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From Gary Shteyngart to Emily Ratajkowski: The Jewish books you need to know this month

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.

How They're Working: Amelie Liu

Image by The Forward

In her free time, 16-year-old Amelie Liu enjoys participating in Model UN, listening to the New York Times Daily podcast, and reading Sally Rooney’s novels. Oh — and writing her own books. The high schooler recently finished “Matzo-Ball Wonton Thanksgiving,”  a picture book inspired by her experience making sense of her Jewish and Chinese heritage.

In the book, a young girl named Amelie is disconcerted to find her Bubbe and her Nai Nai preparing matzo ball and wonton soups for the family’s Thanksgiving table. “Real Thanksgiving food,” she informs them, is turkey and sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie. “No one has ever brought soup. Never!” After taking some drastic steps to scupper the soup, Amelie learns to value her own culture and broaden her definition of “real Thanksgiving food.”

“The message of the book is to feel pride in your cultures,” the real-life Amelie told me when I reached her via Zoom at her home in Chicago. We talked about writing, reading and her highlights from Thanksgiving. Here’s what she had to say. 

How she started writing: My Bubbe is a playwright, so she’s always telling stories. I’ve grown up learning the importance of writing from her. Whenever something happens in my life she says, “Write it down. Write it in your journal.” I’ve been writing ever since I can remember. 

On working with her grandmother: She doesn’t sugarcoat when it comes to my writing. She’d be like, “Oh, that word isn’t great. Let’s revise it.” I’d come away with mounds and mounds of feedback from her.

What drew her to children’s books: During quarantine my Bubbe lived with us for four months, and we got into really deep discussions about identity. Another aspect of my identity is having lost my father when I was seven. In quarantine, I started to address that grief for the first time. That’s why I decided to write a children’s book: I wanted kids as young as six or seven to realize the importance of their identity, because I hadn’t realized it until I was 15 and stuck in a global pandemic. 

On writing from life (sort of): I didn’t ruin the soup. But I do remember feeling conflicted because we do have matzo ball and wonton soup at our table. And at school we’d see these stories of having turkey and mashed potatoes and cranberries, and learning that that’s what a real American Thanksgiving is. I remember talking to my Bubbe and my Nai Nai, and them telling me that I should be proud of my cultures.

Her favorite Thanksgiving dishes: Every year we do brisket, and I look forward to that all the time. We also get dumplings a lot. You can never go wrong with dumplings.

Our Top Shelf: Our Country Friends, Gary Shteyngart

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When we first meet Sasha Senderovsky, the protagonist of “Our Country Friends,” he’s speeding down a country road near his second home in upstate New York, committing several traffic violations simultaneously. Senderovsky is on the hunt for high-quality canned goods, top cuts of meat and, most importantly, booze. Friends and frenemies are arriving from the city in haste. The stores could close at any time. And no one wants to get too close. That’s right — the pandemic has arrived in Senderovsky’s world, which means the pandemic novel has arrived in ours. 

An eminently foolish Soviet Jewish writer with a more-than-passing resemblance to Shteyngart himself (among other things, the novel is a prolonged joke at its author’s expense), Senderovsky offers shelter to an ill-chosen collection of old friends and new professional acquaintances — without, of course, consulting his more practical wife. What follows is a maximalist, claustrophobic and laugh-out-loud funny work of Austen-esque social commentary. 

Using the cliches of bourgeois lockdown life as its narrative engine, the novel pays lip service to the idea of the pandemic as a “leveling” experience: Even if you didn’t retreat to a estate in spring 2020, you may recognize the scrubbing of groceries, the adventurous recipes and the endless schemes for self-improvement. But as new factions form and old wounds surface among the dacha’s dwellers, Senderovsky is forced to reckon with his own participation in American inequality. What does it mean for a man whose sense of self hinges on his hardscrabble immigrant upbringing to discover he has the money and cultural capital to shield himself from the harsh realities of the pandemic? A comedy of errors from the start, “Our Country Friends” matures unexpectedly into a reflection on the moral costs of “making it” in America. 

My Body, Emily Ratajkowski

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If you had access to the internet in 2020, you probably read Jewish model Emily Ratajkowski’s viral essay “Buying Myself Back.” A searing account of an early-career photoshoot that turned into a sexual assault, it’s also a reflection of the difficulty of truly controlling one’s own image. That essay now forms the centerpiece of “My Body,” a collection that’s part memoir, part industry exposé, part feminist criticism. The central question: In a world that relentlessly commodifies female beauty, is Ratajkowski a victim of the system or a participant on her own terms? 

On one hand, Ratajkowski’s beauty brings her international fame. On the other, her work is often demeaning and occasionally dangerous: Ratajkowski’s reflections on her days as a “swimsuit girl” are studded with tough-to-read descriptions of adult callousness towards teenage models. Even at the height of success, she feels that others look down on her, and justifiably resents watching men who have harmed her profit from her image.

Ratajkowski’s writing is clean and often beautiful. But her essays often veer towards muddled. She can never decide whether taking her clothes off for the camera is a genuinely empowering experience or a grim reality of life under patriarchy; whether she wants to be respected for her body, or regardless of it. I’m keeping this book on my shelf, but mostly so I can flip through “Buying Myself Back” without turning on the computer.

Tacky, Rax King

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For Jewish writer Rax King, nothing is more annoying than a tasteful friend. “No earworm is so catchy, no trashy gossip magazine so enthralling that these people will shrug off the mantle of correct aesthetics,” she writes in her debut essay collection. Co-host of the podcast “Low Culture Boil” and self-declared “unofficial writer-in-residence at the Cheesecake Factory,” King is making her name as a champion of bad taste.

Each chapter of “Tacky” is an exuberant defense of a cultural artifact we’re not supposed to wholeheartedly like, such as the American shopping mall, “America’s Next Top Model” and the spinach dip at, yes, the Cheesecake Factory. In the collection’s standout essay, she writes of watching the reality show “Jersey Shore” with her father, gleefully devouring each contrived drama along with pastrami and thinly-sliced rye. “Tacky” will probably exercise its strongest gravitational pull on people like me, 2000s children of the suburbs nostalgic for our days trawling the boardwalk in hopes of glimpsing the “Jersey Shore” cast. But anyone who wants to feel less guilty about their guilty pleasures will get a kick out of this manifesto. 

Madam, Debby Applegate

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In 1920, the same year Prohibition came into being, Polly Adler opened her first house of ill-repute, in a two-room apartment across from Columbia University. At 20 years old, Adler had already emigrated from the Pale of Settlement to the Jewish ghetto of Brownsville, survived a rape by her factory’s foreman and endured an illegal abortion. Written by Pulitzer-winning historian Debby Applegate, “Madam” is a sweeping account of Adler’s life that, as she hosts parties for culturati like Dorothy Parker, Duke Ellington and (maybe!) Franklin Delano Roosevelt, becomes a cultural history of the Jazz Age elite. 

While Its subject matter is often sultry, make no mistake — “Madam” is a doorstopper of a book. And Applegate relies heavily on bygone slang to evoke a Jazz Age mood, which can be tiring. But Adler’s rejection of sanitized, bootstrapping immigrant narratives makes for a compelling and original read, showing how striving Jewish hustlers thrived (or didn’t) in New York’s sometimes glamorous, always seedy underground.

Fradl Shtok

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If you’re not familiar with the work of the pioneering Yiddish modernist Fradl Shtok, don’t feel bad — almost no one is. Born in Galicia, Shtok immigrated to the United States as a young woman and quickly began publishing novels and short stories. (Her last published story, “The Fur Salesman” appeared in the Forward in 1942.) But in an era largely dismissive of female artists, she languished on the fringes of New York’s blossoming Yiddish literary scene. By the 1930s, she’d vanished from public view. And while different legends circulated about her death, the truth is a sad and unspectacular one: She died in 1990 in a mental hospital after decades of institutionalization. With a new collection of Shtok’s fiction, Yiddish translators Allison Schachter and Jordan D. Finkin set out to give the author the recognition she was denied in her lifetime. 

Set largely in the Galician provinces of the Austro-Hungarian empire, these folkloric and wonderfully unfussy stories conjure up old-country life without succumbing to nostalgia. Yes, Shtok writes of time-honored traditions; but she also details the claustrophobic environment they create for her protagonists, often young women indulging impossible dreams as they await lives of marital drudgery. “By the Mill,” in which a young girl fantasizes about a non-Jewish postman while bathing with the women of her village, is a particularly evocative vignette. Most of these stories are just a few pages long, making “From the Jewish Provinces” a book you can put down and pick up anytime you have a few minutes to disappear into Shtok’s many worlds.

Rebekah Lowin

Image by The Forward/Rebekah Lowin

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