Thursday, June 30, 2016

The story behind our recent book club discussion of Paul Goldberg's "The Yid."

I have sort of a rule about not pitching books for reading groups while they are still in hardcover. In fact, it is one of my two golden rules about selecting books for reading groups. Wait till paperback and more people are willing to purchase the book is #1. #2, by the way, is to pick books two months ahead (or more) instead of one. If you pick your selection so close to the meeting, you're making it harder for your bookstore to have books for you, and you're also making it harder for members to read the book.

But of course every so often rules get broken and our selection of The Yid by Paul Goldberg was one of those times. I was chatting about the book with James at Picador back when it was in galley form, and honestly, I thought it would be Conrad, not me, who wound up reading it. But it wound up at the top of my pile and passed my 50-page test. By that I mean I got to page 50 and didn't want to stop reading--many books don't make it past then. I will say that I like books with Jewish themes, especially if they are a bit unconventional, and the story reminded me a bit of Michael Chabon in its over-the-top elements and dancing language, and a little like David Bezmozgis in its theatrical sensibilities (I found The Betrayers to read like a stage play, and I mean that in a good way).

I wrote a staff rec, and it went something like this: "When an ominous police vehicle arrives late at night at the door of Solomon Levinson, erstwhile star of Moscow Yiddish Theater, he figures he is doomed to prison or worse. What has he got to lose? Three dead bodies later, a plan is hatched with the help of a doctor, a black engineer (nicknamed Paul Robeson, at least when the locals are being polite), and a mysterious woman. The task? Prevent the ultimate pogrom, a plan to wipe out the Jews of the Soviet Union. Jumping back and forth in time, Paul Goldberg blends history and imagination to tell a story that’s equal parts violence and slapstick. The narrative periodically veers into dramatic staging, showing how the artificial outrageousness of the story is not much more dramatic than the absurd contradictions of the Soviet totalitarian regime – Stalin’s purge was inspired by his contention that Soviet doctors were part of a cabal that was surreptitiously killing political leaders. The Yid is a skillful mashup of Michael Chabon and Quentin Tarantino, with enough factual details to even appeal to history buffs. On finishing the story, I immediately thought of a half dozen people who’d love it, and isn’t that the mark of a great read?"

The Tarantino is the money rec, as film comparisons generally have a wider reach than comparisons to other writers. I couldn't get through describing Don Lee's Wrack and Ruin without comparing it to Sideways (the Alexander Payne film from 2004, when I still went to movies). It implies a bit of humor, a lot of violence, and a revenge fantasy setup. But that is all hearsay.

I also decided that The Yid had a decent shot at winning the first novel prize for the National Jewish Book Awards, being that I read two winners in 2014, The Betrayers and The Mathematician's Shiva. While I did not read 2015's fiction winner, Daniel Torday's The Last Flight of Poxl West, it strikes me that Goldberg's sensibility is in keeping with these other winners. Hey, I'm never right about these things, but I like to make predictions with the best of them. I certainly can't be wrong as often as Jeane Dixon was.

To my delight, we sold the book a bit. So when it turned out that Goldberg was coming to a conference in Chicago, James suggested that Goldberg come up to do an event with us. I knew my cosponsoring partner, as I'd already gotten Joel Berkowitz at the UWM Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies to read it, and he liked it as much as I did. The good news was that they were not asking me to host the event on a Friday or Saturday, when you can't get cosponsorship from Jewish Organizations. The bad news is that they were asking us to host it on the first Monday of June, when we were already scheduled for our in-store reading group. Now I already knew that I had double trouble with scheduling coming up. Labor Day is always an issue, but this year July 4th was also on a Monday. So neither wanting to give up the event nor reschedule the book club, I decided we would read The Yid, have Goldberg come talk to us for a bit, and then have the official event in the back of the store, a taped conversation between Goldberg and Berkowitz.

Now here's the thing about The Yid. I love the book but I never thought it was for everyone. To me, it's for an adventurous reader. A little knowledge of Jewish culture wouldn't hurt, and interest in theater would be good too, and tolerance for literary violence probably is helpful. I definitely could see our buyer Jason liking the book, for example.

But that was not to be. So let's say that the in-store lit group did not like it as much as A Man Called Ove. That's the problem with having someone like me who has as many reading personalities as Sybil. And yes, I also read that too. I do know there were several folks who did not attend who might have liked the book more and turned around the conversation, but as any reading group leader knows, you get the conversation you get.

Of all the characters, most of the attendees liked Frederick Lewis the best, the African American engineer from Omaha who went to the Soviet Union to escape racism, only to find that most of his new countryman could not really distinguish him from Paul Robeson (at their best) and a monkey (at their worst).

We had Goldberg come in and talk to us and I think that helped. He discussed the Yiddish productions of Shakespeare that were the rage at the time (they couldn't be seen as political), and in particular, the production of King Lear that really was produced in 1935.

We talked about Stalin's supposed plot to exterminate the Jews, just before he died. The trains were there! And we also talked about the suspicious nature of Stalin's own death, never completely settled.

Reviews on The Yid have really been great, by the way. Here is the critical reception from Janet Maslin in The New York Times, Maureen Corrigan on NPR's Fresh Air, and Glen David Gold in The Washington Post. Other raves include Kevin Nance in the Chicago Tribune and Daniel Akst in Newsday who wrote "It’s a good story, but what makes this such a terrific book is the author’s confident mastery of the world he immerses us in, the fascinating and tragic back stories he weaves with little loss of narrative momentum, and his conspiratorial relationship to the reader."

Oh, and the event went great too! Thank you Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Berkowitz (plus Ms. Dredge for setting up the taping). It really was a great evening.

For folks trying The Yid at their book club, it comes out in paperback on February 7, 2017. I would suggest scheduling it for April 2017 and afterwards.

Meanwhile, here are our next three meetings!

On Monday, July 11, 7 pm, we'll be discussing Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread. Note the date change. Science Fiction group will meet in the front of the store, In-store Lit in the back. As I've noted, Tyler's newest is outselling her last two novels published since we've been open by very large margins.

On Monday, August 1, 7 pm, we'll be discussing Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizers. You're just not part of the cultural discussion if you haven't read the Pulitzer Prize winner.

On Tuesday, September 6, 7 pm, we'll be discussing Quan Barry's She Weeps Each Time You're Born. Our bookseller Todd has been talking this up since it came out and we hosted Barry at Boswell for the hardcover. I've been suggesting that folks read The Sympathizers and She Weeps together as a unit, so I thought I'd put that suggestion into action.

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