Honorable Mr. Forvertz Editor,
Allow me a little space in your distinguished newspaper to tell your esteemed readers about what transpired at my house in the month before my wedding. As you probably know the bride whom God has blessed with many good friends receives various gifts for her wedding. I too have many friends as well as many acquaintances from the old country. A week before my wedding they all gathered at my mother’s. They brought a whole wagon full of wedding gifts to my room.
Among my countrymen, however, there was also a man who was considered to be somewhat of a “crank.” (I didn’t consider him as such, just my countrymen.) When he saw the presents that they had brought, the spirit took him and he began to scream. “Fools!” “What exactly have you all brought here? Four muslins, ten lamps, three sets of beddings for a couple…Come, it would be better if we all came into this room here and had a meeting to decide what every individual should bring based on what the couple needs to have, and what not to bring if they don’t need it.” But as my clever countryman is of course a “crank,” nobody paid much attention to his proposal.
Therefore I turn to you Mr. Editor. Tell me who’s right, the “crank” with his proposal to give me one coordinated set of wedding gifts or the rest of my fellow countrymen, who’ve brought me four sets of beddings?
And here is a page from my version of the story. This is the one I was least faithful to, and the first one I made.
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
Attention beautiful book lovers: Angella Nazarian (Life as a Visitor) has a new book coming out! Her latest title, Pioneers of the Possible: Celebrating Visionary Women of the World will be published in late March by Assouline.
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.
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.
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.
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 (www.tabletmag.com), 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: http://www.tabletmag.com/arts-and-culture/books/88130/the-rescuer/
Or if you are ready to take the leap with your $1.99, you can buy it here: http://amzn.to/znT3BI
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.)
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.
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
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."
“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.”