The ProsenPeople

New Reviews June 24, 2016

Friday, June 24, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

Featured Content:

Dorit Sasson's Top 4 Memorable Memoirs

Wednesday, June 22, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Dorit Sasson described the self-imposed silence she learned to break in writing her memoir Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service in the Israel Defense Forces. She is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Going through transformational, life-altering events certainly changes a person, but when it comes to writing these events in the form of a memoir, one has to know how to ground the reader in the story.

Transformation isn’t only for immigrants like myself who typically experience displacement, but for showing any kind of change or growth—cultural, psychological, or emotional. To read just immigrant memoirs would be to ignore the other voices of change. “Not everything that is faced can be changed,” James Baldwin observed. “But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

In Cheryl Strayed’s New York Times bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the young narrator travels back and forth in time from her current Pacific Crest Trail experience to memories of girlhood to find her soul. She struggles to understand her mother’s death at the onset of her journey, not fully understanding that those dramatic moments will give voice to her higher self. Each time I “traveled” with Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail, I started to think about ways to translate the cultural, emotional and social obstacles into story material. My character would need to undergo some kind of transformation. As an IDF female immigrant, how would that cultural transformation show up in my story? To show that transformation, I had to go back to the beginning, to where the story started—in New York City. I had to get in touch with that eighteen-year-old again.

Gabrielle Selz and I grew up in the same building known as Westbeth in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York City so our parents already had many things in common. Her memoir Unstill Life tells the story of a daughter of a larger-than-life father known as Mr. Modern Art, curator of the Museum of Modern Art, and her relationship to a world where the boundary between art and life is often blurred. For Selz’s parents, art always came first and children were regarded as “side dishes.” Selz understands that her relationship with parents, especially with her father, is anything but traditional; as she comes to terms with her father’s relationship, she struggles to figure out her purpose in life and whether following in her father’s footsteps in the art world is part of that journey.

Another memoir that particularly spoke to me is Karen Levy’s My Father’s Gardens tells the story of a native-born Israeli who tries to find a sense of home and connection while traveling for most of her childhood and young adult life between her native Israel and equally familiar United States. She feels uprooted most of the time. Karen is also a native-born Israeli woman who ends up serving in the Israel Defense Forces and soon after, travels back and forth between both countries. She, too, has a complicated relationship with her mother as she seeks to escape her for more positive experiences, and it was edifying to study how she handled the cultural-psychological journey of learning to become her own person in her writing as I began to chronicle a parallel path.

Lastly, I’d be remiss to neglect The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah, in which Joel Chasnoff describes his immigration to Israel from an Ivy League with the intention of serving in a high combat unit in the IDF. Chasnoff serves in a high combat unit in South Lebanon, and uses military slang and humor as his way of adjusting to this new militaristic mentality. Chasnoff’s memoir is largely an American-Jewish memoir.

For the past twenty-three years I had lived the events of my Israel Defense Forces service in my head, but I still needed to figure out the best way to tell the story. When I read the memoirs of others, I started imagining myself in their stories. These memoirs gave me “permission” to write about the challenges of my service as a female immigrant at a time when there were no programs for lone soldiers.

These memoirs would quickly become my good friends. These memoirs helped me find my way home.

Dorit Sasson writes for a wide range of print and online publications and speaks at conferences, libraries, and community centers. She is currently touring for the 2016 – 2017 season on her memoir Accidental Soldier through the JBC Network.

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Book Cover of the Week: I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This

Tuesday, June 21, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It took opposite journeys for a mother and daughter to each find themselves at the start of their adult lives: one needed to leave France to discover herself; the other needed to return to Paris to discover her family—the side that “didn’t have dealings with the Nazis. They occasionally traded goods with the Nazis,” as her grandmother insists.

The other side, as you may have guessed, is immortalized in the three-volume graphic memoir Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Lest you think I’m going on a cartoonist craze after last week’s feature, Nadja Spiegelman’s memoir has little to say about her father or his work. Instead, I’m Supposed to Protect from All This is about the relationship between Nadja and her mother, New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly, strained by the echoes of Mouly’s own upbringing between two eccentric parents and the families that raised them, in turn.

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Breaking the Self-Imposed Silence

Monday, June 20, 2016 | Permalink

Dorit Sasson is the author of Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service in the Israel Defense Forces. She is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

A few months ago, I emailed an old friend hoping she’d host me for the book tour for my book Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service in the Israel Defense Forces while I visit Israel with my family for the first time in five years. Two emails later, she mentioned that no one from the English teachers at the school where I once worked would really care about my story.

Once the sting had dissolved, I realized that my friend had just illuminated why I couldn’t have written my IDF memoir during the eighteen years I lived in Israel: I never felt I had a voice.

Each time I tried downloading a scene from my IDF service in Israel, a voice would try and stop me. You’re no longer a nineteen-year-old trying to prove to your Israeli father that you can become your own person. But the issues would go much deeper than that. I didn’t feel that what I did by leaving my mother and New York City was important. On one base in 1991, I’d written, “I know from all these experiences that I’ve got a story inside me I need to write one day.” But that “one day” would be almost twenty-five years later.

During all that time, I played it safe by hiding behind my American identity. From the moment I got inducted in the IDF, I was preoccupied with trying to be an Israeli. I would rarely use English, choosing to speak in Hebrew when managing a classroom and teaching English as a foreign language to Israeli schoolchildren. I was afraid to be rejected by my Israeli peers if I tried to be an individual, but deep inside I was yearning to express myself beyond the “survive and thrive” mode.

The closest I ever got to revealing a vulnerable side happened at a teacher’s meeting many years after the army. I had showcased how many of my students had come full-circle by learning to analyze American literature. I cross-paralleled their growth with my own personal breakthroughs, only to encounter dead silence by the other teachers. No one responded or asked questions. I even got a few quizzical looks and glares. It felt lonely.

That experience reminded me that no matter how hard I tried to be accepted, my individual story didn’t carry much weight. I’d have to stick with the wolf pack mentality if I wanted to make it in Israel. “I now understand that living in Israel requires a group mentality,” I include in my memoir. “Israelis thrive in groups in a way that Americans do not. Where Americans take pride in their individuality, Israelis don’t strive to be singled out – they prefer the cohesion of the whole, whether in military, religious, or secular life. They’ve earned their reputation for traveling in “wolf packs” because they tend to hang out in largish groups.”

The day finally came when I finally decided to time-travel to that period in 1990, when I decided to leave New York City forever. It was 2012, and I was five years back in the United Sates, finally mustered the courage to write about a difficult time in which I sought to prove to my Israeli father I could be my own person, away from Mom’s fears and paranoia about the Middle East.

I thought I had conquered my former anxieties once and for all when I moved back to the States, but in fact each time I wrote I felt vulnerable, scared and naked. I connected with writing groups online and in-person in my hometown to validate that part of my identity which ushered in that individuality. I could still survive and thrive in my new American home; I’d just have to switch mental and emotional gears. I didn’t have to try so hard to win over a bunch of Israelis anymore.

Over the two-and-a-half years it took to write the memoir from start to finish, I learned one important thing: the fear of writing my memoir would never go away. I would have to drum up enough will power if I wanted to take ownership. To give voice to my memoir, I needed to feel safe and emotionally supported.

Dorit Sasson writes for a wide range of print and online publications and speaks at conferences, libraries, and community centers. She is currently touring for the 2016 – 2017 season on her memoir Accidental Soldier through the JBC Network.

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New Reviews June 17, 2016

Friday, June 17, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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The Jigsaw Puzzle of Writing without an Outline

Thursday, June 16, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jeff Gottesfeld shared how a news story about a dead tree inspired his first children’s book, The Tree in the Courtyard. Jeff is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

There are two types of writers: those of us who outline, and those who don’t.

Outliners can’t understand how non-outliners can keep their stories straight, and non-outliners can’t understand how outliners can place such boundaries on their imaginations. When an outliner smacks into a story that defies outlining, or a non-outliner is thrust into a world where outlines are not only helpful but required, it can be anywhere from disconcerting to disaster. I speak from experience.

I’m in the former category. I outline extensively. When I speak in schools—which I do a fair amount—I often bring two props with me. First I pass around the printed manuscript to a novel I wrote a few years ago for Grosset & Dunlap. It was a fun paperback title for kids, particularly designed to attract boy readers because of its, um, body-slamming subject matter. Great literature? No. A book to get kids hooked on reading for fun? That was the idea. It sold well, got into Scholastic Reading Club and book fairs, and potentially turned some kid into a reader for life. That manuscript is maybe 160 pages, 25,000 words or so in 25 chapters.

Then I show them my outline. Twenty full pages, chapter by chapter: the whole book, in brief. Each outlined chapter has not only two or three paragraphs of text, but three or four bullet points that summed up the major plot points. Writing that outline took a week or so, but it was worth it. Once I had the story, the writing part was a pleasure. And I was not at all straightjacketed by my own narrative: I could veer if I wanted, but if I did veer, I had to think about what happen to the rest of the structure and adjust accordingly.

Teachers love it when I talk about outlining. They invariably hit resistance when they try to get their students to “pre-write.” Kids stare in wonder when I explain how every single movie or television show they’ve ever seen was in outline form before a studio or network approved it to go to script. Sometimes I bring along a TV script outline for even more show-and-tell. Or, I’ll get a student to suggest an essay topic, go to the white board, and dash off a quick outline for a five-paragraph essay on that subject. When it’s done, I say, “Okay. The hard part is now done. The writing is easy.”

Writing that follows a good outline is clear prose. Teachers tell me that they would rather read a clear essay that is decently written than a muddy mess full of glorious sentences. So would I! The problem for us outliners is that there at least three kinds of writing for which conventional outlining is of limited utility: picture books, poetry, and keeping a diary and/or writing letters. Which is why, when I wandered into the 900-word maximum manuscript that was my first attempt at The Tree in the Courtyard, I felt like I was in uncharted territory that was all quicksand.

So I did what people do when they wander into quicksand. I floundered.

I needed a different way to figure out my story. I had a natural beginning: the tree in the courtyard of 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam sprouted in 1829. I had the middle: the relationship between Anne Frank and the tree. And I had the end: what happened to that tree, from the time that the occupants of the secret annex were betrayed until the collapse of the tree in 2010, and the subsequent planting of the tree’s “children” at significant sites around the world.

Beginning, middle, end. But nothing else. I was not going to be able to impose my will on this story. Instead, I had to be willing to let the story guide me. I started writing lines that I thought (or at least hoped) would find their place in a manuscript, however out of order:

The tree recalled how few had tried to save the girl.

The tree in the courtyard lived for 172 years.

Like the girl, the tree passed into history. Like the girl, she lives on.

She spread roots, and reached skyward in peace. Until war came.

Even when her father called her, she wrote.

It was writing as jigsaw puzzle, and I grew up hating jigsaw puzzles. I can’t say I’m a fan of them now. But here’s what I am a fan of: letting stories guide me where they want me to go. Sometimes it takes a map; sometimes it takes being willing to wander into uncharted territory.

Feels a lot like life.

Jeff Gottesfeld is an award-winning writer for page, stage, and screen. He has previously written for adult, teen, and middle-grade audiences; The Tree in the Courtyard is his first picture book.

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Book Cover of the Week: Hot Dog Taste Test

Wednesday, June 15, 2016 | Permalink

If you own a Netflix account—or a subscription to Lucky Peach, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, or McSweeney's—you've seen Lisa Hanawalt's work. This week, the designer and producer of BoJack Horseman releases a collection of her graphic essays in Hot Dog Taste Test:

Hot Dog Taste Test also features never-before-seen sequences of graphic memoir, including illustrations of her travels to Argentina, where Hanawalt's great-grandparents settled after escaping pogroms in Odessa, to join her mother's family in Buenos Aires on summer retreats to La Cumbrecita. You can preview sections of the book here and see how the creator of the most famous horse since Mr. Ed fares as an equestrian in the Sierra Grandes.

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Anne Frank's Chestnut Tree of Life

Tuesday, June 14, 2016 | Permalink

Following Anne Frank’s birthday over the weekend, The Tree in the Courtyard author Jeff Gottesfeld is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

There is a moment every artist dreams of, when an idea that is at least good gets transformed into something potentially transcendent, if only the artist can only execute it.

In my case, I can’t remember what I read in the summer of 2010 that shared the story of how the 172 year-old horse chestnut tree in the courtyard behind 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, had cracked in half in a storm.

The lede choked me up. I had gazed at that tree on a dreary day in 1981; stared at it as Anne Frank might have though the attic window of the hiding place above the same courtyard—the only window in the annex that had not be covered by improvised curtains that Anne had helped her father to sew. I learned later how Anne wrote about the tree three times in the diary, including an astonishing entry dated 23 February, 1944:

The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.

In the decades after the campaign of exterminationist antisemitism roared out of Germany across World War II Europe, the chestnut tree became an etz chaim, a tree of life. After the Franks’s annex became a museum, millions gazed upon this tree as Anne and Peter did. The tree had sickened in the decade before its demise; botanists and tree surgeons had brought their best science to bear, engineers had erected a supporting scaffold for her in all-out effort to save its life. It was no avail. The tree was gone.

I stared at my desktop monitor, sad and bitter all at once. A memory from Schindler’s List blew through my mind. It was the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, seen and heard from afar. So many had perished there, and so few had tried to save them. In Amsterdam, so few had tried to save the girl. Sixty-odd years later, humanity was making its best efforts for a tree. A tree! The contrast rankled. Bile rose. I nearly clicked out of the story.

I’m glad I didn’t. A few moments later, I reached what for me was the most important part; about how other scientists were sprouting healthy baby saplings from the tree’s trunk and her seedpods. These would become new trees to be planted the world over. Eleven of them had been promised to the United States, in locations meaningful in the struggle for human dignity. I have photograph of my book, The Tree in the Courtyard, resting against one of these saplings at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan. There are others at the September 11th memorial in Manhattan, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and more.

Just as Anne Frank’s diary may live on for a hundred generations after we are dust and ashes, these new trees will drop tens, then hundreds, then thousands of seedpods. So will their progeny, and their progeny’s progeny. There could come a time when every school, synagogue, church, mosque, town hall, and courthouse that wanted one might have a tree-from-the-tree-in-the-courtyard growing as a massive etz chaim, a living reminder of mankind’s confounding nature: our potential for good and penchant for evil.

There it was, that golden artistic moment. There was the story. It was one worth telling. Yet good as the idea was, I was left with a massive problem. How could I tell it in a way that would be worth reading? I got the cockamamie idea that I should write this as a picture book for grade school kids—I’ve been fortunate to have a reasonable career as a writer and author, but I’d never written a picture book manuscript in my life.

That problem would occupy me for five weeks. It ended with me giving up. Then, two years later, I got the line that would become the spine of the book: The tree recalled how few had tried to save the girl. It was the seed I needed. I was on my way.

Jeff Gottesfeld is an award-winning writer for page, stage, and screen. He has previously written for adult, teen, and middle-grade audiences; The Tree in the Courtyard is his first picture book.

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New Reviews June 10, 2016

Friday, June 10, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

Featured Content:

  • We're looking forward to Shavuot with our Book Cover of the Week: The Reason for Flowers by Stephan Buchmann.
  • Sophie Cook on the heirloom furniture that survived the Holocaust in Hungary together with her family and advice to fellow writers to relish the day job.
  • JBC intern Sophie Siegel suggests delicious dairy dishes for Shavuot out of some of our favorite kosher cookbooks.
  • Continuing her ongoing series on considering disabilities during the Jewish holidays, Liane Kupferberg Carter offers her Ten Commandments of Special Needs Parenting.
  • Be sure to browse our Shavuot Reading List!
  • Ten Commandments of Special Needs Parenting

    Thursday, June 09, 2016 | Permalink

    Following her posts on recognizing the sensory overload of celebrating Purim and setting a place for special needs at the seder table, this week Liane Kupferberg Carter continues her exclusive series on celebrating the Jewish holidays in a family with special needs as a Visiting Scribe guest contributor on The ProsenPeople.

    During the Festival of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, Jews worldwide go to their local synagogues to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments. I follow the official set, but as the parent of a child with a disability I’ve also needed to develop my own set of directives to make me the most effective advocate I can be for my son. Here are my ten commandments for parenting a child with special needs:

    1. Thou art the biggest expert on thine own child. As Dr. Spock said more than 70 years ago, “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” No one loves or knows our child better than my husband and I do as his parents.

    2. Thou shalt presume competence. My son Mickey is 23 and disabled, but we always assume he wants and is able to learn. We expose him to new experiences whenever we can. We never stop trying to teach him. Presuming competence doesn’t mean we think he automatically gets everything, but we know he is taking it all in, storing it, and processing it on his own timetable—and that he will surprise us with entirely appropriate and insightful comments that clearly indicate he understands.

    3. Thou shalt not talk about thy child in front of him. Adults everywhere persist in doing it, and we’re sometimes guilty of it, too. But we have also learned that even when Mickey doesn’t seem to be paying attention, he is. Eye contact is not a reliable indicator: you don’t hear with your eyes!

    4. Thou shalt always remember that behavior is communication. With or without spoken language, everyone uses behavior to communicate. When Mickey behaves in a way that challenges us, I remind myself that he isn’t doing it to annoy us. He can’t always find the words to explain, but he’s telling us he feels unsafe, uncomfortable, scared, or overwhelmed. Babies cry when they are wet or hungry; adults yawn when they are bored, or shout when they’re upset. Mickey’s behavior communicates frustration or discomfort; it’s our job to figure out what he’s telling us.

    5. Thou shalt not covet someone else’s neurotypical child. This one took me years. When I tuned out what typical kids his age did, I was able to see how much progress Mickey was making. He delights us every day, and I don’t take any of his hard-won milestones for granted. I want for Mickey the same things I want for his brother Jon: to live the most satisfying, independent lives they can, with loving friends, good health, and work that is meaningful to them.

    6. Thou shalt accept that ketchup may indeed be a vegetable. Mickey has sensory issues. It’s hard for him to distinguish good flavors when he can’t get past disturbing textures. Lettuce repulses him; carrots make him gag. “Ketchup is my favorite vegetable,” he will tell you, and it’s the only “vegetable” he’ll eat. He also can’t tolerate crowds or loud music. He hates footwear of any kind. While I won’t let him go out wearing shorts in January as he wants to, I’ve also learned that just because I’m cold doesn’t mean he has to put on a sweatshirt. I respect that his sensory system isn’t mine. We’re wired differently. I’m a PC; he’s a Mac. As the Internet meme says: “Autism is not a processing error. It’s a different operating system.”

    7. Honor thy fellow autism parents. They are a lifeline. Treasure them. They will validate your feelings, and support you when you are down. They are the ones who really, truly get it.

    8. Thou shalt pay attention to the needs of thy nondisabled children. A child’s disability can take over the emotional life of the entire family. Your disabled child may require more of your time, but not more of your love. Make sure to give your other children as much attention as you possibly can.

    9. Thou shalt keep thy sense of humor. Do I really need to explain this one? Laughter is rich and restorative. It fosters resilience.

    10. Thou shalt take care of thyself. A study of cortisol levels published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders in 2010 found that mothers of adolescents and adults with autism experience chronic stress levels comparable to that of combat soldiers. I’m no good to my kids if I don't stay healthy and strong. I’ve learned to ask for help when I need it. Because as all special needs parents know, we need to live forever.

    Liane Kupferberg Carter is a nationally-known writer and advocate for the autism community and a co-author of the Autism Speaks Advocacy Took Kit. She is currently touring for the 2016 – 2017 season on her memoir Ketchup Is My Favorite Vegetable through the JBC Network.

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