The ProsenPeople

Publishing a Real Life Old-Fashioned Book

Monday, December 05, 2011 | Permalink
Matthue Roth's latest book, Automatic, is now available. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

Here's the thing about being both an author and a blogger: It makes you impatient. When I write a rant or draw a cartoon, I scan it in, click a few buttons, and -- zoomba! -- the world gets it. Or, you know, anyone who happens to be looking at my Twitter page at that moment. When I write a book, I send it to my agent, the editor, the publisher, the copy editor, and then, three years later, you can walk to a bookstore and pick it up.

I'm sure there's some Jewish lesson I should be able to glean from this. Like, how Jerusalem wasn't burned in a day or how over a thousand years passed between the time the Gemara was written and the time it was printed up in its first printed version, the Vilna Shas, the kind that we read today, with all the wacky columns and stuff.

Except, not really. Because the Talmud is called the oral Torah, and the essence of a story is in the telling, not when it's written down and printed with a day-glo green cover and sent to a bookstore. There's something about the immediacy of storytelling that the three-year publishing process, which is standard for the industry, has missed out on. And, weirdly, I think the Internet is bringing it back.

So, partly because I'm a naturally impatient person -- and also partly because it's 15,000 words, which is a weird length that's way too long for a short story and way too short for a novel -- I put out this new book, Automatic, and I did it myself.

I didn't just write it in a day. I spent most of a year editing it. I'd probably still be editing it, except that it's sort of about the band R.E.M. (it's also sort of about my best friend dying) -- and, one day a few weeks ago, R.E.M. broke up. It's now or never, I told myself. In the space of half an hour, I'd signed up for a Kindle author account. And then I hit send, just like sending an email -- and, zoomba. I'd published a book.

Amazon is sort of a double-edged sword -- yes, it's crazy that they own half the universe, but it's an author's dream because THEY ACTUALLY SELL BOOKS. People who never go to bookstores, people like most of my family, will click on Amazon and buy a book in a second. (I also put it on Smashwords as a pdf -- also $2 -- if you don't have a Kindle.)

But I'm old-fashioned. I don't own a Kindle and I don't like reading long things online. Plus, I'm a design slut. I like things that look cool, and books that open like toys, and books that smell like books. So I designed a non-Kindle edition that does all the things ebooks will never do -- it has hand lettering and easy-on-the-eyes layouts, and layouts on the page that (hopefully) make you feel like you're luxuriating in something, not just squeezing the words out of a mass-market paperback. (But, I promise, no annoyingly coy stuff or Fun Fonts). I also made a die-cut front cover, because, dammit, books are meant to be touched.

 

I showed it to my friend/icon/if-I-wasn't-a-Hasidic-Jew-I'd-say-"idol" Richard Nash, who said, "Oh, it's a zine!" And I thought, Oh, yeah -- that's it exactly. Fifteen years after being a teenage zine-maker, using a copy machine at my summer job, I've reverted to being exactly where I started. It isn't glamorous, but hopefully, the product is. And there are worse things in the world. 

I know self-publishing is still a dirty word -- it's like Amanda Hocking said, authors shouldn't have time to do all the stuff involved with publishing; we're too busy being authors. And I've been really fortunate to have people like Scholastic and Soft Skull to take the foot-dragging stuff out of my hands for my big projects. But it's also nice to finger this little handmade thing in my hand and say, dammit, this is mine.


Matthue Roth's newest book is Automatic. He is also the author of three novels and the memoir Yom Kippur a Go-Go, and is an associate editor at MyJewishLearning.com. His screenplay 1/20 is currently in production as a feature film.

Randy Susan Meyers on her Jewish Book Festival Ride

Friday, December 02, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Randy Susan Meyers (The Murderer's Daughters) talks about her recent Jewish Book Network tour for The Huffington Post:

"Don't forget; Jewish people read an enormous amount," my lovely (and Jewish) literary agent said before my book launch. "We really love books."

I nodded. Yes, I knew that -- at least I knew it in as much as I was Jewish and I read -- as did my mother, my sister, and my daughters, but could I raise that sample to the status of landslide? Discerning what was true in my culture was fraught with difficulty. I grew up with a slight case of anomie, surrounded by a cultural belief that all-things-Jewish equals families-pushing-one-towards-great-achievement, while, among other family oddities, my grandmother taught me to shoplift.

 Continue reading here.

Food, Music and Meshugas: Bringing the Lower East Side to Life

Thursday, December 01, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Chris Moriarty wrote about writing her new book and songs of hope and failureShe will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

One of my main goals in writing The Inquisitor’s Apprentice was to bring the Lower East Side to life for my own kids and make it a place they’d want to visit and learn more about. And what brings the past to life better than foodmusic, and theater?

Of course there’s a plethora of great books about every aspect of life on the Lower East Side. But here -- as cultural comfort food for the soul -- are my favorite books about food, klezmer, and Yiddish theater.

The best book bar none about food on the Lower East Side is Jane Ziegelman’s 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. Ziegleman turns bare bones menus into a comprehensive account of how immigrant families worked, shopped, ate, and lived on the Lower East Side. Her portraits of the five 
families are sensitive, beautifully written, and at times deeply moving. And the book is packed to the gills with gems of forgotten culinary history. Such as the fact that shmaltz was mostly made with goose fat until the 1930s, when Jewish gangsters began to run illegal chicken farming operations near the East River. Who knew?

There are a number of excellent books about Klezmer, but my favorite is David Saposnik’s Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World. As someone who grew up in folksinging circles where people bragged about having known Bobby Zimmerman ‘back when’ or made out in the back seat of a car with Pete Seeger (true story, seriously), I really enjoyed the way Saposnik blends the history of klezmer with a firsthand account of the Klezmer revival and its ties to the larger folk music scene.

Stefan Kanfer’s Stardust Lost: the Triumph, Tragedy and Meshugas of the Yiddish Theater in America might just be my favorite nonfiction book of the last decade. There is a charm to this book which is difficult to describe. Sure, Kanfer has great material to work with: the glamour of Thomashevsky, the star power of David Kessler, the terrible irony of Yiddish theater reaching its apex as an art form just as the gates to Ellis Island were slamming shut.

But Kanfer brings a light touch to his material, and a prose style that combines humor and tragedy almost as deftly as the great artists he writes about. Stardust Lost is one of the very few nonfiction books that I’ve actually reread just for the sheer fun of it.

Nahma Sandrow’s much heftier Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater is less of an introduction to Yiddish theater than a sumptuous banquet for those who already know and love it. She chronicles major and minor figures, covering material that might only get a cursory mention in more general histories. Her writing is scholarly yet highly readable. And the book is a treasury of delicious stories about the flamboyant lives and scandalous loves of Yiddish theater’s famous and not-so-famous. If there are any Yiddish theater fans on your Hanukkah list, this is a book they’ll want to curl up with on a cold winter evening.

Chris Moriarty's most recent book, The Inquisitor's Apprentice, is now available.

Songs of Hope and Failure

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Chris Moriarty wrote about why she wrote The Inquisitor's Apprentice. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

So the tents have come down at Zuccotti Park. Occupy Wall Street is over. Or, as the more hopeful would have it, it has morphed into Occupy Everywhere. I hope they’re right. I hope Occupy Wall Street does become Occupy Everywhere. I hope the issues of the 99 percent become a focus of the upcoming Presidential campaign. And I hope real, lasting, meaningful change comes of this movement.

But just for a moment I’d like to look at the other side of the coin.

I’d like to sing the praises of failure. I’d like to point out that failure is in fact the universal fate of truly transformative social, political, or religious movements. And I’d like to argue that graceful failure matters just as much for revolutionaries as it does for source code and suspension bridges.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about graceful failure ever since Simchat Torah. This year it fell just after the Occupy Wall Street march on Times Square. My husband and I were more spectators than marchers, since we had two sleepy kids in tow. But a few days later when I looked at the bright faces of the children gathered under the tent of the upraised prayer shawls, whispering about important things like chocolate while we grownups droned on overhead about death and creation, I suddenly remembered the faces I’d seen streaming out of Times Square after the march.

It was a very New York crowd: a crowd of every age and color and social class. There was a radiant joy and hope in those faces that is all too rare in America today. And the sight of that great flood of humanity streaming across Manhattan reminded me powerfully of Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic words about justice rolling down like a mighty river.

Of course justice never did roll down like a mighty river. If it had, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate crime blog would be a lot quieter than it is. And the statistics on African-American children in poverty and African-American men in prison would not be source of national shame. The history of transformational politics in America is essentially a lesson in failing, failing again, and failing better. The late Howard Zinn dedicated much of his life to documenting this history. And more recently two wonderful books -- John Nichols’s The ‘S’Word: A Short History of an American Tradition ... Socialism and James R. Green’s Death in the Haymarket: A ShortStory of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided GildedAge America -- have documented this underground history.

Martin Luther King knew this history. And he had a theologian’s grasp of the readings that waft over the heads of the children in synagogues all over the world each Simchat Torah. King understood that failure is the fate of all truly transformational social movements. If you read through the arc of his life and writings, you see him always pushing toward the next goal, peering around the next bend in the road, reminding people that the moment you begin to reify a movement -- to become infatuated with success or paralyzed by the fear of failure -- you have started the slow slide from revolution to institution, from transformation to status quo. This was one of his great contributions to American politics, though it’s one that is a lot harder to quantify and celebrate than his more tangible successes.

People like to tell fairy tales, of course. And as a fantasy writer I’d be the last person to claim that fairy tales are mere escapism. Fantasy turns a magic mirror on our world that can reveal long-accepted injustices and inspire us to transform society in light of our highest ideals. But many fairy tales have an insidious lie at their hearts: the promise of a happily ever after where conflict and corruption are banished; the promise that slaying dragons is a once-in-a-lifetime event, something you do right before sailing off to what James Thurber (tongue firmly in cheek as usual) called ‘the blessed isles of Ever After.’

But in real life there are no blessed isles of Ever After. In real life Moses dies in the desert. In real life Martin Luther King, Jr. died just as he was beginning to take on the truly intractable problems of socioeconomic injustice in America. In real life the promised land is always on the other side of the river -- and transformative social movements are always crushed or corrupted, diluted or deflected, or simply lost in the flood of daily trivia.

So as we talk about what it means that the tents have come down, we should remind ourselves that it was never a question of whether Occupy Wall Street would fail. It was only a question of when. Occupy Wall Street will inevitably fail, just as all truly radical attempts at transformation fail. But if it fails well, then it will have brought us to the bank of the river. And it will have given us the courage to learn from our failure, turn back to the beginning of the scroll, and risk everything once again in a new act of creation.

Like so much of the Jewish liturgy, Simchat Torah is a ritual that meets you wherever you are in life and seems to impart new wisdom from year to year. As a parent I see it mainly as a time to give thanks for the gift of children and reaffirm my commitment to their Jewish education. But this year I was struck by the great gift that the ritual gives to our children: the gift of teaching them that failure is, if not exactly sweet, then at least part of the life’s cycle and no more to be feared than any other part.

That’s not a gift most of us are very good at giving our children in real life. Don’t get me wrong; kids certainly get plenty of chances to watch their parents fail. But we rarely do it gracefully. Usually we look around for someone else to blame. Or we lie to ourselves -- especially in the realm of politics -- settling for the achievable compromise and then reacting with fury when anyone has the chutzpah to remind us that we once hoped for bigger and better things. Simchat Torah cuts through the denial, in the most simple and unsentimental way imaginable.

And so we sing our songs of hope and failure. We put up our tents even though we know they will be taken down. We tell our children that the Torah is as sweet as honey. We tell them about Moses dying in the desert within sight of the promised land. And then we turn the scroll back to the beginning, and we start a new year of struggle, and we hope we fail better next time.

Chris Moriarty's most recent book, The Inquisitor's Apprentice, is now available.

JLit Links

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Book Cover of the Week: Apples from Shinar

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Wesleyan University Press re-issued the classic collection of poetry Apples from Shinar this past April:


Read on!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Now a book...

JBC Bookshelf: 2012 Preview

Tuesday, November 29, 2011 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

 

As you may have noticed, we've been rather busy over the last few months. We're excited that our first four-color, and newly redesigned, Jewish Book World is out to subscribers (you can check it out digitally here) and that we've revealed our new online look to the world. With our new website, readers can now browse hundreds of reviews online, share them with friends, and tweet them to the world.  Plus, new reviews will be added daily, as well as new book club questions, interviews, and book trailers. Another great feature of the new site is our calendar listings. If you have a Jewish literary event you want our readers to know about, be sure to send them to us under the "submit an event" tab. The final big change is the name our blog and its new home on the main JBC website: The ProsenPeople (hehe, get it?). And, with that, a new name for our blogging series with MyJewishLearning: The Visiting Scribe. Now on to the latest books on the JBC Bookshelf:

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories, Nathan Englander (February 2012, Alfred A. Knopf)

While you wait for this one to be published, check out Englander's first collection of stories

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, A.J. Jacobs (April 2012, Simon & Schuster)

The latest from Jacobs, the author of The Guinea Pig Diaries, The Know It All, and The Year of Living Biblically 

Hot Pink, Adam Levin (March 2012, McSweeney's)

Just slightly shorter than Levin's debut novel The Instructions...

Broadway Baby, Alan Shapiro (January 2012, Algonquin Books)

The debut novel from the poet Alan Shapiro

When Telling the Truth Is Wrong

Monday, November 28, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Everybody thinks it's wrong to tell lies, but are there times when it's wrong to tell the truth? Renowned theologian Joseph Telushkin has a surprising answer.


 

Why I Wrote "The Inquisitor's Apprentice"

Monday, November 28, 2011 | Permalink
Chris Moriarty's The Inquisitor's Apprentice is now available. She will be blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

When I try to explain why I wrote The Inquisitor’s Apprentice – and why it’s emphatically not a Jewish Narnia a la Michael Weingrad — I always end up telling people that this is the book I wrote for my children.

Basically, I wrote it because I was a frustrated mother who wanted my son to be able to read a boy wizard book where the Jewish kid got to be the hero. That was the first kernel of the idea that has become the NYPD Inquisitor books: me rereading the books I remembered from my childhood, and then reading the new books that had been written since then, and realizing that the book I wanted my son to be able to read still wasn’t out there.

I wanted a children’s fantasy about a Jewish kid. And I wanted a book with all the magic, adventure, and humor of my childhood favorites, but whose mythology, worldview and characters would celebrate our family’s roots, beliefs and values.

I might as well be honest about it and admit that those values were hot pink. I grew up in left-wing New York political circles, in a predominantly Jewish but significantly multiethnic community that had its own distinctive hagiography (the Lincoln Brigade and Freedom Riders), family stories (the Rosenbergs, the McCarthy blacklist, the Peekskill riots), music (can you say Hootenanny?) and even summer camps (my Mom went to Camp Redwing. Get it, wink, wink, Redwing?)

My husband grew up only a few miles away from me. Until the most recent Manhattan construction boom you could actually see my parents’ apartment building from his parents’ apartment building if you knew where to look. But he grew up in a New York that embodied a completely different version of the Jewish-American experience. His grandfather emigrated from Russia, went to work in the garment district, saved up his money, went into wholesale, and had two sons who both grew up to be cardiologists. My grandparents were atheists, his were Orthodox. My grandparents marched on Washington, his retired to Florida. And — this last sentence says it all, really — I grew up on the Upper West Side, he grew up on the Upper East Side.

I wanted to share both sides of that New York heritage with my children. I wanted to tell them about the Vaudeville musicians and sweatshop workers, the rabbis and the wobblies, the grandfather who grew up on Avenue J, and the grandmother who grew up in Greenwich Village. I wanted to take my kids back to the Lower East Side a hundred years ago, and let them see first-hand the lives, the struggles, and the values of their great-grandparents. I wanted to celebrate the special magic of New York — and the equally special magic of the loud, zany, eccentric and argumentative New Yorkers I grew up around. I wanted to get my son excited about being Jewish, excited about the Lower East Side, and curious about the vibrant intersection of Judaism and left-wing politics that contributed shaped not only our own family’s history but much of American history throughout the 20th century.

And … well … if he developed a taste for klezmer, too, I wasn’t exactly going to cry about it.

In one sense, of course, this was a deeply Narnia-esque project. Because, let’s be honest, it was all about proselytizing. But the proselytizing wasn’t aimed at other people’s kid’s, only at my own. And it was about telling my children where they came from, not telling them where I thought they should go in life. I wanted to write a sort of family origin myth, one that went to the heart of what I hope my children will value in their own complex, multiethnic, but emphatically Jewish heritage. And if there was any preaching going on, then it had a lot less in common with C. S. Lewis’s Christian apologetics than with William Goldman’s The Princess Bride – a book that uses humor, romance and magic to drive home the underlying moral of “Hey, would it kill you to turn off the TV and listen to your grandfather’s stories once in a while?”

Those stories are what it’s really about for me. Stories of grandparents and great-aunts and uncles that were passed on around kitchen tables over three generations, that made me and my husband who we are, and that will continue to shape our children long after we ourselves are gone. Building fantasy out of those stories is not about resurrecting a mythical lost medieval world in which my children can escape from the complexity and moral ambiguity of real life, but about shedding the transformational light of fantasy on this world: the one my children will build their future in. And recasting our family’s story as fantasy is the best way I’ve found to share my own questions about faith, politics, ethnicity, and what it means to be Jewish in America with my children.

I say questions instead of answers because, as every parent knows, we cannot force our children to accept our answers in life. We can only share our questions with them. We do this in the hope that they will find better and wiser answers than we can yet imagine. And one of the ways we do it is by telling them the story of where they come from. 


The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is my attempt to do that. And if it’s wrapped up in a New York fairy tale, with a little romance, and a big dose of slapstick humor? Well … love, laughter, and fantasy are some of the best ways humans have of making sense of our world.

Chris Moriarty's children's fantasy debut, The Inquisitor's Apprentice, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. The New York Times praised its successful blend of magic, Judaism, and New York history, and Bookpage called it "a book for anyone who has ever thought that maybe there is more to this world than what we can see." Chris science fiction novels have won the Philip K. Dick Award and been nominated for numerous other awards.