Book Reviews, Literature

The Dark Young Man – Jacob Dinezon

Dark Young Man All contemporary fiction eventually becomes historical fiction, especially when it’s translated and re-published 125 years after its initial release. Yiddish readers first celebrated Jacob Dinezon’s novels in 1877, but thanks to Tina Lunson’s new English language translation of his debut The Dark Young Man (adaptation by Scott Hilton Davis), his writing is now more accessible than ever before.

Reading Dinezon’s work, it’s easy to understand why The Dark Young Man became a best-seller in its time. Dinezon is a natural story-teller, maintaining humor and suspense throughout the book. His diverse cast of characters, while sometimes veering towards the predictable, jump off the page with a vibrant humanity. Readers may feel like they’ve met them before, but it’s with this sense of familiarity that Dinezon brings authenticity to their voices.

With its cosmopolitan setting, The Dark Young Man offers a sharper, less nostalgic image of Jewish life in Eastern Europe than readers of Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer may expect. Yosef, the book’s protagonist, navigates the tension between his traditional upbringing and exposure to modern ideas without succumbing to unbearable angst. The business of middle-class life, trade, and politics all occur in tandem with the Jewish calendar and life cycle events. Above all, The Dark Young Man is the story of a family – the lovers at its center and the forces that threaten to upend their happiness. As such it has a timeless quality, with themes as relevant now as they were 100 years ago.

Lunson’s faithful translation maintains Dinezon’s original pacing and is painstaking in its attention to Yiddish idiom. Non-Yiddish speakers will be perfectly at home in this narrative, although those more familiar with the language might find it overly formal in places. Characters take leave of each other with “go in good health”, an accurate if solemn expression of the Yiddish “zei gezunt”. Others are described as “idlers” when they’re clearly schnorrers. Most readers would probably experience smoother sailing if Lunson had simply left such phrases untouched. Alas, in the debate for colloquialism versus consistency, consistency must have won the day.

Readers who enjoy a good story with a strong plot and well-developed characters will find much to appreciate in The Dark Young Man. It is well-suited to book club discussions and as a starting point for examining the lives of middle class Jews in Russia in the 19th century. As an example of popular Yiddish literature, it’s a fun and fast read, perfect for a relaxing Sabbath afternoon.

BooksandBlintzes received an Advance Reader Copy of this book at no charge for the express purpose of writing this review. The views included here are solely those of the reviewer. The Dark Young Man has a publication date of February 12, 2019. Additional information about the book and its adaptation can be found at https://www.jewishstorytellerpress.com/the-dark-young-man-press-room

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Book Reviews

Passport Control – Gila Green

Passport Control Overflowing with drama, politics, personality, and angst, Gila Green’s Passport Control delivers on all these fronts.

It’s 1992. When twenty year old Miriam learns that she is no longer welcome to live in her father’s Ottawa home, she heads off to her parents’ native Israel to continue her studies at Haifa University. Hoping to find out more about her estranged family, Miriam ends up tangled in a web of old secrets, vengeance, and pain. Green does not give Miriam or her readers the satisfaction of a true coming of age tale. Instead, she offers us the richer, messier journey of a young woman whose search for greater understanding leads to a more honest confusion.

Green plants Miriam in the Israel of the Oslo peace process, a time and place that highlights her naivite and ignorance about “the real Israel”. Green expects her readers to catch up just as quickly. From the Haifa University dorms and dining room to Jerusalem’s Old City and a northern kibbutz, Green’s writing gets directly to the core of Israeli society. Green presents her characters and their setting in vivid detail, while still allowing her readers to make their own emotional connections to the time and places in Miriam’s story. Throughout Miriam’s experiences Green weaves a sophisticated commentary on the political and socio-economic divisions in Israel and Diaspora Jewry. This is a tremendous gift to readers who will understand all its subtleties. Book clubs will find an endless stream of discussion topics. Casual readers will appreciate Green’s ability to fit so much nuance in a tightly written narrative. Like Miriam, all will emerge with a greater empathy for those who need to live with a complicated past.

BooksAndBlintzes.com received a free copy of this book for the purposes of writing this review. For more information about Gila Green and her other work, please visit www.gilagreenwrites.com

 

 

Book Reviews, Literature

Memento Park – Mark Sarvas

Memento ParkMark Sarvas’ acclaimed novel Memento Park centers around the mystery of ownership – a painting, a family, and a past.

Readers meet the protagonist, Matt Santos, who has just learned that he *might* be the rightful heir of a valuable painting that disappeared during the Holocaust. Hesitant but intrigued by the possibility that the painting did belong to his family, Matt follows the threads of his father’s stories back to his native Hungary, and the family and secrets left behind.

More than recounting the now familiar story of stolen European art, Sarvas focuses on the intimate questions of how Matt Santos understands his family’s history and how this understanding frames his actions, and ultimately his future. Santos’ family story is not a particularly heroic one. His relationship with his father has always been strained, with hurt and frustration long-standing pillars on both sides. Santos approaches his father and everything to do with the painting as he would taking off a band-aid – however he does it, it’s going to hurt. But Santos is an actor, and brings a constant tension to the narrative as readers untangle how much of his actions are sincere, and which elements might be performative.

Happily, Sarvas’ excellent writing saves Santos from being an angry, nebbishy, caricature of the suffering son. Sarvas gives Santos and his other characters enough flaws to to be human, but not so many as to be truly disagreeable. His clear and uncluttered writing style is an especially good match for the voices of Santos and his father, while keeping the narrative going at a solid pace.

A basic knowledge of 20th century Hungarian history and a quick glance at the country’s map are more than enough to be able to follow along with the action. Sarvas ably steers readers through the events and settings that underpin the story, as well as any necessary Hungarian language.

Memento Park is most likely to appeal to those who appreciate well-written fiction, especially with some globe-trotting and historical twists. An interest in the post-war American immigrant experience and the Hungarian community is a strong bonus. This book will be best enjoyed with a cup of hot coffee and fresh strudel.

Book Reviews, Poetry

Poetry for the Soul

Poetry Fall 5778

Sometimes a book comes along at exactly the time you need to read it.

When Ben Yehudah Press ran a Kickstarter campaign last spring to publish a new collection of Jewish poetry, BooksAndBlintzes.com was excited to back it. After all, highlighting diverse voices in Jewish art and promoting new work is what we live for.

But then the first three volumes arrived in the mail, and it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I had actually read poetry.  Maybe for a Hebrew literature class in rabbinical school? Something in the margins or an alternative reading in a prayer book? So I don’t claim to be any kind of expert in this particular literary genre, I can only speak to what this collection stirred in me as a reader.

I started with Yaakov Moshe’s “Is – Heretical Jewish Blessings and Poems”. Without really being sure what to expect, by the time I had finished it, I had filled this slim volume with notes and underlined passages. The time I read these poems coincided, unintentionally, with one of my most difficult professional experiences, and Moshe’s balance of spirituality and humor offered all of the sensitivity and wonder that my soul needed. Moshe’s sharp writing and focus, and his ability to frame fundamental questions of individual identity and community with unstinting clarity, makes this book fully engrossing and potentially transformative. This poetry isn’t about being pretty. Moshe speaks his truth. And in presenting the questions and ideas that leads him to the words on the page, readers will find this search for self, for meaning, and the sometimes ridiculous nature of this search, to be honest, thoughtful and nourishing.

Next up was “Words for Blessing the World” by Herbert J. Levine. This volume is a lush explosion of language, the kind that draws you in and begs you to spend time just reveling in the words. Levine’s poems are printed in both Hebrew and English, with the two languages mirroring each other on the page. While each version of the poem easily holds its own as a complete literary entity, readers who can appreciate both can take this collection to a whole other level. That Levine’s work can be so accessible to novice poetry readers and offer such a complex challenge to experienced poetry lovers makes it absolutely extraordinary. Not only do his poems fully engage his readers, the collection brings the best possible attention to what Jewish poetry can be and its relevance in the 21st century.

The 3rd volume was Maxine Silverman’s “Shiva Moon.” Of the three collections, reading this one felt the most intimate. As Silverman relays her deeply personal experience of grief, she challenges readers to push the boundaries of story telling and understanding. As a sensitive and raw description of death and mourning, Silverman’s words provide a powerful alternative frame to the discuss these experiences in a Jewish setting. Because of the subject matter, readers are primed to viscerally respond to Silverman’s work, and some may find it overwhelming. However, readers who are willing and able to fully engage with the poems will find unparalleled depth and feeling here. “Shiva Moon” succeeds in showcasing how poetry can bridge the divide between personal and universal experiences, and how it can give voice to an otherwise silent struggle.

I will be looking forward to the next three volumes in the series. Thank you to Ben Yehudah Press for bringing this collection to life.

Book Reviews, Literature

Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

“Intense”. This is the word that kept coming up during my book club’s discussion of Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. Readers described their visceral reactions to her characters, their actions, and her portrayal of Israeli society. No one needed any prompting to share these strong feelings either. In a group that rarely reaches a consensus, Waking Lions stood out for its ability to powerfully affect everyone who read it.

What made this such an intriguing book? The true force is Gundar-Goshen’s fearlessness as she portrayes Israel’s complexity, in all its geographic, socio-economic, racial, sexual, and violent tensions. Gundar-Goshen doesn’t have to create these elements – they exist in the country’s headlines and the lives of all Israelis. Her ability to capture these experiences in her characters’ personalities, motivations, and actions, demonstrates her keen insight into the struggle of this country and her people to survive.

Gundar-Goshen’s writing style mimics the opacity of her characters – the way she writes about them presents their discomfort with their own ideas and often the limitations they place on themselves about what they choose to understand. In keeping her characters so absolutely messy and human, some are harder for readers to connect with than others. There is no true protagonist in this book. Readers who like to cheer for a hero will almost certainly be frustrated. Readers who enjoy searching for the deeper meanings behind people’s actions – “why they do what they do” – will fully appreciate all of the narrative’s twists and turns.

While a basic understanding of Israeli immigration law and the current Eritrean refugee crisis, the Israeli medical system, the relationship between Israel and its Bedouin inhabitants, drugs and criminal activity and racial and gender conflicts may help readers acclimate to the plot, the book does include enough information to provide the necessary background. It will almost certainly challenge the readers’ perceptions and knowledge of the country. But those who read and understand will be ever richer for doing so.