Debut Short Story Collections from R.L. Maizes and Julie Zuckerman
We Love Anderson Cooper: Short Stories By R.L. Maizes (Celadon Books, 166 pp. $25)
The Book of Jeremiah: A Novel in StoriesBy Julie Zuckerman (Press 53, 202 pp. $17.95)
Judaism has a rich storytelling history, including centuries of oral law and legends, the interpretive stories of midrash and the traveling storytelling preachers known as maggidim in the Middle Ages. Two debut female authors, R.L. Maizes and Julie Zuckerman, are continuing the tradition with their new books. Maizes writes a classic collection of disparate stories, while Zuckerman calls her connected tales “a novel in stories,” but both draw on secular and Jewish story conventions to tackle themes equally Jewish and universal.
In We Love Anderson Cooper, Maizes shares 11 stories populated by outsiders. In the title story, Markus struggles to tell his parents he’s gay, then blurts it out from the bimah at his bar mitzvah. Other tales present a tattoo artist who makes clients beautiful while feeling shunned because of his own unattractive appearance; a woman grieving failed pregnancies; a teenage girl mourning her dead father; and many characters who struggle financially. Yet often these characters end up disappointed when their hopes are realized. After the tattoo artist decides to beautify his own body, he misses the way his wife loved his original, flawed self. Markus, the gay bar mitzvah boy, gains the fame he desired from his public coming out, then realizes his more private boyfriend was all he really wanted.
Maizes fills her stories with pets (cats, parakeets and “humping” corgis), working women (a therapist, a C.P.A., multiple lawyers) and humor (after Markus’s calamitous reveal, his mother says, “We would have understood. We love Anderson Cooper.”). A thread of fantasy also runs through this collection—tattoos seem to cure the sick as does a mysterious couch, which heals the therapist’s patients and then the therapist herself. Perhaps this is another nod to tradition, as Jews for centuries have turned to fantasy, from the golem to Superman, in their struggles to survive.
In Zuckerman’s The Book of Jeremiah, the cast of characters in the 13 interconnected tales moves back and forth in time and varies in point of view, including the female perspectives of Jeremiah Gerster’s mother, wife and daughter. But the overarching narrative is the story of Jeremiah, from age 6 to 82, set against the backdrop of history—the Great Depression, wars, civil rights and Watergate.
As a Jew and son of immigrants, Jeremiah, the quintessential outsider, is described as “mercurial, volatile, and impulsive.” In the story “Transcendental,” Jeremiah’s son suggests possible diagnoses of mental illness for his father, but mostly Jeremiah is treated as difficult and different. He’s not an outsider because of external factors, such as money, appearance or bereavement, but because of who he is inside.
A renowned political scientist, Jeremiah leaves the National Security Council (“Even after so many years, he never felt like a Washington insider”) for a career in academia. Despite many accomplishments, he is most notorious for causing mischief and disruptions, from a childhood prank setting frogs loose on his mother’s Passover table to getting arrested for protesting the Vietnam War while chaperoning his daughter’s class trip. Yet Zuckerman digs deeper into Jeremiah’s loneliness and feelings of failure. In the title story, at a party celebrating publication of a festschrift honoring his 80th birthday, Jeremiah delivers a disastrous speech, then suffers mightily from “the anxiety of being called out as a fraud, like the prophet in the real Book of Jeremiah.”
Leo Tolstoy famously said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” Here, strangers come to town—the ultimate definition of the literary outsider. In their new books, Maizes and Zuckerman give us much to consider as to how outsiders are treated by—and can live within—society.
Elizabeth Edelglass is a Judaic librarian, fiction writer and book reviewer living in Connecticut.
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