The ProsenPeople

Goodreads Choice Awards

Tuesday, December 07, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Goodreads, the largest social network for readers (over 4 million members), has opened the polls for its 2010 readers’ choice awards. Out of the 47 million books added to the site in 2010, Goodreads has selected 15 in 23 categories, based on user ratings and popularity stats.

Mitchell James Kaplan, a Jewish Book NETWORK author and recent guest for our Twitter Book Club, has had his book nominated! By Fire, By Water, Kaplan’s debut novel set in Inquisition-era Spain, is up for best Historical Fiction.

Voting is open until the end of the month.

A Young Adult Literary Paradise

Tuesday, December 07, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Have you heard about Figment?

The literary community site for teens just launched yesterday and is what The New York Times describes as “an experiment in online literature, a free platform for young people to read and write fiction, both on their computers and on their cellphones. Users are invited to write novels, short stories and poems, collaborate with other writers and give and receive feedback on the work posted on the site.”

Read the full story here or head straight over to Figment.com.

The Pit of Tel Aviv, A Preliminary Damage Report

Monday, December 06, 2010 | Permalink

Avi Steinberg’s first book, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe.

I was on a roll with my manuscript, a prison library memoir, of all things, and then Kafka rolled into my life. Or rather, I rolled into his. At about the time I was finishing up my final edits for Running the Books—my fledgling first book—my life fell into the abyss described by the good Dr. Kafka:

“What are you building?” asks the man.
“I want to dig a subterranean passage,” the second man shouts back. And continues, “Some progress must be made. My station up there is way too high. We are digging the Pit of Babel.”

Directly under every proud edifice, under every act of creative ambition, is a pit that will—that must!—take the mission in precisely the opposite direction. My pit was, appropriately, located in Tel Aviv.

I was living in Jerusalem last year, minding my own business in the Valley of the Cross, that cozy nook, when suddenly I got wind of some excitement from the coast. A riotous legal controversy was unfolding over an archive of literary documents, including some undetermined amount of unseen work by Kafka. According to local reports, the papers were stashed in the Spinoza Street apartment of a notorious Tel Aviv cat lady. (The number of cats in the woman’s apartment, like the number of Kafka documents there, is unknown and possibly unknowable.)

The details of the case were of soap opera complexity. This cat lady, it turned out, was the daughter of the secretary—and probably lover—of Max Brod, Kafka’s good pal. Brod escaped Prague for Tel Aviv in 1939, and lived there until his death. The cat lady claimed that the papers, which may be valued in the millions of dollars, were her inheritance from her mother, who received the stash from Brod as a gift. The Israel National Library strenuously disagreed with the cat lady—while the Deutscher literary archive in Marbach, Germany totally disagreed with the Israel National Library. And everyone disagreed with Kafka, who, in about 1921, had politely requested that these papers be destroyed. And so a legal battle royale was going down in the Big Orange between the following parties, all of whom were entangled in shifting alliances with one another: the cat lady and her legal team; the cat lady’s sister and her legal team; the respective legal teams of the German and Israeli archives; an attorney from the State of Israel; and the court-appointed executors for the estates of the cat lady’s mom and Max Brod, respectively. Nobody who’s being honest with himself really knows how many lawyers are involved, not even the judge. This information, like the number of cats and Kafka documents in Spinoza Street apartment, is hidden somewhere in the Pit of Babel.

Looking for a break from my prison memoir, I decided to make a trip to Tel Aviv. I figured I’d take in the court proceedings as a form of entertainment. Compared to watching a Beitar Yerushalayim soccer game—whose fans’ interminable chant “Jerusalem War-fare!” gets old after about fifteen minutes and becomes panic-inducing after half-an-hour—the Kafka trial seemed like a fun diversion.

Wrong.

Given the space constraints of the blog form, and the limitations of human reasoning, not to mention propriety, I will say only this about what happened next, once my life intersected with Kafka’s. My life wasn’t ruined, per se. There’s a certain clarity to ruin. No, my life simply vanished, unceremoniously sucked into some vent in the Tel Aviv District Court, and hasn’t been seen since.

In theory, I’m wrong. A lot has happened in my life since then. I finished my book edits. My strange musings about Kafka’s final will were quoted in The New York Times. I moved back to the United States. My prison book came out and wasn’t a disaster (in a dream of mine, the great sage and perpetual bestselling author, Rashi, had foretold a publishing fiasco—thanks, Rashi).

On the surface, things seem fine. My body gets out of bed and does normal things. It brushes its teeth. It goes places like the gym, the supermarket, dinner parties, and aquariums. It finds its way into pet shops to play with cats. It gets excited when it receives the latest issue of Cat Fancy magazine. It walks down the street, stops in front of massage parlors, which is doesn’t enter. My body talks to disc jockeys about the authors who’ve influenced its writing. But it’s like none of it is happening. None of it feels real.

The real me is still sitting in the back row of the Kafka hearing, as untold hordes of black-robed lawyers shout at each other endlessly and accuse their opponents of desecrating the memory of the Holocaust. Each in turns looks at me, little old me, with suspicion. All the while, the judge sits there, appearing massively hung over, her chin propped up on her palm, observing the proceedings with lifeless eyes. Two feet behind her, visible through a window, a giant wrecking ball swings by. Then it swings by again, in the other direction, the force of its motion rattles the window horribly. A drill bears down above me, sending a small cloud of plaster onto my lap. The court’s official clock has stopped at 5:32. I swear this was how it was.

I regret to report, this is still how it is for me. And for all I know, how it may always be. Half a year later, I can make a preliminary assessment: I never really emerged from that courtroom. Maybe I was always there. It’s hard to say, so I won’t speculate just yet. But I might add, for the record, that whatever happened in there I don’t blame Franz Kafka. With all of his might, with his very life, he tried to warn me.

Avi Steinberg will be blogging for the Jewish Book Council andMyJewishLearning all week.

Carolyn Hessel on Jewish books

Thursday, December 02, 2010 | Permalink

Carolyn Hessel on the Jewish book that has most influenced her life:

What Jewish book has had its greatest influence on me? I believe the first step is to address the much discussed question: “what is a Jewish book?” A Jewish book is either one with overt Jewish content regardless of the author’s background or one with no obvious Jewish content but written by a Jewish author. Being a writer is such a personal endeavor: a Jewish person sees the world through Jewish eyes and writes with a Jewish pen. Continue reading…

It’s Christmastime for Chanukah books

Tuesday, November 30, 2010 | Permalink

Lisa Silverman, children’s editor of Jewish Book World, has an article in Jewish Journal on Chanukah picture books:

If someone brought you a Christmas tree as a gift, would you accept it?

It’s Brooklyn, 1948. You’re Jewish, ten years old, and the great Jackie Robinson and his family just moved in next door. Your family is kind to the new neighbors while others shun them due to their race. You befriend Jackie’s son, Jackie Jr., and you idolize his dad, enjoying special trips to Ebbets Field to watch the Dodgers from seats reserved for the ball player’s families. One Christmas eve you even help the Robinsons decorate their tree. After mentioning to them that your family doesn’t own a Christmas tree, you are surprised to answer the doorbell later to witness the smiling second baseman standing at your door lugging a new Christmas tree he wants to give your family. This is because a) he doesn’t know you are Jewish, and b) he thinks you are too poor to buy your own.

What do you do?

Continue reading here.

Hello My Long Lost Friend

Tuesday, November 30, 2010 | Permalink

NETWORK author Angella Nazarian shares a touching anecdote from her Jewish Book Month tour with the Jewish Book Council.

When she wasn’t giggling, she talked in a rapid-fire, sing-song register. And her voice….her voice carried a slight raspy edge. We constantly whispered in each other’s ears and wrote notes to each other in the middle of class.

Although the courtyard in front of the strict and fear-inspiring English headmistress of our school was not the most popular place, we were there often challenging each other to a game of ping pong. And more often than not, we dared the other girls to squeeze through the metal railings of the fence that separated the courtyard from the playground. This led to many instances of classmates getting their heads stuck in the gaps of the railing. They blushed with anger and frustration but were too scared to yell out and call the attention of the headmistress.

That is what I remember of my times with my dear friend, Nagmeh, back in elementary school in Iran. Hers was the last party I attended in Iran, before we all fled and dispersed to different parts of the world. I have vivid memories of Nagmeh’s 11th birthday party. All the girls had gathered in her living room, huddled in a circle. We were thinking of a game to play and Nagmeh’s cousin suggested a dance competition– I guess you could call it a Persian version of a dance-off! The hot song straight out of the States was Boney M’s Ma Baker and we all sashayed to the middle of the living room floor. It was apparent even back then that I liked to strut my stuff on the dance floor, and I went home as one of winners.

Three months later I remember listening to Bee Gees’s Staying Alive in the States and wondering if I would ever see my friends again. We had left Iran in a hurry and thought we would return once things calmed down. But it never did. Iran was in the midst of a revolution, and I lost touch with all my childhood friends.

Imagine that just a few months ago I got a facebook message from my long-lost, childhood friend, Nagmeh. It didn’t take long for us to reminisce about our school, our friends, and her last party. We caught up on each other’s lives. I found out that she was married with two kids and living in San Diego–just a three-hour drive from me.

She knew that I was coming out to San Diego for a book event, but alas I would only be there for a couple of hours. The Jewish Book Council had booked me for another speaking engagement in New Orleans the next day, and I had to fly out of San Diego that afternoon. So Nagmeh and I made plans to see each other at another time, when we could actually sit and talk.

Then came her call the very day I was going to San Diego. “You know it’s crazy that you will be here in San Diego and we won’t meet up,” she said. The rhythm of her talk was still the same even though now, after thirty-two years, we were speaking in another language (English). I could even sense that she was smiling through the phone and the thought that she was on the other end made me smile. It was true. It was a shame that we wouldn’t get a chance to see each other, but other road blocks had presented themselves for the day. Nagmeh had taken off work because her son was sick with strep throat and she had no sitter. So, as disappointed as I was, I didn’t want to make things harder for her.

I got to the book fair in time and took a seat with some of the organizers before I was called up to speak. Five minutes before taking the stage, I got a text from her: I am sitting here in the audience! I stood up and looked around, but realized that I wasn’t even sure what she looked like as an adult. To tell you the truth, I still imagined her as a feisty eleven-year-old with short hair and round, brown eyes. She had sent a picture of her adult self to my blackberry that morning–only because I kept insisting that I needed to see who she had grown to become.

I searched around the room for Nagmeh, but she was lost in the sea of faces. I texted her: where are you? It didn’t help that the lights were particularly bright by the stage and they were hitting me straight in the eyes. I walked a little to the right. And moments later I saw a person in a red jacket stand up and wave at me. There she was, seated at a table on the left side of the room.

The program was starting shortly but I couldn’t wait. I made a bee-line toward her and we held each other tightly. Honestly neither of us would have recognized each other had we walked side-by-side in the street somewhere. Thirty-two years is a long time not to see a friend.

We still held on to each other’s arms while we looked intently at each other’s face. We were two grown women now. I guess I was searching to find my childhood friend in the now adult features. And without me taking notice, I found myself smiling in recognition and saying, “Nagmeh, its those eyes. You have the same eyes that I remember looking into when I was a child.” She smiled and looked back. She still held me tight and said, “And your smile. You have the same smile, Angella.”

See your name in the next Ayelet Waldman novel!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

First Amendment Project (FAP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing free legal services on public interest free speech and free press matters, is hosting an auction with a literary bent! This is an auction like no other auction:

From November 26 (7pm PST) through December 20, bid to have your name appear in an upcoming literary work, chat with an author on Skype, or take home signed books. Plus, you can bid to have a character named after you in the next season of Showtime’s hit show Weeds!

Participating authors include Ayelet WaldmanBen KatchorElinor LipmanFrancine Prose, among others.

Did you bid? Did you win? Let us know!

Not a Historical Record

Wednesday, November 24, 2010 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ruth Franklin wrote about sharing a stage with Yann Martel and discussed whether anything new can be said about the Holocaust. She is the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction.

One of the demoralizing things about writing a book about Holocaust literature is how much of it there is out there. Over the past few years, when I’ve told people about my book, they invariably respond with: “Oh, have you read _____? It’s the most devastating testimonial/most essential work of history/most beautifully written novel I’ve ever read about the Holocaust.” And then I have to admit that no, not only have I not read _____, I’ve never even heard of it, and shamefacedly add yet another item to my list.

In some cases, I’ve been able to rectify these deficits. After Stanley Kauffmann alerted me to Piotr Rawicz’s amazing Blood from the Sky, a surrealist novel about a young man who goes into hiding in Ukraine, I devoted a chapter of my book to it—the first sustained criticism of this novel to appear in English. I’m hoping it will inspire readers to become more familiar with Rawicz’s work, which is brilliant, experimental, and in some places searingly funny. In my favorite scene, the main character undergoes a “citizenship test” in prison to prove that he is Ukrainian. After a hot debate on the minutiae of politics, literature, and cultural pride, he emerges the winner. “That’s no Jew,” his interlocutor declares. “Take my word for it. He couldn’t be. He’s trash, of course…. But he isn’t a Jew.”

But other writers didn’t come to my attention until my book had already gone to press. This is the case with H.G. Adler, whose 1962 novel The Journey was published in English by Random House last year. I noticed the book, put it aside, and promptly forgot about it until a few weeks ago, when the galley of another newly translated Adler novel appeared in my mailbox. Strikingly modernist, Panorama, which originally appeared in 1968, is structured as a series of ten snapshots from the life of Josef Kramer, a Jew in Prague. I found it immediately haunting and affecting.

Adler, I learned from the book’s introduction by Peter Filkins (who is also the translator), was born Prague in 1910 and spent two and a half years in Theresienstadt before being deported to Auschwitz, where his wife and parents died. After being liberated from a labor camp near Buchenwald, he lived as an exile in London for the rest of his life. What makes his intellectual project unique is that he adopted what Filkins calls a “bifurcated strategy” towards the Holocaust, approaching it through both fact and fiction in a way that no other writer has done. His notes on life in Theresienstadt, which he left with Leo Baeck for safekeeping before his deportation to Auschwitz, were published as the extraordinary 900-plus-page monograph Theresienstadt, 1941-45, a definitive documentary history of the camp. But Adler was also the author of five novels about his experiences during the war, which he wrote in a burst of creativity in the ten years after liberation. Panorama is the first of these; The Journey is the last.

Adler’s obscurity—his work is mentioned in no standard encyclopedias or guides to Holocaust literature—can be blamed partly on his publication difficulties: Peter Suhrkamp, then the head of the major German publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag, went so far as to say that The Journey would never appear in print as long as he was alive. (The book was written in 1950-51 but remained unpublished till 1962, three years after Suhrkamp’s death, at which point it was immediately recognized as a masterpiece.) Filkins writes that “neither Germany nor the world was ready for novels about the Holocaust in the 1950s”—an opinion with which Rawicz, writing in France only a few years later, would certainly have concurred. Part of the opposition to Adler’s work undoubtedly had to do with the fact that, like Rawicz’s, its project is explicitly aesthetic rather than testimonial. (“This book is not a historical record,” Rawicz wrote in the epilogue to his novel. “If the notion of chance … did not strike the author as absurd, he would gladly say that any reference to a particular period, territory, or race is purely coincidental. The events that he describes could crop up in any place, at any time, in the mind of any man….”) Then as now, critics and readers of Holocaust literature tend to feel most comfortable with works that are thoroughly grounded in fact: fiction is destabilizing and disorienting. But the life and work of H.G. Adler demonstrates how thoroughly imagination and memory can support and enrich each other.

Ruth Franklin’s A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction is now available. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Great Cover of the Day: Leeches

Tuesday, November 23, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Just received a review copy of David Albahari‘s forthcoming Leeches (April 28, 2011 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and couldn’t resist sharing an image of the cover. Crossing fingers that the inside matches the outside.

Report on the 12th Annual Jewish Children’s Book Conference

Tuesday, November 23, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Barbara Krasner, the coordinator of our annual Jewish Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference, reports on this year’s conference over at her blog, The Whole Megillah:

Anyone who doubted that the annual Jewish Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators conference in New York City would continue its longstanding tradition of excellence as sponsorship and venue moved from the 92nd Street Y to the Jewish Book Council (JBC) and the Center for Jewish History would have been proven wrong yesterday.

About 40 registrants sat lecture-style in the Kovno Room listening intently to a superb line-up of speakers, including authors, editors, and agents. About half the audience had attended the conference in previous years. Continue reading here.