Monday, August 31, 2015

Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist by Pierre Birnbaum

A Proud Jewish Native Son

by Andrew Nagorski for Moment Magazine

In November 1938, as Hitler was preaching his gospel of hate, French Prime Minister Léon Blum delivered a speech to the International League Against Anti-Semitism about “the tragic Jewish question.” Urging European nations to open their doors to the growing number of Jewish refugees who had been condemned “to a bitter and unfortunate fate,” he left no doubt about his identity. “I am a Jew who has never boasted of his background but who has never been ashamed of it either, a Jew who has always opened up to his name,” he declared.

This was vintage Blum, and explains why he is a perfect subject for Yale’s Jewish Lives series. Pierre Birnbaum, professor emeritus at the Sorbonne, points out that Blum’s electoral victory in France in 1936 as head of the Popular Front, a coalition of leftist parties, was not the first time that a Jew had risen so high in European politics. Benjamin Disraeli served as Britain’s prime minister in the previous century—but he was a convert to the Anglican faith. “For the first time, not only in France but in the modern era, a Jew who did not hide his identity but often proclaimed it with pride had become the head of a major government,” Birnbaum writes.

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Monday, August 24, 2015

‘Book of Numbers,’ by Joshua Cohen

By MARK SARVAS for New York Times Book Review

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “and next year’s words await another voice.” It would be hard to find a more apt description of Joshua Cohen and his brilliantly exhausting fourth novel, “Book of Numbers.” On its surface, the book is about a struggling New York novelist hired as an Internet billionaire’s ghostwriter — but its breadth, the ambition of its ideas and devices, confounds standard book review responses. Trying to approach this ­demanding, overstuffed novel is a bit like hyperlinking one’s way around the Internet: It’s bigger, wilder and fuller than you imagined, and there’s always more where that came from.

“Book of Numbers” is a thematic and stylistic continuation of “Four New Messages,” Cohen’s story collection dealing with the vagaries of life in the Internet era. Readers of his previous work will recognize his antic, breakneck excesses; even his short stories overflow. Cohen makes no bones about his impatience with conventional narrative — he, or rather his fictional stand-in (also named ­Joshua Cohen), announces his disdain for the dusty tropes of the novel on the first page: “There’s nothing worse than description: hotel room prose. No, characterization is worse. No, dialogue is.” Unsurprisingly, on those counts, “Book of Numbers” is sometimes a hot mess.

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Monday, August 17, 2015

Saving Sophie by Ronald H. Balson

Review by Renita Last for the Jewish Book Council

Saving Sophie reunites the team of Chicago private investigator Liam Taggert and attorney Catherine Lockhart from Ronald Balson’s previous novel, Once We Were Brothers. They are joined by a large cast of intriguing and credible characters.

Jack Sommers, a Jewish accountant, has tragically lost his wife Alina to a sudden illness. His father-in-law, Dr. Arif-al-Zahani, fights Jack for custody of his daughter Sophie and eventually kidnaps her. Al-Zahani is a suspected Palestinian terrorist and part of the violent Sons of Canaan cell intent on ending Jewish existence in Israel. He resides in an impenetrable compound in violent and dangerous Hebron. It is there he keeps Sophie and tries to turn her against her father and the American way of life.

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Monday, August 10, 2015

A Jewish Mystery of Dominican Proportions

By Zachary Solomon for Jewniverse

Like many juicy mysteries, Forgiving Máximo Rothman, AJ Sidransky’s debut novel, begins with a murder. In this case, the victim is Max Redmond, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor found dead in his Washington Heights apartment.

And like any good mystery, a compelling detective is in tow. While investigating, Tolya Kurchenko finds Redmond’s diaries, which contain gripping secrets.

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Monday, August 3, 2015

Remembering E.L. Doctorow, 'Ragtime' Literary Lion

by Masha Leon for The Jewish Daily Forward

E.L. Doctorow, who died on July 21 at age 84, was among the literary lions I chatted with at the 1975 American Booksellers Association Convention at the New York Hilton — at which my husband Joe and I were publisher-exhibitors. It was the year Random House published his mega-hit novel “Ragtime.”

Decades later, at the April 2006 Guild Hall Academy of the Arts’ Gala at the Rainbow Room, attended by among others Bud Schulberg and Kurt Vonnegut, Doctorow (a past Guild honoree) and I reminisced about that 1975 “Ragtime” hooplah. We chatted about our mutual friend Marc Jaffe who in 1979 negotiated the $1.4 million advance for the paperback rights to “Ragtime.” I remembered Jaffe — then an editor at New American Library — telling me “It was the largest advance to date…I was the Jew who held the ’Jewish seat’ in (NAL’s) editorial department — a position Doctorow held before me.”

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Monday, July 27, 2015

The Jewish comic-book revolutionary behind Mad magazine

A new biography of Harvey Kurtzman pays tribute to the Jewish artist’s genius but struggles to escape the long shadow of his days at Mad magazine in the 1950s, much like Kurtzman himself.

By Akin Ajayi for Haaretz

“Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created MAD and Revolutionized Humor in America,” by Bill Schelly, Fantagraphics Books, 644 pages, $34.99

Sometime in 1988, Harvey Kurtzman invited Art Spiegelman to guest-lecture at his cartooning class at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Spiegelman was already a leading light of the alternative comics movement (he’d win a Pulitzer Prize, in 1992, for “Maus”), and it was expected that he would talk about his career. But instead, Spiegelman turned the spotlight around, talking about the inspiration for his comic-book career – Kurtzman himself.

Spiegelman ran through Kurtzman’s early successes, but talked most about Kurtzman’s greatest contribution to comic books, as the creator of Mad magazine (he would later document the afternoon, comic strip-style, in a New Yorker tribute shortly after Kurtzman’s death in 1993). “Mad was an urban junk collage that said ‘Pay attention! The mass media are lying to you … including this comic book!’” Spiegelman told the class. “I think Harvey’s Mad was more important than pot and LSD in shaping the generation that protested the Vietnam War.”

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Monday, July 20, 2015

Shakespeare's Kitchen by Lore Segal

Review by Judith Felsenfeld for

For those of us who have waited patiently for Lore Segal’s next offering, Shakespeare’s Kitchen is a wonderful reward; for readers new to her work, it will be a revelation. These thirteen closely inter-related stories, seven of which appeared previously in The New Yorker, are wise, subtle, trenchant, and full of surprises.

Although the narrative style is straightforward, even plain, the stories carry real heft, eg., “The Reverse Bug,” which begins with charming multi-ethnic humor, and builds to the horrors of the Holocaust. Reluctantly leaving her New York life to accept a faculty position at a Connecticut think tank, Ilka, protagonist of Segal’s early novel, Her First American, must reach out to form new friendships. Her warm acceptance by Leslie Shakespeare, Dean of the Institute, and his mercurial wife, Eliza, facilitates Ilka’s advancement into the stratified society of faculty, junior and senior, support staff, even an elusive Nobel Laureate.

By “Yom Kippur Card,” the culminating story, its author has weighed in on power, ambition, love, sex, motherhood, aging and death, among other grand themes. This stunning collection finds Lore Segal at the height of her impressive powers.

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