The ProsenPeople

NETWORK Class ’11-’12: Second Course

Monday, June 06, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Second Course:

Check out the website for Ellen Bari’s Jumping Jenny here.

The New York Times reviews Avner Cohen’s The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb

Rabbi Lau talks about his forthcoming Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last here.

The book trailer for Michael Levin’s Gutenberg to Google: The Rise And Fall Of Books

Loneliness and the Novel

Monday, June 06, 2011 | Permalink

Joseph Skibell, 2011 Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award recipient and author of A Curable Romantic, shares his remarks from the 2011 Sami Rohr Priza Gala.

A month or so ago, when my wife Barbara and I came to New York for the interview that determines the prize winners, we had dinner the night before with a group of cousins and my brother and my brother-in-law, and my Uncle Richard treated for the meal, which was very sweet, and afterwards, everybody said, you know, “If you win, the next meal will be on you.” Most of them are here tonight, and I just want to say … THIS is that meal.


So, anyway, years ago, when I was in college, I had breakfast one morning with a friend of mine named Jack. Jack was in a bit of a state. His girlfriend had left him, or he had left his girlfriend. I can’t really remember who had left whom, but Jack was without a girlfriend, and he’d been up all night in the library working on a paper. His subject was Native American imagery in the paintings of Jackson Pollack.

Now, around 4 a.m. or so, he told me, he’s thumbing through a book by D.H. Lawrence, and he stumbles upon an essay entitled “Loneliness and the Novel.” The topic has nothing to do with his research, of course, but everything to do with his current state of mind, and so Jack abandons his own work, and he sits down in the stacks to read this essay, sensing, as one can only sense at four in the morning after a long night of researching shamanism and Carl Jung and synchronicity – and also, I suppose, looking for Native American imagery in the paintings of Jackson Pollack – that perhaps this essay contains a message meant specifically for him.

Lawrence, however, takes ages getting to the topic. He rattles on and on about tenderness and beauty and frailty, discussing all these things in relationship to novel writing, but he never seems to arrive at the subject of loneliness. So finally, confused, Jack flips back to the title page of the essay, and he sees that he’s misread the title. The essay is called “Loveliness and the Novel,” not “Loneliness and the Novel.”

Well, we had a good laugh over that, Jack and I, he ruefully, and I sympathetically, but the truth is “Loneliness and the Novel” sounded right to me. It did then, and it does now, because loneliness seems to me to be a real part of what the novel is all about.

Most of us begin reading seriously in our early adolescents. I spent my childhood on the high plains of West Texas in a little city called Lubbock during the 1970s. This was mostly – not entirely – but mostly post-Beatles, but also pre-Reagan, so I was lucky enough to be educated by people who did not yet think of education as a necessary evil. Still, between the born-again Christian cowboy culture and the grey humorless world inhabited by most of the adults I knew, it could get a little lonely.

Books, however, novels especially – those 9 inch by 6 inch oblong universes constructed (then) out of paper, board and glue – offered a way out of that terrible loneliness. Landlocked in Lubbock, lying on my parents’ sofa in our living room, I could be anywhere in the world: on the road with Jack Kerouac, in some strange mathematical counter-universe with Italo Calvino, or in Vladimir Nabokov’s classroom at Cornell.

As we all know, a good writer is a good companion. At least in their books, I mean. It’s not actually true in real life. But in their books, writers are open, generous, funny, patient, sociable, and dramatic people.

And that’s where those of us who go on to become writers make a terrible mistake, I think. A terrible, a fatal mistake. We assume that because reading books made our lives less lonely, than — kal v’khomer – writing books will make them even more less lonely, and nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.

I spent five years in a room writing A Curable Romantic, and one year in a room – the same room – editing it.

L to R: Josh Lambert, Joseph Skibell, Austin Ratner

Now, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the company of my characters. And Barbara and I and my protagonist Dr. Sammelsohn traveled all over the world together, doing research in Geneva, in Paris, in Vienna and in Warsaw. I corresponded in Esperanto with Esperantists tra la tuta mondo for this book,and I spent many long hours discussing its themes of personal and political exile, and the scientific disenchantment of modernity and the God-sized hunger for meaning in a world deaf to the cries of the soul with many friends and colleagues.

And yet, it’s only now, upon being welcomed into the Sami Rohr family, and being included in such a stellar group of writers as AustinAllisonJulie and Nadia, and being surrounded by so many remarkable people in the Jewish Book Council, around the Jewish Book Council, on the panel of judges, in the Sami Rohr Institute, that I realize that, yes, my friend Jack got it wrong, but I got it wrong, too. Only D.H. Lawrence got it right.

It’s not loneliness and the Novel, but rather loveliness and the Novel.

And so, I thank you all tonight for making my life as a writer less lonely and more lovely.

Thank you.

Joseph Skibell is the author of A Curable RomanticA Blessing on the Moon, and The English Disease.

Welcome to our Venus-Mars home!

Monday, June 06, 2011 | Permalink

Lévana Kirschenbaum is the author of the forthcoming The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glorious Meals Pure and Simple (June 22nd). She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I came home late one recent evening, and found my husband uncharacteristically agitated. “I just put out a fire!” he said, panting. “I have no idea how it started, I just wanted to microwave some dinner and put it in a foil container to warm, and flames started leaping out!”

Now please don’t find me too biased: I ask you, how are un-domesticated husbands, who almost never prepare or even warm up their food, who almost always wait for their wives to tell them what dinner consists of, supposed to know that foil is the microwave’s nemesis? I looked all over the lethal appliance to see if the manufacturer had included some warning, but no, not a word about the hazards of using foil. Shame on you, I thought indignantly, you should learn from a sign I recently saw on an ad for bulletproof jackets: “Guaranteed or your money back,” or the warning sign on coffee cups that became ubiquitous after an infamous lawsuit: “Caution: Hot beverages are hot!”

On another occasion when my husband received a friend after I had gone to bed, he asked at the top of his voice, from one end of the house to the other: “Levana, do we have any glasses?” To be sure, I did think of a few answers to this, this… how should I put it politely, obtuse question. Examples:

a) “Of course we do, just look in the kitchen;”

b) “We don’t, but you promised we would go and buy ourselves a dozen when our twentieth anniversary rolls around;” or c) “We used to, but we smashed all of them during our arguments and we have none left.”

But of course I thought none of the above answers would reflect well on my husband, who was trying after all to be a good late-night host, and all of them would make me sound like a shrill and sarcastic matron. So instead I jumped out of bed and got into some decent clothing. I walked drowsily past the bewildered guest toward a kitchen cupboard and took out the glasses. In the interest of thoroughness, I should add I had also thought – very briefly – of saying, “of course we have glasses: Open the cabinet in the back of the kitchen, look on the second shelf, etc…” but I dismissed that option almost as soon as it crossed my mind, the reason being, I can hardly remember a time I sent my husband to the kitchen to fetch something with any luck. He would always say, “I looked high and low and didn’t find it,” and if I would find it and wave it a few inches from his face, he would say with amazement, “wow! So where was it?” But he would almost always quickly add, “well, what do you expect, you didn’t tell me to look on that shelf!”

Other times, when he is more inclined to be conscientious, he would just repeat every line after me, as if by rote, with the expressionless tone of someone memorizing some essential lines he would need on an impending trip to a foreign country. “Open the door of the cabinet on top of the refrigerator….. Open the door of the cabinet on top of…” Oh, never mind… never mind, I’m coming.

I can’t remember how the lines got so rigidly drawn between my share of the household tasks and his. I remember a lovely handmade gift a good friend brought us, which we still enjoy: two coffee mugs aptly marked “You the man!” and “You go girl!” For the most part we both got used to our respective roles and even acquit ourselves of our tasks quite honorably, but sometimes it gets a little frustrating, like in this scenario which has a way of recurring occasionally: One Shabbos day when we walked the few short blocks from synagogue towards home, a shy elderly man I had invited to join us for lunch walked with my husband, while I chatted away with some friends a few paces behind them. When we got to the lobby of our building, I asked my husband where the old man was, and he answered “Oh! So that’s it! No wonder I kept telling him ‘Good Shabbos’ and he just stood there! Then he just went away! I didn’t know you had invited him!”

When I reached forty, I thought I should celebrate this major milestone by conquering my fear of driving. Perennial city mouse that I am, I proved a mediocre student, and passed by a hair on my third try. Then I had the uninspired idea of asking my husband, a wonderful driver, to help me boost my nonexistent skills. And here I should warn you: Even if the dynamics of your marriage are made in heaven, please go to any length not to make a co-pilot out of your husband. Those rare times I diffidently clambered behind the wheel were the first times he started putting on a safety belt and urged me to put on mine, sitting the way we sit in a rollercoaster, muttering between his teeth “oy-oy-oy!” My daughter, who was in the car on one of those nerve-racking trips when my husband was screaming “You are breaking the transmission!” told me she prayed it wouldn’t be cause for divorce. My driving career was blighted after a dozen spins at the most. You might say mass transportation got me back in marital business.

So all this begs the question: What would my husband say about my Venus habits? Until he does, let me give you some clues and leave it at that: When my PC breaks down or even stalls, I just sit and cry, and I don’t think there is a technical support operator from Los Angeles or China or Bengladesh who doesn’t try to duck when he gets my desperate call. I do speak several languages but can never make out any technical instructions. I cook, sew, bead, knit, write, conduct classes, run the house, give lectures and go places, but can never orient myself: a street or a building approached from a new angle becomes totally unfamiliar. I have never ever mailed a bill to any service, balanced a checkbook or packed for a trip. I leave it all to my husband, a model of timeliness, industriousness, thoughtfulness and fitness. And he confidently – I almost said conveniently – leaves everything else to me: our meals, our social agenda, our trips’ itinerary, the management of our house.

Luckily we love a lot of the same things: food (and you know I feed him well), movies, music, books, friends, and places. We share a blind devotion to our children and a fanatical excitement for everything they and their own children do. So yes, it’s a real and working partnership. So what if after all these years, he still does the Jackie Mason thing each time we go to a restaurant, points randomly to an item on the menu and asks: “Levana, do I like this?”? Don’t I still ask him which way to turn each time we visit one of our children in mazelike Washington Heights where they have been living for years? See? We are a team!

I almost forgot something that could have made me feel bitter about having cooked up a storm all these years, resorting to the whole gamut of bribes and incentives to feed everyone healthy meals, while my husband’s best and only culinary performance is make coffee. One morning ages ago, dropping off my children at the school bus stop, I slipped on some chicken fat a nearby greasy spoon joint had disposed of carelessly. I cursed at the slobs, then made all pressing arrangements. I asked my husband to be home early and feed them a decent dinner, while I went with a good friend to the emergency room. It was almost midnight when I got back home, groggy from pain killers, with a bloated foot tightly wrapped in a voluminous bandage, and on crutches. The children waited up for me, I thought lovingly, they want to know how I am doing.

But somehow that question didn’t come up, or at least not right away. They were giggling delightedly, and my oldest son said: “Wow, Mommy, you’ll never believe this: Tati makes the most awesome hot dogs!”

Check back all week for Lévana Kirschenbaum‘s posts on the JBC/MJL Visiting Scribe.

It’s Officially NETWORK Season

Thursday, June 02, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

…and we’re off! It’s NETWORK season! That means, of course, fantastic authors will be travelling this fall to a community near you. And, even sooner…to a browser near you. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be posting articles, book trailers, and other fun bites from our 2011-2012 NETWORK class.

First course:

The Globe and Mail reviews Alison Pick’s Far to Go: A Novel here.

The book trailer for Evan Fallenberg’s When We Danced on Water: A Novel:

The book trailer for David J. Halperin’s Journal of a UFO Investigator: A Novel:

The book trailer for Eitan Gonen’s From Jerusalem to Beverly Hills: Memoir of a Palestinian Jew:

Rosh Camping

Thursday, June 02, 2011 | Permalink

On Tuesday, Haley Tanner wrote about her mother’s blessing. She has been blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and Jewish Book Council‘s Author Blog.

Years ago my family decided to take our celebration of Rosh Hashanah out of our Conservative synagogue. We were feeling stifled by the long hours sitting in uncomfortable clothes — we were distracted by the outfits, the gossip, the perfume and the fur coats. Rosh Hashanah had lost its meaning for us, and we wanted it back.

My mother is fond of saying that of all the animals on earth, human beings are unique in our ability to step back, to reflect, to separate certain times and days as sacred or special. We knew that we had to maintain the sacredness of the holiday, to separate it from the sameness of other days. For years we had relied on the institution of synagogue to do it for us — now we were on our own. So we took to the woods. We went camping. And we are not avid campers. We are not campers by any stretch of the imagination.

We packed three cars with tents, air mattresses, down blankets, brisketmatzoh ball soupgefilte fishchallahs, honey cake, apples and honey, white linen table cloth (for the picnic table) and my great-grandmother’s silver candlesticks.

Once we got there, we talked about our year, and the year ahead of us. My parents talked to me and my brother and sister about what they wanted for us as people — about they way they wanted us to be in the world. We succeeded completely in separating ourselves — in creating a sacred space, a bubble around us, where the world did not exist — a place of reflection and escape.

I’ve been asked over and over again about the role of magic in my first novel, Vaclav and Lena. I’ve always imagined that the performance of magic is just like storytelling — we all know that the woman is not sawed in half, that the quarter did not disappear. We all know that the characters are fictional, the events a fabrication, but still, we laugh and cry and worry along with them. We suspend our disbelief for a time, and allow ourselves to be carried away to another place, another time — where we escape our everyday lives and are able to explore our minds, hopes and dreams, unhindered by the things we’re distracted by in our everyday lives.

When my family camps out in the woods to celebrate a new year, we light candles, and a sacred time begins. We sit by a fire together, and we can escape the everyday, and think about what we truly want for ourselves, for the year, for each other.

Haley Tanner‘s first novel, Vaclav and Lena, is now available.

Our Favorite Photo

Wednesday, June 01, 2011 | Permalink

Our favorite photo from the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize Gala, held at the Center for Jewish History in New York City on May 31st:

Winner Austin Ratner (The Jump Artist) Celebrates

(more photos to follow)

May You Be Who You Are

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 | Permalink

Haley Tanner‘s debut novel, Vaclav and Lena, is now available. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

The day my first novel, Vaclav and Lena, was published, I didn’t do anything wild or anything flashy. There were only two people in the world I wanted share the experience with: my parents.  After dinner, and some champagne, we walked to our local bookstore to visit my book—to see my book for the first time in a bookstore.  My mother, who is completely without shame, found the manager and proudly announced that there was an ACTUAL author in the store. My dad and I hung back and giggled.  The store manager indulged us, had me sign some copies, and stuck some “local author” stickers on the books.  We thanked him, and he walked away, and then my mother ran after him — for what, we didn’t know.  She came back with an extra “local author” sticker and stuck it right on my chest.  We all cracked up.  It was a long and difficult road to that “Local Author” sticker and my parents were there every step of the way.

When my family had Shabbat dinner, each and every Friday night – whether it was brisket or Cajun meatloaf or pizza, my mother blessed us.  Instead of the traditional blessing, asking god to make my sister and me like SarahRebeccahRachel and Leah, or my brother like Menashe and Ephraim. She said. “May you be who you are and may you be blessed in all that you are.”

It is not easy to raise a writer.  It is not easy to raise a creative child. It is not easy to  emotionally support your child when she’s graduating from college and NOT jumping feet first into the job force, but instead jumping feet first into a writing a novel.  When everyone else’s twenty-something kids are going to law school, or med school, or getting promotions, your twenty-something is living with five roommates, working odd jobs, and writing this nebulous mysterious book that she refuses to talk about.  It is not easy to help your writer (or painter, or actress, or musician) figure out how to make a life that is satisfying and fulfilling and structured while they pursue their dream.

In my novel, Vaclav & Lena, the main character, Vaclav, wants to become the worlds greatest and most famous magician.  His parents, recent Russian Jewish immigrants, worry about his future, about the prospects for a child who wants a singular and difficult dream.  Vaclav’s parents struggle, as mine did, to support and protect their child.  I’m sure that at times, my parents felt like Vaclav’s mother, Rasia:

“It is not safe, for Vaclav, out in the world, with his eyes open to everything and       his heart beating right on his sleeve, with his dreams in his hands, ready to       show and tell.”

I’m sure that my parents struggled with supporting a writer, and sometimes I think that the blessing, “May you be who you are and may you be blessed in all that you are,” was as much a blessing for me as an affirmation for them.

Check back on Thursday for Haley Tanner‘s next post.

Campy Lizards, or, A Look Back to My Literary Beginnings

Friday, May 27, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, C. Alexander London wrote about being an accidental adventurer and sequels and the Torah.

In honor of the end of Book Expo America 2011, and appearing on a blog aimed at the People of the Book, I am presenting the full, unedited text of the first book I ever wrote: Lawrence and Luther Lizard Go to Camp.

This work, written in 1988 with my coauthor Jon Kleinman, tells the epic tale of two lizards on their first trip to summer camp. With its elements of the paranormal and vivid depiction of dystopian society, it was sure to be a bestseller had we ever gotten around to our revisions. As it stands, the book, written on an Apple IIe and printed on an old dotmatrix printer, was inspired by our own previous summer’s adventures at camp Kennebec in Maine, which, while being mostly filled with Jews (Wet Hot American Summer sums it up pretty well) had, like so many Jewish summer camps, appropriated North American indigenous culture in what I am sure are terribly offensive ways. That’s probably a blog entry for another time.

For now, I present Lawrence and Luther Lizard Go to Camp. I will leave the exegeses for the comments section.

It was the last day of third grade for Luther and Lawrence Lizard. They just said goodbye to their teacher, Miss L.E. Phant, and hopped on the school bus for home.

When they got home Mrs. Lizard had their favorite snack waiting for them; crickets and water. Mmm Mmm.

They were very excited because next week they were leaving for their first sleepover camp.

Camp Swampyland was far away from their home in Maine. Lawrence and Luther were only 9 years old and they never been away from home without their parents. They were a little nervous but they were happy to be away from their bratty little sister.

The week flew by and before they knew it, they were driving into the camp’s front gate. They saw the big lake and the cabins. There were lots of other guys all around. Everybody was playing and Lawrence and Luther couldn’t wait to join in.

They got out of the bus and saw a very large man. He introduced himself as Chris Crocodile, and said that he was their counselor. He said they should get their stuff into the cabin and get ready for swimming.

Chris took them to the lake for swimming and they met their swimming teacher, Fred Fish. Both of the boys passed their deep water tests and had fun goofing around on the waterslide and the big air tube. They asked Fred Fish if he would take them out for a canoe ride.

Fred said yes, so off they went. It was time for lunch. Everyone always complained about camp food. Luther said, “I bet this placemat will taste better than the food here!” Lawrence said, “Gee, I hope they serve crickets once in a while.”

They day went very quickly. At night the boys listened to ghost stories around the campfire. Then they went to bed. The next day was great! They played baseball against another cabin and won 6-2. They played football and went swimming.

The it happened! It was time for lunch. Everyone was saying they would rather be kissing a frog. The counselor told them about the big dance with Camp Swampyland for Girls. At the dance they served fresh crickets and water. The boys danced a lot and had fun. The next day they got a letter from their mom. It said, “How’s the camp food? Are you having fun? By the way, your sister wrote you a note: I miss U. I like ur toys-Linda.”

Lawrence and Luther suddently wanted to be home and to make sure Linda had not touched their new science kit! The next dauy was the beginning of switch week. This was when the kids became counselors and the counselors became kids. Lawrence became the head counselor of the camp and Luther became his assistant. The new cook, who was the boys’ friend Iswald, made wonderful meals. He fried crickets, roasted crickets, barbecued crickets and even mashed crickets. For desert one night they even had crickets with chocolate sauce!

The next day was very exciting for Lawrence and Luther. Their bunk was going on a campout. The campout was so much fun it went by too quickly. When they came back it was finally Saturday and the boys could wear whatever they wanted. They didn’t have to wear their camp uniforms that nobody liked. All too soon camp was over and the boys were sad.

Back home everyone said they had missed them. Lawrence and Luther remembered their science kit and raced upstairs to check it. They found it just the way they had left it. It was the end of a perfect summer, and they would soon have to go back to school.

Original first edition/printing can be read below:

C. Alexander London is the author of We Are Not Eaten By Yaks: An Accidental Adventure, and the forthcoming sequel, We Dine With Cannibals. As Charles London, his grown-up alter ego, he wrote One Day The Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War and Far From Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community.  

Book Cover of the Week: FARM 54

Thursday, May 26, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Published today by Ponent Mon: Galit and Gilad Seliktar’s FARM 54:

Awesome Book Trailer Alert

Thursday, May 26, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter