The ProsenPeople

Steven Siegel, May His Memory Be a Blessing

Monday, January 23, 2012 | Permalink

It's with great sadness that the Jewish Book Council must inform you of the death of Steven Siegel, JBC Board Member, and friend. Steven took on an active role in the Book Council, specifically with the National Jewish Book Awards and the Jewish Children's Writers and Illustrators Conference, and will be truly missed by his JBC family.

A Bintel Brief: A Bundle of Letters

Monday, January 23, 2012 | Permalink

Liana Finck's Bintel Brief comic is currently being serialized in the Forward. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

This is the first page of a comic book I'm working on. It's based on the Bintel Brief, a popular Yiddish advice column published in the Forvertz Newspaper beginning in 1906. It was the brainchild of Abraham Cahan, the man behind the huge success and sophistication of the Forvertz.

About this page: Jacob Zemsner is a fictional character, and this myth about the tears is fictional too, but Abraham Cahan is one of my favorite real characters ever, a self-made American. His face really was vaguely heart-shaped, and he was cross-eyed and terribly embarrassed about that. More facts: he loved Charles Dickens. He was a humanist from a distance, a misanthropist close-up. He was an anarchist (he had to flee Eastern Europe at twenty-two because he was involved with the group that had assassinated the Czar), then a socialist, but not enough of a purist to satisfy any die-hard idealogues. He kept remaking himself. I completely recommend his autobiography, the Education of Abraham Cahan. A page-turner. Also his novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, which is slightly dated but no less wonderful because of that. And easier to find in a library than his autobiography.

Seven of the ten stories I made are adapted from Bintel Brief letters that hadn't been translated into English yet, and lifted the other three stories from the collection of Bintel Brief letters in English, owned by most grandparents.The book is not finished yet, and I'm often asked why I chose to make it. I'm not sure. I was raised in Jewish circles but never could kindle much of a feeling of belonging to any group. And why comics? I had to start forcing myself to learn about comics a couple of years after deciding (late) that comics would be the easiest artform for me to squeeze my interests (drawing, telling stories) into. So I'm not a Jew in the traditional sense, and not a comics artist either, but the one thing I feel strongly about is that honesty is not something you can aim for. 

In art you have to painstakingly build a story (first you have to painstakingly build a self to tell it). Once your house is complete, down to the artificial windows, real light will shine through. I hope something will shine through these stories, in the lines and letters. Whatever the outcome, I'll make comics for the rest of my life. Time is a good tool for art. 

Here's the first page of the first story. This story is based on the actual first letter that was written to Cahan. Cahan wrote about the letter in his autobiography

Liana Finck's Bintel Brief comic is being made with help from the Six Points Fellowship for emerging Jewish artists, a partnership between Avoda Arts, JDub Records and the Foundation for Jewish Culture. The comic is being serialized in The Forward Newsaper.

Dara Horn's Single

Friday, January 20, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Like the music world, authors can now put out digital "singles" online, and latest author to jump on the trend is National Jewish Book Award winner Dara Horn (In the Image, The World to Come, All Other Nights). We recently received this email:

As of today, my newest work, "The Rescuer," is available online. It's what I like to think of as a "mini book"-- a 50-page nonfiction essay I wrote for Tablet Magazine (, which is being sold as a "Kindle Single" on Amazon. (No, you don't need a Kindle to read it-- any computer will do!) 

"The Rescuer" is about Varian Fry, a 32 year old American Harvard graduate who saved about 2,000 celebrities and their families from Nazi-occupied France, including Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, and many other world-famous people in an unparalleled effort to save Western civilization... after which he was promptly forgotten. The reasons why no one has heard of this man today are more disturbing than I ever would have guessed. 

"The Rescuer" is on sale now for $1.99. Alternatively, you could use that money to buy a bag of potato chips. (Or why not buy both, for the princely sum of $3.98?) 

You can read an excerpt of the essay, and listen to a podcast interview of me, here in Tablet: 

 Or if you are ready to take the leap with your $1.99, you can buy it here: 

I would be thrilled if you would share this with anyone you know who might be interested in history, or in the fate of civilization, or in why we value what we do. (It's something to think about while enjoying your potato chips.) 

Defining Kafkaesque

Friday, January 20, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel wrote about a man as puzzling as his stories, Kafka and the parable, and Tamar Yellin's "Kafka in Bronteland." Today, Kessel examines the Kafkaesque structure.

One of the influences of Kafka over later writers is not so much in the content of his work as in its form. The conventional Aristotelian plot proceeds by means of a protagonist, an antagonist, and a series of events comprising a rising action, climax and denouement. It involves identification of the reader with the protagonist and vicarious engagement with his or her predicament (even when, as in say,Macbeth, the protagonist is the villain). One event causes the next event, and so on, like a row of falling dominoes. This structure has stood storytellers in good stead for a few thousand years.

But Kafka’s stories do not fall easily into this pattern—The Trial at least seems to begin in this way, though it never fulfills it. Perhaps that is one reason why Kafka had so much difficulty finishing his novels—a novel demands some structure of this type, and Kafka was not able to produce such a structure. In Kafka’s universe, cause and effect are not so sure as other forces.

Rather, what Kafka gives us— and if he is not the originator of it, he brings it to a remarkable perfection— is the story that begins with a premise, often a bald assertion of a fact in contradiction to reality (“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”). The story then progresses not as a series of cause-and-effect links, but as elaboration/qualification/evolution from that assertion. We can see this in “The Great Wall of China,” in “A Hunger Artist,” in the long description of the execution machine that comprises most of “In the Penal Colony,” in “The Burrow.” These stories are not so much narratives as explanations of the world, a world that is fundamentally inexplicable.

Jorge Luis Borges said that Kafka’s stories “presuppose a religious conscience, specifically a Jewish conscience; formal imitation of Kafka in another context would be unintelligible.” But in another time and place, Borges also said that, "I felt that I owed so much to Kafka that I really didn’t need to exist." Whether or not formal imitation of Kafka was his intent, in fact we can see precisely the Kafkaesque structure put to use in many of Borges’ greatest stories, such as “The Library of Babel,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” “Tlon Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” or “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”

Through Borges, Kafka’s influence has spread to several generations of later writers. And it does seem to me that many late modernist and postmodernist stories owe their structure, if not their very existence, to this tradition.

James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel's anthology, Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, is now available. They have been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Tallying the Figures

Friday, January 20, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

We've just finished inputting four full years of recent reviews (not to mention hundreds of reviews from previous years), bringing our online review count to over 2,000. In honor of this milestone, I've provided a breakdown of some the interesting figures that have emerged as we've sorted through titles and topics:

72 books with discussion questions 

48 books that discuss the Talmud

25 graphic novels or books about graphic novels (thanks, Wendy!)

19 books that touch on Anne Frank 

16 book trailers

10 books by or about Sholem Aleichem

14 books on Kabbalah

11 guides to learn or do things (e.g., to fitness and fathering, Tel Aviv, the Five Books of Moses, etc.)

9 books on "a life" (e.g., Ariel Sharon, Isaac B. Singer, Louis D. Brandeis, Modigliani, etc.)

7 books that focus on matzoh 

6 books by Philip Roth

5 books on Rashi (or his daughters)

4 books about Iraqi Jews

3 books on Babylonian Jews

3 books on Ethopian Jewry

2 books on Sandy Koufax

2 books on potatoes (or potato pancakes)

2 books on Birthright Israel

2 books on Churchill

As you do your own book searching, let us know if any other interesting figures or trends emerge. Now, only 26 more years of reviews to go...

Escaping the Past?

Thursday, January 19, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, James Patrick Kelly wrote about a man as puzzling as his stories and John Kessel examined Kafka and the parable. Today, Kelly discusses Sami Rohr Prize Winner Tamar Yellin and her story "Kafka in Bronteland." 

In her introduction to her story “Kafka in Bronteland,” which concludes our anthology Kafkaesque, Tamar Yellin writes:

“For years I could not read Kafka. I would get to the bottom of the first page of The Castle and my brain would seize. Then something clicked inside me and I became obsessed with him. I believe reading Kafka to be a deeply personal experience. You can accept what others tell you Kafka means or you can interpret him for yourself. His enigmatic work lends itself to almost infinite interpretation.”

So too does Yellin’s marvelous story. In the opening paragraph, her narrator announces her intention to throw her past – including her Jewishness – onto the heap of forgotten things so she can start anew. She moves to the English countryside where the Bronte sisters lived -- and where she tell us there are no other Jews. She hires a builder to renovate an ancient cottage and encounters, but never speaks to, a mysterious old man the villagers in her new home call Mr. Kafka. Meanwhile she becomes obsessed with the real Kafka, and especially with his relationship to Judaism. The narrator reads from her Introduction to Kafka:

“More than any other writer, Kafka describes the predicament of the secular alienated Jew. Yet his work, so personal on one level, remains anonymously universal. He has no Jewish axe to grind. Nowhere in any of his fictions does Kafka mention the words Jewish, or Jew.”

She finds this remarkable and resolves to determine whether it is true. But when she goes to the village library to begin her search, she gets a surprise. Its copy of The Trial has “a forest of date-stamps, repeated and regular, going back years.” The Castle has also been in heavy circulation. This suggests to her that there is a “profound need for Kafka in Bronteland.” Or is it just one borrower, obsessively checking the books out? Perhaps the local “Mr. Kafka?”

What does all of this mean? Is the mysterious old man really Franz Kafka, somehow miraculously transported from Prague to Yorkshire? And where does this obsession with Kafka’s problematic relationship to Judaism come from, if the narrator is really intent on leaving her past behind? Yellin presents the reader with puzzle pieces but does not insist on a final arrangement. What is clear, however is that the past refuses to stay forgotten. It is everywhere in this story, suffusing the present. It has settled in a dark corner of the local pub and pokes through the plaster ceiling of the narrator’s cottage. Even as she tries to begin her new life, the narrator “rattles the cans of the past behind me willy-nilly.”

James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel's anthology, Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, is now available. They will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

2012 Sydney Taylor Book Awards Announced by AJL

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The 2012 Winners of the Sydney Taylor Book Award are:

Read more (+ see the full list of honorees) here.

Kafka and the Parable

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 | Permalink
John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly are the editors of Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka. They will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearningOn Monday, James Patrick Kelly writes about a man as puzzling as his stories and today, John Kessel looks at Kafka and the parable.

Since my first encounter with Kafka's writing, I've been interested in a quality that, while he was alive, stood in the way of his achieving a large reputation: his allegory. Kafka’s inevitable tropism for the allegorical puts him in marked opposition to the realism that dominated the literary world of the first half of the twentieth century.

Though a realist writer might acknowledge that his story set in the mundane world might have allegorical readings, the trend in the first half of the twentieth century was to flee allegory for either the documentation of the external world, or of individual psychology. Even experimentalists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, despite streams of consciousness or wild flights of imagery, assume that fiction is about what is, the surface of events and things and people. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, de Maupassant and Flaubert, Hardy and Dickens before him, Anton Chekhov and Joseph Conrad while he was alive and writing, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner after him, no matter how elaborate their rhetoric or symbolisms, insist upon the reality of their worlds.

Kafka is not interested in documenting the manners and mores of any particular place; he is not interested in probing the psyche of individual characters. Joyce spent his life after leaving Ireland creating Dublin and its inhabitants in their specificity and individuality, their language, places, habits, strengths, and weaknesses. A person may precisely follow the path that Leopold Bloom walked in the course of a day in Ulysses, and every June 16th, numerous people do.

In contrast, Kafka’s people and settings are generic. For the most part Kafka’s characters don’t even have names, and the worlds they inhabit are iconic rather than documentary. Though he spent most of his life in Prague, there is for instance little sense of Prague, or any other specific place, in his work.

We are not interested in the hunger artist’s biography. To ask this question is to reveal its absurdity. Neither do we ask the biography of Melville’s Bartleby or Jesus’s Good Samaritan or the characters in the numerous parables of the Talmud and Midrash. We don’t wonder about the hunger artist’s childhood, his ethnic background, the place where he lives, the names of the towns and cities where he performs, the political climate, his interpersonal relationships, his sex life, what year it is, and what language is being spoken. Kafka spends little time evoking persons or places, does not give us individual gestures or idiosyncrasies, does not appeal to our senses, does not make us feel and live in the worlds he creates. Though he may give us objects and actions that appear in the real world, he is not documenting reality. A cage, an impresario, some straw, a circus. Or an apartment, a traveling salesman, a sister Grete, an unnamed mother and father, a narrow bed, the picture of a woman wearing a muff, an apple. Or a penal colony, an explorer, a prisoner, an officer, a bizarre execution machine.

This is not a criticism. The stories are not divorced from the world—in fact they are cogently relevant, even political, as radically political in their universality as Jesus’s parables. A powerful intellect works behind every sentence. One is challenged to interpret every image, every action, to read through the surface of a Kafka story to the meanings behind. There are layers upon layers, prismatic reflections of abstract meanings.

However, it would be a mistake to say that the meanings of Kafka’s parables are clear.  As the critic Walter Benjamin wrote: “Kafka had a rare ability for creating parables for himself.  Yet his parables are never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings. One has to find one’s way in them circumspectly, cautiously and warily.”

Check back all week for more posts from John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly.

Book Cover of the Week: Four New Messages

Tuesday, January 17, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Ok ok, I know you have a bit of a wait for Joshua Cohen's new book, Four New Messages (August 7, 2012), but I couldn't resist sharing now (don't worry--we'll remind you).  To hold you over until then, check out reviews of Witz and A Heaven of Others and check out Cohen's posts on the Visiting Scribe.

January Jewish Book Carnival

Monday, January 16, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

It's time for the Jewish Book Carnival! This month's edition is hosted over at My Machberet and includes:

  • Judy Bolton-Fasman's thoughts on Nancy K. Miller’s memoir, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past 
  • AJL Blog's thoughts on their recent publication  The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories by Bennett Muraskin
  • Ann D. Koffsky review of Picnic at Camp Shalom 

Find these links and more here.