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by Esther Cohen
Way back when, there was a Midwesterner in one of my writing groups, he was actually from Ohio, who wore green sweaters with large deer heads dancing across his chest. He was a graceful and unexpected writer whose sentences were different from what you might imagine if you were to look at him. He was also a young father with a graduate-school wife, so he went to H&R Block for training and then announced to us all, poor writers, that he would do our taxes. I said yes.
We met in his small apartment on 116th and Broadway. He asked for my receipts. Although I had none, I have always been a creative writer, so I improvised.
When I got a very official envelope some months later saying You Are Being Audited, I called him for help, and I could hear him sweating on his end of the phone. He agreed to come with me to the IRS, but I knew that he was nervous, reluctant, afraid, and not an accountant. So I stayed up all night with my roommate Harry, devising a plan. I would type a list (yes, on a typewriter) of my dream library, all of the books I’d buy if I could buy anything, starting with Zola and working my way backwards through the alphabet. I’d give this list to the auditor. And that’s what happened.
I was the first audit on a Friday morning. The auditor was actually named Irving Berlin, and I took that as the luckiest sign. I told him how much I loved Irving Berlin, and that made him happy. I brought out my typed sheets, on beautiful onionskin paper. “Here’s my library,” I said. “This is how I spent my money. Many of these books I’ve bought from street vendors, particularly Alf in the East Village. Of course, I have no receipts.” My writer-friend/accountant was visibly nervous, but Irving Berlin, as word-friendly as his namesake, gave me a $600 refund, a fortune, really, and I used that money to spend some months in Spain.
Over the years, for one reason or another — I am not a record-keeper, and do not give my money, or lack of money, the attention it deserves — I’ve been audited a few times. The last time, the same writer/ accountant friend came with me. The IRS was challenging my writer status: Why did I say I was a writer if I made so little money? By then, the accountant had published some mysteries, and his tax-preparation practice was thriving. He’d spent many hours with auditors. But he was late for my audit. His wife was having hip surgery. I entered the IRS building on my own and asked the metal detector guard, a friendly woman, if she thought I should see the auditor (whose name I knew from the form) on my own or wait for my official helper. I asked her to tell me what he was like. “Long-winded,” she said. “But he’s not a bad guy.”
My defense for being a Real Writer was a book. I had just published Book Doctor, maybe the only novel in history in which the hero prepares taxes for a living. It’s the story of Harbinger Singh, a true creative in a world of less-true creatives, and I asked my auditor if he wanted to hear about my romantic superman tax hero. He did, so I read to him in his office, and then he invited me to come back a couple of weeks later to read to a group of IRS auditors. We were both very happy by the time my friend the Official Tax Person appeared. The only negative was my auditor’s advice: “Try writing about Muhammad Ali next time,” he said.
This year, time went too fast for me to write much down. I hope that’s not a pattern. Obama won and I lost two good friends. (One, Jewish Currents fan and Bronx coopnik Anita Schwartz, was a voice I had heard every week since the day we met. I miss her voice, and her.) My son married his long-time girlfriend very suddenly (they are not having a baby) and we became a bigger family. Through it all, I read. And when I could, I wrote, more poems than anything else. I continue with my interminable novel, and who knows, maybe one day I’ll finish it. And my poems, maybe the glue of my life, persist no matter what.
It is hard not to begin every fiction round-up with Philip Roth, the icon, the controversial and absolutely and entirely wonderful American Jewish writer whose sentences have thrilled me ever since I started to read his novels with happiness, with obsession, and with awe. He has everything: intelligence, skill, and an unparalleled ability to tell a wonderful story. Psychological insight, sexual revelation, humor, surprise, intensity, contradiction: Philip Roth. This year he said No More Books. But he’s not known for his truthfulness, and maybe there will be more. At least this spring there will be Philip Roth the documentary film. I intend to go as soon as it opens.
Many media people say Nathan Englander is the new Philip Roth. In 1999, Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, nine sexy stories about Hasidim, won enormous international acclaim, and his new collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Knopf), has won several Jewish book prizes and received scores of rave reviews. Englander is a very good writer, but he is no Philip Roth, so enough with the comparisons.
The title story is wonderful. I’d read it in the New Yorker and was even happier to read it a second time. Borrowing from Raymond Carver (the title is taken from Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, one of his best story collections), Englander’s story has the same set-up: two couples, different but alike enough to become involved in an obsessive dinner conversation. The women have been friends as young girls; one became very religious, lived in Israel and had many, many children. The other married the narrator, a secular Jewish Brooklyn literary guy, and had that life. The couples fight in a way that is both familiar and surprising, and the end of the story is worth the price of the book. The other stories vary wildly. They veer off into Holocaust places, into surreal religious narratives, into uncomfortable sex and uncomfortable coupling. Englander is always worth reading.
A friend’s daughter, an editor at Grand Central Publishing, sent me The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg last summer. Her note said I would love it. She was right. The Middlesteins is actually a novel about weight, and about families falling apart. It’s a gossipy, plot-driven, voyeuristic novel, easy to read and, more than that, addictive. It’s the kind of novel you want on a train trip. What’s it about? About Edie and Richard Middlestein, who live in the suburbs of Chicago. Things fall apart for one reason, it seems: Edie’s enormous girth. She’s obsessed with food — thinking about it, eating it — and if she doesn’t stop, she won’t have much longer to live.
When Richard abandons his wife, the children take control. Robin, their schoolteacher daughter, is angry and wants revenge. Benny, an easy-going, pot-smoking family man, just wants to smooth things over. And Rachelle, a whippet-thin perfectionist, is intent on saving her mother-in-law’s life, but this task proves even bigger than planning her twin children’s spectacular b’nai mitsve party. What happens to Edie, and the family because of her, is what Jamie Attenberg, a gifted narrative gossip, tells us here.
Shani Boianjiu’s The People of Forever Are Not Afraid (Random House) was, in this reader’s opinion, the best Israeli novel of the year. Men in the military are familiar subjects in both war books and anti-war books, but Shani Boianjiu, a 25-year-old Israeli star, is writing here about women soldiers, on the Lebanon border. Yael, Lea, and Avishag are friends, in the complex way of young women: They have roles for themselves and for each other, and those roles, real and imagined both, make their interactions often difficult. All of them have hard family lives, too (death, divorce, betrayal of all kinds). Suddenly they are defending a world they don’t understand, defending a country they don’t understand, having random sex, shooting guns, living far from their families and from the life they know. The role the army plays in Israel is an enormous subject that’s been handled, written, filmed, and described by man after man after man (sometimes brilliantly, as in the new documentary film The Gatekeepers, about the role of the Shin Bet and the military in Israel.) It’s really interesting to have a talented woman doing it.
Elana Bell’s Eyes, Stones (LSU Press) won the Walt Whitman award for poetry a year ago. She’s a wonderful young poet who wrote many moving poems about Israelis, about Palestinians, about land and feelings and the Middle East life. Here’s one:
Letter to Jerusalem
To hold the bird and not to crush her, that is the secret. Sand turned too quickly to cement and who cares if the builders lose their arms? The musk of smoldered rats on sticks that trailed their tails through tunnels underground. Trickster of light, I walk your cobbled alleys all night long and drink your salt. City of bones, I return to you with dust on my tongue. Return to your ruined temple, your spirit of revolt. Return to you, the ache at the center of the world.
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (Riverhead) ) is another one of those buzz-making books. (How that happens is a mystery.) But Auslander, an author with a strong voice — an Orthodoxish David Sedaris, maybe — is considered a Don’t Miss It for those who are obsessed with Jews and books. (He wrote one of my favorite short stories, published in the New Yorker some years back, about a young Orthodox couple living in a big Orthodox enclave in Teaneck, New Jersey, and their bursting out by walking into Manhattan on shabes to go to a ball game.) His stories are like good conversation, and his hopeless ideas about hope are always disarming, and usually funny.
Fifty years ago, Betty Friedan, a creative, strong woman whose ideas became central to the modern feminist movement, published The Feminine Mystique, forever changing the way many women thought about their lives. Friedan originally meant it to be just an article, but when she couldn’t get the article published, she went to work on the book. Some people who won’t take “No” for an answer are really very impressive. Her book tells women what a society run by men thought about their lives — and how to change that perception. She took on marriage, Freud, education, the Cold War, advertising, sex, children, housework, and all the rest. In 2000, The Feminine Mystique was republished, and now, on its fifty-year anniversary, I’ve been happily re-reading her.
There are lots of other books on my Big List that I hope to get to: Steve Stern’s The Book of Mischief: New and Selected Stories (Graywolf), which I know will be funny and unexpected; By Blood by Ellen Ullman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a San Francisco psychological whodunit with Holocaust stories, love, insight and surprise, which several people have called a Don’t Miss It; Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (Bloomsbury), a Man Booker Prize almost-winner that sounds like a sexy, funny, disturbing novel about murder and betrayal; Binocular Voices: New and Selected Stories by Edith Pearlman (Lookout Books), thirteen stories about Jews and their dilemmas from a gracious voice I’ve always admired; The World Without You by Joshua Henkin (Pantheon), about four grown children and their parents in a family that reconfigure when the only brother dies.
If I’m lucky, this year will be full of books. Who knows, maybe Philip Roth will write one.
Esther Cohen reads, writes, teaches, and organizes. She co-edited the Jewish Currents Arts Calendar (our Winter issue) and our new summer supplement about marriage, "2," and is happily working with Jewish Currents on art and cultural events.