Monday, October 5, 2015

How Peggy Guggenheim Re-Invented Modernism

By Elaine Margolin for The Jewish Daily Forward

Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern
By Francine Prose
Yale University Press, 240 pages, $25

I feel compelled to begin my review of the novelist Francine Prose’s biography of art dealer and collector Peggy Guggenheim with a lengthy quote from another writer, in this case the Russian playwright Vladimir Sorokin, who wrote about Guggenheim with an intensity of feeling, empathy and perception that is missing from Prose’s new work. He wrote:

    “Peggy Guggenheim was a seeker of adventures, a lioness in the private fashionable world of her father, who ended up at the bottom of the Titanic; an American exile from a family of millionaires, inclined towards changes of place, partners, lovers and Bohemian circles, a woman who spent her stormy existence nourishing her fascination with the new, never before seen art. She had a nose for genius, excellent taste and the tigerish cunning of an ambitious collector of the new. It is largely down to her that the world heard about Marcel Duchamp… Peggy helped Max Ernst become himself. She personally knew the geniuses of pre-war Paris. She snapped up paintings by the European Surrealists, Dadaists, Abstractionists, Futurists and Constructivists. After the war she was able to recognize the genius of Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Robert Matta and Willem de Kooning. She assured herself of the cream of Modernism with meticulous consistency, filling her container with it. By 1951, it was full. Peggy sealed it and chose a place, in Venice, on the Grand Canal.”

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Monday, September 28, 2015

The Debt of Tamar by Nicole Dweck

Review by Julie Joseph for the Jewish Book Council

A fantastical Jewish tale told by debut author Nicole Dweck, the Debt of Tamar travels beyond continents and outlives the sands of time. Beginning in sixteenth century Portugal, the Ottoman Empire, and Palestine, then jumping five centuries to Nazi-invaded Paris, then to the newly established State of Israel before landing in present-day Istanbul and New York City, the story manifests its own momentum. In each location, the reader encounters new characters that connect the insatiable love of five centuries to its twenty-first-century resolution.

Dweck’s fictional characters are inspired by the precarious status of the Jews in sixteenth century Europe, as conversos fled the Inquisition and found refuge on the shores of the Ottoman Empire. An innocent but forbidden love develops in Istanbul, where the lovers are torn apart by the father of the Jewish girl, Tamar. As a Portuguese refugee, he will not allow his daughter to abandon her faith and marry a Muslim, even though he may be the son of the Sultan. Her father witnessed what happened to Jews in Portugal when they worshipped openly: they were burned alive at the stake. Perhaps spurred by his painful memories of watching the auto de fe, he exiles Tamar to the Ottoman Protectorate of Palestine where she can be protected from abandoning her faith.

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Monday, September 21, 2015

Run You Down by Julia Dahl

By Zelda Shluker for Hadassah Magazine

In Julia Dahl’s first book, Invisible City, her central character, Rebekah Roberts, was a stringer, a rookie reporter trying to establish a foothold in a New York tabloid. After stubbornly, and intrepidly, solving a murder case, she now has enough credibility to catch a new assignment in the same ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn. As she continues to decipher the mores and sensibilities of the religious community–and figure out why Pessie Goldin, a lovely 22-year-old mother, was killed–she is also on a separate mission: To reconnect with Aviva, her once religious mother who had abandoned Rebekah after she was born to be raised by her non-Jewish father and his family in Florida.

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Monday, September 14, 2015

Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel by Yelena Akhtiorskaya

By Stewart Kampel for Hadassah Magazine

Readers often assume that a first novel is autobiographical. Especially in the case of Yelena Akhtiorskaya, Russian-born author of Panic in a Suitcase, since she shares roots in Odessa and Brighton Beach with her major characters. Akhtiorskaya, a 30-year-old who is a sly, no-holds-barred writer, explores the confounding life of émigrés from Russian-speaking Ukraine trying to build new lives in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa.

The book spans two periods. It begins in 1993 when Pasha Nasmertov, a well-known poet and the last family member in Odessa, leaves the motherland to go to Brooklyn to visit his mother, Esther, the 65-year-old family matriarch who is stricken with breast cancer. Fifteen years later, young Frida, the poet’s niece, on a short hiatus from medical school, flies to Odessa in search of herself, only to find a perplexing and vexing world.

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Monday, September 7, 2015

Safekeeping by Jessamyn Hope

Review by Edyt Dickstein for Jewish Book Council

Short story writer Jessamyn Hope’s powerful debut novel draws on her experiences living in Israel in its depiction of a secluded kibbutz community. The primary protagonist, Adam, is a former drug addict who steals a family heirloom to pay for his vices; when his grandfather discovers that the brooch his missing, he has a heart attack and dies. Plagued by guilt, Adam uses the only clue he has—a letter from his grandfather’s young lover that accompanied the heirloom—to locate the woman and give her the brooch, hoping that by doing so he will have in some way absolved himself. Adam traces his grandfather’s footsteps back to the kibbutz where the two had met, but is unable to locate his grandfather’s former lover. Frustrated by his failures, Adam is unable to stay sober and slowly unravels.

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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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