December 14, 2018

West Hollywood Lauds Ladies of Lit

Take some chick lit, throw in a dash of mystery and political awareness — plus some first-timer nervousness — and you have the makings for some thought-provoking panels at the fourth annual West Hollywood Book Fair.

On Sunday, Oct. 2, scores of writers, readers, children and adults will converge at West Hollywood Park for this year’s event. The variety of panels, authors, stages and programs means that anyone can find their niche, for example, Journal Religion Editor Amy Klein will be moderating “The Many Faces of Jewish Creative Writing.” While both genders will make a showing at that panel, many of the others are heavily weighted in favor of the well-read woman, such as “Chewing on Chick Lit: A Quasi-Serious Discussion” and “Gals with Guns: How Female Authors Have Reshaped The Modern Mystery Novel.”

Among the Jewish authors signing, speaking and spanning several genres will be mystery writer Rochelle Krich and novelists Seth Greenland and Jennifer Coburn. There’s also a book signing by Oliver Crawford, one of the last remaining “blacklisted” writers from the 1950s. Crawford, 88, will be signing copies of his newest book, “The Last Generation.” In addition to the authors noted above, Aimee Bender, Lisa Glatt and Lynn Freed — all of whom are scheduled to attend the book fair — spoke to The Journal about their new works.

The Harsh Pain of the Bruised Apple

Lisa Glatt’s “The Apple’s Bruise: Stories” (Simon and Schuster, $12).

The apple’s bruise is its vulnerable spot, the place where all its strength and crunch disintegrates into mealy brownness. It is also hidden by the shiny skin of the apple. The stories in “The Apple’s Bruise” are like that; they are populated by regular people, for whom a regular facade reveals an uglier secret. There is the mother in “Soup,” who finds herself attracted to the boy who, years earlier, bullied her son, and who recently raped a girl. In “What Milton Heard,” a milquetoast neighbor disavows any knowledge of the serial killings happening in the apartment directly above his. A marriage disintegrates in “The Body Shop” after the husband uses his wife’s money at strip clubs and, in a burst of weirdness, carries a stripper off the stage.

But the apple’s bruise (literally) is most poignant in the first story of the collection. In “Dirty Hannah Gets Hit by a Car,” Jewish Hannah bites into that very spot right after her mean, non-Jewish neighbor Erika steals her turkey sandwich. Wanting to appear nonchalant, uncaring about her abuse, Hannah “chewed and chewed, pretending she loved it, pretending that soft brown spot was the very thing she was hungry for, the very thing she craved.” Erika is the girl Hannah has to walk to school with every day, the girl Hannah overhears telling her mother that “[Hannah’s] dirty,” the girl who takes her into the garage, and eats chocolates while pinching Hannah so hard all over her body that Hannah is left with tattoos of bruises. During this little torture session, Hannah is conscious of the smell of gas.

On the day that Erika can’t walk Hannah to school because of a skin infection, Hannah walks herself and gets hit by a car. The accident is debilitating but liberating. Hannah loses “her spleen, half of her calf muscle, the baby toe from her left foot which her father will look for and never find.” But she also gains strength. She is no longer afraid of Erika, no longer worried about being that very-easy-to-squash apple’s bruise.

“Come on in Erika… I don’t bite,” she tells her, thinking that maybe she does bite, that maybe she’s becoming just that sort of girl.”

The story is an autobiographical one for Glatt, who is Jewish and was in a terrible car accident as a young girl that left her in crutches for eight years. It is also Glatt’s most obviously Jewish story, and she plans on continuing the story of Hannah in an upcoming novel.

“When I wrote “Hannah” I had read a series of Holocaust books, and I was really immersed in it for a while,” said Glatt in an interview with The Journal. “I realized, going back over the story [after it was written] that I was conscious on some level of putting those details in [such as the gas]. I was interested in the political and the social become personal.”

“I find trouble interesting,” Glatt continued. “I am interested in human beings with all [their] flaws and complexities, doing terrible things. Some people can do terrible things, and that can be interesting to me.”

Lisa Glatt will be participating in “Women on the Edge: Readings, Discussions From the Dark … and Light Side,” at 3:30 p.m. in the Salon.

A Magical Mystery Tour

Aimee Bender’s “Willful Creatures: Stories” (Doubleday, $22.95).

The emotions in Aimee Bender’s stories are familiar, the characters, not so. While the stories in “Willful Creatures” deal delicately with loss, love, family and pain, the people in them have pumpkin heads, potatoes for children or keys for fingers. This surreal and dreamlike world is simultaneously haunting and tender. In “End of the Line” a man buys a miniature person as a pet, and then tortures him mercilessly, for an enjoyment that is cruel and empty. In the end, he lets the little man go, and the little man returns, broken, to his little community. In “Ironhead,” a family of pumpkinheads have their mettle tested when a child they bore has an ironhead (literally, an iron for a head), and though he is different, and sickly, they love him deeply. In “Dearth” a woman can’t get rid of the seven potatoes in her pot, although she tries, and she eventually comes to love them as her children.

Other stories in the collection are profoundly disturbing. In “Debbieland,” the cool girls lure a nerdy girl (‘Debbie wore the skirt all the girls had been wearing, but she wore it two months too late…) outside, and beat her up knowing she will never tell on them.

“I don’t think I could write the same stories with ordinary people,” said Bender, in an interview with The Journal. “Flannery O’Connor talks about the grotesque as an exaggerated world, where, in the distortion, you see something more clearly that you would not see outside the distortion. If something is too quiet or balanced, or if a quality is more normal, then I am less likely to see it. I am always looking for an access point of feeling, and often I feel liberated by the skewed world. I can find emotions in there that I can’t find elsewhere.”

While Bender says she has only written a handful of stories that directly address Jewish characters or being Jewish — although she did contribute an essay on the guilt she feels when everything is going well to “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt,” ($24.95, Dutton) — she feels that her style is more Jewish than not.

“There is such a tradition of Jewish storytelling that is a little bit magical and a little bit dark,” she said. “So many of the writers that I look to as inspirations are Jewish, like Kafka. He wasn’t writing about being Jewish but he was a very Jewish writer. I do remember loving the [Torah] stories in Sunday school. I loved the bigness of those stories, and how mythic and exciting and dramatic they were. I mean — [Moses] parts the Red Sea! It is incredible. It is a great image. I think on a visceral level, that is the way my Jewishness comes through in my writing.”

Aimee Bender will be participating in “Women on the Edge: Readings, Discussions From the Dark … and Light Side,” at 3:30 p.m. in the Salon.

A Writer’s Life

Lynn Freed’s “Reading, Writing and Leaving Home, Life on the Page” (Harcourt, $22).

The simple act of putting words on a page is something many writers find arduous, difficult and frustrating. In “Reading, Writing and Leaving Home,” a memoir that is equally raw and sensitive, Freed strips back the mystique of writing. The book is a collection of personal essays that Freed wrote over her 20 years or so as a writer, and while it reveals many tribulations that writers face, it also is an inspirational look at what makes a writer.

In “False Starts and Creative Failures,” Freed writes about her continuously aborted attempts to write a third novel. She becomes stuck on the characters name, and then the novel’s title and then the setting. For years, she fixates, unable to move beyond the 40 pages she has written. Until it is written, the novel is like an albatross around her neck. In “Doing Time,” Freed writes about the frustration she feels in teaching writing, a task that she feels is essentially enigmatic, and for many students, an exercise in futility.

“Despite all my years in creative writing classrooms, I still have no idea how to pretend to unravel the mystery,” she writes. “…I feel like a fraud…. How can I help someone breathe life into a flat and pointless piece of writing? I cannot. If there are teachers who know how to work from the abstract to the concrete, I am not one of them.”

Freed grew up in an artistic, Jewish family in Durban, South Africa. Her mother was a stage actress. Her family was traditional, and Freed attended Hebrew school three times a week.

“One can only write what one is, and as I’m Jewish it tends naturally to come into my fiction,” said Freed, in an interview with The Journal. In addition to “Reading, Writing,” she has written five novels and a collection of short stories. “[Jewishness] comes into my writing all over the place, but not because I put it there, but mainly because that is my experience.”

“When you first start writing, you don’t have an audience at all, and I think it is a blessed event,” said Freed, reflecting on the 20 years she has been a writer. “And when you have an audience, you have to resist trying to please them as you have always pleased them. With age, you have to resist trying to do the same thing again. One gets more careful, and possibly, a little slower.”

Lynn Freed will be participating in “Memoirs Light the Corners of My Mind,” at 12:15 p.m. in the Assorted Lives Pavilion.