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My Life in Books (2008)

Lawrence Bush
December 1, 2008

by Esther Cohen
I was on the corner of 42nd and 9th Avenue thinking about whether or not to spend the money on a Starbucks latté when Betsy, my kind-voiced agent, called on my cellphone. Some agents call their clients all the time, to cheer them on and give them the it’s not so bad to be a writer pep talk. But Betsy has called me maybe half a dozen times in as many years. She’s not a cheerleader, and she’s not optimistic about sentences, life, or book publishing. She is dogged, though, and unusually intelligent. She does not want to be my friend, she wants to sell my books.
I’ve had many agents. Each time, it feels a little like a marriage, hard to make work. Authors are rarely happy with their situation, recognition, money, work, output, position. Agents can never make us happy, and they know it.
I’ve always been surprised there isn’t more writing on this subject of writer and agent. For the agent, selling a book must be a little like catching a fish. Some are more likely than others. I am not an easy author to sell. There’s nothing especially wrong with my sentences — they are coherent enough, and sometimes they’re quietly funny. But my prose is not flashy. Nothing much happens in what I write. Nothing much happening isn’t too commercial, unless you’re Larry David, and I’m not. So Betsy selling this book (after not selling two others, though she sold one before that) was one of those good and unexpected moments that happens once in a while.
She had called me to say that Hyperion wanted to publish my book about Jewish Lies. Mostly she e-mails, with terse, mysterious sentences, telling me of the many others who choose not to publish this or that. But with good news, she likes to call.
My book is a list of fifty lies that Jews tell (of course, so do other people, but Jews are one of my specialties, along with love, and the Middle East). One example is “Don’t Mind Me,” which is now the book’s title.
Hyperion is owned by Disney. It is one of those megapublishers, with bestsellers and marketing teams. For a day or two, I was happy. Then I started worrying about the commercial viability of fifty sentences, funny or not. It depended on the illustrator, and I wanted Roz Chast, the brilliant and amazing New Yorker cartoonist. Hyperion was quick to say no. Roz Chast, they told me, was busy. Also, she was famous (unlike myself) and had just finished illustrating a book with Steve Martin — the implication being Why Me After Him?
I had a list of nine other illustrators. Hyperion said no to all nine. I worried that Don’t Mind Me would disappear into book oblivion, a pretty common fate — but what would make it worse this time than usual would be the horrible, cutesy illustrations of unfunny Jews that would accompany my words.
In a story of fate and fluke, after months when all they’d tell me was NO to every suggestion, Roz Chast said YES to doing the drawings for Don’t Mind Me. The whole equation changed. Hyperion conceded that she and I were a perfect fit. The book got bumped up a notch in their minds, and it was published this fall with her miraculous, zany drawings. It’s still to early to know how the book will do (Will anyone buy it? Will it make money? Will I be able to write more lies? Will Roz work with me again?), but it seems to make some people laugh.
Next came my middle-aged prayers,such as:
Everyone is
Younger and thinner
Than I am
So what
So what
So what
A while ago I started writing them. I do not pray, in general. That is, I have long composed rituals, but they have more to do with marking occasions than with paying homage to one deity or another. Becoming middle-aged, however (I can’t pinpoint the moment when I knew I was not young. It was a while ago), seemed to require a slew of poems. Why and how they became prayers, I’m not sure. The prayers are a kind of whisper.
Betsy tried to sell the book and couldn’t. I don’t even know who said No. Then I sent the prayers by e-mail to a friend of a friend, a small, respectable literary publisher called Pleasure Boat. They said YES, and that book will be out in late October, called God Is a Tree and Other Middle-Aged Prayers. (A friend suggested we start a line of Jewish books for Pleasure Boat, and call it Sinking Ship.)
Unlike Hyperion, Pleasure Boat is one man with a beautiful smile, a tall, handsome, waspy academic named Jack Estes. He looks like he could do something in an actual boat. Jack, by the way, lost my e-mailed poems the first time around. I hate to think they were spam, but maybe they were. The second time he read them, and liked them, and said OK. My favorite designer, Laura Tolkow, agreed to make the book. It looks, in a funny way, like a very beautiful middle-aged prayer. The difference between Hyperion and Pleasure Boat is the difference between New York City and a small, perfect Greek island. Hyperion is efficient and young and the word marketing is heard more often than, say, poems.
Jack and Laura and I met half a dozen times over a cup of coffee, and we told stories. There’s no money involved, but it’s more or less the way I have fantasized that writers actually live.
Meanwhile, I was reading other people’s books all through the seasons. Among the highlights of my year are the Jewish Currents boxes of books that constantly arrive at my office. Because I’m compulsive without being discriminating, especially where words are involved, I read parts of everything (I no longer feel I have to read the entirety of every book that everyone sends. For a while I did, but that became such an all-encompassing activity that even I knew it was too much.)
I have been waiting, all year, for the new Philip Roth book, which I actually purchased to include in this review. Many people before me (and I, too) have written many times about Philip Roth, and why he is good, bad, important, crazy, difficult, and relevant. I love him completely, without judgment; I love him the way some people love Bob Dylan, the Dalai Lama, Martin Buber, the Klezmatics, Nina Simone, or the Yiddish Language. Philip Roth is part of my DNA. I even went on a blind date with him once, although it was not a particular success. (Describing the evening to the woman who set us up, I used a phrase I never thought I could use: He was too crazy for me.)
Indignation (Houghton Mifflin, 233 pages) was published September 16th, and already everyone has reviewed it. Roth has been dying in his books for years, and in Indignation, he’s dead. (Telling you that does not really give away much. Dead or alive, he is still the same: incredibly honest and perceptive, funny, intense, angry, and possessed of the gift of telling an intimate story.)
Roth is mesmerizing on the page. Indignation is as good as he gets: telling us what life is, and sex, and love, and the impossibility of all three. These themes are portrayed so well that I may read it all again, after rereading a few of my Roth favorites, say American Pastoral, or The Human Stain.
On the other hand, I didn’t much like Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book (Viking, 372 pages). I started it three times and plunged through to the end only the third time, because so many people said that the book was Important. I’m not sure why. To me it was a variation of The DaVinci Code, which I couldn’t read either.
People of the Book is about an illuminated Hebrew manuscript, Muslims, Nazis, history, courage, and a heroine named Hanna Heath. The book has maps, historical details, references to any number of moments in time. Brooks uses words like dapper. It’s hard to say what’s wrong with that. I felt removed from her story and its convolutions.
My second favorite book was a collection of poems by Philip Schultz, called Failure (Harcourt, 106 pages). At least read the wonderful title poem. Here’s an excerpt:
To pay for my father’s funeral
I borrowed money from people
he already owed money to.
One called him a nobody.
No, I said, he was a failure.
You can’t remember a nobody’s name,
that’s why they’re called nobodies.
Failures are unforgettable.
The rabbi who read a stock eulogy
about a man who didn’t belong to
or believe in anything
was both a failure and a nobody.
He failed to imagine the son and wife
of the dead man being shamed by
each word.
To understand that not
believing in or belonging to
anything demanded a kind
of faith and buoyancy . . .
Failure is a collection of searing, honest, funny, unusual poems. Schultz brilliantly describes the pattern and problems and minor successes of his own life as a poet, as a 60-year-old, recently married man with young children, as an endlessly bothered son. His poems are stories of how he lives his life, and they are real and true and have the original and wonderful surprises of art.
Elisa Albert is a hot young writer whose first collection of stories, How This Night is Different, was published about a year ago. The title story was wonderful and odd, a story of sharply observed people, Passover, and a yeast infection. Her new book, Dahlia (Free Press, 276 pages), is oddly enough a funny book about cancer, privilege, dying, and an inoperable brain tumor. Dahlia, the star of this story, is 29 and funny. Albert titles her chapters, and the first is called “Something Wrong.” What’s wrong is her brain tumor. The eighteenth chapter, where she reaches the end, is entitled “Be Well.” In between, she lives her life, with a strong humor driven by Albert’s clever language.
Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander (Riverhead, 320 pages) is one of those books that is very much like its title: irreverent, original, a little Orthodox somehow, a dark comic-tragic spin on the whole religious thing. Shalom Auslander is a very good storyteller, a former Orthodox Jew from Monsey, New York who grew up in the 1970s in a very religious world where the laws were absolute. He wanted to leave it all, and he didn’t. The oddness of Orthodox Judaism— yes oddness, not in an anthropological way but more like how peculiar is this — is his subject matter. He has a mesmerizing and original voice. It’s one of those love it or hate it books. I loved it.
Judith Katzir’s Dearest Anne: A Tale of Impossible Love (FeministPress, 240 pages) uses an odd conceit. The narrator, a young woman named Rivi, writes a journal addressed to Anne Frank about the love affair she had as a young woman in the 1970s with her married teacher, Michaela, a charming, beautiful woman that Rivi can’t ever forget. The book begins when Rivi, a middle-aged mother, goes to Michaela’s funeral, and the story, one of those coming-of-age, forbidden-passion tales, has a certain honesty that is hard not to admire. Rivi and Michaeli were probably never again as happy as when they were together. It’s always been interesting to me to see how Israelis talk about love — with a disarming frankness (maybe it’s a cultural thing, and that disarming frankness is more a value there than here) that gives this book its momentum.
Another Israeli novel is Ron Leshem’s Beaufort (Delacorte, 368 pages) which won Israel’s top literary prize and appeared this year in book form and as an unforgettable anti-war film. The novel tells the story of soldiers in the year 2000, when Israel is withdrawing from southern Lebanon. A 21-year- old narrator named Erez tells the story, which is the best portrait I have ever read about the fear, anxiety, and hopelessness of being a young soldier.
The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, by Lucette Lagnado (HarperCollins, 368 pages) is an unusual Jewish immigration story, from Cairo to New York. It isn’t the usual immigrant success tale. Lagnado is the youngest daughter of the book’s hero, her father Leon, the man in the white sharkskin suit. She is an American success story, an immigrant who became a reporter at The Wall Street Journal. But the book is about her father, a cosmopolitan Egyptian Jew — an Arab-Jew he called himself — who spoke seven languages and lived a large, worldly life, until he left Egypt and came to America. Changing countries is always hard, especially when you feel you have no choice. For Jews in Egypt, life became difficult — but he was never able to be who he was here in the U.S., and his daughter Lucette, in her very beautiful memoir, shows us why.
Not every year is a year full of books— mine and everyone else’s. This year was both. And I’m grateful.

Esther Cohen, who reviews Jewish fiction in our November-December issue, is the author this year of Don’t Mind Me and Other Jewish Lies (Hyperion) and God Is a Tree and Other Middle-Aged Prayers (available from Pleasure Boat). She is the executive director of the Bread and Roses cultural program of 1199/SEIU and leads writing workshops in many interesting places.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.