Seduced By Shteyngart

I first heard Gary Shteyngart speak at the Skirball in 2010, on the book tour for his novel Super Sad True Love Story. That evening, at the end of his reading, I dutifully made my way to the signing table to get my copy autographed.

I first heard Gary Shteyngart speak at the Skirball in 2010, on the book tour for his novel Super Sad True Love Story. That evening, at the end of his reading, I dutifully made my way to the signing table to get my copy autographed.

I first heard Gary Shteyngart speak at the Skirball in 2010, on the book tour for his novel Super Sad True Love Story. That evening, at the end of his reading, I dutifully made my way to the signing table to get my copy autographed.

“Ah, to Jennifer,” Shteyngart said, smiling and raising one eyebrow as he signed my book—the raised brow he employs occasionally when photographed. (Years later, I would learn the significance of my name to Gary, the cause of that raised eyebrow, but I am getting ahead of myself …). That elevated brow boomeranged back at me a few years later, in the headshot sent to promote Shteyngart’s January 16 reading of his new memoir, Little Failure—again at the Skirball. There was that same damn eyebrow arching over the rim of Gary’s eyeglasses, a straight gaze into the camera, a smirky half-grin, chin cupped in hand.

Shteyngart headshot © Brigitte LacombeEver since I saw him at that first Skirball talk, Shteyngart has always just seemed THERE. Every few months I’d come across one of his really funny short stories in the New Yorker, Travel + Leisure, or the New York Times.

And the guy sure has a way with the literary blurb! It feels like for nearly every book I’ve even considered reading in the past year or so, Shteyngart has already been there, read it, and come up with a hilarious, tweet-worthy blurb. There’s even a Tumblr feed dedicated to his masterful blurbs.

This went on for YEARS. So in December, in preparation for his upcoming Skirball reading, I cracked open the preview proof of Little Failure with anticipation. After all, Andy Borowitz, an eminent judge of funniness, declared the book to be “hilarious and moving” in the New York Times. I expected some witty, excellent writing and a good social misfit story. I also expected a lot of weirdness. Continue reading


Kal-El, Man of Steel

coverartFor the twelve-year-old boy in me who wrote a fifteen-page paper on the effect of comic books on children during World War II, Superman at 75: A Jewish Hero for All Time is a dream program. Joining together an expert like Larry Tye with Jack Larson (THE ORIGINAL JIMMY OLSEN!!!!), Richard Donner (director of the Christopher Reeves Superman), and Geoff Johns (chief creative officer at DC Comics), means bringing our audience a rare concentration of expertise and celebrity. Honestly, I wouldn’t dare go see the new Superman movie without hearing what the four of them have to say!

I couldn’t even wait ’til the program to grill Larry Tye, author of Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, about his favorite Superman and how he first learned about our favorite superhero’s Jewish roots.

What first drew you to Superman?
Two things: I was intrigued by why we as Americans embrace the heroes we do, and decided one way to explore that would be to look at our longest-lasting hero of the last century, Superman. The other reason was I wanted to be ten years old again, and revisiting my childhood pal let me feel like I was.

What is your favorite Superman plot?
I loved the 1990s series where he fought his most dastardly enemy ever (Doomsday), died in the arms of his beloved (Lois), and, after the requisite funeral and mourning, came back to life. Those stories reminded me that what comic book creators take away, they can give back, and they reminded the world why it loved (and needed) Superman.

How did you become aware of Superman’s Jewish roots?
Partly by reading all the good works on the Man of Steel’s ethnicity that came before, partly by reading Superman creator Jerry Siegel’s unpublished memoir, which no one other than his family and lawyers had seen before. Continue reading


Anne Frank Redux: From Concept to Course

I am a cultural consumer. I like to attend movies, concerts, plays, and museum exhibitions. I read multiple publications, both print and online, in order to know what is happening around town. All of this cultural consumption helps me as I plan for the courses offered through the Skirball’s Learning for Life program. These courses do not emerge from thin air—there is a lot of thinking, researching, discussing, and planning that goes into the offerings. So when I come up with something out of the box, such as our upcoming course Anne Frank Redux, I thought it might be interesting to share a little bit about how this course came to be.

First, I love the writing of Shalom Auslander. I have read all of his books and have listened to him on This American Life. Auslander is certainly an acquired taste. He can be caustic, angry, and hilarious at the same time. One of his common tropes is exploring how he, a formerly ultra-Orthodox Jew, navigates America’s freedoms without getting caught up in feelings of guilt for abandoning his faith. He worries about how to raise his children and seems to spend a lot of time dissecting his own neuroses. He raises questions about contemporary society with a unique voice that may at times sting, but always leaves me ruminating. Not for the faint of heart.

Hope: A Tragedy (2012) is Auslander’s first full-length novel. It presents the reader with the absurd notion that Anne Frank didn’t really die but is living in the attic of a New York farmhouse, trying to write a memoir that will outsell her famous The Diary of a Young Girl. Auslander’s book forces deep consideration of how contemporary American Jews and non-Jews think about the Holocaust and its aftermath. There is even a series of trailers for the book in which Auslander calls some of his fellow writers and asks if, in the event of another Holocaust, they would allow him to hide in their attic. Continue reading


Book Recommendations from a Historian in a Happy Place

I am armed and ready with great recommendations for your holiday reading list!

A copy of the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution in progress. A continental soldier’s uniform. An eighteenth-century tea box. Buttons from Lincoln’s campaign.

These items may sound boring to some, but when I heard they were going to be here at the Skirball, on view in the exhibition Creating the United States, I jumped for joy. I love history! I spent five years in graduate school, while working full time, to complete my degree in history. I am an American generalist, a California specialist, a women’s movement enthusiast, a Cold War culture buff, and an archivist. I view history not as a chore, a list of dates and names, but as the story of people. Technologies develop, ideologies ebb and flow, personalities change, but human needs and passions are universal. Knowing about these people and their struggles and successes is a great way to learn about yourself and the world around you. Thousands of voices from the centuries make up a chorus of stories waiting to be heard, and many historians are giving those voices value in the endless array of books available to the general public.

Choosing the exhibition-related books to sell at Audrey’s Museum Store is typically a job for our Operations Manager, Susan, but I was delighted to help her review titles as we prepared for Creating the United States and the companion “Democracy Matters” exhibitions, Decades of Dissent, Free to be U.S., and Lincoln Spotlight. Selecting books relies on the old adage of judging a book by its cover. Is it interesting enough to catch someone’s attention? Is it too scholarly for a casual reader? Is it a good price? Over the course of three months, we reviewed hundreds of books to compile our final book list of more than 100 titles for adults and children. Each book somehow relates thematically with the exhibitions specifically or broadly reflects the Skirball mission. To make this bibliography a little less daunting, here are six choices to get you in the spirit of Creating the United States.

1) If the early republic and the Founding Fathers seem out of touch, hopefully a good book in conjunction with a visit to the exhibition will help. Founding Foodies by Dave DeWitt ($16.99) makes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin more approachable. DeWitt presents the agrarian practices of these gentlemen, something in which they had great pride. I especially like the brewing recipes from Mount Vernon and Monticello because my husband is a master brewer. Written in short sections with wit and insight, this is a great book for an epicurean. Continue reading


Report from Secret Headquarters: Craig Thompson Loves Gloria Estefan

Graphic novel and comic book retailer Secret Headquarters (SHQ) are not only big fans of Craig Thompson but seem to know a lot about him. In a blog post expressing excitement that Craig will be at the Skirball late next week, our SHQ friends shared this funny “little primer” on our illustrious speaker.

Born: 1975 in Traverse City, Michigan Continue reading