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Unrequired reading, 2014
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Unrequired reading, 2014

Ever since my days as an English major, nothing kills my pleasure in books like a reading assignment. I love starting a new novel or biography. But tell me I have to read it — for a class, perhaps — and I couldn’t be less interested. 

I write about Jews for a living, which means every book with a Jewish theme is potential grist for the mill — in other words, a potential assignment. I just can’t read Philip Roth or the new Leonard Bernstein biography because I want to. I have to keep track of major themes. I need to take notes. It’s homework!

Nevertheless, I manage to read a fair share of Jewish books each year at my leisure. The selection tends to be eclectic, even serendipitous. Below are some of the more memorable books from 2014:

A Replacement Life, Boris Fishman
Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart

This, the Forward informs us, was the “Year of the Former Soviet Author.” Authors who came as children during the wave of Soviet-Jewish immigration are now coming of age and hitting their stride, with novels and memoirs about growing up twice-outsiders in Soviet-Jewish enclaves like Brighton Beach. Their work revives a genre for which obituaries had once been written — the Jewish immigrant novel — and adds fresh, new, and unexpected layers to the American-Jewish story.

Boris Fishman’s novel is about an aspiring magazine writer coerced by his immigrant family members into writing falsified Holocaust testimonies so they might collect reparations money from an organization akin to the Claims Conference. It’s a daring and borderline offensive premise, but Fishman somehow humanizes even the least appealing characters in the novel, whose claims on suffering and displacement are real even if the particulars of their ordeals are not. For many American Jews, the Soviet Jewry movement was abstract and symbolic; Fishman and his contemporaries introduce us to the real people who were the objects of the political and diplomatic machinations. 

Shteyngart’s memoir is especially memorable for its portrayal of the encounter of his younger, Russian-accented self with the American-born kids at the Solomon Schechter he attended in Queens. Families and teaches who gladly rallied for the release of Soviet Jews are not sure what to do with the strange, “hairy” creature in their midst, who doesn’t know from American culture. Shteyngart’s parents, already pushing Pushkin on him in elementary school, aren’t any happier with the pedestrian influences of these milk-fed barbarians. The clash of values and civilizations is sad, hilarious, and eye-opening.

What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist who Tried to Kill Your Wife? David Harris-Gershon

It took me almost a year to get to Harris-Gershon’s memoir about a terrorist attack at Hebrew University that maimed his wife and killed a number of his friends during their year abroad in Israel. It’s another book that transforms an abstraction — “terrorism” — into a real and harrowing story of what can and can’t be recovered after shocking violence. Some readers might recoil at his attempt to “understand” the motives of the bomber, but Harris-Gershon displays an empathy too often missing from discussions of the Mideast tragedy.

The UnAmericans, Molly Antopol

A divorced dry-cleaner who seeks a second chance at love over the objections of his newly Orthodox daughter; a too-good-to-be-true Israeli suitor; a movie actor trying to reconnect with his family and career after serving time for “un-American” activity: The characters in the eight stories in Antopol’s debut collection include a wide-ranging gallery of Jews, here and in Israel, all drawn deftly and specifically.

An Officer and a Spy, Robert Harris

In this adroit historical novel, the Alfred Dreyfus affair is depicted from the perspective of Georges Picquart, the French officer who initially supported the arrest of the French Jew on espionage charges, but came to realize l’affaire was the tip of a massive conspiracy by his colleagues in the French military. Dreyfus himself is offstage for much of the novel, which focuses on Picquart’s attempts to uncover the truth and right an injustice. A familiar real-life incident is given a fresh spin by a narrator who comes to renounce — for the most part — the prejudices of his class. 

13 Days in September, Lawrence Wright

Reading Wright’s nearly minute-by-minute account of the negotiations leading up to the Camp David agreement made me realize how little I knew about the history, context, and intrigues that brought it about. Wright draws memorable portraits of the principals — Carter, Begin, and Sadat — and the clashing agendas that brought them together. The book is a celebration of what was achieved — a peace, however cold, that has lasted to this day — and what was left unaddressed, namely the still-festering Palestinian question. 

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