Category Archives: Jewish

Fagin the Jew by Will Eisner, foreword by Brian Michael Bendis, afterword by Jeet Heer

Fagin the Jew“I am Fagin the Jew of Oliver Twist,” begins the ‘father of the graphic novel’-Will Eisner‘s 21st-century literary reclamation of the 19th-century classic. “This is my story, one that has remained untold and overlooked in the book by Charles Dickens,” a tattered old man insists. “Tarry a bit, Mister Dickens,” he speaks directly to his maker, “while ol’ Fagin here tells you, Sir, what I really was and how it all came to be!!”

The infant Moses Fagin arrived in London with his parents after surviving the pograms of Eastern Europe. While England was kinder to immigrant Jews, the more recent arrivals from Middle and Eastern Europe “were regarded as lower class.” Fagin paraphrases Dickens’ own A Tale of Two Cities-opening as he remembers his upbringing: “These were grim times, and yet the best of times for us newcomers.”

Moses learned early of life on the rough streets, but was given the chance of a promising future when he was hired as a houseboy to a wealthy Jewish merchant who soon enough came to treat him more like his own son. A single unthinking action sends Moses back to the streets, where he must use every means to survive. Again and again he’s mistreated and betrayed, unjustly accused and imprisoned. Somehow, he manages to keep some semblance of humanity and, in his later years, provides a haven-of-sorts for homeless boys, including the young Oliver Twist. The “Epilogue,” narrated by an adult Oliver – now a happily-married, well-established barrister – offers an apocryphal “turning point in Fagin’s life and his legacy” that is especially,  sigh inducing. Oh, if only!

As memorable as Fagin’s narrative is, the context in which it was written is perhaps the more enlightening story, especially as revealed in Eisner’s 2003 “Introduction to the First Edition.” In reimagining Fagin, the legendary Eisner – whose name is on the U.S. graphic industry’s highest awards – was, in essence, responding to his own stereotypical creations more than a half-century earlier. In 1940, Eisner introduced The Spirit, which featured an African American character named Ebony. By 1945, after surviving military service, Eisner became “more aware of the social implications of racial stereotypes, and [he] began to treat Ebony with greater insight.” More years passed until Eisner realized how Ebony was “feeding a racial prejudice with this stereotype image.” Eisner transferred that new awareness toward “produc[ing] graphic novels with themes of Jewish ethnicity and the prejudice Jews still face.” In the original editions of Oliver Twist, he “found unquestionable examples of visual defamation in classic literature … Combatting that became an obsessive pursuit …”

For this 10th anniversary issue, Fagin is bookended by an illuminating foreword and afterword that provides further insight in the story’s creation and aftermath. The levels of reclamation are especially intriguing – from Eisner’s distancing of his own stereotypical creations, to his rescue of Fagin from ignominy, to many-Eisner (of course!)-winning comics maker Brian Michael Bendis and culture journalist Jeet Heer‘s involvement in getting one of Eisner’s ‘minor’ titles to more and more readers.

Much like Jean Rhys gave Jane Eyre‘s ‘madwoman in the attic’ a voice in Wide Sargasso Sea, and Tom Stoppard offered Hamlet‘s schoolfriends a play of their own in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Eisner literally gives life to Fagin: “This book,” he rightfully insists, “… is not an adaptation of Oliver Twist! It is the story of Fagin the Jew.”

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2003, 2013 (10th anniversary edition)

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The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical by Warren Hoffman

Great White WayTheater producer/critic/playwright Warren Hoffman (The Passing Game) insists that audiences have been “duped” into believing that the Broadway musical “is the most innocent of art forms when, in fact, it is one of America’s most powerful, influential, and even at times polemical arts precisely because it often seems to be about nothing at all.”

Filtering many of Broadway’s beloved spectacles through a race-sensitive lens, the author eschews complicit complacency: sing, dance, and clap along, he says, but open your eyes and see that Show Boat, for instance, “validate[s] and rationalize[s] the ‘inferiority’ of blacks and the ‘superiority’ of whites”; Oklahoma! erases the Native American experience in their own Indian Territory; and Annie Get Your Gun puts Native Americans center stage only in “stereotypical if not downright racist” characterizations. The multicultural A Chorus Line, the author says, ironically ends with the bittersweet elision of individuality into “One,” and 42nd Street is little more than revisionist “pure white fantasy.” While Hoffman’s ideas are important, his execution is rife with repetition, inflammatory rhetoric, and surprising lapses (e.g., Miss Saigon‘s yellowface casting controversy).

Verdict: While all culture aficionados should read this book – indeed, a condensed version of it should be inserted into every musical’s playbill – few may reach the final page.

Review: “Arts and Humanities,” Library Journal, March 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, .Nonfiction, African American, Chinese American, Jewish, Native American

Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loïc Dauvillier, illustrated by Marc Lizano, color by Greg Salsedo, translated by Alexis Siegel

HiddenPreorder this title now and you can stop reading here … you won’t, you can’t, you will not be disappointed.

Oh, fine. If you’re still with me, let me tell you about Elsa, a little girl who just can’t seem to fall asleep. She tiptoes out of her room and finds her grandmother wide awake. Noticing her sadness, Elsa reassures her grandmother, “You know, when I have a nightmare, I tell Mommy about it and that makes me feel better. You want to tell me?” Hesitant at first, her grandmother begins, “It was a long time ago. Grandma was still a little girl …”

Dounia Cohen, long before she was Elsa’s grandmother, “didn’t care who had won or lost” the war: In spite of France’s defeat by Germany in 1940, “My daddy had come home alive, and that was all the victory I needed.” Returning home unusually early one day, he suggests,”Some people suggested that we become a family of sheriffs.” Her mother sews the required yellow star onto Dounia’s coat: “Being a sheriff … is more of a boy’s job,” Dounia thinks. “But I don’t mind,” as she looks at her proud reflection in the mirror.

By the next morning, that Star of David has marked young Dounia not with privilege, but made her a target of abuse. “What had I done,” she asks in bewilderment. As a young Jewish child in occupied Paris, Dounia is shunned, isolated, hated without reason. When her parents are violently taken away from their own home, she is sheltered by Mrs. Péricard, the downstairs neighbor. Fearful of the returning police, Mr. Péricard devises a plan to help Dounia escape to safety; in the process, he gravely risks his own safety.

Dounia becomes Simone Pierret, a Catholic child who arrives on Germain’s farm with her “Mama” – Mrs. Péricard who has also given up her Paris life to care for the young girl. The war continues, but Dounia’s new identity – and the unlimited kindness of strangers – keeps her safe until reunion, at least in part, becomes possible …

Like Lola Rein‘s The Hidden Girl and Maryann Macdonald‘s more recent Odette’s SecretsHidden represents not only the 84% of Jewish children in France who escaped the Holocaust – the highest rate of survival for children in Europe – but also the 11,400 French children who were murdered during WWII. While Hidden bears witness to tragic history, the ultimate message is one of hope and redemption, that humanity can and will be effectively used against racism and hatred. Narratively and graphically, the French creative team proves spectacularly adept in balancing the nightmare with moments of innocent humor (“pink shoes”), unexpected laughter (“‘Does Grandpa know you were in love with another boy?’”), and joyful discovery (“‘I did it! I did it!’”). While some nightmares never quite fade, here’s hope that triumphant resolve will have longer staying power.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012, 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, European, Jewish

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

Skeletons at the FeastEvery so often, I seem to get on a specific reading spree on a topic not exactly of my choosing – that is, the books seem to serendipitously line up on their own. The latest batch of they-chose-me-titles have been set during the final brutal months of World War II on the European continent, with an emphasis on the not-so-well-known experiences of the women.

Yesterday’s post, Elizabeth Wein’s wrenching Rose Under Fire captured the horrific tragedies of the women-only concentration camp, Ravensbrück. Today’s Skeletons is a three-part narrative, in which one-third is comprised of the lives (and heinous deaths) of the prisoners of an unnamed (not unlike Ravensbrück) women-only camp. Coming up: The Light in the Ruins – another Chris Bohjalian novel, his latest – highlights the Italian end-of-war story, which also receives pagetime in Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (interesting overlap of titles, too, no?).

But back to the triangulated Skeletons … Binding all three narratives together is Anna Emmerich, half of just-turned-18-year-old twins and the only daughter of a Prussian aristocratic family. In German-occupied Poland in January 1945, war is drawing to a frenetic close amidst changing borders and desperate military maneuvers, prompting a mass exodus of surviving civilians in hopes of escaping the final onslaught of Russian soldiers and reaching safety somewhere west with the incoming Allied Forces.

While the Emmerich men have been conscripted by the Nazis, Anna, her mother, and her younger brother are accompanied by a Scottish prisoner-of-war who is also Anna’s lover. Their arduous journey will overlap with that of Uri Singer, a German Jew who has lost everything but his own life, who has thus far survived by literally donning the enemy’s clothing. Paralleling these flights are a group of Jewish women prisoners on a death march away from their camp, the only remaining of thousands who must not be allowed to tell the world the truth of what they have witnessed and endured.

While Bohjalian is the consummate storyteller, his most exceptional talent is his uncertainty – that is, rigid definitions of right and wrong prove impossible, and good and evil could change places minute-to-minute. Humanity cannot be defined by unyielding rules, and yet – as Bohjalian hauntingly shows from both ‘sides’ – inhumanity has an intractable bottom line.

Tidbit: If you choose to go audible, Mark Bramhall once again proves an excellent choice, smoothly embodying not just ages, accents, and both genders, but convincingly distinguishing degrees of desperation and decay. The single drawback to listening is that no one will read you the ending “Acknowledgments” in which Bohjalian describes the novel’s genesis (a close friend’s East Prussian grandmother’s diary!). Lucky for you aural junkies, Bohjalian’s got you covered: his “Backstory” appears on his extensive website.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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The Keeping Quilt and The Blessing Cup by Patricia Polacco

Keeping Quilt and Blessing Cup

Although published a quarter century apart, these are two books that tell a single tears-of-joy-inducing family story. If chronology is important, you might read Patricia Polacco‘s multi-generational family epic out of publication order – that is, Blessing Cup (out this year) first, and then Keeping Quilt (which debuted in 1988, and reappeared this year in an updated, 25th anniversary edition). The former begins with Polacco’s great-grandmother Anna’s life “long before she came to America,” and the latter continues with “When … Anna came to America.”

As a little girl, Anna lived in a Jewish Russian village that was often at the mercy of cruel soldiers. Every week in celebrating Shabbat, Anna’s mother pulled out a remarkable wedding gift tea set: “The tea set is magic,” the giver wrote. “Anyone who drinks from it has a blessing from God. They will never know a day of hunger. Their lives will always have flavor. They will know love and joy … and they will never be poor.” Because the family would always have each other …

When the czar violently ousts Jews from Russia, Anna’s family’s difficult journey to safety is buffeted by the magic of the tea set. When Papa falls seriously ill, a kind doctor shelters and feeds the family, and even makes their escape to America possible. In gratitude, Mama leaves the good doctor her tea set, with the exception of a single cup “so that we can still have its blessing.” And so that Blessing Cup begins a new life in a new land, passed on from generation to generation to generation …

The Keeping Quilt is born in the new country, made of the memories of the old. As Anna quickly grows into her new American life, “[t]he only things she had left of backhome Russia were her dress and babushka.” Anna’s mother gathers all that’s been outgrown and creates a quilt: “‘It will be like having the family in backhome Russia dance around us at night.’” And so the Keeping Quilt becomes an integral part of Anna’s family’s life: it serves as the Shabbat tablecloth, the picnic spread on which Anna agrees to marry Great-Grandpa Sasha, the huppa at many weddings, the warm blanket for each new baby and every elder in old age. As generations pass, the Keeping Quilt, too, grows fragile … but Polacco’s children find a way to lovingly give it new life.

As inspiring as Polacco’s stories are, her exquisite art imbues her words with mesmeric meaning. Using a base of mostly black-and-white pencil sketches, Polacco enhances each scene with splendid, specific splashes of vibrant color – the dancing cut-outs of the Keeping Quilt, the precious details of the Blessing Cup, the spirited backhome babushka, the fine Persian rug that saves four lives, the glowing fire that warms and the sweeping fires that destroy. Polacco’s pictures add the proverbial thousand words to each page as she captures the changing generations, from her orthodox ancestors, to her parents’ non-Jewish wedding guests, to her daughter’s commitment ceremony. Her family’s story is also America’s story – the changing faces, the unforgettable memories, and the unbreakable traditions that bind us all together. L’chaim indeed.

Readers: Children

Published: 1988, 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Jewish, Russian

Shelter and Seconds Away (Mickey Bolitar series)

Shelter.SecondsAway.Mickey Bolitar

If you’re needing a Myron Bolitar fix – Harlen Coben, the first author to win an Edgar, Shamus, and Anthony (three of the top awards for mystery writers), seems to be taking a break from his most persistent protagonist after 10 volumes – then this new series starring Myron’s nephew Mickey is definitely for you. The Mickey Bolitar spin-off is actually targeted for younger readers, but the only details adult readers might find missing are … well, sex and strong language, which have been replaced by the complications of the 21st-century high school caste system.

Mickey (whose given name is actually Myron) is the new-kid-in-town sophomore, relocated to New Jersey under great duress. Having grown up all over the world, his father is now buried in LA, his mother is in rehab, and he’s stuck living with Uncle Myron who is not exactly his favorite person in the world – for various reasons, Myron makes a perfect scapegoat for all of Mickey’s problems. If you’ve read Live Wire (currently, the latest Myron installment at #10), then you know the Bolitar brothers’ complicated history; you’ll also know more than Mickey about his extended family.

Not understanding the local pecking order, Mickey makes quick friends with Ema – a surly, tattooed girl who dresses all in black – and Spoon – the janitor’s son who speaks more in random facts than sentences in sequitur, who immediately announces that he’ll be ‘Donkey’ to Mickey’s ‘Shrek.’ At 6’4″ and 200 pounds, Mickey shares his basketball prowess with his uncle – which provides begrudging opportunity for occasional bonding. For now, Mickey’s keeping his jump shots away from the high school team (‘dumb jock’ barely does justice to some of the more antagonistic seniors), preferring to play pick-up games in grungy Newark away from the more affluent suburb he’s forced to call home.

In Shelter, Mickey’s girlfriend (of two weeks), Ashley, disappears. The search by the dynamic trio of Mickey, Ema, and Spoon, will lead to empty lockers, surveillance tapes, wrong parents, a child kidnapper, and a seedy club called Plan B. Before the last page, three will become four as Rachel, the school’s glam-queen, joins the sleuthing ranks. Of course, the book ends with a mid-action cliffhanger which will make you turn immediately to Seconds Away, which opens with Rachel shot and her estranged mother murdered. While ‘whodunnit’ might get answered, many more questions are left unanswered, setting readers up for the as-yet-unnamed Mickey #3, scheduled to hit shelves later this fall.

In the midst of missing bodies and wayward bullets, Mickey is driven to find out what really happened to his beloved father – whose death he thought he witnessed. But Chapter 1 of Book 1 insists, “‘Your father isn’t dead’” … and somehow the disappearing Bat Lady, a dark suit with dark glasses in a dark limo, a tattooed kidnapper, a Holocaust ‘butcher,’ not to mention unexpected butterflies, are all involved.

Sound convoluted? Definitely. I’m still left unsure how the Holocaust angle will ultimately play out – it felt clumsily tacked on as unnecessary politically-correct-social-statement in Shelter, albeit somewhat better revealed in Seconds. Unbelievable (and obvious) plot twists aside, always-convincing veteran narrator Nick Podehl enhances the action with expert pacing, and in spite of some eye-rolling and head-shaking, you’ll most likely stay with the story stuck in your ears.

Readers: Young Adult

Published: 2011 and 2012

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OY FEH SO? by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Gary Clement

Oy Feh So“Every Sunday my two aunts and my uncle come to visit.” This isn’t exactly a joyous occasion for the three children who watch from the front window as the old Lincoln arrives in the driveway. They know only too well what to expect: “Oy,” sighs Aunt Essy, “Feh,” groans Aunt Chanah, “So?” quips Uncle Sam. “That was all they ever said.”

Until today: “… my brother, my sister, and I had a plan” that includes robbers, swords, a dragon (of course, hee hee!), and even space invaders. But nothing seems to faze Aunt Essy, Aunt Chanah, and Uncle Sam who won’t even budge an inch from the couch and chair where they seem to be permanently planted. And, no surprise, their monotonous vocabulary remains exactly the same even when the transporter carpet is headed into the spaceship!

Angry with their non-reactions, the three kids decide if they can’t change them, they’ll join them. “OY,” “FEH,” “SO?” indeed! This Sunday takes a wholly unexpected turn …

Author Cary Fagan clearly knows how to laugh … and you’ll be only too happy to join in. Thanks to illustrator Gary Clement, you might even recognize your own eccentric relatives on the page. Clement is Fagan’s perfectly matched energetic partner – your family’s oldsters never looked, or sounded this good, hee hee ho ho! Let the raucous delight begin …!!

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Jerusalem: A Family Portrait by Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi, based on a story by Boaz Yakin and Moni Yakin, with art director Chris Sinderson

Jerusalem famly portraitSome years back, during a discussion about what was then the latest tragic news coming out of the Middle East, a friend’s mother softly remarked about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, “The absolute worst arguments happen among families.” She (the widow of conservative rabbi) was referring specifically to the shared Abrahamic ancestry of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. From Cain and Abel onward, too much of history – and not just religious history – has proven the truth in Mommy’s simple statement.

Welcome to Jerusalem, “… a stubborn little slab of reality that nevertheless shimmers like a mirage before the eyes of both the made and the sane, united them into a single brotherhood of dreamers, murderers, and poets.” The ‘family’ of the subtitle is the Halaby clan, originally from Syria, who arrive in the foothills of Jerusalem in 1893. A half century later, the family is bookended by two sons with four sisters in between: the elder, Yakov, is a wealthy community leader; Izak, six years younger, is always on the verge of ruin, mostly at the hands of his own brother. Yakov’s childhood animosity – “… overcome by jealousy at the attention lavished on his brother, [Yakov] vowed never to allow Izak a moment’s peace” – remains a trenchant reality, even into middle age.

During the violent, tumultuous 1940s leading up to the declaration of an independent state of Israel in 1948, the Halaby brothers and their families live vastly different lives. Yakov manages to maintain stability and comfort – luxury, even – all the while tormenting Izak, even causing his brother’s imprisonment when Izak is unable to keep up with loan payments. While Izak is virtually powerless, his angry, often cruel, wife desperately tries to keep her family together. Their sons’ reactions to their threatened lives vary significantly: one joins hands with his Muslim neighbors to serve the Communist Party, one leaves the family to fight abroad, one becomes entangled with an extremist anti-British underground network, and the youngest grows his reputation as a street hoodlum. The neverending conflict beyond the disparate Halabys is magnified within their relationships with one another … in spite of glimmering moments of haunting hope, tragedy proves inevitable – again and again and again.

“Inspired by stories told to him by his father,” author Boaz Yakin – perhaps better known as a filmmaker (Now You See Me, Prince of PersiaRemember the Titans) – unwinds the Halaby history with unflinching detail, brought to the page by veteran graphic illustrator Nick Bertozzi whose images never stand still. As in too many families in conflict, winners and losers prove indiscernible … the only truth is that people suffer, and always, the children most of all.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Israeli, Jewish, Middle Eastern

Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer + Author Interview

Tomorrow There Will Be ApricotsIt began with a story. I know, I know, that’s what they all say.

But Jessica Soffer‘s debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, really did begin with a short story she wrote in 2009 for a graduate school assignment. In sharp contrast to the novel’s lyrical title, the short story was severely entitled “Pain,” and encompassed a woman’s life from early childhood to adulthood lived in, well, pain. The story’s protagonist was a self-harmer, addicted to pain. “There was something about her voice that I found so compelling,” Soffer explains, “and I wanted to make her something larger, to take her with me.”

Four years later, that woman reappears as the teenager Lorca, half of Soffer’s protagonist duo in Apricots. “Soon into the writing process, an image popped into my head of a young girl and an old woman cooking together in a kitchen,” she recalls. And thus Victoria, the novel’s octogenarian widow, came to life: “Victoria is a nod to my father’s [Iraqi Jewish immigrant] culture.”

In a city of millions, Lorca and Victoria are isolated, lonely Manhattanites. Separated from her country-dwelling father in New Hampshire, Lorca lives with her less-than-maternal mother in her aunt’s apartment. A wise-beyond-her-years eighth-grader, Lorca is suspended when she’s discovered in the bathroom harming herself (yet again), and has just one week to convince her mother not to send her away to boarding school. She’s convinced that if she can duplicate her chef mother’s favorite dish – the elusive grilled fish called masgouf, redolent of memories and spices – she will somehow escape further separation from what is left of her family.

Lorca’s search leads her to Victoria, who once upon a time with her husband ran the Iraqi restaurant in which Lorca’s mother last tasted that perfect masgouf. The uptown restaurant closed years ago, Victoria’s husband Joseph has just passed away, and Victoria’s one leftover relationship in the world is with the needy upstairs neighbor for whom only Joseph seemed to have any patience. In the week following Joseph’s death, Victoria must confront their decades together, filled with too many secrets and unsaid truths that refuse to remain buried. In the maelstrom of Victoria trying to reclaim her life, Lorca appears at Victoria’s door – impossibly young, beautiful, and perhaps even hopeful enough for both lonely souls.

“I’ve always found that something profound exists in a relationship between an older and younger person,” Soffer says. “They can illuminate corners of life for each other in such a unique and energizing way.” That profundity – and the shared humanity – is at the core of what becomes Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots.

Reading Apricots, I admit, made me so hungry. Those sort of descriptions has to mean that you’re very facile in the kitchen. So, who taught you to cook?
My father’s mother was a healer in Baghdad and instilled in my father the notion of eating for one’s wellbeing. There was nothing processed in our house when I was growing up. For a cold: ginger, ginger, ginger. For dessert: honey on an apple. My parents weren’t big cooks or fans of elaborate eating, but they did think about consumption, about nurturing the body through food, in a way that stuck. I imagine that a childhood like that, with an emphasis placed on eating mindfully, is likely to turn out a person deeply interested in food, which I am. I learned about flavors from my father and his sister – but I’ve been self-taught from there on out. I read insatiably about food, watch cooking shows, eat out, ask questions: I’ve absorbed a lot of cooking know-how from the world.

And you’ve also discovered a way with words. How did you decide to become a writer?
My mother is a voracious reader, and an editor, grammarian, and true crime writer. She put a book in my hands before I knew what to do with it and so it began. Red pens, manuscripts, books on every surface of our apartment attributed value to words above all else. Words for decoration, for work, for pleasure, forever. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write and, perhaps more importantly, when I didn’t organize my thoughts in sentence form. There’s a constant narration stream gushing through my head always and the only way to interrupt it is through writing. So I write.

I wasn’t quite sure from this part of your bio: “the daughter of an Iraqi Jewish painter and sculptor.” Are both of your parents Iraqi Jewish? How did your ethnic history affect your identity formation?
My father is an Iraqi Jew. My mother is not. Her grandparents came from Russia, but her parents were born in Brooklyn, and she was born in Florida. Her parents were the only grandparents I knew and big fans of pickled herring, matzo brei, gefilte fish. They ate Chinese food on Sundays and went to the movies on Christmas and lived in Boca Raton and played Barbra Streisand in their Cadillacs. I like matzo brei but I can’t say that my grandparents’ “experience” informed mine. My parents built their own bubble of culture around art and books and New York City and that is the particular background I owe most to. [... click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Jessica Soffer,” Bookslut.com, April 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Remember that gorgeous film, Red Violinwhich tells the story (backwards) of the creation and fantastical 300-plus-year-history of the eponymous instrument? People of the Book uses a similar structure to reveal the story of a 500-year-old illuminated manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. That haggadah is very real; the novel, however, as Geraldine Brooks explains in her “Afterword,” “… is a work of fiction … While some of the facts are true to the haggadah’s known history, most of the plot and all of the characters are imaginary.”

What Brooks does with her Book is exactly what her contemporary protagonist, a Harvard PhD-ed Australian rare books expert, wishes for: “I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that made it, used, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful.” Lucky readers are we to get the full story …

In 1996, young Dr. Hanna Heath – rather a bit angry at the world, seemingly alone by choice – agrees to travel to war-torn Sarajevo, still smoldering from the tragic destruction of civil war. She’s agreed to conserve a 15th-century Hebrew manuscript found in a safe-deposit box of the shell-shocked city’s central bank. In between her work with the Sarajevo Haggadah, Hanna’s own story takes shape … her unavailable famous mother, her never-known missing father, her far-flung relationships, her growing attachment to a man she barely knows.

From fragments Hanna discovers in the holy book – an insect’s wing, the imprint of missing clasps, a wine stain, salt crystals, and a single white hair – she begins to reconstruct what might be the book’s peripatetic history of survival through a half-millenium of war and suffering. In the midst of centuries bloodied with violence – tragically, ironically, all in the various names for god – the people who created, protected, and preserved the book are of all faiths and span multiple countries and cultures. The book is a reminder of the strength of human faith over the age-old destruction wrought (again and again) in the name of religion; it becomes the proof of “the survival of our multiethnic ideal.”

Before I close, allow me this rant: Narrator Edwina Wren is a grating reminder of why not to affect various accents. While she does just fine as the Australian protagonist (Wren herself is Australian), she’s eyeball-rolling annoying with the Hogan’s Hero-esque German, the ridiculously affected lisp of one brother’s Spanish (“thorry” for “sorry” – which is just plain wrong because the z and c (after e or i) get the ‘th’ (ceceo)-inflection in some Spanish dialects, but not s!!) while the other brother doesn’t get the marbles-in-mouth treatment, the tedious Godfather-inspired Italian, etc. etc.

Okay, so you get the general message about this Book: read on the page, period.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Arab, Australian, European, Jewish