Books in Brief

Published April 24, 2008, issue of May 02, 2008.

“Memory”

By Philippe Grimbert
Simon & Schuster, 176 pages, $19.95

If I had an imaginary best friend, the words I’d use to describe him or her would be long, and the conversations we would have could border on a philosophical treatise. Fortunately, Philippe Grimbert’s novel “Memory,” recently translated into English, argues a good case for trying to cultivate a less ambitious friendship. The slim volume, which contains elegant yet brusque prose, is the story of a young boy growing up, after World War II, in Paris, a city with both its body and insides withering away. We meet a precocious child whose understanding of the Holocaust is complex. He tells us: “The destructive mission undertaken by killers a few years before my birth thus continued underground, spreading secrets and silences, cultivating shame, mutilating names, and engendering lies. In defeat, the persecutor triumphs.” What follows is part novella, part testimony. We watch a family destroy and reassemble itself, and a young man reconstruct the time before he was born in order to meld the pieces of his future. “Memory” is both a novel of post-Holocaust trauma and a larger investigation of how the secrets we keep, large and small, affect the lives of those who remain in the dark.

Eli Rosenblatt


“The Hitler Salute: On the Meaning of a Gesture”
By Tilman Allert
Metropolitan Books, 128 pages, $20

Today, the Hitler salute — the movement of the arm from the waist to the sky in a diagonal motion, accompanied by a “Heil Hitler!” — is often seen only on videos of American neo-Nazis and stock footage of Nazi-era Germany. Tilman Allert, a professor of sociology and social psychology at the University of Frankfurt, puts the most fearsome of salutations in a Petri dish in his new book, “The Hitler Salute: On The Meaning of a Gesture.” What emerges is a study of what happens when a traditional salutation like “Good day” is replaced with a political slogan, thus politicizing from its very foundation the way that citizens greet each other and, in turn, how citizens understand their relationship with each other. We find a slew of cultural contexts in which the mandated Hitler salute occurs, from a Berlin cabaret to the visit of Samuel Beckett to Hitler’s Germany. All in all, Allert’s slim, eloquent and manageable language illuminates a performative aspect of Nazi Germany that has, surprisingly, gotten little attention.

Eli Rosenblatt


“Mackerel at Midnight: Growing Up Jewish on a Remote Scottish Island”
By Ethel G. Hofman
Camino Books, 192 pages, $14.95

When I think of Shetland, I think first of ponies, then of the islands. I don’t think of Jews. “Mackerel at Midnight,” Ethel G. Hofman’s memoir about growing up Jewish in the Shetland Islands, an archipelago between Scotland and Scandinavia, is forever changing that. This is an exceptionally cute and surprisingly recognizable jaunt into the margins of the Jewish Diaspora. We meet the members of the Pochapovsky family of Gorodea, Belarus, who, after the pressures of the Pale become too great, decide to immigrate to America, only to find themselves in Glasgow, Scotland, and eventually in Shetland’s principal town, Lerwick. The book is packed full of rich recollections and recipes, including Ma’s creamy “drippy” cheese, peppered haddock paste, haddock fried in seasoned matzo meal and Mrs. Black’s stovies, a hefty plate of shredded potatoes, onions, roast beef and thick, savory gravy. The sun may set at 2 p.m. in wintertime in Hofman’s Shetland childhood, but clearly, Shabbos still had to go on.

Eli Rosenblatt


“Contemporary Jewish Writing in Europe”
Edited by Vivian Liska and Thomas Nolden
Indiana University Press, 224 pages, $15.99

“Contemporary Jewish Writing in Europe” starts from the premise, borrowed from critic Geoffrey Hartman, that while the generation of European Jewish writers who survived the Holocaust “expressed a return of memory despite trauma,” their children’s generation “expresses the trauma of memory turning in the void, and is all the more sensitive, therefore, to whatever tries to fill the gap.” In this collection of essays by European and American scholars, editors Vivian Liska and Thomas Nolden aim to fill a different but related void. The dearth of scholarship on this second (and third) generation’s writing exists in sharp contrast, they argue, with the extensive scholarship on both American Jewish literature and the writing of European Jewish authors who lived through the Holocaust. To the extent that it operates as a sort of crash course on a huge body of work published across a continent over the past half-century, the guide can be overwhelming. It is more digestible when taken as a series of arguments about the state of Jewish life in several European regions. Liska, for instance, compares postwar Austrian and German Jewish literature to illustrate the profound impact that these countries’ disparate approaches to Holocaust memorialization has had upon their Jewish populations.

Marissa Brostoff


“Black Grass”
By Bernard Otterman
Jewish Heritage Project, 143 pages, $24.95

In “Golem of Auschwitz,” the first tale in Bernard Otterman’s second collection of stories, the narrator, imprisoned in a concentration camp, asks himself whether escape might be possible through the conjuring of a supernatural creature. “Things were taking place every day in Auschwitz that no one had considered possible,” he reasons. “Why not a golem?”

The narrator’s question is also Otterman’s. Facing the notoriously difficult task of representing the Holocaust and its aftermath, the author creates fantastical situations that parallel the surrealism of the Shoah itself. In the book’s title story, “Black Grass,” a rural Eastern European town is besieged by a mysterious plague that spreads outward from the spot where a concentration camp once stood; in “Lotto Fever,” a Holocaust survivor living in New York intuits correctly that the number tattooed on his arm will appear on the day’s winning lotto ticket. Otterman, who survived the Holocaust as a child, sometimes veers into heavy-handed territory; the first story, for instance, concludes with the golem responsible for Israel’s independence. But Otterman’s willingness to engage creatively with the metaphysical questions raised by the Holocaust should be applauded.

Marissa Brostoff


“Curse of the Spellmans”
By Lisa Lutz
Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $25

“Curse of the Spellmans” reads like a young adult novel, and I mean that in a good way. Not only does the madcap family of private investigators at its center evoke the spirit of the title character in Louise Fitzhugh’s “Harriet the Spy,” but the novel is also constructed in commercial-length blips that, if so inclined, you could zip through between classes. Lutz introduced her fictional brood in her first novel, “The Spellman Files,” which follows 28-year-old Isabel Spellman in her attempt to extricate herself from the family business. (Having PIs for parents, it seems, does not afford one a great deal of personal space.) In “Curse of the Spellmans,” Isabel is back and enmeshed in a game of spy vs. spy with her family members and their confrères, who include a beleaguered cop who can’t shake off the attentions of Isabel’s teenage sister and an octogenarian lawyer who sees clients in his garage. Lutz’s penchant for footnotes, asterisks and conversations presented in the form of “transcripts” can be dizzying, but the absurd family at the center of it all is entertaining and even endearing.

Marissa Brostoff



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