The Agony and Ecstasy of Jewish Book Awards

The Agony and Ecstasy of Jewish Book Awards

After Howard Jacobson won Britain's premier literary award, the Man Booker Prize, last year, for his very Jewish novel, "The Finkler Question," I celebrated with a heavy heart. On the one hand, it was thrilling to see such a thickly-themed Jewish book–and an extremely good one–win Britain's highest award, especially at a time when even liberals are getting a little anxious about how much casual anti-semitism passes in polite company these days.

Yet on the other, I knew that my expectations would be unreasonably high for the foreseeable future. If there wasn't a Jewish winner, or at least one in the offing, I'd be miffed. Then, at last and alas, the 2011 nominees were announced, and there was nothing Jewish about them. The closest thing to Jewish content we got was a book about Nazis, but it dealt with the experience of black oppression, not Jews. And the actual winner–announced today–was the estimable British titan Julian Barnes, who’s a wonderful writer, but not in the least bit Jewish.

Barnes, 65, has been a fixture on the prize's short-list for years, but hadn’t actually won it till now. I’m celebrating for him, rest assured, though I haven’t read his book yet. It’s titled "The Sense of an Ending," and was just released States-side, but I hear it deals a lot with memory. Which is kinda Jewish. And so I’m celebrating a mite more.

But my hope for an earnest Jewish winner this year are not over. In case you missed it, last week, America’s National Book Award finalists were announced, and there’s a strikingly high number of Jewish-themed works.

In the fiction category, there’s the unsung Jewish short story writer, Edith Pearlman, whose latest collection of stories, “Binocular Vision,” has several stories that deal with Jews—in Latin America, in Israel, right here in the States. The story-line you’ll likely hear about her if she actually wins on November 16—when the winners are officially announced—is that she’s a “writer’s write.” That is, only the most literary of folk know her, but among lay literature fans, her work is not widely known. I’ll be interviewing her this week, and hope to find a more interesting story line than that—hopefully something doing with her actual life experiences as a Jew, and how it informs her work—so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, over in non-fiction, there’s quite a few Jewish books. First there’s Deborah Baker’s “The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism,” which is remarkable. The book digs up the obscure but significant radical Islamist, a woman named Maryam Jameelah, who actually began life as a Jewish girl in Westchester, in the 1940s. It’s a fascinating, and deeply troubling book (one which I also covered), so here’s hoping that one takes it.

But there’s also two other non-fiction books with somewhat Jewish content, if less so than “The Convert.” One is “Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution,” by Mary Gabriel, and deals with the most famous self-hating Jew in history, Karl Marx, as well as his wealthy wife and their surprisingly champagne tastes. And the other is Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” which is mainly a book-length expatiation of the under-appreciated ancient Roman poet, Lucretius, but is also partly a memoir of Greenblatt’s complicated relationship with his Jewish mother.

And last, there’s poetry. The big Jewish nominee this year is Adrienne Rich, whose latest collection, “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve,” got the nod. I don’t know if there’s much, or even any Jewish content in the collection, but I do know that the radical feminist poet is Jewish and has written some strikingly Jewish poems before. Check out “Yom Kippur 1984” to see what I mean. I’m not sure if she’ll win—she already won an NBA decades ago—but I won’t walk away with a heavy heart if she didn’t. Philip Levine, another Jew who dots his poetry with Yiddishkeit, was recently named America’s poet laureate. That’s more than enough approbation to last a Jew throughout the year.

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