Don't be an April Fool! Show up on Saturday, 4/23 at 5:30 Pacific to decide on which books to read first!
Here's a line-up of new books . . . some by Jewish authors and some not . . . that allow us to put we've learned about and from Yiddish writers in the broader context of Eastern Europe's violent upheavals and ethno-nationalist formations. With an occasional exception, I am suggesting works of fiction by brilliant new writers who open windows on Jewish and non-Jewish relations, with a focus on Russia, Poland and Ukraine.
With thanks to Amazon.com . . . (Or try purchasing at a local bookstore or independent online book seller.)
The Orphanage, Serhiy Zjadan, 2021, 336 pp
If every war needs its master chronicler, Ukraine has Serhiy Zhadan, one of Europe’s most promising novelists. Recalling the brutal landscape of The Road and the wartime storytelling of A Farewell to Arms, The Orphanage is a searing novel that excavates the human collateral damage wrought by the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. When hostile soldiers invade a neighboring city, Pasha, a thirty-five-year-old Ukrainian language teacher, sets out for the orphanage where his nephew Sasha lives, now in occupied territory. Venturing into combat zones, traversing shifting borders, and forging uneasy alliances along the way, Pasha realizes where his true loyalties lie in an increasingly desperate fight to rescue Sasha and bring him home. Written with a raw intensity, this is a deeply personal account of violence that will be remembered as the definitive novel of the war in Ukraine.
Chosen as one of “Six Books to Read for Context on Ukraine” by the New York Times
Selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the “20 Best Books of 2021”
Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, Oksana Zabuzhko, 2011, 168 pp
Called “the most influential Ukrainian book for the 15 years of independence, Field Work in Ukrainian Sex by Oksana Zabuzhko is the tale of one woman’s personal revolt provoked by a top literary scandal of the decade. The author, a noted Ukrainian poet and novelist, explains: “When you turn 30, you inevitably start reconsidering what you have been taught in your formative years―that is, if you really seek for your own voice as a writer. In my case, my personal identity crisis had coincided with the one experienced by my country after the advent of independence. The result turned explosive: Field Work in Ukrainian Sex.”
Grey Bees, Andre Kurkov, 2022, 360 pp
With a warm yet political humor, Ukraine’s most famous novelist presents a balanced and illuminating portrait of modern conflict.
Little Starhorodivka, a village of three streets, lies in Ukraine's Grey Zone, the no-man's-land between loyalist and separatist forces. Thanks to the lukewarm war of sporadic violence and constant propaganda that has been dragging on for years, only two residents remain: retired safety inspector turned beekeeper Sergey Sergeyich and Pashka, a rival from his schooldays. With little food and no electricity, under constant threat of bombardment, Sergeyich's one remaining pleasure is his bees. As spring approaches, he knows he must take them far from the Grey Zone so they can collect their pollen in peace. This simple mission on their behalf introduces him to combatants and civilians on both sides of the battle lines: loyalists, separatists, Russian occupiers and Crimean Tatars. Wherever he goes, Sergeyich's childlike simplicity and strong moral compass disarm everyone he meets. But could these qualities be manipulated to serve an unworthy cause, spelling disaster for him, his bees and his country?
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka, 2006, 304 pp
Nominated for the Man Booker Prize “A charming comedy of eros . . . A ride that, despite the bumps and curves in the road, never feels anything less than jaunty.” —Los Angeles Times “Charming, poignantly funny.” —The Washington Post Book WorldWith this wise, tender, and deeply funny novel, Marina Lewycka takes her place alongside Zadie Smith and Monica Ali as a writer who can capture the unchanging verities of family. When an elderly and newly widowed Ukrainian immigrant announces his intention to remarry, his daughters must set aside their longtime feud to thwart him. For their father’s intended is a voluptuous old-country gold digger with a proclivity for green satin underwear and an appetite for the good life of the West. As the hostilities mount and family secrets spill out, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian combines sex, bitchiness, wit, and genuine warmth in its celebration of the pleasure of growing old disgracefully.
The Books of Jacob, Olga Tokarczuk, 2021, 992 pp, Recommended in Audible as well as print.
Just as awe-inspiring as the Nobel judges claimed.” (The Washington Pos)
“Olga Tokarczuk is one of our greatest living fiction writers.... This could well be a decade-defining book akin to Bolaño’s 2666.” (AV Club)
“Sophisticated and ribald and brimming with folk wit.... The comedy in this novel blends, as it does in life, with genuine tragedy.” (Dwight Garner, The New York Times)
The Nobel Prize winner’s richest, most sweeping and ambitious novel yet follows the comet-like rise and fall of a mysterious, messianic religious leader as he blazes his way across 18th-century Europe.
In the mid-18th century, as new ideas - and a new unrest - begin to sweep the Continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Before long, he has changed not only his name but his persona; visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following. In the decade to come, Frank will traverse the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires with throngs of disciples in his thrall as he reinvents himself again and again, converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order, Jewish and Christian alike, with scandalous rumors of his sect’s secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs. The story of Frank - a real historical figure around whom mystery and controversy swirl to this day - is the perfect canvas for the genius and unparalleled reach of Olga Tokarczuk. Narrated through the perspectives of his contemporaries - those who revere him, those who revile him, the friend who betrays him, the lone woman who sees him for what he is - The Books of Jacob captures a world on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.
Beyond the Pale, Elana Dykewomon, 2018, 398 pp
Winner of the Lambda Literary Award
“A page-turner that brings to life turn-of-the-century New York’s Lower East Side.” —Library Journal
Born in a Russian-Jewish settlement, Gutke Gurvich is a midwife who immigrates to New York’s Lower East Side with her partner, a woman passing as a man. Their story crosses with that of Chava Meyer, a girl who was attended by Gutke at her birth and was later orphaned during the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. Chava has come to America with the family of her cousin Rose, and the two girls begin working at fourteen. As they live through the oppression and tragedies of their time, Chava and Rose grow to become lovers—and search for a community they can truly call their own.
Set in Russia and New York during the early twentieth century and touching on the hallmarks of the Progressive Era—the Women’s Trade Union League, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, anarchist and socialist movements, women’s suffrage, anti-Semitism—Elana Dykewomon’s Beyond the Pale is a richly detailed and moving story, offering a glimpse into a world that is often overlooked.
In Memory of Memory, Maria Stepanova, 2021, 400 pp
An exploration of life at the margins of history from one of Russia’s most exciting contemporary writers
Shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize
With the death of her aunt, the narrator is left to sift through an apartment full of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and heaps of souvenirs: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia. Carefully reassembled with calm, steady hands, these shards tell the story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century.
In dialogue with writers like Roland Barthes, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag, and Osip Mandelstam, In Memory of Memory is imbued with rare intellectual curiosity and a wonderfully soft-spoken, poetic voice. Dipping into various forms―essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue, and historical documents―Stepanova assembles a vast panorama of ideas and personalities and offers an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.
Dora Bruder, Patrick Modiano, 2014, 128 pp.
2014 Winner of the Nobel Prize in LiteraturePatrick Modiano opens Dora Bruder by telling how in 1988 he stumbled across an ad in the personal columns of the New Year's Eve 1941 edition of Paris Soir. Placed by the parents of a 15-year-old Jewish girl, Dora Bruder, who had run away from her Catholic boarding school, the ad sets Modiano off on a quest to find out everything he can about Dora and why, at the height of German reprisals, she ran away on a bitterly cold day from the people hiding her. He finds only one other official mention of her name on a list of Jews deported from Paris to Auschwitz in September 1942.With no knowledge of Dora Bruder aside from these two records, Modiano continues to dig for fragments from Dora's past. What little he discovers in official records and through remaining family members, becomes a meditation on the immense losses of the peroid—lost people, lost stories, and lost history. Modiano delivers a moving account of the ten-year investigation that took him back to the sights and sounds of Paris under the Nazi Occupation and the paranoia of the Pétain regime as he tries to find connections to Dora. In his efforts to exhume her from the past, Modiano realizes that he must come to terms with the specters of his own troubled adolescence. The result, a montage of creative and historical material, is Modiano's personal rumination on loss, both memoir and memorial.