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This story provides a brilliant, painful and, at times, hilarious vision of where contempt can lead us, interspersed with history lessons so interesting, I had to keep jumping to Wikipedia to learn more. The epilogue is a wild read and worth the price of the book on its own.
Das Buch enttäuscht, wenn man es auf Grund seiner Annonce gekauft hat. Der Autor stellt sich übermäßig als eine der handelnden Personen selbst dar.
Gut sind nur die Passagen über BenZion Netanyahu und seine Familie - ein übermäßig selbstbewusster Papa, eine relativ ungenierte Mama und drei Söhne, die man früher als Racker bezeichnet hätte. Klar wird aber, dass sie - so oder so - auch in ihrem erwachsenen Leben auffallen würden...
Hilarious + just what I needed to read today. I'd like to see more of Ruben Blum in the future. Apps my review must be min 20 words so I'll add: the world of academe felt authentic, if farcical, with strong notes of 'Wonder Boys'
I'm only partway through this, but can tell you as a child of a Cornell professor in the years depicted, the author (born 1980) has no idea about the time and place he's writing about, except maybe in the Blum/Netanyahu/Cohen heads who think they know what other people are thinking. More a novel about current Israeli (Ashkenazi vs Sephardim) and campus politics, projected onto the past, than about Cornell and Ithaca at that time. A lot of Monsey, Borough Park and Prospect Heights yeshiva-think. If you're Jewish, you may find it funny; if you're a 'goy' you probably won't. My advice: take a pass on any book or author blurbed by James Wood or Harold Bloom. Much better books about Cornell and Ithaca are Nabokov's 'Pnin' and 'Pale Fire', Richard Farina's 'Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me' and Alison Lurie's 'The War Between the Tates'. Among the many anachronisms: Cool Whip in a can and Pampers didn't exist in 1958, nor did Route 81, and no parent read or edited their kid's college essays or obsessed over where they'd get in. No one served wine and cheese at a faculty get-together. Cornell has never had a theological seminary, and no student or professor has ever had to attend chapel there. Women were admitted since the day of the university's founding. Many of the most distinguished faculty (Hans Bethe, David Brion Davis, Urie Bronfenbrenner, Alfred Kahn, Alison Lurie, Felix Reichman) were Jewish. If Jews were as boorish as Cohen makes them sound, they would not have found a warm welcome at the Ithaca Yacht Club, but my father's Jewish colleagues were not, and the only person I know who was blackballed was a neighbor my father put up for membership, who was turned down because he had been a pacifist and conscientious objector during the war. As the title page says, this is a book of fiction, as indeed it is. I doubt there was any university in the northeast at the time that resembles this fabulation, except in Cohen's head.
The author has some skill at putting words together. Too bad that the result is pretentious and not funny at all, despite some conspicuous attempts at humor.
My parents were from the Bronx, my Yiddish was more than adequate for this book, and for a brief while the family home was in upstate New York. So I understood the milieu. And I'm no fan of Bibi Netanyahu, so it's not like I bristle with offense at satire aimed at his family.
Still, not at all funny.
What is it that people find so funny? One possibility is the obnoxiousness of the Netanyahus as here portrayed, though since they can't defend themselves that seems quite mean-spirited. Another possibility is some bathroom humor: by Rabelais maybe this works, by anyone else, not so much. I'm guessing that some of what people find humorous is the absurdity of the "genteel" antisemitism in the book, mostly targeted at the narrator. I'm old enough to have experienced some myself, before this book's author was born (and even a little while he was in "pampers," as he calls them). In real-time it wasn't funny at all. The only thing that made it funny in retrospect was when one got the last laugh in the situation -- something that this book's author never permits his narrator. So readers who laugh at it don't really understand the menace behind it.
This is the second time in as many years that I've found myself misled by the artistry of the NYR Books marketing section, so I guess it's shame on me, not on them. That's my cross to bear, so to speak. You, on the other hand, can save your money. And you should.
Joshua Cohen has written a snarky and humorous book of speculative fiction about Benzion Netanyahu’s job interview at the fictional Corbin College in western New York during the winter of 1959-60. One of the buildings at the college is called Fredonia Hall. True there a town in New York called Fredonia, but I believe the real reference to Fredonia, the mythical country in the 1933 Marx Brothers movie “Duck Soup.” The book is patterned after his real-life visit to Cornell where he was hosted by Harold Bloom. Netanyahu brings his whole family with him including is wife and three kids, one of whom is his son Binyamin.
Much of the book has to do with his host, economic historian Ruben Blum, his family, and his identity as the only Jewish faculty member. Because he is Jewish, he is chosen to host Netanyahu who is an expert on inquisition Spain, a subject Blum knows little. Blum comes from the family of an East European garment cutter, while his wife Edith comes from a German-Jewish family of a small factory owner. The conflicts are obvious and their teen aged daughter pines for a nose job. Here we have all kinds of identity issues rapped up into one family.
The Netanyahus overwhelm the Blums wreaking havoc with their home and breaking their color TV, an anachronism here because in 1960 there were very few assistant professors who owned a color TV. Color television did not become a mass consumer product until 1964. In another anachronism he has Blum’s former employer CUNY, which was not formed until 1961. Further, Ruben condescends to call the Netanyahu family the “Yahus.”
The book is serious when it discusses Netanyahu’s thesis that antisemitism in inquisition Spain was racialized. It did not matter whether or not a Jew converted to Catholicism, it was their blood that kept them from being true Christians. Hitler would adopt a similar view 450 years later and to me that was reinforced when I visited an exhibition on converso Spain at the New Mexico Museum. Thus, if Judaism was racialized the only solution for Jews was to have a state of their own.
I sense that Cohen really does not understand the Revisionist Zionist philosophy of Benzion Netanyahu. I did learn that Netanyahu was Jabotinsky’s, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, man in the United States until he died in 1940. Several years ago, I reviewed Hillel Halkin’s biography of Jabotinsky. There I learned that Jabotinsky and Netanyahu by implication understood that 1) there would be an inherent conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, 2) Nazism was going to destroy European Jewry and 3) the Labor-Zionist socialist model was not going to work in Israel. Simply put Jabotinsky and Netanyahu were clear-eyed realists. I wish Cohen grasped that fact.
Nevertheless, when you get beyond the issues I have raised, I believe the reader will learn much from the issues concerning the role of Jews in America, especially in a very non-Jewish community and will enjoy the comedic touches throughout the book.
Oh my, such twisted feelings about this book. This is based on a true experience that the American literary critic, Cornell professor, Harold Bloom had with the family of Bibi Netanayahu in 1958. Some of the book was extremely witty and funny, (but only, I think, if you are Jewish and understand all the allusions) but most depicted annoyingly stereotypical Jews: a teen age girl who hates her nose, a strident, entitled, demanding mother-in-law, and really disgusting Netanyahu's. But mostly I hated it for its pretension. Was the author trying to perfectly follow the voice of a fictional insecure, out of place, college professor? or is the author himself a pretentious fop? I think I have a fairly good vocabulary, but in deep frustration, at page 30 I started writing down and looking up words I had never seen or heard before.....33 at last count. e.g. sambatyon, crepitus, blucher, eisegetical, peripety, phalanstery, adumbration, horripilation, hyemal nugatory......well, you get the idea.