Garden Primitives by Danielle Sosin, Coffee House Press, $14.95, paper
Foreign Brides by Elena Lappin, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22
The Law of Return by Maxine Rodburg, Carnegie Mellon University Press, $15.95
The Free Thinicers: Two Novellas by Layle Silbert, Seven Stories Press, $25
The County of Birches by Judith Kalman, St. Martin’s Press, $21.95
A book of extraordinary literary prowess and zero overt Jewish content, Danielle Sosin’s most recent book is not irrelevant to the Jewish feminist understanding. Garden Primitives is in many respects a collection of stories about a world so vertiginously out of whack that the reader almost fears certain characters will fall right off the globe. In the world of the Garden Primitives, the personal and the political have blown out of balance in tandem.
“Submersion,” in which a mother accidentally falls asleep while her son is playing in the ocean, is a one-woman tragedy. Joan awakens from drugged sedation, having been medicated for grief-induced hysteria following the loss of her son. In “Ice Age,” a farmer studies geology obsessively, paying particular attention to the minutiae of glaciers and particular homage to the power of cold and dark to shut down planets and destroy creatures as massive as the dinosaurs, leaving naught but silence in their place.
These stories, along with the other ten, are told by a narrator who apparently has no idea what’s coming next and who, therefore, does not give us the slightest omniscient help understanding the characters’ seemingly bizarre behavior. We have little choice but to follow this dissociative voice, only half trusting that in the end it will all make sense.
By contrast, the world represented by Elena Lappin in Foreign Brides is deliciously orderly, profoundly just, and funny. The artificial structure of the book is portentous: In a book in which each and every protagonist is a foreign bride, how could the stories not end as tidily?
In “Peacocks,” Vera arrives in England as the mail-order bride of Charles. To Charles, we learn “Vera was a kinky dream come true.” He goes so far as to ask her to wear boots on her trip from Moscow, so that he can recognize her instantly “and walk away if there is anything distasteful about her appearance.” Due to a peculiar and complex chain of events, however, Vera winds up the family’s sole breadwinner, calling all the shots.
The Foreign Brides stories invariably have these tidy endings, and read like morality plays on speed. In “Noa and Noah,” we are introduced to Everywoman Noa, Israeli bride of the English Noah. A secular Israeli, she made a rash decision when she was young and spoke too little English to understand what her Orthodox husband-to-be was saying. Now, living with her implacable in-laws in the U.K.—the anesthetizing effect of her steamy sex life with Noah worn off—she has come to believe she got a raw deal. The sexy and mysterious words he utters in bed have turned out, after all, to be the names of football teams.
What’s a woman to do? Well, first, she starts serving her overbearing kin treyf meat, and, as it happens, has an affair with the non-kosher butcher. There’s a lot of camp in these stories. The very premise of “Noa and Noah,” with the parallel names, has a Tweedle-Dee-sets-out-to-trick-Tweedle-Dum feeling to it. So we’re not entirely surprised when they decide to stay together—vegetarians to the end.
In The Law of Return, a series of linked stories by Maxine Rodburg, Debbie begins to make sense of her family’s complicated history. Her father, first-generation American, brings the experience of the Holocaust with him from Europe to New Jersey, where he and his brothers are petty criminals with apparent ties to organized crime. Debbie’s father’s shady dealings—which seem, mostly, to involve things falling off trucks—produce a residence in a posh neighborhood for the family, expensive jewelry for his wife and tchatchkes like cameras for his children.
It hardly seems worth it. Particularly for Debbie’s mother, who is perpetually hiding her expensive junk from her jealous sisters. (We discover her cutting labels from expensive stores out of her children’s clothing, replacing them with labels from stores where her sisters might shop.) Debbie’s father wants better for his daughters than he has. He wants them to be good college girls, safe wives who never have to learn how to scrap for survival. But he does not seem terribly tormented by the immorality of his actions. He seems, rather, proud and bloated, slipping rings from his endless supply of costly cigars around Debbie’s fingers.
Arguably, the sins of the father are visited upon the child. Debbie grows up into a singularly stagnant sort of being, far too happy with her spiritual inheritance. As a feminist text, The Law of Return panders to readers in its descriptions of a sexist upbringing, but never manages to convey the real impact of such events in a girl’s life.
The various narrators of Layle Silbert’s The Free Thinkers: Two Novellas are Russian immigrants to the United States and their children, making their way at the turn of the last century. The characters have the sorts of names Jews used to have in America; Ida, Bessie, Eena, Ryah, Yudl. But the issues the women deal with are entirely contemporary. The book’s politics center on pressure to marry; the possibility of living with, rather than marrying, a lover; division of labor between men and women; and following one’s own dreams and ambitions. Even those moral issues that arise from the book’s specific historical issues—such as American Jews’ choosing to ignore the fate of those who are dying in Europe—have application today, as the Jewish community copes with worldwide incidents of genocide. In a sense, it is unfortunate that Silbert locates these issues in the last century, amongst the Idas and Ryahs, giving the impression that things have changed more than they really have.
The tragic story of a Hungarian family’s experience in Europe and in the post-Holocaust New World, The County of Birches, by Judith Kalman, is a beautiful cross-generational herstory. It is a palpably real portrait of family life, childhood, and what it is to be Jewish and female in America, with relationships— between sisters, between children and the parents, and between parents—masterfully written. Growing up as the phoenix risen from the ashes of the Holocaust is a rough road for a girl. On her shoulders is placed the burden of making cosmic reparations to her parents, through her success, for all they lost in Europe. The burden is particularly onerous because the parents’ definition of “success” is not always clear. Lili slaves away through grade school, high school and college, winning academic acclaim that seems to bring her mother and father joy. But when, after graduating college years early, she is offered a scholarship to graduate school, her mother suddenly changes the rules, derisively telling Lili she can’t stay a school girl forever. Lili stomps out into the snow, but comes back with years of ambition quieted, years of hard work shelved.
Chanita Baumhaft is a writer living in New York.