On the Bookshelf
Post-Soviet lit, Kafka’s heirs, and Dutch treats
It’s high time somebody said it: David Remnick’s New Yorker has had a borderline creepy fetish for post-Soviet Jews. Is there any other way to explain the magazine’s making room not only for fiction by Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar and David Bezmozgis and Sana Krasikov, but also for Gina Ochsner’s stories “The Fractious South” in 2004 and “Thicker Than Water” in 2005? It could be argued that these are all impressive writers, whatever their subject matter—but one can’t help but suspect that the magazine’s being edited by the author of Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire has something to do with it. Ochsner, born not in Russia but in Oregon, publishes her first novel in the United States this month: The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, February) serves up a generous helping of Siberian magic realism and a cast that includes a widowed Jewish translator and her PTSD-ish son.
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Speaking of dreams, here’s one come true: New York woman meets charming French man. They fall in love, get hitched—a nonsectarian wedding in France, “a Jewish ceremony and a small cocktail party back in the United States”—and live happily ever after in a Paris apartment, cooking up a combination of French classics and the traditional dishes she learned from “a long line of New York Jewish cooks.” That’s the true story related in Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes (Little, Brown, February). The dishes Bard covers range from the quintessentially French (“Cake Salé aux Lardons et aux Figues”) to Bard’s mother’s noodle pudding—not to mention her Catholic husband’s very first Passover Seder, complete with “a lamb tagine with prunes and sweet potatoes” and matzo ball soup with chicken broth from College Inn cans.
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Still single? Bard’s experience notwithstanding, Lori Gottlieb advises you against waiting around for the man of your dreams. In Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough (Dutton, February), Gottlieb expands upon an Atlantic Monthly piece to suggest, at length, what Jewish mothers have been Jewish daughters for what seems like eons: nu, find a man who’ll be nice to you, a mentsh, and settle down already! Who are you waiting for, Prince Charming?
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Of all modern Jewish dreamers, probably none influenced quite so many writers as Franz Kafka, whose nightmares captured the spirit of an era. As W. H. Auden put it during World War II, Kafka is “the artist who comes nearest to bearing the same kind of relation to our age that Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe bore to theirs.” In Three Sons: Franz Kafka and the Fiction of J. M. Coetzee, Philip Roth, and W. G. Sebald (Northwestern, March), Daniel Medin demonstrates the richness of Kafka’s literary legacy, examining how major writers of the late 20th century working within distinct traditions have circled back again and again to Kafka’s work and life for inspiration.
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Marcel Möring’s In a Dark Wood (February, Harper) takes its impetus and methods from a group of literary father figures every more widely venerated than Kafka, including, as the book’s British reviewers have noted, Homer, Dante, Joyce, and Sterne. In the novel—translated from the Dutch by Shaun Whiteside—a Holocaust survivor in a Dutch city known mostly for its annual motorcycle races receives a visit from the mysterious Jew of Assen, who allows him to listen in on the conversations of his former friends and relatives, while a younger man courts his daughter. Thanks to Möring and his countrymen Leon De Winter and Arnon Grunberg, and their intrepid translators, the availability in English of Dutch novels on Jewish themes has increased rather steadily in recent years.
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Some dream of romance in Paris, others are racked by surreal nightmares, while still others envision themselves as naughty sorority girls who must be paddled and brutally penetrated as punishment for their “whorish behavior.” In that latter category is Jack, one of the customers Melissa Febos served as a dominatrix while she studied for her BA at the New School in the early years of the last decade. As she recounts in Whip Smart: A Memoir (Thomas Dunne, March), Jack is one of the “Orthodox Jews” who “were among our most frequent clients.” Not that the haredi men she served submitted entirely to her: “Hasids,” she notes, “often topped from the bottom.”
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The occasional dalliance with a wanton woman cannot be said to represent an innovation in the Jewish tradition. Recall, for example, the prophet Hosea’s first command from God: “take . . . a wife of harlotry”. In The Prophet’s Wife (Behrman House, March), Rabbi Milton Steinberg dramatizes Hosea’s life and times with the same intelligence and sympathy he brought to his portrait of Elisha Ben Abuya in the classic novel As a Driven Leaf. And, yes, yes, you’re remembering right: Steinberg died a full six decades ago, and this unfinished manuscript languished unpublished until now, when it appears bedecked with praise from Elie Wiesel, Joseph Telushkin, and Cynthia Ozick.
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Scott Korb’s Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine (Riverhead, March) should appeal to those readers salivating at the prospect of a new Steinberg novel flush with recreations of daily life among the ancient Israelites. Korb, a Union Theological Seminary alum, was the non-Jewish half of 2007’s The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God—he co-wrote it with Tablet contributor Peter Bebergal—and while part of what drew this self-described “Catholic atheist” to his new project was the prospect of reconstructing the environment in which Jesus may or may not have wandered around, he dutifully combs through extensive scholarship so as to convey quotidian details of hygiene, sects, and violence during an extraordinarily unruly and consequential moment in Jewish history.
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