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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, March 14, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

Stained Glass

Friday, March 14, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Tova Mirvis wrote about the parts of New York that are buried out of sight and how that relates to her fiction and how both novelists and voyeurs watch other people, trying to uncover the hidden parts of their lives. Her newest novel, Visible City, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 18th. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

How is this book different from all your other books?

The most obvious answer: in Visible City, there are no description of Shabbat or shul, little grappling with religion and community. My other novels, The Ladies Auxiliary and The Outside World, were clearly Jewish novels. My subject matter was steeped in questions of Jewish belonging and identity, belief and doubt. In the ongoing panel discussion debates about who is or isn’t a Jewish writer, I always felt comfortable saying I was certainly one. I didn’t feel the label as limiting, didn’t think it prescribed me in any way, but it did describe the place I was writing from, the world from which my imagination sprung.

There was no clear cut choice then, back when I was writing my first two books, to write a specifically Jewish novel. I wrote from what moved me, preoccupied me, fascinated me. I wrote out of my own grappling with my Orthodox Jewish community, a world which has shaped so much of who I am. My Jewish self has always been inextricable from my writing self.

And then here too, when I started writing Visible City, there was no explicit decision to write a different kind of book, no moment when I decided I was going to write a book with less Jewish content. I started Visible City without being sure where I was going. Each piece led me to the next, one interest kindling another, one character creating the need for another. There were Jewish parts that I arrived at along the way – one character was raised Orthodox but no longer is and this leave-taking impacts the choices he makes in the novel. Throughout the book, many of my characters are Jewish, though this isn’t mentioned explicitly. (Academics, lawyers and therapists on the Upper West Side. You don’t need to tell us that they are Jewish. We know! Said one of my early readers.)

For a time, I thought that the book would round some bend, become more specifically Jewish. But as the months and then the years of writing went by, the book continued to take me in different directions. Every book is a surprise, to the writer as much as to the reader. I arrived at underground explorers, historical preservation. I arrived at stained glass windows, an art form I’d always associated with churches and which I was little interested in. But now, I fell in love: the abundance of color, the intricacy of the work, the varying colors illuminated depending on how the light shines through.

In a novel too, there are the parts that more easily catch the light, parts that are less clearly evident. Even in a novel that is ostensibly about other things, where my Jewish identity and interests are less prominent, I feel the Jewish part of myself present here as well.

In particular, I see it here in my interest in the way the individual relates to the group, in the way we shape ourselves to match outside expectations. But more than that, on the instinctive gut level from which writers write, my Jewishness is part of everything I write. It’s entrenched inside me, a permanent part of my eye even as I look out at other worlds. All of us, we write from the mix of shapes and colors inside us, the mosaic of our personal and family histories, from our own experiences and from the experiences that live in our imaginations. Like the stained glass windows I’ve come to love, a novel is an assemblage of blazing colors, the individual pieces of who we are visible at different times, depending on the light.

Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels, Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children. Visit her website here.

Related Content: Essays: On Writing Jewish Literature and Being a Jewish Writer

The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter

Thursday, March 13, 2014 | Permalink

by Michal Hoschander Malen

The New York Public Library has curated an outstanding new exhibit titled The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter. On display is a fascinating collection of resources spanning hun­dreds of years sure to make your eyes glow and your heart swell with memories if you were ever a book-loving child. From the earliest of primers to twenty-first century graphic novels, it’s a trip through Wonderland chock full of fact, philosophy, whimsy and art.

One section is devoted to the musings of philosophers as they debated whether children’s literature was helpful or harmful to young minds. Locke believed fantasy was wholesome and healthy; Rousseau that only unadulterated nature was a fit tool for educating the young. Later, debates between schools of education raged furiously and bitterly as to what kinds of books were damaging and which would elevate and educate—and, of course, which books should be eliminated altogether and hidden from the light of day. Censorship still rears its head in our day. The vigorous debates about who should be the gatekeepers and how the parameters should be chosen have changed with the years but they still exist and probably always will.

Wandering the paths of the exhibit is a trip through the history of reading for education and fun. We find Dick and Jane, Dr. Seuss, and the ogres and monsters of Arthur Rackham. We follow the line of Harold’s purple crayon into a Goodnight Moon corner and feel right at home (and maybe a bit sleepy) in the green room with the old lady and her bowl of mush. There’s a hole in the wall to crawl through if you want to follow the white rabbit into an area with sketches of Alice by Tenniel and a large model of Alice which grows and shrinks as a rapt audience watches. They haven’t forgotten Maurice Sendak, or Hans Christian Andersen, or E.B. White (there’s a hand-held speaker so you can hear White read aloud sections from Charlotte’s Web in his very own laid-back syrup of a voice.) We are reminded that Oz did not originate in the MGM version and that Mary Poppins did not originate with Disney. For a blast of color, we can turn to Eric Carle or Leo Lionni. For a three-dimensional representation of the world, elaborate pop-ups are impressively displayed. In addition to books displayed in cases, there are plenty of books to touch. There are covers to open, pages to turn and yes, lots and lots of electronic buttons to push.

Treasures include: poetry, limericks heard through a gramophone-style horn, Little Golden Books, Beatrix Potter, folklore, series upon series, a hand painted watercolor illus­trating a poem by Blake, educational material about author John Newbery and illustrator Randolph Caldecott, who are remembered in the names of the two most prestigious chil­dren’s literature awards of today, classic comics and the superhero figurines they spawned, and many, many more.

The development of the children’s room in public libraries is addressed and we see how it became a welcoming place for all children and an especially important ingredient in the edu­cation of the poor who lacked other, private resources and in the socialization and absorp­tion of new immigrants, especially in a gateway city like New York. Quotes by well-known authors are featured highlighting the impor­tance of libraries in the early years of their lives. Children from all parts of the world and from all backgrounds were able to feel at home in the library. Included in the display of foreign language books is a beautifully illustrated alef-bet poetry book by well-known Israeli author Levin Kipnis and included in the display of books about children from all backgrounds is the first volume of Sydney Taylor’s All-Of-A-Kind Family series, the classic story of a Jewish family growing up on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s. The author’s name has now been given to a prestigious award for outstanding Jewish children’s literature.

The exhibit is a joy to visit! It is both informa­tive and entertaining and, if in New York and logistics permit, should not be missed.

Michal Hoschander Malen is a librarian and editor of reference books. She is the editor of the children's and young adult section of Jewish Book World.

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March 2014 Jewish Book Council Staff Picks

Thursday, March 13, 2014 | Permalink

What we're reading this month:

Suzanne: The UnAmericans (Molly Antopol) | Naomi: What's Important is Feeling (Adam Wilson)
Miri: A Bride For One Night (Ruth Calderon) | Nat: The Invention of Influence (Peter Cole)
Carol: Alice's Piano (Melissa Müller and Reinhard Piechocki)
Mimi: The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan (Jonathan Kirsch)

The City Below

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Tova Mirvis wrote about how both novelists and voyeurs watch other people, trying to uncover the hidden parts of their lives. Her newest novel, Visible City, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 18th. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I started writing Visible City in the weeks after moving from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the suburbs of Boston. More than anything, I missed walking in the city, down Broadway, up Columbus, where there was always the chance of something interesting happening.

In the suburbs, I felt a kind of sensory deprivation. I still walked, to the library a few blocks away, to the town center that was half a mile from my house, but there was little to look at, no one I might pass: just houses, just cars.

On every visit I made back to New York, I felt my eyes regaining a wider stance. I was like a tourist, always looking up. Once I started writing about the city, my homesickness eased. When I wrote, I could still be on my beloved streets, still walking as I always had.

But as home as I felt, there was no denying the fact that the city I was writing about was changing – new buildings were going up, stores were changing, the people I knew moving away. The city I was writing about was my particular version of a place that comes in millions of versions. Each city dweller occupies a different place. We all navigate our own internal maps. In addition to the sights we see around us, there are parts of the city that exist in our memories: those old buildings that once stood, torn down to make way for something new. The people who occupied our apartments before us, leaving behind tiny traces.

And there are also parts of the city buried out of sight. As I wrote Visible City, I became fascinated with the idea of yet another version of the city that lay below, the old “ghost” subway stations which are no longer in use but still intact. The stacks beneath the New York Public Library, what used to be the water system of the Croton Aqueduct. The labyrinths beneath Grand Central. The steam pipes and atomic tunnels beneath Columbia University. The unused Amtrak tunnels under Riverside Park.

As a novelist, the metaphors were inescapable: what parts of ourselves are buried too? Can those closed-off parts ever come above ground, become visible?

There seemed to me too to be something very Jewish about the notion that the past remains a part of who we are, and in this case, physically so. As I wrote, I thought often about the different archaeological sites I’d visited in Israel, the excavations underneath Jerusalem’s Old City or in the town of Bet Sha’an. Here was the Manhattan version of these ancient sites. Even in a place so bustling, so modern, the physical remnants of the past were close by.

I researched urban explorers who snuck into thse sealed off spaces. I visited City Hall Station – which is fleetingly visible if you stay on the 6 train after the last stop and is accessible by MTA tours a few times a year. Each time I went back to New York, I rode the 6 train, staying on for this glimpse of the grand stairway, the red and green tiles.

What is the allure of gaining entrance to these closed off spaces? What are these urban explorers in search of? A place, amid the crowds and congestion, that we can think of as being all our own. A view we share with no one. A feeling that we alone have discovered something new.

Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels, Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children. Visit her website here.

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Meeting My Character

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 | Permalink
This week, Joanna Hershon, the author of A Dual Inheritance (now in paperback!) and The German Bride blogs for The Postscript on meeting a man who embodied her imaginary character.  The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Joanna at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

I’ve come to call A Dual Inheritance my own “crackpot anthropology project”. Not only does the novel feature the field of anthropology and several related themes, but also my research mainly consisted of long, digressive and almost consistently fascinating conversations with a diverse array of people. 
Because I was beginning the story in the early 1960’s in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts, I set out to talk with family and friends who lived there around that time. One of my dearest friends (I call her my fairy godmother) attended Radcliffe in the late 1950’s and I spent a lovely day interviewing her. I spent much of the time trying to get a sense of her daily life—where she spent her Saturday nights, her routines, etc. The conversation flowed easily and, emboldened, I asked her if I could run a potential character by her. I’d created the basics of Hugh Shipley from my imagination-- he wasn’t based on anyone in particular-- and so I’d wanted to get a sense if he seemed believable. I described my character the way I would describe a friend, and—nervously—I asked if he sounded authentic, like someone she might have known. 

 She looked stunned. “You need to meet Bobby Gardner,” she said. 

Yet another reason to add to the list of why I call her my fairy godmother. 

When I began looking for information about this mysterious “Bobby,” I didn’t have to look very hard. Robert Gardner is a celebrated anthropologist and filmmaker and was the Director of the Film Study Center at Harvard University from 1957 to 1997. I ordered all of his books, and ordered and screened several of his films including the seminal Dead Birds. I couldn’t get over their visual language—so sensitive and lush. I tried to envision the film shoots, especially the older ones. What was it like, I wondered, to travel to remote locales such as New Guinea over fifty years ago? What went on behind the scenes? 

After our mutual friend introduced us over the phone, I took a trip to meet him. I was nervous, but I needn’t have been. He was as unassuming as he was compelling. Meeting Robert Gardner was like meeting my imagined character but minus the rather dark side of the character (as far as I know the actual personal life of Robert Gardner shares nothing in common with Hugh Shipley). But the aesthetic interests, the ethical concerns, the disparity between the ideals of his illustrious family and the burning desire to understand a wide range of people—all of these issues and more might have sprung from my imagination, but once I met Mr. Gardner, he brought it all to life. He deepened my understanding of every aspect of my burgeoning character. 

Had I not met Robert Gardner or learned about his films and talked with him on a spring day in Massachusetts, I would have written the character of Hugh Shipley but he would have been missing a critical part of himself. And so would I. 

To learn more about Robert Gardner, visit his website:

To read more from Joanna, read her Visiting Scribe posts here. 

Interview: Sarah Aronson

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 | Permalink

JBW’s Michal Hoschander Malen spoke to Sarah Aronson, author of the recently published young adult novel Believe.

Michal Hoschander Malen: Believe is a book which is full of the com­plexity of the events of modern times, mixed with eternal issues of faith and trust. What events inspired you to write Believe?

Sarah Aronson: I was first inspired to write this book in a hair salon in 2006! As I sat under the dryer waiting for my hair color to process, I picked up some copies of PEOPLE. In one issue there was a story about the woman I knew as Baby Jessica—the baby who fell in the well. It made me think about how people deal spiritually with second chances—especially after near death experiences. (I’m not just a former religious school director; I’m also a rabbi’s granddaughter!)

I also thought about how fame and the media changed our world. That day, I found out that one of the men who had saved Jessica killed himself after his fifteen minutes of fame were over. I also found myself judging Jessica for not leading a more purposeful life--and that wasn't fair. She hadn't asked for fame.

When I got home, I began to write! Faith and fame are issues I talk about all the time. I was sure that by combining faith with incidental fame, I could find a great story.

MHM: Janine was a little girl when she survived a terrorist attack and lost her parents. Whose responsibility is it to protect a child from manipulation or abuse in that situation?

SA: Of course, I believe that adults should shield their children from all sorts of painful things, but when it comes to fame, I think we are all in danger of losing perspective. There are worse things than growing up under the spotlight, but I hope kids who read this will think about what they want to accomplish in their lives. Fame is not the only measure of success.

MHM: What do you think will happen to Janine as she continues to mature? What do you think she will do with what she has learned?

SA: Spoiler: I think Janine’s trip to Israel at the end of the book signals the beginning of change in her. I hope that when she returns, she’ll make amends with her friends. I also hope she’ll slow down her creative process. I know that’s possible. I was an impatient young woman. Now I have more realistic expectations. I wait for my characters to develop. I never force them.

MHM: There has been some talk about Janine being an "unlikable" protagonist. I’m not sure I agree that she is unlikable; perhaps merely self-protective. But why would an author, in some cases, choose to portray a primary character as less than likable? Do you think it inhib­its the reader from "rooting for" the character?

SA: As a reader, I always prefer interesting to likeable. But that doesn’t mean my decision to make Janine "real" was easy. I struggled with it, but every time I tried to make Janine nicer, the tension in the book decreased.

Today, many of us are preoccupied with our images and what others say about our work. We know that in today’s world—Janine’s world— we have access to what our readers think of our creative decisions. Here is the big problem: if we let it affect us too much, it will hurt our work.

It takes nerve to write unlikable protagonists. You need to be brave to write this way, to risk polarizing readers. When you write a book about tough topics—especially for kids and teens—you must be prepared to face the criticism of readers who wish she were smarter or nicer or kinder. Those readers want to protect young minds, even though I have seen time and time again: young minds don’t need that. They are ready to read what they choose.

Like me, some of them want real. They want honest. Perhaps, even, they want to spend some time in a body that they would never want to be in real life. When I wrote this story, discussion and conversation was what I hoped for. So it’s okay with me if readers don’t totally like her. I just hope that everyone who looks at this book will find her interesting and complicated. I hope they question her actions—and the trends in our world.

MHM: Which books have you, the author, loved and which have, per­haps, influenced your writing?

SA: I read all the time—from classics to contemporary novels. Some of my favorite YA authors whose books helped me find my voice are Rob­ert Cormier, Nancy Werlin, Walter Dean Myers, Markus Zusak, Carolyn Coman, and K L Going. I also love reading books that feature Jewish characters. I think it’s important for kids especially to see themselves in books. Some of the books that I think about long after reading include The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Emil and Karl by Yankev Glatshteyn, Real Time by Pnina Moed Kass, Julia’s Kitchen by Brenda Ferber, Bigger than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder, Intentions by Deborah Heiligman, and The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer. All of these books have chal­lenged me as a writer and, more important, as a human.

MHM: Are you working on anything now? What can we look forward to?

SA: Right now, I’m hard at work on a few things. Like all my books, they deal with ideas and people that I hope give readers something to talk about. This is what I love most about reading and writing: the chance to get together with others to make lifelong connections through books.

Thank you so much for inviting me to share my ideas.

Readers can contact me on my website: I love talking to readers as well as parents, teachers, librarians, and aspiring writers!

Michal Hoschander Malen is a librarian and editor of reference books. She is the editor of the children's and young adult section of Jewish Book World.

Walls, Windows, Doors

Monday, March 10, 2014 | Permalink

Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels, Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. She is blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

For me, writing fiction always begins with curiosity about other people: what are they really thinking but not saying? What does it feel like to live inside someone else’s body?

I trace this curiosity, in part, to my Orthodox upbringing – to the feeling that people (or was it just me?) were thinking things they were not saying, that there existed for many a shadow inner life that did not align with the outer one. There, tucked away under a hat, walled inside the private domain, were the feelings not allowed into the light. So much had to be encased, or run past the internal censor before it could be said. Everywhere, the sense that you were being watched, evaluated, judged. So few places where the inner experience – messy, complicated, impolite – could be revealed.

But in a novel: here, finally, there is freedom and access. The walls give way to windows. Here, what people really think, say, feel. In life, how many of us walk around with no trespassing signs affixed to our bodies? But in a novel we enter into characters who stray and fear and lie and love and seethe and desire, that great messy stew of what it means to be human. Real empathy comes not from concealment but from revealing. We hide out truest selves for fear of what others will say, yet in those messy spaces we are, however ironically, most sympathetic.

This chance to peer into others is what makes me read, and what makes me write. I’ve always thought of the novelist as a kind of voyeur – a job which requires you to assemble pieces of other people’s lives into a larger whole.

In Visible City, my third novel, I started with a young mother who watches her neighbors out the window, catching snippets of their lives. In the city, we live a combination of anonymity and intimacy. We watch but act as though we don’t see one another, thus allowing this shadowy dance to continue without becoming overly exposing and invasive. So much around us is packaged and covered. Here, the chance to see one another unrehearsed. To escape our own lonely nights, to pretend as though we occupy other lives.

But at the same time, in all those views out the window, surely we are seeing not just others but ourselves. As I was writing, I was fascinated by the question of whether we can watch and remain unchanged. In my novel, my main character is ultimately not content to just watch. Watching breeds the desire for something more. Doors open and she becomes entangled in the lives of those she watches. But even if we are never caught watching, even if we never walk through our own doors, we are still changed. When we see into other people, we grow wider, more empathic.

Tova Mirvis's latest book, Visible City, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 18th. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children. Visit her website here.

Related Content: Essays on Writing, Publishing, and Promoting

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, March 07, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

What Would Judah Do?

Friday, March 07, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Laurel Corona wrote about emotion and developing the plot of her novel and her depiction of the mikveh in her recently published novel The Mapmaker's Daughter (Sourcebooks). She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council andMyJewishLearning.

The father of philosopher Isaac Abravanel and grandfather of Judah the Lion (arguably the most famous member of this illustrious family) was in his own time one of the great leaders of Jewish Iberia. A courtier to the Portuguese king, Judah Abravanel financed many of the early explorations of Prince Henry the Navigator and served as an advisor on diplomatic and other matters. Judah Abravanel is also an important character in my novel The Mapmaker's Daughter (Sourcebooks, 2014).

The difficulty I had fleshing out the character of Judah is the same as with all real-life individuals in my historical fiction. With invented characters, if I want to have them travel somewhere, I research how long it would take, what route was most likely, what conveyance they would use, and what might happen along the way. This research takes a great deal of time and effort, but once it is done, I can proceed with confidence to invent a story consistent with known facts.

With real life people, though, the challenge is different. There is a truth to their lives that can never be known. When Judah traveled, he took a specific route, had a specific means of transportation, and had specific experiences along the way. I cannot hope to guess right about all that. The standard to which serious and reputable historical novelists hold themselves may vary in some particulars, but the bottom line is that as long as we don’t do anything to misrepresent the person or the story, a novelist is free to fill in the details.

What has to be filled in, however, is almost everything that makes a novel—dialogue, everyday details, emotional life. I may not know specifically what Judah Abravanel had for breakfast, but if I know what was typical for Jews of the time, it is reasonable to put a plate of that in front of him. Assuming some reactions and emotions are universal seems fair as well. It’s either that or not write at all, so I make my peace with the idea that I can get many particulars wrong without telling untruths in a larger, more important sense.

With Judah I faced another dilemma, one which I think may give some readers pause. I want to avoid spoilers, so I must keep this general, and you can read the book if your curiosity is aroused. At one point he advises a young, intelligent, and spirited Jewish widow that she might want to consider nurturing a relationship with an attractive, unmarried Muslim man visiting Lisbon. “Wait a minute,” I hear you saying. “Could that happen?”

The answer, I believe, is yes it could. Would it? I don’t know. Do you? Since she was a widow, there was no chastity to protect and little chance any Jewish man would propose marriage. In fact, the Talmud strongly warns against marrying a widow for fear her late husband’s spirit would cause trouble. Still, it would take a very special man to care about this woman’s happiness, and to venture into the territory of her personal relationships.

Was Judah this kind of man? Possibly not. Perhaps he would have sternly admonished her to keep to her widow’s weeds and not question God’s will. That fits the stereotype, but how accurate are those? Perhaps we don’t give people of that time enough credit for having their own minds.

At any rate, I chose to think of Judah as recognizing that what falls outside of observance of Jewish law is a matter of choice, someone able to recognize what is no one else’s business. Maybe I’m wrong, but I like this version of him. Besides, as a novelist, an opening for a very romantic and passionate relationship is an opportunity not to be missed. It is fiction, after all, and historical novelists count on readers to remember that.

Laurel Corona is a professor of Humanities and World Religions at San Diego City College. She received a Christopher Medal for her non-fiction book Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance (St. Martin's Press, 2008), and in addition to The Mapmaker's Daughter (Sourcebooks, 2014) has written thee other novels focusing on real women overlooked or misrepresented in history. Visit her website here.

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