My Life in Books

by Esther Cohen

From the Spring 2014 issue of Jewish Currents

It left her breathlessWell, much happened this year involving words, but my most unexpected experience began last summer, the way many things do, with innocence and unintention. I’ve been writing a novel for years, the same novel, about upstate New York, about class and love and organic food and white bread and the way that we are, all of us, as adamant about lifestyle as we are about ideology. Lifestyle has become ideology, at least in my novel. The book is impossible to write, but I am not yet ready to give it up. What I do instead is write a small amount, and then take a break, which consists of walking around my bedroom/study and thinking of anything at all besides the novel.

One day I had the thought that I should make some money. This is a thought I don’t have often enough. For the first and only time in my life, I googled “Craigslist Writer,” and the first ad that appeared was from an anonymous person named River Whisper, who offered $10,000 for one poem. Contestants were told to upload a poem, and explain what they would do with the money.

Every summer, I write my life in poems. On this particular day, my poem, part of my “I’m Getting Older” series, was “PreUsed” —

And now, at this point

insane moment of age and longing

cusp and pinnacle

when my arms are different arms

when my dreams are always interrupted

longing becomes more than longing

I can no longer do this

or that as much as I still want to

I wake up wondering how

I no longer care so much about why

when a day is not just a day but right now.

With the $10,000, I wrote to River Whisper, I would write more poems.

If River Whisper was interested, the ad said, he or she would e-mail me for a personal interview the end of July.

 

We are in upstate New York for most of the summer, but one day in July a friend gave us theater tickets, so we came into town. After the theater, we all went to a long happy summer dinner, and I didn’t get home until midnight or so, when I found a congratulatory e-mail from River Whisper, inviting me with nine other finalists to a dinner two days later. The dinner was to be in a famous-architect building that I knew, big, expensive, imposing, overlooking the High Line. Was this an odd scam? A fraud? A way of extorting money rather than giving it?

Most of my friends said go, although a few thought it could be a con. It was hard for me to figure out what the angle might be — kidnapping poor poets? — and I knew for sure that the evening would be worthy of a Good Story, one of my lifetime obsessions. Good Stories are my reasons for nearly everything.

We were told to arrive on our own (no one could accompany us), so my husband took me to a bar next door to the building, had a drink with me, and said good-bye in the lobby, where the poets, nervous and dressed poetically (I wore a poetry shawl, bright orange, wordily draped over a long pleated I Could Write a Good Poem dress), all were saying goodbye to their friends, as though they were boarding the Titanic. Everyone wanted a friend close by on speed dial. In case of what? I’ve read too many novels to be completely complacent, but I couldn’t imagine anything happening that wouldn’t lend itself to being a good story.

 

Of the ten poets, I was the oldest. We all drank a lot of what seemed to be infinite champagne. The poets were hungry and awkward. They piled up their plates, and were not particularly good at small talk. Our benefactors were two. The one main rule of the evening was that we were NEVER to know their real names. River was male and Whisper was female. When we went around introducing ourselves, I asked if I could be Jew. No one laughed, and I was reduced to saying, “Okay, Esther.”

Although I have thought about that evening about a thousand times, I don’t believe that I can, even now, do the Stanley Kubrickness of it justice. Odd is too light a word for how it was and how it felt. It was brightest apartment I’ve ever been in, white and brilliantly lit. Apart from the poets, there were three or four guys dressed like business hipsters standing around. We all read our poems out loud and voted on which we liked best. The poems were peculiar. The one I liked best didn’t win. Mine didn’t either. But we all got five hundred new dollar bills for attending, with a note saying that we, too, were winners.

I read a lot this year. Some years are like that.

Like the movies I saw, so many more than good, so were this year’s books. There doesn’t seem to be a connection that I’ve ever determined between good books and whatever else happens during the year.

The reviews that follow are extra short. All books deserve long reviews, but I’ve decided to include many, rather than concentrate on a few. To know more about any of them, write to me via email. Or better still, read them. They’re all worth reading.

Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens (Doubleday) is for everyone who cares about politics and Jews and Queens, especially Sunnyside, although Queens doesn’t have a main role here. Many people I know have read this book and they have an opinion: too long, not political enough, falls apart at the end, uneven across its three generations of characters. It’s a book you have to read, if only to have an opinion. Here’s mine: Jonathan Lethem is a very good writer. He writes about the passion of politics without much passion.

Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure, A Memoir (Random House): Why is he such a good writer, funny and unexpected and able to say things other people can’t or don’t know about? If you’ve never read Gary Shteyngart, this is a good place to begin. If you have, you’ll still find this memoir unexpected. Shteyngart, a Russian Jew, is fearless and full of wonderful sentences, youngish, and keeps writing memoirs. I like them all.

Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (Scribners) is a much-touted book, recipient of prizes and glowing reviews. Flamethrowers is a mysterious, difficult book that takes place in 1975, in the art world. It’s a very abstract novel, with two characters, Reno and Sandro, as well as motorcycles, conceptual artworks, parties, and a surreal narrative that is both bold and confusing.

Andre Aciman’s Harvard Square (Norton): An immigrant student meets Kalaj, a compelling North African cab driver, in Cambridge. Aciman, an Egyptian Jew who has taken on the subject of immigration and displacement in his beautiful books, writes an unusual and impossible love story here. It’s one of those novels that reads like an unforgettable memoir.

Rutu Modan, The Property; Jamilti and Other Stories; Exit Wounds (all published by Drawn and Quarterly): I am a wild fan of the Israeli Brooklyn graphic novelist Rutu Modan, who takes on Israel, the Holocaust, Warsaw, sex, and love. Her books are full of life, accompanied by simple, elegant drawings.

Amos Oz’s Between Friends (Houghton Mifflin) is a novel in stories about hope and hopelessness, about kibbutz life and Palestinians and how Israel seemed to be in the beginning, when Oz the author and Oz the kibbutznik was so drawn to the ideology of Experimental Israel.

Joshua Max Feldman’s The Book of Jonah (Holt) is unusual and allegorical, with heroes, anti-heroes, a corporate lawyer, a hassid, and a New York subway. Feldman juxtaposes the modern world with the biblical one. His big-canvas novel reminded me of Cutting for Stone, a book I liked very much.

Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press) is a poetic interior novel (the plot is inside the author’s head) with an evocative discussion of art, of wandering, of what it means to lead an authentic life.

Lily Brett’s What God Wants (Birch Lane Press): My friend Marissa, who reads all the time, gave me this novel about religious Jews and very good sex because she knew I’d like it. She was right. Published in 1993, this is one of those addictive Oh My God the Neighbors Are Doing That kind of books, and I was very happy to have read it, and immediately passed it on to my friend Marion, who loved it too.

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (Riverhead) is hard not to love (I did). Starting in an arty camp in the Berkshires in 1974, the novel follows a group of young kids through life, kids who feel, the way many do, that their life could be anything, anything at all. Limitations aren’t part of the way they think about, until, years later, they understand what can happen. Jules, a poor girl, ambitious and clever, becomes part of the core group, and she and Ethan, the strange genius at the book’s center, are the two unpredictable characters who propel this novel forward in compelling ways.

Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You (Knopf) is a well-written page-turner family saga, also set in the Berkshires, at the first anniversary of the death of a Frankel family son named Leo. Three sisters and one brother remain, alongside their parents who, suddenly, after so many years, are getting a divorce. Character novels are always my favorites, and this is a character novel.

Lore Segal’s Half the Kingdom (Melville House) is an oddly beautiful novel about aging, about Jews, about dementia and hospitals and friendship, written by an elegant stylist.

Kenneth Bonert’s The Lion Seeker (Houghton Mifflin) is a Jewish family story set in South Africa in the 1930s and ’40s. The Helgers are immigrants from Lithuania — my own grandfather’s path — and, once in South Africa, their ambition is boundless. A working-class hero, Isaac Helger, is an intelligent man full of contradictions in this interesting novel about immigration, race, and striving.

Two Male Legends, an addendum:

Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books (Farrar Straus and Giroux) is about the man I’ve written about in this column every year, who says he’s not writing any more. Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation) has written a wonderful biography of her friend Philip, about what he’s written and why. She’s especially insightful about his first marriage to Maggie Williams, and how that marriage shaped his novels forevermore.

J. Michael Lennon’s Norman Mailer: A Double Life (Simon and Schuster): Norman Mailer’s sister and I share a haircutter who told me that I shouldn’t miss this book. I wouldn’t have read it otherwise, because although I greatly admire Mailer, I don’t love him the way I love Phillip Roth. Still, insight into how a great writer writes is not so easy to come by. Fascinating.

 

Esther Cohen is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and works with us as arts and public events consultant. Her books include Book Doctor, a novel, and Unseen America: Photos and Stories by Workers, among others.