Tag : review

July 15, 2014 by

Behaviors from Generation to Generation

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek famously criticized the way fat-free chocolate and decaf coffee have allowed us to rid ourselves of our guilt in today’s consumerist culture. Israeli author Orly Castel-Bloom extends this dystopian vision in her new novel Textile (The Feminist Press, $18.95; translation by Dalya Bilu), where housing developments are built with no ecosystem, homes are established in brand-new apartments with no past, family members try to forget their ties to each other, and even the body undoes the effects of time.

Castel-Bloom weaves together a multivalent and sprawling text, set mostly in a lavish but hygienic Tel Aviv suburb and the isolation of upstate New York. The narrative focuses on a wealthy suburban family of four, who revolve around each other without real intimacy or responsibility.

At the heart is Mandy, Amanda Gruber, a judgmental mother figure absorbed in her own efforts to look younger and anesthetize herself while her son serves as a sniper in the Israeli army. Meanwhile, her genius husband, a somewhat famous scientist in Israel, is absorbed in efforts to invent a special suit to protect the body from terrorism. The outlier, and inheritor of the family pajama factory, is young Lirit, who just broke up with her boyfriend and is beginning to fill her mother’s shoes.

With a keen eye for class and gender politics, Textile moves from one character to another and still feels like a quick read. The author often takes us back three generations to trace the way languages and behaviors get passed down l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. The text itself is multilingual, with bits of French and even Yiddish thrown in, and always in transition, reflective of the “third millennium” of history and critical of it. Everyone is an exile in some sense, trying on new tongues and wardrobes, trying to adapt to a new environment. 

Not only is the book international but it also feels slightly futuristic, in the way that the lifestyles of the elite always seem some- how at the cutting edge of civilization and closer to its end. The only control group in the experiment is Mandy’s inherited business, the Nighty-Night pajama factory, which serves the ultra-Orthodox community and stays unchanged, according to her mother’s dying wish.

Though the opening inscription from Leviticus warns us of the law of Shatnez, not to wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material, Textile explores what happens when worlds are forced to collide, how we try to protect ourselves and our bodies from life.

“History is a load. A burden,” an Israeli-expat masseuse tells the famous Israeli scientist on his first night in Ithaca, New York. And yet, “It’s no good being the first in a certain place. It gives rise to anxiety,” the scientist declares later in the middle of a nervous breakdown.

Caught in contradiction and paradox, dissatisfied and desperate for happiness, and painfully incapable of communicating with each other, these characters shop or work or read or get plastic surgery instead. Underneath it are relentless pangs of guilt and shame and past trauma, triggered by layers of the very history and relationships they can’t bear.

Though Castel-Bloom, author also of Human Parts and Dolly City, has something of a reputation in Israel for daring and macabre themes, this book is both readable and relatable, a testament too to Bilu’s seamless translation. Textile is a sharp and engaging study of individual psychologies in an age of anxiety and consumerism, and Castel-Bloom is a masterful storyteller for these interesting times.

 

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July 15, 2014 by

From Russia, with Narrative

I read Panic in a Suitcase, the debut novel by Yelena Akhtiorskaya, by the ocean. At Brighton Beach, in fact—the fertile backdrop for this chaotic family saga. Reading the story on the shores of the Atlantic, it was easy to imagine the sundry oddball siblings stalking across the streets and into the bodegas and bakeries of Brooklyn’s “little Odessa by the sea.”

The remarkable corporeality of this vision emerges thanks to the surprising and vivid detail in Akhtiorskaya’s writing. In this novel of hectic depths, a Russian Jewish family of dissatisfied misfits emigrates from Ukraine to Brooklyn. The characters are characters indeed, trying to make a home for themselves on Coney Island Avenue, “a street where cars had many lanes but still bunched together and tiny people on the tiny strips of sidewalk seemed to be crossing a desert.“

In the Nasmertov family, every generation is unsettled in its own way. There’s the linchpin, the distracted Pasha—a spacey poet of indeterminate success who can’t decide whether to remain in Ukraine or finally join his family in Brooklyn. His sister Marina, who is fired from her job cleaning houses when she gives pepperoni pizza to the son of her Orthodox employers. Pasha’s father (who had no temper to lose) and mother (“Prisoners in labor camps hadn’t exerted themselves at an equivalent level of intensity for such hopeless durations”). And his niece Frida —poor Frida: “Impressive applied to Frida meant that she wear a dress and sit at the table. No one expected smiles, precocious conversation, grace.” The Nasmertovs are never quite at home in Russian-speaking Brooklyn, yet are far removed from their family and friends in Ukraine, and perhaps farthest of all from the Manhattan right above them.

In Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, a gorgeous graphic novel by the celebrated artist and author Anya Ulinich, the path from Russia to New York (and back, and forth) fades a bit more into the background of the winding story. Here we have one central protagonist —a warm, smart, wounded woman who emerges from years of cold or abusive relationships with two children and a lifetime’s worth of sexual confusion.

She embarks on a quest to find love (or is that sexual fulfillment? intimacy? stability?) while juggling single parenthood and a precarious yet successful enough career as a novelist. “I became a tourist in the country of men,” she writes, “or at least in the New York metropolitan area of men. I was like people who, when they felt like a road trip, shut their eyes, pointed to a random spot on a map, and drove…”

Lena’s insecurities and narcissism are deeply sympathetic. She berates herself—“What is it with you immigrants? Why are you so afraid of yourselves? … For all your proclaimed affection for Dostoevsky, you’re an excellent immigrant child, Finkle, a.k.a. a smart drone!” Lena traces her life in relationships, marks time by counting men, and avoids her work by browsing on OkCupid.

The imperfect, floundering characters in these two novels are deeply relatable. They leave you with the distinct impression that each person, each family, is no more or less unhinged and absurd than any other. In the midst of these distinctive migrations, it is the emotional familiarity of these characters that makes each one so compelling.

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July 15, 2014 by

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Roz Chast's new memoir.

Roz Chast’s new memoir.

Calling Roz Chast’s new book a tearjerker would be silly.

The graphic memoir will evoke noises from you that a normal crying person would not make: low moans, ragged breathing.

It took me a second to realize that the Sounds of Grief were coming out of me—I was the person enjoying this fantastically quick-witted, sweet, insanely and perceptively funny new book by her favorite cartoonist. But they were.

Roz Chast’s cartoons have been an (the?) off-the-wall mainstay of The New Yorker for decades. They feature nervously drawn, quavering people, stupidly smiling horses, and inanimate objects with delightful expressions on their faces. They are often set in living rooms and sometimes include a lumpy couch, an armchair, wallpaper, and a really stupid painting of boats on the wall.

On the cover of this book, the author sits with her two aged parents on a lumpy couch that is familiar to us from her cartoons. The argyle-patterned wallpaper is of a deathly hue: dark purple on black. All three of them look deeply uncomfortable.

The title, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” is what Chast’s parents would say to her whenever she tried to talk to them about “end of life plans.”

George and Elizabeth Chast were born in 1912, 10 days apart. They grew up two blocks from each other in East Harlem, and were in the same fifth grade class. Elizabeth had been an assistant principal, domineering and “built like a peasant,” who referred to her terrible temper, chillariously, as “a blast from Chast.” George was a high school teacher. He was slight, kind, an explorer of word origins, a careful chewer of food, and suspiciously inept when it came to using toasters and other gadgets.

He loved bananas; she hated bananas. They argued often about fruit and other things. But they referred to each other—this was both sweet and a little horrifying—as soul mates. They did everything together.

In one of the first pages in the book we read the story of how, one day in 1940, a light bulb burned out in their apartment. George had a phobia of light bulbs and also of step stools, so Elizabeth stood on the stool and replaced the bulb. She was six and a half months pregnant. Soon after that, the pregnancy developed terrible complications, and she gave birth, prematurely, to a “perfectly formed, but blue” baby who died one day after it was born. The complications had nothing to do with the changing of the light bulb, but still the connection between baby death and changing light bulbs became an unspoken part of family lore. The story does not come up again, but it sets the tone of the book, which is a tragedy told in anecdotes.

Baby Roz came along 14 years after that first baby. An only child, she always felt like an intruder in her parents’ “tight little unit.” In the family photographs included in this book, she is not smiling.

In 2001, after avoiding Brooklyn for 10 years, she has a sudden, intense urge to visit her parents, who are nearing 90, in their old home.

The first thing she notices is that everything in the apartment is coated in grime. Her parents are frailer than she thought, and less able to manage. Uneasily, she wonders: what next.

Two days later, the twin towers fall.

Her parents quickly go back to arguing about bananas. But their decline is underway.

In a series of keen, lucid observations of tiny, insane details, Chast describes her father’s senile dementia and her mother’s harrowing digestive ailments, the weirdly cheerful “Place” she convinces them to go live in (she hangs decorative corn cobs on their door, because “when in Rome”), their fear and crankiness, the responsibilities that land on her, the chilling truths about “stuff ” known only to people who have had to clean out their parents’ houses. This is the story of George and Elizabeth’s drawn-out, confusing, stressful, sad, expensive deaths. 

The narrative is modular. Each page could easily stand on its own as a full-page cartoon —the type Chast publishes, when we are lucky, in The New Yorker. Each page, on its own, is completely funny— funnier than sad.

How does Chast string together the “minutiae” of cartoons and anecdotes and old photographs? Did she put a lot of work into switching from “cartoonist”’ to “graphic novelist”? Did she change her voice to accommodate the seriousness of the subject matter?

If she did wrench this story out of herself—if she did strain herself to make a million tiny and difficult adjustments to her craft—we can’t tell. The story flows so easily. The large-scale tragedy grows out of the surprising and human details as naturally as it does in Shakespeare. When you read Romeo and Juliet, you don’t say: wow, how does he focus simultaneously on the big and the small, the sad and the funny? Somehow, deceptively, while you are reading, everything is obvious to you: the story could not have been told any other way, and it is the only story that could have been told. Roz Chast makes telling the sad truth in funny pictures seem effortless—makes it seem obvious.

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July 15, 2014 by

Much More Than An Israeli “Private Benjamin”

Zero Motivation film

Zero Motivation film

“Zero Motivation” is a new and delightfully poignant Israeli film that zings myths of women’s equal participation in the Israeli army, with frank humor and staple guns to battle the military’s bureaucracy and sexism.

Inspired by her own experiences with other women relegated to boring assignments in administrative offices for their mandatory two-year army service, writer/director Talya Lavie’s debut premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, where it garnered two awards. “We believe a new, powerful, voice has emerged,” crowed the jury for the competitive Best Narrative Feature award. The jury for the second annual Nora Ephron Prize for a female director or screenwriter, which included Delia Ephron, offered similar acclaim, stating that “Zero Motivation” was “definitely the most hilarious film we saw at the festival…the winning film is a fresh, original, and heartfelt comedy.” But this isn’t just an Israeli version of “Private Benjamin”; this film is far more darkly pointed and complex.

The film follows one year in the life of soldier-secretaries in the human resources office at a desert base in the south of Israel in 2004, a year marked by rapid changes in technology and gender relations. The narrative unfolds in three chapters. The first expands on Lavie’s 2005 20-minute film-school thesis, “The Substitute” (available online with an English transcript), focusing on the naïve schemes of Daffi (Nelly Tagar), who hails from a northern town, to find a replacement so she can transfer to Tel Aviv. Part 2, “The Virgin,” focuses on Daffi’s best friend, Zohar (Dana Ivgy, a renowned young film star), for whom “anything is better than the kibbutz”—even a forlorn desert outpost. As the titular virgin, Zohar is enticed by the unfamiliar presence of men she wasn’t raised with, and begins to take sexual risks. When she is briefly liberated from paperwork, her first assignment on guard duty becomes a vengefully comedic moment that involves humiliating male nudity at the point of a gun. By Part 3 Daffi has become “The Officer,” to the frustration of their ambitious, perpetually thwarted supervisor Rama (Shani Klein), who wants to make her pioneer soldier mother proud, despite the rebellious women serving under her and the condescending men over her.

Lavie deftly balances comedy with deadly serious issues. She sensitively portrays an array of women from diverse social strata, including an immigrant from Russia and one from Ethiopia. Focusing the lens tightly on young female soldiers, she reveals the ways in which these women are at once fully developed adults and game-playing teenagers. Mean girl cliques, eating disorders, text-messaging miscommunications, boyfriend troubles and suicide loom larger than any external enemy. Opening first in Israel, Canada, and Australia, Zeitgeist Films will put this must-see for Jewish feminists in theaters across the U.S. later this year. Don’t miss it.

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