Johanna Kaplan’s short stories and Olga Tokarczuk’s (very) long novel: The Jewish books you need to read this month
Welcome to Forward Reads, your monthly tour of the Jewish literary landscape. I’m Irene Katz Connelly, 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.
Set in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Gary Shteyngart’s “Our Country Friends” follows several New Yorkers, in quarantine at the same Hudson Valley country house. Fortunate enough to stay home and spend money while coronavirus rages outside, they indulge in enough cocktail-shaking, hobby-cultivating and grocery-hoarding to fuel a dozen 2020 trend pieces. The indulger-in-chief is their host, Sasha Senderovsky, a Soviet-Jewish author of “stupid comic novels” successful enough to earn him a lot of literary frenemies but not to (quite) cover the upkeep of his second home. If these biographical details don’t sound familiar to you, check out Shteyngart’s Wikipedia page — the novel, which makes Senderovsky the butt of every joke, can be read as a prolonged roast of its author.
In a Zoom interview, Shteyngart told me that his Soviet heritage prepared him to weather the pandemic — and to write this book. “In the Soviet Union, you try to find happiness around your kitchen table, with the people you trust to talk freely with,” he said. “And that’s what this book is about. It’s about eight people trying to find some kind of happiness while everything else burns to hell.”
His morning routine: I try to do long walks throughout the day. They really help the writing process, because that’s when you start to think a lot about what’s going to happen next. I take long swims when I’m upstate, and I keep my phone near the pool in case I need to type up ideas I have underwater.
Why he writes in bed: You’re loosened up. It doesn’t feel like work; it feels like you’re doing the same stuff you’d be doing if you weren’t writing. It’s something I can do well into my 70s, when my back gives out — which it probably will because I always read in bed.
On making fun of himself: If I’m going to make fun of comfortable people who live in the country and, you know, go to a specific restaurant because it has great hand sanitizer, I better make myself even more the rump of the jokes than anyone else around me.
And writing the “first pandemic novel:” I think we’re going to see a string of novels about the crises unfolding. Richard Powers has kind of been doing this. We’re just going to be writing about the constant collapse of things because it’s not like things are going to suddenly reverse themselves. Fires are going to keep starting in California and Australia, and Portland is going to keep having 115-degree weather. So the “great Miami flood novel,” or the “great Santa Fe they-don’t-have-any-water novel” or the “great Portland my-grandparents-just-got-suffocated novel.” It’s just going to keep coming.
In spite of all that, you have to remember that even during WWII and the Holocaust, people were still writing a lot about love and families. They were tragic novels, obviously. But you couldn’t stop writing about those things, and you can’t stop writing about them now. That’s the only thing that gives us any reason to go on.
Whether or not you’ve already read Kaplan’s indelible short story collection, first printed in 1975 with the title “Other People’s Lives,” the best thing you can do this month is get your hands on this reprint. Her stories take place in postwar Jewish New York, as immigrant families are faced with an impossible task: assimilating the reality of the Holocaust into their cherished visions of the American Dream. In one, a young woman who spent her whole childhood fleeing from the Nazis finds herself boarding with a very friendly woman who was once part of the Hitler Youth. In another, a young girl at summer camp performs in a play about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising without quite grasping how terribly real the drama is for her adult audience.
Possibly because it’s hard to think of enough enthusiastic adjectives to describe it, “Loss of Memory” invites glowing comparisons. Francine Prose, who contributed an introduction to the reprint, compared the collection’s “smart, uneasy, cranky heroines” to Jane Eyre; Kaplan’s ability to draw together seemingly unconnected events into a cohesive whole reminded me of master storyteller Alice Munro. But Kaplan is very much her own writer, and as I read I found myself underlining so many sentences that could only belong to her.
I won’t forget this passage from “Sickness,” in which a young girl named Miriam, home sick from school, listens to her mother gossip in Polish with a neighbor who lost two children in the Holocaust. Miriam isn’t old enough to analyze the tensions between immigrant and refugee Jews, or the way that apartment building politics speak to the predicament of a people at once global and deeply invested in their Americanness. But Kaplan’s prose tells us she’ll eventually learn. In the story’s final passage, the setting sun is “getting itself together over all the roof antennas in the Bronx,” while Miriam watches sleeplily from bed. “A thick orange globe,” she says, “it floats in the sky like a bumpy Jaffa orange, a streaky golden desert, the land of Israel itself.”
A memoir whose protagonist spends most of her time sifting through archival documents and petitioning for access to restricted libraries should, by the laws of plot and narrative, be extremely boring. But that’s not the case with this memoir-cum-detective story, out from indie publisher New Vessel Press, which I zipped through in a single sitting. Parisian writer Pauline Baer de Perignon is casting about for her next project when a list of paintings once owned by her great-grandfather, Jewish art dealer Jules Strauss, piques her curiosity. It takes years of research to piece together the collection Jules once owned — but proving that the paintings were stolen, and bringing even one of them home to her family, proves even harder.
De Perignon’s relationship to her Jewish identity is just as intriguing as the restitution saga. Despite being the heir to a family whose wealth and collection rivaled that of more famous clans like the Ephrussis, de Perignon grew up without access to Jewish tradition or knowledge of what befell her ancestors during WWII. De Perignon only hints at the way her family suppressed its heritage and tradition in order to continue living in a country that betrayed it so starkly. A fuller exploration of that history would make for an equally compelling sequel.
You can find our contributor’s interview with de Perignon here. (But read the book first, because spoilers.) If you’re in New York, follow up with a visit to the Jewish Museum’s current exhibit on looted art, “The Hare With Amber Eyes.”
One thing you’ll notice about Olga Tokarczuk’s latest, hailed as her “magnum opus” by the Swedish Academy when it awarded her the Nobel Prize in 2019, is that the page numbers proceed in descending order. A nod to the Hebrew method of reading back to front, it’s the first hint at the book’s intelligent yet playful interest in Jewish texts and history. The book is a thousand-page saga based on the life of Jacob Frank, a self-proclaimed messiah in 17th-century Poland who was alternately embraced and spurned by his fellow Jews. But it would be reductive to call this a biographical novel — especially since we don’t even meet Jacob for the first hundred pages. The novel is narrated by the people Jacob meets, and the story ends up being theirs as much as his: the food they eat, the jobs they work, the way they celebrate weddings and the persecution that threatens to uproot their fragile communities, over and over again.
Don’t expect a straightforward reading experience when you sit down with “The Books of Jacob.” As soon as I got one set of characters straight, another emerged to take over. The action moves back and forth in time at the whim of Tokarczuk’s many garrulous narrators. I took frequent breaks to Google regions like Podolia or Wallachia, figures from Sabbatai Tzvi or the Baal Shem Tov and bygone historical terms like starosta. (The administrator of a clan’s estates — who knew!) The result is a boon for connoisseurs of historical fiction. Just as “Wolf Hall” tells you everything you never knew you needed to know about Henry VIII’s doublets, “The Books of Jacob” will enchant you with a treatise on gardening practices on the way to a revelation about Jewish politics in the Enlightenment. In one scene, as a rabbi visiting frigid Poland relates a story from the Ottoman Empire, Tokarczuk writes that his breath “rises like challah dough, golden, and the room begins to smell of almonds, to shimmer with the warmth of the sun at noon, to carry the aroma of a far-flung river…” You could say the same of the novel itself.
Visitors to Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic enclave in upstate New York, are greeted by a welcome sign asking them to respect the village’s standards of modesty by wearing long sleeves, using “appropriate language” and respecting gender segregation in public places. The sign is a symbol of the town’s insularity, and its explicit positioning of itself as a traditional alternative to the outside, secular world. Yet in their new study of the village, law professor Nomi Stolzenberg and historian David N. Myers argue that Kiryas Joel has little in common with the average Old World shtetl, which was far less ethnically or religiously homogenous than a viewing of “Fiddler on the Roof” might have you believe. Rather, they argue that in its remarkable development and accumulation of political power, Kiryas Joel reflects distinctly American principles, from utopian communitarianism to the libertarian emphasis on private property and individual rights.
The best part: You don’t actually need to know what utopian communitarianism is to read this book, because the authors will explain it to you. Calibrated for us humble non-historians, “American Shtetl” manages to provide a lucid primer on American Jewish history and a sensitive look into a community most Jews will never experience in person.
Like her Biblical namesake, Miriam Karpilove’s Judith is a woman of action. The oldest daughter of a prosperous Russian shtetl family, she falls in love with Joseph, a big-city Jewish revolutionary who comes to town preaching proletarian revolution. The novel unfolds through Judith’s letters to her beloved, which focus on her devolving love life — and the chauvinism with which supposedly progressive men treat the women in their lives. If you’re on the dating market today, you may find “Judith” all too modern: Lines like “I have been to the post office three times today and there was no letter from you” could have been ripped from a modern-day texting spat.
But the political tidbits Judith relates offhandedly are just as important as her love life. When she’s not languishing in doomed passion, Judith chronicles the antisemitism and pressure to assimilate that drive her to drop out of high school; she defends her fellow Jews against a pogrom that ruins her family’s business and kills her father; and she casts doubt on the very radical movements Joseph is involved with, which seek to empower the Russian peasantry who committed such violence. When Judith immigrates to America, the pressures of immigrant life open a chasm between her and Joseph — unfortunate for her but good for us, because every sensible reader will want this schmuck out of her life ASAP. When you finish “Judith,” try out Karpilove’s “Diary of a Lonely Girl,” also translated by Jessica Kirzane and also chock full of disappointing men.