Taking in the big picture with ‘The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem’

  • The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi (Thomas Dunne Books, translation 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A window into the difficult life in Jerusalem primarily between the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State of Israel.  Yishai-Levi weaves together stories of four generations of a family descended from the exiles of the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Jerusalem
  • Time: 20th century
  • This book, a bestseller in Israel, is a cross between a love letter to the seven generations of Jerusalemites in her family before her and a revelation of genuine cultural elements that created the boundaries in which her characters lived. Ideal for book group discussion.

Sometimes the appeal of a book goes beyond the story.  Sarit Yishai-Levi’s novel is rare in time, setting and community.  For those Israelis descended from Spanish Jews who migrated to Jerusalem in the early 19th century or earlier (often via Greece), the language and culture of the Ermosa family and their neighbors ring true.

In the Spaniol community, it is vital that marriage partners come from within the community. Many of the marriages are arranged, formally or less so. For several generations, it has been the curse of the Ermosa men that they fall in love with unsuitable women. Reined in by their parents, they marry more “suitable” partners and live with a longing for what they have lost. This disaffection is similarly passed down from generation to generation.

The pivotal character in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is Luna, the eldest and most beautiful of the three Ermosa daughters. Luna is her father’s favorite but a thorn in her mother’s side. She aspires to a fashion magazine lifestyle, separating herself as much as possible from the expected path.

The family’s life is circumscribed by the neighborhood and the family business. The expectation is that daughters will receive a basic education, get married and settle near family, working in the store only if truly needed. Everyone lives in close quarters with none of the conveniences one might imagine of a merchant family in the 1940’s. Their world begins to change dramatically as local boys return from serving with the British in WWII. These young men are looking to establish themselves and to choose their partners. Some become a part of the growing cells working to undermine the British Army enforcing the Mandate. These are some of the external forces compelling change in Luna’s generation.

Most Israeli novels seen in the US marketplace have been written by men. These men are usually the sons or grandsons of Eastern European immigrants that arrived either in the pioneer days or came as a consequence of the Holocaust. Less frequent are writings by the descendants of Jews of the Middle East, North Africa or the Iberian peninsula. The strength of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is the window it provides into the lives of the deeply rooted community where Ladino, not Yiddish, is the language of the home, and the cultural orientation is to the Middle East, not Europe.  The success Yishai-Levi has received with this novel is as much a testament to the love she shows for her Sephardic roots as it is for the story she has told.

 

Sharing books with Mom

Regardless of where you sit on the family tree, there is likely a mother (daughter, sister,  in-law, or you) in your life that is deserving of recognition. Just as I’ve shared suggestions of books for Dad in the past, mothers should have equal time.

For Mother’s Day, you want to give (or get) just the right thing.  One thing likely has not changed from the days when a handmade macaroni necklace was perfect – it’s the thought you put into it that counts. There are more pluses to giving books than the obvious reasons.

When you select a book you are opening a conversation. Are you giving a book you’ve enjoyed or one that reminds you of a shared experience? Is it by Mom’s favorite author or takes place in a city she loves? Whether it becomes her new favorite or not, talking books is usually interesting, often more so if you disagree about merits of a title.

Before I give some of my picks, I’d suggest you think about those titles that you’d read again, either because they entertained or informed you. They may be a perfect choice for gift giving. Please share your picks in the comments.

Here are some titles and authors my mother may see if she hasn’t already. Titles with links have my reviews:

  • Helen Simonson’s  The Summer Before the War or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Two novels of English small town life with endearing characters, the first WWI-era and the second contemporary.
  • The Girls of Atomic City is a fascinating look at the integral secret role women played in the development of the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge was created almost overnight from nothing and was at the forefront of research (and social engineering) during the latter days of WWII. By Denise Kiernan.
  • Geraldine Brooks really does have something for every Mom! My favorites are Year of Wonders, a fictional account of a real community that isolated itself during the plague, and Foreign Correspondence, her memoir of her beginnings as an Australian schoolgirl whose pen pals set the stage for her career as a journalist and author. March and People of the Book are also great choices!
  • Israeli novels in translation are a favorite of mine. Three picks are The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, a novel about the high personal price of life in the intelligence service, and The Hilltop by Assaf Gavron, a contemporary story of the complexities and absurdities of life in an Israeli settlement. Lastly, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi is a novel about life in Palestine/Israel at the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State told in the rare voices of generations of a Sephardi family. This view has made it a huge bestseller in Israel. My review will appear soon.
  • Three very different historical fiction stories of strong women are The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes (19th/21st century), The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (20th/21st century), and The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning (18th century).
  • Start her on Louise Penny’s Three Pines/Inspector Gamache mysteries and she will have books to keep her busy for months. A Great Reckoning was just released in paperback, or start at the beginning with Still Life. Rich characters that deal with life’s big issues in a setting you wish you could visit. There are many reasons her fan base is so loyal.
  • Perla, Carolina deRobertis’s magical novel about seeking identity during Argentina’s “Dirty War” will send her searching for information about the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the women who demonstrated and sought out information about their children and grandchildren “disappeared” by the government.
  • For something totally unexpected, share one of these stories about the American West immediately after the Civil War. News of the World is a beautiful small book by Paulette Jiles about a newsreader and a young girl rescued from Indian captors. EpitaphMary Doria Russell’s novel about the legendary Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, has just been optioned for a movie. I’d stand in line to see either on the screen.
  • Speaking of the screen, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Smoot and The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman are wonderful nonfiction titles have been adapted recently.
  • I love Venice and I’m a sucker for detective stories. Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti keeps me coming back to explore that wondrous city. There are now 26 titles in the series. While the principals have aged some since the beginning, it is not critical to read them in order.
  • If you, or the mother in your life, enjoys short stories, travel, and mysteries, check out the Akashic Noir series of titles. There are books for cities from Baltimore to Belfast to Beirut and beyond, each with stories written by local authors.
  • Finally, some “drop everything and read” titles that are perfect for getting away. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney is a new gem, based in part on the life of the top female advertising copywriter in the first half of the 20th century. The Truth According to Us is Annie Barrow’s story of long-held family secrets wrapped up with lots of information about the National Writer’s Project which employed writers to tell the histories of small-town America during the Depression. Before Me Before You, Jojo Moyes penned The Girl You Left Behind, a novel of life in the French countryside during WWI, a painting, and questions of its ownership almost a century later.

This lengthy listing barely touches on the possibilities. I specifically avoided WWII/Holocaust historical fiction. There are many, many wonderful and well-promoted books in this genre. Cookbooks and food memoirs with rich stories would be great for foodies but they are specific to individual tastes (excuse the pun!) Short story collections are making a big comeback, as are narrative nonfiction titles. While a few biographies or memoirs have been included, an entire list could be made of this genre. Still looking for something else? There are many recommendations on the website.

It’s all about the stories

Next to Hamilton, the toughest ticket to get in the U.S. right now is admittance to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Thanks to Dan, I had tickets for this Tuesday and headed down with a small group of friends. We each followed our own path through the museum, checking in periodically and meeting up for lunch. This proved to be a great plan to get the most out of the few hours we had.

Photo by Elisabeth K. Boas

The museum has two different paths a visitor can follow: the three-level underground history galleries accessed from a single room-sized elevator, which often has a lengthy wait; or the culture and community galleries which each occupies a floor above. My story-gathering began as soon as I entered the culture gallery and noticed the cast iron skillet and sea green coffee cups that were part of many kitchens. Next to me was a woman who was struck by the inclusion of the skillet as well. And so the conversation began. She mentioned that the cast iron skillet was the one thing she really wanted when a family home was disassembled. Her grandmother used it for fried chicken and cornbread. I shared that my mother’s brisket pot held similarly memories.

And then we kept talking. About growing up in communities where there were people of different religions and ethnicities and children absorbed aspects of these cultures because it was everywhere.  We spoke about our surprise when we  each entered communities that were less accepting and racial differences created real social barriers. And we talked about where we live in now and how difficult it is to comprehend how far backward we’ve gone as a country in understanding and accepting one another. Sharon lives in New Jersey and was spending two days at the African American museum. She came with a friend who didn’t want to see the Holocaust Museum. So we talked about her coming back to DC and going there together. Two women of a certain age, one African American, the other Jewish American. Both American. Thanks, Sharon. You made my day.

There were other conversations – with a Vietnam veteran from Baltimore; a woman whose family has owned a cottage in an African-American enclave on Martha’s Vineyard for close to a century; and a woman who wishes her son (who was with her) could understand the emotions and importance of Freedom Summer. Each conversation enriched the experience.

When we did enter the floors devoted to the history of African Americans in the US the experience was very different. The artifacts and explanatory signs are
intended to deepen the superficial knowledge that most people have, particularly about the slave trade and the early US economy, and the role of slaves and free blacks in the military from colonial times through the Civil War.

There is a sanctity about the early rooms. By carefully interspersing quotations and artifacts the very personal toll of the Middle Passage is brought to life. The number of slaves captured in Africa by each of the various colonial powers is listed but seeing the ship names, the dates of passage, and the number of slaves at the start and end of the voyage brings the horror of that information to a new level. How can feeling beings put people in shackles and imprison them and name the ship “Happy” or “Excellent”?

A large area, open through all three levels of the history exhibit focuses on the unresolved conflict of “liberty and justice for all” and people as property. The backdrop to a statue of Jefferson is large stacks of bricks, each engraved with the name of one of Jefferson’s slaves. Once again, it is the details of display that connect the visitor in ways that haven’t been done before.

I’m already planning my next visit to the museum. There is so much to see. But since I always look for a book connection wherever I go, here are two:

  • Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill, a novel about the Middle Passage and life for a bright, accomplished slave and later, free woman, in the 18th century. A bit about the book and the TV miniseries here.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s National Book Award-winning historical study of the Great Migration of African Americans from the agricultural south to the industrial north during much of the 20th century.

Elizabeth Strout returns to form

  • unknownMy Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout(Random House, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Lucy, long estranged from her family, is visited by her mother during a lengthy hospital stay. Bit by bit they rebuild a relationship, revisiting Lucy’s childhood in Illinois and the silence and isolation that sent Lucy in search of herself.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: New York
  • Time: Primarily 1980s
  • Read this for an aching look at the mother-daughter relationship.

After Elizabeth Strout burst on the scene in 2008 with Olive Kitteridge, the bar was set very high for any future writings. When The Burgess Boys appeared in 2013 early critics were pleased, many readers not as much. Like The Burgess Boys, My Name is Lucy Barton is a novel, not short stories. But in Lucy Barton and her mother, we have imperfect and complex characters that have been carrying steamer trunk-sized baggage with them for decades.

Set in a New York hospital the 1980s, the rhythm of hospital and family life are very different from today. While Lucy has built a family and career of her own,  her children rarely visit the hospital, her husband is caught up in his parenting responsibilities and averse to hospitals.

Convalescence is slow. Days run one into another marked by visits from doctors, diagnostic testing, and nurses on their own schedules. After several weeks, her mother just appears to Lucy’s surprise. One in the bed, the other in the side chair, they revisit Lucy’s childhood and the small town where her family still lives, still outsiders in many ways.

Little happens in this book. While they speak of the others in their small town, their peculiarities and slights, the acts that crippled Lucy are never spoken aloud. Smart and a talented writer, Lucy’s family never understood her gifts. She was the poster child for low self-esteem.

After leaving the hospital, the understanding gained from her mother’s visit finally allows Lucy to see herself and those around her in a new light. And she continues to transform for the remainder of the book.

If you enjoyed Olive Kitteridge, My Name is Lucy Barton may be worth a look.

 

‘TRIBE: On Homecoming and Belonging’

IN A NUTSHELLUnknown - Version 2 

  • Unknown-4TRIBE by Sebastian Junger (Twelve, Hachette Book Group, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: An outgrowth of a June 2015 article on soldiers’ PTSD long after leaving the battlefield, Junger posits what is it about modern society that has created this problem. Using recognized research and his observations, Junger provides food for thought.
  • Genre: Nonfiction/Anthropology
  • Time: 300 plus years of communities
  • Read this for an interesting take on the how individualism and independence may leave our society vulnerable to depression, PTSD and other problems.

Sebastian Junger is a familiar name to many for his book The Perfect Storm about the New England fisherman caught as three weather fronts came together in 1991. His writing is fiercely analytical, bringing together the individual, societal and (in that case) climatological factors that marked that tragedy.

Junger spent time embedded with troops in Afghanistan. As a journalist, filmmaker, and long form author, he was struck by the strong bonding of military units regardless of the ethnic, racial, intellectual and social differences that might divide in other environments. Junger saw wounded soldiers desperate to return to their units rather than to be sent home.  Many of the same strong and courageous individuals had severe and long-lasting difficulties reintegrating upon returning home. TRIBE is his effort to understand why.

This brief book, less than 140 pages, refers to dozens of psychological, sociological and anthropological studies, business and newspaper articles on the evolution of tribal and group behavior. The primary exemplars are tribes, going back to ancient times through early America, who’s communities were completely interdependent with well-defined communal roles. His contention is the superiority of this model is reinforced by the resistance of captured American settlers to return to their communities, often fleeing to return to those who had been their captors.

Junger asserts that that interdependence is seen in military units and that the loss of it causes/exacerbates reintegration difficulties. On the civilian side, he suggests that this lack of fundamental purposefulness contributes to some instances of depression, abuse of medical insurance and other behaviors.  As evidence, he shares data that suggests catastrophes such as 9/11 resulted in reductions in suicide and symptoms of depression. Rather than turning inward, people reached out to help others both selflessly and to fulfill a need to contribute to making society whole. In my opinion, his assessment might also be worth looking at in terms of gang members and those who have been incarcerated.

This is not an academic treatise nor does he proport to be a scholar.  Having said that, I’d recommend it to those who study societal dynamics, social workers, and particularly those involved in the serious problem of appropriately training our military and reintegrating them into civilian service. Even if he isn’t spot on, his work provides a starting point for discussion.