The Jewish books you need to read this month, from Paul Auster to Louise Glück
Welcome to Forward Reads, your monthly tour of the Jewish literary landscape. I’m a culture writer at the Forward, and I spend a lot of time combing through new releases so you can read the best books out there. This article originally ran in newsletter form. To sign up for Forward Reads and get book recommendations delivered to your inbox each month, click here.
Like most people who have ever read Stephen Crane, Paul Auster originally did so because he had to: “The Red Badge of Courage” was on his high school syllabus. Returning as an adult to the author’s haunting, presciently modern books, Auster became convinced that Crane was one of America’s most underrated writers and set about writing “a little appreciation” of his work. You can find that appreciation — an account of an extraordinary literary life that, in true Auster fashion, runs to 738 pages — in bookstores now. For this month’s newsletter, we talked about unhelpful thesauruses and writing sans computers. Read our full interview here.
His daily routine: I get up pretty early, around 6 a.m. I stagger downstairs, make a pot of tea, read the newspaper and sort of absorb the horrors of the day. Then I go down another flight into the little downstairs room where I work, and I just start working. I usually go until noon, and then I take a break. Sometimes I take a walk, sometimes I make a little sandwich, or sometimes I go to a diner to get some fresh air. Then I work through the afternoon.
What’s on his desk: I have shelves of encyclopedias, foreign dictionaries, and all the reference books I use. And I must have five or six English dictionaries of various sizes and editions. I even have slang dictionaries. When I’m really stuck I look at a thesaurus, but it never helps me.
What goes into one page: I work paragraph by paragraph. So I rewrite it, and I rewrite it, and I rewrite it until I can barely read it anymore. There’s so many cross-outs and changes. And then after an hour or two or four, I swivel around and type it up on my manual typewriter.
How he unwinds: At the end of the day I am physically and mentally exhausted, so I can barely do anything in the evenings. I throw myself on the sofa and watch baseball games or old movies.
For me, a new Jonathan Franzen novel is the easiest way to approximate the experience of reading as a child, when the lure of the next page was all-consuming and to-do lists never intruded. Yes, his latest clocks in at 580 pages, but they’re probably the quickest 580 pages you’ll read this fall.
If you’ve read “The Corrections,” or “Freedom,” or pretty much anything that Franzen has written, it shouldn’t surprise you that “Crossroads” is about a not-particularly-likeable family in crisis: When the novel opens in the Chicago suburbs of 1971, Russ Hildebrandt’s vexed career as a liberal pastor has driven his children to reject his brand of Protestantism in increasingly distressing ways. Clem, the oldest, rashly waives his student deferment from the Vietnam War draft; Becky throws herself into the kind of countercultural youth group her father despises; Perry simply starts selling drugs in ever larger and less manageable quantities.
“Crossroads” plays out in a distinctly Christian context, but readers who have never stepped in a church can feel moved by its central concern: the impossible project of keeping faith in an increasingly chaotic political landscape. (Plus, at one point there’s a prolonged Talmudic debate.)
In reading Franzen, I’m often startled and a little bummed to find that his powerful insight falters when it comes to imagining the lives of women. Case in point: Marion, Russ’s Jewish-turned-Catholic-turned-Protestant wife (it’s complicated, thus the 580 pages), spends so much of her time on the page obsessing over her weight, for no other reason than Franzen’s apparent belief that doing so is a core characteristic of middle-aged housewives. Tellingly, the allegedly horrifying number on Marion’s scale is less than the weight of the average American woman. Did I throw “Crossroads” down on the couch upon reaching this detail? Yes. Did I pick it up again? Absolutely.
The people who most enjoy lobbing the ominous adjective “Orwellian” often seem never to have read any Orwell. But Rebecca Solnit — essayist, historian, and New York streetscape mapper — counts him as a core literary influence, and she’s done her homework. Her new essay collection, “Orwell’s Roses,” complicates our understanding of a writer who has become (likely to his disgust, could he see it) something of a hashtag.
Today, Orwell is chiefly known for political novels that are prescient and pretty unremittingly grim. He was also an avid gardener, a habit seemingly at odds with his public persona. In 1936, shortly before a stint on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War that would furnish him with the material for “Homage to Catalonia,” Orwell bought a cottage in the English hamlet of Wallington and set about planting; the diaries and letters from which Solnit quotes are full of effusive, warmhearted notes on the flowers, vegetables and eventually goats he kept on his property.
Orwell’s love for the tangible things of the earth, Solnit contends, wasn’t an improbable quirk in a man of ideas. Rather, his gardening was the way he privately experienced freedom and liberty, a reflection of the same ideals that drove him to defend free speech and condemn “groupthink.” Solnit meanders on the theme of roses from Tina Modotti’s floral photographs to Jamaica Kincaid’s investigations of colonial flower gardens. But she always comes back to Orwell and the garden which, she writes, teaches us to “make room for the small and subjective inside the big and historic.”
I’m a millennial, which means the bewildering emergence of TikTok is giving me my first taste of technological obsolescence. So I was delighted by Tamara Shopsin’s “Laser Writer II,” a lightly fictionalized account of New York’s most beloved computer repair store which let me disappear for an afternoon into a simpler online world.
A writer and illustrator, Shopsin grew up behind the counter of her family’s Greenwich Village diner and has gained adult acclaim chronicling pre-gentrification New York in projects like her 2017 memoir, “Arbitrary Stupid Goal.” Now she takes us inside Tekserve, a kooky and anarchic Mac repair shop legendary among people who were sentient and lived in New York during the 1990s. (The rest of us had to read up on Wikipedia.)
Our protagonist, 19-year-old Claire, walks into Tekserve on a lark and falls in love with the hanging porch swing and the company-sponsored lox buffets. Soon, she’s a full-fledged technician, wrangling customers with jammed printer cartridges and baby cockroaches nesting in their hard drives. Her nemesis, an exceptionally tricky repair job on a Laser Writer II printer, gives the book its title. I won’t tell you how she fares.
Last year, poet Louise Glück became the fourth Jewish woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Now, she’s publishing her first collection since 2014. Glück’s images are crisp and fable-like, her language deceptively accessible, but her poems resist any kind of definitive interpretation: You have to decide what they mean for yourself. My favorite was “A Children’s Story,” in which — at least, as I read it — parents driving their children home from a road trip are transfigured into a king and queen journeying into ominous territory. “Nobody knows anything about the future,” Glück writes, “even the planets do not know. / But the princesses will have to live in it.”