My Review of The Effects of Pickled Herring by Alex Schumacher – Don't Tell My Wife I'm a Cult Leader

My Review of The Effects of Pickled Herring by Alex Schumacher

I discovered this book on X from someone who was reposting a pre-purchase alert for a book whose title totally hooked me in: The Effects of Pickled Herring. For those of you who don't know, pickled herring is one of those beloved side dishes enjoyed by the Jewish diaspora of a bygone generation. That is, even back in the 80s I didn't know anyone over my dad's age who enjoyed it. With the title and the general description of the book being a coming of age story about a kid and his bar mitzvah, with the addition of a bubbe suffering from Alzheimer's, I was all in, as I too was raised Jewish (now a Baha'i) and my mom died from complications related to Alzheimer's, but we were thankfully spared the worst of that dreaded disease.

Right away I got that Wonder Years vibe, but with the story seemingly taking place in the not-so-distant past, as given away by smartphones, social media and the like. The art was spot on for the story, reminding me of Jim Benton, but less surreal (save the dream sequences). I enjoyed the color pallete as well, and I was able to follow the story without getting lost, which is one of my pet peeves. There were a few memorable splash pages, the best being one of the grandma appearing at a time that crystalizes the advanced stage of her disease in a comical, but sobering way. A recent book that I'd compare to Alex's is called Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American, where a young woman grows up and coming to terms with both her cultural background and defying her parents expectations, the latter of which is as big of a no-no in the Chinese community as it is in the Jewish community.

The story: it's a perfect coming of age tale, with just the right number of characters and story threads to keep it cohesive and engaging. Besides Micah, the main male protagonist, you have the slightly older sister, Alana (by 10 months), his Hispanic best friend, his single mom, and his grandparents. The protagonist's crush played the perfect role as well, which echoed my own experiences when you finally gain the courage to ask the girl out. The story's pacing was perfect, I never felt the author rushed to the next scene or dwelled too much on one item. For instance, the grandmother's progression was perfectly timed, where the family at first brushed off her new foibles and forgetfulness, and experiencing that "oh shit" moment when you knew it was more than a brainfart and now had to be dealt with directly rather than blithely ignoring.

What I liked most about the story is how the author kept from getting too deep in the weeds with the story lines. He expertly thread the needle between the boy's relationship with his sister, his mom, his aging grandparents, his female rabbi, and his Spanish-speaking homie. What kept it together was the convergence of both his Bar Mitzvah and coming to terms with his ailing grandmother. I felt all the characters played their roles well, with none of the characters becoming too much of a distraction to the protagonist's journey. After all, our coming of age rarely revolves around one event or one person, but a culmination of all those experiences, which in the case of this narrative, comes to a satisfying conclusion in the final act.

The book also serves as a cultural bridge between modern Judaism and the rest of the world. In addition to the Yiddishisms throughout, I liked the introduction of the Spanish-speaking best friend who also throws in his own Spanish slang, and their friendship speaks how two culturally polar opposites can still find enough commonality to establish ties, but also learn from one another. Loved the glossary of both Yiddish and Spanish at the end!

Despite the title, the titular pickled herring plays a small role, symbolizing the limits of shared wisdom we get from our elders. That is, we respect and emulate our beloved family members, but there's always a bridge too far, and often that bridge takes the form of a food. Pickled foods and fish are often at the bottom of people's favorites list, and unless you were raised at an early age on pickled herring, you're probably not going to enjoy it. So the herring represents the thing about our elders we don't understand, but we accept out of love.

The only thing I was left questioning was the existence of the father. The author makes it clear that the mom is divorced, but I was waiting for the absentee father to arrive on the scene, or at least mentioned. I asked the author if I had missed a mention of him, and he told me that he left the father out on purpose, to show he was not needed nor even thought of. Fair enough, happens often, but I felt it could have been mentioned in one line of dialogue that the dad had been out of the picture, just to keep me from wondering where the dad was. Being a dad myself, it was something I couldn't easily ignore.

If you're looking to read a lighthearted, but memorable tale about a Jewish family, defined by their duties as Jews and as family members, with the Alzheimer's making it just poignant enough to not be just another coming of age tale, then The Effects of Pickled Herring is for you. Anyone growing up in a culturally Jewish home (regardless of current religious status) or anyone curious about the culture would like the book, and I would definitely recommend it to parents who have youngsters in the house where they are currently dealing with a dementia-stricken relative.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published