PERSONAL: American. Ethnicity: "Caucasian" Education: University of Texas at Austin, B.A. (with honors), 1981, M.F.A., 1996.
ADDRESSES: Home—1314 Bramble Rd. NE, Atlanta, GA 30329. Office—Creative Writing Center, N404G Callaway Center, Emory University, 537 Kilgo Cir., Atlanta, GA 20233; fax: 404-727-2605. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Novelist, c. 1997–. Emory University, associate professor of creative writing.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fellow, Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, 1982–83; Joel Climenhaga Creative Writing Award in Fiction, Kansas State University, 1994, for "Blessed Be He;" winner of short-short fiction contest, "Story" magazine, 1994, for "From the Mayseh Book;" Jay C. and Ruth Hall fellow in fiction, Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, University of Wisconsin—Madison, 1996–97; Texas Institute of Letters, Steven Turner Prize for First Fiction, 1997, for A Blessing on the Moon, Jesse H. Jones Award, best book of fiction, 2003, for The English Disease; "notable book" citation, Publishers Weekly, 1997, and Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1998, both for A Blessing on the Moon; fellow, National Endowment for the Arts, 2002–03.
A Blessing on the Moon (novel), Algonquin (Chapel Hill, NC), 1997.
The English Disease (novel), Algonquin (Chapel Hill, NC), 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: Joseph Skibell's first book, the novel A Blessing on the Moon, was described by New York Times reviewer Patrick Giles as "an act of commemoration" and "a confirmation that no subject lies beyond the grasp of a gifted, committed imagination." A tale of the Holocaust, during which Nazi Germans killed over 6 million Jews, A Blessing on the Moon gives readers the story of Chaim Skibelski's afterlife. Skibelski, an ancestor of the author, was one of the many Jews shot to death by Nazis in Poland; though he is killed, his still-suffering ghost manages to struggle out of the pit where his body is thrown. It travels back to Skibelski's former house, only to find it inhabited by a Gentile Polish family whose dying daughter is the only one who can perceive his ghostly presence. From there, the spirit Skibelski and other Holocaust casualties come to rest in a seemingly luxurious hotel, but the building proves to be a crematorium in reality.
A Blessing on the Moon drew a predominantly positive response from critics. Library Journal contributor Robin Nesbitt especially noted A Blessing on the Moon for taking "an original approach to the Holocaust," adding that it "leaves a lasting impression." "It's a compelling tour de force, a surreal but thoroughly accessible page turner," explained Richard Levy in the Houston Chronicle. Ann Patchett, writing in the Boston Globe, reported that Skibell "has turned the full light of his extraordinary talent and vision on one of history's darkest moments and taught us to see it again." And a Kirkus Reviews critic concluded that the novel is "a fine debut, manifestly infused with deep familial and cultural feeling, and a significant contribution to the ongoing literature of the Holocaust."
The English Disease appears in retrospect to embody a risky venture, at least in part because of the range of critical responses it evoked, ranging from "wildly funny," according to Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper, who described the novel as "equal parts Philip Roth, Groucho Marx, and Woody Allen," to what a Kirkus Reviews contributor called "skimpy … redundant" and "drained" of life. Betty Smartt Carter described the work less passionately in Books and Culture as "a distinctly American novel: a look at what it means to be Jewish and also to be from Texas." Skibell writes of Jewish, Texas-born music professor Charles Belski, victim of "the English disease"—depression, or melancholia—who seeks to cure himself and perhaps save his marriage by immersing himself in travels to some of the most depressing historical sites he could possibly have chosen. To some critics, however, the novel seems to focus most compellingly, not on Belski or his quest, but on the people with whom he interacts. On a train trip to the Warsaw ghetto, for example, Belski encounters an obnoxious character called Leibowitz, whose gregarious, unending conversations try Belski's (and some critics') patience but also give voice to Skibell's ruminations on human nature and the Jewish experience, which the Kirkus Reviews writer called "a series of declamations and meditations on anti-Semitism, the ordeal of the European Jews, and absurdity of embracing ideologies." According to some critics, the most appealing character in the novel is Isabelle Belski. Carter commented on "the hilarious quest of Belski's wife," while Cooper called the tour of Belski and his non-Jewish wife through the American Southwest the funniest part of the novel. Library Journal contributor Debbie Bogenschutz recommended The English Disease as "a widely entertaining story—particularly because of the absurdist juxtapositions," including a comparison of the characters of the Marx brothers to a Jewish version of Shakespeare's "ascent of man." The Publishers Weekly appraiser summarized that the story of Belski's quest "moves to a surprisingly rich denouement in which Charles's dour intellectualism takes second place to his emotional fulfillment."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Artforum International, November, 1997, Kate Bernheimer, review of A Blessing on the Moon, p. S22.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 22, 2003, Teresa K. Weaver, review of The English Disease.
Bloomsbury Review, May, 1998, review of A Blessing on the Moon, p. 21.
Booklist, September 1, 1997, Hazel Rochman, review of A Blessing on the Moon, p. 60; May 15, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of The English Disease, p. 1646.
BookPage, June, 2003, review of The English Disease, p. 10.
Books and Culture, July-August, 2003, Betty Smartt Carter, review of The English Disease, p. 14.
Boston Globe, October 12, 1997, Ann Patchett, review of A Blessing on the Moon.
Hollins Critic, February, 1998, Amanda Cockrell, review of A Blessing on the Moon, p. 16.
Houston Chronicle, October 12, 1997, Richard Levy, review of A Blessing on the Moon.
Hungry Mind Review, winter, 1997, review of A Blessing on the Moon, p. 30.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1997, review of A Blessing on the Moon, p. 1255; April 15, 2003, review of The English Disease, p. 565.
Kliatt, July, 1999, review of A Blessing on the Moon, p. 18.
Library Journal, September 1, 1997, Robin Nesbitt, review of A Blessing on the Moon, p. 220; March 15, 1998, review of A Blessing on the Moon, p. 45; April 1, 2003, Debbie Bogenschutz, review of The English Disease, p. 132.
New Yorker, December, 22, 1997, review of A Blessing on the Moon, p. 136.
New York Times Book Review, December 28, 1997, Patrick Giles, review of A Blessing on the Moon, p. 12; July 4, 1999, review of A Blessing on the Moon, p. 20.
Publishers Weekly, July 14, 1997, review of A Blessing on the Moon, p. 61; March 31, 2003, review of The English Disease, p. 38.
Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1998, review of A Blessing on the Moon, p. 60.