The Books that Bloom in the Spring
Get ready to read. The rebirth of the natural world coincides with an abundant and varied crop of new books by Jewish women writers.
By Sandee Brawarsky
The story behind Ayelet Waldman’s new novel is very 21st century. For many years, she had been thinking of writing a novel related to the Holocaust, a subject she says she has been obsessed with since childhood. In an interview, she notes that she finally reached a point where she had enough confidence in herself as a writer to approach the subject.
When a friend was named U.S. ambassador to Hungary, Waldman thought to visit and learn something about the country. On a lark, she googled the words Holocaust, Hungary and art, and the story of the Hungarian Gold Train in World War II popped up. And the more that she researched, the more she realized that she had found the kernel of her story.
In 1945, American forces in Austria seized a train loaded with gold, silver, art and other valuables, stolen mostly from Hungarian Jews by the Nazis; that train became known as the Hungarian Gold Train. While writing and researching—Waldman engages in both at the same time—she had no idea how timely the subject would be, with the issue of art stolen by the Nazis in the news as well as popular culture. With this novel, Waldman adds another literary angle to the conversation.
Love & Treasure (Knopf) is a suspense story, romance, history and tale of a granddaughter honoring the life and last wishes of her grandfather, who served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Waldman tells the story through three lenses, in different eras, moving back through time. The author of several novels, a mystery series and non-fiction work, she feels this is the best writing she has ever done. (Click for a YouTube trailer for the book.)
Waldman’s novel is one of many fascinating and well-written new books for spring. Some are from long-admired writers like Waldman who explore new ground as they invent unforgettable stories. Some delve into historical themes, and the years before and during World War II remain rich for mining. Other new books relate to past and present New York. And two newer genres are noteworthy: books written by women from the former Soviet Union, who came here as immigrants and are now writing lyrically in English, and—in another 21st century development—fiction and non-fictional accounts of women who have left the ultra-Orthodox world.
In Night in Shanghai (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Nicole Mones vibrantly creates the era of Shanghai just before World War II. She brings together untold historical stories, including the jazz age inspired by American black jazz musicians recruited to China and the saving of thousands of Jewish lives by the Chinese consul in Vienna, Ho Feng-Shan. While writing the book, Mones, who has spent considerable time in China and has written previous novels set there, learned of a plan—that didn’t come to be—to save and resettle Jews near the Burma border. That true story then changed the course of this novel.
Overlapping the time frame of Night in Shanghai is Francine Prose’s new novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 (Harper) The novel, which also features a night club with jazzy fanfare and looming darker days, is told through a variety of voices, revealing many and sometimes conflicting possibilities, dramas, betrayals, seductions and truths. At the center is a lesbian cross-dressing night club performer and race car driver who scandalized Paris society and went on to collaborate with the Gestapo during the German occupation.
The novel was inspired by an image by legendary Paris by Night photographer Brassai of two women at a table, a professional athlete named Violette Morris dressed in a tuxedo alongside a woman in a sparkly evening gown. Prose unearthed Morris’s remarkable story, began writing non-fiction about her, but decided that she would have more liberty—and her readers would have more fun—if she wrote the story as fiction. (One of the characters is a Hungarian photographer who orchestrates a photo of two women lovers.) This is Prose’s 21st novel, and she has also written brilliant non-fiction books.
Old New York and New
Alice Hoffman conjures up the world of Coney Island, Brooklyn, with its beachfront attractions and amusements, in all its multi-dimensional color, in The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Scribner), which begins in the first years of the 20th century. The boardwalk museum of the title is a showplace of odd treasures and “living wonders” like Siamese twins and a man with a pointed head. (Click for a YouTube trailer for the book.)
The museum’s impresario has a young daughter named Coralie and she too has a role, as the Human Mermaid. The young girl, whose mother died of influenza when she was an infant, understands that her life is odd, but she feels at home, and loves the magic of Brooklyn.
Hoffman weaves historical events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory into her inventive narrative, including a love story between Coralie and a Russian immigrant who runs away from his Orthodox family. The author of more than 30 books, Hoffman drew upon the lives of both of her grandfathers—one a union man who wrote articles, and the other, a factory worker who became one of the electricians to light up Brooklyn.
Historians and anthropologists of New York Jewish life have written about the influence of Yiddish newspapers in the lives of immigrant Jews in the early decades of the last century and, in particular, advice columns like “A Bintel Brief” (A Bundle of Letters), published in The Forward. Immigrants would query the paper about the strange customs they encountered in America, their workplaces, romance and much more. Now, artist Liana Finck has used letters and responses to create a “non-fiction graphic novel” entitled, A Bintel Brief—Love and Longing in Old New York (Ecco).” Her drawing style is evocative of the times and emotional lives of her subjects, and she shifts drawing styles to match the mood of the writers, capturing the heartbreak and comedy of their daily struggles.
Inspired by the closing of her favorite knish shop in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, Laura Silver has written a lively cultural history, Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food (Brandeis University Press). She aims to learn everything she could about the savory pastry, “a pillow of filling tucked into a skin of dough.” Along the way, she finds that her own family has roots in Knyszyn, Poland. And, she tracks down the family of the knish shop she loved and they generously share their recipe, which she includes in her book.
Tova Mirvis’s new novel pulses with the author’s love of New York City. Visible City (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) takes place in the streets, cafes, apartment windows and subways, where lives intersect in noticed and unnoticed ways, with many “moments of strangerly connection.” Mirvis, who was born in Memphis, lived for some years in New York City and now lives in a suburb of Boston, set her first novels and the Orthodox world, and this is a departure. While many of her characters are in fact Jewish, her concerns are not their religious connections but how they relate to those who are seemingly closest to them, and also to others.
Mirvis gets all the details right in Visible City—about urban living, kid-centered parenting when the kids are really in charge, the twinned anxiety and longing for a direction in life and the potential loneliness of marriage. The novel is deeply felt as well as entertaining. Mirvis admits that when she lived in New York City, she, like her character, enjoyed gazing out of her apartment window into the windows around her, imagining the lives beyond.
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (Knopf) is a literary coming-of-age story, set in New York’s publishing world in the late ‘90s, in the pre-digital world of typewriters and Dictaphones. Soon after leaving graduate school, Rakoff takes her first job as an assistant to the literary agent who represents, among others, J. D. Salinger. While her assignment it to answer, in a dismissive style, the piles of fan mail sent to the famously reclusive author, she begins to find her own voice.
Lara Vapnyar is the author of two fine story collections, and now, The Scent of Pine (Simon & Schuster), her first novel. The title refers to the times character Lena spends driving toward Maine with a new friend who is not her husband. As they drive, she recalls a childhood summer in a camp in the woods in the former Soviet Union. It’s a story of loneliness, secrets unfolding, midlife coming-of-age and love, told with honesty and humor. Vapnyar who moved from Moscow to Brooklyn in 1994, along with her husband, learned most of her English here and taught herself to write.
Ellen Litman emigrated with her parents from Moscow to Pittsburgh in 1992. She attended the University of Pittsburgh, studied information sciences and worked in software development before turning to writing fiction. The novel Mannequin Girl (Norton) is her second book, after a first collection of stories, and is based in part on her own experience growing up in Moscow, where she attended a school-sanatorium for children with spinal ailments. Skillfully, Litman turns the experience of wearing a cumbersome body brace for scoliosis into a sad, sometimes very funny, wonderfully detailed story of a young girl, the daughter of popular teachers, coming of age. As a child, she’s called Little Bureaucrat, for her abilities to be more organized and responsible than her parents.
Marina Rubin writes the shortest short stories around – they’re almost prose poems, each filling a rectangle of text on the page. Her stories in Stealing Cherries (Manic D Press) burst out of their boxes, as she writes with exuberance about her family’s experience as immigrants from the former Soviet Union and of her own later experiences working, traveling and becoming an American. Born in Ukraine, Rubin arrived in New York in 1990 and attended high school in Brooklyn.
Molly Antopol sets some of her stories in the former Soviet Union and her last name is the name of the town in what is now Belarus where the author’s namesake and great-grandmother was born, before she immigrated to the U.S. But this Molly Antopol was born in America. Her debut collection of stories, The UnAmericans (Norton), may remind readers of the late Grace Paley’s wonderful stories, with their down-to-earth, strong-willed characters. Antopol sets her stories in Israel, New York, California and the former Soviet Union, with such characters as a dry cleaner, soldiers, Communist Party members, translators and others, all of their lives shaped by waves of history. Antopol was a 2013 National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" Honoree.
Breaking Away from Orthodoxy
The new wave of books that provide a view through the walls surrounding the ultra-Orthodox community include works that are brutally honest, brave, full of despair, longing, rupture and, sometimes, hope, as young women learn how to navigate on their own in the outside world.
Recent titles include Anouk Markovitz’s I Am Forbidden and Deborah Feldman’s memoir Unorthodox. This season, Feldman is publishing a sequel, Exodus (Blue Rider Press), a memoir of self-discovery as an independent woman, single mother and writer, coming to terms with her complicated Jewish identity.
Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood (Nan A. Talese) is another powerful memoir, with details heartbreaking and shocking. The daughter of an influential rabbi in Pittsburgh, she is punished harshly for disobeying rules and exiled from her family. At age 17, she moves to New York City on her own. Unprepared for the world she encounters, she slides downward but ultimately lifts herself and constructs a new life, realizing dreams that had seemed impossible. The first person in her family to go to college, she earns a master’s degree from Harvard.
Eve Harris taught English in a haredi girls’ school in northwest London, inspiring her novel The Marrying of Chani Kaufman (Black Cat/Grove Atlantic), which, impressively, was long-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize in England. Creating a constellation of characters, Harris follows the trajectory of the courtship of 19-year old Chani—also a rabbi’s daughter—as she prepares to marry a young man she has only met a few times. This is a story of faith, tradition and community, told with understanding, big-heartedness and humor.
Alice Hoffman’s sensitive character Coralie might be speaking for all of the featured writers when she notes: “My father was both a scientist and a magician, but he declared that it was in literature wherein we discovered our truest natures.”
Sandee Brawarsky is an award-winning journalist and essayist. She is a book critic for The New York Jewish Week.