French playwright and filmmaker Sthers swerves from harshly funny to surprisingly touching in her compact epistolary English-language debut. Harry Rosenmerck, a retired cardiologist, has moved to Nazareth and started a pig farm. Because Harry lacks even a telephone, his family resorts to communicating through letters. Harry begins an acrimonious written debate with Rabbi Moshe Cattan about raising unclean animals that eventually turns to friendship. Harry’s ex-wife, Monique Duchêne, who converted to Judaism for Harry, lives in New York and writes needling harangues with only hints about her declining health. Their son, David, is a successful playwright whose latest effort falls flat. He pleads for any word from Harry, having been disowned by his father since coming out, and trades jabs with his sister Annabelle. Annabelle, distraught after breaking up with a married professor, whines her way toward a visit with her father, making unplanned detours through Tel Aviv and other parts of Israel. Caustic and gentle jokes leaven the serious concerns about Israel’s militarized security, Jewish identity, and the dysfunction of Harry’s family. This moving novel manages a delicate balance between humor and tenderness among a family incapable of interacting without rancor. Agent: Todd Shuster, Aevitas. (Jan.)
A witty, heartwarming, and heart-wrenching epistolary novel, soon to be a major motion picture starring James Caan, Rosanna Arquette, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, about a dysfunctional familyled by a Jewish pig farmer in Israelstruggling to love and accept each other.
As comic as it is deeply moving, Holy Lands chronicles several months in the lives of an estranged family of colorful eccentrics. Harry Rosenmerck is an aging Jewish cardiologist who has left his thriving medical practice in New Yorkto raise pigs in Israel. His ex-wife, Monique, ruminates about their once happy marriage even as she quietly battles an aggressive illness. Their son, David, an earnest and successful playwright, has vowed to reconnect with his father since coming out. Annabelle, their daughter, finds herself unmoored in Paris in the aftermath of a breakup.
Harry eschews technology, so his family, spread out around the world, must communicate with him via snail mail. Even as they grapple with challenges, their correspondence sparkles with levity. They snipe at each other, volleying quips across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and Europe, and find joy in unexpected sources.
Holy Lands captures the humor and poignancy of an adult family striving to remain connected across time, geography, and radically different perspectives on life.
"Pithy, loaded letters and emails aimed at their vulnerable targets fly more like missiles than missives in Amanda Sthers' lively epistolary novel . . . Sthers’ book has the timing, wit, and warmth of a screwball screenplay that isn’t allowed to idle for more than a beat . . . Sthers captures her characters’ distinct voices and dueling positions with practiced concision and obvious relish." - NPR.org
“This is a book you can read in an afternoon, but it'll stick with you for much longer than that. Comic, moving, and occasionally profound, Sthers' novel is a delight.” Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Each letter in Holy Lands is a soliloquy about pain, separation, and belonging." - Washington Independent Review of Books
“This moving novel manages a delicate balance between humor and tenderness among a family incapable of interacting without rancor.” Publishers Weekly
“[A] quick-footed, perfectly choreographed, piercingly funny, and poignant novel . . . As each articulate, conflicted, and ardent character endures life-altering experiences, Sthers incisively and provocatively questions crucial matters of religion, morality, inheritance, compassion, and love.” Booklist
“Sthers is an expert at crafting dysfunctional families that remain touching and relatable. With Holy Lands, she's penned an irreverent and endearing reminder that blood is thicker than water.” Karen Tanabe, author of The Gilded Years
“With eloquent Jewish humor, ironic taunts, familial reprimands, and cries from the heart each of the letters that form this gripping novel reveals a new secret, or asks a new question . . . Along the way we see that change is possible and that truth can be a brilliant vehicle of reconciliation. This book reminds us how intense, even pungent, all our letters, postal or electronic, should be.” Grace Dane Mazur, author of The Garden Party
A swiftly moving epistolary novel about a Jewish family.
Harry Rosenmerck, a Jewish cardiologist, has fled his New York home to breed pigs in Israel. Yes, pigs. His estranged family lies scattered in his wake. There's his ex-wife, Monique, who's facing down a serious illness; their brokenhearted daughter, Annabelle; and their playwright son, David, whom Harry has refused to speak to since David's coming out. Sthers's latest novel—her American debut—takes the form of letters that crawl back and forth via snail mail between Harry, Monique, Annabelle, and David, in various combinations, as well as the letters that Harry exchanges with Rabbi Moshe Cattan, who objects to his budding husbandry but soon becomes a fast friend. Sthers, a filmmaker both in her native France and in the U.S., has a keen eye and a light touch. The story zips among its many characters; it never drags, never tires. Then, too, Sthers has a fine sense for the way that the tragic, the comic, and the tender become mingled. Why won't Harry speak to his son? Why did he and Monique separate? What lies behind Annabelle's painful history with men? Sthers hints at answers but never overdoes things. Her slim, swiftly moving novel describes the complicated relationships between siblings, a married couple, a man and his rabbi and still has room for a light critique of Israel's policies toward Palestine. This is a book you can read in an afternoon, but it'll stick with you for much longer than that.
Comic, moving, and occasionally profound, Sthers' novel is a delight.
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Read an Excerpt
From Harry Rosenmerck to Rabbi Moshe Cattan
Nazareth, April 1, 2009
Dear Rabbi Cattan,
I've followed all of your instructions ever since moving to Israel to breed pigs. I put them in a stilt pen over the sea just like the Hawaiians do. Not a single hoof will touch Holy Ground. Except, of course, if you agree that we should use them to hunt down terrorists. (Incidentally, I saw a photo in the New York Times last month of a soldier from the IDF with a pig on a leash and, frankly, I think it discredits our reputation for being hard-core!).
I have a deep respect for religion, even if I don't really practice it, and I never meant to upset you.
Also, I found your letter a little harsh, and calling me a "son of a bitch" won't change the fact that Israeli Jews can't seem to get enough of bacon or that I sell it to them in a restaurant in Tel Aviv, by the way.
Personally, I don't eat any since it's too high in fat for my already high cholesterol. I'm just trying to make a living. If I don't sell them pig, they'll just go and buy it from a goy. Eggs and bacon are on the menu and there's nothing you can do about it. They think it's elegant, like chicken potpie or frogs' legs.
What's the story with pig blood, Rabbi? You remember the brilliant idea to hang blood bags inside city buses so any terrorists who wanted to blow themselves up would be covered in it and made impure? So they wouldn't get into Paradise with the seventy-two virgins?
If you can manage to get me a contract with the public transport authority, I won't have to sell any more bacon.
I thought that given your political ideas, which are different from those of other rabbis, and your open mind, you'd understand.
Anyway, I have a million things to tell you that have nothing to do with pig farming, but I know you're busy, so I won't take up any more of your time and send you my deepest respect.
Harry RosenmerckCHAPTER 2
From Rabbi Moshe Cattan to Harry Rosenmerck
Nazareth, April 3, 2009
Either you take me for a moron or you are one. It could be both and you aren't aware of one. Do you see where I'm going with this?
Come to my house. We can discuss the Talmud and I will restore the faith you seem to have replaced with commercial, ultracapitalist beliefs. For now, I'm responding to your letter point by point, but briefly, because Passover is coming soon and I have a lot to do.
1. If everyone reasoned the way you do, there would be no more morality. No more good or bad. The fact that someone else might sell bacon to that restaurant for degenerates, US Aviv, doesn't absolve you of the sin. If you were in a room with nine other men and a child who was starving to death, the fact that you ate the last piece of bread on the pretext that one of the nine others would have done it anyway does not excuse you: it would be you, YOU, who killed the child.
2. It's been a long time since the poor Palestinians who blow themselves up on buses full of schoolchildren believed in anything at all, and even less so in the notion of virgins waiting for them. They're just trading their lives for a salary that will put a roof over their families' heads and guarantee they don't go hungry.
You can keep your pig's blood. It would be better to take bricks out of the wall that separates us, and not so we can throw them in each other's faces, but rather to use them to build decent housing for the Palestinians.
3. Israel doesn't give a damn about what the New York Times or anyone else thinks. We're the most hated country on Earth, sometimes justifiably, sometimes because that's just the way it is. We're not trying to please anyone or appear to be anyone other than who we are. Your pigs have an unparalleled stench and they are useless to the army.
I'll be expecting you at yeshiva. We'll talk.
Wash yourself in grace.
Yours sincerely, Rabbi Moshe CattanCHAPTER 3
From David Rosenmerck to Harry Rosenmerck
Los Angeles, April 1, 2009
I keep writing despite your silence. To maintain a bond. So I won't one day find myself standing face-to-face with a stranger who'll turn out to be my father. So that I don't forget you.
Are you still mad? Because of that simple announcement? That simple phrase that changes my entire existence but not yours? Yes, I love men. Or "one man," I should say. I am in love, Dad. Don't you want to meet the person that makes your own son happy? Don't you want to talk to me and hear my laugh?
It's strange, the less I see you, the more I take after you. I look for you in my mirrors. I have your hair. The warmth of your hands in mine, even in winter. I surprise myself by wearing the turtlenecks I hated as a child and that you never went without when we lived in London. I have the same bald patch on my face that you can see now that I've grown a beard. I'm enclosing a photo.
I hope you're enjoying this strange adventure. To think that you refused to let me have a pet! Not even a goldfish! And now you're a breeder. Do you have anyone working for you? How many pigs do you have? Don't tell me it's you who takes care of them. Do you have boots and overalls? Mother tells me you don't have a phone, but I don't believe it. I wouldn't dare call you anyway. Silence hurts less on paper. We're all separated — Mother, Annabelle, you, and me. You're a piece of a puzzle on the wrong continent.
From Monique Duchêne to Harry Rosenmerck
New York, April 2, 2009
Dear ex-husband who nevertheless remains the father of my children,
I'll be brief and to the point. You're a hopeless old schmuck. Your son has written you hundreds of letters and you haven't answered a single one.
If you could only see the success of his plays on their opening nights — applause that brings down the house. "A genius playwright," that was the headline in La Repubblica after the performance in Rome last week. But do you think he was smiling? No. Like every evening, he spent the whole performance watching the door instead of the stage, hoping he'd see you walk in.
Yell at him! Have an argument! Anything would be better than your cruel silence!
On the other hand, I want to thank you. I'm invited to all the New York dinners ever since you started breeding pigs. Every time I tell the story, it's a hit, although I'm not sure it's doing anything to reduce anti-Semitism!
Sniffer pigs for terrorists. Hahaha! And to think you got me to convert only for it to come to this.
Do you remember our first dinner over barbeque? How to pick up a goy?
Anyway, business is good. I've got new, interesting, and lucrative projects. Thank God for that, because with the alimony you give me ...
Did I tell you that old goat Marina Duncan got remarried? To a Russian. Not a Jew. Just a Russian. And she had a face-lift. If she smiles, she's going to crack.
Any news from Annabelle? That's pretty. "News from Annabelle" — it could be the title of one of David's plays. She doesn't tell me anything. I think she's sad. She's in Paris, but she'll be coming back to New York as soon as she gets her damned degree. More than ten years of studying! She goes from an MBA to a doctorate — and for what? Just give us some grandchildren already!
Well, write to your son. His fiancé is charming, by the way. And get a telephone!
From Harry Rosenmerck to Monique Duchêne
Nazareth, April 6, 2009
You call that brief? Your letter is two pages long and you drive me nuts.
From Annabelle Rosenmerck to Harry Rosenmerck
Paris, April 10, 2009
I know, long time, no hear — sorry. I was crying, crying my broken little heart out ... It's hard to believe that tears evaporate and go to the same place as the water from the ocean, the rain, and the toilet bowl. I wish there were doctors for heartache. Not psychoanalysts or acupuncturists, no soft-science gurus. Real doctors who would localize the pain and disinfect it. It would sting painfully, but then it would be over. Then they'd cover it with a sort of paste — pink, like candy or marshmallows for toothless children — and the sadness would suffocate instead of me. And the wall would crack and his face would disappear, and mirrors would no longer reflect mine. And I'd pay the heartache doctor; I'd give him anything he asked. Then my lead shoes would stay there in front of the heartache doctor's office like an abandoned Dutch bicycle. The pink paste wouldn't erase the heartache — it isn't about getting rid of it — just turn it into nicer things like memories that make us laugh.
You're the only one I can talk to about my heartaches. Mom wants to be my friend and David is just too gay. Do you remember the first boy that hurt me? I was four. He liked Esmeralda better. I told him, "I love you, Didier. I want to be your girlfriend." He answered, "I like Esmeralda better." That seems to be the story of my life. And there's an Esmeralda hiding behind every door, just waiting to jump out like some kind of devil.
I went outside the school, without crying, and waited until none of the other kids could see me. Then I blew my nose on your shirt while I told you about my broken heart. You comforted me without saying much. I inhaled a sugared waffle and we sang in the car.
It's cold here. You'd think spring was never coming back. Maybe it's waiting for my smile, and I'm waiting for it.
I'm back to my old habits. I've been taking pictures all over the place, all the time. I'm enclosing a shot that's blurry, but I think there's a kind of magic to it. To me, this photo represents childhood.
How are the pigs? If you had a telephone, it'd be a lot easier, don't you think? If you die of swine flu (I know, totally random), who'll let me know?
Sending you kisses, Your daughter, AnnabelleCHAPTER 7
From Harry Rosenmerck to Rabbi Moshe Cattan
Nazareth, April 12, 2009
I can't come to your yeshiva. It's nothing personal, believe me. It's just that it took me a long time to get myself a color TV and now it's hard for me to see life in black-and-white.
They called me a dirty Jew back at school. I was five. I don't think my mother had mentioned that we were Jewish. I was a little boy — hers — but Jewish? I didn't know what that was. I wasn't circumcised so I wouldn't be identifiable without clothes. I was taught German so I could get by in the enemy's language and, secondarily, so I could read the philosophers in their original texts. Me, Jewish? Certainly. But obliged to subject myself to your ancestral fears and get caught up with your women in their wigs or your black cassocks and beards that sweat in the heat of the first days of spring? No thanks.
Nevertheless, thank you for the suggestion to wash. Breeding pigs doesn't make me one; on the other hand, your lack of sensitivity might make you one.
If you'd like to talk pigs or get me in a tefillin, you'll have to come to me. Or maybe we could meet for coffee in town?
When you make your life about religion, what do you know about life? Do you ever talk about feelings — anger, rage, love, or leaving God out of it?
I doubt it. How boring!
With all my respect, of course, Harry RosenmerckCHAPTER 8
Date: April 12, 2009
Subject: From LAX heading to New York
You didn't get your blue-eyed Lit professor to divorce? Who was right? How many tears did you cry? Enough to fill a glass or a bathtub? Did you put Band-Aids on your artichoke heart? My play is opening in New York next week and you will be there. That is final. It's a play about Dad, you know. Yes, I know, I've tried everything. Now I'm on to provocation. But I think it's my best writing yet. We're putting it on at The Flea, that little theatre where everything started for me. Do you remember when we bought all of the tickets for that opening night because we were terrified the actress would be playing to an empty room? And as a result, we filled it with Granny and her friends from bridge club (or bingo ... I can't remember anymore — some kids' game)! Now people are fighting to get a seat. It's good to have events for the happy few. You see? I talk like a real fag now. But only in the emails I send to my sister, so don't worry. I would have sung you some Barbra Streisand over the phone but, as you may have noticed, you never answer.
Last week I was on a train (I live on planes and trains, where I write new plays that put me on more planes and trains). Two kids were sharing a sandwich and laughing hysterically. The smaller one was trying to eat the bigger one's portion and the latter was keeping guard with a fork, pretending that he wouldn't think twice about stabbing his sibling with it. You can't imagine how hard they were giggling.
Behind me, there was a little boy with his mother and he was devouring a sandwich all for him. Silently. His mother was reading.
I thought to myself: I was lucky to have had you, to pull on your pigtails and, later on, steal your dresses.
Things are happening in my life. I feel like you've missed twenty episodes from season five, and I thought I was your favorite series ...
I need you, Annabelle.
Kisses, DavidCHAPTER 9
From Rabbi Moshe Cattan to Harry Rosenmerck
Nazareth, April 14, 2009
Dear Mr. Rosenmerck,
I see that I've offended you by asking you to wash yourself and, for that, I ask your forgiveness. I won't insist on having you come to the yeshiva so I can put you in your tefillin. As you know, our religion doesn't proselytize, and even less so to those who are already Jewish. (Are you really if you aren't circumcised? I'll have to ponder that question.)
Come and see me, Mr. Rosenmerck. I cannot come to you. It is forbidden for me to go anywhere near pigs.
Sincerely, The Rabbi of Nazareth Moshe CattanCHAPTER 10
From Harry Rosenmerck to Rabbi Moshe Cattan
Nazareth, April 16, 2009
Dear Sir Rabbi,
I'm sorry to hear that a tiny piece of skin hidden in my underwear might prevent me from being one of the chosen people. You know, I'm a nice guy even if I do like ham. Sacrilege!
Did you know that you're going to be a celebrity to the young, trendy generation of Tel Aviv? That letter full of insults you sent to the US Aviv restaurant has been laminated and is being used for place mats. And on the menu next to the eggs and bacon, it says, "This dish has been recommended by Rabbi Moshe Cattan."
Because stories transform over time, maybe someday they'll call the dish "Cattan Eggs"?
One last thing: why in the hell should I have to come to you?
With all my respect, Harry RosenmerckCHAPTER 11
From Annabelle Rosenmerck to David Rosenmerck
Paris, April 18, 2009
My dearest David,
There's something I've never been able to tell you about and it's haunting me.
What were you doing on September 11th? You remember, of course. Everyone remembers. Everyone experienced it in their own way. One thought it was an action movie, another had a cousin in the tower, this one was at home, frozen and speechless.
And me. What about me, David?
Remember how all three of you tried calling me to no avail until Mom was crying and screaming to the point of making herself sick?
I was probably climaxing when the towers fell. Getting my jollies under the body of a married man forty years my senior. The world was discovering that it was mortal as a whole, and me, how bizarre aging cocks looked encircled by white pubic hair. That was the first time. He spent months convincing me. Not to sleep with him, but to betray his wife. I'd run into her several times. She was a professor, too. A pretty, dry woman with piercing blue eyes. It was like she could read everything in us. She looked so straight, terribly moral. She gave me the chills. He was the one cheating on her, but it was my morality I was cutting a notch in.
September 11th. We spent the whole day in the sack. We'd used a long conference in New York as an excuse. Our loved ones kept trying to reach us in vain. He admitted to me later that he'd used Viagra. He was like a teenager craving my body, or a vampire sucking all of my youth while I thought he was giving me strength.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Holy Lands"
Copyright © 2010 Amanda Sthers.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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