Off the Shelf: Literary prizes are nice, but theres always more to the story

As director of the Jewish Community Library, I spend much of my life promoting the transformative power of engaging with Jewish books — whether it is one you argue about in a book club, one you read in synagogue, or one telling you how many carrots belong in the soup.

In coming weeks, this space will focus on current or upcoming releases and Bay Area literary events. However, with the announcement of a number of literary prizes in the past several weeks, I decided to begin with a deserved glance back to the books of 2011.

The American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal for outstanding Jewish literature went to Peter Cole and Adina Hoffman’s “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza.” Cole and Hoffman offer an especially compelling account of the scholars who brought to light and attempted to make sense of nearly 300,000 documents collecting dust in the storeroom of a Cairo synagogue, providing a valuable entryway to the texts. Coincidentally, “Sacred Trash” was released just a few months after the publication of Mark Glickman’s excellent “Sacred Treasure,” also a popular history of the Cairo Geniza.

The Oscars of the Jewish literary world are the National Jewish Book Awards. These alert us to works of Jewish substance that, while sometimes of limited interest to the general public, help us understand and define our own experience.

The big winner for 2011 was Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Jerusalem: A Biography.” I recommend this book for students of history, but perhaps not for the faint of heart. Its unflinching account of conquests and persecutions is a sobering reminder that the violence that has pained Jerusalem in our age has been the rule for much of the city’s history.

Art Spiegelman’s “MetaMaus” won in the biography and memoir category. On the 25th publication anniversary of his Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel, Spiegelman offers valuable insights into its creation and strange career, as well as reflections on the legacy of the Holocaust.

Hearing Spiegelman’s father’s voice on the accompanying DVD brought me back nearly 20 years. I heard it for the first time while viewing “The Road to ‘Maus,’ ” an exhibition at the Jewish museum when it was located in the Jewish Community Federation building on Steuart Street. Long before it adopted its present name, the museum already showed a flair for the contemporary, before the world had accepted the notion of using the comic-book format to treat serious subject matter. Spiegelman’s work was at the center of considerable controversy.

The truth is that, among the year’s 50 National Jewish Book Award winners and finalists, “Jerusalem,” “Sacred Trash,” “MetaMaus,” Gerald Steinacher’s “Nazis on the Run” and Deborah Lipstadt’s “The Eichmann Trial” are perhaps the only works that achieved significant notice in the general book world. In a year with no books from prominent writers such as Michael Chabon, Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Safran Foer, Cynthia Ozick and Philip Roth, we notice just how dependent we are on our literary ambassadors who regularly bring Jewish concerns to the forefront of American culture.

So, which books were neglected by the judges? Lucette Lagnado’s memoir “The Arrogant Years” is a worthy follow-up to her successful “The Man in the White Sharkskin Coat.” Rather than picking up where the earlier book left off, it largely covers the same period and circumstances (her family’s bitter departure from Cairo for Paris and, eventually, Brooklyn) but shifts its focus from the author’s father to her mother.

The awards also failed to recognize some standout short-story collections, including Erika Dreifus’ debut “Quiet Americans,” the masterful Edith Pearlman’s “Binocular Vision” and Amos Oz’s “Scenes from Village Life,” which, in the mold of Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” creates a vivid and complex portrait of a community in eight stories.

The Bay Area will see some remarkable book-related events in the coming weeks.

Nathan Englander will be at the JCC of San Francisco on Feb. 14 and the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto Feb. 15 to discuss “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” (See story, page 17a). Much anticipated, this is Englander’s first collection of stories since he astonished the literary world with his debut “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” a dozen years ago.

The JCCSF’s BookFest begins Feb. 24 with “Literary Feasts,” the sort of Shabbat dinner that makes librarians very happy. Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder will season the meal with a discussion of Jewish cookbooks. Feb. 26 will see a daylong convergence of authors, including Krauss, Joyce Carol Oates (speaking in praise of Saul Bellow), Dara Horn, Harold Bloom and poet laureate Philip Levine.

Crime-book lovers will want to spend March 4 in Foster City, where the Peninsula JCC is hosting a celebration of Jewish mystery writers that will bring together the entire Kellerman mishpocha (Jonathan, Faye and Jesse), as well as Cara Black, Rita Lakin and others.

My hunch: The librarian did it.

Howard Freedman is the director of the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All of the books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Off the shelf
is a new monthly column that will highlight noteworthy books and upcoming literary events in the Bay Area.

Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.