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David Klion (newsletter editor): It seems like half the millennials I know are having babies right now, like a post-pandemic (yes, I know, the pandemic never ended and never will) baby boom is underway. I’m not a dad yet, but I’m struck by how many new or expectant dads in my general demographic I know and how few books there are about what it means to be a dad at this apocalyptic historical moment.

That’s why I’m so grateful for Raising Raffi, the new book of essays by n+1 co-founder and Jewish Currents Soviet Issue informal adviser Keith Gessen. Gessen and his wife, the writer Emily Gould, are a few years older than me and also live in Brooklyn, and for the past six years they’ve both been chronicling the life of their first son, Raffi, for various publications. Raffi (who, disclosure, I’ve met a few times) is adorable and funny and clever, but at various points he’s also been a “terrorist” who hits and kicks and screams and generally defies authority. In recounting this, Gessen is unsparing, both of Raffi and of his own shortcomings as a father.

There are reasonable questions to ask about whether it’s ever fair to describe one’s young child in an unflattering light, which are thoughtfully explored in a review of Raising Raffi in the new issue of The Drift (a great little magazine that owes an obvious debt to Gessen’s n+1). But personally I found the book to be tender, honest, and appropriately humble about the awe-inspiring responsibility that parenthood confers. Raffi may not have consented to an examined life, but do any of us really consent to any aspect of our childhoods? What is never in doubt is that he has two loving, self-aware, and deeply engaged parents who are trying their best at an essential yet impossible task while confronting a pandemic, an out-of-control housing market, a segregated urban public school system, and the unique challenge of maintaining a Russian cultural identity in a child who may never get the chance to visit Russia. I learned a lot.

Raising Raffi has been published just in time for Father’s Day. The new dads and dads-to-be in your life would probably appreciate a copy.

Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Every night my wife and I wake up every few hours to feed our twin sons, so we’ve been working through a slate of TV shows selected to hit an attention sweet spot: engaging enough to help keep us up, easy enough to follow that our exhausted brains can keep up. After cruising through all seven seasons of Veep, we turned to Search Party, the dark comedy starring Alia Shawkat that ran from 2016 until this year. The show, which is streaming on HBO, follows a group of aimless and entitled millennials who, in search of something to give their lives meaning, become embroiled in a missing person case. I’ve been thinking of it as Girls meets Pretty Little Liars. But what sets Search Party apart is the way it evolves (or unravels) over the course of its five seasons. The absurdity ratchets up over and over as the show advances a thesis so hyperbolic that it totally works: that my generation’s desire for purpose is, at bottom, sociopathic narcissism. By the final season, any semblance of self-seriousness has dissipated as the show makes its final transformation—into a horror satire.

Serial comedies rarely conclude gracefully; many recent ones descend into repetition while amplifying the saccharine and sentimental at the expense of humor (see Broad City, The Office). But Search Party, by self-consciously jumping the shark and leaning into its most ridiculous impulses, stays clever and compelling until the end.

Lauren Goldenberg (vice chair of Board of Directors, JC Council member): Fans of the Japanese “ramen Western” Tampopo: Criterion is currently streaming another film from the same director, Juzo Itami, and starring two of the same actors, Nobuko Miyamoto and Tsotumu Yamazaki, called A Taxing Woman, and you should watch it. It’s a comedy about the Japanese tax system, featuring dogged pursuits, underworld bosses, and critiques of capitalist greed, with a bit of sex. The movie was so successful in Japan it inspired a video game. (And if you haven’t seen Tampopo, you should watch that, too!).

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): The New York Times described Selin Karadag—the main character in Elif Batuman’s new novel, Either/Or, a sophomore at Harvard of Turkish parentage—as someone who “overthinks” everything in her life, which is certainly true. She is, after all, a young woman who, early in her freshman year in a wonderful passage in the wonderful The Idiot, worked out the similarities between a box of tissues and books. But her overthinking is that of someone who loves books. As Selin said in The Idiot: “I wasn’t interested in society or ancient people’s money troubles. I wanted to know what books really mean.” And so she’s a careful reader who solipsistically seeks and finds references to her own life—particularly her unrequited love for Ivan, a Hungarian grad student in mathematics she has now unsuccessfully pursued through two volumes (three if we count his cameo in Batuman’s first book of essays on Russian literature, the delightful The Possessed).

Selin’s reading is varied, from Kierkegaard’s Seducer’s Diary, a section of the two-volume work Either/Or which lends its title to this novel, to Eugene Onegin, to the Muslim mystic Rumi, to Chekhov’s short story “Lady with a Lapdog,” to Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers. Even the poetry and advice column in the local weekly published by the homeless provides food for reflection on her attempts to lead a real life and to experience physical love.

If at times her thoughts on great works seem willfully flip, they are the fruit of her genuine love for literature, her intolerance for what she considers exaggerated or false. Why does Proust go on about his mother’s goodnight kiss? Even a Proustian can feel a certain grudging respect for and comprehension of someone who can admit to “repulsion,” for Proust’s conflation of his love for his mother and romantic love. These are the opinions that might well be held by a 19-year-old at Harvard, and upon reflection, many of them are spot on. After all, as Geoff Dyer has written: “Just because a book is a classic doesn’t mean it’s good.” But they are also steps along the way to Selin’s discovery of herself and her authorial vocation and voice. Selin feels herself to be unattractive and has never been kissed, much less had sex, and her experiences along the path to sexual awakening read as true, as honest, and as unflinching as any such account.

Ironically, it’s far from Harvard, while traveling in Anatolia, that Selin finally discovers the unlikely book that speaks directly to her and explains what she wants and hopes to achieve: Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. Batuman is unmistakably describing herself in this magnificent passage: “She wanted to fathom the human condition. She valued reading, travel, and relationships with radically different people: the kind of people who didn’t necessarily get the point of each other.”

Or there’s this, which explains what she and her creator ultimately learned from literature. She wasn’t going to borrow the experience of others. No, Selin tells herself, she “was going to remember, or discover, where everything came from. I was going to do the subtle, monstrous thing where you figured out what you were doing, and why.”


Ari Brostoff (senior editor): There is a long-running joke in my family that my grandma—who passed away peacefully at 94 at her home in Van Nuys, California, last week—wasn’t funny. It started several years ago when my grandpa, the funny one, was dying; we were gathered at the hospital when my mom casually demeaned my grandma’s comedy chops. To this, my grandma responded with a face of utter indignation that not only proved once and for all just how funny she was, but also pointed to the particular character of her funniness: her role as the family straight man. So on the night of her funeral, having already made our way through a stack of home videos, we watched Funny Girl.

As a total failure at Jewish homosexuality, I had not previously seen Barbra in her breakout film role, and…it’s no joke! She’s divine. Streisand first developed the part of the celebrated Ziegfeld girl, comedian, and actress Fanny Brice when Funny Girl appeared on Broadway in 1964 (the show was revived this spring, with Beanie Feldstein, and has received tepid reviews). In 1968, William Wyler, the director of classics like The Best Years of Our Lives and Roman Holiday, made his sole musical theater foray with an adaptation of the play, with Streisand, then 26, again taking the lead.

In the film’s telling, Brice struggled at the start of her career with what a lyric in an early number, “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty,” bluntly identifies as her “frumpy faces that could cause ya/to have temporary nausea.” The movie both knows that this is absurd (Barbra’s Fanny is painfully gorgeous) and also has to insist that it’s true—not so much in a spirit of Jewish representational politics, which remain implicit if hilariously obvious (“I’m a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls!” she gripes), but to underscore the fact that Brice, a Lower East Side loudmouth, is a comedian. It really is her faces (she boasts of “36 expressions”) rather than her face; it’s not the “skinny legs” she’s accused of dancing on, but the fact that she’s blithely out of step with the choreo. In a moment that I experienced with intense pleasurable longing as the grown-up incarnation of a child who desperately wanted to be on stage despite lacking any discernible performance skills, a nightclub manager who has just fired Brice from his chorus line walks in on her mugging for a nonexistent audience and matter-of-factly diagnoses her with main character syndrome: “You’re no chorus girl, you’re a singer, and a comic.” He rehires her immediately, as a star.

Many of the best scenes in the rest of the film involve Barbra goofing around onstage with an increasingly professional cast of back-up performers around her as she ascends to real celebrity. As the movie progresses, however, it closes in on Brice’s doomed relationship with her real-life husband Nicky Arnstein, a suave international playboy, high-stakes gambler, and white collar criminal played by Omar Sharif, whose star flames out terribly as hers rises. The second-act drama lacks the energy of the first-act romp, and I found myself wishing Barbra would get back on stage—which she finally does, closing out the film with “My Man,” one of Brice’s most famous numbers, nearly broken but in total command, neither a character actor nor an ingenue but a full-fledged performer at last. I think my grandma would have approved.

Siddhartha Mahanta (editor): “‘Like, I’ve decided, is the cruelest word … We should be able to see something as it is, even if it is unfamiliar to us, without resorting to comparisons to what we know.’”

This line appears in Customs, the second poetry collection from Solmaz Sharif, a 38-year-old Iranian writer profiled by Rozina Ali in the April 2022 issue of Lux. “It’s this challenge to herself as a writer and to her readers — to not resort to the comfortable — that allows her more control over language,” Ali writes. “More deeply, though, it challenges her readers to think about themselves as political subjects, and to think about what they owe one another.”

Filled with probing insights like this, Ali’s piece presents Sharif, a National Book Award finalist for her first collection, as an artist in constant negotiation between the political and the aesthetic, form and function. As Ali writes: "The book is about customs and borders (visas and airports and immigration officers), about customs in America (obsessions with self-care, lifestyles that desire the fake over the authentic — soy creamer over dairy, a photo of the view over the view itself) — and further still, it is about the customs we lose, those that disappear from our tongues and flesh when we are exiled from home." Solmaz’s subject, it seems, is America at quiet, devastating war with its own Americanness, and the casualties of that war.

The artist at work, interrogating their own style and truth for a deeper meaning—this can be stuffy stuff. But Ali, a journalist whose enviable body of work includes deep reporting on immigration, the war on terror, and the role of American military power around the world, understands Sharif’s ultimate destination as a poet and a thinker:

One of the oft-repeated misconceptions of Sharif as a political poet is that she is not as concerned about aesthetics as she is about the message. She rejects this. For Sharif, language and liberation are tied, but if that was all there was to her work, she told me, she would have been an orator. She may resist aesthetics de rigueur, but form is a primary consideration for her. Revisiting her poems, it becomes obvious that the length of the white space on the page and specific punctuation, or lack thereof, are careful choices. The repetition of closed brackets in “Without Which,” for example, evokes a sense that something is being inserted “that doesn’t belong there, or is trying to correct what is being said,” she explained. If metaphors limit moral vision, for Sharif, form offers a way to expand it. If there is no turning back to the lost past, she seems to say through Customs, there is no giving up either. One must use what one has, to scrutinize, insert, and cross thresholds toward different imagined futures.

Ali’s close reading of Solmaz’s work and itinerant life suggests poetry’s potential to reveal power, as experienced by much of the rest of the world, to an audience often blissfully unaware or unbothered by the exertion of power and all its consequences.

Speaking of those bothered by the unbothered: Make time for Rebecca Panovka and Kiara Barrow’s not-little—in fact, quite epic—interview with essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, published in The Drift, the big-brained, big-hearted, spunky little magazine beloved by those with a pulse and conscience (Panovka and Barrow are co-editors of the publication). They conduct the interview with an openness and curiosity about the world as it is today and how it emerged from the world before they came of age. The result is thrilling.

Mishra offers a sweeping indictment of America in the post-Cold War world era, a time of missed opportunities, neoliberal excess, galling arrogance, catastrophic violence, the return of autocracy, generation-pummeling upward redistribution of wealth, and soon-to-be boiling oceans. I found myself struck by Mishra’s description of “the pathology of belatedness in history — what really happens when you’re from a poor country, not fully industrialized, trying to catch up with the modern West.” The consequence, he tells The Drift, is a suffering that arises from “constantly comparing yourselves to the richer, more powerful people in the Western countries,” and the painful awareness of your own inferiority. “These feelings can become very deeply grounded in national psychology, and … the peculiar evil talent that demagogues possess is to bring them out into the public sphere and make them potent again.” For a largely (excuse the term) Western audience still living in blithe ignorance that there is a world out there that you affect, whether you choose to know it or not, I suspect he could come off as accusatory. Or, short of that, just very charismatic and annoyed. Either way, a win.

Throughout the interview, Mishra pulls no punches. He reminds us that operating in any other mode just isn’t worth it, particularly where the future of American prestige is concerned:

Whatever happens in Ukraine, de-Americanization is going to accelerate. And by that I mean something other than moving away from American financial and payment systems. The United States once represented for many people — and I would include my younger self in that category — different kinds of possibility for emancipation. All of us had grown up in post-colonial societies that were flailing, that were not really delivering on their original promise of equality or stability, let alone prosperity. We thought of globalization as a wonderful thing.
The American ideology, the global ideology that replaced so many different postcolonial projects of national dignity, of collective welfare, was a highly individualistic ideology of meritocracy, individual prosperity, self-fulfillment, finding yourself, expressing yourself. All these notions were quite alien to many of us in conservative, hierarchical, and stagnant societies, and very thrilling, and they became truly global in the 1990s. That American ideology really collapsed in the last decade. And a lot of what we’re seeing today, whether it’s Modi’s Hindu chauvinism, Chinese supremacism, or Russian imperialism, is an attempt to resurrect or recreate or forward some kind of ‘indigenous’ ideology.
Because there’s a big vacuum there, left by a catastrophic loss of faith in America. The American ideology of empowerment, of self-improvement, of meritocracy and prosperity has been revealed as utterly hollow — as much a trick played by American elites on the American people as on the rest of the world. So there is this other thing being offered to people now: go back and find some Russian essence or Hindu essence, different ways of acquiring power. Power is really the name of the game here, whether we are speaking of Putin, Modi, Trump, or the liberal cold warriors. That said, I worry more about the countries that possess supreme power, cultural as well as military and economic, but continue to misuse it. Macron said in 2019 that NATO is brain-dead. I worry that, and we don’t discuss this as much as we should today, future historians will marvel at how the brain-dead institutions of the West led us all into catastrophe.

Mishra is, I suspect, right about what has precipitated the resurgence of various indigenous ideologies around the world. I differ on the question of the loss of faith in America. Maybe a certain version of America and its place in the world must die for a new one to take its place. When and how that may happen, of course, feels unnervingly difficult to predict.

The interview is grim but urgent, necessary stuff that really lights my fire.

Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): I read Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan, over the course of May. It is a gorgeous novel, tracing the lineage of one family through the eyes of different members, across a smattering of ages—ranging from a preteen girl of 11 to a matriarch at 75. The character who opens the novel was a young mother when she and her family were displaced from Jaffa to Nablus in the Nakba; we first meet her over a decade later as she prepares for her daughter’s wedding. The story travels on from there, unfurling further generations and geographical upheavals.

I was traveling with a friend when I began reading it, and I kept saying to her, “this is so devastating.” But two aspects of Alyan’s writing soften the experience of following along with the family’s intermittent tragedies and hardships: the poetry of her prose and the rich inner lives of the characters. I fell in love with several of them, and they linger. We move in time from mosques and outdoor courtyards in the 1960s to malls and apartments in the 2010s, and what remains constant is the presence of war and how life continues, in its miracles and mundanity, despite.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): I despise costume dramas and avoid all the supposedly high-class, mostly British narishkeit that infests our cinemas like the plague. But I have no hesitation about recommending Xavier Giannoli’s film Lost Illusions, set in Restoration France and as costume a drama as one could wish for. Not only is it an engaging film, one that holds you in its power for its full two-and-a-half hours, but aside from some minor annoyances (like the occasional gratuitous presence of naked people) it is a vibrant adaptation, faithful to the spirit of one of the great novels of a writer I cherish, Honoré de Balzac.

Part of Balzac’s multi-volume Comédie Humaine, which in length at least far surpasses Proust's untouchable À la recherche du temps perdu, Lost Illusions is the tale of Lucien de Rubempré, who leaves his native Angouleme for Paris and the literary life he craves.

He aspires to love, to rank, to aristocracy, and to literary glory, about all of which he harbors great illusions. But he also harbors illusions about himself, about his ability to conquer the many worlds he wants to enter. All of these illusions will be lost, crushed coldly and cruelly by those around him. It is not only cliquishness, romantic and artistic rivals, backstabbing, and greed that get in the way of Lucien’s sincere desire to create great works of literature (his sole published book is a slim volume of poems dedicated to the married woman he loves, and then as now, poetry is not the entryway to fame and fortune). Lucien actively participates in the derailing of his own career. He’s a liberal opponent of the monarchy (for pay) one moment, and an ardent supporter (from ambition to confirm his right to an aristocratic name) another. His blind ambition not only destroys his own career, but that of the young actress he loves and who loves him. The hatred he inspires by his hypocrisy and greed for advancement splashes onto her and crushes her acting career.

Lost Illusions is showing at New York’s two essential theaters: Lincoln Center and Film Forum. Here’s one more recommendation: the brothers Paolo and Vittoiro Taviani, over the course of many decades, made some of the most important Italian films, works like Padre Padrone and The Night of the Shooting Stars. Vittorio died in 2018, and the now 91-year-old Paolo has directed his first solo feature, Leonora addio. Proof that great age is not an obstacle to reaching out in new directions, Leonora addio is a stunningly beautiful and original film, shot, in the first section, in brilliant black and white before switching to color in its second chapter.

The film is Pirandellian in the purest sense. The first section tells the story of Pirandello’s remains. The great author had requested that his ashes be laid to rest in his native Sicily, ensconced in a rock, but the fascist government disobeyed his wishes and buried him in Rome. At war’s end, he was finally transferred to Sicily, though it took years for his site to be prepared. The scene then switches to Brooklyn and an adaptation of a Pirandello story set among Italian immigrants, a tale of murder and perhaps madness.

The sum of this is a moving and occasionally humorous portrait of Italy and Italians in the 20th century, of fascism and the fight against it, of superstition, religion, culture, and adaptation to new circumstances and the new world. It is rich, it is beautiful and provoking, and it is showing at Lincoln Center as part of its Open Roads festival on June 14th and 15th.


Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): I haven’t yet watched this particular video from friend-of-the-mag Morgan Bassichis’s Questions to Ask Beforehand, but I did see a version of this performance—an almost vaudevillian combo of standup and songs—in early April at the New York gallery Bridget Donahue, and it was a trip. Bassichis’s on-stage persona is an irresistible (and very Jewy) cocktail of narcissism and self-deprecation, irreverence and serious political commitment. Part of their shtick is improvisation, which they pass off as a kind of flighty underpreparedness and which is the engine for their charisma—for how you root for them to stick the landing when you’re in the audience. On the night I saw the show, they killed in the comedy department. But perhaps my favorite number of the night was the uncharacteristically reverent “What Would Douglas Say?” (at around 1:03:00 in the linked video), a moving homage to the art historian and AIDS activist Douglas Crimp, who died in 2019, in which audience members are called on to read quotes from his work. This led me to read Crimp’s “Mourning and Militancy” the day after I saw the show. It’s an invaluable essay which—making use of Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia”—attempts to dissect the activist’s hostility to mourning, and to assert the ways this hostility can lead to counterproductive currents within a movement. Highly recommended reading for this moment of strange and half-buried grief.

Nathan Goldman (managing editor): I tend to be skeptical of criticism written by people close to the creator of the work under consideration. Whatever the critic’s commitment to impartiality, isn’t genuine fair-mindedness impossible when friendship is at stake? But Ross Feld’s Guston in Time made me reconsider. Originally published in 2003 and reissued last week by NYRB Classics (I promise: unlike my last recommendation of a work from the press, this one actually exists), the book is a beautiful reflection on the controversial late work of the painter Philip Guston, and on Feld’s relationship with him in the last years of his life. Their bond began with a piece of criticism: a review Feld wrote of a 1975 show. Guston’s then-recent decisive (and widely derided) turn from abstract expressionism to the cartoonish figural work he would make until his death in 1980 had alienated him from much of the art world. But Feld thought Guston was on to something brilliant. Guston wrote Feld a grateful note about the piece, and a friendship was forged.

Rather than cloud the understanding of the work, in Guston in Time the critic’s affection for the artist seems to sharpen the readings of the paintings. He writes strikingly about their “profound, even crude unmannerliness and obverse beauty.” Cherries (1976) is “a delirious congregation of imperfections”; the cigarette in Talking (1979) is “the most homely, appealing clock of them all: burning down, fitfully drawn at, used, disposable yet addicting—a kind of little life held between the knuckles.” For Feld, the work’s comic exterior belies its metaphysical depth; its brashness represents a bold lurch into the roiling abyss of the image.

Guston in Time buzzes with the effervescence of mutual admiration, which is crystallized in excerpts from Guston’s letters interspersed between chapters. The men’s entire correspondence appears as an appendix. “When I think about your work,” Feld writes to Guston, “the thinking itself receives some complementary enfolding: the shape of the critical thought finds itself aligning with the work by equal valencies. Mental meets mental; numb meets numb.” Guston responds: “How exquisite and precise! I will dwell on this thought—savour it. For it connects (how?) in some startling way with my double sense of an ‘itching’—a febrile need to make a masterpiece and equally as strong (and then melancholy) realization of this total impossibility.” The letters form a lovely coda that, like the book itself, makes a strong case against the strict separation of friendship and criticism.

Lauren Goldenberg (vice chair of Board of Directors, JC Council member): Last week, I read All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen. This is a group biography of three women—​​Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland—that questions the genre of biography and the definitions of success and failure. You have probably not heard of these women, or likely only one or two of the three, but they are all worth your time and attention: figures whose lives were spent mostly during the first half of the 20th century, each with particular skills and styles that didn’t quite fit in, such that they were each uniquely themselves. This is also a book about lesbian and gay life during this time. These women are fascinating and the book is so well-written; I read it because of multiple strong recommendations from others, and I now highly recommend it to you.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): The Portuguese director Miguel Gomes has thus far directed five feature films (seven if we count the three volumes of his Arabian Nights as separate films), all of them possessed of intelligence, wit, and originality. The cinema, the cinematic process, and Portuguese reality feature prominently in them all as subjects for investigation and meditation. Unlike his compatriot Pedro Costa, the other contemporary Portuguese director with an international reputation, Gomes handles this all with a light touch, which doesn’t detract from his films’ seriousness as works of art.

His latest film, The Tsugua Diaries, now showing at Lincoln Center, is the most successful of them all, and a perfect entry point for those not familiar with his work. Made with his partner, the documentarist Maureen Fazendeiro, the film recounts the challenges of shooting a film under lockdown restrictions in the Portuguese countryside.

But the directors made a choice that adds a fascinating level to the film: starting on day 21 of the shoot, the film unfurls in reverse, ending with the first day of filming. Covid’s fracturing of time that Covid is thus baked into the film.

Who are the three people dancing wildly in the first scene? What is the strange structure they’re building? Why are they alone in a large country house? Why is one of the directors only present via a walkie-talkie? How will one of the actors’ violation of Covid rules impact the film? These simple questions are not always answered, and in a sense are illegitimate: telling the film back to front gives us effects without causes, and the causes that are subsequently revealed become effects that precede causes. Throughout, we have answers to questions we hadn’t posed.

Character development, we are told, is meaningless in this context, since the characters’ later development in the film preceded them in time. This joyful play with storytelling, free of ponderousness or portentousness, makes The Tsugua Diaries one of the most enjoyable intellectual treats in the cinema in many a month.

Here’s one more: Nanni Moretti, who has long been the most interesting of Italian filmmakers—turning out a stunning variety of films, from self-reflective fiction films, film diaries (not to be missed in this genre is Caro Diario), documentaries, and straightforward fiction films. His latest, the excellent Three Floors, based on the novel by the Israeli writer Eshkol Nevo, is showing at Lincoln Center as part of its annual Open Roads festival of new Italian films on June 13th and 14th.

Three Floors is the deepest of Moretti’s films dealing with family. The families in the comfortable three-story Roman building of the film’s title are all traversing crises and confronting potential disintegration, and through the crises they reveal their true natures.

As always, Moretti treats his characters with respect and refuses to be judgmental. Three Floors, through the death, infidelity, irresponsibility and mental cruelty depicted, is a perfect expression of the most profound line ever uttered in a film, that said by Octave in Renoir’s Rules of the Game: “In life, the thing is that everyone has his reasons.” The humanism of Nanni Moretti and Three Floors is a welcome balm.


(editor’s note: this is Jacob Plitman’s last week as publisher of Jewish Currents, so this week’s reading list consists of a chronological roundup of Jacob’s past reading recs, in his inimitable style)

Jacob Plitman (publisher): I recently read the strangest book. A little boy misses his mom, but finally gets to kiss her and father doesn’t mind. He eats a cookie, and then (I think?) is turned into a charming and disturbed Jewish man who is obsessed with a woman who might be beautiful but who has boring friends, but once you like someone enough you start to like their bad friends anyway. He then mistakes a strain of music for the woman and falls in love with . . . well, not her, but something like her. 18/10

Jacob Plitman (publisher): I recently read the strangest book. A woman who likes her monogrammed luggage smokes a cigarette out of her window, and then goes to the bathroom. There she shuts a cabinet door, and accidentally squishes a cockroach. She is very, very upset by this—and made even more so by the discovery of creepy paintings on her walls. But after seeing the paintings, she goes back to being so upset about squishing the bug (or perhaps the existence of “biology”?) that she ceases to like her luggage, even the monogrammed part. 18/10

Jacob Plitman (publisher): I recently read the strangest book. A man once wandered around a strip mall (but fancy?) and saw a lot of signs, and these signs gave him some ideas I’m trying to understand but can’t. Actually I'm not sure he understood the signs himself, so instead he decided to make them into cards (??), but then he died :/ . Luckily this newer book is supposed to be the finishing of the old book, but is also a book itself, about the other book, and its non-completion, which the book completes, mostly. 18/10

Jacob Plitman (publisher): Buy the latest issue of this released-every-few-years magazine and name drop it as often as possible, and lo: every leftist you know will respect and fear you.

Jacob Plitman (publisher): I recently read the strangest book. A scared boy becomes a very robust man, who then has to help his friend get a divorce, which is making a lot of people upset. A lot of time in the book is spent in the robust gentleman’s mind, which, in addition to many schemes, contains a kind of Italian funhouse for memories? Also everyone’s always telling him he looks like a murderer, which I’m not sure I would take as a compliment, though I think he does. Can’t wait to read the sequel. 18/10

Jacob Plitman (publisher): Take a second and google “supreme court US constitution.” The sparely written and highly limited mandate that appears might surprise you, given the gargantuan status of the Supreme Court we know today. The Court’s core power as the final reader of the Constitution is not derived from the Constitution. Neither is a mandate to serve as the guardrails of the political process. If you’re a lawyer, or just a real freak for US history, you might know this. But more arcane, and arguably more interesting, is how and why this relatively marginal institution developed into the high temple of jurisprudence that it is today.

The answer is just part of a truly enormous tale, well-told in historian Charles Sellers’s magnum opus, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846. I really can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s so thorough, so deep, and—believe it or not—very fun to read. And the Supreme Court saga is just one piece of it! After each chapter, I put the book down feeling like I’d been whispered something secret. 18/10

Jacob Plitman (publisher): At my summer camp, the dining hall sported a large plaque bearing Rabin’s image and the lyrics of the song “Shir L’Shalom,” which were found bloodied and crumped in his pocket after his assassination. One summer, underneath that plaque, we held a color war in which the team representing Lehi, the self-defined “totalitarian” Zionist organization, triumphed over the three other teams representing three other paramilitary groups. The irony of the looming plaque was lost on everyone, including (and perhaps especially) me. I am forced to wonder: What good has venerating Rabin done? What good can it do? Maybe we are better off confronting Rabin’s full life, the failures of Oslo and our own failures—which will likely require us to seek guidance from other corners of our experience.

Jacob Plitman (publisher): This is the only thing I’ve ever read that made me feel like I know anything at all about China. And it’s free! 18/10

Jacob Plitman (publisher): The Ludwig Institute for Shared Economic Prosperity defines the True Rate of Unemployment as “the percentage of the U.S. labor force that does not have a full-time job (35+ hours a week) but wants one, has no job, or does not earn a living wage, conservatively pegged at $20,000 annually before taxes.” As of October, that rate was 25.5%. Banishing unemployment through a federal jobs guarantee would transform life for almost everyone in this country, employed or not. Read The Case for a Job Guarantee by Pavlina R. Tcherneva. 18/10

Jacob Plitman (publisher): I am reading this book again, and so I am recommending this book again. Since I last wrote, the woman is still in crisis. She is enduring “the hell of living matter.” She is experiencing “a wholly controlled rapacity.” She is discovering “a possible soul, a soul whose head does not devour its own tail.” She has found a “joy without the hope.” 18/10

Jacob Plitman (publisher): I would like to recommend the entire backlog of Conner O’Malley’s YouTube channel. Thank you. 18/10

Jacob Plitman (publisher): The question has surely crossed your mind: What would happen if you approached the proud and celebrated perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66—self-proclaimed “gangsters” aided by the US government and inspired by US popular culture—and offered to help them create a whimsical and wacky commemorative film reenacting their crimes? Here is the answer. 18/10

Jacob Plitman (publisher): Some have claimed that video games are “the future of storytelling.” I have no idea what that means. Game plots are usually garbage that, at best, you endure because the particular game mechanics are fun. You are chopping someone with a sword. You are shooting up an airport. Why? Literally who cares. Also, I don’t know what it means for “storytelling” to have a past or future—but that’s not for the Shabbat Reading List. That is more of a “” vibe.

Anyway, I want to convince you to buy a game called Disco Elysium. The game will work on your computer, no matter how lousy it is. It was made by an art collective led by an Estonian middle school dropout.

As Disco Elysium begins, the screen is black. You are in a death-like sleep. Through dialogue choices in a small menu, you engage two characters: your screeching Limbic System, and your growling Ancient Reptilian Brain. You would like to stay dead. But, they explain, unfortunately you have to wake up. Upon waking, it becomes clear that you have managed to do enough drugs to forget everything you know—the year, your name, and anything about the murder case that, as you learn, you have been investigating for some time. You are a trope. You are an alcoholic amnesiac murder detective.

What follows is a China Miéville-esque noir set in the strike-ridden city of Revachol, which is something like Marseilles plus Tallinn, run by the Dutch East India Company, and still in ruins from a revolutionary uprising decades ago. A company-hired mercenary has been murdered, lynched on a nearby tree. You walk through lushly drawn urban decay, bouncing between conversations with beautifully-acted strangers and chats among the brilliantly-written voices in your own drug-addled head. It functions, basically, like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, except the pages can talk to each other, you’re not allowed to go backwards, and the writing is superb. But the stakes aren’t a murder. They are communism, liberalism, fascism, or ... Disco.

It is the confluence of the player’s fear of missing the right choices and the city of Revachol’s own post-revolutionary decay that gives the game a special power. Revachol made all the wrong choices some time ago. You are hung over. The city is hung over. You grope the body of a murdered city in the search for a murderer. But in the end something else finds you.



Lauren Goldenberg (vice chair of Board of Directors, JC Council member): Do you want to read about two expat American Jewish lesbians who were (likely) allowed to stay in their home in the French countryside during World War II because of their close friendship with an antisemitic Vichy official? If so, great—read Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, by Janet Malcolm. The above detail is only one of many that makes Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas so fascinating to read about.

Kathleen Peratis (co-chair, Board of Directors): I recommend Fear and Other Stories by Chana Blankshteyn, which was recently found and translated from the Yiddish by Anita Norich. The collection of nine stories was first published in Vilna in 1939, a few weeks before the author’s death in her late 70s, of natural causes, just weeks before the Nazis invaded Poland. It’s a page turner—I read every story last week on a long flight, and they are riveting.

Blankshteyn adhered to the beliefs of the Folkspartey (Yiddish People’s Party), founded in the wake of the pogroms following the 1905 Russian Revolution, and then to Paoley Tsiyon, committed to socialist ideals and to building a national polity in Palestine. Most of the stories are set in Vilna and its Eastern European Jewish milieu, though others take us further west.

Political but not polemical, character-driven and with absorbing plots, Blankshteyn is a superb storyteller. Her Protagonists struggle to find their place in the world. “The Incident,” in which no one has a name, begins: “This morning, control of the city once again changed hands. One set of occupiers retreated, another took over, but it didn’t make much of an impression. People were used to such changes. In a few days, the steel helmets would surely return.” In “Director Vulman,” thuggish German occupiers hover over the action. The (rare) male protagonist, who regards neither his wife nor his mistress as his equal, is brilliantly sketched.

One of the longest stories, at 25 pages, is “The First Hand,” the tale of a “homeless deserted child” in Paris. Andree, at 15, is placed by the orphanage director in a luxury women’s clothing business as a messenger. Andree works “from morning ‘til night,” and rises through the ranks. She astutely observes that many of the rich clientele seem forlorn: “Things aren’t always happy even among the rich.” She is jealous of the rich American customers not for their money but for their “independence, their calm confidence, their relationship with men, their open almost comradely cool flirtation, so different from what she has known.” Her encounters with men—including one who might have married her if she had a dowry, and another who turns out to be married with a pregnant wife—convince her, at least for a while, that “love was not for her. She had other things to do.” The “other thing,” in this story as in most of the others, is Work, her “only sovereign.”

A feminist, socialist, and activist, Blankshteyn is an artist who deserves the praise this new translation should bring her, 80 years after her death.

Abraham Riesman (member, Board of Directors): I’ve recently fallen in love. The object of my affection died just shy of two millennia ago. He was born Yosef ben Matityahu, but posterity recalls him as Flavius Josephus—or, more commonly, just Josephus. He was the first Jewish journalist.

“He wanted his whole body to be an eye, and nothing but an eye.” So speaks the narrator of the 1932 novel Josephus: A Historical Romance. Penned by German–Jewish novelist and antifascist pundit Lion Feuchtwanger, the book is among the finest pieces of historical fiction that I’ve ever read. I stumbled upon a reprint from the 1970s in the wonderful Judaica section of Chicago’s Ravenswood Used Books earlier this month. I knew a little about Josephus and was vaguely curious to know more, and the cover was gorgeous, so I snagged it. Then I devoured it. I feel like a changed man.

Josephus was born into a family of aristocratic priests in Jerusalem and became a priest himself, then a commander of anti-Roman forces, then a traitor to the Roman side, and finally a writer who chronicled the war for a mass audience in his landmark book, The Jewish War. The novel follows Joseph (as Feuchtwanger calls him) while he traverses Rome, Alexandria, and Judea during the run-up to and execution of the First Roman-Jewish War, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. It’s so vividly imagined! And the prose is delicious! The issues at hand are, of course, deeply relevant. In a time of apocalypse, is it more ethical to be an activist or a chronicler? Can a Jew remain a Jew and also be a citizen of the world? What is justified in a struggle against imperial occupation? What does Jewish sovereignty (and its loss) mean for Jewish civilization? And so on.

That’s not even getting into Feuchtwanger himself—a fascinating gent, but I’m hoping to write a more substantial piece about him at some point, so I’ll stay mum for now. I’ll leave you with this passage, from the section on the sack of the Holy City: “It was as though a torturing impulse drove Joseph to the place where the horrors of the siege were to be seen at their worst. He had been sent here to be the eye that should witness all these horrors. It was easy to be shocked by them. To stand still and contemplate them because one must was far harder.”

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Every book has its time. Sometimes it takes weeks to get to, sometimes months, sometimes years, and sometimes decades. Frank Norris’s 1899 novel McTeague is a book I’ve owned since I first saw Greed—the classic silent film Erich von Stroheim drew from it—in 1970 at the newly opened Anthology Film Archives. The final 15 minutes or so of Greed have remained etched in my memory, and a recent viewing confirmed my memory of it as one of the handful of great American films. This return to the film—which was famously faithful to its source material, to the point where it’s been said that Stroheim filmed every paragraph of the book (which explains why its original uncut length was over eight hours)—finally gave me the impetus to read its source.

Norris, who died at 32 of a ruptured appendix, was one of the purest American exponents of naturalism, the literary school of which Émile Zola was the absolute master. An unflinching and brutal gaze, focusing on human degradation and degeneration in their many forms, is at the heart of naturalism. For Zola, this often involved the intersection of lust and violence. McTeague is a naturalist in the American mode, which means that sex is at best hinted at. Physical lust is replaced in McTeague and in Norris’s other works by lust for the eternal American object of desire: money.

Greed, the title given the film by Stroheim’s co-scenarist, is a better title than McTeague, for though McTeague (he is never given a first name, called instead by the nicknames “Mac” or “Doc,” since he’s a dentist) is the central character, it is greed that is the motor of the book’s action. Every other emotion in the book—love, friendship, filial devotion—is twisted and perverted by the hunger for wealth and the mad desire to protect it as if it were a living thing under threat.

McTeague has risen from a carboy in a mine, the child of a drunken abusive father, to modest success as a dentist in San Francisco, the pre-earthquake life and physiognomy of which feature prominently in the book. Innocent of any sexual urge, he is smitten with the beautiful Trina Sieppe, whom he woos and wins and who wins $5,000 in a lottery. Her love for her money—which she loves physically, to the point of sleeping naked upon the coins that constitute the sum—feeds into an avarice that is more sexual than her relationship with her husband.

Norris’ portrait of the degeneration of everyone in McTeague through their avidity for gain ends in Death Valley in a stunning tour de force of fiction writing: McTeague, having murdered his wife for her money, has been captured by his former rival for her affections. Both of them pay for their greed in a locale whose name can be applied to our entire country.

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