July 10, 1997
On Rubber Bullets, Love and Satire
The ArtsSummer Reading
In this masterfully written, illuminating book, the rubber-coated steel bullets the IDF used to quell the intifada embody the dilemmas of power and conscience in the Jewish state. They represent the uneasy compromise between Israelis' need to use force in order to secure independence and their moral identity as Jews.
It is an elegant, multilayered analysis of the modern Israeli that goes far beyond a look at recent headlines. Ezrahi examines how the mood and spirit of ordinary lives are inextricably bound up with politics and history. Even Israelis' traditional reluctance to indulge in big birthday celebrations, he argues, is evidence of a broader tension between the obligation to be part of a collective, unfolding narrative and the liberal-democratic desire to celebrate the self.
The interweaving of personal and public narratives that occurs in Israel extends to the author himself, who punctuates his cogent arguments with personal anecdotes, memory and heartfelt reflection. During one typical evening at home, Ezrahi recalls, he was watching the news with his 84-year-old father sitting behind him and his 16-year-old son at his feet when the image of a crouching Israeli soldier pointing his gun at a knot of stone-throwing Palestinian youths flashed across the screen. "I was seized by the impulse to cover my father's eyes with my right hand while somehow keeping my son's eyes wide open with my left...." Read this book.
"Mother Said," Poems by Hal Sirowitz (Crown Publishers, 1996, $15)
Combine Philip Roth with deadpan comic Steven Wright and mix well. Add a dash of Norman Bates, and you'll get a taste of Hal Sirowitz, the demonically droll voice behind "Mother Said," a collection of short poems that are mordant, funny and often curiously affecting. Sirowitz is perhaps best known for the readings he has done on National Public Radio. Here he writes with a child's penchant for the rhythmic playground chant and an adult's trenchant sense of irony. The end result is infinitely more knowing and sophisticated than the tedious Jewish-male sport of mother-bashing.
While "Father" and an assortment of apathetic girlfriends get their due, it is Mother's voice that provides the primary soundtrack. An excerpt from the poem "My Thoughtful Son" is a case in point: "I can't kill myself, Mother said, / because it's prohibited by Jewish law, / so I'm relying on you to do it for me, / and you've been doing a good job."
"Love Invents Us," by Amy Bloom (Random House, 1997, $21)
Love, in all its unpredictable forms, is the central subject of this wise and charming novel. Before embarking on her literary career with "Come to Me," a luminous collection of short stories, author Bloom was a psychologist. It may explain her great ability to create scenes that shimmer with subtext and characters whose arcs of emotional discovery ring so true. For these characters, love isn't always a happy redeemer. It can show up at the door in the wrong clothes -- uninvited, desperate, destined to make things end badly.
The central character is Elizabeth Taube, a shy, chubby Jewish girl who is on intimate terms with loneliness. Neither the harsh caste system of adolescence nor her remote parents offer the promise of love and understanding, so Elizabeth takes her connections where she can find them -- amid the tissue-wrapped mementos of the elderly black woman she cares for after school; in the sight of herself in the mirror at Furs by Klein; and in the desirous gaze of Max Stone, a 49-year-old English teacher, husband and father. And, finally, most urgently, in the form of Huddie Lester, a black classmate she first spots shooting hoops at basketball practice. Some precious and contrived moments in the last third cause the book to show its seams a little, but, despite these missteps, Bloom's latest delivers on the rich promise that lies behind its title.
"The Swine's Wedding," by Daniel Evan Weiss (High Risk Books/Serpent's Tail, 1996, $17.99)
For those who like their satire black, this compulsively readable novel is a comically dark dose. Weiss takes the awkward and contemporary dance of intermarriage and gleefully ups the stakes until it's transformed into a fiery, high-stakes tango set to the tune of the Spanish Inquisition.
The trouble all begins when white-bread WASP Allison Pennybaker and Sephardic Jew Solomon Beneviste announce their engagement. Allison's family gets busy planning an overpriced church wedding that appalls Solomon's intense mother, Miriam. She, meanwhile, is occupied with creating her own gift for the ill-fated couple -- a family tree that traces the bizarre Beneviste genealogy all the way back to the era of the autos-da-fé.
Using squeaky, callow Allison and coolly single-minded Miriam as his narrators, Weiss spins a horrifyingly funny, take-no-prisoners tale in which the past rumbles to life, rearing its head up through the green lawns of American suburbia to curse this interfaith engagement of two innocents. He playfully uses biblical references and other allusions to braid a black chapter in Jewish history into the present action, and the results are tragicomic. Allison's plump and pompous mother, Louise, behaves like a modern-day reincarnation of Torquemada. A scene in which Miriam swoons during a beer-soaked all-American baseball game played by athletes with Spanish surnames is a particularly pleasurable set piece.
While keeping all his satirical balls in the air, Weiss displays some remarkable gifts. Delving into the darkness of the Spanish Inquisition is a dangerous move, but Weiss manages not to trivialize it. Rather, he uses it to illustrate how historical wounds and insens-itivities remain oddly fresh, deeply dividing his off-the-wall modern-day char-acters. He plays nimbly with societal stereo-types of WASPs and Jews. The Penny-bakers and Benevistes are complex, delightfully unself-conscious and eminently credible. They're immeasurably enriched by Weiss's uncanny and chameleonic talent for writing in a wide range of voices. "The Swine's Wedding" may not be for everyone, but it is one of the most original books to come around in a long time.
(If "The Swine's Wedding" proves hard to find, have your bookseller call the distributor, Consortium Books, at 612-221-9035.)