Eight short stories about young and old Jews in America and in Israel and every character elicits your sympathy. Antopol starts her stories in the middle of a discussion you might have just dropped in upon and within moments you are riveted by people so real, angst so visceral, and tension so necessary to resolve it is at once remarkable it is only a story that you are reading and even more exceptional that it is a short story at that. In one, a pair of brothers living in Israel must come to terms with the fact that the younger, less talented, and less capable has saved the life of the older, more handsome, and more successful-in-every-way brother. In another, a B-grade actor is released from a year in jail after getting caught up with communist actors and directors during the McCarthy era. A young Israeli, in a third story, is, forced home to live with her parents when her overseas career as a journalist burns out but falls in lust with a slightly older widower who has a troubled teenage daughter. How would you balance an unexpected love affair, fizzled career hopes, your parents, and a teenager living her despairing father and without her mother? Neither the plotlines, nor the list of protagonists does justice to this series of stories that all seem to revolve about a single aphorism. “Be careful what you wish for.” A must read of a young author’s first book — Antopol is in her early 30s.
Yiddishkeit by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle *** (of 4)
Even the title of the book isn’t really translatable, encompassing as it does more than a language. Yiddishkeit is a people, it’s culture, and an era of history, all but obliterated by the Nazis. So all the more interesting to take on a language, a sound, and the essence of Ashkenazi Judaism in a graphic novel, that is with pictures. Yiddishkeit, the book and the culture, are a sprawling amalgam of history and storytelling, plays and text, cartoons, and serious literary analysis, and above all, opinionated. Pekar, Buhle, and their coauthors have assembled a textbook with a surprising format, but they capture the spirit and for those of us that love Yiddishkeit, we are glad that they have.
Indonesia Etc. by Elisabeth Pisani *** (of 4)
Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world comprised of more than 10,000 islands and hundreds of languages and cultures. From west to east it stretches the equivalent of Anchorage, Alaska to Washington, D.C. In Java, where more than half the population lives you can find hipsters, international businessmen, ungodly traffic, and muslim women covered from head to foot. In the east, in Papua, bushmen live in the jungles. It’s a thriving democracy and an inefficient, bureaucratic, corrupt nightmare of decentralized governance. Ethnic divisions lead to mass slaughters and average Indonesians may be the most welcoming people on earth. In most places you can find decent cell coverage, but might have to wait an interminable week before a boat arrives to take you from one island to the next. Elisabeth Pisani has lived in Indonesia off and on for decades and has done her best to travel from one side of the country to the other talking, cooking, sleeping on rattan mats in crowded huts, and waiting with locals wherever she could. She does a remarkable job of tying personal experiences of the variety of cultures who have come to be ensnared in the modern country called Indonesia to the national experience of a country rattling its way into the global marketplace of ideas and commerce. Pisani’s writing is strong and engaging, but somehow the length of her trip is as exhausting to read about as it must have been to undertake.