The ProsenPeople

Book Cover of the Week: You Exist

Tuesday, July 17, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

OK, good to know. Read more here.

You Exist. Details Follow. is Stuart Ross’s seventh full-length collection of poetry. In these poems, Ross veers in opposite directions: narrative confessional poems, and works that might be considered abstract expressionist, and a lot both in between and beyond those boundaries. Each poem breathes with the signature weirdness, the sharp wit, and gentle awe that Ross is known for. Here you’ll find confounding centos, fractured sonnets, delirious lists, poems composed through surrealist strategies, a new addition to Ross’s autobiographical Razovsky series, and more.

Codex vs. Kindle

Monday, July 16, 2012 | Permalink

Matti Friedman is a reporter in Jerusalem for the Times of Israel, and author of The Aleppo Codex. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Although it fell, in retrospect, at the mid-point between the launch of the Kindle and the Kindle 2, I don’t think I had more than a vague notion of what a Kindle was on the day in the summer of 2008 when I first descended into a dark room at Israel’s national museum in Jerusalem and, standing in front of a dimly lit display case, encountered its exact opposite.

I spent much of the next four years writing the story of the object I found in the museum, a manuscript known as the Aleppo Codex – a millennium-old bundle of animal skins that is the oldest and most accurate copy of the entire Hebrew Bible. In these years I was not cut off entirely from the march of technology. I acquired an iPod, and learned to send e-mail from my cellphone. But I never purchased a Kindle or any of its cousins, nor did I fully understand what they augured.

The Aleppo Codex is a book, one of the most important on earth. I wrote a book about this book. These things seemed clear to me, but when my deadline passed and I finally looked up to find myself staring into the dead electronic eye of the Kindle Fire, I saw that the meaning of “book” had been altered and that I had just spent these years of revolution engrossed in a mirror image of the present.

To prepare the Aleppo Codex, tanners scrubbed, stretched and cut animal hides into folios that were stitched together by craftsmen. Someone scored a grid of lines onto the pages with a sharp instrument, and a scribe, Shlomo Ben-Buya’a, from the town of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, used iron gall ink to write the Bible’s more than 300,000 Hebrew words one by one. Its completion around 930 A.D. after years of work represented the final condensation of the Hebrew Bible from an ancient oral tradition to a codified text in black ink on parchment – a book. The codex crowned centuries of scholarship and was meant to be the perfect version of the twenty-four books that made up the Bible, a kind of physical incarnation of the heavenly text in a single manuscript. For Jews, every letter and vowel sound in the Hebrew text is crucial – according to one tradition, the entire Torah is one long version of God’s name, which is another way of saying you do not want to get anything wrong. The codex sanctified, even fetishized, the act of reading: above and below the letters were tiny hooks, lines and circles denoting vowels, punctuation and the precise notes to which the words were to be chanted in synagogue. It was an object of nearly unimaginable value to the people who revered it.

Aleppo-HighRes2-Neviim4b-Kings2An electronic book exists in an infinite number of copies; there is no original. The Aleppo Codex, on the other hand, existed only in its original five-hundred-page manuscript. There were no copies at all, and for this reason its physical safety was always paramount. In 1099, it was held in a Jerusalem synagogue when the First Crusade arrived under Duke Godfrey of Bouillon and Raymond, Count of Toulouse. The crusaders sacked the city, massacred its inhabitants, and seized property. According to a Muslim historian, they burned a synagogue with Jews inside, but historical records also inform us that the Christians saved hundreds of Jewish books to hold for ransom. The Jews’ weakness in this regard was well known, and in some of the correspondences of the time it seems their concern for the stolen books was so great that it rivaled their concern for human captives. The books, each one painstakingly copied, like the codex, by hand, contained priceless and sometimes irreplaceable information. After Jerusalem fell, the Jewish community in Fustat, next to Cairo, raised money and sent 123 dinars with an emissary and instructions to “redeem the Scrolls of the Torah and to [attend to] the ransoming of the people of God, who are in the captivity of the Kingdom of Evil, may God destroy it.” The books, in that sentence, came first.

By 1947, the codex had been in a grotto in the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, Syria, for six hundred years. For the Jews of Aleppo, it had become over time less a scholarly resource than a talisman, the community’s mystic power source and a guarantor of its survival: Traditions of great age and import made clear that if the book were ever moved the community would be destroyed. (This, old exiles from that vanished community never tired of telling me, might have sounded fanciful but it did come to pass.) It became as revered as a cathedral’s fragment of saintly hair or bone; even its individual pages, or pieces of pages, came to be seen as valuable. Few had ever seen it, and there were still no copies – requests from scholars abroad to purchase, borrow, or photograph the codex had been turned down by its keepers, the Aleppo elders, who appeared to believe that allowing copies to be made would dilute the book’s power and their own.

Then came November 29th of that year, when the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states, one for Arabs and one for Jews. The next day, a mob rioted in Aleppo. The rioters burned Jewish homes and stores. They burned the synagogue. The codex disappeared.

The Aleppo Codex “was devoured by fire in the riots that erupted against the Jews of Aleppo several weeks ago,” wrote a heartbroken Bible scholar in the Israeli daily Haaretz a few weeks later, in an article best described as an obituary for what he called “this beloved relic of the wisdom of the Middle Ages.” The codex wasn’t lost, it later turned out, but this was the meaning of a single book with no copies: the knowledge inside could be lost forever. Here, then, was a book – a single, physical book – that meant everything.

Early this year, with my own book squared away, I attended a seminar with a wunderkind web designer who, as part of a PowerPoint presentation on the 21st-century media, showed us a picture of a cloud against a clear blue sky. “The book does not exist,” he declared. People nodded. The book, he said, was in a theoretical cloud somewhere, and all that existed now were the Kindles and iPads and Nooks and the other “gateways to the cloud.” The book had been a step on the evolutionary ladder from those ancient stories told aloud to information beamed invisibly around the world in an instant, available anywhere and present nowhere at all.

My own book, thankfully, would still be a physical object printed, bound and placed on shelves. I suppose I’m too old – thirty-four – not to care about that. But it was no longer inconceivable that this would not be the case, that a book would have no pages of its own, no cover, that it would be nothing that could ever be kept in a safe, dismembered, kept as a lucky charm, coveted, pursued or stolen as the Aleppo Codex was.

If this great Brontosaurus of a manuscript, in its glorious, inconvenient physicality, in the extreme and occasionally dark impulses it has elicited from men, has a role in this new world of clouds, perhaps it is to remind us, distracted as we are by the metallic gleam of gadgets, that the information inside a book can be the most important thing we possess: our power source, the guarantor of the survival of our human community. The library is, as Umberto Eco wrote in The Name of the Rose, the scene of a “centuries-old murmuring” among pages: “a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or been their conveyors.” Whether knowledge is encapsulated somehow in disembodied electrons or written on the skins of 10th-century Galilean livestock, the codex remains in its dark room in Jerusalem to remind us that this has not changed.

Visit Matti Friedman's official website here and read more about the Aleppo Codex here.

New Reviews

Friday, July 13, 2012 | Permalink
This week's reviews:




 

Olympic Fever

Friday, July 13, 2012 | Permalink
Looking for a way to get ready for the Olympics? We have some sports titles to get your head in the game. Find the complete list here.

Dating and Doctors

Friday, July 13, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Francesca Segal wrote about recasting a classic novel and about being asked the question "Who are your characters REALLY?". She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

It was several years ago when my mother went for a flu shot to our family doctor, an avuncular, bearded South African whose medical practice comfortably services at least half of north-west London’s Jewry. It is a position that requires front-line heroism when one considers the demographic; the armchair physicians and proxy-hypochondriacs and tirelessly frantic Jewish mothers. His desk is a confusion of stuffed animals and rubber chew toys, brightly coloured and easily disinfected, the armoury of the family practitioner. Dr Winter oversaw the removal of almost half the tonsils in my junior school classroom, and has attended to the food poisonings and holiday vaccinations and slipped discs of most of our synagogue. My family has been going to him since 1985. And so, a flu shot for Mrs Segal. But the doctor was conscious of a far more serious threat to her well-being.

‘Nu?’ he demanded, settling back for a chat. ‘Why isn’t she married?’

At the time I was twenty-seven.

‘Never mind, I have someone. Nice boy. Older. Westminster and Oxford, like Francesca. He’ll call her. Leave it with me.’

And so my mother left, inoculated against both flu and, it was hoped, social disgrace, clutching the prescription for a son-in-law.

*

A lot about north-west London is embodied in that anecdote. No one involved is remotely religious. My parents, unlike many of the neighbours, couldn’t have cared less than I hadn’t married young; they were proud I was doing well at work, and only gave my romantic status a moment’s anxiety when someone else drew their attention to it. But the community here is small and tightly-knit and has remained socially conservative, even as religious practice falls away in favour of tradition. Everyone knows everyone, and can probably name the whereabouts of all kindergarten classmates. There are simply not enough of us to render the shidduch defunct; that charming man you met at a dinner party is, statistically, unlikely to be in the tribe. It’s a lovely place to grow up, but in early adulthood in particular, the warmth can border on claustrophobia.

Despite the Crossing Delancey parochialism of our introduction, I actually spent six rather tempestuous months with the doctor’s prescribed gentleman. He was handsome, and it therefore took a little while to realise that he was also, as the endlessly applicable saying goes, Not That Into Me. But if nothing else, the whole episode illustrated the strength and vigour of the north-west London grapevine, nourished as it is by the fertile soil of local gossip, because less than a week after we broke up, Dr Winter was on the phone to my mother.

‘Did it work?’ he demanded. This was mere feint; fifteen patients that morning had no doubt already told him that it hadn’t. ‘No? Never mind, I have a backup.’

This time, valiantly, my mother tried to fend him off. Dr Winter would not accept her refusal. But I must thank him because it was the backup, in many ways, who defined my fate.

Dr Winter has called and given me your number. I am very flattered,’ read his email, as if I had been declaiming sonnets beneath his window when, in fact, this email was the first I’d heard of him, ‘but I’m sorry to tell you that I have just started seeing someone. If it doesn’t work out with her then I will certainly get in touch in the future. PS. Did you go to King Alfred’s School? I think my sister knows you.

It was shortly after that email (which I did not answer, lest you were concerned) that I decided to move to New York. And it was shortly after moving to New York – safely buffered from home by the Atlantic – that I decided to write a novel set back home. North-west London and I have made up now, and these days I spend most of my time there. But two years away afforded me a fantastic perspective – and the opportunity to remember all its strengths, as well as to smile at its foibles with fondness.

Visit Francesca Segal's official website here and join JBC on July 16th for a Twitter Book Club conversation with Francesca.

Book Trailer: Four New Messages

Thursday, July 12, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Joshua Cohen, author of Witz and A Heaven of Others, will be publishing his newest book, Four New Messages, with Graywolf Press next month.  View a short film based on "Emission," one of the short stories from FNM, below:

Emission from Spinks on Vimeo.

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.