Confined to our homes during the pandemic, we finally had a chance to get to the pile of books by our bedsides. AVIVA LOWY savours ten of the most memorable
IT WAS THE BEST of times, it was the worst of times . . . 2020 and the year of the corona virus certainly proved to be a disaster for the arts world, with live performances, cinemas and galleries closing their doors.
For streaming services and podcasts, however, it proved a bonanza. And that other iso-friendly activity, reading, also got a look in. Confined to our homes, we finally had a chance to get to the pile of books by our bedsides.
Here is a taste of some notable books by Jewish authors and on Jewish life that were published during the Year of Living Covidly.
House of Glass – Hadley Freeman (HarperCollins)
Discovering a shoebox stuffed with secrets, US-born Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman embarks on a journey to discover the true story of her paternal grandmother, Sala Glahs, who was born in 1910 in Chrzanow, a small town in the Austro-Hungarian empire close to Kraków.
In the face of rising anti-Semitism and poverty, Sala, her three brothers and their widowed mother, move to Paris where they change their name to Glass and re-establish their family in the Jewish enclave of the Marais district. For a time they prosper, but the Nazi machine is making its inexorable way to the gates of their new home, and France proves a complicit partner.
This beautifully written book is both the story of every Jewish family in the Holocaust, as well as a specific telling of an extraordinary tale. There is the sibling who makes it to America, the sibling who perishes in the camps and the sibling who escapes imprisonment in an amazing display of bravado. Picasso, Christian Dior and the world of haute couture also make an appearance.
People Like Us – Louise Fein (Head of Zeus)
People Like Us depicts a love story between two young people during the rise of Nazi Germany. But it’s much more than that.
Told from the perspective of Hetty Heinrich, the daughter of an SS officer, the drama unfolds as her affections for a Jewish boy, Walter, make her start to question all she has held true as a dutiful German child.
Walter rescued her from drowning in an early swimming accident; as the Nazis intensify their brutal attacks against the Jews, it will be Hetty’s turn to save Walter’s life.
Louise Fein’s family history informs this book. Her father was banned from practising law only a year after establishing his office in Leipzig in 1932. He escaped to England where he took up the family business of selling rabbit skins and hat-making, but never spoke to Fein about his experiences in Germany.
“The book, though inspired by what I learnt about my father, is not about him,” Fein explains. “In writing this story, I hoped to show parallels between the early 1930s Germany and the Western world since the crash of 2008 . . . people learning their news increasingly through the false bubbles of their social media networks.”
A Letter to Layla – Ramona Koval (Text Publishing)
What makes us human? That is the question Ramona Koval confronts in this book of essays addressing our prehistoric past and potential future. Koval interrogates what we know from archaeology about our pre-human forebears and our “cousins” in the primate world, comparing them to her young grandchild, Layla, who already shows the “human” qualities that differentiate our species.
The book also reviews the technologies which aim to extend our lives and change the constraints of life in the future.
Koval, a former presenter of The Book Show on the ABC, is an author and journalist with an insatiable appetite for knowledge. She is an enthusiastic sleuth, happiest when out in the field. Her research takes her to archaeological finds in Georgia, a visit to her local zoo, and a Youtube demonstration on making stone-aged tools.
Max – Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin)
This biography of Max Blatt – Holocaust survivor and leader of a resistance group which put him on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list – has been nearly 50 years in the writing. And it tells as much about its author as its subject.
Alex Miller was only 21 when he met Max, the man he describes as his “ideal of humanity . . . cultivated, wise and generous”. Max introduced him to German literature and art, but more importantly, he had faith that Miller could be a writer. “I continued to believe in the novelist he had seen in me. His opinion meant everything to me.”
When Max died 30 years ago, Miller had not yet become a novelist. Today, he is one of Australia’s greatest fiction writers, and Max has been a constant inspiration. His war experiences provided Miller with his first published short story, and a version of Max appears in Miller’s autobiographical novel The Passage of Love.
In this, his final tribute to Max, Miller travels to Germany, Poland and Israel to put flesh on the fragments of a life that his friend had only allowed him to glimpse.
Is This Anything – Jerry Seinfeld (Simon & Schuster Australia)
For those fans of the enduring comedy sitcom, Seinfeld, comes the first book in 25 years by Jerry Seinfeld. The TV series, which dominated the ’90s zeitgeist, revolved around a stand-up comedian whose material is garnered from the daily minutiae of friends and family.
The real Seinfeld is first and foremost a stand-up comic who debuted in a New York nightclub at the age of 21 and has, on and off, continued to do live gigs. He has been collecting his ‘funny bits’ on a big yellow pad and this book brings together some of his best work over five decades.
But be warned: there is no storyline; this is, essentially, a book of jokes. There is an Audible version available, read by the man himself, which guarantees the delivery of his lines is spot on. However, there is something special about being in a darkened room in the company of a laughing audience that can’t be recreated on your iPhone.
The Freedom Circus – Sue Smethurst (Penguin)
Determined to learn the story of the escape from Poland of her husband’s grandparents, Melbourne journalist Sue Smethurst goes visiting Mindla in her nursing home, armed with cake from her favourite shop in St Kilda.
As Mindla lets her guard drop, the tale unfolds of her terrifying journey with husband Kubush Horowitz and their young son through the USSR, the Middle East, Africa and, finally to safety, in Australia.
What makes this a unique experience, is the “escape vehicle” the family used to outrun the Nazis: they were circus performers who were able to hide in plain sight by entertaining the Germans.
As sanctions against the Jews increased and even this ruse was no longer safe, the brave circus owners rescued their troupe by falsely obtaining documents to leave Warsaw, with Kubush the clown dressed in costume impersonating a railway conductor.
There are many more twists in this journey, including Mindla’s time in a filthy, lice-infested prison, juxtaposed with a stay in a fancy suite and luxury gifts, courtesy of Stalin’s regime, as thanks for Kubush’s performances at the Moscow Circus.
Shakespeare in a Divided America – James Shapiro (Faber & Faber)
Being included in The New York Times 10 best books of 2020, makes this book, which at first glance appears to be a dry academic text, worthy of attention.
Shapiro reviews periods of American history, from 1833 to 2017, which speak to divisions of race, politics, sexuality and class. He also explores the tensions between early settlers and “mother England”, and immigrants and US-born. All through the lens of Shakespeare.
It’s a clever conceit that Shapiro pulls off in a very readable fashion, allowing each chapter to speak to a single issue, at a specific point in US history, and in relation to a particular Shakespearean production.
Shapiro is well placed to do this. He is a professor who teaches Shakespeare at Columbia University, is on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company and has written three previous, acclaimed books on the Bard.
Who would have thought that an 1849 performance of Macbeth would bring protest riots to the streets of New York, resulting in over 20 deaths? Or that a Central Park production of Julius Caesar, portraying Trump in the title role, would ignite a social media firestorm calling for violence against the actors and company – by those who had not even seen it?
Rodham – Curtis Sittenfeld (Penguin Random House)
It’s hard to come away from reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel Rodham without feeling one has gotten to know the real Hilary Clinton – forgetting it is merely a fictionalised telling of her life.
This is testament to Sittenfeld’s ability to create vivid, rich inner worlds for her protagonists. Indeed, the conscientious lawyer-turned-presidential candidate conjured by Sittenfeld aligns closely with the real Clinton when she was interviewed in this year’s documentary series, Hilary (by Jewish director Nanette Burstein).
With a first-person narration common to her other books (all centred on female characters, including one based on first lady Laura Bush in American Wife), Rodham explores the hypothetical question: what if Hilary had never married Bill?
This thoroughly researched novel follows Hilary from her childhood in Chicago through her college days and romance with Bill, before deviating to an imagined academic and eventually political career, deftly weaving fact with fiction.
Aided by the appearance of a true-to-character Trump, Rodham is a painful reminder of the competent leadership America could have had.
The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive – Philippe Sands (Hachette Australia)
British human rights lawyer Phillipe Sands weaves a mesmerising tale of the life, death and afterlife of Otto von Wächter, who rose through the ranks to become governor of Kraków and later Galicia, directly accountable to Himmler.
At the end of the war, Von Wächter evades capture and takes shelter in a Roman monastery, waiting for secret passage along the “Ratline”, a path by which the Vatican helped traffic Nazis to Argentina. But a few months in, he becomes ill and is taken to hospital under a false identity by two monks. Four days later, he is dead.
We know this because Otto’s youngest son, Horst, believes his father was murdered and even refuses to believe he was a criminal. Horst gives Sands access to his mother Charlotte’s papers in a bid to clear his father’s name.
Sands finds himself liking Horst and the story intertwines their friendship with a portrait of Otto’s life as a “good Nazi”, his wife’s enduring love for him and the bizarre events that unfolded around him in Rome.
Antkind – Charlie Kaufman (4th Estate)
This is the first novel by acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, famous for art-house films such as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Kaufman is a genius, but you have to be a fan of his surreal humour to attempt this 700-page tome.
The protagonist, a neurotic film critic named B Rosenberger Rosenberg, is a failure in both his personal and professional life. When he stumbles upon a hitherto unknown film masterpiece – a stop-motion work using puppets – he believes that bringing it to public attention will resurrect his career. Alas, the film has been destroyed, bar a single frame, and B’s crazy grandiose mission is to recreate it.
Antkind is a clever satire, full of witty allusions and clever swipes at social media and film criticism. And it is funny. However, as one reviewer wrote, “reading it is like trying to sprint to the top of an Escher staircase”.