Welcome to Forward Reads, your monthly tour of the Jewish literary landscape. I’m a cultural writer at Forward and spend a lot of time browsing new releases so you can read the best books. This article was first published as a newsletter. To sign up for Forward Reads and get book recommendations delivered to your inbox each month, click here.
Like most people who have read Stephen Crane, Paul Auster originally did it because he had to: “The Red Badge of Courage” was in his high school curriculum. Returning as an adult to the author’s haunting and premonitory books, Auster became convinced that Crane was one of America’s most underrated writers and set out to write “a little appreciation” of his work. You can find this appreciation – a tale of an extraordinary literary life that, like Auster’s way, is 738 pages – in bookstores now. For this month’s newsletter, we talked about unnecessary thesauri and writing without computers. Read our full interview here.
His daily life: I get up pretty early, around 6 a.m., stagger down the stairs, brew a teapot, read the newspaper, and sort of absorb the horrors of the day. Then I take another flight down into the small downstairs room where I work, and I just start working. I usually go until noon, then take a break. Sometimes I go for a walk, sometimes I make a little sandwich, or sometimes I go to a restaurant to get some fresh air. Then I work in the afternoon.
What’s on his desk: I have shelves of encyclopedias, foreign dictionaries, and all the reference books I use. And I must have five or six English dictionaries of different sizes and editions. I even have slang dictionaries. When I’m really stuck I look at a thesaurus, but it never helps.
What happens in a page: I work paragraph by paragraph. So I rewrite it, and I rewrite it, and I rewrite it until I can barely read it. There are so many erasures and changes. And then after an hour or two or four, I rotate and type it on my manual typewriter.
How he relaxes: At the end of the day, I am physically and mentally exhausted, so I can barely do anything at night. I throw myself on the couch and watch baseball games or old movies.
For me, a new novel by Jonathan Franzen is the easiest way to get closer to the reading experience as a child, when the allure of the next page was overwhelming and to-do lists just failed. never imposed. Yes, his latest clocks are 580 pages long, but they’re probably the fastest 580 pages you’ll read this fall.
If you’ve read “The Corrections” or “Freedom,” or pretty much anything Franzen has written, it shouldn’t surprise you that “Crossroads” is about a not particularly likeable family in crisis: When the Novel S ‘ Opening in the Chicago suburbs in 1971, Russ Hildebrandt’s troubled career as a liberal pastor caused his children to reject his brand of Protestantism in increasingly painful ways. Clem, the oldest, recklessly renounces his postponement as a student of the Vietnam War project; Becky throws herself into the kind of counter-cultural youth group her father despises; Perry just begins to sell drugs in ever larger and less manageable quantities.
“Crossroads” takes place in a distinctly Christian context, but readers who have never entered a church may be moved by its central concern: the impossible project of keeping the faith in an increasingly chaotic political landscape. (Additionally, at one point there is a prolonged Talmudic debate.)
Reading Franzen, I am often surprised and somewhat disappointed to find that his powerful insight falters when it comes to imagining the lives of women. Case in point: Marion, Russ’s Jewish wife turned Catholic turned Protestant (it’s complicated, hence the 580 pages), spends so much time on the page obsessed with her weight, for no other reason than belief apparent from Franzen that this is an essential characteristic of middle-aged housewives. Tellingly, the supposedly horrific number on Marion’s scale is less than the weight of the average American woman. Did I throw “Crossroads” on the couch when I hit this detail? Yes. Did I take it back? Absoutely.
Jewish books to read this month, from Paul Auster to Louise Glück
People who like to use the sinister adjective “Orwellian” the most often seem to have never read Orwell. But Rebecca Solnit – essayist, historian, and New York Cityscape cartographer – sees him as a grassroots literary influence, and she’s done her homework. His new collection of essays, “Orwell’s Roses,” complicates our understanding of a writer who has become (probably to his disgust, he could see) some sort of hashtag.
Today, Orwell is best known for his premonitory and somewhat sinister political novels. He was also an avid gardener, a habit apparently at odds with his public figure. In 1936, shortly before a stint on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War which provided him with the material for “Homage to Catalonia”, Orwell bought a cottage in the English hamlet of Wallington and set about planting; Solnit’s diaries and letters of quotes are full of warm, heartwarming notes about the flowers, vegetables, and possibly the goats he kept on his property.
Orwell’s love for the tangible things of the earth, Solnit argues, was not an unlikely quirk in a man of ideas. Rather, his gardening was the way he privately experienced freedom and liberty, a reflection of the same ideals that drove him to defend free speech and condemn “group thinking.” Solnit winds through the theme of roses, from floral photographs by Tina Modotti to Jamaica Kincaid’s surveys of colonial flower gardens. But it always comes back to Orwell and the garden which, she writes, teaches us to “make room for the small and the subjective within the large and the historical”.
Jewish books to read this month, from Paul Auster to Louise Glück
I’m a millennial, which means the baffling emergence of TikTok gives me my first taste of technological obsolescence. So I was delighted with Tamara Shopsin’s “Laser Writer II”, a slightly fictional tale of New York’s most beloved computer repair store, which allowed me to disappear for an afternoon in a changing world. simpler line.
A writer and illustrator, Shopsin grew up behind the counter at the family-run restaurant in Greenwich Village and has been acclaimed by adults chronicling pre-gentrification in New York City in projects like her 2017 memoir, “Arbitrary Stupid Goal.” Now, she takes us inside Tekserve, a wacky and lawless Mac repair shop that was legendary among the faint-hearted and living in New York City in the 1990s. (The rest of us must have read on Wikipedia.)
Our protagonist, Claire, 19, enters Tekserve on a lark and falls in love with the hanging swing and the company sponsored lox buffets. Soon, she became a full-fledged technician, bugging customers with stuck printer cartridges and baby cockroaches nesting in their hard drives. Its nemesis, an unusually delicate repair job on a Laser Writer II printer, gives the book its title. I won’t tell you how she’s doing.
Last year, poet Louise Glück became the fourth Jewish woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Today she is publishing her first collection since 2014. Glück’s images are crisp and worthy of a fable, her language deceptively accessible, but her poems resist any definitive interpretation: you have to decide what they mean to you- same. My favorite was “A Children’s Story,” in which – at least as I read it – parents who bring their children home from a road trip are transfigured into a king and queen traveling through disturbing territory. “Nobody knows anything about the future,” writes Glück, “even the planets don’t. / But the princesses will have to live there.