Praise for What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past
“In this wry, original work of detective nonfiction, Miller conjures her long-missing family out of a handful of objects found in a drawer. As she tracks clues across continents and centuries, we savor the pleasures of the chase.”—Alix Kates Shulman, author of To Love What Is
“What They Saved is that rare memoir that manages to be intellectually stimulating and entertaining, heartbreaking and full of tender humor. Miller’s intimate family chronicle illuminates dark historical events to make a compelling story even more memorable.”—Lara Vapnyar, author of There Are Jews in My House
“A touching, dramatic chronicle of an attempt to resurrect, from heirlooms and hearsay, a vanished family. What They Saved—riveting, heartbreaking, and profound—suggests, in its tone, Sebald’s gravity and Ernaux’s candor. Reading Miller’s exquisite memoir, I learned how to pay attention, anew, to the allegorical solemnity of found objects.”—Wayne Koestenbaum, author of Andy Warhol
“From scraps and fragments of family memorabilia, Nancy K. Miller embarks on a riveting quest exploring the perplexing silences and astonishing resources of Jewish immigrants from turn-of-the- century Russia. A suspenseful, poignant, and ardent triumph of sleuth-work.”—Susan Gubar, author of Judas: A Biography
Review by Leigh Gilmore in Fourth Genre
The interplay between different chapters pushes forward a form of questioning, a way of engaging the material as Miller calls attention to and balances the almost compulsive detective process with the search for meaning. What is she looking for? What does it mean? How does the search end? How will she know when it does? Read more
Review by Judy Bolton-Fasman in The Jerusalem Post
At its most brilliant, Miller’s book is a writer’s memoir – a book brimming with passion and intelligence – a book that makes the weary and often opaque process of writing about one’s family story appear more translucent. And yes, even buoyant. Miller achieves what every memoirist strives for. Her story engages the reader because she uncovers an unvarnished truth by sifting, assembling and ordering, and then willingly reordering the facts of a life, of many lives. Read more
Judy Bolton-Fasman is a memoirist, essayist and book reviewer whose work appears in The Boston Globe and other major newspapers.
Review by Joanne Jacobson in The Forward
Although Nancy Miller calls this book a memoir, it is in many ways more a family detective story, tracking a set of clues back into the past and across the globe. Or, perhaps better, it exemplifies how writing a memoir can move an author onto the openly shifting grounds of memory, where her own need — she’s “starved for stories”— is revealed and explored. On those shifting grounds, the fragmentary and uncertain nature of “a Jewish past” also becomes visible.
Miller’s task in “What They Saved” begins with her inheritance, at the death of her father, of a set of artifacts that feels loaded with mystery and significance: maps and family photographs; a tallis and tefillin; locks of hair in an old French soap box. Relentlessly curious — the early refrain, “I had to know more” repeats over and over, still voracious: “I wanted more” — the author embarks on a set of dramatic journeys, retracing “the geography of my past.” Read more
My first encounter with Jewish genealogy came when I was invited to give a talk at the annual meeting of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies on the question of whether any living Jew can plausibly claim to have descended from King David. To the disappointment of some Davidic pretenders in the audience, I said no. But I also glimpsed the extraordinary investment of time, effort and energy that goes into the task of finding out as much as we can about where we come from.
That undertaking is described with unique literary skill and resonance in “What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past” by Nancy K. Miller. Miller, a professor of English and comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, found herself at a crisis point when her father died and she became, as she puts it, “a middle-aged Jewish orphan.” Read more
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal.
Review by Margaret Heilbrun in Library Journal
“Every few months I meet with representatives of many academic presses and, a glutton for learning, I come away excited—even feeling more intensely alive—by their offerings for the next season. Yet, as a serious general reader, I have small patience for academic jargon or pretentious language that excludes. Among the hundreds of books that are coming soon from university presses I’ve chosen these, below, that will entice, inspire, and enrich serious general readers as well as specialists… [In What They Saved] Miller found a small family archive among the possessions left to her after both her parents had died. Why so few? What do they mean? Why were these ones saved? A journey about what we can find and what is lost from life to life.” Read more
Margaret Heilbrun is the Senior Editor of Library Journal Book Review.
Review by Kirkus Reviews
“A literature professor searches for her roots after her father’s death, uncovering an intricate portrait of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family. Miller’s deftly placed literary references… offer an unusual, intellectual perspective on an often-told story.” Read more
Review by Publishers Weekly
“Miller also has many acute observations about the sometimes enlightening, often frustrating nature of such a quest.” Read more