Monday, November 24, 2014

Alice Hoffman Finds Humanity in Odd Places

By Stewart Kampel for Hadassah Magazine

To exploit people disfigured by birth or disabled by circumstance by putting them on display for thrill seekers seems politically incorrect today, but a century ago it was a common spectacle at amusement park “freak” shows. Alice Hoffman reimagines that world in The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Scribner; read our review), a love story that blends mystery, cruelty and history in a rich amalgam of reverie and reality.

Complex characters, scarred emotionally and physically, spin through this novel like active figures on a carousel, testaments to the vivid imagination of the author and her painstaking historically accurate scene-setting—the primitive labor conditions that sparked the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, for example, and the tragic fire that destroyed Dreamland, a Coney Island attraction later that year.

Odd figures populate the story, from the sadistic Professor Sardie, a fake scientist who runs the misnamed “museum,” to his daughter, Coralie, a talented swimmer born with webbed feet who is exploited as a “human mermaid” by her father, to the curious Eddie, a well-meaning photographer who is estranged from his Orthodox Jewish father. And there are more.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Boris Pasternak, the CIA, and the War of Ideas

The Man Who Dared

by Algis Valiunas for Commentary

“To live your life is not as simple as to cross a field.” Even in English this line sounds Russian. It is in fact one of the most famous lines of 20th-century Russian poetry—the final line of the poem “Hamlet,” which was attributed by its author, Boris Pasternak, to the hero of his 1957 novel, Doctor Zhivago. The line is a rueful witticism intended to resonate with those who are all too familiar with this world of sorrows. So is the voice of experience addressing innocence, a parent offering instruction to an adolescent who will probably understand it only after he has suffered from the consequences of his own ignorance. And it is the voice of a Russian speaking to Russians, who he knows will take his meaning implicitly. And it is also the voice of a Russian who hopes to educate free men elsewhere who are unschooled in the deceit and terror of Soviet tyranny and stand in need of a stiff dose of reality.

“[War’s] real horrors, its real dangers, its menace of a real death, were a blessing compared with the inhuman reign of the lie.” This, too, is Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago, one of the greatest novels written in the Soviet Union. Edmund Wilson, who was not given to intemperate transports, wrote at the time, “Nobody could have written it in a totalitarian state and turned it loose on the world who did not have the courage of genius.” Robert Conquest, the great English historian of Soviet tyranny, appropriated that ringing final phrase of Wilson’s for the title of his own invaluable 1961 book, which was re-titled The Pasternak Affair in its American edition. And now we are reminded of how much can be at stake in the writing of a mere novel, with The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book (Pantheon, 368 pages), by Peter Finn and Petra CouvĂ©e, the national-security editor for the Washington Post and a teacher at St. Petersburg State University, respectively.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

My Salinger Year

A Memoir by Joanna Rakoff; Review by Jamie Wendt for

Joanna Rakoff’s memoir about her year working at a New York literary agency provides wonderful and oftentimes humor­ous insight into the nitty-gritty of the ‘90s publishing world. On the cusp of the technol­ogy age and the new millennium, Joanna finds herself in an office with typewriters instead of computers, dim lighting, no copy machine, and a boss set against modernity who seems to have worked at The Agency forever.

As a recent college graduate in her early twenties, Joanna is captivated by the New York literary scene. She wants to live like a writer, excited by the idea of being a starving artist on a tiny salary that eventually causes her to move into an apartment without heat or a sink. Her overbearing and aloof boy­friend, Don, is also a writer and calls Joanna “bourgeois” for only having read certain literary classics. Joanna struggles with finding a balance between achieving her own literary and career ambitions and spending time with her boyfriend.

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Monday, November 3, 2014

We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry, A Documentary History

Author:  Gary Philip Zola; Review by Carol Poll for Jewish Book Council

"Rabbi Abraham" was a term of endearment used by Jewish supporters of President Lincoln, writes Gary Philip Zola in his fascinating book, We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry: A Documentary History. It was a nickname much like the term "Father Abraham" popularized in the Union Army. "The sixteenth president was arguably the first man to arrive in the White House having fraternized with a considerable number of Jews prior to assuming the presidency," reports Zola.

Lincoln's relationships with Jews date back to his political activities before his presidency. The Jewish community of Lincoln's era was predominantly composed of German-speaking Jews who arrived in the United States in the mid-1830s and the 1860s. Many of the immigrants had been "activists" in the liberal revolutionary movements of their homelands. The failure of the revolutions in their home countries and the reactionary responses drove them to seek economic opportunity and the democracy promised in the American Constitution. Many settled in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin and quickly seized the chance to be participants in the "hurly-burly world of politics on the frontier" and in the debate over slavery in America. This was also the world of the legislator and future president Abraham Lincoln.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Mayim Bialik: I Love This Book About Santa by a “Big Bang” Writer

By Mayim Bialik for Kveller

So everyone asks me about what it’s like to work on “The Big Bang Theory.” What’s Sheldon like? What’s Penny like? Do you all get along?

Sheldon, played by Jim Parsons, is awesome. I have written here about how much I adore that man.

Penny, played by Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, is a super skilled, seasoned performer who always dresses cool and just is the epitome of cool. Her jewelry is always cool. Even in workout clothes she looks amazing and cool.

We do all get along. There are a lot of laughs when we have scenes together. It’s a happy set.

What’s even more interesting and wonderful about my job, though, is getting to know and work with our writers. They write the stuff that you all love. They are a really neat group of men and women. You love them even though you don’t know them.Santa

One of our writers just wrote a book called “Does Santa Exist?”. Eric Kaplan has written for some of the most funny shows you’ve seen in the past 20 years. He also has probably written some of your favorite jokes on “TBBT,” I can almost guarantee it. He’s hysterical.

He’s also a student of philosophy and has written a treatise/memoir/love child of a book about the conflict and intersection between reason and religion. It is definitely one of the most challenging books I have read; not just because the topics are complex and the subject matter is intense, but because Eric forces the reader to dig deep into what they believe and why. He challenges the reader to define for themselves what truly works about religion and belief and faith. It’s fantastic.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Why “Back to the Future” is About the World to Come

By Matthue Roth for Jewniverse

Ben Lerner is not primarily a novelist – he’s a poet. He’s also not a Hasid. But his new novel 10:04 opens with a quote: “Hasidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here…Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.”

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Story of the Jews, The: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD

By David Wolpe in Hadassah Magazine

Story of the JewsAlmost 30 years ago in the preface to The Embarrassment of Riches (Vintage Books), his sumptuous chronicle of the Dutch golden age, Simon Schama wrote that “all history tends towards autobiographical confession.” Now Schama ranges across lands and times and languages to confess through his own people, in The Story of the Jews.

Schama tells us that his father was obsessed by British and Jewish history. Demonstrating the wisdom of Jung’s axiom that the greatest influence on children is the unlived lives of their parents, the son has written the absorbing multivolume A History of Britain (Hyperion) and now this first of two books on Jewish history.

The personal thread throughout the narrative is one of its most engaging features. There is something at stake in this retelling; it is never bloodless. Here are the Jews for whom nothing human is alien—housewives and papermakers, scholars and sufferers, rakes and magnates, physicians and artists.

Jewish history is a history of words, as Schama reminds us, and his easy eloquence and gentle wit fill each page. Dhimmi are “the tolerated benighted.” We know Josephus is the first Jewish historian “when, with a twinge of guilt, he introduces his mother into the action.” Most histories of the Jewish people are indifferently written; this is in the gripping and preternaturally fluent British tradition of historians like A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper.

Schama celebrates the artistry of Judaism, from the floors of ancient synagogues to the pageantry of a modern service. Too often in Jewish history people have elevated Moses but not Bezalel, as if no Jew thought imagistically until Chagall sprung from the head of modernity. Schama traces the long engagement of Jews with the world. He notes the “glowing, brilliant” frescoes of ancient synagogues, where “If you were a Jewish father or mother in Dura-Europas and you were with your children in that synagogue, there would be much to tell them, pointing this way and that at the painting.”

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