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June 20, 2003 - Image 78

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-06-20

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Cover Story

SUMMER READING from page 65

Joyce Carol Oates' Jewish Roots

Special to the Jewish News


any famous American
writers are mishpachah.
Until The Tattooed Girl,
there was no reason to think the bril-
liant Joyce Carol Oates was among
them. She is.
During an interview with the
Jewish News, she explained it was the
discovery of Jewish grandparents that
led to the theme of anti-Semitism in
her most recent novel.
Ten years ago, Oates learned her
grandparents' name was
Morgenstern, Americanized to
Morningstar. The couple had fled
Germany and settled in rural New
York State.
Raised Catholic, Oates was
unaware of this ancestry until her
grandmother's funeral. Today, her
Jewish grandmother's picture sits on
her desk at Princeton, where she
maintains an arduous schedule of
teaching and writing.
"Who knows what they were flee-
ing?" she comments. "They were

secretive about their past lives; they
were shrouded in mystery."
It was 9111 that was the catalyst
for The Tattooed Girl. Oates decided
the focus for the story would be "the
phenomenon of hatred and bigotry
and how people can hate one anoth-
er passionately, even when they don't
really know each other."
Oates' character, the tattooed Alma
Busch, has a sad history, but the
author agrees it's almost impossible to
summon sympathy for her. She repre-
sents, Oates notes, "the ignorant and
stupid who deny the Holocaust."
She adds with uncharacteristic
anger: "There are people like her
who are anti-Semitic, and they don't
know why. I wanted to show it will
come back; they will suffer."
Suffering is not unusual in the
scores of novels Oates has written.
Her writing life began in childhood
in Lockport, N.Y. She created stories
while attending a one-room school-
house. When she was 14, she was
given a typewriter.
A year later she submitted her first
manuscript. It was rejected as "too

depressing for the young adult market." Literature. Some think it is her
unprecedented production that has
After earning a master's degree in
made the honor elusive.
English at the University of
This year alone, in addition to The
Wisconsin, the newlywed Oates
Tattooed Girl, she will publish The
moved to Detroit with her husband,
Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art
Raymond Smith. Influenced by the
along with anoth-
conflicts that smol-
er novel, Take Me,
dered in the city at
Take Me With
that time, she wrote
You, under the
Them, which won
the National Book
Smith •
Award in 1970.
Then there is a
The couple lived
young adult
here from 1962-
novel and a chil-
1978, while Oates
dren's book. Also
taught at the
projected is The
University of Detroit
and the University of
Windsor. "I have
Jewish grand-
fond memories of
mother's father,
Detroit, she com-
she explains, was
ments, and she
a gravedigger.
Joyce Carol Oates
alludes to local
friends such as Mary
does man-
Jackson Levin.
age to leave her typewriter (she shuns
"Detroit," she once wrote, "made
computers) for teaching, which she
me the person I am, consequently
loves, for running and for cooking
the writer I am-- for better or
dinner for small groups of friends.
Philip Roth and John Updike are
Oates is known as an incredibly
among those friends. Ei
prolific writer and has been twice
nominated for the Nobel Prize for





But author Lauren Weisberger
writes what she knows. She's the for-
mer assistant to Anna Wintour, editor
of Vogue magazine. Weisberger's pro-
tagonist is Arrdrea Sachs, the worker
bee for Miranda Priestly, editor of
Runway magazine.
Sachs bemoans her job throughout
the novel, although everyone say it's a
position "a million girls would die
for." Her simpleton tasks consist of
shuffling umpteen cappuccinos
(which are never hot enough) from
Starbucks to the office, picking up the
dry cleaning, and being available
24/7. (Bathroom and lunch privileges
must be cleared with the senior assis-
Although Weisberger portrays the
fashion world as a pencil-thin, Diet
Coke-guzzling crowd of competitive
snobs, the book is a fast read and fun.
Yes, "Welcome to the dollhouse,
baby," says the creative director Nigel
to Sachs on her first day.
I do have one quibble with this oth-
erwise lighthearted and witty read.
Although the Jewish references were
probably intended to be cute, I find
them troubling.

Miranda Priestly is Miriam
Princhek, an Orthodox Jew from
London who is embarrassed by her
family's "old-fashioned piety."
Weisberger explains that Priestly
alienates herself from family and "the
transformation from Jewish peasant to
secular socialite" helps her rise quickly
in the magazine world. Priestly's name
change is the least offensive reference
(Let's remember, Ralph Lauren was
born Ralph Lipshitz). Weisberger is
glib about the Western Wall and
She writes: "I could feel her eyes
examining the size of my butt as I
walked back to my desk and briefly
considered whipping around to walk
backward like a religious Jew would
do when leaving the Wailing Wall.
"Instead, I tried to glide toward the
hidden safety of my desk while pictur-
ing thousands and thousands of
Chasidim in Prada black, walking back-
ward circles around Miranda Priestly."
Witty and gossipy, The Devil Wean
Prada's sarcasm may work on Seventh
Avenue — but not on Ben Yehuda Street.

— Carla Schwartz, editor of Style
magazine, yearns for a "real" Prada bag.


By Rona Jaffe
(Dutton; 326 pp.; $4.95)

n 1963, author
Rona Jaffe pub-
lished a magazine
article on the young
women who flock to
New York to seek a
mate and/or a career.
Given the high cost of
housing in New York, they frequently
teamed up to rent an apartment.
Often, they placed ads in the newspa-
pers to find congenial roommates.
Forty years later, Jaffe has returned to
this theme as the basis for her new
novel, The Room Mating Season.
The story begins in 1963 and traces
what happened over the years to four
young women who came together at the
age of 23 to share a one-bedroom apart-
ment on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
Leigh Owen is a secretary in,a talent
management agency. Unhappy with
her fifth- floor walk-up apartment, she
decides to find roommates in order to
afford better accommodations. She
turns to Cady Fineman, a college

friend who teaches in Manhattan and
who is pleased to give up commuting
from her parents' home in Scarsdale.
Halfway through the story, we learn
that Cady is Jewish as is one of her
boyfriends. Neither one works at it, but
they are "spiritual" and agree that is
more important than organized religion.
Similarly, religion means little to
Leigh. When she marries a Jew, they
have a minister and a rabbi perform
the ceremony.
Leigh and Cady use ads to find two
other girls to share the apartment with
Vanessa Preet is a beautiful airline
stewardess who loves to flirt and has
her choice of men. She "enjoyed and
needed sexual pleasure often."
Susan Brown is an eccentric recep-
tionist to an eye doctor who is reluc-
tantly deemed acceptable to the others
largely_ because she owns a TV set.
Charlie Rackley is smitten with
Vanessa, but she sees him as a younger
brother, and he becomes a friend to
the entire group.
What happens to these five people
during the next period of almost 40
years makes up the story. Affairs, mar-

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