Jewish Journal

‘What They Saved’ wins first Jewish Journal Book Prize

by Jonathan Kirsch

Posted on Jan. 11, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Since 2009, when I was first given the opportunity to serve as book editor and chief reviewer for The Jewish Journal, we have been able to significantly increase The Journal’s coverage of the literary world, including biweekly reviews in the newspaper and weekly reviews on jewishjournal.com. We also have created a book blog, 12:12, and we publish additional reviews by a group of esteemed authors and reviewers.

This year, in recognition of the strength and range of our book coverage, we have established an annual prize, dubbed The Jewish Journal Book Prize, in recognition of a book of exceptional interest, achievement and significance. The award will be presented each January to a book published during the previous calendar year, and it carries a $1,000 honorarium. 

The Jewish Journal Book Prize for 2012 recognizes Nancy K. Miller’s unique and compelling family memoir, “What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past.” The book was published in September 2011 by the University of Nebraska Press and reviewed in The Jewish Journal on Oct. 4, 2011.

Miller is a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She has authored and edited more than a dozen books, including works of feminist literary theory, such as “The Heroine’s Text” and “The Poetics of Gender.” Recently, she has turned her focus to autobiography and memoir as tools of self-discovery, writing “But Enough About Me: Why We Read Other People’s Lives” and “Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent’s Death.”

[Read about the notable books of 2011]

“What They Saved” begins with the death of the author’s father, leaving her “a middle-aged Jewish orphan,” and her discovery of a collection of family memorabilia about which she knows little or nothing. Like many other Jewish men and women of her generation, Miller’s excursion into her own family history is part of her effort to understand the origins and meanings of those mute and baffling objects. Along the way, she experiences a series of revelations about unsuspected details and personalities of her family circle, which shed light on the Jewish immigrant experience in general and her own identity in particular.

“As I slowly pieced together my family portrait and assembled a genealogical tree, I felt connected in unexpected ways to an immigrant narrative that began in Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, when my ancestors headed for the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” the author explains of her work. “At the end of my decade-long quest, I started to imagine the life I might have had with the missing side of my family. Suspended between what had been lost and what I found, I finally began to come to terms with the bittersweet legacy of the third generation — faced with tantalizing fragments of disappeared worlds.”

Here is what I wrote about Miller’s book in my original review, when the book was first published last year: “ ‘What They Saved’ can be approached as an illuminating and instructive example of how to conduct a genealogical investigation. But it is also a rich and accomplished family chronicle, full of fascinating incidents and turbulent emotions. Above all, it is a searing work of self-exploration, artful and eloquent in the telling but heartbreaking in its candor.”

“What They Saved” has been praised as well by other readers and reviewers. “A suspenseful, poignant, and ardent triumph of sleuth-work” biographer Susan Gubar (“Judas: A Biography”) enthused in a pre-publication blurb; and Wayne Koestenbaum (“Andy Warhol”) wrote that through this book he “learned how to pay attention, anew, to the allegorical solemnity of found objects.” Joanne Jacobson, writing in the Jewish Daily Forward, praised Miller for “confirm[ing] the importance of personal narrative, perhaps modernity’s most recognizable voice, in framing and accepting the losses and the uncertainties of that experience.”

The Jewish Journal Book Prize winner is selected by The Journal’s book editor and its editor-in-chief. Although we focused on books of particular interest to our readers, the prize is not restricted to Jewish authors or books on Jewish subjects. This year, however, in recognizing “What They Saved” with the inaugural prize, we are pleased to call attention to a book of distinction and accomplishment that has something especially important to say to the Jewish reader.

“What They Saved” begins with an exercise in amateur genealogy of a kind that is increasingly common nowadays, but Miller’s account of her own experience is exceptional in the grace of her prose, the depth of her insight and the power of her gifts as a storyteller.

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