Orthodox, went to Jewish day school, and then joined the IDF and wrote a graphic novel about it. In her newest collection of illustrated essays — rendered with graphite, inkwashes and watercolor — Libicki reflects upon Jewish identity, from black-Jewish relations to the Israeli soldier as fetish object. The book is richly nuanced and philosophical, and could open the eyes of both Israelis and American Jews.
Another of the panelists, Amy Kurzweil, also has a new book out: “Flying Couch.” In this graphic novel, Kurzweil tells the story of three Jewish women: her, her mother, and her grandmother, a World War II survivor who disguised herself as a gentile to escape the Warsaw Ghetto. She juxtaposes her own experience as an anxious, preoccupied child with her grandmother’s harrowing life, told in her actual words.
Meanwhile, her mother, an American psychologist, is the intermediary in this story of intergenerational trauma. Though she takes on serious topics, Kurzweil’s cartoony style makes for an enjoyable, compulsive read, calling to mind graphic novels by Roz Chast and Alison Bechdel.
Finally, for a much lighter touch, consider the new book by the beloved co-star of “Broad City,” Abbi Jacobson. “Carry This Book” is not a graphic novel; rather, it’s a series of drawn set pieces in which Jacobson imagines what famous people (Donald Trump, Anna Wintour, Bernie Madoff) and fictional characters (Homer Simpson) carry in their purses and briefcases.
Questlove, of the Roots, said of the book: “Looking at these illustrations and trying to guess who they belong to is like an inside-out game of ‘Where’s Waldo?’” Refinery 29, a website, said, “This is the next best thing to being BFFs with Abbi Jacobson.” In other words, it’s the perfect gift for the Jewish millennials in your life, all of whom — trust us — do want to be best friends with Jacobson.
There are a ridiculous number of memoirs and biographies out right now by and about Jewish people. But now might be the perfect time to gift “The Man Who Knew: Alan Greenspan & the Making of Modern Finance” by Sebastian Mallaby. Mallaby, the Paul A. Volcker Senior Fellow for International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, has been praised for presenting a balanced view of Greenspan, from his childhood with a single Jewish mother in Washington Heights to his role as Nixon advisor to his leadership of the Fed, an institution he was deeply suspicious of.
Mallaby naturally examines what and when Greenspan knew in the lead-up to 2008’s crash, and the conclusions he draws illuminate that time period and the role of regulation overall. Ben Bernanke has said the book is “highly recommended” for “anyone with an interest in postwar U.S. economic and political history.” The New York Times said it’s “fun to read” — no mean feat given the subject matter.
If you want to go from macro to micro on the subject of Jews in American business, pair “The Man Who Knew” with Lloyd Handwerker’s “Famous Nathan.” The book’s subtitle says it all: “A Family Saga of Coney Island, the American Dream, and the Search for the Perfect Hot Dog.” Handwerker, who is Famous Nathan’s grandson, wrote the story of his Jewish immigrant grandfather with Gil Reavill, starting with the illiterate Nathan’s arrival at Ellis Island, when he didn’t speak a word of English and had only $25 stuffed in his sock, to a thriving business on Coney Island that helped the hot dog become an iconic American food.
Handwerker — who also made a film about his grandfather — has said it gave him great satisfaction to honor his grandparents’ memory this way.
“It all comes down to I did this, and I did that.” That’s how Robert Gottlieb sums up his new book, “Avid Reader: A Life.” Gottlieb spent his life as an editor, at The New Yorker, Knopf and at Simon & Schuster, and worked with some of the most fascinating personalities in 20th-century American letters, from Toni Morrison, John Cheever, Doris Lessing and Joseph Heller to Lauren Bacall, Nora Ephron, Bill Clinton and Miss Piggy. His memoir is filled with publishing world gossip and stories of corralling all these complicated personalities, but also reveals much about his Jewish New York boyhood. Dwight Garner, of The New York Times, wrote that Gottlieb’s memoir reveals him as “a kind of Zelig of American publishing.”
That’s precisely what makes his book so much fun.
Liz Spikol writes for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.