Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Little Brown and Company: The Balcony by Jane Delury

Houghton Mifflin: Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein: Based on a True Story by Jennifer Roy with Ali Fadhil

Tarcherperigee: F You Very Much: Understanding the Culture of Rudeness--And What We Can Do about It by Danny Wallace

Katherine Tegen Books: Another Quest for Celeste (Nest for Celeste #2) by Henry Cole

Quotation of the Day

Osnos: Clarification of E-Book Royalties 'Is Actually a Plus'

"For the moment, while [Andrew] Wylie has infuriated publishers and done his authors no favors in the Amazon deal, he has brought the issue of e-book royalties to the front rank of digital matters to be clarified, which is actually a plus. As long as I've been in publishing, some agents always have thought that they should deal directly with retailers, in effect taking on the role of publishers. Invariably, the agents and authors realize that supporting books--editing, marketing, promoting, storing--can be expensive and requires the investment of cash, which may not be recoverable from sales if the books don't sell. Agents prefer to collect money on behalf of their clients rather than spend it, which is why, ultimately, they choose to turn over the risks of producing books to publishers. I'm betting that relationship will persist well into the digital age and whatever succeeds it. The outcome of e-book royalty tussle will be a better deal for authors than publishers would like, and a better deal for publishers than authors (and certainly Wylie) favor. But we can be sure that, whatever the resolution, it is only a matter of time before the next squabble over revenues starts. That's business."

--Peter Osnos, founder and editor-at-large of PublicAffairs Books, in the Atlantic.

 


Page Street Kids: Beneath the Haunting Sea by Joanna Meyer


News

'Possible Sale' of B&N Announced; Shares Climb

Barnes & Noble's board of directors plans to evaluate strategic alternatives, including a possible sale of the company, to increase stockholder value, the company announced yesterday. The board's decision was prompted, it said, by the price of B&N's shares in the marketplace, which it considers to be significantly undervalued. Before the announcement, shares had fallen to $12.84 a share--making the company's market capitalization $755.7 million--its lowest level since late 1996.

Four independent directors will oversee the review process and recommend a course of action to B&N's full board. The special committee includes George Campbell Jr., William Dillard II, Margaret Monaco and Patricia Higgins, who will serve as committee chair.

In a statement, the board said it "is confident in Barnes & Noble's strategy and fully supportive of the senior management team, which is delivering explosive growth in our fast-developing digital business. The Board has concluded that a review of strategic alternatives is the appropriate next step to take full advantage of our compelling digital opportunities and to create value for shareholders, customers, and employees.”

B&N chairman Leonard Riggio, who with his family owns an estimated 35% of the company, said he would consider joining an investor group to acquire the company: "I fully support the Board's decision to evaluate strategic alternatives at this time. Regardless of whether I participate in an investment group that buys the company, I, as well as the entire senior management team, am willing and eager to remain with the company and see it through the challenging years ahead. Having spent a lifetime in bookselling and building this great company, I am as committed as ever to the future of Barnes & Noble."

Following the announcement, B&N's shares rose 25%, to $16.10, in after-hours trading, the Wall Street Journal wrote.

Reuters reported that Forrester analyst James McQuivey posed the question: "How do you value an asset for the future when the entire market is being essentially turned upside down?"

Peter Wahlstrom, a Morningstar analyst, "said the company was already trading close to his fair value estimate of $13 per share before it made the announcement," Reuters noted. "This could make strategic sense for them, yes. But I don't want to exactly say it's a good decision," he said, adding that going private would allow B&N to accelerate its investment in its digital book platform.

In the New York Times, Michael Norris, senior analyst at Simba Information, considered the trend among consumers who have been buying books through other retailers: "They might pick up a book when they’re buying hand sanitizer or Band-Aids, rather than actually seeking out a bookstore as a destination and then buying a book at that point. A lot of independents are figuring it out one bookstore at a time, and that’s what the Barnes & Nobles of the world have to do."

B&N has been buffeted by increased competition from Amazon.com for book, e-book and e-reader sales, by nontraditional book retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco for book sales, by Apple and other companies for e-book and e-reader sales. In addition, B&N has been sued by Ron Burkle, who owns 19% of the company and had sought to double his investment. A possible Burkle ally, Aletheia, owns 16%. Burkle has questioned recent decisions of the company and sought to change its direction. Wall Street has been critical, too, as evidenced by the drop in share price, in response to disappointing earnings and the perception that a traditional bookstore chain will not fare well in a highly competitive environment where e-book sales continue to rise. B&N has fought back, introducing the Nook e-reader last year, bringing in a new CEO and emphasizing a digital strategy.

One of Len Riggio's gifts has been his ability to buy and sell companies in ways that enable the Riggios to profit handsomely from such deals. Only last fall Barnes & Noble the public company, controlled by the Riggios, bought Barnes & Noble College, a private company owned by the Riggios, for $450 million. That amount alone could go far in helping buy the public company back at its deflated price.

Going private would help the company make an end run around dissident shareholders, do away with pressure to please Wall Street and allow it to operate without the restrictions that come with being a public company. Even if someone else buys B&N, it's likely that current shareholders, including the Riggios, will be amply rewarded.

 


Soho Crime: My Name Is Nathan Lucius by Mark Winkler


Notes: Layoffs at Borders; Big Budget Cut for NEA's Big Read

Borders Group will lay off about 100 workers at its La Vergne, Tenn., distribution facility, according to Nashville Business Journal, which reported that the employees were notified about the cuts yesterday.

Borders spokeswoman Mary Davis said the company is "in the process of reorganizing core areas of our business around key strategic objectives to transform the Borders brand. As part of this effort, we are making changes to our staffing levels to make sure the right people are in the right spots and positions and resources are aligned with our strategic objectives."

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The National Endowment for the Arts and new chairman Rocco Landesman have reduced this year's budget for "its once highly hyped Big Read" program by 73%, to $1 million. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the "current NEA bosses have cut $2.7 million and 193 participants from the shiny jewel of the former Dana Gioia regime, a devastating rejection of a federal initiative that Mr. Gioia once suggested reversed the country's decline in reading."

 

"At the NEA we have a practice of funding new programs at relatively high levels in their early years in order to encourage participation from the not-for-profit and funding communities," said NEA spokeswoman Elizabeth Stark. "Now that the Big Read is in its fifth year..., the NEA has scaled back its funding for 2010-2011 programming to a sustainable level."


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NPR's All Things Considered caught up with Montana's poet laureate Henry Real Bird, who is crossing the state on a 500-mile horseback trip "with his riding partner Levi Bruce, handing out books of his poetry."

"At a buffet in Nashua, a guy had two... high school boys there, I mean, just so much promise and so much future. And I just gave them the books so they can read that poetry," he said. "Plus, once I give them out and other people, they see me coming out on horseback and they walk over and they say, 'Where's my book?' and I just hand them a book from atop the horse and everything. I just want them to think, to move along in thought."

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There is no need to investigate what might have killed the Mystery Bookstore, Omaha, Neb., because Kate Birkel’s 15-year-old specialty bookstore is alive and well, thanks to a new deal with her landlord that "allowed her to cobble together a new business plan that has revived the store, one of only a few independently owned bookstores left in Omaha, at least for now," according to the World-Herald.

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Open Letter Books and the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation have partnered to launch a pair of initiatives for the production and promotion of contemporary Bulgarian literature. Winning the Contest for Contemporary Bulgarian Writers will result in the publication of a novel or short story collection by Open Letter Books.

"This is a fantastic opportunity for a Bulgarian writer to make their work available to American readers," said Open Letter's Chad Post. "It's no secret that there's not a lot of Bulgarian literature being published in English, and this is one attempt to help change that."

The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation is sponsoring a contest for translators. The winner will be awarded a three-week long fellowship at Open Letter, providing the translator with an opportunity to learn about the American publishing business while working on the translator's particular translation.

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This year Frankfurt Book Fair will launch Frankfurt SPARKS, with exhibition formats, conferences and events on the future of media and the creative industries. The initiative is designed to unite the worlds of publishing, technology industries, media and the Internet culture in order to develop collective viable business models.

"Frankfurt SPARKS provides an initial spark for the future of publishing," said Juergen Boos, director of the Frankfurt Book Fair. "With this initiative the Frankfurt Book Fair will further expand its pioneering role as a content and media fair."

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Stieg who? The Bookseller.com reported that Dan Brown sold 141,156 copies of The Lost Symbol in its first full week in bookshops in the U.K., breaking "the record for the biggest ever weekly sale by a paperback novel."

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Larsson fans got some good news of their own. The New York Times reported that this fall Knopf will publish On Stieg Larsson, a $99 boxed set of the Millennium Trilogy that also includes essays about the author as well as e-mails between him and Eva Gedin, his publisher.

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No time for 600-page doorstops? Brews and Books recommended some "great books out there that are svelte, slender and shrimpy.... books that even the most indolent reader could get through in a year. Don’t be a statistic! Read at least one of these sub-200 page books in 2010! Even though it's already August, you still have time. Hell, if you're a fast reader you can get through any of these in less time than it takes to watch King Kong."

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"Reading and preserving books are an essential part of our culture," N.R. Narayana Murthy, chairman of Infosys Technologies Ltd., told Sify.com. Murthy and his wife, Sudha, are opening PageTurners, an exclusive Penguin bookstore in Bangalore, India. "In this technology era, we should encourage the younger generation to cultivate the habit of reading books and imbibe the spirit behind the art of writing," he added.

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Nancy Pearl, America's favorite librarian, recommended some "Under The Radar" reads on NPR's Morning Edition. Her suggestions included Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill, Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin, The Good Son by Michael Gruber, Blood Harvest by S. J. Bolton, Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker, Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay, Words for Empty and Words for Full by Bob Hicok, Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel and The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli.

 


Ecco Press: Tangerine by Christine Mangan


Cool Idea of the Day: The Frugal Frigate's Mural

This Thursday, cartoonist Phil Yeh will paint a mural at The Frugal Frigate, A Children's Bookstore, Redlands, Calif., "as part of his international campaign to encourage reading though art," Redlands DailyFacts reported, adding that the community has been invited "to visit during what is promised to be a day-long, activity-filled event, and even leave their mark in the painting."

"Yeh and his team are going to come in on Thursday morning at 10 or 11 and paint all day," said store manager Jessica Ackerson.

"It's going to be fun. We'll have music and we're going to have kids come over in the afternoon from 6th Street School of music. People can just drop in and watch," added Yeh, who founded Cartoonists Across America and the World in 1985 to promote literacy globally. He and his team have painted 1,800 murals in 49 states and 13 countries outside the U.S.

The bookstore hopes to raise $6,000 to purchase books for children in Redlands, and people "who donate $50 or more can have their name or business name artistically included in the mural." Bookseller Gay Kolodzik said "customers have been very responsive to the idea, making donations as soon as they hear about the opportunity."

 


G.L.O.W. - Galley Love of the Week
Be the first to have an advance copy!
The Mercy Seat
by Elizabeth H. Winthrop 

In Jim Crow-era Louisiana, a handful of townspeople contemplate the impending execution of 18-year-old Willie Jones. As they consider their own roles in the young black man's fate, some with regret, others with a certain sort of vicious pride, author Elizabeth H. Winthrop builds a taut, yet tender portrait of racism, justice and our legal system in The Mercy Seat. Winthrop’s skillful plaiting of multiple viewpoints into an aching, quietly powerful tale is both impressive and effective--you will see yourself in one or more of the characters, and it will make you uncomfortable. But you'll thank Winthrop for the opportunity, which might be the most wondrous work of The Mercy Seat in the end. This is Winthrop's break-out book. --Stefanie Hargreaves, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers 

(Grove Press, $26.00 hardcover, 9780802128188, May 8, 2018)

CLICK HERE TO ENTER
#ShelfGLOW
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Media and Movies

Media Heat: Akbar Ahmed on the Daily Show

Tomorrow morning on Good Morning America: Sophie Uliano, author of Do It Gorgeously: How to Make Less Toxic, Less Expensive, and More Beautiful Products (Voice, $19.99, 9781401341398/140134139X).

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Tomorrow morning on the Today Show: Ree Drummond, author of The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl (Morrow, $27.50, 9780061658198/0061658197).

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Tomorrow on KCRW's Bookworm: D.A. Powell, author of Chronic (Graywolf, $20, 9781555975166/155597516X), and Linda Gregerson, a judge of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. As the show put it: "The Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award offers an impressive $100,000 prize to a poet entering the major phase of his/her career. Who are the judges? How are the decisions made? Where does the money come from? How does the prize alter a poet's life? We speak to this year's winner, D.A. Powell, and the chair judge, Linda Gregerson, to find out about poetry awards and how they are determined."

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Tomorrow on a repeat of Oprah: Peter Walsh, author of It's All Too Much Workbook: The Tools You Need to Conquer Clutter and Create the Life You Want (Free Press, $16, 9781439149560/1439149569). Part two of this segment will air on Friday.

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Tomorrow night on the Daily Show: Akbar Ahmed, author of Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (Brookings Institution Press, $29.95, 9780815703877/0815703872).

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Tomorrow night on the Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson: Alex Dryden, author of Moscow Sting (Ecco, $24.99, 9780061966842/0061966843).

 


Television: $#*! the PTC Says

Max Mutchnick, co-creator and executive producer of the TV comedy series $#*! My Dad Says, does not plan to change the title of his show, which is based on Justin Halpern's popular Twitter feed (Shit My Day Says) and bestselling book (Sh*t My Dad Says).

Mutchnick was responding to "a stern warning" that the Parents Television Council sent "to 300 advertisers, urging them that buying time during the sitcom would make them 'complicit in the effort to serve up excrement in front of children and families,' " Entertainment Weekly reported.

"As a parent, it is my opinion that the Parents Television Council has much more important s–t to focus on than the title of a sitcom called BLEEP My Dad Says," Mutchnick observed.

 


Movies: Sean Penn as Max Perkins?

Sean Penn is in talks with River Road Entertainment's Bill Pohlad to play legendary editor Max Perkins in Genius, adapted by John Logan from Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the "project has had many lives, including one incarnation with producer Michael London and Lawrence Kasdan attached to direct. But traction, and financing, was slippery. Pohlad and Penn put it on surer ground." The duo have worked together on several films, including Into the Wild, which Pohlad produced and helped finance, and Penn directed. Pohlad will direct Genius.

 



Books & Authors

The Hello, It's Me Home Tour

Chris Epting, who has promoted his pop culture and travel titles in a variety of creative ways (Shelf Awareness, April 6, 2006 and November 12, 2006), is trying something new for Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie, released in July by Santa Monica Press.

Beginning this month--in addition to a more traditional bookstore tour--Epting is holding events in people's homes, often as part of their book clubs, in an effort to create "a sort of salon environment," a way of connecting with readers that's "much more personal and organic."

He's promoted the home events on his Facebook page, where more than 1,300 people are fans. The idea, he said, is to meet 15 to 30 people at a time, read from the book and ask participants--mostly other baby boomers--to tell their own stories as well.

Epting will use his Flip camera to record some of the events and post on Facebook and his website to show fans what happens at the event, in part as a way to encourage future dates. Already he is getting "all kinds of great feedback on Facebook." And he noted: "There may be a book in the sharing that goes on."

In Hello, It's Me, he recounts his experiences of the pop culture, including moments with rock stars, sports heroes, authors and others, and personal memories, as well as his experiences visiting such sites as the road where James Dean fatally crashed, the hotel in Los Angeles where Sen. Robert Kennedy was shot, the field where Cary Grant was nearly run down by a crop-dusting plane in North by Northwest.

Epting plans to bring some of the "artifacts" that he mentions and pictures in the book, including photos of him with celebrities, as well as his ticket stubs to such events as a Rolling Stones concert in Madison Square Garden in 1975 and the epic sixth game of the 1986 World Series between the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox. He also plans to "bring along" some of the subjects of the book. For example, for his first party, he's invited Olympic Gold Medal swimmer Shirley Babashoff. He's considering printing T-shirts to give out that commemorate, rock-style, the Hello, It's Me tour.

Depending on how the home events go, Epting may expand the concept and do tours outside Southern California, where he lives.

Epting emphasized that the home book tour idea stems in part from the need to sell books in different ways. "We have to find new places to preach," he said. "This may create a new book marketing direction."

Nostalgia about pop culture among baby boomers is timely, Epting continued. "Everyone's racing so quickly and so many people want to stop and take a moment to remember their first job, the prom, the old ball game. If nothing else, remembering those kinds of things makes you laugh and laughter is a great thing."

One of the most touching stories in Hello, It's Me concerns John Cheever, who lived in Ossining, N.Y., Epting's hometown, and who befriended Epting after Epting, at age 13, wrote to him asking for advice about writing. One key suggestion: Cheever told Epting to keep a journal, which became the basis for many of the author's books.--John Mutter

 


Book Brahmin: Tom Grimes

Tom Grimes is the author of five novels, a play and Mentor: A Memoir. He edited The Workshop: Seven Decades from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and currently directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Texas State University. T.C. Boyle calls Mentor "One of the truest accounts of a writer's life--of two writers' lives--I've yet seen." Mentor (Tin House Books, August 1, 2010) won a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award.

 

On your nightstand now:

Occasionally, I read several books bit by bit, rather than a single book straight through. I pick up the one whose music matches the signal in my mind at any given time, the way music sounds clearest when you find a radio station's perfect frequency. At the moment I'm reading Roddy Doyle's new novel, The Dead Republic; Annie Proulx's Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories Three; and rereading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Roberto Bolano's 2666.

Favorite book when you were a child:

I really dug Paddington the Bear books, I don't know why. He walked on his hind legs, wore a hat and carried a suitcase, I believe, and he always seemed to be getting on a train to go someplace. Maybe I identified with, or projected onto him, his desire to leave town.

Your top five authors:

"The hysteria of lists" is what Don DeLillo calls these inquiries. A top five list is arbitrary and continually mutating; at least, mine is. But I know DeLillo said what he said because he's a top fiver. Tim O'Brien is, too. (Both happen to be friends, but those relationships evolved after they had entered my pantheon.) I can't answer this question easily because I love Anna Karenina but really can't get into War and Peace. And I love Crime and Punishment, but have trouble staying with some of Dostoevsky's novels, although I've read The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov. I like early Hemingway, but not later Hemingway, other than A Moveable feast. I like The Great Gatsby, but nothing else by Fitzgerald. Edith Wharton: I know, where did she come from? But I love The House of Mirth. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice but not Persuasion. Toni Morrison's first three novels, but none of the rest. About half of García Márquez's work. George Orwell, although he doesn't seem like someone I would name as a top five, but 1984 and Animal Farm are amazing. And Lolita may be my favorite book of all time; but only that book by Nabokov, not the rest of his work. This is more than five, I know. I cheated. Sorry.

Book you've faked reading:

Probably The Canterbury Tales: I just couldn't take the Middle English.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Lolita.

Book you've bought for the cover:

I can't think of one, so this means I never did, or I have a very bad memory. It's a toss-up.

Book that changed your life:

The Sun Also Rises made me want to be a writer. But, as I write in my memoir, what I really wanted was to live Jake Barnes's life in Paris--sleeping late, hardly working, drinking in cafes. But until my freshman composition teacher explained a not-so-minor problem when I first read the book for his class, I didn't realize that Jake was impotent. Somehow, that went right over my head. Still, years later, I went to Paris, first as a barely published writer, and then as fairly well published one. When I was in Paris last winter to promote a new book I had published, I walked past Hemingway's old apartment building and through the Luxembourg Gardens. But Paris is no longer a place where an American writer can live on very little money, or feel like an expatriate. One is simply another tourist. Nevertheless, whenever I reread The Sun Also Rises, the romantic illusion of that place and time once again comes alive.

Favorite line from a book:

The first line of 1984: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

White Noise by Don Delillo. Years ago, I reread it so many times that I no longer get past its first sentence.

Do you research while you're writing a book?

For my novel City of God, one character was a district attorney, so I needed to know how she did her job in order to make her credible. For my novel Season's End, I was lucky enough to travel with the New York Mets baseball team. I was allowed into the locker room and, by sitting around and not asking players direct questions, like a reporter, they gradually began to say hi. Some players talked to me about hitting, pitching, fielding and having old friends ask them for money. A few let me read their fan mail--everyone wanted something from them. And once, I was asked to settle a dispute. After discussing how to end a feud between two players on the team, one of the guys sitting at a locker room table turned and said, "What do you think?" For Mentor: A Memoir, most of the book, of course, was recollection. But I did reread all of Frank Conroy's books, especially his memoir Stop-Time, to see how he remained detached and objective, yet fully in the moment, while writing about his past.

Will you ever stop writing?

I don't think so, although, from now on, I'll only write books that seem, to me, absolutely necessary. Otherwise, I'll remain vigilant, but silent.

 


Book Review

Children's Review: Hush

Hush by Eishes Chayil (Walker & Company, $16.99 Hardcover, 9780802720887, September 2010)

 

It's not until one finishes this emotionally riveting first novel by Eishes Chayil (a pseudonym that means "Woman of Valor" in Hebrew) that the genius of its structure becomes fully apparent. The events take a back seat to the internal  journeys of nearly all the characters. The first chapter begins in 2009, when Gittel Chava Klein, nearly 18 years old, writes to her best friend, Devory Goldblatt, who died when they were 10: "It is hard to write a letter to the dead. It is easier to talk with you directly, as if we are having a real conversation." Gittel makes a vague reference to the circumstances of Devory's death: "My father is afraid no one will want to marry me. I heard him tell my mother that the shadchan, the community matchmaker, told him that people would be scared to marry their son off to a girl like me after all that had happened."

The second chapter cuts back to 2003, when Gittel is 10, and goes to the heart of her household's connection to the chassidish Jewish community at large: "In my house there was a hat. The hat was made of black fur, and it was tall like my father, round as a pancake, and holy as God." Gittel traces the history of the hat, or shtreimel, back to Poland, and uses it to contrast the differences between the chassidim and the litvish (another Orthodox sect, who wear "the more modern bent-down hats and even ties"). Later, in a harrowing scene, the hat serves to emphasize the tensions between the chassidim and the goyim (non-Jews); the presentation of a hat as a gift to Gittel's groom endows the shtreimel with even greater import. Gittel notes, too, that "Every Friday evening my father would carefully take down the tall hatbox from its sacred place in my parents' bedroom walk-in closet near my mother's $180 Versani shoes."

The charm of Gittel's narration stems from her mix of respect for her community's traditions and the humor that arises from a child trying to make sense of her world. Gittel's parents own a home in Flatbush--just two blocks outside of Brooklyn's Borough Park, the center of the chassidish community. That two-block distance exposes Gittel to ideas and beliefs outside of her tightly knit community, such as a man who lives in the middle of their block whom Gittel calls "the Syrian Who Was a Jew at Heart" (he does not keep Shabbos but told Gittel's mother he was "a Jew at Heart"), as well as the renters on their third floor, Kathy and Leo Prouks, who are Christian. Kathy plays a crucial role in Gittel's coming of age. While Gittel spends the night at Devory's house, she witnesses something she doesn't quite understand. Devory's 15-year-old brother, who is home from yeshiva (school), comes to Devory's room in the dark and goes under his sister's blanket: "I saw the blanket, how it moved back and forth and back and forth so fast I thought they were playing tug-of-war." The novel continues to toggle between the events of 2003 and Gittel's match, her wedding and the early days of her marriage. Gittel begins to understand, as she prepares for her wedding night, what happened to Devory, and her guilt mounts to a breaking point.

The author takes us deep inside a community that, in its attempt to protect its members and traditions, suffers the casualties of those who were forced to remain silent. One of the most chilling moments occurs when three rebbes visit Borough Park, and speak "about the Nazis and how we had triumphed over them but how sometimes the biggest source of destruction could come from within." Because these deeply human characters can acknowledge their flaws and face the truth, they also extend a feeling of optimism for their future and for the community as a whole.--Jennifer M. Brown

 

+Hush+ by Eishes Chayil (Walker, $16.99, 9780802720887/0802720889, 368 pp., ages 14-up, September 2010)

 

It's not until one finishes this an emotionally riveting first novel by Eishes Chayil (a pseudonym that means "Woman of Valor" in Hebrew) that the genius of its structure becomes fully apparent. The events take a back seat to the emotional journey of nearly all of the characters. The first chapter begins in 2009, when Gittel Chava Klein, nearly 18 years old, writes to her best friend, Devory Goldblatt, who died when they were 10: "It is hard to write a letter to the dead. It is easier to talk with you directly, as if we are having a real conversation." Gittel makes a vague reference to the circumstances of Devory's death: "My father is afraid no one will want to marry me. I heard him tell my mother that the +shadchan, + the community matchmaker, told him that people would be scared to marry their son off to a girl like me after all that had happened."

 

The second chapter cuts back to 2003, when Gittel is 10, and goes to the heart of her household's connection to the +chassidish+ Jewish community at large: "In my house there was a hat. The hat was made of black fur, and it was tall like my father, round as a pancake, and holy as God." Gittel traces the history of the hat, or +shtreimel,+ back to Poland, and uses it to contrast the differences between the +chassidim+ and the +litvish+ (another Orthodox sect, who wear "the more modern bent-down hats and even ties"). Later, in a harrowing scene, the hat serves to emphasize the tensions between the +chassidim+ and the +goyim+ (non-Jews); the presentation of a hat as a gift to Gittel's groom endows the +shtreimel+ with even greater import. Gittel notes, too, that "Every Friday evening my father would carefully take down the tall hatbox from its sacred place in my parents' bedroom walk-in closet near my mother's $180 Versani shoes."

 

The charm of Gittel's narration stems from her mix of respect for her community's traditions and the humor that arises from a child trying to make sense of her world. Gittel's parents own a home in Flatbush--just two blocks outside of Brooklyn's Borough Park, the center of the +chassidish+ community. That two-block distance exposes Gittel to ideas and beliefs outside of her tightly knit community, such as a man who lives in the middle of their block whom Gittel calls "the Syrian Who Was a Jew at Heart" (he does not keep Shabbos but told Gittel's mother he was "a Jew at Heart"), as well as the renters on their third floor, Kathy and Leo Prouks, who are Christian. Kathy plays a crucial role in Gittel's coming of age. While Gittel spends the night at Devory's house, she witnesses something she doesn't quite understand. Devory's 15-year-old brother, who is home from yeshiva (school), comes to Devory's room in the dark and goes under his sister's blanket: "I saw the blanket, how it moved back and forth and back and forth so fast I thought they were playing tug-of-war." The novel continues to toggle between the events of 2003 and Gittel's match, her wedding and the early days of her marriage. Gittel begins to understand, as she prepares for her wedding night, what happened to Devory, and her guilt mounts to a breaking point.

 

The author takes us deep inside a community that, in its attempt to protect its members and traditions, suffers the casualties of those who were forced to remain silent. One of the most chilling moments occurs when three rebbes visit Borough Park, and speak "about the Nazis and how we had triumphed over them but how sometimes the biggest source of destruction could come from within." Because these deeply human characters can acknowledge their flaws and face the truth, they also extend a feeling of optimism for their future and for the community as a whole.--Jennifer M. Brown

 

 


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