Hope: a Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

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Hope: a Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

Buy Hope: a Tragedy by Shalom Auslander at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A book about modern American Jewish life with such a sense of humour and darkness it'll make anyone sit up and listen.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: February 2012
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 9781447207658

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Meet Solomon Kugel, who is almost universally known by his surname. He is about to join the list of kvetching Jewish heroes of comedy fiction, and at a very esteemed position in that list. He's a man who worries that by having had a kid he's betraying the boy's soul by bringing it into a world such as this. He's forced to live with his mother, who continually expects a second Holocaust and complains about suffering from the first, although she was not born then. He's faced with the eternal dilemma of not finding gluten-free matzo bread for his observances. He's moved to a rural location, and found houses like his are on the hit-list of an arsonist, but his new home has an even more unusual secret...

This is one of those books where to properly rate it you have to especially consider equally the characters, and plot, as well as what the author wants the point of his novel to be. It's a book partly about generation gaps, principally because it is a lot about how Jewish society and culture is still hinging on survivors with numbers on them in tattooed ink, on photos of camp inmates, on diaries from attics. One character here tries to overcome that, and it's giving little away to say the results aren't a brilliant success.

It's a book that's definitely strong on character. Kugel is certainly, as I say, a great creation. His therapist is the most miserable git on the planet, he grew up with photos of Holocaust captives on the walls - is it any wonder he spends a lot of his thinking time working out what would be his best choice of famous last words? But he's little without a strong, if not completely present, wife, his mother and the other people he fails to properly interact with.

I'm skirting around the secret in the house, which some reviewers have given away elsewhere. It's a blunt, yet supremely effective, way at killing a sacred cow, and turning the whole book into one bitterly black comedy. I guess some Jewish readers might find things here a touch heavy-going on that front, but it all has to be taken with a pinch of salt. The fact is that Auslander can combine all his elements and make a genuinely amusing and entertaining book for all. One very minor character from real life needs a quick google search before you know who he is, but this is more than accessible, and more than acceptable to a Goyim like me.

With a quick, snappy dialogue-heavy style and a major dilemma for Kugel to solve, a lot of the book's middle may seem like the characters going round in circles as they debate with him what to do, but these swings and roundabouts are such a jolly ride this can only get a very strong recommendation. So often do I find a book declared hilarious to be quite laugh-free, not so in these pages. There are great scenes, a scathing discussion of the Jewish lot over the last sixty-plus years, and a clever yet overt request for moving on for a new generation. This book could well last that long too.

Nemesis by Philip Roth could well be another modern classic about Jewish men, albeit one set in the '40s. You should also enjoy Songs for the Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau too.

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Buy Hope: a Tragedy by Shalom Auslander at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Hope: a Tragedy by Shalom Auslander at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Hope: a Tragedy by Shalom Auslander at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Hope: a Tragedy by Shalom Auslander at Amazon.com.


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