Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Schlepping through the Alps / Apple

One of the problems with so-called 'Jewish' literature (I'm talking mostly non-fiction here), is that there is so little original published. As literary editor of the Jerusalem Post, a full 1/3-1/2 books I was sent by publishers concerned the Holocaust, and amongst those, while -- I emphasize -- each and every one was important in its own way and was a historically important document, very few actually stood out.
This is one that does. 'Schlepping through the Alps' is written by Sam Apple, who for a brief couple of weeks in 1996 was an intern with me at the Jerusalem Report. My main memory of him is watching then-editor David Horovitz reject a piece that he'd written, so I was pretty intrigued to see that he'd managed to publish a book with Ballantine -- and even more intrigued when it turned out to be so good.
The story begins when Apple, a Houston native in his mid-20s, living in NY, attends a concert in NY given by a half-Jewish Austrian named Hans, who is a shepherd who loves singing Yiddish folksongs to his sheep (and shows slides of his sheep during his performances to human audiences). Apple is so fascinated by this strange character that he travels to Austria to interview him, trying to figure out where his obsession with all things Yiddish come from. Through Hans's unusual and sometimes sad story, he subtly gets to the story of modern Austria itself -- a country which never confronted its Nazi past and never truly came to terms with it, although to what extent Austria is today 'anti-Semitic' remains unclear.
What brings this potentially dry subject to life is both one of the strangest set of characters you'll ever meet in non-fiction -- and Apple's sense of humour. The book is as much about him as about Austria and Hans and the book plays on his 'Jewish' neurosis and hypochondria in a self-deprecating way. Miraculously, he pulls it off and at several points I was laughing out loud. There is also a lot of warmth in the book, particularly as he develops a friendship with the vulnerable Hans. The whole thing is written with what can only be described as a big dollop of chen. Read it!

[Sam Apple's website here]

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