Jewish Journal

3 Novels Explore Life in Cold War Era

by Michal Lemberger

Posted on Nov. 11, 2004 at 7:00 pm


"Meritocracy: A Love Story," by Jeffrey Lewis. (Other Books, $18).
"Dancing With Einstein: A Novel," by Kate Wenner. (Scribner, $24).
"When She Sleeps," by Leora Krygier. (The Toby Press, $19.95).

The memory of the Holocaust has haunted the Jewish imagination for three generations. It represents the rupture in our communal history, its shadow falling on everything else. And yet, we have amassed new memories since. Three books by local authors use the legacy of the Holocaust in their attempts to grapple with many facets of the Cold War.

By the 1960s and '70s, when these three novels are set, Jews had established themselves at the vanguard of the United States. As if trying to make up for all that had been taken from them in midcentury Europe, Jews rose to the highest levels of education, politics, science and cultural production, benefiting from the new spirit of meritocracy that, as Jeffrey Lewis puts it in his novel of the same title, was the result of "a slight softening of the contours of traditional anti-Semitism, in the guilty aftermath of catastrophe."

"Meritocracy" tells the story of a group of friends, all recent Yale graduates, who travel to Maine before one of them, Harry Nolan, ships off to basic training. Elegiac in tone, the novel mourns all those promising young men lost to the Vietnam War, while consciously drawing parallels to today's political landscape, dominated as it is by other sons of privilege who attended Yale and Harvard during the late 1960s.

The novel's tone is pitch perfect, slow and contemplative, shadowed by tragedy before it even strikes. Nostalgic, too, because even though this is a work of fiction, it is far too autobiographical (the narrator's name is "Louie," which we learn, late in the day, is a nickname bestowed by Harry) not to absorb its author's mourning for his own youth, his generation's potential that was never, as the novel makes clear, fully realized.

This is beautiful story, one that captures the fears and hopes of a generation of well-educated, well-positioned young people that thought itself blessed, but found that, like all those around them, they were not immune to life's misfortunes. Its weakness lies precisely in its title, and in the author's ruminations on the meritocratic ideal in this country, which are unnecessary, because their meaning is illustrated through the events of the book. That one flaw notwithstanding, "Meritocracy" is a beautiful book: evocative and immeasurably sad.

Kate Wenner's narrator, Marea Hoffman (named for the dark seas of the moon) is of the same generation as Louie, Harry and their friends, but she has run from them, as she has from all reminders of her past. After seven years wandering the earth, she returns to New York to face herself and her father's legacy: as a scientist with the Manhattan Project, he helped build the atom bomb. Marea, who grew up with the arms race, witnessed the tension between her pacifist, Quaker mother and her ally, Albert Einstein -- a family friend and Marea's "Grandpa Albert" -- and her father, who both believed in and was tortured by his work.

Marea is a quirky, unstable character, but also smart and full of humor. She engages four different therapists to try to get to the heart of herself -- her inability to put down roots and her need to forgive her mother, whom she blames for her father's early death.

Jeffrey Lewis will appear Sunday, Nov. 21, at 7:30 p.m. at Borders Books, 475 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena. (626) 304-9773.

"Dancing With Eintein" is a novel that grapples with the many layers of memory: how one generation's needs for absolution get passed down to the next. Wenner has written a luminous book: the characters, from Marea and her New Age, baker boss, Andrew, to Albert Einstein, himself, are all portrayed with depth and nuance.

The book's ending is somewhat abrupt. Marea suddenly is able to commit to a place, relationships and the idea of a future. By this point, though, we have grown so fond of her that we want a happy ending for her.

Kate Wenner will appear Tuesday, Nov. 30, at 7:30 p.m. at a private residence in La Canada-Flintridge. For reservations and directions call the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys at (626) 967-3656. $10. Both Lewis and Wenner appear as part of the Jewish Book Festival.

The last and least of the books considered here is Leora Krygier's "When She Sleeps." From the uninspired title to the overwrought writing, this book telegraphs its desire to be "deep," in the parlance of the late 1970s, when its story takes place.

"When She Sleeps" follows the experiences of two teenage girls, half-sisters who have never met. Vietnamese Mai is the Amerasian daughter of a linguistics professor and an American army doctor who tried to get his lover and daughter out of the country, and has never forgotten that he failed to save them before the fall of Saigon. Lucy lives in the Valley, spending all her time in the darkroom, filtering her experiences through the manipulation of photographs.

The girls form a psychic connection through the dreams that Mai "steals" from her mother and transmits, without knowing it, to Lucy, so that by the time they meet, the sisters already share knowledge of their parents' past that has previously been closed to them.

The idea of this story has merit: the time has come to think about the results of the Vietnam engagement, especially, as is done here, by refracting it through the lens of the Holocaust. There is much to say about the relationships forged between American servicemen and their Vietnamese girlfriends, as well as the children they produced. This is not the book to do that, though: The characters are all too one-dimensional and similar for the novel to truly ground itself in reality (even a magical version), and the language is so self-conscious and forced that it never soars.

Leora Krygier will appear Wednesday, Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 380-1636; and Sunday, Nov. 21 at 4 p.m. at Village Books, 1049 Swarthmore Ave., Pacific Palisades, (310) 454-4063.

Something for Every Bookworm

Saturday, Nov. 13

Journalist-author Yossi Klein Halevi, foreign correspondent for the New Republic, speaks on "Israel's Current War and the Looming Battle Within," 8 p.m., $15 with R.S.V.P., $18 at the door, B'nai David Judea, 8906 W. Pico Blvd., (310) 276-9269.

Sunday, Nov. 14

Jonathan Kirsch on "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism," about the final clash between one God and many. Jewish Book Festival: A Celebration of Jewish Book Month, sponsored by the Jewish Federation serving the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys. 4 p.m., free, Borders Montclair, 5055 S. Plaza Lane, Montclair, (909) 625-0424.

Dr. Leonard Felder, "When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People," his latest conflict-resolution how-to, 10 a.m., $7.50, bagel breakfast, men's club, Congregation Shaarei Torah, 550 S. Second Ave., Arcadia, (626) 445-0810.

Second annual Jewish Children's Bookfest, celebrating 350 years of Jewish life in America, Mount Sinai Memorial Park, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., featuring readings, arts and crafts workshops, a tea party and entertainers such as puppet master Len Levitt. Look for The Jewish Journal's workshop. Free. At the Triangle, Mount Sinai Memorial Park, 6150 Mount Sinai Drive, Simi Valley, (866) 266-5731 or www.jewishchildrensbookfest.org.

Tuesday, Nov. 16

David Bezmozgis on "Natasha," his acclaimed short story collection about a Russian Jewish family struggling to achieve the immigrant dream in Toronto. Jewish Book Festival, 7:30 p.m., $10, at a private residence. Directions will be provided with reservation, (626) 967-3656.

Thursday, Nov. 18

David Horovitz, "Still Life With Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism," about the profound effect the current intifada has had on the lives of ordinary Israelis. Jewish Book Festival, co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal, 7:30 p.m., $10, Congregation Shaarei Torah, 550 S. Second Ave., Arcadia, (626) 445-0810.

Saturday, Nov. 20

Judea and Ruth Pearl, editors of "I Am Jewish," a collection of reflections inspired by the last words their son, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, spoke before he was murdered in Pakistan. Jewish Book Festival, , co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal, $20, 7:30 p.m. Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, 1434 N. Altadena Drive, Pasadena, (626) 798-1161.

Tuesday, Nov. 30

Rochelle Krich on her noirish mystery, "Grave Endings," about a modern Orthodox journalist investigating the murder of her best friend, $8, 9:30 a.m., sisterhood breakfast, Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 553-7468.

Thursday, Dec. 2

Gregg Hurwitz on "The Program," his thriller about a U.S. marshal who infiltrates a mind-control cult. Jewish Book Festival, 7:30 p.m., free, Borders Arcadia, 400 S. Baldwin Ave., Suite 920, Arcadia, (626) 445-1320.

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