Reviews

Reviews

PRAISE FOR FAITH FOR BEGINNERS

“In his debut novel, FAITH FOR BEGINNERS, Aaron Hamburger offers a hilarious spin on the ancient travel-as-self-discovery formula in the shape of a family trip to Israel. Along the way, Hamburger directs his sharp satirical eye at a wide range of targets, and any Jew who has embarked on a package tour of the “original Old Country” will laugh out loud at the details. And, without ever compromising his gift for comedy, he also manages to introduce profound questions at every stage – about the morality of the Israeli occupation, about the demands (and attractions) of conformity and about the difficulty of finding faith in a nonsensical world.”
– Newsday

“As the Michaelsons endure “Millenium Marathon 2000,” a prepackaged trip through the Holy Land in air-conditioned buses, the sadder, grimmer sides of Israel slowly overwhelm both them and Jeremy’s new lover. The novel is consistently amusing, particularly when Hamburger offers barbed observations about the banalities of tourist culture.”
– The New York Times

“Precise, finely observed.”
– Philadelphia Inquirer

“A knockout of a novel… The author’s shrewd and satirical look at Judaism, and American and Israeli style, is in the great tradition of Philip Roth, and makes for an absorbing read.”
– Frontiers Magazine (chosen as one of the top five books of 2005)

“A woman hopes a family trip to Israel will help her reclaim her confused, rebellious son in Hamburger’s entertaining, irreverent first novel (after the collection The View from Stalin’s Head). Jeremy’s been at NYU for five years, but he’s still just a junior, and Helen Michaelson, 58, thinks he might have a much-needed spiritual awakening on the “Michigan Miracle 2000″ tour. But while Jeremy’s more interested in cruising Jerusalem’s gay parks, Helen herself is primed for revelation, as she finds that her connection to Judaism and her family is more complicated than she’d thought. Hamburger has an exacting eye for mundane detail and suburban conventions, and in Jeremy he’s created the classic green-haired, pierced college student ranting about social injustice. But beneath Jeremy’s sarcastic, moralizing banter, there’s a convincing critique of Americans’ way of being in the world. In Israel in 2000, the Michaelsons are like Pixar creations trapped in a movie filmed in Super 8—the Middle East may be fraught with political tension, but their biggest problem is the heat outside their air-conditioned bus. Hamburger goes further than witty satire, though, and when the plot takes a dark turn he demonstrates that he’s capable of taking on global issues, even if his characters aren’t.”
– Publishers Weekly

“With humor and insight, Hamburger explores the cultural tension between the nation of Israel and American Jews through the story of the Michaelsons. Helen, the daughter of Russian immigrants, is married to a psychologist suffering from a slow-burning cancer. They have two gay sons. The youngest, Jeremy, is an NYU student and recent suicide-attempt survivor. Helen decides a trip to Jerusalem is what her family needs. With high hopes, she signs them up for the Michigan Miracle 2000. However, they soon feel as if they are in a tourist trap. Helen and Jeremy are driven by a connection to faith to escape the prepackaged experience, albeit in bizarre ways. Helen has an affair with the hirsute rabbi leading the tour group, and Jeremy falls in love with a deaf Palestinian named George. Hamburger engages the reader with wonderfully flawed characters and through the history, legend, and propaganda of modern Jewish life. This novel is highly recommended for anyone who is drawn to stories of family affected by the global political context of everyday life.”
– Booklist

“Aaron Hamburger takes a deceptively simple situation–an American family visiting Israel–and spins a rich, complex, often profound comedy about religion, sex, politics, and love. He has an excellent eye and ear for the absurd, but more important, genuine sympathy for the hopes and confusions all people share under our cartoon surfaces. And nobody has written a better mother and son.”
– Christopher Bram, author of The Lives of Circus Animals

“Aaron Hamburger elucidates a truth about the search for faith: that the journey forward is seldom blissful. In FAITH FOR BEGINNERS, Hamburger peoples a volatile political setting with a handful of characters pursuing transcendence—through culture, through mortality, through the spirit, through the flesh. For Hamburger’s seekers, what transpires is risky, chaotic and surprisingly tender. For his readers, exhilarating.”
– Dave King, author of The Ha-Ha

Book Description:

An acclaimed short story writer has created a miraculous first novel about an American family in Jerusalem on the verge of a breakdown–and an epiphany.

In the summer of 2000, Israel teeters between total war and total peace. Similarly on edge, Helen Michaelson, a respectable suburban housewife from Michigan, has brought her ailing husband and rebellious college-age son, Jeremy, to Israel. She hopes the journey will inspire Jeremy to reconnect with his faith and find meaning in his life . . . or at least get rid of his nose ring. Helen isn’t concerned about Jeremy’s sexual orientation (after all, her other son is gay as well). It’s the matter of the overdose (“just like Liza!” Jeremy said), the green hair, and what looks like a safety pin stuck through his face. After therapy, unconditional love, and tough love . . . why not try Israel?

Yet in seductive and dangerous surroundings, with the rumbling of violence and change in the air, in a part of the world where “there are no modern times,” mother and son will become new, old, and surprising versions of themselves.

Funny, erotic, searingly insightful, and profoundly moving, FAITH FOR BEGINNERS is a stunning debut novel from a vibrant new voice in fiction.


PRAISE FOR THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD

“Aaron Hamburger’s first book, THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD, contains 10 attractive short stories set mostly in Prague… what’s striking about Hamburger’s singular choice of identities isn’t the identities themsleves so much as their common assertiveness… they face the same problem: not just how to know who they are, but how to seem to know. Which is a different task entirely. Among this singular collection of people, the ones who stand out are the strange and unassimilable, those who are commanding presences or simply unique: the lovable Czech giant, Jirka; the unfathomably earnest Lubos… This is the stuff of a Czech fairy tale.”
– Daniel Soar, The New York Times Book Review

“This brilliant debut collection of stories, set in Prague in the 1990s, manages at once to express scorn, confusion, and affection for the careless disarray of Czech society… wryly observed.”
– Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe

“Perversely funny… reminiscent of David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day – laugh-out-loud funny.”
– L. A. Times

“The opening up of the Czech Republic to the West after the Iron Curtain came down is charted in American writer Aaron Hamburger’s winning collection of ten stories, THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD . Hamburger’s tone is downbeat but wry… Each story offers snapshot-precise visual impressions of the city, while hinting at tensions stemming from its post-Communist status.

In one of the strongest stories, “The Ground You Are Standing On,”… Hamburger achieves a perfect balance of moral conundrums shared between accusers and accused… The tales featuring young Jewish gays on the make are raunchier and more comical… Hamburger’s Czechs are, if anything, relentlessly Judeophilic but in a way that can sound mighty anti-Semitic at times. This delicate ground is navigated deftly.”
– Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times

“Poignant. [These stories] ticke and they poke. This happens thanks to the cadences of a candidly, cordially realistic narrative voice… enough at ease with itself to gaze outward and also to peer inward.”
– Molly McQuade, The Chicago Tribune

“Funny and sometimes touching stories… Colorful, provocative, and rewarding.”
– Charles Matthews, San Jose Mercury News

“In this debut collection, THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD, Hamburger coats his characters with layer after layer of estrangement, resulting in engrossing expat lit.”
–The Village Voice

“In language that’s both understated and visceral, Hamburger skillfully distills those moments when his characters experience crucial identity shifts, not just in wild, foreign encounters but more often while eating, bathing, and tending to the animal needs of love and safety that link us all.”
– Booklist

“A promising first volume.”
– Kirkus Reviews

“With subtlety and insight, Hamburger shows how people move in and out of labels and identities and how they clash and collide because of them, as well as how they cling to and claim each other because of them… Mostly what’s in Hamburger’s THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD is the pulsing sensation of youth.”
– Chicago Free Press

“Hamburger’s sketches of oddball Prague natives are sharp and affectionate and his evocation of Prague in the 1990s is vivid and unexpected.”
– Publishers Weekly

“A collection that perfectly encapsulates the awkward beauty of expatriate living. Hamburger’s Eastern Europe channels the suffocating landscape of Milan Kundera, but, more remarkably, his Americans channel us, blemished and silly, stuck in jobs and relationships that make as little sense to them as the strange place in which they live.”
– GENEVIEVE ROTH, GQ

“In this fine debut, Hamburger has crafted 10 stories of Prague in the post-Cold War 1990s. His melancholy tales are peopled with well-developed characters–American, Euorpean, gay and straight, Jewish and gentile.”
– Genre Magazine

“Gritty and engrossing… the wham-bam West meets the reticent old world of Eastern Europe… fantastic.”
– Instinct Magazine

THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD is a view of life and loss, desire and despair, coming of age, and running away. In short, this stirring debut is a view of everything that matters, accomplished by a brilliant young writer with tremendous gifts.
– Ben Marcus, author of Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String

Set in Prague, these stories explore the lives of the American expatriates, tourists, and drifters who found their way to that city in the post-Cold War era. Hamburger’s characters are generally young, Jewish, and often gay and tend to be struggling with questions of identity and faith. In “A Man of the Country,” an American falls for a straight Czech youth, with all of the misunderstandings and false starts of their relationship interpretable both symbolically and literally. “Garage Sale” concerns a gay Canadian English teacher who finds himself slowly, and surprisingly becoming involved with a Czech woman despite his misgivings and self-doubt. “Exile” involves an American artist drawn to an unusual synagogue that caters to non-Jews and to the mysterious Evzha, who may or may not be a prophet. “The Ground You Are Standing On” probes the reactions of two middle-aged Jewish tourists who board with an elderly woman in a house that had been Jewish-owned before the war. A provocative and often striking first collection.
– Library Journal

“With a sharp eye for outlandish details, absurd turns of phrase, and quiet but monumental moments of realization, Aaron Hamburger lures you into the most intimate worlds of young Czech schoolboys and jaded ex-pats alike. This is a marvelous and honest collection of stories about people searching for identity in a country searching for the same.”
– Jessica Shattuck, author of The Hazards of Good Breeding

“Hamburger’s debut is thoughtful, poignant, and sharp, a welcome package of emotionally resonant yet enigmatic tales.”
– Lambda Book Review

“To be American, Jewish, Gay, teaching English in Prague: this is the situation limned by Aaron Hamburger in his marvellous collection THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD. Artfully crafted, funny, poignant, sharply observant of realities and anguishes, these stories introduce a voice as original and engaging as his subject matter. This is a succulent meal indeed!”
– Mary Gordon

“We’re definitely not in Paris anymore. THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD is a triumphant collection of storing chronicling the loves, the losses, and the dreams of denizens of Prague. With charm and wit and force of life, Aaron Hamburger takes us deep inside the city walls. Poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, these stories are as good as they come.”
– Binnie Kirshenbaum, author of HESTER AMONG THE RUINS

“10 short tales that delicately explore the Prague experience with a sometimes sad, sometimes farcical, always artful touch…I impatiently await his next work.”
– The Metro Times

THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD is just a wonderful collection. One of the loveliest surprises is that things actually happen–there are plots in here! Funny, satisfying and genuinly engrossing, Aaron Hamburger knows how to tell a great story. This book will be good to you.”
– Victor LaValle, author of THE ECSTATIC

“In ten short stories, Aaron Hamburger renders the stark emotional realities of expatriate living against Prague’s densely layered streets, squares, synagogues, and subway cars… The ensuing culture clashes are often alienating, confusing, even painful–but, like the most rewarding travel experiences, they’re always invigorating.”
– Out Traveler

“A sensitive and funny portrait of the city and its inhabitants. Hamburger’s talent for both writing and observation is obvious…with the portrait of Prague he has lovingly and believably created, and with this debut collection promises a strong career ahead.”
– Small Spiral Notebook

“Ten short stories that unfold in post-Cold War Prague of the 1990s, a magnet not only for artists and writers but also for American tourists and college grad deadbeat. The story about the self-appointed rabbi who runs a synagogue for non-Jews is worth the price of the book alone.”
– Jewsweek

Book Description:

A debut collection of ten lucid, haunting, and darkly comic stories about Americans and Europeans in post-Cold War Prague

The Prague described in The View from Stalin’s Head is not the esthete’s mecca romanticized in so much recent literature, but rather the real Prague–a magnet not only for artists and writers, but also for American tourists and post-college deadbeats; a place both glorified and mocked by its history, its citizens both resentful of and nostalgic for their Communist past.

Against this backdrop, Aaron Hamburger conjures an arresting array of characters: a lesbian, self-appointed rabbi who runs a synagogue for non-Jews; an artist once branded as a criminal by the Communist regime who hires a teenage boy to boss him around; and a fiery American would-be socialist trying to rouse the oppressed masses while feeling the tug of her comfortable Stateside upbringing. European and American, Jewish and gentile, straight and gay, the people in these stories find their ethnic, religious, political, and sexual labels surprisingly less rigid than they‚d imagined).

As Christopher Isherwood did in The Berlin Stories, Aaron Hamburger offers a subtly etched and humane portrait of a time and place, of people wrestling with questions of love, faith, and identity. The View from Stalin’s Head is a remarkable debut, and the beginning of a remarkable career.