Review: 'Good For The Jews'

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The Jewish holiday of Purim arises from a story of Jews in ancient Persia, as told in the biblical Book of Esther. Now, novelist Debra Spark draws on the same story for her latest novel, Good for the Jews. And it's set not in ancient Persia — but in Madison, Wis. The novel won this year's Literary Fiction award from the University of Michigan Press.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The Jewish holiday of Purim arises from a story of Jews in ancient Persia, as told in the biblical Book of Esther. Now, the novelist Debra Spark draws on the same story for her latest novel, it's called "Good for the Jews." And it's set not in ancient Persia, but in Madison, Wisconsin.

Alan Cheuse has our review.

Professor ALAN CHEUSE (George Mason University): Here's a smart, sprightly, sex-drenched and neatly plotted novel about Midwestern life set in Madison. It's got a beautiful 25-year-old inexperienced Jewish woman as its main character, some steamy sexual situations and broad swath of serious political concerns about mid-sized city bigotry and the dangers of know-nothing bureaucracies.

From its provocative title onward, the novel moves steadily along, with credible and often compelling characters, never averting its eyes from the betrayals and hypocrisy that make life in any town, a laboratory for the study of contemporary American mores.

For a small city, Spark writes, Madison offered a lot, anchored as it was by the university and the State Capitol building. Still, it might have been another country: the doughy citizens at the farmer's market who hawked their wares, promising cheese curds so fresh they squeaked. Out in the suburbs, towns were dotted with ugly statues of wee people. Little elves or trolls.

For San Francisco born and raised high school history teacher Mose Sheinbaum, the older cousin of Ellen Hirschorn, the - for a while, at least - virginal main character, living in the Midwest is like living abroad. When Mose's reckless but successful teaching style leads him into a confrontation with a hard-nosed high school principal, the Jewish educator finds himself in a lot of trouble, which is eventually brought to a boil, by cousin Ellen's romantic involvement with the superintendent of school.

Anonymous letters, missing files, vague threats, a synagogue fire, and a death, followed by a suicide: all this contributes to a superb, sometimes satirical, always cutting, investigation of the way we all live now, East Coast, West Coast, or Third Coast.

BLOCK: "Good for the Jews" is the latest novel by Debra Spark. Our reviewer Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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