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The San Francisco Chronicle

Book reviews and cultural coverage for the venerable west coast newspaper.

When the opportunity arose to write cultural commentary for one of the west coast's oldest and most esteemed book review sections, this book geek could not turn it down. For the paper, I had the chance to cover memoir, fiction, Jewish-American and African stories, all providing me a chance to hone my critical faculty, clarity of prose, and ability to catalyze the power of the written word to convince people to give something a shot. I won't say it was easy, but I'd like to think I sold a good number of worthy books. (Unfortunately, the newspaper was not optimized to track click-throughs;-).

Here are some of my favorite reviews:

Tracy Farber is 33 years old. She has a job that she loves (English professor), lives in a place she finds exciting (Manhattan) and has a solid roster of reliable friends (one gay, one married, one an actress). She doesn't need your sympathy. She's happy in her way.

So why, you may ask, is she the subject of Rachel Kadish's second novel, "Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story"? Because happiness -- as Tracy explains in a delightfully casual and only casually academic way -- is an overlooked American condition. Or, as Tracy puts it, "for people who claim to want happiness, we Americans spend a lot of time spinning yarns about its opposite." Tracy is convinced that Tolstoy's dictum -- that all happy families are alike (and therefore uninteresting) -- is not true, and her academic goal, after she gets tenure, is to write a book about the "American writers who dare venture into the treacherous waters of fulfillment."

Of course, one such writer is Rachel Kadish. While Tracy never explicitly mentions an urge to write a book about her own happiness, Kadish has done so in a manner that would clearly conform to Tracy's literary tastes. She has created, without drowning in the riptides of self-referentiality, a savvy and convincing voice to both experience and critique the rigamarole of modern romance, and eventually, modern love.

 

Tracy Farber, in the opening third of the novel, goes from describing herself not just as single but as "retired" from the dating game, to being head over heels for a man who seems, according to the constructs of the love story, to be the One. George -- tall, sensitive and handsome -- offers an engaging counterpoint to Tracy's cultural Judaism and casual liberalism: He's a former fundamentalist Christian who began his career in finance after immigrating to New York from Canada. But with him, Tracy is not the "kind of happy" with which she'd grown familiar, but the "preposterous-happy" she'd assumed was unrealistic to expect. In addition, she finds his personal happiness -- a brand manifest "not because his life has been happy, but because he knows it's important to be" -- refreshingly mature and conveniently in line with her anti-Tolstoy thesis.

 

Luckily, the bland waters of a balanced relationship are not what Kadish has Tracy navigate. (Disagreements with Tolstoy's prolific pessimism aside, nothing could be less interesting than 300 pages of a happy character's static glee.) The novel's strongest passages come during George and Tracy's early stages as a couple. Kadish is dazzling in her rendering of those conversations that typify the initiations of new lovers -- from the protracted early flirtations to the giddy heart-to-hearts. These are happy people, surely, made happier by the experience they are having, but there is no lack of tension in the back-and-forth process of falling in love, and Kadish renders this subtle drama with devoted attention to detail.

 

Likewise, Kadish's prose soars when she lets us in on Tracy's most earnest joys. "You cannot be with a man if you don't like the smell of the spot where his neck meets his chest," Tracy tells us, "also, the face he makes in bed just before he lets go. No matter how foolish it might be." Passages such as this illuminate a contented love with specific pleasures that are anything but static, anything but uninteresting.

 

However, as soon as the novel seems to be steering toward a 300-page protracted saga of "how it worked," Tracy's self-consciousness kicks in (or is it Kadish's?) and the love affair is derailed. In the interlude, a novel that seemed to be a focused study of the gradations of happiness becomes, suddenly, about entirely different things: a faculty feud, a best friend's acting career, a graduate student's mental illness.

 

In the end, this diversion, which might have stalled the love story's momentum, works in its own way as a story within the love story, a break from the complexities of happiness. When Tracy returns to her initial preoccupation, the only thing obscured is the condemnation of Tolstoy: Surely, we've learned that happiness can be interesting, but it seems even a happy novel needs some sadness to get through Act 3.

 

Tracy's tale may be, ultimately, classified as a romantic comedy, but her voice is so intelligent and her honesty so rigorous that "Tolstoy Lied" suffers from almost none of the pitfalls that define the Hollywood version of that genre. Instead, Kadish has penned a light-footed, wholly unromanticized contemporary love story that cuts to the very core of what a love story should be: not about how we find happiness, but about what it means to do so.

"Love for a wordless creature, once it takes hold, is an enchantment, and the enchanted speak, famously, in private mutterings, cryptic riddles, or gibberish. This is why I shouldn't be writing anything to do with the two dogs who have been such presences for sixteen years of my life."

For Mark Doty, award-winning poet and memoirist, self-conscious statements like these are part of the charm of his narrative voice -- but they are also at the heart of his newest memoir, "Dog Years," in which he does discuss his relationship to his "two speechless friends," regardless of such doubts.

Doty has, in a way, made a career of translating cryptic human states like enchantment into potent and expressive language. In his 1996 memoir, "Heaven's Gate," that state was grief, which he found himself in after losing his partner to AIDS. In "Firebird," which followed in 1999, he told the story of his upbringing and scrutinized the spell cast by his difficult childhood.

In "Dog Years," it is literally those years of his life in which he cared for and loved a golden retriever named Beau and a black retriever named Arden that he recounts. But these dog years span complicated and disparate times in Doty's life as well -- including the illness of his lover, Wally, his residence in New York on and after Sept. 11, 2001, and his struggle with a deep, and almost life-threatening, depression. And Doty's meditations on the canine-human bond serve to guide his narration of these private and public trials in a way that, he admits, is sometimes difficult to justify.

But for anyone who has known, loved and lost a dog, the weight of Doty's adoration for his pets is expressed with such eloquence throughout that there is little room left for criticism of his project. If ever there was a writer who could speak of his dog's death on the same page as the deaths of thousands at the World Trade Center -- and make both losses count for more because of their comparison -- it is Doty:

"I know it might seem absurd, to place the death of my dog on this page with all these people, vanished parents and children and lovers and friends.

"Yet Beau's body was a fact, too, wasn't it? The particular pink ruffle of those gums, turning to black at the jowls, and the long curl of the spotted tongue, a wet pink splashed with inkish spots like blotches of berry juice."

Doty's descriptions of his dogs' lives are so drenched in love, so honest in their use of detail, so affectionate in their phrasing, that through them he elevates the very feelings of desire and loss that inspired their writing. And Doty's eloquent dog talk is not all somber. Though much of the book seems like elegy, it is also very much a love letter -- one describing an affection that has anything but faded:

"Somehow, memory seems like too slight a word, too evanescent; this is almost a physical sensation, the sound of those paws, and it comes allied to the color and heat of him, the smell of warm fur, the kinetic life of being hardly ever still: what lives in me."

In bringing his dogs to life, Doty's prose swings effortlessly between the poles of serious contemplation and light-footed description. He expresses a generous love for the canine body when he writes of "the long ritual of licking paws, cleaning away the residue of damp, and then sleep, in a warm house, while the enveloping night comes on." Likewise, he is able to articulate the deep companionship man feels with dog even in his description of losing this same creature:

"Each breath enters his chest a little less deeply. And then, when his breathing's become shallow, he suddenly lifts his head up and back, looking right at me, his eyes widening, with a look not afraid but wondering, startled. A look that would be read, were it a text in a language we knew, as What's happening to me? And the life sighs right out of him like wind, a single breath out and gone."

In the end, Doty makes a convincing case that caring for a pet is not a diversion from life's more "serious" human difficulties but "a door toward feeling and understanding"; a dog's life might be a "a theater, in which we may see the forces of time and of mortality played out in a form smaller than our own bodies, and more swiftly," but this theatricality is not for our entertainment -- it is for our salvation.

In Doty's capable language, the prehistoric human attraction to the dog seems not so much "unsayable" as essential: "It isn't that one wants to live for the sake of a dog, exactly, but that dogs show you why you might want to."

Zakes Mda is best known as a writer of novels set in post-apartheid South Africa. His latest, however, is set outside Athens, Ohio, a town where Mda did postgraduate work and has lived and taught literature and creative writing. But "Cion" does not leave Africa behind. It functions as a sequel to his first and most famous novel, "Ways of Dying," which told the story of Toloki, a self-styled professional mourner who made his way through a turbulent South Africa in its early throes of democracy.

In "Cion," Toloki has turned up in Athens in 2004 in search of a broader perspective on mourning rituals. Once there, however, he takes up with Obed Quigley and his eccentric family in the village of Kilvert and learns the history of Obed's - and the town's - ancestors: the WIN people, a triracial community that traces its heritage to early white settlers, American Indians and escaped African slaves (you can figure out the acronym yourself).

This could have been too obvious a subject for a novel by an African writer exploring race in America. But Mda manages to steer clear of the trite and overwrought - mostly because his tale hinges not on the profundity of the idea of a mixed-race town but on the realities and personalities of the townsfolk Toloki meets and befriends there.

Through Toloki's off-kilter voice, it is easy to become endeared to the Quigleys' cartoonish personalities: Obed's constant scheming, his mother, Ruth's, obsession with heritage and blind support of President Bush, his father, Mahlon's, chronic smile and refusal to speak, his sister Orpah's anti-social ways. These people are not simply stand-ins for "Americans," just as Toloki is not your typical post-apartheid South African (if such types can be said to exist).

In addition, Toloki's use of language is too unusual (without ever really getting distracting) and his perspective too distinctive (it is his first time in the United States and he "only know[s] Americans through soap operas and situation comedies") for the novel to dissolve into common caricature.

If anything, "Cion" could use fewer dialogue-heavy scenes of characters expressing their personalities and a few more of Toloki's cultural critique. There is something essential and honest about the way he innocently takes in his surroundings. "I have observed that the people of African descent in America often create African heritages that no one in Africa knows about," he remarks in response to Obed's practice of "African mysticisms."

Later, he makes a more extended - but no less apt - analogy in response to a protester holding a sign about Guantanamo Bay:

"Charge or Release Detainees. The slogan sounds very familiar. It takes me back to years ago. Protesters used to chant it during the apartheid years of detention-without-trial in South Africa. During those sad times in the history of that country politicians said their normal laws of due process could not deal with terrorism. It was therefore necessary to do away with the niceties of habeas corpus. Exactly as they are saying here."

It is only at these moments, when Toloki's opinion is delivered directly to the reader, that the Quigleys' insular quibbling and goofiness might be cast as an indictment of a general American insularity or naivete. But Mda never moralizes. He doesn't need to. (Any reader with a dose of conscience will find ample opportunity to do that work for herself.)

In place of such explicit opinion, the novel goes down another path: into America's own history of oppression and resilience. "Cion" gains a great deal of momentum - and a pleasurable lyric depth - when Toloki steps out of the focus and, in a third-person narrative voice, the mythologies and histories of the WIN people are woven into the tale. In these stories of winter slave escapes, plantation intrigue and intermarriage, the book's most moving passages meet with its most fascinating plots.

These stories serve to contextualize Toloki's exploration of the present-day WIN people. As the Abyssinian Queen makes quilts for her sons to aid in their escape, Toloki learns to quilt; as the sons Nicodemus and Abednego flee toward freedom, Toloki grows attached to the town of Kilvert, and so on.

And refreshingly, by entering the WIN into a greater "American story"- one that merges the histories of the white immigrant, the slave and the Indian - not only is Toloki given the opportunity to broaden his understanding of the American people he meets, but American readers are also given a chance to rethink their cultural foundations from a perspective that is outside the mainstream.

In his jazzy first novel, "Shackling Water," and its hip-hop inflected follow-up, "Angry Black White Boy," Adam Mansbach wrote about creative people grappling with their identities and white people dealing with their race in relation to African American cultural movements.

Mansbach's newest novel, "The End of the Jews," is also about these things, but unlike the earlier books - studies essentially guided by the voice and sensibility of one character - "The End of the Jews" is a larger work, spanning three generations, two countries, a half-dozen subcultures, a dozen characters and a handful of narrative styles and techniques.

Radiating from three disparate settings - the Jewish Bronx of the 1930s, communist Prague of the early 1980s and the middle-class Connecticut suburbs of 1989 - "The End of the Jews" follows the intertwining lives of a family of artists as they come of age and grapple with personal creative endeavors and familial relationships.

The central, and strongest character - both in personality on the page and in scope of depiction - is Tristan Brodsky. A Bronx-born, first-generation American Jew, Brodsky's narrative opens the book on the eve of his decision to jettison life as a "doctor/lawyer" in order to forge a creative one. If the third-person narrative is heavy with observation, it's justified by matching Brodsky's street view; he's already seeing the world through a writer's eyes, describing the Bronx as a place "between Kafka's shadowed villages and Fitzgerald's glittering West Egg," where immigrant Jews "talk about education with their mouths full."

While this is well-trod literary terrain (Brodsky might have played craps with Augie March if he'd been in Chicago), it is a radiant world in Mansbach's hands. When Brodsky brushes the rough edge of New York's jazz underground - the first of the novel's many black art-form/white artist intersections - not only Brodsky's naivete and gall, but also the grim realities of his social limitations, come violently to life.

The next time we meet Brodsky, he's already leaving the Bronx for Manhattan and on the verge of literary fame. But before Brodsky becomes a scribe with Bellow's stature and Roth's iconoclastic bent, Mansbach sets up two other central characters: Brodsky's grandson and namesake, Tristan Freedman, and Nina Hricek, Freedman's eventual live-in girlfriend, a Czech immigrant.

Along with the additional half-dozen characters in the supporting cast, there are a lot of lives to follow. Luckily, Mansbach has a talent for writing full, memorable characters that seem untidy and complex. The problem is that almost all these characters see the world through the eyes of an artist and consequently have a tendency to over-narrate their feelings and impressions.

The novel is strongest, though, when Mansbach allows his cast to posit incidental truths. When a young Nina learns she's Jewish, for instance, she tempers her fear by deciding Jewishness "was probably one of those things adults made a big deal about for no reason, like skateboarding." The inaccuracy is startling; the psychology is real. Likewise, when Tristan Freedman, using the hip-hop handle RISK ONE, bitterly remarks that it is his "duty to distinguish rap from hip-hop" for his white neighbors who lack "the balls to query a black kid" we learn a lot about the tenacity and tenuousness of his relationship to that subculture.

But beyond hip-hop posturing and questions of Jewishness (which are not at the novel's core, despite the title), "The End of the Jews" is, above all, a novel about family. The heart of Mansbach's book rests in the family scenes, where individual habits and creative passions collide. At those moments, Mansbach's inward-looking, prose crackles with insight.

Halfway through "The End of the Jews," Brodsky, already in his 70s, says the following to his grandson, recent author of the novel, and flop, "Contents Under Pressure":

"I like Contents. Your sentences are beautiful. But it's too kind, Tris; there's no fight in it. Whatever you love, you've got to stare it in the face until you find the dark part, the part you hate. And vice versa."

This is definitely what Mansbach does in "The End of the Jews." The only hitch is that he seems to love an expansive range of topics. "Everything is part of who I am. That's how this works," Tris tells his grandfather, "that's the f- story of the Jews, of hip-hop, of everything." He's talking about his second novel, a book that cops a great deal from the old man's life. He could be explaining what Mansbach's novel hopes to be.

Elisa Albert is not the first person to write a fan letter to Philip Roth. Probably, she isn't the first to write a letter asking to bear Philip Roth's child. The first to publish such a letter as the closing story in a first collection of short fiction? She may just be that.

Albert's imagined epistle, written by a character sharing her name and life details, displays the kind of radiant self-awareness that characterizes "How This Night Is Different," her first book. In the story, titled "Ettie or Bessie or Dora or Rose," writing to America's pre-eminent living Jewish writer, Albert addresses the elephant in the room, and then coaxes it into doing a hilarious dance.

To Roth, whom she wryly refers to as "the father of us all," she writes, "When I queried agents I categorized myself thus: 'A lobotomized Philip Roth writing chick lit.' They liked that." And surely "they" did: In the actual news release announcing the publication of her book, Albert is described as "the wild, late-coming progeny of Philip Roth and Grace Paley." But in this faux fan letter, she does a lot more than just channel Roth's trademark self-deprecation and lampoon those who have inherited his market appeal. (Though she does both these things, bemoaning her failed attempt at writing the Great Jewish American Novel and expressing jealousy over the feats of Jewish literary wunderkinds Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer.)

Rather, Albert pre-emptively, and sarcastically, joins the discussion of the literary merits of the territory she explores in the nine stories that make up the rest of her book. In the letter, Albert recounts a master of fine arts workshop (the real Albert earned hers at Columbia) where the topic turned, "in much the same way it always does, to the quality and quantity of contemporary Jewish fiction." When a British student complains, "All your stories are the same," Albert and the other Jewish writers don't have much to offer by way of defense, except to say, "Jews buy a lot of books."

But the fictional Albert shortchanges the actual one. The greatest success of "How This Night Is Different" is its ability to be a predominantly Jewish book -- exploring Jewish rituals (the bris, Shabbat, the bat mitzvah, the Passover seder) and contemporary Jewish conundrums (dating outside Judaism, Holocaust tourism, born-again Orthodoxy) -- while not offering "the same stories over and over again."

Take the Jewish out of Albert's tales and they are still portrayals of characters on the borderlands of dilemma, assertively stuffing self-analysis Crazy Glue into the fissures beginning to fragment their young lives. In "The Mother Is Always Upset," Mark struggles to understand his manhood in relation to his wife and newborn, from whom he feels alienated. Erin, the fiery protagonist of "Everything But," rebels against a prematurely frigid marriage. Joanna, in the title story, itches in anticipation as she awaits her boyfriend's visit to her family home, and his supply of yeast infection medication.

Are these stories Jewish? Entirely. Mark comes to terms with his alienation during his son's bris, Erin confronts her husband's flagging libido on the way to a bat mitzvah, Joanna's non-Jewish boyfriend is bringing her Monistat before sitting down to a Passover seder with her folks.

But Albert's protagonists are young Americans each imbued with an uncannily sharp voice, each boldly confronting their intricately conflicted lives, each looking on the world with convincing lucidity and reacting with moving joie de vivre. The fact that Albert renders these true-to-life suburbanites as meaning-seekers in front of a realistically textured cultural moment -- that is Jewish -- serves to strengthen each portrayal, not ghettoize it.

There are no cliches or stereotypes in "How This Night Is Different," no schlemiels, no Woody Allens, no Alex Portnoys. Albert's language, enriched as much by her Jewish heritage as by her coming-of-age in the 1980s, is just as likely to slip into pop culturisms as Yiddishisms. Mark wades through the "thoroughly branded mess" of his "Darth Vadered" life just as compellingly as Rachel, now Ra-chel, the born-again Orthodox Jew in "So Long," ba'al tshuvas, mazel tovs and baruch hashems. Such is the power of Albert's "ten-pagers." Such is the compelling irony of her epistolary closing story, where she refers to her work as "all my little Jewish-chick-meets-uncircumcised-dick narratives." (No such narrative is actually included in the book.)

Her characters, like so many Jewish Americans today, have an inclusive sense of who they are and lack the neurotic need to define themselves defensively, allowing Albert to explore their lives expansively.

In "How This Night Is Different," Albert has not given birth to Roth's Jewish American literary child. But she has penned a Jewish American collection that he should be proud of.

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