Shabbat Surfing–Lit Fest Half-Time Show

Big weekend coming up. Bernard-Henri Lévy is sold out, but Elisa Albert (The Book of Dahlia) and Darin Strauss (Best-selling author of Chang & Eng) both have tickets available on Sunday. Mention the blog and you’re entitled to 2-for-1 tickets for both readings.

It’s been a busy week, and there are many busy days ahead. The following is a PSA: 

In this election season it is important to remember that the Washington DCJCC does not support or oppose candidates for elected public office. Opinions expressed at all programs of the Washington DCJCC belong solely to those expressing them. The Washington DCJCC is committed to presenting a wide selection of programs that present multiple viewpoints and encourage you to visit our website washingtondcjcc.org for information on several events relating to this year’s election.

Now for something that is simultaneously religiously irreverent and reverent. From the good folks at myJewishLearning.com:

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Elisa Albert, Testing Empathy

Elisa Albert is the author of The Book of Dahlia: A Novel as well as How This Night Is Different, a collection of short stories which won the Moment Magazine Emerging Writer Award for Short Fiction.  She is the Fiction editor at Nextbook.org and an editor-at-large for Jewcy.com. She spoke with us via email about The Book of Dahlia which she will be reading from and signing at the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival on Sunday, September 21 at 4pm.

Q: Dahlia seems very much like someone I might have known growing up upper-middle class and Jewish in the burbs (actually my first reaction was that I think I dated her at some point). Were you afraid that some readers would fall into the trap of thinking of her as just a JAP (and I don’t like the term either)?

A:  The job of the novelist, as I see it,  is to show us the whole of a character we might otherwise assume we know at first glance — to uncover the layers that make humans the complex, sometimes baffling creatures we are.  Dahlia is of course a recognizable cliche (though she would probably argue vociferously against “JAP”), and she hopefully confronts and taunts the reader as such, acting as a narrative challenge.  Like all “unlikable” narrators, who force the reader to go beyond easy categorizations .  Ultimately the novel is a test of the reader’s empathy.  Not all readers are “good” readers in that they’re capable of having their empathy thusly tested, but writing to the lowest common denominator would be a giant waste of time, so screw that. 

Q: Reading your book made me think of Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphor, I was wondering if that book was an influence and if in some ways, Dahlia is a post-Sontag character? It seems Dahlia is constantly trying to convince everyone, and perhaps herself that her illness is not a metaphor, but an illness?

A:  Illness As Metaphor was hugely influential — the character of Dahlia pretty much coalesced via Sontag.  The notion that, culturally, there are illnesses we vault (poor thing!) and illnesses we abhor (should’ve used a condom!) is a fascinating one.  And yeah, how can we help but internalize that to some degree?  Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich was also very much at the forefront for me.  The living are generally so utterly terrified and confused by the spectre of death.  We go to great lengths to deny, distance, sanitize, and remove ourselves from the inescapable reality of it.  Which plays into Sontag’s theories, too, since how better to distance ourselves from death than to ascribe it often blatantly random ideas of cause/effect? 
And how fun, I thought, to confront all of the above with one furious, profane, flailing dying JAP?

Q: So you would call her a JAP? I ask not as a gotcha, just interested in what a trigger word that can be…

A: No, just playing with you. 

Q: Fair enough. Dahlia’s mother, Margalit, is something different from the stereotypical Jewish mother, and yet I doubt anyone will be nominating her as the redemption of Sophie Portnoy. Did it ever occur to you, that with Margalit you were simultaneously holding up for judgment two of the American Jewish community’s most sacred shrines: mothers and Israel?

A: Margalit’s a fictional character, and therefore theoretically immune to moral judgment.  In real life there are good mothers and bad mothers and everything-in-between mothers.  There are nice Israelis and not-so-nice Israelis.  There are thoughtful, sensitive clergy-people and sociopathic clergy-people.  There are Jewish people who are ethical and intelligent and Jewish people who are not so ethical and not so intelligent.  Point being, the novelist has zero responsibility to represent only the good in the world at large or in any particular demographic.   The Old Testament would be a damn short book if that were the case.  (Not to mention a snooze.)  As would the Iliad.  And The Catcher in the Rye.  And on and on.  If any reader’s ultimate understanding of mothers or Jewish mothers or Rabbis — or the State of Israel itself! — hinges on a single work of fiction, we’re in trouble.  It’s a story about particular, specific people, not a sketch of an entire demographic.

Q: Any thoughts about your own death? Have any opinions on the pros and cons of a fast vs. slow demise?

A:  That’s a difficult one to tackle in a brief email exchange with a relative stranger to be made public on the internet!  I’ll say that I try to be present in my own life with my loved ones while maintaining an awareness that I am in fact going to die.  As has everyone who’s ever lived.  As will everyone I love.  And if that awareness can help me live/love more fully and be more present and appreciate life more, excellent.  Fast death vs. slow death?  Barring suicide, we have no say.  So… onwards.

Q: Last question and then I’ll see you in DC. Would you have been friends with Dahlia if she were a real person?

A: I’ve been friends with several Dahlia-types, but they tend to be the kind of friendships that burn out, for obvious reasons.  but because she’s a character I dreamed up, it’s fairly easy for me to love her unconditionally

Elisa Albert, Darin Strauss, Peter Manseau and more Great Fiction coming in September

One of the best parts of my job is being able to read in-advance many of the authors we end up bringing for the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. For a four-eyed, lit-geek like myself, sitting on the Metro, reading a book emblazoned with “Advance Uncorrected Proofs: Not For Sale” is as close as I come to getting behind the velvet ropes of life. I may not score any invites to an inaugural ball, but I got to read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America weeks before it hit the shelves. Yeah, the ladies dig me.

So, I am having a great summer riding Metro, reading the lineup for the LitFest. I’ve even missed my stop a couple of times. The schedule for the Festival, running September 14-24 is online now and tickets are on-sale tomorrow. I’ll just mention below some of the books I’ve been able to read. In the coming weeks, we’ll have more detailed posts about the books and authors, as well as interviews and hopefully some multi-media, web 2.0-savvy content for you.

In this post, I’ll start with fiction. I’ve found time to read Darin Strauss‘s button-pushing novel More Than It Hurts You, which centers around a suburban Long Island Jewish couple, Josh and Dori Goldin, brought into tragic conflict with the Dr. Darlene Stokes, a brilliant African American doctor who treats their son for a mysterious ailment in the Emergency Room.

Elisa Albert‘s The Book of Dahlia is way too funny for a book about a young woman slowly dying of a malignant brain tumor. I think I may have dated Dahlia in college, or at least someone like her–damaged from divorce, blinded by low self-esteem to her own beauty, crazy mother, more than mildly self-destructive. She dumped me, with sentiments not unlike Dahlia, “What kind of loser would be so kind to someone like her: someone so obviously fucked up, problematic and issue-ridden? Would laugh at her stupid jokes? Would look at her and see anything but sheer ugliness? Would assert he dumbshit notion that everything would be okay? She dumped him in the most callous way imaginable. No explanation, no care–no returned phone calls, no email.”

Peter Manseau‘s first novel, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter is perhaps a natural follow-up to his award-winning memoir Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun and Their Son. Like Manseau, the narrator of the story is a young Catholic from Boston who ends up working at an organization dedicated to saving Yiddish books. However, the story truly takes flight in the “memoirs” of Itzik Malpesh, a Yiddish poet that the young man meets and whose story he translates. The story of Itzik’s birth, and how his life was saved by the butcher’s daughter Sasha Bimko becomes the pivotal moment of his life and his poetic destiny, which carries him from Kishinev to Odessa to New York and Baltimore. The “translator’s notes,”  inserted between episodes of Itzik’s life, serve as a counterpoint for the ways in which language can both reveal and hide the truth, just as characters in the story reveal and hide parts of themselves.

I’ve still got more fiction to read, including Adam Langer‘s Ellington Boulevard and Eileen Pollack‘s collection of short stories, In The Mouth. But next Thursday, I’ll post about some of the non-fiction we’ve got coming.

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