Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Passover: Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

published 1995








[The Warshaw family is celebrating Passover]

“I’m coming, I’m coming.” Irene swept into the living room, looking even more flustered than Marie, her face red, her forehead shining. She was wrapped , as on all special family occasions , in one of a number of flowing garments she had made for herself, according to her own design, drawing her inspiration, as far as I could determine, from the caftan, the muumuu, and possibly from certain episodes of Star Trek. “I was just having a little problem getting the Seder plate arranged. The one we bought in Mexico last winter.” She carried the broad, painted earthenware plate to the table and started to set it down in front of Irv, beside the matzohs, then stopped and stood frowning at it, shaking her head. It was a pretty thing, decorated with green vines and yellow flowers and dark blue undulations, and loaded up with the usual ritual foodstuffs. “I’ve got the moror, and the parsley, the charoses, the bone, the egg … Damn it, I can never remember what this sixth little circle is for.”





observations: In one of the best extended scenes of this marvellous book, Grady Tripp has come to visit his wife’s family for Passover, bringing along with him one of his students (and a dead dog and a tuba). He says ‘they weren’t my family and it wasn’t my holiday, but I was orphaned and an atheist and I would take what I could get.’

Irv will shortly be looking around the table:
at which sat three native Koreans, a converted Baptist, a badly lapsed Methodist, and a Catholic of questionable but tormented stripe, lifted his Haggadah, and began, unironically, “Once we were slaves in Egypt …”
Earlier all the men have chosen yarmulkes from a box, each relating to a past social event – wedding or bar mitzvah. Grady Tripp is fighting hard with his wife Emily, and Irv says rather sadly: "families are supposed to get bigger. This one just keeps shrinking."

All of Emily’s family are great, well-drawn characters, but older sister Deborah is particularly delightful. Grady says:
there had been times in the past when my sister-in-law’s counsel, while never useful, had provided a certain amount of welcome bemusement, like the advice of an oracular hen.
The book is wonderful and the 2000 film is terrific, although sadly they miss out this Passover scene, and Emily never appears. 

This book got something of a rough deal, from lesser hands, in this entry. There's a Passover meal in this book.

Passover picture from the Centre For Jewish History. Second one is from a family seder held in 1949 in St Paul’s Minnesota, from the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest.


12 comments:

  1. Moira, it's interesting that you should review a novel by Michael Chabon. Until a few years ago, people used to ask me whether I'd read anything by Chabon. Back then, he was lionised as a writer. I still haven't read anything by him, or by Martin Amis of whom people also spoke highly of.

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    1. That's interesting Prashant - I'm a huge fan of Chabon's, but his career has been somewhat up and down: he had a big early success with Mysteries of Pittsburgh, then seemed to be marking time, then came back with Kavalier and Klay, years later. But I don't think he does have the reputation he should have, which chimes with what you say. (I'd much rather read him than Martin Amis, any day!)

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  2. Moira - What a great choice! And I just love the wit in Chabon's style. I can just picture that outfit of Irene's too. Oh, and that comment she makes about the sixth circle? So true to life. There's a certain specified place for everything on the seder plate, and since it's only used at one time of year, it's easy to forget where everything goes, unless you have a plate where the different circles are labelled (some plates are like that).

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    1. That's very interesting, thanks for the extra info Margot. I love this scene, because it's funny without being mean, everyone wants things to go right...

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  3. I must read this one - saw the movie and loved it and am a huge fan of CAVALIER & KLAY too - thanks.

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    1. Love the film, love Kavalier and Clay - I think I just love Chabon. Do read this one Sergio, it's excellent.

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  4. Maybe I will read this book someday for a book to movie post. I have not seen the movie. My only experience with Chabon's writing was The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which I enjoyed greatly. Thus would be willing to try more by him.

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    1. This one is my favourite Tracy, and I'd love to read your comparison with the film.

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  5. There's a couple somewhere on the piles not this one though. I think like, Frantzen, Roth, McInerney for example, he's one of those authors I feel I ought to try at least something by, without being totally convinced I'm going to like it.

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    1. Try what you've got first, but you might be surprised, he's a very entertaining writer, and in my view a lot more readable than the others you mention.

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  6. A top ten favourite passage in any book for me. Initially disappointed when I saw the film that it wasn't in it. But supposing it hadn't been as good? Better not to know. Would echo your advice to col2910 on merits of Chabon vs Roth, McInerney, Frantzen. (Esp Frantzen)

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    1. Yes to all of that! I think the film-makers must have made a conscious decision that Emily, Grady's wife, would not appear at all, and I suppose the Passover scene would have been difficult without her. I cannot think of this scene in the book without smiling.

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