Readers can celebrate Jewish Book Month in November with One Book | One Community, in which a single book is selected, read, and explored through author appearances and book discussions across the city and suburbs. As in previous years, the One Book initiative is spearheaded by Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.
This year's selection is Memento Park by California author Mark Sarvas. Named for a Budapest collection of statues from communist dictatorships, Memento Park is a story of discovery written with sly humor-set in Los Angeles, New York, and Budapest, with a short stop in Chicago.
After receiving an unexpected call from the Australian consulate, actor Matt Santos becomes aware of a painting that may have been looted by Nazis from his family in Hungary during the Second World War. To recover the painting, he must face his harshly judgmental father, uncover his family history, and restore his wayward connection to Judaism. Along the way to illuminating the mysteries of his past, Matt is torn between his girlfriend Tracy and his attorney Rachel, with whom he travels to Budapest to unearth the truth.
Critic Adam Kirsch, writing in The Washington Post, lauded the book's relevance. "While Memento Park is very much a book about the Hungarian Jewish experience," he said, "the dynamics it portrays are common to any immigrant family, where history is the thing everyone is trying to forget, even though it is present in every word."
This is Sarvas' second novel. His first, Harry, Revised, was published in more than a dozen countries. As a book critic, his reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Threepenny Review, Bookforum, and other publications. For years, he wrote the literary weblog The Elegant Variation, a Forbes "best of the web." He lives in Santa Monica and teaches at the UCLA Extension Writers' Program.
Sarvas will be in Chicago for three appearances. The first-at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 18 at Spertus Institute-is a conversation between Sarvas and Alexandra Salomon, editor of WBEZ Radio's Curious City. Like Sarvas and his lead Memento Park character, Matt Santos, Salomon comes from a family that emigrated to the U.S. from Hungary. Before Curious City, she served as a senior producer for WBEZ's Worldview and has reported for news outlets including The Economist, The Jerusalem Post, and the BBC.
Sarvas' second appearance takes place that afternoon at 2 p.m., when he will discuss Memento Park at a free event at Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard. Books will be for sale and Sarvas will sign them at receptions at both of these events.
For his third appearance, Sarvas will take part in a free book discussion at the Highland Park Library on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m.
As of press time, additional book discussions are scheduled at McHenry County Jewish Congregation in Crystal Lake, Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, and Congregation Or Shalom in Vernon Hills. Book discussions are free and open to the public. They are led by Rachel Kamin, director of the Gray Cultural & Learning Center at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park.
Reservations are recommended for the author events and can be made online at spertus.edu/OneBook, where readers can also sign up for book and ticket giveaways and explore One Book resources.
These programs and discussions are key to One Book | One Community, now in its eighth year. "Both storytelling and the written word are vital in Jewish tradition," said Spertus Associate Dean Beth Schenker. "This initiative brings readers together through the shared enjoyment and exploration of Jewish literature, enhanced by programs and discussions. For Spertus, this supports one of our guiding principles, that learning enhances the vibrancy of a community. We are able to support and engage with Jewish authors-and together delve into our past, explore our present, and imagine our future."
Memento Park was released earlier this year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is available in hardcover, ebook, and audio, and will be released in paperback in March 2019.
Spertus Institute is a partner with the Jewish United Fund in serving our community. JUF News is One Book | One Community media sponsor.
Betsy Gomberg reads (and sometimes writes) about Jewish books. She is Spertus Institute's Director of Marketing and Communications.