June 1, 2010
Summertime and the reading is… Diverse
Summer is coming, and here are a few good reads for long flights or lounging by the pool — some newly published, some coming soon, some recently reviewed in the book columns in the Jewish Journal and on jewishjournal.com.
“When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead: Useful Stories From a Persuasive Man” by Jerry Weintraub with Rich Cohen (Twelve, $25.99) is a lively and endearing memoir by one of the last men standing from a certain golden age of the entertainment industry. Alternating between swagger and sentiment, Weintraub recalls his colorful career as a manager and producer with a client list that ranged from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra to Peter, Paul & Mary, and producing credits that include Robert Altman’s “Nashville” and all of the “Ocean’s Eleven” remakes. A compulsive name-dropper, Weintraub has davened with the Lubavitcher rebbe, slept in the Lincoln Bedroom during the administration of the elder President Bush, and attended Brezhnev’s funeral in the company of Armand Hammer.
“The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” by Aimee Bender (Doubleday, $25.95) is the latest work of fiction from a remarkable young novelist (“An Invisible Sign of My Own”) and short-story writer (“The Girl in the Flammable Skirt”) whose alchemical gift is to conjure up magic out of the experiences of everyday life. In her latest outing, a 9-year-old girl named Rose Edelstein (who happens to live in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles) discovers that she can taste the emotions of the people who have prepared the food she eats: “As if a sensor, so far buried deep inside me, raised its scope to scan around, alerting my mouth to something new.” As Rose and the reader will both discover, it’s a strange gift with shattering implications for the girl herself and everyone whose secrets are revealed by her taste buds.
“Nomad: From Islam to America, A Personal Journal Through the Clash of Civilizations” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Free Press, $27) is the second memoir by a valiant woman whose life story, as the subtitle of her book suggests, is an intimate case history about the clash of civilizations. Her previous best-seller, “Infidel,” revealed how she journeyed from Somalia to the Netherlands, where she was elected to the Dutch parliament and where her life was threatened by Islamist extremists because she dared to advocate for (and embody) the civil liberties that most of us take for granted. Now she takes up the tale of her journey to America in “Nomad,” which turns out to be a saga of self-discovery but also the occasion for a poignant recollection of her own family and how it was impacted by history. “I can sum up the three obstacles to the integration of people like my own family in three words,” she writes, “sex, money and violence.”
“Beautiful Maria of My Soul” by Oscar Hijuelos (Hyperion, $25.99) is a sequel to one of the great American novels, his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.” Maria is the beguiling Cuban dancer who figures crucially in Hijuelos’ career-making novel of 20 years ago, and now the author offers a variation on the Cuban immigrant saga that focuses on Maria’s own journey from Havana to America. For any reader who reached the last page of “Mambo Kings” with a sharp sense of regret, here is a rare pleasure — a parallel narrative that casts a whole light on the beloved original. “What was she, after all, but just another exile lady, a former dancer from the glory days of Havana, whom no one would ever remember, save perhaps for her daughter?” Maria muses. The answer is that Hijuelos, yet again, has bestowed literary immortality on a character of his own creation.
“The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee” by Sarah Silverman (HarperCollins, $25.99) is not just another celebrity memoir. Like her stand-up comedy and her Comedy Central television show, Silverman’s self-presentation is edgy; always offbeat; sometimes off-putting; slyly and darkly humorous; and, at the same time, downright heartbreaking. She is as blunt about her Jewishness — or, as she insists on putting it, her “Jewiness” — as she is about the death of an infant sibling, how her beloved Nana broke her heart as she lay dying, and how a childhood affliction of bedwetting distorted the rest of her life. Silverman’s book goes for the gut rather than the punch line, but it is always fascinating, sometimes because of its candor and sometimes because the author is willing and even eager to shock her readers.
“The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid From Chicago Fights Hezbollah” by Joel Chasnoff (Free Press, $25) is laugh-out-loud funny, a comic tale of the author’s military service in the Israel Defense Forces that owes something to Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” and the armed-services comedies of the 1940s. The heroic defenders of Israel will never seem quite the same after you follow Chasnoff through basic training for the tank corps. But there’s more here than jokes. Chasnoff also confronts us with the heartbreaking dilemma of those who are deemed insufficiently Jewish by rabbinical authorities: “It’s a Jewish state,” he cracks, “where the criteria for getting drafted aren’t enough to get you buried in the military graveyard.”
“Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978” by Kai Bird (Scribner, $27) can be approached as an exotic travelogue, a revisionist history of the Middle East or a fascinating family history, but it is really all three things at once. Kai Bird, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist, was raised in the household of an American diplomat father whose postings included East Jerusalem, Beirut, Cairo and Saudi Arabia. In “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate,” Bird offers us a view of crucial events, locations and personalities from an unfamiliar and often unsettling perspective. But he is married to a Jewish woman whose parents were both Holocaust survivors, and so he brings both empathy and insight to his provocative book. “The Nakba and the Shoah,” he muses, using the Arab term (“catastrophe”) for the events that we know as the War of Independence. “The bookends of my life.”