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Books: Angsty millennials, an island paradise and a stand-up sage

This quarter's selection of books to includes a novel called 'Worry' and another written to 'reach out for joy'.
Aviva Lowy
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Published: 4 July 2024

Last updated: 3 July 2024

The Jewish Independent

How I Won a Nobel Prize - Julius Taranto (Pan Macmillan)

Julius Taranto’s debut novel, a delicious satire about academic life, is set at the Rubin Institute on Plymouth Island (RIP). The university has been established by billionaire Buckminster Witherspoon Rubin, who is more interested in the professional excellence of his teaching staff than their dubious personal behaviour. “This new Institute said: Give me your cancellees and deplorables, your preeminent deviants, we’ll take them!”

Helen, a bright young Jewish physicist, discovers that her own mentor, Nobel Prize-winning Perry Smoot, has fallen prey to a scandal and joined their number. Helen and Smoot have been working on high-temperature superconductors which hold the promise of a sustainable global power grid. The two might just save the planet. 

With so much at stake, Helen feels she has no option but to join Smoot and all the other offenders at RIP, dragging her outraged and reluctant boyfriend, Hew, along with her. Hew demands a “moral offset” for their complicity, and Helen agrees to go vegan.

While Helen tries to stay apolitical - after all, it’s the work that counts - Hew becomes increasingly radicalised, and the tension causes a huge stress on their relationship. Can Helen solve the problem of superconductivity before it is no longer tenable to remain at RIP?

The novel is a very humorous read, with much play made of the throbbing centre of the institute, a beige tower described by Helen as “a shlong of a building”.  But while there is glee in these pages, the book also grapples with the bigger question of whether ends justify means, and what compromises can be made in the name of a greater good before the entire endeavour comes asunder.

The Jewish Independent

The Wild Date Palm - Diane Armstrong (HarperCollins) 

On a trip to Israel several years ago, Australian author Diane Armstrong was visiting the area of the famous Rothschild vineyards when she had the inspiration for her new novel, The Wild Date Palm.

Pointing to the little town of Zichron Yaakov in the distance, the guide mentioned that during World War I, some young Jews had formed a secret spy ring to defeat their oppressive Turkish rulers in what was then Palestine, and help Britain win the war. 

Armstrong has taken that idealistic group and tells their story as fiction, allowing her to flesh out the characters and to develop a romance between Shoshana, the mastermind behind the espionage effort, and her co-conspirator, Eli. Their affair is a little overwrought, with Shoshana intuiting the fate of her beloved with, “Every cell of her body . . .every drop of her blood, every vein and every nerve.”

There are some interesting inclusions in the narrative; Lawrence of Arabia makes an extended appearance, and there is a potted account of carrier pigeons, including the information that a successful Pigeon Corps was established on the Western Front at the start of the war. 

In an acknowledgment of present times, Armstrong has Shoshana’s brother, Nathan, respond to a question of whether he is a Zionist, “I believe in its ideals, that in the face of recurrent anti-Semitism we should have refuge in our national homeland, land we have continually inhabited for three thousand years. But I don’t believe this should exclude the Arabs who live there now. I envisage an inclusive country where Jews and Arabs have equal rights.”

The Jewish Independent

What Will Survive of Us - Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)

“The material world is everybody’s enemy, but it has it in for lovers most of all. . .  The body ages, ardour cools, expenses mount . . .”, writes Howard Jacobson in his latest novel, What Will Survive of Us. It’s a question that faces his two protagonists, Lily, a filmmaker, and Sam, a playwright, who embark on an adulterous mid-life affair.

Sam is something of a curmudgeon without many friends. He is neatly described thus: “Nature has been no muse to him. He needs stale air and oppression to write.” and “Two of his favourite words are inchoate and chthonic.” Lily has approached Sam to be a presenter on a documentary series about writers and their travels. When they meet, it’s “Kerpow!”. 

By making their relationship illicit, Jacobson is able to recreate the frisson of youthful romance. Added to this, once the relationship is well underway, he has Lilly and Sam enter the demi-world of S&M meet-ups to add zest to their lust. 

But you’d be wrong to think this is a novel principally about sex. It is about love - the thing that will survive of us - and about Jacobson’s love of language. Indeed, it is the language which sparks the romantic flame, feeds it and charts its course. “At first they thought it profligacy to expend the little time they had in conversation instead of lovemaking until they realised the conversation WAS the lovemaking.”

As well as the exquisite writing, this is also a very funny read. Every new book Jacobson publishes is a reason for celebration.

The Jewish Independent

Worry - Alexandra Tanner (Scribner Books Co)

Twenty-eight year old Jules Gold (it used to be Goldbaum until her grandfather changed it to sound less Jewish) has a Masters in Fiction and is hoping to make it as a real writer in New York. But at the moment, she’s working from home for a company called BookSmarts which provides crib notes for students on literary works. She lives on her own in the Brooklyn apartment which she and a former boyfriend used to share, until her younger sister, Poppy, arrives and installs herself in Jules’ office on an air mattress.

On the face of it, Poppy is the one whose life is a mess. She’s jobless, homeless, suffering from terrible hives and recovering from a suicide attempt.

However, Jules spends much of her day scrolling through social media sites, obsessed with the Christian mummy instagrammers who are antisemitic conspiracy theorists, flat earthers and anti-vaxxers. Their postings make her feel outraged and superior. Is this really material for a future novel or just procrastination? 

The third corner of the sisters’ dynamic is the dysfunctional relationship with their mother who plays the girls off against each other.  She’s also ‘living’ online, selling essential oils in a pyramid scheme. Their father, a dermatologist, injects his daughters’ faces with Botox when they visit for the holidays.

In this satire of the angst-ridden Millennial and Post-Millennial generations, Poppy sums up her  lack of purpose. “Our great-grandparents fled Europe for what? So one day we could buy thirty dollar tubes of organic aluminum-free deodorant and sit on our asses making content?”  

The Jewish Independent

Welcome to Glorious Tuga - Francesca Segal (Chatto & Windus)

Charlotte Walker, a shy young vet, has opted for a life of research rather than dealing with animal owners. We meet her on the sea voyage to the world’s most remote inhabited island, Tuga de Oro, where she plans to study the endangered gold coin tortoise. On board ship is Dr Dan Zekri, who is returning home after his studies in London to take up the role of island GP. 

While it feels as if romance is on the cards for the two from the very start, that idea is soon scuppered once they land. Nevertheless, Charlotte finds other distractions to take up her time on the island, including a search for information on her own hidden past. 

Author Francesca Segal has created the fictional island of Tuga with an interesting backstory: fifty square miles of dense jungle, whose first residents were 17th century Sephardim fleeing antisemitic persecution. Since then it has had a varied mix of “immigrants”, most like the original, seeking refuge. The current population includes a charming mix of characters which bring to mind TV’s Doc Martin or James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small.   

Segal says: “Writing this novel was a deliberate reaching out for joy. The world can feel very bleak, and bringing Tuga to life became my own magical portal to wide beaches, crystal seas endless sunshine and, most vitally, to a warm eccentric community of good people mostly just trying to do their best.”

Segal is an accomplished author in her own right, having won a slew of prizes for her debut book, The Innocents. But she also has an illustrious pedigree. Her father was Eric Segal, an academic, screenwriter and author of the best selling novel, Love Story. His father - her grandfather - was a rabbi.

The Jewish Independent

Imagining Imagining - Gary Barwin (Wolsak & Wynn)

If you’ve never heard of the Canadian composer, poet, multimedia artist and award-winning author Gary Barwin, then here are a couple of things about him that should whet your appetite. In 2016 he published the novel Yiddish for Pirates, about a 500-year-old polyglot parrot and an adventurer named Moishe, which won the Canadian Jewish Literary Award. And he is the publisher of the wittily named micropress, serif of nottingham. Are you in!   

In Imagining Imagining: Essays on Language, Identity and Infinity, Barwin writes on subjects as diverse as his lazy eye and the Hebrew alphabet. Every thought becomes a springboard for yet another idea. His musings are poetic, insightful, quirky and humorous.

The title for this book comes from Barwin’s acknowledgment that the universe is vast beyond reckoning. “I can’t possibly imagine infinity or even a measly light year but I can imagine imagining them.” 

Barwin is a mix of philosopher and stand-up comedian. Try these one-liners for size:

His maternal grandfather “used to say that the town he came from was so small that if you began saying its name as you walked in, you’d have walked out of it before you finished.” 

His Lithuanian grandparents, who never talked about the country where almost their entire family perished, suffered from “notstalgia” because some places you don’t want to look back on. 

“I have an abiding sense of tragedy, which has sustained me through temporary periods of joy.”  

“There’s a wisecrack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

About the author

Aviva Lowy

Aviva Lowy started her career as a radio journalist with 2JJJ and the ABC. She has written on a broad range of subjects, from food and travel to science and health.


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