Thursday, April 17, 2014 Nisan 17, 5774

BOOKed: From an Unlikely Hero to an Illustrated Memoir

January 23, 2014
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A young man seeking answers about his ancestry, a fictional elderly hero and one of the most influential illustrators of the twentieth century drive the titles in this edition of our online books column. 

Most of these recommendations come from a team of voracious readers in our community who volunteered to offer their thoughts on the latest and greatest Jewish books. If you're interested in contributing, simply email us to find out how to get involved. All of the books featured here are either written by a Jewish author or contain Jewish themes. 

 

Norwegian By Night
By Derek B. Miller
(290 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Sheldon Horowitz is not your typical hero. He is an 82-year-old Jewish New Yorker living in Norway with his devoted granddaughter, Rhea, and her new husband, Lars.  Sheldon is impatient, cranky and difficult.  He is also supposedly suffering from dementia and it is occasionally unclear whether his past reflections are accurate or imaginary. Sheldon's days often revolve around his memories of his wife and son, his days as a former Marine sniper in the Korean War and the life he used to live as a watch repairman in NYC. He is also plagued with guilt over his son's death in the Vietnam War.

One morning, while alone in his granddaughter's apartment, Sheldon witnesses a horrific crime and makes a decision that will change his future. While hiding in a closet, a mother is murdered, and Sheldon bravely decides to flee with the woman's young son.  While the first half of the novel leads up to the murder, the second half plays out like a CSI episode. Sigrid and Peter, the officers investigating the crime, desperately try to find Sheldon before Enver, the Balkan criminal does.

Miller's debut novel combines dry humor with fascinating characters, heartbreaking losses and the power of familial love. You will find yourself connecting with Sheldon and hoping for a happy ending for this unlikely hero.

- Melissa Rosenthal

We Won't See Auschwitz
By Jérémie Dres
(198 pages, SelfMadeHero)

This graphic memoir recounts the author's journey to Poland to research his family history after the death of his beloved grandmother, who fled the country right before the Holocaust. Dres, a young man living in Paris, and his brother Martin set off "to find her again," research their entire family and discover what it means to be Jewish in Poland now.

As the title suggests, the men decide not to focus on Holocaust sites like Auschwitz. Instead, they visit the village where their grandfather was born and Kraków, where they attend a festival of Jewish culture. In Warsaw, their grandmother’s hometown, they tour the Warsaw Ghetto, which has been preserved as a memorial.

Dres expects to find no evidence of Jews living in Poland, so when he does, it hits him like “an electric shock.” He and his brother meet leaders of a cultural organization who give them a history of the country's Jews, and two rabbis who talk to them about assimilation and the re-establishment of the Jewish identity there. An artist explains how the Jews who left Poland after the war were “more Jewish than Polish” and that while anti-Semitism still exists in the small towns, the cities are “OK.”  They visit the graves of their grandmother’s parents, where, for the first time, their Jewishness makes them feel very self-conscious. The Jewish cemetery is unkempt and the people working at the registrar’s office make them so unnerved that they actually lie about why they are there. 

The black-and-white illustrations provide a nice backdrop and make the story very easy to read — however, it's not always easy to comprehend. What you think you understand on one page is doubted on the next, then solved again but re-questioned once more. Some sections seem offensive, and it's not clear if these are attempts at humor or sarcasm or something else. Part of that may be attributed to nuances that got lost in translation. These criticisms aside, if you're interested in a European perspective on the history of Jewish Poland, you may really appreciate this quick read. 

- Karen Eckstein-Sarkissian

Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work
By Justin G. Schiller, Dennis M.V. David and Leonard S. Marcus
(224 pages, Harry N. Abrams)

In celebration of one of the most influential illustrators of the twentieth century, the Society of Illustrators presented an exhibition of Maurice Sendak’s work last summer and published this catalogue featuring more than 200 images of his work.

Sendak died in May 2012 after a long and varied career. He tackled almost any assignment that came his way — department store window displays, operas, posters, advertisements — and bringing to them all his brilliant imagination, artistic power and sense of humor. In addition, Sendak was a scholar, keen observer and collector of illustration and fine art, and he drew on this storehouse to enrich his work. Leafing through the pages of this oversized volume with its well-reproduced images, readers will see intimations of Mickey Mouse, Little Nemo, classic Victorian illustrators, William Blake and Ralph Caldecott. 

Twelve diverse friends and colleagues contributed largely personal essays offering interesting glimpses into Sendak’s work. At times these writers assume a little too much, supposing readers will have the same knowledge they have of Sendak. Readers might also want a little more background to connect the art shown with the points the essays make. 

Above all, the value of the catalogue is its publication of much work that has not been seen before — preliminary sketches with notes, casual correspondence, private holdings. It is very satisfying to see a gifted artist at work and at leisure. There is also illuminating material on what Sendak called his trilogy — Where the Wild Things Are, The Night Kitchen and Outside Over There, three very different books that give deep-seated emotions expression in carefully thought-out art. This compilation offers an exceptional opportunity to look at Sendak from many angles and to see anew what he achieved.

- Maron L. Waxman

Editor's note: This review has been reprinted and condensed with permission from the Jewish Book Council website. The impact of Sendak's legacy can also be seen in person in Philadelphia, where the Rosenbach Museum holds some 10,000 pieces of Sendakiana, from original art to opera costumes.

 

 

 

 

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