The Off-Season – #2 The Marrying of Chani Kaufman

Finally, I’m returning to reviews (even though I read this over a month ago, I’ve only had time to finish it this morning!), as life begins to return to normal for me.

Chani KaufmanThe Marrying of Chani Kaufman – Eve Harris

2/5

This is probably the Booker Long-listed novel I was most excited about when the list was announced, but it took me a long time to actually track it down. I’m not entirely sure why, but I tend to be drawn to reading books with either Jewish authors or subjects (as you may have noticed in my year of 100 books!). The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann depicts the run up to, and immediate aftermath of the wedding of two Ultra-Orthodox twenty-somethings and the struggles they go through both personally and culturally (or more often both).

As someone who has no real familiarity with the world of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities of North-West London, I can’t really pass comment on how realistic a portrayal it is, and I have to simply trust to Harris’ own interaction with that world. However with this in mind, I do think that she did a wonderful job of humanising a people who most who non-members tend to find difficult to imagine being part of. From Avromi’s adolescent mistakes, to his parent’s deteriorating marriage and the differences between Chani and Baruch’s families, Harris makes all too clear that despite the fact they have a very different way of life, Charedi Jews are still people with all the same concerns and problems that most Londoners have. She also explains, through the method of Chani’s marriage preparation lessons, the religious context for some of the aspects of the religion non-members have issues with; the ritual impurity of menstruation for example, or the wearing of the Shtetl (hair coverings for married woman).

That said, she also draws attention to the problems with the oppressive nature of the community. It is Chaim’s consideration for what people will think of him as a Rabbi that is the source of many of the problems within the Zilbermann home, and Mrs Levy’s concern for her family’s social standing that causes friction between her and her future daughter-in-law, however these are hardly exclusive to Charedi families. The tendency towards arranged marriages, the prohibition towards unmarried men and women having contact with each other, the ingrained aversion to talking about sex, and the highly regulated social conventions however, which are more unique, cause almost all of the major problems in the plot,

If I have any criticisms about the book, it’s just that sometimes the time frame is a little confusing. Each chapter is headed with the name of the characters it’s most closely related to, and the year it takes place. Those that take place in the Rebbitzen’s past are straightforward enough, but the problem is when reading about the present, or the recent past. The actual Kaufman-Levy marriage takes place in 2008, at which point the book opens and there are occasional returns to that day, but most of the book takes place before it. Thus it becomes a little hard to tell exactly when in 2008 the chapter is occurring, meaning the timeline appears perhaps a little more fluid than Harris had intended.

The only other issue I have is that the glossary, which explains a lot of the Yiddish or Hebrew terms that are used throughout the book, is slotted in almost as an afterthought at the end, with no warning or indication that it’s there. Most of the terms I was able to figure out, either through prior knowledge or context, but it would have been nice to have known it was there before I was three-quarters of the way through the book.

Of the non-Short-listed books I’ve read from the Booker Long-list, I think The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann is definitely the one that I think deserved to take Five Star Billionaire’s place in the final six. I don’t think it would have been strong enough to win (although I still have yet to track down a copy of The Luminaries. Sigh…), but I do think that it’s one of the most enjoyable and easy to read book on the Long-list, as well as being just a good bit of heart-warming story telling.

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Year of a Hundred books – #48 What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne FrankWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank – Nathan Englander

4/5

Another collection of short stories, and yet another book that is at least ostensibly about Judaism. Apparently the title is a reference to Raymond Carver’s 1981 collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which according to commenters on the Guardian’s review of the book, we should denounce because it’s becoming over-referenced and lazy. Personally I’m in two minds. The story it’s taken from, it fits perfectly, however I’m not sure that it fits the anthology quite so snugly.

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Year of a Hundred books – #14 Dangling Man

Dangling ManDangling Man, by Saul Bellow

4/5

Set in 1942, Dangling Man is not so much a traditional story as it is a character study of a man with no direction and too much time on his hands. Joseph, is young married man who, due to his immigrant status hindering his attempts to enlist in the US Army, has been left in a Chicagoan limbo.With nothing to do, and no one to talk to, Joseph begins to unravel. In fits of ennui, he lashes out at his friends, his relations, and his wife, and while he does feel remorse, this doesn’t stop it from happening again and again.

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Year of a Hundred books – #12 Khirbet Khizeh

Khirbet KhizehKhirbet Khizeh, by S. Yizhar

5/5

Khirbet Khizeh somehow manages to be beautiful and horrifying at the same time. The latter is essentially down to what it depicts; the clearance of an Arab village during the Arab-Israeli War, based on the author’s own experiences. The unnamed narrator is a member of an IDF unit sent to evict the occupiers of the titular village to make way for new immigrants.

The treatment of the villagers is horrific, as one would expect of wartime, and although the story is in essence about the realisation of the narrator that what he is participating in revolts him, this realisation does not come until the end of the novel, so we are treated to vivid descriptions of the mistreatment of the villagers and their lands by the soldiers.

It is the vividness of the description however, more than the theme, that makes this book such a pleasure to read. Even when what is being described is off putting, there is s much care and attention put into depictions of the landscape and the village, that it provides a balance to the less pleasing images that pervade the novella. Obviously, I’ve read it in translation, so my enjoyment of the prose is as much a product of the translators as it is of the original author, but according to the Afterword, S. Yizhar’s Hebrew is famed for it’s unique beauty.

The afterword is another thing that makes this book reading. For one thing, it is an Afterword, rather than an Introduction, thus avoiding any spoilers in the opening pages of the book. More importantly however, the commentator David Shulman links the book forward to the clearances of Palestinian villages that are still happening today, making the point that although this book has been part of the Israeli curriculum for over half a century, the acts that it is deploring did not end with the war. There is hope however, according to Shulman, as while the narrator is isolated in his rejection of the clearances, today, hundreds of young Israelis refuse the mandatory military service for precisely this reason.

Although it is interesting to read a war story that does not focus on either of the World Wars or Vietnam, Khirbet Khizeh is still a war story at its heart. Yes, it’s Anti-War, but that doesn’t make the outright racism and othering any more enjoyable to read. It’s possible to enjoy the novel in spite of that, but it is a bit of a shock until you get used to it. That said, I think it’s fair to say that reading it to the end makes it all worth while.

Year of a Hundred books – #6 The Chosen

The Chosen,by Chaim Potok

5/5

Nu, for the first time in My Year of 100 Books, I’ve given a book Five Stars. (Is it tacky to reference/imitate the book’s narrative style in reviews? I can never decide). The Chosen tells the story of the unlikely friendship between two teenage, Jewish, New Yorkers.

In the brief and almost entirely spoiler-free (yes, really!) introduction, the commentator says during his youth, different people told him The Chosen was about different things, and then gives his own conclusion:

“In grade school, they told me it was about Judaism. […] In middle school, they told me it was about the Holocaust. […] In high school, they told me it was about Zionism.

But The Chosen, […] is primarily about fathers. And about sons. And about fathers and sons”

This is perhaps the best way to explain the novel, as while it does feature the first three options very heavily, at its heart it is about the relationships of the two protagonists with their fathers, and each other’s fathers.

Even if it is about fathers and sons, as I say, the other three subjects are integral to the telling of that story. If you’re interested in Judaism, particularly Orthodox and Hasidism, this is the best introduction I’ve ever come across. It’s explanatory, but all the theology is well blended into the narrative, which is something that’s so often lacking in religiously oriented fiction. It assumes a basic knowledge of Judaism, and almost everything is easy to pick up from context. It also gives a good narrative history of the founding of Israel, and most powerfully, a fantastic portrayal of how American Jews reacted to the revelations of the Holocaust.

If The Chosen has a downfall, it’s that sometimes it gets a bit repetitive, with characters having the same conversations, or snippets of dialogue, more than once, particularly towards the end. This gets a little tedious, especially since everything else that’s going on in regards to plot is so interesting, but that really is my only fault with the story.

The copy, on the other hand, is a different matter. As I mentioned in my post on proof-reading, the version I read (Penguin Modern Classics, as pictured above), is not perfect. In addition to the misspelling of Hasidim, I noticed one or two further errors later in the book. It’s not a big deal, I suppose, but my opinion of Penguin has gone down slightly, and I’d definitely think twice about buying another book in the Modern Classics imprint, despite their aesthetically pleasing covers.

Despite these flaws, I’d still recommend The Chosen wholeheartedly.