Jul 262010
 

http://www.harpercollins.com/harperimages/isbn/medium/7/9780061997907.jpgIt’s an interesting thesis.  Jane Ziegelman, a food historian working at the Tenement Museum traces the food history of five immigrant families that settled on the lower east side of Manhattan:  German, German Jewish, Irish, Russian Jewish, and Italian.  She suggests that immigrants were aggressive assimilators with one exception.  They hung onto the food of their homelands and Americans absorbed their foreign foods, taking on new things like pale ales, frankfurters, hamburgers, bagels, pasta, etc.  Unfortunately, the book is short on story and long on fact making it read more like an endless encyclopedia entry than a compelling piece of non-fiction.

Jun 222010
 

As a Hampshire College student in the late 70s, Lansky decides to learn Yiddish. At that time Yiddish, having barely survived the murderous rampage of the Holocaust, was being finished off by assimilating Jews anxious to distance themselves from their ghettoized past. Lansky found himself a teacher, an old textbook, and I.B. Singer’s Satan in Goray. Then he could not find any other Yiddish book in print. He puts an ad in the paper searching for extant Yiddish books and starts collecting. Outwitting History is the story of how he saves more than a million Yiddish books and in so doing probably also saves a language and a culture from extinction. He does it, too, with enormous modesty. July 2008

Jun 222010
 

This short collection of short stories is a wonderful piece of honey cake with a glass of tea. A Jewish Russian immigrant to Toronto describes the transition he makes with his parents and uncle and aunt as they climb from helpless newcomers to weary acceptance of life in the new world, without ever losing the cultural imprinting that Russia plants within its citizenry. The book is full of smiles of recognition, truthful while remaining fictional–but who knows where autobiography is replaced by a little relish — and I think quite accessible even to people who neither know Russians or Jews. In fact, it’s probably a wonderful introduction to both. The book is short, the stories chronological, the characters continue to grow from one to the next, yet it’s not quite a novel with contiguous chapters. July 2005.

Jun 212010
 

Nearly sixty years after the author’s great-uncle, wife, and four daughters disappeared in the Holocaust, the author searches for their memories. Beginning with his grandfather’s (his great-uncle’s brother) stories, some letters and finally to several of the 48 survivors of the 6,000 Jews of his great-uncle’s Ukrainian-Polish town, Daniel Mendolsohn exquisitely crafts one of the most memorable, humanizing, personal and universal searches for his roots. In so doing he asks all of us to pause and consider the memories and lives of senior generations who have led us to who we are today. One of the most expertly constructed and readable books I’ve read. July 2009.

Apr 302010
 

It’s hard to comprehend how anyone survives what Valentino had to in escaping Arab militiamen in southern Sudan and comes away only with excrutiating headaches. Moreover, Eggers is brilliant in retelling Valentino’s story as a novel that treads the line between despair and hope, being neither too depressing, nor too optimistic. I’m told that Valentino (who came to Allegheny for a semester) and Eggers went with the novel because the true story is even more difficult than what is printed here and because so many people were involved that the two of them figured it was easier to combine a few stories rather than ask readers to keep a surfeit of characters straight. Like a novel it’s a page turner, but in the back of every reader’s mind is the knowledge that the story of thousands of young boys walking for weeks across Sudan’s deserts chased by lions, bandits, militiamen, and hunger is all to true. July 2007.

Apr 302010
 

Compelling in the way of an auto crash. I could not look away, but I definitely felt worse for having partaken. Like her Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri delivers a compendium of short stories about the first and second generation lives of college-educated New England Bengalis. Only thing is by her accounting their lives consist nearly entirely of remorse, despair, despondence, regret, cancer, alcohol , duplicity, and disloyalty. March 2009.

Apr 292010
 

There’s a reason this book won the Whitbread Award for best book of the year, one of Britain’s most prestigious literary awards. It captures the huge themes of racism and class by examining the minutiae of the lives of just four characters: two Brits and two Jamaicans who are struggling to live in England immediately following World War II. The book succeeds because it reads like a play with perfectly captured dialogue and emotion. In fact much of the action takes place inside a single house as if the house were a stage. The Jamaicans leave their home island because it is too small and confining only to discover that England is also a small island. Cold, too. June 2005.

Apr 292010
 

A young, wealthy, Dutch bank analyst moves to New York City with his British wife. Soon after the World Trade Center is destroyed, his wife leaves him and takes their three year old son, his apartment in lower Manhattan is abandoned, his son has developmental issues, and he has no friends. Who would want to read such depressing drivel? It’s the same genre as Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth: despair and post apocalypse desolation, only this book is pretentious, too. O’Neill reaches for every multi-syllable word he can find in his thesaurus. Hard to say why this book made so many top-10 books of 2008 lists. April 2009.

Apr 292010
 

This short collection of short stories is a wonderful piece of honey cake with a glass of tea. A Jewish Russian immigrant to Toronto describes the transition he makes with his parents and uncle and aunt as they climb from helpless newcomers to weary acceptance of life in the new world, without ever losing the cultural imprinting that Russia plants within its citizenry. The book is full of smiles of recognition, truthful while remaining fictional–but who knows where autobiography is replaced by a little relish — and I think quite accessible even to people who neither know Russians or Jews. In fact, it’s probably a wonderful introduction to both. The book is short, the stories chronological, the characters continue to grow from one to the next, yet it’s not quite a novel with contiguous chapters. July 2005.