Books: Philip Roth, Humility and Short Books
by Philip Roth. (Houghton Mifflin, 160pp. $22)
In recent years, Philip Roth has ventured from the large ambition of novels such as American Pastoral (1997) and The Plot Against America (2004) to shorter tales that focus, laser-like, on the many faces of desperation and death. In Everyman(2006), he retraces the steps that bring us to a protagonist’s funeral—and to intimations of our own eventual passing; inIndignation (2008), a young soldier recounts how he was booted out of college and ended up as saber fodder during the Korean War. In his latest work, The Humbling, Simon Axler, a formerly great classical actor, falls on a series of bad times.
Equations between Roth’s characters and Roth himself have always been problematic. Nathan Zuckerman often functions as Roth’s smart aleck mouthpiece but he is not interchangeable with Roth. Rather, the much put-upon Zuckerman is the springboard that makes the author’s more dazzling performances possible. Other Roth protagonists also contain whiffs of the author behind the curtain.
No such identifications pop to mind in The Humbling. The instincts that made Axler a world-class actor have simply run out by the time he reaches his midsixties: “Now he was thinking about everything, and everything spontaneous and vital was killed—he tried to control it with thinking and instead he destroyed it.” By contrast, Roth is as far from having writer’s block as one can imagine; his deliciously textured paragraphs give no indication that they are slowing up, much less stopping, any time soon.
Unfortunately, Axler fails to hold our interest, partly because he seems not the stuff of which theater is made and partly because we find it hard to believe his odd love affair with a 40-year-old former lesbian.
In the typical Roth novella, we learn about a protagonist’s American-Jewish upbringing, usually in the environs of Newark, New Jersey, and often a good deal about the business where Roth’s fictional fathers worked. Such dimensions are conspicuously absent in The Humbling: Axler arrives fully formed, with only his name giving any indication of his Jewishness. He is, in short, a man without a past, a man with no history other than that of classical drama. Meticulous preparation, plus his omnipresent “instinct,” turned him into Falstaff, Peer Gynt or Uncle Vanya. Now, without a role to his name, he is nothing.
Given all this, Axler’s subsequent downturn is hardly surprising. His grief piles up: He spends a stint at a mental institution, his wife leaves him and loneliness settles into his isolated country house, presumably for a long stay.
Enter Pegeen Mike Stapleford, “who had lived as a lesbian since she was 23,” and who, now at 40, finds herself sharing a bed with the 65-year-old Axler. Roth has always enjoyed exploring sexuality’s darker sides (some would say too much), and when an impromptu threesome is added to the mix, the Simon-Pegeen relationship abruptly falls apart.
Axler’s final “role” is telegraphed early in the novella and reinforced throughout its terse pages, but the reviewer’s code prohibits me from divulging it here. My hunch is that most readers will feel more relief than shock as the tale’s concluding line makes its predictable point. —Sanford Pinsker
Sima’s Undergarments for Women: A Novel
by Ilana Stanger-Ross. (Overlook Press, 320 pp. $24.95)
Ilana Stanger-Ross, a Brooklyn-born writer now living in Victoria, British Columbia, could become Victoria’s not-so secret. Her first novel, Sima’s Undergarments for Women, is likely to resonate with Jewish women for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are self-identity and shared experiences.
Set in the basement of a house in Brooklyn’s heavily Orthodox Boro Park neighborhood, the delicately named Sima’s Undergarments for Women deals with intimate adult issues: a girl’s coming of age, marital numbness, adultery, sexual yearnings, childlessness, masturbation, jealousy and stalking, among other themes, while engaging the reader in a strikingly original narrative. Unfortunately, despite its rapid pace, the novel reaches a predictable and disappointing conclusion, marring an otherwise auspicious debut.
Sima, the eponymous title character, has owned her shop for more than three decades, servicing the shy, the modest, the insecure and the hard-to-fit. Along the way she has developed an expertise that endears her to her customers: She can accurately determine a woman’s cup size by sight. Mothers bring daughters for their first bras, and again for special occasions like a bat mitzva or wedding. And then, as frequently befits an Orthodox wife, a nursing bra nine months later. These life-cycle events serve as a counterpoint for Sima, who could never become pregnant. Her 46-year marriage to a compliant Lev, a retired teacher, has become lifeless and routine. But when a young Israeli woman, Timna, comes into the shop for a bra, Sima’s life pattern gets turned on its head. Timna’s breasts are the most beautiful and perfect Sima has ever seen. When Sima brings Timna a few bras to try on, Timna is unimpressed. “Do you have anything sexy,” she asks. “You like lacy?” Sima responds, “Demi?”
“Doesn’t matter, just so long as my boyfriend will like it. Not that he’d notice—–men just like to take them off, no?”
Soon Sima hires Timna to be her seamstress. In short order, Timna lights up her life, perhaps becoming the daughter Sima wishes she had. Or even, the author hints, the lover she might have had. As Timna explores Manhattan and lives her own life, a curious but concerned Sima seeks to learn the details of her experiences and perhaps share some vicariously without intruding. She is not successful and rightly gets a comeuppance from Timna, who, in typically blunt Israeli fashion, tells her to mind her own business. While this relationship drives the story, Sima’s long-held secret reason for her barrenness becomes an exclamation point to her cowardly marriage of convenience and, Stanger-Ross says, shows how couples can become isolated even in an intimate relationship.
Although born in Brooklyn, where her mother took her for her first bra, Stanger-Ross has not lived there since the age of 18. Amateur life cycle analysts take note: Stanger-Ross is currently completing studies to be a midwife. —Stewart Kampel
by Roslyn Bernstein. Photographs by Kenneth S. Tydings.
(Blue EFT Press, 183 pp. $10.50)
Fourteen interconnected stories tell how Beverly, a would-be actress, came to manage Friedman’s Skeeball Arcade on the boardwalk and fell in love with Arnold, who ran the Ferris wheel amusements at Playworld. Other characters include fat lady Jolly Trixie, who eats to keep from getting the blues, hot dog sellers and switchboard operators—and Miss Lydia, who runs a “professional” dance studio.
The tales begin in the 1950s—a time when the F.B.I. could convince a child (Beverly) it was patriotic to spy on her best friend’s family (after all, even if they were nice Jewish people, they were Communists). They end in 1970 when the boardwalk’s future is uncertain. After all, the younger generation now had money for a trip to Florida or to travel the world; Playworld’s whip, bumper cars and amusements could not compete with the newly opened Disneyworld, Arnold muses.
Roslyn Bernstein’s prose is unadorned yet filled with fine, knowing details of the era: kewpie dolls and goldfish prizes; old-timers’ memories of sightings of enemy submarines from the tower off the beach in the ’40s. The boardwalk is unnamed—and many of the stories could have taken place in any beachfront neighborhood on the Eastern seaboard—but details hint at it being Long Beach, New York, not least because it describes the West End as the place where blue collar workers lived; the East End, where the rich people “clustered”; and the middle class, naturally, living in the center of town.
Kenneth Tydings wonderful black-and-white photographs perfectly and richly complement the stories. Bernstein successfully elicits feelings for her characters and for a time that was, but adding the images is a winning combination. For instance, in one picture a boy is seen from the back staring over a fence at a silent ride on snow-covered grounds. The image introduces the story “Playworld,” in which the Arnold first meets Joey, a boy who has run away from the local orphanage; later Joey decides he wants to wear a Jewish star, to be Jewish like Arnold and Beverly.
The stories essentially are about finding home—whether it is Joey’s desperate wish to live with Arnold, or the other boardwalk habitués, amusement and food purveyors, whose camaraderie makes the boardwalk their home—as much as the tangy smell of the saltwater and the grainy feel of the sand. —Zelda Shluker
A Code of Jewish Ethics: Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor As Yourself
by Joseph Telushkin. (Bell Tower/Crown, 490 pp. $32.50)
Judaism has often been described by those not in the know as a religion of law and justice rather than love. Anyone who has read the Torah even once can grasp the falseness of that statement—how often Jews are commanded to love God, to love the stranger and, most centrally, to love one another.
But how do you translate emotion into action? This is the subject of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s second volume on Jewish ethics. Continuing where the first in the series—a book about holiness—left off, A Code of Jewish Ethics, the author says, aims to “bring together in one volume a comprehensive summation of what Jewish tradition teaches” about fulfilling the mitzva to love your neighbor as yourself.
After defining this commandment as the major principle of the Torah, Telushkin breaks down the concept into several categories, including hospitality, visiting the sick, final kindness (obligations toward the dead), tzedaka and Jews and non-Jews.
As he has done throughout his numerous texts on Judaism—including Jewish Literacy and Jewish Wisdom (both by William Morrow) and The Book of Jewish Values (Harmony/Bell Tower)—Telushkin writes directly, succinctly and clearly. The result is a book that is both immediately accessible but that can also have an emotional impact over time.
The key strength of Telushkin, a popular lecturer and fiction writer, lies not only in his considerable learning but in his storytelling. He disperses anecdotes—ones from the Bible, the Talmud and the Midrash as well as contemporary thinkers, both Jewish and not—throughout his discussions of laws and values.
There are those who might take exception to the title of the book, invoking such halakhic codes as the Shulhan Arukh. Some traditionalists might be displeased with Telushkin’s approach, which is not always text bound. The Jewish sources themselves, while outlining proper behavior, don’t necessarily use the construct of ethics.
Yet the format Telushkin uses is time honored. It is the one, he explains, in which legal codes have been written since the Mishna—using chapters with numbered paragraphs further elucidating the chapter topics.
Perhaps the book’s title does seem audacious. Perhaps some might complain that Telushkin’s book could supersede the desire for additional study. I believe it will only whet an appetite for such study and encourage dialogue at the same time. The author has launched a Facebook group called The Jewish Ethics Project, a forum for people to share their stories and ideas for making ethics and Jewish ethical teachings part of their everyday lives.
Of course, no one book can ever be comprehensive. There are many Jewish medical ethical issues not covered. And one may wonder, even if you are an animal lover, why the chapter on Jewish attitudes toward animals is included in a work on love your neighbor.
However, these are quibbling points. Overall, and impressively so, the book represents another successful attempt by Telushkin to fuse scholarship and life experience. —Barbara Trainin Blank
JEWISH BEST SELLERS
1. The Defector by Daniel Silva. (Putnam, $26.95)
2. Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner. (Atria, $26.99)
3. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. (St. Martin’s Griffin, $13.95, paper)
4. This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. (Dutton, $25.95)
5. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. (Penguin, $15, paper)
1. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story
by Diane Ackerman. (W.W. Norton, $14.95, paper)
2. The Israel Test by George Gilder. (Richard Vigilante Books, $27.95)
3. The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West by Dore Gold. (Regnery, $7.95, paper)
4. Night by Elie Wiesel. (Hill & Wang, $9.95, paper)
5. The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets for Reigniting Desire and Restoring Passion for Life by Shmuley Boteach.(HarperOne, $25.99)
Editor’s Note: Jewish readers purchase books for enjoyment and enlightenment, to reinforce their viewpoints or to see what the opposition is saying. The Top Ten Jewish Best Sellers list reflects only sales and does not imply approval by Hadassah Magazine.
Courtesy of www.MyJewishBooks.com.