Jewish Journal


March 15, 2007

In Spring a reader’s fancy turns to thoughts of ... books


Michael Chabon's Alaskan Adventure

In Michael Chabon's invented world, Yiddish is spoken in the Alaskan panhandle.

After World War II, the Federal District of Sitka in Alaska -- not Israel -- became the homeland for the Jews.

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" (HarperCollins, May, $26.95) is the much-anticipated novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay." While Chabon has published short stories, a novella and a novel for young adults, this is his first full-length work of fiction since 2000. Film rights have already been bought by Scott Rudin.

Sitka is "a compound of fog and the light of sodium-vapor street lamps. It has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat. The lamps of the Jews stretch from the slope of Mount Edgecumbe in the west, over the seventy-two infilled islands of the Sound, across Shvartsn-Yam, Halibut Point, South Sitka, and the Nachtasyl...."

The novel is set in the present, and Sitka is reverting to Alaskan control, after 60 years of prosperous times for the Jews. Homicide Det. Meyer Landsman of the District Police discovers the corpse of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy, but his investigation is mysteriously ordered closed. This is a hard-boiled detective story that's an homage to 1940s noir, a love story, a meditation on identity and faith and a celebration of language, spiced with Chabon's distinctive humor.

Chabon's first novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," was originally written for his master's degree from the University of California, Irvine, and became a national bestseller. His other novels include "Wonder Boys" and "Model World"; his adventure novel, "Gentlemen of the Road," is now running in serial form in The New York Times Magazine.

Born in 1963, Chabon grew up in Columbia, Md., a planned community with utopian aspirations, and has lived in California for the last 20 years. He now lives in Berkeley with his wife, novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their four children. Chabon will embark on a 15-city author tour, making two unusual stops -- in Anchorage and Juneau.

Chabon will speak in Los Angeles on May 9, 7 p.m., at the Los Angeles Public Library, 630 W. Fifth St., Los Angeles; and May 10, 7 p.m., at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. For more information, visit www.michaelchabon.com.

Einstein, Times Two
Two new biographies look closely at the life and work of the 20th century's most celebrated mind, Albert Einstein, whose name -- and shock of hair -- has come to symbolize genius.

Veteran journalist Walter Isaacson, formerly managing editor of Time magazine and chairman and CEO of CNN, who now heads the Aspen Institute, has written "Einstein: His Life and Universe" (Simon & Schuster, April, $32), following his best-selling biography of Benjamin Franklin.

A journalist with a background in physics, Jurgen Neffe is the author of "Einstein: A Biography," translated by Shelley Frisch (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, May, $30). His book was a bestseller in Germany when it was published in 2005, on the 100th anniversary of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity.

Isaacson's book is based largely on newly released personal letters of Einstein. More than 3,500 pages of correspondence between Einstein and his two wives and children, along with photos, were released last year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The release was made in accordance with the will of Einstein's stepdaughter, Margot.

Isaacson probes Einstein's private side, as well as how his mind worked. He sees Einstein as a rebel from childhood, always questioning conventional wisdom; his character, curiosity, creativity and passion for freedom were interconnected, driving his life, science and politics.

As Isaacson writes, "His tale encompasses the vast sweep of modern science, from the infinitesimal to the infinite, from the emission of photons to the expansion of the cosmos. A century after his great triumphs, we are still living in Einstein's universe...."

Isaacson is also the author of "Kissinger: A Biography" and co-author of "The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made"; he lives in Washington, D.C. Neffe looks at Einstein as a parent and physicist, as a citizen and a Jew and as an American. He writes of his complicated subject: "He could reconcile discrepant views of the world, but he was a walking contradiction. Einstein polarized his fellow man like no other. He was a friend to some, an enemy to others, narcissistic and slovenly, easygoing and rebellious, philanthropic and autistic, citizen of the world and hermit, a pacifist whose research was used for military ends."

He adds, "Rarely has a single individual been so far-sighted and myopic at the same time."

The English version was updated to include information from the recently published 10th volume of Einstein's collected papers.

Isaacson will discuss and sign "Einstein: His Life & Universe" on April 27, 7 p.m., at All Saints Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena.

Memoirs from Harry Bernstein and Ruth Gruber, both 95

In this age of memoir, two new volumes are particularly notable for their wisdom and the age of their writers: Both Harry Bernstein and Ruth Gruber are 95. Bernstein is a first-time author, making his literary debut with "The Invisible Wall" (Ballantine, March, $22.95), and Gruber is a veteran author and journalist. "Witness" (Schocken, April, $27.50) is her 19th book.

The wall of Bernstein's title is the figurative barrier running down the middle of the street in a northern English mill town on the eve of World War I. On opposite sides were Jewish families and Christian families; the two didn't speak, although they had much in common in terms of poverty as well as prejudice. Written from the perspective of a young boy, the memoir details how the author's sister crossed the line, falling in love with a brilliant young Christian man. Harry was the go-between, hiding their secret. He describes the atmosphere inside their home and outside in the fear-filled world.

Bernstein, who lives in Brick, N.J., began this book about four years ago after his wife died. At his age, he says, people have less of a present and no future, so the past becomes larger. When he started thinking about his childhood, the memories came easily. While he has written articles and books throughout his life, this is the first book he has published. He says that he has really enjoyed the process, and is now working on another memoir about his family's early life in America after World War II.

With an introduction by Richard Holbrooke, "Witness" is a memoir, in words and black-and-white photographs, documenting Gruber's remarkable life and work as an international correspondent, humanitarian, witness to and participant in history. She traveled across the Soviet Arctic in 1935 for the New York Herald Tribune and observed the Soviet gulag firsthand; journeyed to Alaska as an emissary for Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior under Franklin Roosevelt; escorted Jewish war refugees from Europe to America; covered the plight of the Exodus in 1947 and documented the establishment of the State of Israel, among other major events. Included is a photograph of Holocaust survivors, transferred from the Exodus to a prison ship, who painted a swastika on top of the British Union Jack.

Before Gruber was a reporter, she made headlines in 1932 for being "the youngest Ph.D. in the world." Not yet 20 years old, she wrote her dissertation on a little-known British author named Virginia Woolf. Gruber now lives in New York City.

Other Spring Reads

"Preliminaries" by S. Yizhar, translated by Nicholas DeLange with an introduction by Dan Miron (Toby Press, May, $24.95) is a long-awaited posthumous debut, the first work by the distinguished late Israeli novelist to be translated into English. The richly detailed autobiographical novel follows the life of a young boy growing up in a Jewish agricultural community in Palestine and in Tel Aviv, from 1917 to 1930. His coming-of-age parallels the story of the land of Israel in those times.

Yizhar, who died last year, received all of Israel's major awards, including the Israel Prize; he had also been a member of Knesset and a professor at Hebrew University. In many ways, he was considered a father to the generation of writers including Amos Oz, David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua. Oz has said, "There is some of Yizhar in every writer who has come after him."

"A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories of Primo Levi," translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli (Norton, April, $21.95), is to be published on the 20th anniversary of the writer's death. The 17 collected stories were published in Italian between 1949 and 1986. While known for his writings about the Holocaust and his autobiographical work "The Periodic Table," Levi also wrote many stories and essays, even before his deportation, and continued to write until his sudden death in 1987. The title story is about a thoughtful astronomer, living in fear that a long-dormant star might explode. The earliest story in the book, "The Death of Marinese," is about a partisan fighter captured by the Germans.

A comic novel, "My Holocaust" by Tova Reich (HarperCollins, April, $24.95) satirizes the exploitation of Holocaust memory, political correctness and the culture of victimization. Maurice Messer, a survivor, and his son run Holocaust Connections Inc., a company capitalizing on their connection to the Holocaust and marketing all things connected to the atrocity with legendary success. But Maurice's granddaughter becomes a nun at the Carmelite convent adjacent to Auschwitz, and Maurice then leads efforts to found a Holocaust Museum. Reich is the award-winning author of several novels, including "Mara" and "The Jewish War."

"The Ministry of Special Cases" by Nathan Englander (Knopf, May, $25) is a first novel by the writer who made his literary debut with the award-winning collection of stories, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges." Set in Buenos Aires in 1976, this historical novel depicts a family headed by an outcast who makes his living defacing Jewish gravestones. Along with his wife, he is summoned to the dismal offices of the Ministry of Special Cases. Englander writes about the fate of those who disappeared in Argentina in the 1970s and about the fate of the Jews.

Englander will speak in Los Angeles on May 21, 7 p.m., at the Los Angeles Public Library, 630 W. Fifth St., Los Angeles.

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week

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