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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, December 26, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Family Histories and Fiction

Friday, December 26, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ronna Wineberg wrote about saying Kaddish for her mother and also shared a deleted scene from her first novel, On Bittersweet Place. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The Russian portions of On Bittersweet Place are loosely based on my family history.

When I was growing up, though, I knew only the broad outlines of that history. My paternal grandparents came from Lithuania and met in Chicago. I knew very little about their lives. My grandfather had died when my father was seventeen. My grandmother didn’t speak about the past except to tell us that we were related to a great, intellectual family, The Katzenellenbogens, and to the teacher of Albert Einstein. She didn’t talk about her parents or siblings or life in Europe.

I knew more about my mother’s family. She was the first child born in America. Her parents, older siblings, aunts, and uncles all came Russia. Our small house was filled with visitors, relatives who spoke with thick accents. Though I’m a second generation American, I often felt as if I had a foot in each world then, the old and the new. My great grandfather had been murdered in a pogrom. I didn’t know how or when.

When I was in college, my cousins and I decided to talk to my mother’s family about Russia. We gathered relatives in the living room of my parents’ house and asked questions. We were riveted by stories of hardship, persecution, and flight. The discussions were passionate; people disagreed about the details of what had happened. My great uncle, a man in his late sixties, described his father’s murder in Russia. As he did, my uncle cried. That moment stayed with me.

I never learned more about my father’s family. I knew I was fortunate to have learned about my mother’s history. I knew, too, I wanted to write about an immigrant family in the 1920s. But I wrote short stories about other subjects, a collection of stories, Second Language.

Finally I went back to the family history. Writing On Bittersweet Place taught me how to use fact in order to create fiction. This is what I learned:

1. Family stories aren’t enough. I realized I didn’t know the history of the period. I did research about the world of 1912 to 1928 first. Questions arose as I wrote and revised. I had to do more research. Were matchbooks used in 1927? Yes, I discovered. Was “big shot” a phrase in 1927? No, I learned. The details needed to be right.

2. Facts can interfere with imagination. I began to write about life in Russia using the facts of my great grandfather’s death. This didn’t work. I decided I wanted to capture the emotion surrounding his death but not to duplicate the facts. This decision felt liberating. I created a new family and characters. When I discovered Lena’s voice, On Bittersweet Place developed a rhythm, a direction. Lena isn’t based on a real person. She led me through the book.

3. A novel begins with an idea: what if. Recently, I read from On Bittersweet Place at a synagogue. During the Q&A, an eighth grader asked, “How did Lena know she wanted to become an artist if she had never tried to draw?”

“Each person is different from the other,” I said, struck by the question. “One person wants to draw, another to swim, and another to sing. Do you ever get an idea that you want to try something you’ve never done before?” I asked.

“Oh, yes.” He nodded.

“That’s what happened with Lena and drawing. She just wanted to try it. Try to be an artist.”

I realized this is a description of writing a novel. A novel is an idea that comes to a writer. It may be based on a phrase, an image, a fact. The writer doesn’t know if he or she can actualize the idea. But the writer tries. As I wrote, I wondered: what if this happened or that happened. I experimented, surprised by the characters and plot twists.

4. Characters will guide the writer. Lena’s brother Simon pushed me to make him a more important character than I’d anticipated. Lena behaved in ways I didn’t expect when I began to write the book.

5. The writer needs time. All writing, especially a novel, needs time to percolate. I needed time to focus on the book in a consistent way. Since fiction isn’t bound by fact, scenes and characters can be re-imagined and rewritten in draft after draft. That’s one of the pleasures of writing. The author Paul Theroux has said, “Fiction gives us a second chance that life denies us.” Everything in a novel is open to change. Until the book is published. Then the characters and story fly away from the writer. The book takes on a life of its own.

Ronna Wineberg is the author of On Bittersweet Place and a debut collection, Second Language, which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition, and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. She is the recipient of a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and elsewhere. She is the founding fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review, and lives in New York.

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Eight Nights with Hevria: The Alchemist, The Gobblings, and Hasidic Tales

Wednesday, December 24, 2014 | Permalink

One year ago, the Jewish Book Council launched the 8 Nights of Stories series on The ProsenPeople. For each of the eight nights of Chanukah, the Jewish Book Council set out to help our readers find more stories—to read to children, to share with young adults, and to read on your own after the kids are in bed. For Chanukah 5775, we’re delighted to partner with the writers of Hevria, a new collaborative of Jewish self-identified creators, as guest contributors over the next eight nights.

For the final installment, Hevria contributors Yocheved Sidof, Tzvi Kilov, and MaNishtana write about the stories they think most worth sharing:

Yocheved Sidof

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is a book whose story entered my mind and spirit. In it, a young shepherd follows his heart and dreams—the literal and figurative—to a buried treasure in a far-off land. Along his travels he meets people who challenge his perception of the world and persistence in finding his destiny. I love the allegorical story, its characters, mystery and metaphor. It's an inspirational tale that encourages one to dream big dreams- and look within for answers.


Tzvi Kilov

Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach: Spirituality from the edge. This book causes a lot of crying, as you'd expect from a collection of holocaust stories. Most of the tears won't be shed over inhuman atrocities, but for the incredible strength and triumph of the human spirit immortalized in this collection.


MaNishtana

Imagine if Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day had been set on a spaceship, illustrated by Roald Dahl, and colored by M.C. Escher, and you would have The Gobblings by Matthue Roth and Rohan Daniel Eason. A futuristic yet grounded, commonplace but somehow mystical tale that comforts even as it frightens, daring us not only to peek under the bed, but fight whatever might peek back.

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View the full Eight Nights of Stories series, in partnership this year with Hevria!

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The 12 Top Jewish Book Reviews Read in 2014

Tuesday, December 23, 2014 | Permalink

What books were you digging this year? Apparently a lot of fiction! Here are the top twelve Jewish book reviews you browsed in 2014 (and yes, we know that some of these books weren't even published in 2014!).

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Eight Nights with Hevria: The Circle, The Professor, and The Worm

Tuesday, December 23, 2014 | Permalink

One year ago, the Jewish Book Council launched the 8 Nights of Stories series on The ProsenPeople. For each of the eight nights of Chanukah, the Jewish Book Council set out to help our readers find more stories—to read to children, to share with young adults, and to read on your own after the kids are in bed. For Chanukah 5775, we’re delighted to partner with the writers of Hevria, a new collaborative of Jewish self-identified creators, as guest contributors over the next eight nights.

For the penultimate installment, Hevria contributors David Karpel, Saul Sudin, and Eric Kaplan write about the stories they think most worth sharing:

David Karpel

The Circle by Dave Eggers is a great novel that imagines an internet company that uses the latest, most advanced technology and a philosophy of democratizing everything, especially privacy (Privacy is Theft), toward Completion—every bit of information filtered through that one company. Much of the technology in the novel already exists; the rest is wholly possible. The main character, Mae, works for the company and becomes a willing participant. Her slow and subtle moral breakdown is depicted with pristine details. Near the concluding scenes, completion is nearly complete. And she's still with them on it. Until the very end, you won't know if she'll break, revolt, or completely align herself with the nefarious intents of the Circle.


Saul Sudin

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester: Professor James Murray, editor of The Oxford English Dictionary, took a train in 1896 to meet Dr. W.C. Minor, the most prolific of all independent contributors to the dictionary’s creation. The OED was an ambitious undertaking to codify the known English language, brought to fruition of some of the greatest intellectuals of their time. Upon his arrival, Prof. Murray found that the grand mansion he’d entered was Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, and the good doctor was in fact an inmate. What follows is a page turning tale of “Murder, Insanity and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary” where high art and low art collide in the style of the popular Penny Dreadfuls; only more shocking by the virtue that this entire tale is true.


Eric Kaplan

The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison is a story about a war between witches and demons on the planet Mercury. It's also the novel that gave J.R.R. Tolkien the idea of a "secondary creation"—a free-standing fantasy world. It is free of the Christian allegory that bends Tolkien and C.S. Lewis whom Eddison also influenced. It has a cool manticore. It is written in a gnarly pseudo-Jacobean prose that will teach you new words: e.g. "grammarie".


View the full Eight Nights of Stories series, in partnership this year with Hevria!

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The Little Shul

Tuesday, December 23, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ronna Wineberg wrote about Chanukah and shared a deleted scene from her first novel, On Bittersweet Place. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When my father died at 93 in June 2012, I wanted to do something to mark his death. To say Kaddish. My mother had passed away in 2010. We sat shiva for her. Afterward, in the flurry of clearing out the house near Chicago where they’d lived for 55 years, taking care of my father, and moving him to an apartment, I hadn’t said Kaddish for her with regularity. This was a nagging omission.

At the time of his death, I was revising my novel, On Bittersweet Place. I stopped the revisions, shaken by the loss. Though my father lived a long life, he’d been doing well and died suddenly. As I wrestled with my grief, I realized I might have been too cavalier about the deaths that occurred in my novel.

A friend once told me that losing the last parent is like losing a third parent. Now I understood. I felt the loss of my father, my mother, of who they were together, and also of the protective, loving layer they had provided for me. In the best circumstances, there was a hierarchy to mortality; the buffer had fallen away.

After my father’s shiva, I returned home to New York and proceeded with my plan. I didn’t have high expectations when I went to my first Friday night service at the little shul in Greenwich Village. The synagogue I attended for holidays was far. I chose the one in the Village because it was close to where I lived. I was disappointed to learn there was no daily minyan, only Friday evening and Saturday morning services, occasionally Sunday morning. I thought of the synagogue as the “little shul.” The old building was set back from the street, behind a courtyard, and it was tiny, like a rustic city house. I went there hoping the synagogue would be a repository for my grief. I imagined I should be able to weather my parents’ deaths with ease, perspective, and acceptance. But, in truth, I felt unanchored.

That first Friday night, twenty congregants sat in the small sanctuary. When I stood to say Kaddish in this new venue, shock swept through me. I had reached this point in life: an orphan. I was flooded with an ache for my mother, my father, the world they had created together. My father’s humor, the tilt of his head when he laughed, his quiet wisdom. When I was younger—with youthful arrogance—I had been critical of him. Now I was flooded with love for him, the depth of which I hadn’t realized when he was alive. The words of the Kaddish, like a chant, calmed and comforted me.

After services, the rabbi, cantor, and congregants greeted me warmly. I met a man at synagogue that night, also a writer. He became a friend. His mother had just died, too, two days after my father. This became the ritual that summer, fall, winter, and spring: Friday night I attended services, looking forward to Kaddish, to thinking about my parents. Judaism was important to them. In the little shul, I felt close to them. Sometimes I attended on Saturday morning. After services, I visited with others in the congregation. Then my new friend and I walked home together. We parted when our paths diverged. He went west. I continued south. But first we stood on the sidewalk and talked about our losses, the raw grief, the administrative details, family complications, the closing up of a parent’s life and final closing up of an essential part of our own lives. We talked about our writing. He and I were walking down the same road.

I said personal prayers at home because there was no daily minyan.

To my surprise, I began to look forward to going to services, seeing the rabbi, my new friend, and others. We developed a bond. The predictability of the routine comforted me. I was grateful I’d found this new world.

During the year of saying Kaddish, I went back to work on my novel and considered what it meant to suffer a loss. Suffer. I thought about what a parent can give to a child. Not a physical gift. But time, attention, emotional connection.

I saw more clearly what the Czernitski family in On Bittersweet Place could give to one another. I felt greater empathy for my characters, for Lena and especially her mother and father who had lost parents. And I remembered a quote by Sigmund Freud I’d read years ago. He wrote about his father’s death: “By the time he died his life had long been over, but at a death the whole past stirs within one.”

I knew the past stirred within many of the characters in On Bittersweet Place. Lena and her family had fled their homeland in the Ukraine after the October Revolution and settled in Chicago in the 1920s. They had been persecuted, lost relatives and a home. I knew the past stirred within me when I thought of my parents. Like Lena, I wanted to slam shut the gates of tears. I understood the characters with new depth and felt a kinship. I understood the poignancy and finality of absence. I dove into the work of revision, eager to help the characters wrestle with their grief, mourn, and join the world of living again.

Ronna Wineberg is the author of On Bittersweet Place and a debut collection, Second Language, which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition, and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. She is the recipient of a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and elsewhere. She is the founding fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review, and lives in New York.

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Eight Nights with Hevria: Ardor and The Age of Prophecy

Monday, December 22, 2014 | Permalink

One year ago, the Jewish Book Council launched the 8 Nights of Stories series on The ProsenPeople. For each of the eight nights of Chanukah, the Jewish Book Council set out to help our readers find more stories—to read to children, to share with young adults, and to read on your own after the kids are in bed. For Chanukah 5775, we’re delighted to partner with the writers of Hevria, a new collaborative of Jewish self-identified creators, as guest contributors over the next eight nights.

For the third installment, Hevria contributors Eric Kaplan and Chaya Lester write about the stories they think most worth sharing:

Eric Kaplan

In Ardor, Roberto Calasso writes about ancient texts as if they are postmodern texts, and by so doing lets us see the Vedas as the most intimate writing, like a remembered dream we are afraid to share because we don't know if it makes sense. He changes your sense of what makes sense and gives you the courage to express thoughts you were afraid to know you had.


Chaya Lester

Introducing the Jewish Harry Potter: The Age of Prophecy by Dave Mason! This Biblical thriller is set in the era not long after King David. The book is exotic and mystic, full of danger, wisdom and intrigue. But it's for kids. And it's more educational than any Hebrew School. It's as fact-based as a doctorate, but with a story-line from a block-buster screen-play. We all want our kids to veggies right...but want them to think its chocolate. That is what this book is. Jewish health-food that tastes like Godiva. And the kicker is that you'll want to scarf this masterpiece down, too!


View the full Eight Nights of Stories series, in partnership this year with Hevria!

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  • Aaron Roller: Samuel Thrope: International Historian of Mystery
  • King Matt the First by Janusz Korczak
  • Lauren Grodstein: Growing to Love Hebrew School
  • Chanukah: A Repository of Memory

    Monday, December 22, 2014 | Permalink

    Ronna Wineberg is the author of On Bittersweet Place, her first novel, and a debut collection, Second Language, which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition, and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

    Chanukah is here again. The holiday’s arrival reminds me of the sweetness of celebrations when I was a child and when my children were young. Chanukah is also a reminder that another year has passed, a marker of time, and a reminder of the winter darkness that lies ahead. The glowing candles seem like hopeful beacons in the harshness of winter.

    When I was a child, we celebrated the holiday with our large extended family. My mother’s parents, older siblings, aunts, and uncles were born in Russia. The sounds of our celebration were a mix of English spoken without an accent, with an accent, and Yiddish. The children were given gifts, usually what we needed: a new winter coat, a wool sweater and socks, sometimes a decorative piece of clothing like a blouse or colorful scarf. The presents were utilitarian, but the celebration was joyous with scents of latkes filling the house.

    In school, of course, Christmas was the dominant holiday. A few progressive teachers spoke about Chanukah and displayed a menorah. We didn’t know about Kwanzaa then. My children celebrated all three holidays in school; each holiday was given equal weight.

    For the characters in On Bittersweet Place, who live in Chicago in the 1920s, Chanukah has a similar meaning but is also a stark reminder of their otherness. They are immigrants, strangers in their new land. Today’s immigrants are strangers, too, and still need to overcome the same obstacles the Czernitski family faced: learning a new language, finding work and housing, understanding a new culture, and dealing with prejudice. No amount of desire for assimilation can help immigrants feel comfortable with certain customs.

    Lena feels her otherness even more strongly during the holidays, feels the precarious balance between her two worlds. Her teacher leads the class in Christmas carols and reads aloud Christmas stories.

    Here is a scene that did not fit into the book. Although I liked this scene, I felt it didn’t move the narrative forward in the way I’d hoped, and so I didn’t include it in the novel. Lena hurries home after singing Christmas carols at school and walking past the Christmas tree displayed in the school hallway. She feels dejected. She didn’t know the words to the carols sung at school; her otherness has been exposed. The small apartment on Bittersweet Place is filled with the familiar smells of latkes. This is the same smell that lingered in the house when I was a child and when my children were young. The simple copper menorah sits on the ledge of the Czernitski kitchen window. Blessings are sung; candles are lit, flicker and glow. Small presents are given. Lena’s mother Reesa distributes the gifts, which are not wrapped. She wears a yellow apron over her blue cotton dress; she has been cooking. Lena’s brother Simon receives a red wool hat, Lena a pair of black wool gloves, thick to withstand the winter cold. Reesa gives nothing to her husband Chaim. She prefers to save money and use it for what the children need. But she prepares a favorite sweet for him, egg kichels. He brings her a single yellow rose, bought from a flower shop, an extravagance and uncharacteristic gesture of tenderness.

    The holiday is a repository of memory for the Czernitski family and, perhaps, for every family, especially immigrants. Year after year we celebrate with the same foods, melodies, and prayers. Those with whom we celebrate, changes. Children grow up and move away, people we love become ill and die, we may move from one country to another, but the traditions remain. While Chaim reads the Chicago Tribune at the kitchen table, waiting for the aunts and uncles to arrive, Reesa sits in the living room with Lena and Simon, telling stories about family members who were killed in Russia. Year after year, the same stories, the same names.

    For Lena, there is relief when the stories, songs, Christmas carols, Christmas tree, and the pull of the past ends. Reesa sets the menorah on a high kitchen shelf. The holiday is over. Lena can dive into life again and continue on her journey to find her “true nature” and the sense of safety and belonging she hopes for in her new home.

    Ronna Wineberg is the recipient of a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and elsewhere. She is the founding fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review, and lives in New York.

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    Book Cover of the Week: Wuthering Heights

    Friday, December 19, 2014 | Permalink

    Posted by Nat Bernstein

    Emily Brontë died today in 1848 at 30 years old, after falling ill from exposure to the elements during her brother’s funeral. (Some believed that the true cause of death was a broken heart over her sibling: Emily gave out not three months after Branwell’s death.) Deeply distrustful of doctors, she refused medical attention until her final hours.

    Wuthering Heights, her only surviving novel, was first published just one year before her death.

    In general, book designers assigned to Wuthering Heights don’t seem too enthused about the project: most covers for the novel feature strikingly similar variations on a bare tree—that or a lone woman looking very unhappy. Penguin’s 2009 edition—pictured above: cover on the left; back on the right—is a refreshing exception.

    There are also a couple designers who took on Emily Brontë’s only novel as an artistic exercise. Although these book covers don’t appear to feature on any marketed edition of Wuthering Heights, it seems worth it to share a couple standouts:

     

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    New Jewish Book Council Reviews

    Friday, December 19, 2014 | Permalink

    This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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