Mrs. Millions and I don’t get to the theatre that often, but we went to see a play on Friday that I recommend to anyone in Chicago right now. The play is called “Recent Tragic Events” and it looks at the mundane – in this case a blind date – through the lens of tragedy and shock – this blind date is taking place on September 12, 2001. I recommend the play for three reasons. First, and this is the least of the reasons, I went to high school with the director, Mikhael Tara Garver. She helped start Uma Productions in 2001, and she does a really great job putting on this play. Second, the play was penned by Craig Wright who has written for the HBO show, “Six Feet Under,” and he brings that same sensibility to this play. Mixing death and banality, he is unafraid of both the seriousness and the humor that arise in such situations. Finally, and this is where the literary relevance comes in, I recommend this play because that most prolific of authors, Joyce Carol Oates figures prominently in the production. The play’s main character, Waverly, happens to be Oates’ grand-niece, and at one point all of the Oates books on Waverly’s shelves and stacked on the floor in a pile that reaches several feet high before tipping over. For some reason I always get a kick out of pokes at Oates’ prodigious literary output. But then, Oates herself appears, played by – get this – a sock puppet, and, while I know it sounds ridiculous, it’s somehow perfect hearing this bespectacled sock name drop Salman Rushdie and John Updike. The play runs through next weekend at Chopin Theater. If you’re in Chicago, check it out.
1. “And if I perish, I perish.”
Anna Solomon is not the first person I would’ve expected to write a Jewish novel.
I met Anna seven years ago – we were both students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop – and while I knew Anna was Jewish, it wasn’t the first, or second, or even third thing I would’ve expected her to mention about her identity. Writer. Woman. From Gloucester, Mass. All those would have come first.
Her fiction, back then – and we had this in common – was scrubbed of any obviously Jewish characters or themes. The short story I remember most from workshop, which eventually became “What Is Alaska Like?” (One Story, April 2006), is about a chambermaid in Blue Lake Lodge, a roadside motel on Boston’s North Shore.
“There was no lake at Blue Lake,” Anna writes in the story. “The Lodge was a stucco motel on the Clam River, about an hour north of Boston. The stink came twice a day with low tide: mud and mussel shells and half-eaten crabs baking in the sun like the darkest casserole. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the smell, but these tourists from Ohio would stuff their faces into the sink like there was an answer in there. They wore visors that got in their way. ‘Sewage?’ they’d ask me. ‘Sulfur?’ ”
Her characters are Darlene and Jimmy and Ellen Crane. Even her rivers are treyf. It feels about as far from a depiction of Jewish experience as I can imagine.
Which is why, I’ll admit, I was surprised when I learned that Anna’s first novel, The Little Bride, released in September, is the story of Minna, a Jewish mail-order bride from Odessa, Ukraine, and her marriage to Max, a rigidly Orthodox Jew living on the “Sodokota” plains in the late 19th century. It’s about Am Olam, or “Eternal People,” a little-known historical movement that began in the 1800s, when immigrant Jews moved to the Western states and founded communal, agrarian colonies. Its most vivid scenes are Jewish, involving prayerbooks, teffilin, and kippot. The inscription is Hebrew: V’ka’asher ovadet ovadeti, “And if I perish, I perish.”
It’s a book that’s Jewish in its kishkes.
I sat down, recently, with Anna at a Park Slope, Brooklyn, coffee shop. We talked about her tenure a decade ago as National Public Radio’s Washington, D.C. bureau chief, when she spent 10 days in South Dakota producing a story about ranchers and the farm bill – an experience that would provide much of the scenic grist for her novel. (“I was totally blown away by the South Dakota landscape, especially the land near the Missouri River, the rolling hills – it feels like the motion is in the earth itself. And the air, how it just constantly seemed to be moving in one direction … very hot, gusting, dry air. I felt like I was in the middle of a continent.”) She recalled the afternoon she spent riding around with U.S. Senator Tom Daschle in his SUV. (“He’s just like he seems: short and friendly; speaks like a politician.”) We covered her approach to research. (“I’m not, as a reader, interested in how many buttons a dress had in the 1970s compared to the 1920s – so I don’t care as a writer.”) But we returned, time and again, to thorny questions of Jewish identity.
“I’m still getting used to the idea of getting called a ‘Jewish Writer,’” Anna said. “What does that even mean?”
2. “My Hair Got Curly”
Anna Solomon was one of only a few Jews at my son’s bris in Iowa City. Most of my friends from Workshop who came weren’t Jewish. As it turned out, we couldn’t even find a moyle to perform the ritual circumcision. The closest one lived in Chicago, some three hours away, and couldn’t drive to our home on Shabbat, the day of the ceremony.
When I asked Anna what she remembers about that day, she recalls talking another writer through it. He had never been to a bris and was, to say the least, “very uncomfortable.”
Standing in my living room in Iowa City that day Anna was an insider.
Growing up in Gloucester, she in many ways was not.
As it happens, I spent many summer weeks in Gloucester as a kid. To me, Gloucester was the Wreck of the Hesperus, the Gorton’s fisherman, and the reef of Norman’s Woe. Ten Pound Island and the Yankee Clipper fishing fleet, offering half-day trips for cod, pollock, and cusk. Gloucester was the small restaurant on the approach to Bass Rocks that my grandfather called “Goo Foo” – the d’s had long ago fallen off the signboard, and no one ever thought to replace them. I knew it as a tourist, yes, but I also knew it before Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm brought George Clooney to town, making it a permanent stop on Hollywood’s on-location tour.
Anna, meanwhile, knew a very different place, a mix of working class and patrician New England, ethnically Irish Catholic, Italian Catholic, and Protestant. Her dad was an art dealer. Her mom, a teacher. Both had doctorates in education from Harvard University. Anna, a “white, privileged female,” should have fit right in.
Only, she didn’t.
She recalls sensing this as early as kindergarten, when her teacher often asked her to write her name on the board: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum. (She has since dropped “Greenbaum,” her father’s surname, to make it easier for readers.) “It was a very Jewish name to write on the board,” Anna told me. “I think at that point, I started to feel the difference.”
Anna’s family was active in the local conservative synagogue, Ahavath Achim. Her parents led Shabbat services. Her mom was the first female president of the synagogue. Anna went to Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah. In high school, she played lacrosse, and began to stand out in more obvious, physical ways. “All the girls had straight, blondey, browny hair, and little noses,” she recalls. “My hair got curly.”
Things like sailing and skiing came naturally to other New Englanders. Anna’s family had to work at them.
“I was aware of myself being Jewish,” she said. “And it was important for me to fit in to a non-Jewish society.”
Anna’s early short stories, she told me, reflected this.
“The first short story I published in Shenandoah, ‘Proof We Exist,’ is about a 70-year-old WASP man living in Maine, with the last name Seed,” she says. “I was writing about the people I longed to be and not the person I was.
“I was so far from writing about myself,” she continued. “It took me a long time to do that. Even when I first started writing about young women, they were not Jewish. It took me a long time to open up to that aspect of my identity.”
“In my writing, I’ve gotten closer and closer to the things that really matter to me.”
3. Russian Dolls
The Little Bride is a beautiful book. In some ways, a writer’s book, with intricate, deeply moving language, powerful symbolism (one my favorite scenes depicts Minna, a new bride, literally blindfolded during her wedding reception), and vivid metaphor.
“New York is like being in the middle of a parade where everyone has been called home, all at once, in all different directions,” Anna writes.
And: “He was thin in the way of cellar insects, as if made to slip through cracks.”
“He was the sort of man that could locate praise in a bowl of teeth.”
There is a playful, riddle-like quality to the prose that, to me, evoked Russian dolls — “She dreamed the kind of dreams that seemed to be dreams of other dreams” and “He was like a boy actor playing a man actor playing a boy” and “He was like two men, the miner and the mined … and the mined man was two men, too, one stripped empty, the other filled back up with rage” — suggestive of the selves that we hide within ourselves.
More than once, I found myself nodding along in recognition. “So a decision was made. Or rather a decision was not not-made, and she came to Odessa by not not-coming.” Sure. That’s the same way a dozen years ago I moved to Washington, D.C.
Yet The Little Bride is also a sweeping historical novel about a Jewish woman’s journey: from the crowded streets of Odessa on the northwest shore of the Black Sea, Imperial Russia’s fourth largest city — where Jews faced four horrific pogroms in the 19th century — to the vast, harsh plains of South Dakota. The middle of a continent. Where Jews were largely unknown.
The narrative is in some ways reminiscent of biblical narrative. Minna leaves the land she knows and goes forth into the unknown, just like Abraham. She struggles to conceive, like Sarah. Max’s two sons, Jacob and Samuel, evoke Jacob (the angel wrestler) and Esau (the rough hunter), respectively, and, like the biblical Jacob, each prove capable of devastating betrayal.
In Judaism, memory is an obligation. Zachor. Remember that we were slaves in Egypt. Remember to keep Shabbat. Remember the Holocaust. In The Little Bride, memory sometimes feels fungible, not quite reliable. “Like any moment one waited for,” Anna writes, “Minna did not experience it so much as she saw herself experiencing it, so that as soon as it was over her memory of it was already made.”
There were times when twisting, circular sentences left me scratching my head, grappling for meaning. “Knowing the opposite of a thing,” Anna writes, “often seemed to Minna to be the same as knowing the thing itself.”
More often, the Lewis Carroll-like prose landed effortlessly, with a flash of insight: “They were never almost anywhere but the place they’d been a half hour ago.”
It’s a description of a ship crossing an ocean. But it could be almost anything. A person seeking a job. A couple having the same old fight.
A couple of yeshiva bochers, talking about the nature of God.
4. “It’s only a cross”
In The Little Bride, Anna tells the story of Jewish characters struggling to live Jewish lives, trying to understand what that means, and in that way, her writing is much closer to her experience. These are the characters she has been waiting for. Or, maybe, these are the characters that have been waiting for her.
“She learned to concentrate on not concentrating,” Anna writes of Minna, “to let her mind spread out, puddle-like, far enough from the body that the body was forgotten. Or at least silenced. A calm fell over her limbs. She wondered if this was prayer. If prayer was nothing more than a giving in, like sickness — if you weren’t required to believe, only to stop struggling.”
Reading this, it’s impossible for me to not hear echoes “Is My Toddler More Jewish than Me?”, a recent article Anna wrote for the Jewish parenting website Kveller.com, in which Anna writes about her conflicted relationship with Judaism, made more acute as her toddler, Sylvie, embraces Jewish ritual with the passion and joy of a zealot.
“Maybe we’re complicating what could be simple, if we stopped trying to figure it out,” Anna concluded in the blog post. “Maybe, instead of working so hard to protect Sylvie from our own experience, we should open ourselves to hers. We, after all, are the ones who sit or stand in synagogue now and have no clue where we are. We focus on the cantor being too operatic or the siddurs too outdated because we are new to the synagogues, yes, but also because we are scared of just being there, not as Sylvie’s parents – thinking, figuring – but as ourselves.”
There is a scene, toward the end of the novel: an accident has destroyed the family’s sod home, leaving it in ruins. Minna and Max are taken in by a German couple, Christians. Living in their home, Max feels assaulted by the cross hanging above the door.
“They expect us to look at this little man,” Max says, indignant.
“Motke,” Minna says, “it’s only a cross. … There is no little man.”
In Minna’s rejoinder, as in Minna’s name, I recognize Anna.
“Why am I Jewish?” Anna told me in Park Slope. “Why am I here and not in church? I don’t know that it matters if I come to religion as a Jew or a Catholic or anything else. I do it as a Jew because I am a Jew.”
This is, at its core, a novel about Jewish questions, Jewish experience.
But it is also, as with some of Anna’s early stories, more broadly about choice. Specifically, Minna’s choices. Whether to leave Odessa. Whether to stay with Max. Whether to return to him.
Thinking about this, I’m reminded of my favorite definition of theme, from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Theme, Burroway explains, is not what a novel is about, but, rather, what about what it’s about.
The Little Bride is a novel about choice. But what about choice?
“She had a choice,” Anna writes. “Which Minna used to think was the same as freedom.”
In fact, The Little Bride suggests, paradoxically, the opposite may be true. Max, who lives by a strict set of rules — God commands: what to eat, what to wear, how to act; there are few, if any existential questions — may just have more freedom than Minna.
By way of explaining, Anna posits the following scenario. Say you are teaching a creative writing workshop. You could tell your students: “Just write for 15 minutes. Something. Anything.” This, though, can be paralyzing. So instead, have them write for 15 minutes describing a barn from the point of view of a man whose has just learned his son has died – the classic John Gardner exercise.
“They suddenly have parameters,” Anna says. “They can just go.”
“You could love anyone, [Minna] thought, if you needed to,” Anna writes. “And in a curious way, not in spite of her need but because of it, because she was hungry and trapped, she felt safe.” Safe, in a moment when there are no decisions to make. Trapped, and therefore free.
“I am fascinated by people who join up — it could be Orthodox Judaism or the hard core punk scene — but they join in a very extreme, very intense, total way, and the idea is about following the rules. There’s a lot of liberty in that — a lot of comfort in it … I have a deep understanding of the appeal that kind of faith and fervor can hold.”
Here, Anna segues.
“In my early years as a writer,” she says, “I felt like I had to write. But some part of me wanted to stop. There was a real appeal for me to do something where the answers were provided … just to have a job or be in a community where it was clear what I was supposed to do. That would’ve been easier.”
“At its base, there’s this relationship to writing itself. Writing is so scary and unknown. When writing fiction, no one tells you what to do. There’s terror in having freedom.”
The Little Bride is, in this way, a novel about writing. Which brings me back, Russian doll-like, to the Anna I knew in the first place.
The man wanted the box I was carrying. I’d almost made it to the front door of a Goodwill in Brooklyn, and I had no idea how he’d guessed the box was full of books. There were no labels and the top flaps were closed. I was staggering a bit under its weight, but I could have been donating kitchen supplies, clothes, or old toys. Anything! He came toward me, a man probably in his 30s, ragged, living on the edge. His face opened into a smile and he closed the distance between us fast, holding out his arms.
“Books?” he asked. “Are those books?”
“Yes,” I said. Then I realized I was in the wrong place. A sign on the door of the Goodwill said we needed to use another entrance around the corner.
“Can I have them?” he asked. “I love books. I love reading.”
I looked at my husband. He was holding two boxes of books and staggering more than I. I looked at my children, who were looking up at me, waiting.
I am uncomfortable shedding books. The three boxes my husband and I were holding, plus three more in the trunk of the car, were the result of a careful purge executed after living abroad for a year. We’d been home only a few weeks and it was clear our bookcases were too crowded to hold all the books we’d bought in Germany. In the days I’d spent weeding the shelves, I’d very nearly given up my college edition of Ulysses before confessing on Twitter and being saved by a bookseller friend who suspected I was making a mistake while still addled by jetlag. But I did a few unthinkable things, such as keeping only my favorite McEwan novels. I told myself only collectors keep complete sets and I am fundamentally not a collector, especially in a Manhattan apartment.
“You like to read?” I asked weakly, stalling.
“Yeah!” he said.
His enthusiasm seemed genuine, but given his general condition, I couldn’t convince myself he wasn’t going to go around the corner and sell the books on the sidewalk. Did I want the sale of the books to benefit Goodwill more than him? That didn’t seem right. But I was committed to the idea that the books would sit, dry and cared for, until someone came along and chose them. My husband’s grandmother, an amazing reader, bought all her books at the Goodwill in Norfolk, Va., I guess I was picturing someone like her.
“Mom?” my nine-year-old daughter said. She looked worried and a bit confused. She loves books, too, and this is what she was taking in: My reluctance to give a box of books to someone who had just told us he loved to read. I didn’t know what to do.
“You really want them?” I said. “You want to read them?”
I gave him the box and smiled at my daughter, but I was aware of making a choice that had more to do with how I wanted to teach her to treat people than how I actually wanted to treat the books I was holding. And then, unable to shake the feeling that I was abandoning some part of myself to an uncertain fate, I followed him and my daughter followed me. My husband and son headed to the correct Goodwill entrance; the man with my books crossed the street, put the box down, and opened it. He sorted through the books, picked up a few for closer inspection, and ultimately put several in a bag he was wearing over his shoulder. I wanted to know which books he was taking, books I’d lived with for nearly 20 years, but his back was to me and I couldn’t see.
“What’s he doing?” my daughter asked. We were standing behind a parked car across the street.
“Well, I think he’s picking out the ones he wants,” I said.
“He’s not taking them all?” she asked.
“Maybe not. The box is heavy.”
The man closed the box, picked it up, and started walking again. Half-a-block along, and now directly across the street from the Goodwill entrance my husband had gone to, he appeared to run into a friend who was unloading a truck. They talked for a minute, then he put the box down and his friend went through the books, also taking a few for himself. The exchange seemed spontaneous and magnanimous.
I hugged my daughter.
My husband passed by with the last two boxes. “How’s it going?” he asked.
“He’s sharing some of the books with a friend!” I announced.
While my husband was in the Goodwill, the man crossed the street, put the box on the sidewalk in front of the correct entrance, and walked away.
In the car on the way home, my husband said that the workers inside the Goodwill had been truly grumpy about receiving five boxes of books. He’d found it disheartening, and on top of it all, we’d gotten a parking ticket, the fact that we were making a donation not impressive enough to save us.
I turned around and looked at my tired children. “Isn’t it so lucky we bumped into a reader on the street?”
“Do you really think he was?” my daughter asked.
“I do,” I said. And I do.
Image Credit: Flickr/Beaufort’s TheDigitel
Two weeks ago, I finished school, packed it up, and returned to San Francisco after a three-year hiatus. My first event as a Californian reborn was Saturday’s “Tumbeliever Party” at the Makeout Room, a dark and venerable joint in the Mission. The party, built around Sheila Heti’s book tour for her new novel, How Should a Person Be?, was a dual effort between Tumblr and The Believer and featured readings by several local writers. Presiding was Rachel Fershleiser, an energetic person whose job at Tumblr (Literary and Non-Profit Outreach) seems to be using technology to make things happen with books to make things happen with technology by having parties — so, the best job in the world.
The Makeout Room is designed like a bottle, with the entryway and bar area its neck. Trying to get a drink to dull the pain of feeling like everyone knows each other except for you was a minor trial, solved by Black Star beers in cans. The Booksmith ran the book table, and there were drink tickets (thx TumBelvr!). Isaac Fitzgerald, of The Rumpus, began the readings with a vignette about his first tattoo, an expansion of his bio on Pen & Ink, the tattoo tumblr Fitzgerald runs with Wendy MacNaughton. His tattoo, “Forgive Me,” is an apology to a particular young lady for his fickle heart and the freckled charms of the other young ladies with whom he spent one New Hampshire summer.
Fitzgerald and the main event, Sheila Heti, formed a sort of bracket to the proceedings in that they did not read pieces about San Francisco. The artist and writer Joshua Heineman, of the site Cursive Cities and the joint New York Public Library project the Stereogranimator, had been instructed by Fershleiser to make it “dirty or funny.” While he told the assembled that he was accustomed to being neither in his work, he made a strong showing toward the latter with a true-life tale about being clubbed by a mentally ill fellow wielding Mickey Mouse statuary in a Mission Street bagel shop. Before giving up the stage Heineman took the opportunity to read a poem, not funny or dirty, but heartfelt, about Abroad.
While San Francisco is commonly held to be a city of transplants (cf. the recent burn on 30 Rock), Melissa Graeber, tumblr proprietress and world’s youngest English Department Chair, is a fifth-generation San Franciscan. She read a lovely piece about her family, parents who grew up in adjacent houses, and a box of dirt — a literal interpretation of Fershleiser’s charge to be dirty. She was followed by crowd favorite and genial presence Mills Baker of Aporia (where you can also watch his performance). The San Francisco vibe peaked with this reading, because Baker read from an iPad, indicating that it is the future, and relayed another story of a San Franciscan who marched to the proverbial beat of her own drum (this is the long way to say crazy). Then came a brief meditation on the bougie guilt and writerly predation and color-line anxiety of one city dweller for another.
Sheila Heti took the stage last, and told us that she would be dirty. And how. Reading from her new book about a divorced feminist playwright, Heti selected what can only be the dirtiest bits, an extended sex party between the protagonist and an artist named Israel (a name which sometimes made the passage seem like very oblique comment on the Israel-Palestine conflict, e.g., “She thinks she can go around…not having known the humiliation of being fucked by Israel”). It was a funny and provocative passage to mark the end of a rousing evening in the golden West.