This week brought news that Obama is reading David Grossman’s novel "To the End of the Land" while summering on Martha’s Vineyard. It was one of the best reviewed book’s last year, and that it focuses on an Israeli mother whose son is killed in yet another Arab war, is probably lost on no one. Certainly not Jews.
Everyone knows Obama is a serious reader–his own writing ability make that plain–and there’s good reason to think he chose Grossman’s novel because of that fact. His beach tote also includes Isabel Wilkerson’s prize-winning "The Warmth of Other Sons" (also in mine), about the migration of blacks in America, as well as Ward Just’s "Rodin’s Debutante," another serious work of fiction set in Depression-era Chicago.
Of course these books also wear their politics on their sleave, at least superficially. A book about by an Israeli novel that’s also cri de coeur against Arab wars? Natch, Jewish, and possibly Arab votes too. A book about black migration? Come back Cornel West! And one about Chicago? Shout out to the Fightin’ Illini’: Obama still loves you!
It could be that bibliophiles read too much into this, to say nothing of pundits. But if Obama wanted a good Jewish book to read on vacation, I would have steered him elsewhere. Grossman’s novel is a profound, beautiful one, but given the politics of the general subject I would have avoided it. Anyway, the mind of an Israeli novelist is markedly different from a general Jewish American one. (Then again, the mind of any novelist probably isn’t the best way into the mind of the general public either.)
With that in mind, here’s my own Presidential recommendations:
Howard Jacobson’s "The Finkler Question." OK, fine, not by an American author either (Jacobson’s British), but a hilarious and still incisive portrait of the paranoid politics of Diaspora Jews.
Dara Horn’s "All Other Nights." By one of America’s most promising, young Jewish writers, it’s set during the Civil War and follows a Jew who’s about to try and kill Abraham Lincoln.
Nicole Krauss’s "The Great House." Another big-time, young Jewish author, this one touches on all the major nodes of modern Jewish life: the Holocaust, the Jewish diaspora, even a smidgen on Israel.
Cynthia Ozick’s "The Shawl." Few Jewish writers have a sharper mind than Ozick’s, and given her age and politics, it’ll add some much needed balance to the left-ward bent of this otherwise apolitical list. Originally written for The New Yorker in 1981, it follows a woman who survives the Holocaust but whose life nonetheless feels lost. Plus, it’s only 69 pages.
Saul Bellow’s "Collected Stories." There’s a ton of Bellow to recommend, but best to dip into this comprehensive short story collection. And how can you pass up a writer who, like Obama, was a University of Chicago professor?
James McBride’s "The Color of Water." Because, like Obama, McBride tells the real story of his racially divided self: his mother was a white rabbi’s daughter who married a black man. McBride negotiated the same color line that Obama did in "Dreams of My Father," and wrote about with equal intelligence and insight. A modern classic.
(Post-script: an apology to all you Roth, Chabon, Englander, Foer and Malamud fans out there–only a matter of time being short, and this being unabashedly non-comprehensive, that they didn’t make the cut. And shout out to Tablet for giving me the idea for a list.)