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Posts Tagged ‘Jews’

all-text cover of Portnoy's Complaint

Complaint in plain wrapper.

Alexander Portnoy, Assistant Human Opportunity Commissioner for New York City, is a psychological mess, and it’s all his parent’s fault.

At least that’s what he tells his psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel, in Philip Roth’s aptly named Portnoy’s Complaint.

Alex suffers from stereotypes.

He’s the brilliant and personable only son of a New Jersey Jewish couple. Alex’s eighth-grade educated father slaves for a Protestant insurance company, selling life insurance in the black slums. His mother cooks, cleans, kvetches.

Alex grew up being alternately praised to the hilt and told he was a disgrace to his family.

At 33 he’s still unmarried. His professional life is devoted to doing good for others.

His nonprofessional life is devoted to activities discussed primarily in four-letter words.

Alex’s monologue mixes exaggeration with self-deprecation. His occasional flashes of insight are masked with jokes.

He tells his shrink, “I hear myself indulging in the kind of ritualized bellyaching that is just what gives psychoanalytic patients such a bad name with the general public.”

Roth’s novel is genuinely funny, but as he lets Alex makes readers laugh, he makes them see how emotionally frail Alex is.

Roth’s technical skill and his humanity — plus the final punch line — combine to produce a hopeful portrait of a damaged man.

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Random House, 1969. 274 p. 1969 bestseller #1 My grade: A

 

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

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In 1935, Europe was preparing for war against the Jews and Socialists and anybody else who didn’t care to knuckle under to the likes of Hitler and Mussolini.

Watching Europe fall into the clutches of dictators, Sinclair Lewis pondered how a dictator could come to power in America.

Novel title  "It Can't Happen Here" superimposed on photo of German army officers listening to Adolph Hitler.


It Can’t Happen Here: A Novel by Sinclair Lewis

Sun Dial Press, 1935. 458 p. 1936 bestseller #6 My Grade: B+.


It Can’t Happen Here opens as the Rotary Club in Fort Beulah, Vermont, makes patriotic speeches.

In the audience, newspaper editor Doremus Jessup views both the flag-waving and the potential for dictatorship with skepticism.

Before long, however, America elects Berzilius Windrip president and what couldn’t happen begins to happen.

First the “Minute Men” become Windrip’s private army.

Then civil rights are suspended to fight unspecified threats to national security.

Dissidents lose their jobs, go into concentration camps, are killed.

Jessup is drawn into the opposition.

The personalities are credible, the places recognizable, the situations horrifying.

The nightmarishness of the story is oddly intensified by the flatness of Lewis’s presentation: It’s as if none of the characters dares feel deeply.

Doremus doesn’t turn into a hero.

No one does.

That’s what’s terrifying about this once more timely novel.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Several bestselling novels of the 1940s explore the issue of anti-Jewish prejudice among people who fought the Nazis, but none do it better than Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven.

Marc Reiser, a Jewish lawyer, meets Erica Drake “one of the Westmont Drakes,” at a cocktail party at her Montreal home in June, 1942. Marc had come with Erica’s brother-in-law, René.


 

Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham

Lippincott, 1944. 288 pages. 1945 bestseller # 9. My Grade: A.


Marc and Erica hit if off immediately.

cover of paperback edition of Earth and High HeavenErica attempts to introduce Marc to her father, who snubs both Marc and René.

Later, Erica’s parents explain social relationships with Jews are impossible.

For the first time in her life, Erica refuses to do what her parents expect. She continues to see Marc, though her parents won’t let him in the house.

Marc’s parents are almost as set against the relationship as Erica’s.

Graham shows prejudice is not an isolated problem. It’s hopelessly intertwined with individual personalities and complex family and social relationships.

Graham slows readers down to feel what’s happening. She’s so deft that her omniscient narrator seems to be looking at the world through the characters’ eyes.

Readers will feel the confusion, pride, frustration, and misery of distinctive characters who look and act extraordinarily like themselves.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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To say James A. Michener’s whopping 1965 bestseller The Source is an historical novel both understates and misleads.

Into a narrative about a contemporary archaeological dig at Makor, a man-made mound in Israel, Michener weaves a chronological series of short stories about key people and events in Makor’s history. Through this complex literary device, Michener traces unravels the history of Makor from its earliest human occupation up to 1964.

photo of James A Michener at ruins of Tell Beth-Sham


The Source: A Novel by James A. Michener

New York: Random House, 1965. 909 pages. 1965 bestseller #1. My grade: A


The short stories explore the character of the various peoples who came to Makor—from the Canaanites to the British—with particular focus on the Jews.

Michener makes the characters increasingly complex as centuries pass, giving a sense of the progress of civilization.

Michener connects historical events in Israel and the Middle East with happenings in distant places like Rome and Mexico. He shows, for example, that the Crusades were part of Renaissance colonialism in which Europeans carved out city-states in the Holy Land.

The characters in the excavation narrative form a kind of Greek chorus to comment on and interpret the significance of the history of the Holy Land for the post-World War II world.

As America’s ties to Israel are tested by events in Syria, Iraq and Iran, The Source is worth reading once more.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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1914-1918 engraged on a war cenotaph

Between 1910 and 1930 in England’s North County city of Doomington, Jews live on the odd-numbered side of Magnolia Street and gentiles live on the even-numbered side. Those 24 households hold a microcosm of human nature complicated by clashing cultures.

For the most part, Jews and gentiles don’t even recognize each others’ existence. Few make an attempt to cross the street; even fewer succeed. The threat of war hangs over both sides of the street like August humidity, invisible yet palpable.

With his eye for detail and ear for speech, author Louis Golding makes Magnolia Street pulsate with life, sob with loss, and keen the dead who died for nothing at all.

Magnolia Street has no plot to speak of. The book is a collection of related episodes hung together by a few names and anecdotes. You can lay the book down and pick up again days later without having lost the thread of the plot because Golding is constantly reminding readers who so-and-so is.

Perhaps because of those deficiencies, the novel feels like the visit of a slightly older childhood friend who helps you understand the half-remembered events and conversations that shaped your life. It’s no great novel, but it’s an intense emotional experience.

Magnolia Street
Louis Golding
Five Leaves Publications, 2006
531 pages
1932 bestseller #4
 

Photo credit:  “First World War” An engraving on a war cenotaph uploaded by mistereels http://www.sxc.hu/photo/161464

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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In Moses, Sholem Asch presents the great Jewish leader as a human being without trivializing his spirituality.  However, the novel finest achievement is its depiction of the Jews that Moses led out of Egypt.

Asch shows the Jews as just one small segment of the huge slave population of Egypt. The Egyptians ran the slave operations through Jewish overseers, much as the Nazis were to do centuries later.  The “mixed multitude” that accompanied the Jews were from those slaves.

The story line follows the biblical narrative, adding details to explain some of the elements that often bewilder today’s readers. For example, since no slaves were allowed to worship any god, the request to go three day’s journey into the desert makes more sense. Moses leads the Jews out across the Reed Sea:  the Red Sea is miles away from the exodus route.

Asch makes readers understand how stressful the desert journey would have been to people raised in a land with abundant water and fertile soil and why they resented the Levites who seemed to get the choicest of everything.

All told, you’ll find Moses an accessible and entertaining overview of an important historical period.

Moses
By Sholem Asch
Trans. Maurice Samuel
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
1951 #3 bestseller
505 pages

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Mila 18 is a fictional account of the Jewish uprising against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.

Leon Uris weaves together the stories of Jews inside the Ghetto with stories both of their friends and their enemies outside.

The Jews are deeply divided over how to respond to the Nazi threat. Many hope it will go away if ignored. Some want to appease. Some want to fight.

As the Nazis systematically depopulate the Ghetto, a core of those ready to fight forms in secret basement rooms beneath Mila 18.

Led by Andrei Androfski, Jews fight unexpectedly and valiantly. Only a few escape, getting out through the sewers, but among them is a gentile journalist who knows where the Jews buried documents detailing their ghetto experience.

If the plot of Mila 18 sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because John Hersey used the same historical outline for his 1950 bestseller The Wall.

Uris’s addition of non-Jewish characters like the Nazi Horst von Epp and Polish collaborator Franz Koenig adds to readers’ understanding of events, particularly the ethnic rivalries that gave the Nazis a foothold, but weakens the novel’s focus.

If you can read only one novel about the Warsaw uprising, choose The Wall instead.

Mila 18
By Leon Uris
Doubleday, 1961
442 pages
1961 bestseller # 4
My Grade: B +

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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