NEW YORK, N.Y. - Marjorie Sandor, an associate professor of English at Oregon State University, has received the 2004 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction for her collection of short stories, "Portrait of My Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime."
Administered by the Jewish Book Council, the awards have been called the "Pulitzer Prizes of the Jewish literary community."
Past winners of the council's literary achievement awards have included Philip Roth, Herman Wouk and Cynthia Ozick. "The award took me by surprise," admitted Sandor, who teaches creative writing and literature at OSU. "It was the last thing I expected."
The 10 stories in "Portrait" revolve around a Jewish immigrant family that keeps secrets from one another - with the best of intentions - though its resolve to protect a younger generation from the family's unfortunate history and contemporary struggles inevitably leads to more problems.
Sandor said the family and stories are, for the most part, fictional creations though some of the incidents are based on anecdotes and legends told by her parents and grandparents. Her family - like the Shapiros in "Portrait" - emigrated from eastern and central Europe in the early 1900s, and some of the cultural traits and personal characteristics are based on fragments of that history.
One major difference Sandor is compelled to clear up: Her mother never posed nude in wartime.
"My mother really wasn't very thrilled with the title," said Sandor with a laugh. "I had to explain to her the context for the title, and then she was okay with it."
The title comes from one of the stories about a woman seeing a Chagall painting of her mother, who was nude and pregnant in the portrait, and imagining what her life must have been like in that era.
Sandor's work has received other plaudits. The New York Times wrote: "Sandor has an honest imagination and shares its discoveries with skill and care." The Kirkus Reviews said: "She is sentimental and nostalgic in the best of ways: you sense an unblinking affection for characters, a positive regard even in the face of error and sin. Their sadness is real, their regret tangible."
Sandor received a 2000 Oregon Book Award for "The Night Gardener," a collection of personal essays published the previous year. She also wrote "A Night of Music, Stories" in 1989, and has published short stories and essays in The New York Times Magazine, the Georgia Review and elsewhere.
"Portrait of My Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime" was published by Sarabande Books.