WINNER – Improbably Loud Laughter Amid Erudition Award: The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family, Joshua Cohen. Some books make you read aloud to the spouse. Spouse, who has the paper open, masks an annoyed expression in answer to your, “Just this one paragraph.” In the normal course of things, said spouse will nod politely at the paragraph’s end and return to what he actually wants to read. But other books – albeit far fewer — make you read aloud to your spouse and then continue reading as the lush green miles of rural Wisconsin tick by, until, at vacation’s end, spouse downloads the book to read it himself. Such a book — so far, only one in my 25-years of marital experience — is The Netanyahus.
This is a beguiling and maddening mix of history lecture, academic gossip and madcap, hilarious dysfunction – let me just say that Judy, teenage daughter of narrator Ruben Bloom, really hates her nose. Author Joshua Cohen says it’s a fictionalized account of historian Benzion Netanyahu’s visit to a rural New York college, a story he heard from literary critic and Yale professor Harold Bloom. Benzion’s middle son, Israeli prime minister Benjamin, appears here as an unappealing 7-year-old, but the whole Netanyahu clan here is deeply unappealing, and a snowballing crisis from the moment they pull up in front of Rubin Bloom’s home in a wheezing 1940s Ford. As the first and only Jew at fictional Corbin College, Bloom was of course tapped to entertain the historian before they head off to campus for Netanyahu’s public lecture. Ruben was expecting a single guest, but the Ford disgorges human chaos in the form of three boys and two adults, all clad in shearling coats “hopefully bought in bulk at substantial discount.” One of the adults “raised a hooded head to the sky and screamed out in a language that in my youth had been spoken by God.” But it’s not god who seems in charge of what rolls forth.
One word of caution: Whatever you do, skip the audio recording. David Duchovny’s droning manages to drain the humor from the winner of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. That’s almost an accomplishment. He had a lot to overcome.
WINNER – Author Who Gets Me Through the Night: Weike Wang. Every home needs an emergency preparedness kit. And so does every brain. A quality Emergency Brain Repair Kit is stocked with the books that helps one through the big and small disruptions of life, times when fear, anxiety, or heartbreak disrupt your natural balance. Sometimes I just need distraction from malignant thoughts pinging across my cortex. Audiobooks do the job for me. The failsafes in my brain repair kit? Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here” and “Perfect Little World”; Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” and “Persuasion” – the Juliet Stevenson narrations only; Jessica Anya Blau’s “Mary Jane,” and anything by Robin Sloan. I am pleased to announce two new entries to my Emergency Brain Repair Kit: Weike Wang’s “Joan Is OK,” published in 2022, and her first novel, “Chemistry,” published in 2017. Wang’s characters are indelibly shaped by their experience as Chinese Americans and layered with the burdens immigration piled onto their parents: racism, disappointment, striving, marital stress, financial straits. Bonds between parents and grown children lie at the heart of both books. Joan in “Joan is OK,” is a doctor so dedicated to her work as an intensive-care physician, she resists all other relationships, determined to keep her emotional palette as monochromatic as possible. The narrator of “Chemistry” doesn’t know how to tell her parents that she’s abandoned her quest for a doctorate in chemistry, nor can she find a way to say “yes” to Eric, who’s completed his PhD and wants to marry her and take her to Ohio.
For me, both books include an extra treat because they mention a place I used to live that few people outside of Michigan have heard of: Bay City. At one point, her character is at the Bay County Fair, which I could walk to from my house. Then she’s at a little roadside attraction park in Pinconning, just north of Bay City. It’s silly, I know, but finding familiar streets and people and shops in any book is fun. Usually, it’s references to Cleveland or Detroit or Boston. I would never have expected Bay City. But even if you’ve never visited the city on the Saginaw Bay, Wang’s characters will be people you want to visit again and again. They’ll help get you through the night.