The ProsenPeople

New Reviews

Friday, March 29, 2013 | Permalink
This week's reviews:


The Nuts and Bolts of Writing

Friday, March 29, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Jessica Soffer wrote about learning to breathe and a precious treat from the Passover seder plate. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Quite recently, someone asked me about my “process.” This someone wasn’t asking about the creative parts—the meandering through the dark, schlepping a bag full of puzzle pieces and seeking out the elusive slots where they might fit—but quite literally about what I do during my waking hours, which hours those might be, and when and if I stop for snacks. She was asking about the nuts and bolts.

What I wanted to say is that I know nothing (and that of course I stop for snacks). I’m just winging it. I’m still waiting to be found out. Still, I wrote 336 pages that will be printed and bound and on (some) shelves in just a few weeks, which is something one teensy bit better than nothing.

1. Get dressed every day (except when you feel like the very heart of what you’re writing is delicately wound into the fiber of your socks and robe)

2. Stop and move for food (except when you must, just must, have your fingers centimeters from your computer at all times)

3. Exercise in any form: stand up, walk, run, go to a yoga class (except when all the jostling around risks dispersing your very precious thoughts, and then stay put, very very put)

4. Get by with a little help from your friends (except when talking to anyone at all about anything at all will sully everything, make you forget or derailed or soft or sleepy)

5. Find inspiration in art, music, literature (except when they might be toxic to your work and undo all your efforts to find voice)

There you have it. Fool’s gold.

In the end, I think, anything you can do is my actual answer.

Also: do the best you can, however you can, every day that you can. Take care of your body, your wrists, knees and eyes. Take care of your computer, and back up what matters. Take care of your bills because Verizon doesn’t care that you’re writing the Next Great American Novel. Take care of the people that love you. They will be there when you pick your head up, but only if you play your cards right.

The process is long, there is no end to it—at least, not really—so don’t be dramatic and pull eight all-nighters just to show us that you can. Or do, if you can. Do.

Win a signed copy of Jessica Soffer's debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, here.

Related: Iraqi Jews Reading List

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Ben Lerner

Thursday, March 28, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In our last two installments of "Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...", Stuart Nadler championed the short story and Shani Boianjiu shared her desire to write forever stories. Today we hear from Ben Lerner, author of the lyrical and thought-provoking debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station. With several awards, three collections of poetry, and a novel under his belt, JBC was thrilled to welcome Ben into the Sami Rohr Prize family. Read an interview with him over at The Believer and his short story "The Golden Vanity" in the The New Yorker. Below, find Ben Lerner on writing as time travel and writing that blurs fiction and reality:

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

I find all writing challenging. I sometimes think that a writer is a person who finds working with language more challenging than the average person does—that it’s less that the writer has a way with words than that the words have a way with the writer. One particular challenge that attends writing fiction: how to avoid reducing the messiness of lived experience to a tidy geometrical plot. I’m interested in fiction that acknowledges the irreducible complexity of reality, not fiction that cleans it up.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

I’m particularly interested in writers and books that blur the boundary between fact and fiction in order to dramatize how inseparable they ultimately are in our lived experience. To choose just one recent inspiration: W.G. Sebald.

Who is your intended audience?

I’m really not sure. I certainly write with the writers I love and respect in mind as possible readers. But one of the most exciting things about writing is the possibility your work will find and connect with someone you could never imagine in advance. I also feel like writing is a kind of time travel—I sometimes feel like I’m addressing the dead, or some imagined future reader, or like I’m a medium through which voices from the past might pass. Maybe that sounds a little crazy or grand, but I believe the language speaks through us as much as we speak through it.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m working on a new novel and also on a book of poems. And one of the poems seems to be creeping into the novel.

What are you reading now?

At the moment I’m reading two brilliant books of literary criticism: Writing Against Time (Michael Clune) and Our Aesthetic Categories (Sianne Ngai). I’ve also just reread Keith Waldrop’s quiet masterpiece, his memoir, Light While There Is Light.

Top 5 Favorite Books

I have no idea how to choose! And my favorites are always shifting. Here are five books I love off the top of my head in no particular order: 

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I think I was in Topeka, Kansas. But I don’t really remember a particular moment of decision. Language has always been primary in my experience and writing is a way of wrestling with it.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

I think of writing as always involving failure. But I don’t mean that to be as depressing as it sounds—it’s the result of trying to do something impossible with language. So I guess success for me is writing something that manages to gesture beyond itself, to point towards what I can’t say.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

Besides coffee, I have no reliable prop. One of the best and worst things about writing (at least for me) is that I always feel like I’m starting over. Having written a poem or novel doesn’t teach me how to write the next poem or novel. It’s always about what I can discover in the act of composition, so no amount of planning in advance really helps. This is probably one of the reasons so many writers go crazy.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I hope a reader will find that my narrator’s struggle to figure out the possibility of authentic experience in the arts and beyond captures something about our contemporary structures of feeling and thought. And I hope it’s more entertaining than that sounds. But ultimately I hope readers get something out of the book I didn’t know was there. I like to think the reader is an active participant in the construction of what a poem or novel means—not just a recipient of messages the author has consciously placed there.

Ben Lerner is the author of novel Leaving the Atocha Station and three books of poetry. Lerner has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Northern California Book Award, a Fulbright Scholar in Spain, and the recipient of a 2010-2011 Howard Foundation Fellowship. In 2011 he became the first American to win the Preis der Stadt Münster für Internationale Poesie. He teaches in the writing program at Brooklyn College.

Learning to Breathe

Thursday, March 28, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jessica Soffer wrote about a precious treat from the Passover seder plate. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I needed something. Everyone was dying. Or at least a lot of people were dying and it felt like everyone might, including me, die at the drop of a hat. I was having panic attacks on the subway. I was avoiding elevators and scaffolding and spinach and caffeine and planes and hospitals and graveyards.

I couldn’t breathe.

My parents are not religious. Someone told me to try yoga.

I was a gymnast for the great majority of my childhood. Yoga came easily. I breezed through the ranks.

I ended up in an Ashtanga class in Amagansett and had no idea what I was in for.

Ashtanga doesn’t bill itself as the “yoga of forced breathing,” but it might as well. It’s the same series, “system” of movements done (or supposed to be done) every morning, every day. It is strenuous and sequential and smart. At the core of it is the notion of synchronizing breath with movement. For every movement, a breath, which sounds nice enough but is challenging. Very. Because of the intensity of the poses, most people sweat. A lot. It’s different from Bikram in that the heat you create is from the inside out. It’s all you. Ujjayi breathing, or “victorious breath,” consists of steady inhales and exhales through the nose, equal in duration, accompanied by the “ocean sound” made by constricting the throat as one does to whisper. Ujjayi’s purpose: improve endurance, decrease distractions, release tension, warm the blood, which improves circulation and cleanses toxins and regulates heat. Too, and most importantly to me, Ujjayi calms the mind. Breath becomes a rhythm, a lullaby. In and out and in and out and in and out.

My first Ashtanga class nearly killed me—and got me completely hooked. My first Ashtanga teacher has been my only one really, or at least the only one that’s really mattered. She’s a die-hard. If she cannot hear your “ocean sound,” she says so. If she sees your mouth open, she says so. And if you cannot breathe, in and out and in and out and in and out, you cannot. You just cannot. It took me many months to get a place where I was comfortable with the poses, and then even longer to a place where the breath was as crucial as the positions. But eventually it was. So much so. In and out and in and out and in and out.

At first, I stopped thinking about dying because I was focused on the movements, on not messing up. After a while, I stopped thinking about dying because I was trying to do the movements better. When I became halfway decent, I stopped thinking because I was focused on the breath. On better breath.

I am aware that I said “better,” regarding yoga. Kill me. I am no longer afraid. On a plane, in turbulent moments, I practice Ujjayi. Elevators don’t paralyze me. Bring on the spinach. I am better.

In Ashtanga, I didn’t find God. I did, however, learn to breathe. I breathed like I meant it and then I breathed because I had to. You have to. In and out and in and out and in and out. And by breathing I realized that I wasn’t dead yet. Just the opposite. I was all breath.

Win a signed copy of Jessica Soffer's debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, here.

Related: Iraqi Jews Reading List

Precious Haroset

Monday, March 25, 2013 | Permalink

Jessica Soffer's debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, will be published on April 16th. Win a signed copy here. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

I am bored to death, dying of starvation and on the brink of losing my mind at Passover dinner at my father’s sister’s house on Long Island. I’m four, maybe five. My mother has refilled my grape juice many more than four times but it’s not cutting it. She has a look on her face like she would have made a PB&J if she’d known what she was in for—what we were both in for—but she didn’t. There are many more relatives visiting from Israel than usual, which means, apparently, that there is no goofing around and no snacking. Who knew? We didn’t. I will die of starvation, I think to myself. They will find me in a puddle of grape juice with the yarmulke I’ve demanded to wear over my face, dead.

But I don’t die. Instead, I put my head into my mother’s lap and quickly fall into a deep sleep. Eventually, she nudges me awake. I sit up. Why am I awake? Same stuff, different blessing. But then I see. From across the table, my father is giving me the eye. I look around, everyone is engrossed in the text and so I slink under the table, lift up a bit of tablecloth to let in light. There are twenty sets of adult shoes and I have the urge to untie every one. But I’ve got bigger fish to fry. My father’s got a handful of romaine lettuce from who knows where and I snatch it up, scarf it down, barely chewing. I’m a rabbit on speed. I yank on his pant leg for more. What else you got? He lifts his index finger. One second. He can do better, I’m thinking. I know he can do better. I pray like they do in the movies. It’s Passover, after all. Moments later, the whitecap curl of a hardboiled egg has arrived. I’ve willed it here, I think. I should pray more often. I nearly skin my father’s fingers with my teeth. I wonder why I don’t eat eggs at every moment of every day. They are heaven. Nothing better. But I’m still hungry. I’m dying again. I wait. Is that it? I start untying my father’s shoes. He catches my drift. Another egg. Untying. Then another. Now, I’m over eggs. I never want to see an egg again.

Still, I wait.

Just before I lose hope, die not of starvation but egg overdose, my father’s palm is open and flat in front of me, as if revealing the tiniest baby bird. But it’s better than that. It’s a raft of matzo, a cluster of haroset balancing on top, shimmering and precious like something stolen from the Hall of Minerals and Gems at the Museum of Natural History. I treat it as he did, lift it from his hand into mine with care. Ever so gently. Little tiny nibbles. The sweetest. The most amazing. This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Why don’t I eat this every moment of every day? I savor it.

My father claps his hands without making a sound. Show’s over, folks, and just in time. I make my way back to my seat, my mother brushing a crumb off my bottom lip, the parsley is being passed around and I’m up. “No,” I say but my mother ignores me, puts a pile of it on my plate. “I’m full,” I begin to say but she covers my mouth with her hand, and smiles graciously at the crowd. “She’s starving,” she says and I know to nod.

Read more about Jessica Soffer here.

Related: Iraqi Jews Reading List

New Reviews

Friday, March 22, 2013 | Permalink

This week's reviews:


Book Cover of the Week: Kosher

Thursday, March 21, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

A new title pubbing from Harvard University Press in May, Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food (Timothy D. Lytton), explores kosher food regulation. Read a Q&A with Lytton here.

View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.

Self-Published Jewish-Themed Books Come of Age

Wednesday, March 20, 2013 | Permalink

by Stephen Witt

In the brave new digital world of the book business, self-published authors enjoy a new clout. And every week this translates into more self-published titles appearing on best seller lists across the nation than ever before. At the same time, traditional publishers, reviewers, and bookstores that once shunned self-published titles are now embracing these changes or risk falling into antiquity.

“Certainly, the validity of publishing on your own is now unquestioned,” says Jon Fine,’s director (the first) of author & publisher relations. “Even traditional publishers regularly trumpet the authors they’ve discovered from the self-published ranks. And traditionally successful authors are increasingly using services like Kindle Direct Publishing, CreateSpace, and others to reach their audiences in new and creative ways. The opportunity to tell your story, to a few or to many, has never been greater."

This trend is also reflected in the growing number of Jewish writers who are bucking the traditional publishing business and self-publishing their books, including Arizona-based Linda Pressman, whose Holocaust-related tome, Looking Up: A Memoir of Sisters, Survivors and Skokie, was named the 2012 Grand Prize Winner in the 20th Annual Writer's Digest Self-Published Book Contest.

“I was previously represented by an agent who was unable to sell an earlier version of my manuscript,” said Pressman. “After our relationship ended I spent quite a while fixing the manuscript and building up my name recognition. I knew that the editors and publishing houses were being extremely cautious about what they were publishing and I felt it was unlikely that I'd be able to get a deal, having been turned down previously. Luckily, self-publishing had grown in the same time period and was a great option for me since I had built a reader base ready to read my work.”

Pressman’s reader base comes from both her humorous blog, BarMitzvahzilla, and her involvement as an editor and blogger for Poetica Magazine, a self-described vanity press that includes a print and online literary journal focusing on contemporary Jewish thought. But she also displays marketing savvy.

“I hired two publicists in the time period since my book was published. The cost makes this somewhat prohibitive. Of great help was one who helped me with book tours, local appearances, and submissions to various reviewers,” said Pressman.

“Much of my marketing was through social media that I did on my own. From finding Facebook Groups focused on topics in my book (Skokie, Survivors, Chicago, Memoir writers, etc.), to Twitter and blogging – these were all immensely helpful in marketing and promoting the book. An Amazon Author page and Looking Up Facebook page, both to post news about the book and author appearances, has also been helpful,” she added.

Pressman said the most amazing thing about self-publishing is the thing that's also the hardest: it's all up to you. There won't be a huge publishing house standing behind you, promoting your work, but you'll also have the satisfaction of knowing that any success is also your own,” she said.

“From a Jewish standpoint, I found that my work, being stereotyped as "Holocaust," did not find its place in traditional publishing but that there's actually a huge readership out there for Jewish writers and Jewish topics,” said Pressman.

Another self-published Jewish Holocaust author is Rimma Rose, a young Russian-American, whose debut novel, Cursed to Survive, has been garnering favorable reviews and is finding its own market. Rose’s take on the Holocaust is a beauty-and-beast story that reads more like a mystical mystery influenced by the Twilight series, and is, in fact, the first of a series of books featuring many of the same characters.

“I decided to self-publish my first book, because I was terrified of sending my manuscript to various places without knowing what would happen to it,” said Rose. “I read about self-publishing and it seemed easy and fast and I went for it. The biggest advantage of self-publishing is a total control I have over my work. The biggest pitfall of self-publishing is the fact that along with total control, the author is also responsible for promotions, public relations, and everything else.”

While self-published authors continue taking a greater market share this also means a reduced role in the book industry for editors, marketers, and promoters in traditional publishing houses along with their related network of agents, distributors, reviewers, and both chain and independent bookstores. Believers in this traditional model quickly point out its role as gatekeeper for readers, with the ability to curate what they see and judge as redeemable literature. They also point out some of the growing pains in self-publishing, such as the frequent lack of proper editing and professional book design.

But self-published authors counter that they enjoy a more mobile advantage and lower financial overhead than the traditional publishing model with its layers of decision makers. They are free, for example, to redesign covers and include stronger copy and story editing in subsequent editions at manageable costs. They can even utilize these improvements to re-launch their book, garnering even more promotion.

On the promotional end, self-published Jewish authors can easily find a multitude of Jewish-themed websites and blogs that cater to everything from the most observant Jews to the most secular and alternative Jewish lifestyles.

On the manufacturing side, Amazon’s CreateSpace service has been a game changer. With price ranges that fit almost every self-published author’s budget, CreateSpace will design and format both the cover and interior of the work plus carry it for distribution and sales on its website and list it on their promotional networks. They also give good discounts for author copies and a much higher royalty rate than traditional publishers through sales on Amazon.

Amazon is also a leader in e-books with its Kindle device, while other companies, such as BookBaby, convert an author’s work into other e-book formats compatible with such devices as the Nook, Sony Reader, and Kobo.

“I've found that, with the lower price of my e-book version, I sell many more of them than the hard copies per month,” said Pressman. “Due to the size of my book (348 pages) and the manufacturing costs, I can't lower the price on the physical book to encourage greater sales, but I can do so with the e-book version.”

My road to self-publishing began in 2002 when I started chatting up the African-American self-published novelists and poets who sell their books on the Fulton Mall in downtown Brooklyn. At the time I was a full-time reporter at a chain of papers in Brooklyn and every night I’d go home and squeeze out 500 words writing my first novel, American Moses. My mindset back then was I wanted a mainstream publishing deal. After hundreds of rejections a small agent finally agreed to take on American Moses and then the rejections started pouring in from publishing houses big and small.

Meanwhile, as I wrote draft after draft, the Fulton Street authors shared with me their triumphs and pitfalls to self-publishing and recommended books about it, which I read. Finally, in 2008, I decided that if these writers of contemporary urban literature were being locked out of the publishing industry for whatever reason then I was in excellent company. So I fired my agent and took the plunge by registering Never Sink Books (NSB) as my publishing business.

In 2009, I published American Moses to very good reviews, and a YouTube interview of me about the novel has over 20,000 hits and counting. American Moses has made its money back and continues to sell.

Then in 2010, I took a buyout from my job as a reporter to write my second novel, The Street Singer: A Tale of Sex, Money and Power in a Changing Brooklyn, which I self-published in September 2012. It’s a satire about a subway musician who gets involved with helping Brooklyn land a basketball team. Both the daily Metro and the Daily News wrote stories on it and the Daily News gave it an excellent review. In November, I sold the book publishing rights to Changing Lives Press.

Currently, I’m on a guerilla marketing plan in that I sell both of my novels in the subway, car-to-car. You may have even heard my pitch. “That’s right, ladies and gentleman – for ten dollars – the price of two cups of Starbucks coffee – you can enrich your mind.”

By far, the coolest thing about selling my novels in the subway is the people I meet. They include agents and readers, doers and dreamers. A number of people have given me their positive essence in the space of one subway stop in the form of words of encouragement and/or purchases of my books.

Also cool is the fact that I have two published novels on the market and I’m working on my third. As Pressman says, the bottom line is that how an author is published now means much less than what it is that the author publishes.

“I believe that, because of consumer demand, books will become lower priced, creating more of an equal playing field, and I don’t know exactly how this will look, but I know there will have to be some web-based method of finding the books, like Internet bookstore browsing, where perhaps the site owners curate the offerings (much as independent bookstores do now) and readers trust their recommendations,” she said.

Stephen Witt's Top Five "Online Resources for Writers Looking to Self-Publish" can be found here.

Stephen Witt is an award-winning journalist with two novels. This includes the self-published American Moses (2009) on his Never Sink Books imprint, and The Street Singer (2012) published by Changing Lives Press. Reach him at

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Shani Boianjiu

Monday, March 18, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Over the next several weeks, we'll be introducing you to the five fiction finalists for this year's Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Last week, we introduced you to Stuart Nadler, who shared his love for the shorty story with our readers. Today, we hear from Shani Boianjiu, an Israeli writer who was named the youngest recipient ever of the National Book Foundation's 5 under 35 and whose debut novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid was excerpted in the New Yorker. In a recent JBC/Jewcy #JLit Twitter Book Club, Shani discussed why she's NOT the voice of her generation ("My book is weird, and mine, and does not represnt anyone"), the many reviews and articles about her book, and the Israeli army. Below, find out more about the author who, in her first novel, "shows considerable range, creating surreal, absurd dilemmas for her characters:"

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

That the stakes are so high—there are so many wonderful books out there, so you must write something that buys you a seat at the table or not do it at all. Also, being alone.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

When I was in the army I used to make up stories during long guarding shifts and keep them in my head for weeks, retelling them to myself and tweeking them a bit in my head until I reached a computer and finally typed the story down. So I would say that waiting had been my inspiration for writing fiction. Also my love of books. Reading makes me feel alive in a way nothing else ever had.

Who is your intended audience?

A twenty-four-year-old Chinese American girl from Marlborough, MA who works at Target. Also a couple of other people I love.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes. It is a book!

What are you reading now?

Contemporary memoirs. Basically every memoir that was written in the last five years. All of them. And at the same time. I have no idea why. Also, [the forthcoming novel] We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo and Bruno Schulz’s stories.

Top 5 Favorite Books

That’s impossible for me to answer, and it changes every minute, but if I had to choose five right now I’d say:

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I never decided to become a writer; I decided to write. I think the first time I decided to do that I was seventeen, and waiting for a train. I still have to decide to write every time I do it though.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

I wish to write forever stories—stories that only I can write and that will live in people’s heads and have lives of their own inside those heads. It does not matter to me how many heads, only that the story be worthy to live forever in someone’s head. I am still far from that, which is why I have to work hard.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I usually get an idea for a story or a scene or a character and then I keep it in my head and retell it to myself hundreds of times until I feel like my head will explode if I don’t type the story down immediately. When I do type down what I have in my head, I spend ten percent of my time actually writing and the rest jumping around in my room and listening to music.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I want them to care and think deeply about the lives of people who don’t exist and who they cannot imagine being.

Shani Boianjiu was born in Jerusalem in 1987 and is from an Iraqi and Romanian background. She was raised in a small town on the Lebanese border. At the age of eighteen, she entered the Israeli Defense Forces and served for two years. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is her first book.

New Reviews

Friday, March 15, 2013 | Permalink
This week's reviews: