The Sweet and Sour Tongue

Leslie What, Author
Leslie What, Author Wildside Press $13.95 (148p) ISBN 978-1-58715-158-3
Reviewed on: 07/31/2000
Release date: 08/01/2000
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Skillfully incorporating elements of science fiction and fantasy into domestic scenes of Jewish family life, Nebula Award-winner What's stories blend realistic, traditional and absurd situations, her witty imagination inspiring laughter and horror. In ""The Man I Loved Was an Elf,"" an independent daughter brings home her boyfriend, an elf called Snowman, for Passover, only to break up with him upon realizing that their mutual attraction is based on shocking their respective families. In ""The Emperor's New (and Improved ) Clothes,"" two Cold War-era Polish con men use color theory to fool the monarch and win the hand of the environmentalist princess. A ghost named Mary McCowan shows up in the men's section of a synagogue during Shabbos services in ""You Gotta Believe,"" and in ""Nothing Without a Name"" a society comprising people who believe they are the reincarnations of Albert Einstein meet to talk ""Einstein to Einstein."" Narratives quickly turn serious, outrageous, harrowing, sci-fi and folkloric, often in unexpected combinations and with one spry, cleverly wrought phrase. The dark evocation of a couple trapped in a war-torn ghetto is as vividly depicted as the outrageous family of ""Blobs."" In the title story, a tense family dinner consisting solely of sweet and sour tongue turns into an excruciating demonstration of volatile domestic relations and what it really means to bite your tongue. What enhances her inventive tales with touches of Jewish humor and culture (see the ""glossary for goyim,"" and the kugel recipe in ""How to Feed Your Inner Troll""). She wields details like weapons: the elf shaves stripes in his blue-dyed hair and wears a black leather loincloth, because he isn't a ""conventional elf, in fact, he hated that whole scene."" The author is equally at home exploring religion, superstition, psychology and spiritual need, showing a sympathetic understanding of how people drive each other and themselves crazy. Her parodies of Jewish traditions belie a deep respect for the human spirit, while her ingenious whimsy takes her tales to a whole other level of sublime metaphors and surreality. (Sept.)
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