Sunday, September 19, 2010

Reach Out and Touch (the Essence of) Someone

This Tuesday David Grossman's new novel, TO THE END OF THE LAND, goes on sale in the United States, published by Knopf. Grossman is a writer of worldwide critical acclaim and deserves a wider readership in this country (he's a bestseller in Israel, where he lives).

I sold this book to my bookstores months ago, and even though Knopf offered a special promotional allowance to encourage booksellers to take a chance on a long novel from a writer with slow sales in this country (his books were previously published by Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux), it was a struggle to convince stores that this book was something special, a book among books during the busy fall publishing season. And then Nicole Krauss, author of THE HISTORY OF LOVE and the upcoming GREAT HOUSE, supplied a blurb for Grossman's novel.

I myself am not much of a blurb reader. Publishers go to great lengths to secure praise-filled quotes from other established authors and supposedly these endorsements sway booksellers and the public to read a book they might otherwise have overlooked. I almost never read the blurbs myself and barely pay them any attention at all, except that they have become so ubiquitous that I do notice the emptiness of book jackets lacking quotes; they seem naked without the blurb. So for several weeks during the late spring/early summer, a stack of advance reading copies (ARCs) of TO THE END OF THE LAND sat in a stack in my office and I never even noticed the author blurb on the front cover. Then the book media did take note of the blurb.

“Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before. To the End of the Land is a book of this magnitude. David Grossman may be the most gifted writer I've ever read; gifted not just because of his imagination, his energy, his originality, but because he has access to the unutterable, because he can look inside a person and discover the unique essence of her humanity. For twenty-six years he has been writing novels about what it means to defend this essence, this unique light, against a world designed to extinguish it. To the End of the Land is his most powerful, shattering, and unflinching story of this defense. To read it is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being.”

Krauss was mocked for her ridiculous rave, with some book industry folks even questioning whether such an over-the-top endorsement would ultimately hurt review and media attention--not to mention readers'--for an otherwise worthy novel. I don't know about the rest of the country, but I can say that in poking fun at the Krauss quote, suddenly my booksellers paid attention to what is a long, literary work dealing with tough subjects in a country Americans seem to typically avoid (at least in literature). So thank you, Nicole Krauss, for letting a book touch at the place of your own essence; while I've never allowed a book to take such liberties with my essence, I admire your courage in admitting how TO THE END OF THE LAND changed your life.

Is this book as good as Krauss suggests? YES. It is a powerful odyssey of family, loss, sacrifice, and war, set in a country that has seen nothing but conflict since its founding. TO THE END OF THE LAND is the story of Ora, a woman estranged from her husband Ilan and the mother of Ofer, a son who unexpectedly re-enlists in the Israeli army when violence erupts between Israel and Palestine. Convinced that she will lose Ofer too, she flees her home, the constant media updates about the violence, and her chatty neighbors, and decides to take a pilgrimage through Galilee. She is not entirely alone on her journey, though; she convinces an old friend, Avram, to join her. Avram, a former POW of the Yom Kippur War who struggles with post-traumatic stress after he was tortured, is not the most obvious--or stable--walking companion, but as they walk across the countryside, Ora tells Avram the story of her family and her son Ofer. She is convinced that Ofer will die while standing guard at his checkpoint, but in telling his story to Avram, she is able to keep her imagined terror in check.

TO THE END OF THE LAND is indeed an incredibly moving book, one that has stuck in my head for months after reading it. Like all Israelis of a certain age, too, Grossman's own children served their stint in the military, and this real-life parallel will increase the media attention for this worthy novel. Indeed, the New York Times Book Review will give TO THE END OF THE LAND its coveted cover review slot next week. I can only hope that readers discover this wonderful novel themselves and possibly even allow it to change their lives...or even write semi-vulgar blurbs praising its essence.

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