At the outset, Silverman’s and Lott’s collections may appear an unlikely pairing, and you’ll get no argument here. As their subtitles suggest, they subscribe to different cultural and religious traditions. And each typically writes in different genres: Silverman a memoirist, Lott primarily a novelist. What these two collections of linked essays hold in common is a rich appreciation for the work of transformation.
I think of transformation as in the biological process of metamorphosis or in religious rituals. These writers use words to transform the ordinary into something new, something that changes the reader’s perception of an object or experience, expanding and enriching its meaning for both writer and reader.
Silverman’s essays create a set of portraits about her decades-long search for her Jewish heritage, an identity she can believe in and embrace. Whether she’s taking the reader on an overland journey (by way of St. Thomas, Israel, Yugoslavia, Texas, and Michigan) or exploring the nature of her relationships (including stints with her Christian boyfriends, two marriages, and an affair), or even as she has us fingering talismans (rosary beads, mercury, and [End Page 197] robots), Silverman examines her past, sharing every distortion and misperception, recognizing that they are all reflections of her journey. She floods us with images and sensory details, and characteristic of her other work, holds the rudder of honesty steady.
Lott takes a very different approach in examining his life and work. He opens his text declaring his name and then his faith as a Christian believer. He recites the Apostles’ Creed. His words are strong and straightforward. He grapples as a Christian writer with American secular culture, calling on his literary ancestors to orient his work and provide direction. Like Silverman, he scours language, hunting for words that represent his experience, that transform ordinary events into memorable scenes.
Silverman’s book of 20 essays is divided into five sections, each introduced with a letter to the Gentle Reader. These letters anchor the reader in a specific time period in the author’s identity quest. Silverman’s opening letter, titled “Dear Gent[i]le Reader,” underlines her inclusive invitation to all. Her words call the reader to join in the search for her birthright. They evoke the days of Greek theater when an audience was called together to take part in a countryman’s journey. In fact, her text often reads like a series of plays, stage acts in which she tries to find her role, her authentic self. And this search is what knits the collection into a coherent whole.
But why Pat Boone? I wondered. Why is a Jewish girl a member of a Pat Boone Fan Club? Silverman’s answers prove complex. Pat Boone served as her image of safety when she was a child. She poured all manner of fantasy into this character Boone had created of himself: white, clean, with a strong sense of purity. Silverman masterfully layers image upon image, creating reverberations for the reader. Her teenage self, rapturous over a Life magazine photograph of Pat Boone, his wife, and their four daughters on a tandem bike, focuses on the fact that the photo shows Boone wearing a watch that reads 3:40, and that her watch reads 3:40 at the very moment she notices this. She allows herself to wish that she and Boone “endlessly exist in the same segment of time” (5). She creates a sense of stopping time as she joins Boone on the bike and becomes a member of his family, using sensory details that plant us there, too: “I don’t inhale the Ivory soap of his shirt, don’t sense warm friction of rubber beneath the wheels of the bike. … My ponytail, streaming behind my back, is frozen, captured with him and his family—now…my constant loving...