Joyce Brabner/Mark Zingarelli
“Joyce Brabner, best known as Harvey Pekar’s widow and collaborator, has released a graphic novel about early efforts in a New York gay community to fight the AIDS epidemic.”
So began a recent Cleveland Plain-Dealer review of “Second Avenue Caper” (Hill & Wang, $22), a deeply moving and bitingly funny new graphic novel authored by Brabner and drawn by revered comics illustrator Mark Zingarelli.
For a fan of Brabner’s work, the Plain Dealer’s praise feels double-edged. Three years after her late husband’s death, Brabner still gets tagged as his widow rather than a key comics figure in her own right.
Brabner’s actually been writing comics for decades, including 1989’s “Brought to Light: A Graphic Docudrama” and 1987’s acclaimed anti-war “Real War Stories,” drawn by legendary comics creator Alan Moore. She also co-wrote “Our Cancer Year” with Pekar, considered a touchstone in autobiographical comics.
Second Avenue Caper fits squarely in that tradition. Set in Manhattan in the darkest early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis, Brabner’s vivid script tells the story of a band of friends – her friends – who plotted to smuggle illegal drugs from Mexico to help beloved comrades desperately ill and abandoned by the medical establishment. The story unfolds through the account of Ray, a male nurse and drag-show producer; his Jewish partner, Benny, becomes a collaborator.
Characters disappear the way Brabner’s circle did at the height of the epidemic. Zingarelli’s realistic, classical style gives the story an unsentimental edge that only amplifies its power.
Second Avenue Caper is Brabner’s first solo project since her husband’s death. The writer spoke with the Forward from her home in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
Michael Kaminer: Is it a stretch to say that in terms of fighting tragedy with humor, Second Avenue Caper feels like very Jewish story?
Photo: Martyna Starosta
(JTA) — The New York Times Book Review published its “100 Notable Books of 2014” on its website Tuesday and, not surprisingly, given the whole People of the Book moniker, a number of the fiction and nonfiction books highlighted this year are of Jewish interest. (The number of Jewish authors on general topics was too numerous to count, so we didn’t.)
In particular, books by and about Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union made a strong showing on this year’s list: Anya Ulinich’s “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel,” Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s “Panic in a Suitcase,” Boris Fishman’s “A Replacement Life” and Gary Shteyngart’s “Little Failure.”
Also on the list is another immigrant-themed book — Zachary Lazar’s “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” — a novel that features Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky and an Israeli poet’s murder.
Books about Nazis and the Holocaust feature prominently as well: The protagonist of Francine Prose’s novel, “Lovers at the Chameleon Club,” is a cross-dressing Nazi collaborator, while two nonfiction picks, “Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood” and “Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer,” also address the subject.
Those interested in more cheerful topics like aging parents and the Israeli-Arab conflict, can turn to Roz Chast’s graphic novel, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant” and “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David.”
Or, of course, you could give up on the whole book thing and just tune in to Lifetime’s “The Red Tent,” based on the best-selling biblical novel by Anita Diamant.
In 2009, writer Glenn Kurtz was sifting through a closet in his parent’s Florida home when he discovered a reel of 16mm Kodachrome color film in a musty cardboard box that had belonged to his grandparents, David and Liza Kurtz.
As prosperous Jewish American tourists, the Kurtz’s decided to take a six-week summer vacation through Europe in July 1938. With three friends they visited several European countries where they stayed in five star hotels, shopped, strolled and explored landmarks and art galleries. Traveling across France, Belgium, Switzerland, England and passing through Germany, they made a side trip to Poland, where David’s family originated.
Like many travelers, the Kurtz’s brought along their film camera but used it for only a fraction—in this case a scant 14 minutes—of the trip. The couple recorded scenes of their ocean crossing on the Nieuw Amsterdam, from Hoboken to Plymouth, England, and David filmed Liza and friends in the Grand Place in Brussels, taking in the sun in Cannes and feeding pigeons in Paris. But what captured their grandson’s attention was the brief three minutes of their visit to Poland that momentarily but critically documented Jewish life circa 1938 in David’s hometown of Nasielsk.
Kurtz initially worked to restore the film and then began a four-year journey to find out about the town and the people in it. After donating it to the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), he discovered that his grandparents unwittingly provided history with the only surviving film of Nasielsk, whose Jewish inhabitants numbered 3,000 before the war but plunged to just 80 afterward.
All images courtesy Sarah Lazarovic
Equal parts autobiography, treatise, art project, and social commentary, Sarah Lazarovic’s “A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy” (Penguin Books) chronicles a year in which the author sublimated consumer urges by drawing things instead of purchasing them.
But the book’s much more than a visual diary. Lazarovic’s elegant, witty illustrations, and her gimlet-eyed text treatments, offer a delightful take on what it’s like to try to think for oneself in a society where we’re programmed to consume from birth.
An acclaimed illustrator, cartoonist and teacher, Lazarovic has also written about pop culture for Canadian newspapers like The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. (Lazarovic is also one of the artists in “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” which I co-curated and the Forward sponsors).
“I didn’t want to write a stunt book about my year of not shopping,” she told the Forward from her home in Toronto, where she lives with her husband, National Post features editor Ben Errett, and their daughter Plum. “I wanted to examine how I got to that place. It’s my personal journey from voracious consumer to more thoughtful non-acquirer. The book is frothy and light, but underneath, there’s a secret covert message about not consuming so much.”
Michael Kaminer: Based on responses I’ve seen online, the book’s struck a chord. Why do you think people are reacting so strongly?
Reuven Namdar in New York. Photo by Beth Kissileff.
In a time when the famed British Man Booker Prize has been opened to writers in English from all countries, Israel too has achieved a milestone. For the first time in its 14 years, the Sapir Prize, given by Mif’al Ha-Payis (Israel’s national lottery), has on its long list of 12 novels one by New York based writer Reuven Namdar.
Though it is in part a meditation on the service of a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, Namdar’s novel, “The Ruined House,” takes place entirely in New York City, and is based in locales like the Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights and Wave Hill in the Bronx (called View Hill in the book). This unprecedented level of recognition for Hebrew writers living and working outside of Israel speaks to a different side of Israeli literature and an awareness of how it is widening.
The rest of the list also indicates a sense of wide horizons. It includes past nominee and the author of over 20 books Lea Aini, for “Daughter of the Place”; veteran writer Galit Distel Etebaryan for “Peacock on the Steps”; Celine Assayag for “Overturned Cry”; Nir Baram for “World Shadow,” and Hagit Grossman for “Lila and Louis.”
Nora Goodman, the troubled heroine of Diane Lawson’s thriller “A Tightly Raveled Mind,” (read our interview with the author here) might call herself a disciple of Freud. But she follows a long line of Jewish women in crime fiction, from Orthodox mothers to Miami Beach beauticians to wisecracking lawyers. Here are six of our favorite books featuring Jewish women crime-solvers. Who’s yours?
1. Sara Paretsky, “Indemnity Only” (1982)
V.I. Warshawski, daughter of a Polish Catholic policeman-father and an Italian Jewish opera singer-mother, has practically become a folk hero. Kathleen Turner portrayed her in a 1991 film.
When San Antonio psychotherapist Dr. Nora Goodman’s patients start dropping dead, police tell her it’s a coincidence. But the good Dr. Goodman refuses to buy it, and hires a private detective to help figure out if someone’s targeting her practice. Could it be her despised ex-husband, a disturbed patient, or something more nefarious?
Author Diane Lawson — herself a therapist and a convert to Judaism — takes the plot in some unexpected directions in “A Tightly Raveled Mind” (Cinco Puntos). It’s hard to believe this is Lawson’s first novel; the dialogue crackles, the story hums along, and Dr. Goodman, a strict Freudian still haunted by her Talmud-spouting kook of a father, seems completely real. The only thing hard to buy about the novel is that San Antonio seems just as populated by neurotics as New York. The Forward caught up with Lawson by email.
Michael Kaminer: What did Nora’s Jewishness allow you do with that a non-Jewish protagonist wouldn’t have?
Diane Lawson: Since the inception of the field, a high (though diminishing over time) percentage of the practitioners of psychoanalysis have been Jewish. On that level, Nora’s being Jewish adds some degree of authenticity. Her being Jewish in San Antonio, of course, is simply another iteration of her life-long feeling of being an outsider.
“In Texas, as in most of the country, Jews are well enough regarded, as long as they’re doctors, lawyers or accountants,” Nora says. Could you elaborate?
By Brian Morton
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pages, $25
Those who spend enough time with the title character of Brian Morton’s novel “Florence Gordon” are both fixated on and frustrated by her. That applies to the characters in the novel — Florence’s family, friends and literary peers and acolytes — but may well apply to readers as well. That seems intentional: Morton has created an iconoclastic character who refuses easy categorization and has applied that same unpredictability and veracity to the novel that shares her name.
“Florence Gordon” is set in an intellectual milieu. There are knowing references to the cover of the New York Times Book Review, along with publications like n + 1 and The New Inquiry. Early in the book, the 75-year-old Florence is described by one character as a kind of precursor to writers like “Vivian Gornick, Ellen Willis, Katha Pollitt” — and while Morton will delve more into both Florence’s work and how it was received over decades of life as a public intellectual, that early description works as both useful shorthand and as a kind of suggested reading list for those taken with her dedication to politics, social justice and intellectual rigor.
David Cohen’s the new rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Las Vegas. He’s a learned guy who drops pearls of Torah wisdom for admiring congregants. And he’s overseeing both preschool and funerals for the growing shul.
Oh, Rabbi Cohen’s also Sal Cupertine, a ruthless Chicago mafia hit man who’s had to assume a new identity after getting set up for the murder of FBI agents. And in Tod Goldberg’s laugh-while-you-cringe new novel “Gangsterland,” he’s one of the most compelling, and repulsive, crime-fiction protagonists in a long time.
The director of an MFA writing program at University of California-Riverside’s Palm Desert campus, Goldberg’s been a prolific novelist and story writer, with a raft of compulsively readable paperbacks based on USA Network’s hit series “Burn Notice” under his belt as well.
The Forward caught up with Goldberg from his office.
Michael Kaminer: David Cohen is a mask for Sal Cupertine, but you also get the feeling the new identity has changed Sal for real. Did you want the reader to walk away with a sense of awe around the transformative power of the Talmud and Midrash? Or was the character’s disguise just a device?
On Bittersweet Place
By Ronna Wineberg
Relegation Books, 270 pages, $13.95
As Ronna Wineberg’s novel “On Bittersweet Place” opens, the Czernitski family is escaping Russia. Revolution is in the air, and the family fears religious persecution. In the prologue, set in 1922, Lena, the young narrator of the book, spells out the fears she associates with living in the United States.
Those anxieties carry through over the course of the rest of the novel, which jumps forward a few years from the beginning. By now, Lena is a teenager in Chicago with a talent for art and a curiosity about the city around her. Familial tensions inform her quotidian interactions. The juxtaposition of Lena’s coming of age with the period setting unfolds in ways that are sometimes unexpected. And it’s that aspect of Wineberg’s novel, combined with the understated yet forceful voice of her protagonist, which makes this work memorable.
Initially, Lena’s family life seems stable. Early on, she describes leaving Russia with her mother, brother, and uncles William and Maurice at the age of 10; her father made his way to Chicago eight years before, a gap in which the contrasts between his life as a patriarch and a a less constrained lifestyle are revealed.
Courtesy AH Comics
If you had asked me, when I was a comic book-loving Jewish girl coming of age in 1960s Detroit, besotted with Batman and following Superman’s every adventure, what I wanted to do when I grew up, I may well have described exactly what Steve Bergson does today.
Bergson is a “comics scholar.” He studies comic books, specifically comics with Jewish content. Bergson grew up in the 1970s reading Superhero comics, as well as listening to his Bubbe Esther’s Jewish stories, which, he says, instilled in him “a love for Yiddishkeit and for storytelling.”
“I first learned that comics could contain Jewish content when my Israeli Aunt Edie bought me a copy of the first issue of ‘Sabraman,’” he told the Forward. In college he discovered the work of Will Eisner, which featured Jewish characters, and the Holocaust graphic novel “Maus.”
“The more that I encountered Jewish comic stories,” Bergson said, “the more compelled I felt to seek out and collect ‘hidden gems’ of “sequential art Judaica.” For instance? The 1944 comic book series “Jewish War Heroes.“ And issue 188 of DC Comic’s “Justice League of America,“ which included a 15-page Hanukkah-themed story, “Miracle at 22,300 Miles.“
Bergson’s growing expertise led to speaking engagements, museum exhibitions, a popular website and finally, to a book.
An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell
By Deborah Levy
And Other Stories, 96 pages
Whether writing with barely suppressed rage or achieving a brisk comic pace, the writing of Deborah Levy rarely lets the reader grow complacent. Her earliest novels, “Beautiful Mutants” and “Swallowing Geography,” channeled Thatcher-era fury through surrealistic modes and landscapes. Her 2011 novel “Swimming Home,” shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, worked in a more realistic vein, but left the reader no less unsettled, as Levy slowly revealed the buried secrets and repressed tension in the hearts of her central characters. It was the sort of novel the reader knew would end unhappily; the tension stemmed from the how, not the why. Levy deals with grand themes in unexpected ways, and her latest book (in a manner of speaking) addresses this head-on.
“An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell,” a long poem in dialogue, was first published in 1990, and has been revised for this edition. There’s a short reference to smartphones; otherwise, this fable of suburban disquiet and divine intervention achieves a largely timeless tone. Our two speakers, “He” and “she” — which also reflects the use of capital letters in their dialogue — are, respectively, a man working as an accountant and residing in the titular suburbs and an angel, “wonderful and winged and leaking,” who hopes to save him by bringing him out of the familiar and into the wider world. Their dialogue is a verbal tug-of-war, opening with the man gazing upon the angel, describing her in (literally) glowing terms, then posing a crucial question: “Who are you / Anyway?”
All I Love and Know
By Judith Frank
William Morrow, 432 pages, $26.99
You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy “All I Love and Know,” Judith Frank’s terrific new novel. Nor do you have to be gay. Although the book addresses issues important to both Jews and gays — Jewish identity, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, gay parenting and marriage equality — it will satisfy anyone who longs for a first rate novel.
Daniel Rosen is a twin whose brother and sister-in-law are killed when a terrorist bomb explodes in an Israeli café. Their will grants custody of their baby boy and 6-year-old daughter to Daniel and his partner Matt, who, until then, have led an enviably carefree life as a popular gay couple in the “Lesbian Mecca” of Northampton, Mass.
Although Dan‘s brother and sister-in-law loved Israel, “If we die, take them away from here,” they’ve instructed Dan. “Enough is enough.”
But it’s not that simple. The will, as it turns out, isn’t binding. An Israeli court must decide the issue, and the children’s maternal grandparents, who are not only Israeli citizens but Holocaust survivors, are also fighting for custody. And they might win. The judge could have a bias toward keeping the kids in Israel, or against granting custody to a gay couple. And they’re a “mixed” Gay couple at that — Matt isn’t Jewish.
The Mathematician’s Shiva
By Stuart Rojstaczer
Penguin Books, 384 pages, $16.00
Sasha Karnokovitch, narrator of the novel “The Mathematician’s Shiva,” isn’t the warmest of storytellers. Born in Russia at the height of the Cold War to two brilliant mathematicians, Sasha has eschewed the cold Wisconsin town where he came of age in favor of a career in Tuscaloosa, researching atmospheric science and predicting hurricanes. The death of his mother Rachela, a legendary mathematician, brings him back to his hometown in middle age, reuniting him with his family and introducing a number of additional characters to the mix. When rumor spreads that Rachela solved a problem that had stymied mathematical thinkers for centuries before her death, a drove of mathematicians descends on Wisconsin, seeking evidence that Rachela may have left behind.
Rojstaczer has been a professor of geophysics, and he effectively communicates the academic community’s rivalries, making both Sasha’s and Rachela’s pursuits of knowledge tangible. At times, Rojstaczer subtly undercuts Sasha’s perspective. Sasha’s estranged father isn’t introduced in the most glowing terms: We learn that Rachela discovered him cheating on her and left him, less for the adultery than for the shallowness of his choice.
Yet he’s also one of the novel’s most outspoken feminists, lashing out at an obituary that calls Rachela “The greatest female mathematician of her generation.” “What is this qualification ‘female’?” he demands. For all that he is a sober narrator, Sasha is far from perfect: His interactions with women aren’t always laudable, and his rabbinical detection abilities border on the obsessive. And Rachela’s prodigious talent can be alienating: consider her role, decades earlier, in hastening the end of Sasha’s marriage via her devotion to academic rigor.
The word is out. Leonard Maltin’s annual movie guide has fallen into what, in Hollywood speak, would be called “developmental hell.” First published in 1969 and annually since 1986, the new 2015 edition is its last. Like newspapers and other print media, it has fallen victim to the Internet, where much of the information is readily available, easily accessible and free.
The story behind the series is probably more interesting than the average “Transformers” film, however. Maltin was a high school student who published a fanzine. An English teacher impressed with his work put him in touch with a publisher, who was similarly awed.
The first edition of was to become “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” was called simply “TV Movies.” It “is a terrible title,” Maltin said in a telephone interview. “A competitor used up a better title, “Movies on TV.” It was actually Maltin’s suggestions for improving that book that convinced the publisher to sign the high school senior.
“I suggested adding a more extensive cast list, the director’s name, and indicating if it was in color or black and white, which was more important then.”
Maltin spoke to the Forward about being a high school nerd, his favorite (and least favorite) films, and davening with Theodore Bikel.
Curt Schleier: Were you a nerd in high school?
Musician Rosanne Cash reminisces about a purple shirt that once belonged to her legendary father. Designer Cynthia Rowley rhapsodizes about the Girl Scouts sash that helped ignite her entrepreneurial spark. And an octogenarian Holocaust survivor named Dorothy Finger shares memories of a suit made with a bolt of cloth she took from her childhood home — her only possession touched by her late mother.
Their stories are among 67 “sartorial memoirs” in “Worn Stories” (Princeton Architectural Press), a new book inspired by the blog where visitors share their stories about clothing and life experiences. A stark, simple image of an article of clothing — many in an advanced state of wear — accompanies each testimonial.
“Most of the garments aren’t particularly extraordinary by themselves,” says Worn Stories creator Emily Spivack. “It’s only by hearing each story that you recognize the significance. And even though the memories are all very specific, the themes they touch on are universal — family, relationships, a funny moment. They’re all moments in time from a personal and cultural perspective.”
Like No Other
By Una Lamarche
Razorbill, 352 pages, $17.99
In her new young adult novel, “Like No Other,” author Una Lamarche explores the racial and religious tensions in Crown Heights through the chance encounter of a West Indian boy and a Hasidic girl and the relationship that blossoms between the two.
When a hurricane traps Devorah Blum and Jaxon Hunte in an elevator, the two Crown Heights teenagers find themselves drawn into a forbidden romance that forces both characters to re-examine their roles and communal lives. Lamarche paints Jaxon as a book-smart nerd with a heart of gold and Devorah as strong and inquisitive. Both characters speak with young, fresh voices and try to balance their own personal dreams with the values of their families.
Sadly, the narrative fails to subvert the tropes to which it falls prey. There is little reason given for why Devorah and Jaxon fall so madly in love, and Devorah’s brother-in-law, an uptight, misogynistic and racist Hasid and member of the Shomrim community patrol, is unforgivably outlandish.
A version of this story first appeared on Women’s Voices for Change.
The best comic novel I’ve read this year wasn’t published by Random House or Penguin. It was self-published by Philadelphia writer Stacia Friedman. The title? “Tender is the Brisket.” Does the book live up to the comic promise of that title? Absolutely.
Ruth is a TV writer who, as her gold-digging pal Katya frequently points out, “is over forty… with nothing to show for it.” A few sitcoms, a couple of failed relationships, a marriage that went south — and no kids. At 42, Ruth wants what most women want — true love. She also wants a child.
A little financial security wouldn’t hurt either.
When her father dies, Ruth flies to New York for the funeral. To prevent her selfish siblings from stashing their wealthy mother, who has dementia, in a home, Ruth moves in with Mom and takes over the burden of her care. Which means continuing to cope with her malicious brother (a drop-dead-handsome man desperately seeking the money he needs to transition into a drop-dead-gorgeous woman) and her hostile sister, a clueless writer of self-help books like “The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Highly Insensitive People,” whose hubby is cheating on her and whose teenage daughter is totally out of control.
“Call me Ishmael,” declares one of the most famous opening sentences in Western literature.
But what if the narrator of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” was actually asking you to call him?
That was the whimsical thought Logan Smalley offered in a spirited bar conversation about notable first sentences. He jotted the notion down on a bar napkin.
Now, Smalley’s turned that notion into Call Me Ishmael, an innovative voicemail project that aims to spread the love of books by getting callers to share their most meaningful reading experiences.
“It’s about telling stories and discovering great books,” Smalley told the Forward. “Books define us, but we also define the books we read.”
In the month since Call Me Ishmael has launched, callers — who remain anonymous — have left messages about a far-flung range of books, from “Of Human Bondage” to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. A significant number of messages have covered Jewish-themed books.
The daughter of a Holocaust survivor called to share her father’s reaction to “Maus” — and her own awe at learning he knew Vladek Spiegelman, the author’s father. A woman rang up to confess how she wept after reading the World War II novel “The Book Thief” — on a treadmill at the gym. “Even when I look like a complete fool in public, I’m still completely transported by a book,” she said.
“Some working actors lost the best years of their lives and don’t know why.” Those words were written by actress/director Lee Grant in her new memoir, “I Said Yes To Everything.” And she should know. She was one of them.
Grant was the “surprise discovery” of the 1950 Broadway season for her role in “Detective Story.” Shortly afterwards, she was discovered by the House Un-American Activities Committee. For a dozen years, from 1952 to 1964 — essentially what could have been the prime of her career — she could not find meaningful work. Often when she did get a job, it was short-lived.
For example, she landed a role on a TV soap opera, “Search for Tomorrow.” But the network canned her after a supermarket owner from Syracuse, N.Y., told the sponsor’s ad agency he would put up a special display asking shoppers if they wanted to “brush their teeth with a product from a company that employs communists.”
Born Lyova Rosenthal, Grant spoke to the Forward about the blacklist, being her own worst enemy, and sending her adopted Thai-American daughter to Rodeph Shalom Day School in Manhattan.
Curt Schleier: Why did you decide to write your memoir now?