The ProsenPeople

Dating and Doctors

Friday, July 13, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Francesca Segal wrote about recasting a classic novel and about being asked the question "Who are your characters REALLY?". She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

It was several years ago when my mother went for a flu shot to our family doctor, an avuncular, bearded South African whose medical practice comfortably services at least half of north-west London’s Jewry. It is a position that requires front-line heroism when one considers the demographic; the armchair physicians and proxy-hypochondriacs and tirelessly frantic Jewish mothers. His desk is a confusion of stuffed animals and rubber chew toys, brightly coloured and easily disinfected, the armoury of the family practitioner. Dr Winter oversaw the removal of almost half the tonsils in my junior school classroom, and has attended to the food poisonings and holiday vaccinations and slipped discs of most of our synagogue. My family has been going to him since 1985. And so, a flu shot for Mrs Segal. But the doctor was conscious of a far more serious threat to her well-being.

‘Nu?’ he demanded, settling back for a chat. ‘Why isn’t she married?’

At the time I was twenty-seven.

‘Never mind, I have someone. Nice boy. Older. Westminster and Oxford, like Francesca. He’ll call her. Leave it with me.’

And so my mother left, inoculated against both flu and, it was hoped, social disgrace, clutching the prescription for a son-in-law.

*

A lot about north-west London is embodied in that anecdote. No one involved is remotely religious. My parents, unlike many of the neighbours, couldn’t have cared less than I hadn’t married young; they were proud I was doing well at work, and only gave my romantic status a moment’s anxiety when someone else drew their attention to it. But the community here is small and tightly-knit and has remained socially conservative, even as religious practice falls away in favour of tradition. Everyone knows everyone, and can probably name the whereabouts of all kindergarten classmates. There are simply not enough of us to render the shidduch defunct; that charming man you met at a dinner party is, statistically, unlikely to be in the tribe. It’s a lovely place to grow up, but in early adulthood in particular, the warmth can border on claustrophobia.

Despite the Crossing Delancey parochialism of our introduction, I actually spent six rather tempestuous months with the doctor’s prescribed gentleman. He was handsome, and it therefore took a little while to realise that he was also, as the endlessly applicable saying goes, Not That Into Me. But if nothing else, the whole episode illustrated the strength and vigour of the north-west London grapevine, nourished as it is by the fertile soil of local gossip, because less than a week after we broke up, Dr Winter was on the phone to my mother.

‘Did it work?’ he demanded. This was mere feint; fifteen patients that morning had no doubt already told him that it hadn’t. ‘No? Never mind, I have a backup.’

This time, valiantly, my mother tried to fend him off. Dr Winter would not accept her refusal. But I must thank him because it was the backup, in many ways, who defined my fate.

Dr Winter has called and given me your number. I am very flattered,’ read his email, as if I had been declaiming sonnets beneath his window when, in fact, this email was the first I’d heard of him, ‘but I’m sorry to tell you that I have just started seeing someone. If it doesn’t work out with her then I will certainly get in touch in the future. PS. Did you go to King Alfred’s School? I think my sister knows you.

It was shortly after that email (which I did not answer, lest you were concerned) that I decided to move to New York. And it was shortly after moving to New York – safely buffered from home by the Atlantic – that I decided to write a novel set back home. North-west London and I have made up now, and these days I spend most of my time there. But two years away afforded me a fantastic perspective – and the opportunity to remember all its strengths, as well as to smile at its foibles with fondness.

Visit Francesca Segal's official website here and join JBC on July 16th for a Twitter Book Club conversation with Francesca.

Book Trailer: Four New Messages

Thursday, July 12, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Joshua Cohen, author of Witz and A Heaven of Others, will be publishing his newest book, Four New Messages, with Graywolf Press next month.  View a short film based on "Emission," one of the short stories from FNM, below:

Emission from Spinks on Vimeo.

Who Are Your Characters REALLY?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012 | Permalink

On Monday, Francesca Segal wrote about recasting a classic novel. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

It’s amazing how many North Londoners have taken me aside in a furtive, conspiratorial kind of manner, in order to ask me for the truth. ‘Go on,’ a new acquaintance might urge, within moments of our meeting, ‘you can tell me. Who is it based on? Who are they really? I won’t tell anyone.’ Many people share the conviction that fiction must draw its cast members, if not its story lines, from the writer’s own life, and that conviction seems to be redoubled when the fiction in question takes place in a specific, familiar world. I grew up in Golders Green, a small Jewish suburb in North London, and my novel The Innocents is set nearby, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Perhaps it was therefore inevitable.

The truth, however, is less scandalous. My fiction is just that – fiction – as are my characters. I have lived in north-west London for almost my whole life, during which I have had more than three decades to make a fond, if sometimes exasperated study of its nuances, its climate, its residents. North London and I are old, old friends. And so Adam and Rachel are truly based on no one in particular, because each is based on a hundred people – just as they are formed, like any character in fiction, from who-knows-what preoccupations dredged from the murky bottom of my psyche. Rather than simply to create portraits of people one knows in real life, the fantastic joy and liberation of writing is to spend time in the company of the new people one has invented, and to discover what will happen to them.

Visit Francesca Segal's official website here and join JBC on July 16th for a Twitter Book Club conversation with Francesca.

Book Cover of the Week: Electric Dreamland

Tuesday, July 10, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Lauren Rabinovitz's Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity, will pub from Columbia University Press on July 24th:

Amusement parks were the playgrounds of the working class in the early twentieth century, combining numerous, mechanically-based spectacles into one unique, modern cultural phenomenon. Lauren Rabinovitz describes the urban modernity engendered by these parks and their media, encouraging ordinary individuals to sense, interpret, and embody a burgeoning national identity. As industrialization, urbanization, and immigration upended society, amusement parks tempered the shocks of racial, ethnic, and cultural conflict while shrinking the distinctions between gender and class. Following the rise of American parks from 1896 to 1918, Rabinovitz seizes on a simultaneous increase in cinema and spectacle audiences and connects both to the success of leisure activities in stabilizing society. Critics of the time often condemned parks and movies for inciting moral decline, yet in fact they fostered women’s independence, racial uplift, and assimilation. The rhythmic, mechanical movements of spectacle also conditioned audiences to process multiple stimuli. Featuring illustrations from private collections and accounts from unaccessed archives, Electric Dreamland joins film and historical analyses in a rare portrait of mass entertainment and the modern eye.

A Conversation with Francesca Segal

Tuesday, July 10, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Jaclyn Trop

First-time author Francesca Segal recreated one of the twentieth century canon’s gems, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, to apply the same themes of society, class, love, and family to modern London. Lawyer Adam Newman has always played by the rules and is preparing to marry his childhood sweetheart, Rachel Gilbert, when her beautiful, reckless cousin, Ellie Schneider, arrives from America. Adam must choose between following the path carved for him or following his heart.

Jaclyn Trop: Adam is confronted with a choice throughout the novel, but it seems as though the decision is ultimately made for him. What message are you imparting about marriage, relationships, and society?
Fransesca Segal: I would hate to be too prescriptive about interpretation – and I’ve been fascinated by the reactions I’ve had so far. Most readers feel very strongly about Adam’s choice, but they certainly don’t all agree with one another.

I don’t think I set out to impart a message, so much as to ask certain questions. What constitutes a good marriage? And a good life? Romantic lore suggests that one chooses a life partner as an individual, in a vacuum – that one person alone is the source of all happiness, regardless of context or circumstance. At the other end is absolute pragmatism, but between those two is a vast and complex landscape. One doesn’t, in reality, live in a vacuum, and everyone brings a constellation of factors into a marriage - their family, their culture; their interests, their financial circumstances, their ambitions, and it seems strange to suggest that none of those things contributes to one’s overall compatibility and happiness. Ellie versus Rachel, alone, in isolation? That is an altered playing field. But the lives that each woman offers – those are very different.

JT: Ellie tells Adam, ‘I swear, I knew you, I saw who you were, that very first time I met you’ when she was a child. It is clear why Adam is intrigued by Ellie, the melancholy model, but what attracts Ellie to Adam?
FS: I suspect it is a combination of factors, including, initially, an envy of anything that Rachel has. Ellie’s perception is that Rachel has everything and her life is perfect, and then into it comes another man to protect and take care of her. Initially I think that might contribute. And then they get to know one another, and both have their preconceptions of the other challenged.

Read the full interview here.

Photo Credit: Alicia Savage

Recasting a Classic

Monday, July 09, 2012 | Permalink

Francesca Segal's debut novel The Innocents is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I would never have set out to recast a classic, Pulitzer-winning American novel – it seemed the height of chutzpah. But once the idea took up residence in my mind it proved impossible to dislodge. I was living in New York when I read it – far away from the Jewish community in north-west London in which I have lived for most of my life. And, reading a novel set in 1870’s haute New York society, I felt such an unexpected, urgent, vivid sense of recognition that I could no longer imagine writing another word until I had written this. The trappings were different but the social concerns, the pressures, the closeness and longevity of friendships, the judgement, the parochialism, and the paramount importance of What Everybody Thinks – it was just the same. Golden Age New York to Golders Green. The central dilemmas remain essential and unresolved.

Wharton’s novel provided a vehicle; a means to explore certain questions that intrigued me. What is it that makes a good marriage? Is it friendship and common interest, or is it passion? Is romantic love the cornerstone of a happy life? Are there other loves – parental, familial, communal – that can be equally fulfilling, or do they remain hollow without a driving passion for one soul beside you? I have heard both cases put with eloquence and conviction, and I wanted to examine these, amongst other ideas. I would never presume to tell a reader how to interpret my novel – I adore the conflicting emails I’ve had from readers – equally impassioned messages of either joy or outrage on discovering the choice that Adam ultimately makes between Rachel and Ellie; between safety and freedom; between family and passion.

Visit Francesca Segal's official website here and join JBC on July 16th for a Twitter Book Club conversation with Francesca.

Five Comix about Israel Worth Reading

Thursday, July 05, 2012 | Permalink
JT Waldman co-authored and illustrated the new graphic novel Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me with writer and frequent David Letterman guest Harvey Pekar. Read more about their relationship here and Harvey Pekar's legacy here.

As a public speaker and comic book educator, people often ask me to recommend comic books or graphic novels of Jewish interest.

Of course, I have to recommend my own graphic novel, Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me, which is just being released. However, all self-promotion aside, I thought I would also take a look at other Israel-themed comix. (Point of clarification: “comix”= comic books, graphic novels, webcomics, zines, etc.)

Some readers might be well versed in this literary nook of novel stories, memoirs, and editorial essays. Joe Sacco's work with Palestine and Footnotes From Gaza, Miriam Libicki’s Jobnik!, and Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less are well regarded examples of personal accounts of Israel. However, I wanted to share some comix that continue in that vein but also veer into other territories.

Best of Enemies:A History of US and Middle East Relations, Part One: 1783-1953
By Jean-Pierre Filiu and David B. Abrams Books

For a straightforward narrative that also includes some amazing illustration, check out this book. David B. is the artist that brought you Epileptic and his work is amazing. If books like this existed while you were in history class, all those wars, treaties and dead politicians would have made a lot more sense, or at least have more personality. A great book for inquisitive teens interested in history and social critique.

Farm 54
By Galit Seliktar and Gilad Seliktar

This one is the most intimate and powerful of the bunch. Farm 54 is composed of three semi-autobiographical vignettes that chart an Israeli girl’s growth as an adolescent to young soldier amid the realities of death and war. The book is written and drawn by a brother and sister creative team from Israel. The illustrations are evocative of print making by using a single color offset. The result is simple and stunning sequences that create a visual language that is unique and almost haunting. ="#1">A great read for open-minded teenage girls and boys.

Jerusalem
By Guy Delisle

This book is great for people who have lived in Israel at one point in their lives. I’m not sure if current residents would look so nostalgically at the quirky way that Jerusalem is depicted in this enthralling travel journal by acclaimed Canadian artist/scribe, Guy Delisle. I found the small observations about playgrounds in East and West Jerusalem and the way Israelis treated North Americans who are not Jewish to be fascinating. The book is beautifully crafted and just won big at Angouleme 2012. It might be too dense for most teens, but great for wandering Jews that love to travel.

Falafel Man
By Dorit Maya Gur

Created by an Israeli illustrator to defy clichéd depictions of heroes in Israeli culture, Falafel Man is part action and part political satire. With the ability to shoot sizzling hot falafel at his enemies, this super-hero is reminiscent of The Tick and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The female author attains an impressive level of pubescent crassness usually reserved for thirteen-year old boys. This comic is currently available only in Hebrew. It will be hard to find unless you can get to the great comic book store, Comics and Vegetables in Tel Aviv.

Shirley: A Sex Comedy
By Noa Abarbanel and Amitai Sandy

Part of the Israeli hipster comix collective Dimona, artists Abarbanel and Sandy create a fun and equally bizarre tale that is definitely NSFW and not for kids under 16. However, if you’re the type of parent who is looking for frank and non-exploitive depictions of sexuality and dating dos-and-don’ts, this book is actually quite appropriate. It’s like that TV show Girls, but set in Israel. Versions in English and Hebrew are in print.

If you are interested in learning more about Jewish and Israel themed comix, a great place to start is with Steven Bergson’s website for an amazing online archive.

JT Waldman is the author of Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me and Megillat Esther. Visit his official website here.

New Reviews

Thursday, July 05, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews:



 

Graphic Memoir: The Legacy of Harvey Pekar

Tuesday, July 03, 2012 | Permalink

JT Waldman co-authored and illustrated the new graphic novel Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me with writer and frequent David Letterman guest Harvey Pekar. Read more about their relationship here.

“It is true enough to say that he was the “poet laureate of Cleveland” or to describe his American Splendor as “Homeric”, but those descriptives are still inadequate. He was the perfect man for his times, straddling…everything: the underground comic revolution of the 60′s, the creation and transformation of the graphic novel, independent film, television, music (the classic jazz he championed relentlessly throughout his life).

He was famed as a “curmudgeon”, a “crank” and a “misanthrope” yet found beauty and heroism where few others even bothered to look. In a post-ironic and post-Seinfeldian universe he was the last romantic–his work sincere, heartfelt, alternately dead serious and wryly affectionate. The last man standing to wonder out loud, “what happened here?”

- Anthony Bourdain, July 13, 2010

Before Harvey Pekar self-published American Splendor in 1976, there were no publicly distributed memoir comic books. Sure, people doodled in their journals or sketchbooks, and some super-hero artists/writers included themselves in their fantastic stories, but before American Splendor, comix were synonymous with fiction and fantasy.

With Harvey Pekar’s writing, underground comix based on mundane personal realities began to flourish. From travel journals, to anthologies about true porn, the “gonzo literary comic” style of graphic memoirs has become its own cottage industry in publishing.

Here’s a sampling of the wide range of comic book creators who make comic books about their private lives: Allison Bechdel, Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, Josh Neufeld, Miriam Libicki, Miss Lasko Gross, Marjane Satrapi, Craig Thompson, Brian Fies, David B., Marisa Acocella Marchetto, Seth, Peter Kuper, David Small, and Guy Delisle, to name just a few.

This summer in Toronto, the Third Annual Graphic Medicine Conference will delve into the use of comix in health practices. This year, the highly focused confab will explore depictions of the Outsider or Other in the context of issues such as barriers to healthcare, the stigma of mental illness and disability, and the silent burden of caretaking.

Museums and galleries have also opened their doors to graphic memoirs. Last year, an exhibition entitled “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” toured the United States.

Graphic memoirs predate blogs, tweets, and Facebook statuses, but the essence and basic components of both media are the same. Today, nearly everyone shares snippets of himself or herself, telling stories to the masses through blurbs and images in sequences. Entire markets are now built around this data.

In the mid-seventies, Harvey Pekar was doing all this before it was ubiquitous and commercialized. He shared his perspective regardless of the number of followers or friends in his circles. Harvey was an archivist and a storyteller at the same time. He was the Paul Revere of graphic memoirs presaging a literary long tail before it was even in sight. He demonstrated that everyone had a voice AND could find an audience. All they had to do was find a pen and start pondering on paper.

JT Waldman is the author of Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me and Megillat Esther. Visit his official website here.

Book Cover of the Week: The People of Forever Are Not Afraid

Tuesday, July 03, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Shani Boianjiu, the youngest recipient ever of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 Award, for which she was chosen by Nicole Krauss, will be publishing her debut novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, with Hogarth in September. Read an interview with the author here and an excerpt here.