Review: The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret

I’ve truly missed the experience that an engaging Nonfiction book evokes, so The Seven Good Years arrived in my hands at the right time. This wise, witty memoir—Etgar’s first non-fiction book, and told in his inimitable style—is full of wonder and life and love, poignant insights, and irrepressible humor.

I’ve read Keret’s short story collections (Suddenly, a Knock on the Door & The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God & Other Stories) in the past and enjoyed the experience immensely. With the news of a brand new collection dropping in Hebrew and eager to get my hands on it, I decided to check this slim book out in the meantime.

Which is why I was glad to find that The Seven Good Years reads familiar like one of his short stories. Each bite-sized chapter dedicatedly captures knick-knack themes and ideas on everything from Etgar’s three-year-old son’s impending military service to the terrorist mindset behind Angry Birds. There’s Lev’s insistence that he is a cat, releasing him from any human responsibilities or rules. Etgar’s siblings, all very different people who have chosen radically divergent paths in life, come together after his father’s shivah to experience the grief and love that tie a family together forever.

In short, I inhaled the book. It’s funny how I really tried to take my time with it, hoping to save it for the weekend, but I found that the more I read, the quicker I began zooming through the pages. Every time I put it aside, I’m convinced I remember the book to be better than it actually is, but then I start reading again and slip so easily into his writing from chapter to chapter.

It’s this passage, in particular, that I recall made me grow fond of the book’s voice:

“Before I started publishing books, I inscribed dedications only in those I bought to give as gifts to people I knew. Then one day I suddenly found myself signing books for people who’d bought them themselves, people I’d never met before. What can you write in the book of a total stranger who may be anything from a serial killer to a Righteous Gentile? “In friendship” borders on falsehood; “With admiration” doesn’t hold water; “Best wishes” sounds too avuncular; and “Hope you enjoy my book!” oozes smarm from the first H to the final exclamation point. So, exactly eighteen years ago, on the last night of my first Book Week, I created my own genre: fictitious book dedications. If the books themselves are pure fiction, why should the dedications be true?
“To Danny, who saved my life on the Litani. If you hadn’t tied that tourniquet, there’d be no me and no book.”

“To Sinai. I’ll be home late tonight, but I left some cholent in the fridge.”
“To Feige. Where’s that tenner I lent you? You said two days and it’s a month already. I’m still waiting.”

To Avram. I don’t care what the lab tests show. For me, you’ll always be my dad.”

And this passage that I took to heart because it put into words what I couldn’t explain:

“They’re a kind of meditative disengagement from the world. Flights are expansive moments when the phone doesn’t ring and the Internet doesn’t work. The maxim that flying time is wasted time liberates me from my anxieties and guilt feelings, and it strips me of all ambitions, leaving room for a different sort of existence. A happy, idiotic existence, the kind that doesn’t try to make the most of time but is satisfied with merely finding the most enjoyable way to spend it.”

This is exactly what keeping Shabbat means, for me.

However, as much as I enjoyed his silly writing, his approach to certain topics rubbed me the wrong way. The main that came to bother me, which I quickly noticed had a recurring theme in the book, was his not-so-subtle hatred for religious Jews. It shows quite apparent when Keret talks about his sister, who made tshuva by “discovering religion” which he, time and again, refers to as: “Nineteen years ago, in a small wedding hall in Bnei Brak, my older sister died, and she now lives in the most Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem.”

He states that his sister won’t read what he writes, which grants him the opportunity to recklessly bash her religious way of life (which, really, only bothers him because it means that he isn’t the one making all the decisions, like whether or not his girlfriend can come over to visit the family whenever he decides). Instead of taking this chance to look into Judaism to connect on a deeper level with his sister (there’s so much intricacies to discuss), he just brushes it off as some kind of “madness.”

I felt it acutely in the following passage on strangers telling him “what a waste” for a pretty face to not show her body to the whole world because she chooses not to: “And then they’d roll down the window and shout to me how broken up they were about my sister. If the rabbis had taken someone ugly, they could’ve handled it; but grabbing someone with her looks—what a waste!”

His choice of words, full of tension simmering just under the surface, hinted at a lot of pent-up anger towards his sister, which he was now releasing through talking remorselessly about her choices in life. It’s unequivocally unfair towards her and her warm family. The only passage that shows them in a good light:

“As I walked into my sister’s house, less than an hour before Shabbat, the children greeted me in unison with their “What’s my name?”—a tradition that began after I once got them mixed up. Considering that my sister has eleven, and that each of them has a double-barreled name, the way the Hasidim usually do, my mistake was certainly forgivable. The fact that all the boys are dressed the same way and decked out with identical sets of payos provides some pretty strong mitigating arguments. But all of them, from Shlomo-Nachman on down, still want to make sure that their peculiar uncle is focused enough, and gives the right present to the right nephew.”

And it doesn’t end with his sister, he also comments on his older brother’s short-lived period in the yeshiva and then their grandmother’s brother, Avraham, who also turned away from religion; implying that they made the better choice in doing so.

It became all the more taxing when Keret had the audacity to claim all the above, but when an elderly Polish woman in Warsaw does the bare minimum (literally preparing a jam sandwich) he commends her. His behavior can be considered textbook Stockholm syndrome: bashing your own people and hugging the ones that stood idly by while your entire family was annihilated…

Anyway, I left The Seven Good Years after the aforementioned with a sour taste in my mouth; I’ll stick to Keret’s fiction from now on.

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Review: Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger

This book was exactly what I was seeking with Elie Wiesel’s memoirs: it summarises Wiesel’s concise teachings on keeping history alive through morality and vulnerability. You’re guaranteed to leave Ariel Burger’s Witness with a changed perspective.

Ariel Burger first met Elie Wiesel at age fifteen. They studied together and taught together. Witness chronicles the intimate conversations between these two men over decades, as Burger sought counsel on matters of intellect, spirituality, and faith, while navigating his own personal journey from boyhood to manhood, from student and assistant to rabbi and, in time, teacher.

In this profoundly hopeful, thought-provoking, and inspiring book, Burger takes us into Elie Wiesel’s classroom, where the art of listening and storytelling conspire to keep memory alive. As Wiesel’s teaching assistant, Burger gives us a front-row seat witnessing these remarkable exchanges in and out of the classroom. The act of listening, of sharing these stories, makes of us, the readers, witnesses.

Witness 1-- bookpsoilsTo start off each part, the author’s stories are interspersed throughout, which made for a well-paced read regarding the bond shared between Elie Wiesel and Ariel Burger.witness 9-- bookspoils

Wiesel comes to provide the home described above in the pages of this book. Like put so well in explaining the meaning of ezer k’negdo:

witness 10-- bookspoilsHe continues to write: “What does it mean to disagree for the sake of the other rather than in order to defeat or silence the other?” Such grandiose ideas to wrap my head around.

I consider it to be a good sign if a book makes me stop every few pages or so to run and share the information I just read with the people surrounding me. Witness makes for an excellent book discussion.

And since this was such an honest and vulnerable read, it feels only right to make my review as such, as well. From sharing the many rabbinical and Hasidic tales that populated Elie Wiesel’s childhood, to discussing the age-old question, “must art emerge from suffering?”; keeping memory alive through reading; Judaism; fanaticism… There are so many thought-provoking ideas introduced through Wiesel’s words that, in order to hold on to them all, I felt like being in one of those money blowing machines*, trying desperately to grasp on to even one fundamental thought so it won’t escape me with time. The amount of notes I took from this book is a bit over the top…

*I’m, of course, referring to one of these bad boys:

So, let’s jump right into the good stuff:

  • When attending one of Elie Wiesel’s lectures becomes a life-changing notion:Witness 2-- bookpsoils This put exactly into words why I make sure to read up on survivor testimonies, instead of reading the words of the enemy.

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  • When discussing the misuse of music and “why knowing the history of works of art is important.” He continues to discuss, in the passage below, how he personally “would not go to a concert of Wagner’s music…”witness 3-- bookspoilsI feel so grateful to see someone address this in writing!!!! Nowadays, people boycott modern public figures left and right for their inappropriate nature but seldom hold up “classic” figures to the same actions… So I was beyond relieved to finally read this passage in black and white on paper. Ever since I listened to a life-changing lesson on the so-called “geniuses” of Western culture (Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Voltaire, and many more) and exposing their utter immoral natures, I make sure to check if what I’m consuming was created “in the service of humanity or its opposite…”
  • Expanding upon the opening quote of “listening to a witness makes you a witness,” which completely flipped my worldview around.

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  • I appreciate how included we felt in the class discussions, each covering through such wide-ranging questions. The movement is rapid from student to student, and we follow it expertly like a ping pong match. Pages flew by when heated topics were introduced, or simply hearing the tales of Wiesel’s childhood.

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The stories that were chosen to be included in here have not left my mind. Including, this short on sanity:Witness 5-- bookpsoils

And this brilliant take on keeping memory alive within us:

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  • This last one is so important and personal to me because of the hidden meaning of birds:witness 11-- bookspoils

There’s so much more I highlighted and would love to share but it all boils down to this: Elie Wiesel was a bright soul put on this earth; we need more people like him in our time. I was beyond disheartened to learn that he had passed away in 2016. Zichrono Livracha.

ARC kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Publication Date: November 13th, 2018

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Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying Witnessjust click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!

Personality Tests & Modern Feminism in Choose Your Own Disaster by Dana Schwartz

It’s known by now that I’m a fan of memoirs, given that I’m easily swept up in the juicy secrets of someone’s thoughts and secrets without having to reciprocate; it’s bliss for my nosy self.

With this new release part-memoir, part-VERY long personality test, Choose Your Own Disaster is a manifesto about the millennial experience and modern feminism and how the easy advice of “you can be anything you want!” is actually pretty fucking difficult when there are so many possible versions of yourself it seems like you could be. Dana has no idea who she is, but at least she knows she’s a Carrie, a Ravenclaw, a Raphael, a Belle, a former emo kid, a Twitter addict, and a millennial just trying her best.

This memoir-ish book was a) entertaining b) morally questionable and c) utterly vulnerable when covering such topics as:

  • eating disorders, bulimia, and binge-eating.
  • the creation of @GuyInYourMFA. And the story behind the profile picture:

You are definitely, and almost assuredly illegally, using his picture (you had done a Google image search for “guy in hat” and gone with the best candidate). You apologize, profusely, and that afternoon you bring a slouchy hat you own to meet your friend Simon in the library, the same library where you took your Introduction to Fiction class, and you ask him to stand there, against the shelves, and you take a hundred pictures of him with your cell phone and replace the picture of the stranger by that afternoon.

  • tinder dating while on her Eurotrip and meeting a genuinely nice guy.

You and Rory will stay in touch, and you’ll flirt and text and email your writing back and forth for months, a year, after you meet. Once, you will sing and play the guitar over Skype while he accompanies you on glockenspiel and secretly you’ll imagine a version of your story in which you and Rory end up together. You’ll imagine loving him, and you like how it fits. But you only talk in words on a screen anymore, and then, one day, both of you will meet someone else and fall in love for real and will have to tell the other person, a stranger across the ocean who you were never actually dating, that you’re actually with someone else now. Whatever flame you two had, whatever nonrelationship, will be quietly folded and put away in the linen closet.

  • celebrity sightings and her internship at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
  • titles like, Are You an Introvert or Just a Lazy Asshole?”.

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 09.46.55But my reading experience encountered some minor hindrances when it came to the series of men in this book…

Firstly, I couldn’t help but hear the uncanny resemblance Dana Schwartz’s writing voice bore to Esther’s from the TV series Alone Together (probably because they’re both New York millennial Jewish girls). In particular, those moments when Dana’s hanging on to a guy who’s giving her the clear ‘He’s just not that into you’ signals (which she herself notes more than once).

I appreciated when Dana focused more on chronicling her personal life, instead of wasting time on the men in her life that ditched her or vice versa, like a broken record. (I have to admit, though, that I felt delicious victory at putting together the identity of a certain established writer she was keen on that ended up ghosting her…) It threw me off with the overtly sexual details that I truly don’t care enough to spend pages on pages. I mean, there’s this lawyer dude that I skipped reading (because he came off as the biggest creep), but he was still written about for over twenty pages…

If nothing else, the aforementioned made for a comical line in her acknowledgments:

To all of the men I’ve slept with, thank you for giving me what I needed in that moment, for making me feel special or wanted or loved. And if you hurt me, thank you for helping me to learn while I was young. Hope you bought this book full price just to see if I wrote about you.

Oh, what last lines…

On another note: I couldn’t shake off my annoyance when it came to the constant excuses for her bad calls by comparing herself to problematic fictional women. It just brings home the point that fiction shapes your viewpoint, in particular, when she tries to brush off flirting and sleeping with a married man by using these women from TV shows that cheated (Carrie Bradshaw, Rory Gilmore, Olivia Pope). Everything about this screams midlife-crisis-with-precocious-college-kid.

If I’d gotten a more individual take on Dana Schwartz as a person – not Dana Schwartz in a relationship – I would’ve grown to appreciate this memorable take on memoirs that more.

ARC kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Expected publication: June 19th, 2018

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Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying Choose Your Own Disasterjust click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!