The ProsenPeople

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.

My Pekar Years

Monday, July 02, 2012 | Permalink

JT Waldman is the author of Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me and Megillat Esther. Visit his official website here. He will be be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.


I met Harvey Pekar in 2005. On a whim, I gave him a copy of my book, and he really liked it. A series of awkward interactions at comic book signings led to a small collaboration for the foreword of a book about the history of Jews and comics. A few months later he asked me to work on an entire book with him about the history of Jews and Israel.

In 2008, we began what is now known as Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me, a graphic novel published by Hill & Wang and available here. The graphic memoir interweaves his gradual disaffection with the modern state of Israel with a comprehensive visual history from Biblical times to the present. Told over the course of a single day in his hometown, the book follows Pekar and myself as we wrestle with the mythologies and realities surrounding the Jewish homeland.

Producing this book was a bittersweet project for me. When Harvey passed away two years ago, I went from being a hevruta to chevra kadisha. For the better part of four years I was one of a handful of artists working with Harvey on various projects. However, I suspect that the Judaic focus of our relationship was quite unique. I like to think he didn’t call everyone boychik.

Although Harvey cultivated a curmudgeon character on screen and in print, the man himself was quite kind and surprisingly encouraging. Harvey expressed complete faith in my creative vision and was always telling me to “do my thing.”

I got a kick out of Harvey’s sense of timing. He would call me at the most inopportune moments. First thing Monday morning as I sat down to my desk job. Saturday night while I was at a pub with friends, or my favorite, 8:30 AM on Thanksgiving morning.

Harvey had his own way of doing things. He didn’t use the computer. No email, just phone calls and photocopies of his hand written scripts. Decoding his prose, dividing it into digestible chunks, and offering my spin was part of the fun of working with Harvey. Even now, when I recall all those conversations about Judaism and its people, and talking about baseball, Harvey continues to make me smile.

However, finishing the book without Harvey over the last two years was heavy. I wish I could say it was fun. But I missed my collaborator and friend and I was drawing him everyday, so it was a particularly bizarre process of mourning and creativity. Which I guess is oddly appropriate for a graphic novel about Israel.

My Pekar years were full of crazy amounts of joy and sadness and taught me a lot about the type of person and artist that I am. I was lucky to be in the graces of a comix legend and be given the opportunity to be myself and represent another person through comix. I trust that Harvey would be proud of the way the book turned out.

Read more about JT Waldman here.

Albert Einstein: A Highly Committed Jew by Heritage and Origin

Sunday, July 01, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Harry Ostrer wrote about a series of scientists who contributed to our contemporary understanding of Jewishness. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Albert Einstein may have been the most famous Jew of the 20th century. His biographer Walter Isaacson described that “when he arrived in New York in April, [1921], he was greeted by adoring throngs as the world’s first scientific celebrity, one who also happened to be a gentle icon of humanist values and a living patron saint for Jews.” Over the course of his lifetime, Einstein became a committed Jew and a Zionist, a commitment that resulted in his being offered the presidency of Israel, an honor that he declined. In 1955 he stated near the end of his life, “My relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human tie.” Einstein explained his route to Jewishness in his popular 1934 book, The World As I See It: “The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence – these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars that I belong to it.” He went on to note, “In the philosophical sense there is, in my opinion, no specific Jewish outlook. Judaism seems to me to be concerned almost exclusively with the moral attitude in life and to life. I look upon it as the essence of an attitude to life which is incarnate in the Jewish people rather than the essence of laws laid down in the Torah and interpreted in the Talmud.” Einstein was quite emphatic that his Jewish identity was not religiously motivated. In 1921, he told the rabbis of Berlin who had urged him to become a dues-paying member of the Jewish religious community, “I notice that the word Jew is ambiguous in that it refers (1) to nationality and origin, (2) to the faith. I am a Jew in the first sense, not the second.”

So Einstein highlighted several of the features that foster Jewish identity – nationality (or race or group membership), the culture emanating from group membership, and shared religious belief. In the United States, religion remains a powerful force in Jewish identity, as do an inner commitment to being Jewish and significant Jewish friendship ties. The National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001 observed, “Most American Jewish adults observe in some way the High Holidays, Passover and Chanukah. Majorities also read a Jewish newspaper or magazine or books with Jewish content, regard being Jewish as very important, and report that half or more of their close friends are Jewish.”

Einstein believed that anti-Semitism was a major force in promoting affiliation to the Jewish community as when he wrote, “It may be thanks to anti-Semitism that we are able to preserve our race." Yet, the writers of the American Jewish Yearbook 2007 have shown that anti-Semitism is simply not present at levels where it would serve as a threat and cohesive force, noting, “The American Jewish community in the U.S. – the largest concentration of Jews in the world outside Israel – experienced remarkably low levels of expression of anti-Semitic expression, both behavioral and attitudinal in 2006. This followed a 50-year pattern that reflected the strengths of a pluralistic society, even as intergroup tensions in general continued to concern political leaders and social analysts.” This has translated into a different set of feelings about being Jewish in the United States with most contemporary American Jews viewing themselves as Einstein did — both assimilated and Jewish.

Dr. Harry Ostrer is the author of Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People. He is a medical geneticist who investigates the genetic basis of common and rare disorders. He is also known for his study, writings, and lectures about the origins of the Jewish people. He is a professor of Pathology and Genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University and Director of Genetic and Genomic Testing at Montefiore Medical Center.