The Book of Aron
By Jim Shepard. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
Ezra Pound urged writers to “make it new.” That’s a high bar when it comes to the Holocaust. How does one create something of significance when the experience has been mined by writers as diverse and searing as Art Spiegelman and Elie Wiesel? It’s a hurdle more than surpassed by Jim Shepard in his latest novel. A writer long preoccupied by history, Shepard tells the story of a boy in the Warsaw Ghetto while also bringing to life Janusz Korczak, a historical figure who ran an orphanage in the ghetto and voluntarily accompanied his charges to their deaths at Treblinka. While Shepard’s nuanced portrayal of Korczak is superb, his greatest achievement is the evocation of Aron, a child who can’t do anything right and later runs the ghetto stealing and smuggling and turning informant. Shepard has a gift for speaking in the voices of teenagers, a feat of ventriloquism in which he inhabits the heart and mind of one doomed Polish Jewish child who ultimately rises above the abjectness of his circumstances to become a full human being.
The Seven Good Years
By Etgar Keret. Riverhead Books, 2015
The deservedly lauded Israeli writer Etgar Keret is best known for his lively and very short stories that pack a punch. So too with his memoir. Constructed of 36 vignettes, the book gives us glimpses into the joys and absurdities of Israeli life powered by Keret’s gimlet-eyed take on his world. The seven years of the title refer to the span between the birth of Keret’s son and the death of his father; in between, we also hear about daily life (“‘I just hate terrorist attacks,’ the thin nurse says to the older one. ‘Want some gum?’”); Keret’s travels (“There’s nothing like a few days in Eastern Europe to bring out the Jew in you.”); and arguments with his wife about his 3-year-old son’s future army service. Keret’s ability to blend a perfect mix of poignancy, hilarity, and compassion makes it a tonic for American readers eager to grasp how life is lived in Israel today.