Collections of essays can be like bad parties — participants with little in common, thrown together by a determined hostess and the...
“The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt”
edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson
Dutton, 318 pp., $24.95
Collections of essays can be like bad parties — participants with little in common, thrown together by a determined hostess and the coincidence of free time on the same night. Happily, this addition to a growing nonfiction genre manages to be a lively and intelligent gathering, even if its title occasionally is a stretch.
The stereotype of Jews cornering the guilt market, and Jewish women being the special caretakers of that legacy, has outlived its veracity, if it ever was accurate. But what Jewish essayists may have cornered is the ability to write exhaustively and entertainingly about the subject of guilt, as further evidenced by this hip, first-person girl-centric collection. The writers examine the guilt bullets they dodge (or take) over everything from using Caller ID to fighting with their non-Jewish spouse over a Christmas tree.
Several well-known writers weigh in with expected style, including talented essayist Daphne Merkin; popular novelist of Orthodox Jewish girlhood, Tova Mirvis; and the prolific Katie Roiphe. Just the essays by Cynthia Kaplan (author of “Why I’m Like This,” published by Morrow in 2002) and Wendy Shanker (“The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life,” Bloomsbury, 2004) make the book worth owning.
The irreverent Shanker, who’s been known to flog her share of stereotypes for laughs, can turn anything connected to food into fresh humor. Recounting a Jewish ceremony involving the tossing of bread (representing wrongdoings) onto a body of water, she exclaims: “Bread = sin! How much Atkins-y can you get?”
Kaplan cleverly uses credit-card foibles to lovingly portray her Russian-immigrant grandmother, who hung onto her B. Altman’s card long after the New York City clothing store closed.
“It remained in her wallet like an I.D. card. In a way, it was. B. Altman’s sold quality clothes, well made, not flashy, and of good value. That’s what my grandmother wore. That is who she was: well made, not flashy, good value.”
Reviewed by Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett
by Julia Slavin
W.W. Norton, 218 pp., $23.95
Julia Slavin’s first authorial appearance was a short-story collection called “The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club and other Stories,” notable for its title alone. It was named a New York Times Notable Book, probably not for the title alone. Hard to say.
If “Carnivore Diet” were a treatment for a movie, it would be called “high concept.” All the elements are there: conflict, huge scenes, original idea, ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. As a book, it is a hodgepodge of satire; one-liners; over-the-top characterizations of everyone, especially politicians; point-of-view problems; going-nowhere plot lines; unbelievable alliances; abdication of every kind of responsibility; and goony behavior on the part of everyone. And, that’s what Slavin intended. After all, this is Washington, D.C.
The Dunleavy family is in a pickle: Dad Matt is a congressman who is in prison. Turns out he was framed, but that revelation comes later. Mom Wendy is at the end of an affair with Peter, who has left ordinary life to join Colonial World, providing Slavin great fodder for doing a sendup of reality shows. Son Dylan has been fired from a popular TV show on which he was the most recent voice of the rodent, Harlan. Alas, his voice is changing.
Enter the Chagwa: mysterious beast, killer carnivore, indiscriminately destructive predator. Hmm, could this be a parable about Washington, D.C.? Slavin’s political proclivities are definitely blue-state and not at all hard to suss out. For some unstated reason, the Chagwa zeroes in on the Dunleavy manse and wreaks havoc. Wendy’s response is to load up on feel-good drugs. Doesn’t help much, but it gets her out of the action and into rehab, leaving Dylan free to roam the streets with other former Harlans.
And there you have it. Lots of walk-ons by politicians and stereotypes we all know and love to hate, a plot line that is also on drugs with starts and stops in strange places and, oh, those one-liners. The girl can’t help herself and we are all richer for it: Wendy says to Peter, “Did you know we’re called nonsleepers now? Insomniac is dead, buried in the word yard next to crippled.”
And, after The Mall is bombed to dust in an attempt to kill the Chagwa, Slavin muses: “All these memorials in a town that thrives on forgetfulness.” It is a better civics lesson than it is a novel.
Reviewed by Valerie Ryan