sábado, 29 de enero de 2011

Bread Givers

Bread Givers (Persea Books, 2003)
by Anzia Yezierska
USA, 1925

"It says in the Torah: What's a woman without a man?  Less than nothing--a blotted-out existence.  No life on earth and no hope of Heaven."  (Bread Givers, 205)

Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, occasionally cited as an important work for its take on modern feminism and the U.S. immigrant experience and read here as the first Wolves group read selection of the year as chosen by E.L. Fay, was a bit of a curiosity for me.  Part female Horatio Alger "success story" and part goofball East Side Kids-style "anthropology" of recent immigrant life on Manhattan, the narrative arc of the novel follows feisty, determinedly studious narrator Sara Smolinsky as she attempts to light out for the Territory and into a teaching career away from Hester Street and her domineering, jobless, and Torah-quoting Polish rabbi father.  While I'm not sure that Bread Givers really has a lot to recommend as a novel (it's caricaturish and predictable, and the lack of anything stylistically bitchin' going on is only magnified when you stop to consider that 1925 was also the year of Mrs. Dalloway), I do think it has something to offer as a portrait of NYC Jewish immigrant life presumably authentic to the zeitgeist of its time and place (caricatures aside, its focus on assimilation, gender roles, poverty, and an ethnic enclave neighborhood full of Zalmon the fish peddlers and other eccentrics lining up to marry the various Smolinsky sisters felt real to me at least).  So is the book worth your time?  Oy vey, such a tough question!  Although inclined to say no, not really, I will say that the eventually endearing Sara and even her unreasonable and perpetually no account father kind of grew on me as characters over time.  Weird.  (http://www.perseabooks.com/)

14 comentarios:

  1. Yes, weird. This book is a frequently assigned middle and high school text for its insight into the immigrant experience and while the drama quotient may seem just right for the adolescent set, it grated on me here and there. But like you, I kept reading, still engaged. Just the right length. Any more and I am afraid I would have checked out.

    Will post sometime today. Just got our power back. The power that went out on Wednesday night. Behind just turned into way behind.

    Forgive me my uselessness for the Cairo Trilogy read? Finished first book. Felt like I flat-lined through most of it. The constant low pitched hum of domesticity. Just not fully engaged with the rest. Half way through second. At least will manage a wrap up post by end of read. It is growing on me.

  2. I definitely see what you mean about the caricatures and so-so writing style. Yezierska definitely does not do "subtle." It's a helluva fast read too - I got nearly 100 pages done during my hour-long lunch break!

    Still, Bread Givers resonated with me. I think it was probably the feminist aspect and the fact that I'm really interested in this time period, particularly what was going on in NYC. I also think a lot of first- and second-generation Americans today will relate to it pretty well. But I do agree that Bread Givers probably functions best as a YA novel.

    I haven't even started Palace of Desire! I will read it as quickly as I can. It seems like I'm always late for these things.

  3. I should do a post comparing Reb Smolinsky to Al-Sayyid Ahmad!

  4. *Frances: Although I'm drawing a blank on what readings were used to supplement the immigrant studies components of my own high school history and English classes (ugh, that was so long ago!), I wasn't aware that Bread Givers was filling said bill for the youngsters of today. I guess that's not such a bad idea all in all--although I'm with you on being glad that the novel wasn't any longer. Speaking of which, no worries about The Cairo Trilogy either. While I'm mostly enjoying it for its entertainment value, it's not as good as I would have hoped and it's a little Undsetian in its combination of soap opera and repetitiveness at times. Still finishing up Book Two as well.

    *E.L. Fay: I can see this book resonating more for others than it did with me, though I don't think it's a bad read or anything like that. Just a little too obvious in some ways (as I mentioned over at your blog, I think I would have preferred it more as a memoir than as a novel). In any event, your idea to compare the Yezierska father character with the Mahfouz family patriarch bears all the promises of a fantastically amusing post--will look forward to that one for sure!

  5. I agree with you about Bread Givers being hard to recommend. While I'm glad I read it, I certainly won't be rereading it. I might recommend it to a young child?

    I was shocked when you mentioned Mrs. Dalloway was published the same year, such a contrast! But then it's hard for me to compare any other author to Woolf, she's in a league of her own.

  6. Mentioning Mrs. Dalloway brought to my mind the 1930's book Call It Sleep by Henry Roth, which also described the NY Jewish immigrant experience, but from a boy's point of view. (Call It Sleep is notable, inter alia, for its stream of consciousness technique.) And Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote wonderful books about the affect of orthodoxy on young girls. But these are both male authors, of course, and I would suppose that what makes Bread Givers significant (wishing I could write that sicnificant, thereby portmanteauing the whole thing) is that it was written by a woman. Does that make it inherently of value? Well, I do think women's voices are undervalued and underrepresented, but I don't think that means one has to assign more value to a work than it deserves for that reason. Nevertheless, I applaud the eclectic choices of The Wolves, and look forward to the next selection!

  7. *Shannyn: I think various vignettes from Bread Givers would make for fine cultural additions on the immigrant experience for junior high or high school classes (as Frances has indicated is already taking place). But like you, I have no interest in ever reading it again! And that Woolf/Yezierska comparison might have been a little unfair of me, but it is what is is, you know? Anyway, thanks for reading along with us on this one--it was nice to have the additional input!

    *Jill: Thanks for the tip on Call It Sleep, which was unknown to me but sounds interesting. As for the "women's voices are undervalued and underrepresented" argument you bring up, the ironic thing for me is the feeling that Yezierska would have made a stronger statement by writing Bread Givers as a memoir. It's not very happening as a novel, though it's not without its charms in some ways as a testimony. P.S. Thanks for not calling our so-called "eclectic" choices "(in)sicnificant," ha ha!

  8. Richard: You pretty much summed up my feeling about this novel - I think it has some historical merit, but the writing was just so-so for me and the characters a little too predictable and unoriginal. I'm still crafting my review...but hope to have it up by the end of today.

  9. Yes, I'm chiming in with the "overall unimpressed but it brought up some interesting points" camp. (Wow, that was a lot more succinct than the post I actually wrote...) I did end up connecting with a few of the characters despite their lack of development, but like you and Frances was glad it wasn't any longer.

    I was a little surprised and impressed how dark - or, ambivalent? - the ending was; that racheted the whole book up a notch in my esteem.

    And I'm looking forward to everyone's thoughts on Palace of Desire. That Nobel committee likes their epic drama, don't they?

  10. *Wendy: Sorry this wasn't such a great read for you either, but thanks for reading along with us and weighing in on the book. The historical interest only merit seems to be the consensus this time out, though, barring any other pending reviews. Cheers!

    *Emily: Can't say that the ending struck me all that much one way or the other--other than that Sara had met her love match in a way that might lead to sexual harassment lawsuits today! Was mostly glad to be done with the book by then, though, so I look forward to seeing what you have to say about the situation with the dad. Have been (mostly) shying away from your Palace of Desire post till I finished the book and gathered my thoughts, but I've been finding it entertaining and yet unimpressive in many ways at one and the same time. Glad the third volume's quite a bit shorter than the other two!

  11. Call It Sleep is an amazing book. Roth was trying to push English to places it hadn't gone, and possibly couldn't go - it's an ambitious book. Yet it is all credibly from the point of view of a six year old.

  12. Joining the conversation a bit late, but that's okay because basically I agree with you and the others. I especially agree with what you said about it working better as a memoir. The author seems like an interesting person. The introductions in the copy I had provided some details that added to my reading of the book - especially the fact that Yezierska liked to fabricate her own life to some extent, and that her father was similar to Sara's - but not so tyrannical. Hmmm. Like Emily, the ending changed how I felt about the overall book somewhat.

  13. I don't know why but the title struck me and I expected something more rounded and more subtle than it seems to be... Bit disappointing what I read here and I am not sure I'm in the mood to read it just to find out what happened at the end. Too many books, not enough time... I guess I am not going to give it a chance.

  14. *Amateur Reader: Thanks for the additional info on the Roth book. Will see if I can work it into the rotation later in the year.

    *Sarah: Another fan of that ending, interesting! It didn't surprise me to hear that Yezierska liked to "fabricate her own life," though, because parts of her book are so over the top they seem divorced from reality a bit.

    *Caroline: I didn't mention it, but the title refers to husbands (the perceived "bread givers" in the protagonist's family's future), which is a complete irony given that the dad in the family leeches off the women to provide an income for him to pursue his religious studies. It's kind of a slight work and none too subtle at all, but its vignette nature might make reading a chapter online for free worth investigating. Or not, ha ha. There are plenty of way better novels out there, for sure!