The ProsenPeople

New Reviews March 18, 2019

Monday, March 18, 2019 | Permalink

Writing a Cosmology of the Gilded Age

Thursday, March 14, 2019 | Permalink

By Na'amit Sturm Nagel

It’s rare to find a book that combines Victorian literature and Jewish literature, the two genres I love most, so I consider Rosellen Brown’s Lake on Fire to be a great gift. While the writing is fresh and new, Brown draws on older structures and stories to create layers of depth. The novel, which takes place at the end of the nineteenth century, contains undertones of Sholem Aleichem and nods to the flawed concept of the American Dream.

Na’amit Sturm Nagel: The Lake on Fire not only takes place in the Victorian era but reads like a Victorian novel. Was that intentional? Did any Victorian writers or books inspire you?

Rosellen Brown: Yes, the style of it is very nineteenth-century. It has long, intricate sentences, unlike my other books. People have compared it to other novels of the time, which is very nice. I really tried to write the book in a style compatible with the time I was writing about.

One book which inspired The Lake on Fire is Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie—a miserably written book, but fascinating and a great story. I was looking for an epigraph for The Lake on Fire and came across this wonderful sentence in the book: “When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.”

NSN: Can you speak to the idea of your novel as a fairy tale? While, as a whole, the book seems anti-fairy tale, the characters still have their own versions of fairy tale endings. Were you trying to create a new form of a fairy tale?

RB: That kind of lurked in the background. The girl arrives from the cinders, the ashes, and actually does end up in the palace. But the difference is she doesn’t strive for it, it just happens. If you want to tell a realistic Cinderella story, maybe this is the way it would go. There’s a big difference between someone who actively pursues their fairy tale ending, like Sister Carrie, and someone to whom it happens.

One other book that influenced me is I Belong to the Working Class by Rose Pastor Stokes, a Russian immigrant journalist who married a railroad heir. It was publicized in the papers as a Cinderella marriage. I just thought, That’s too simple. That’s not what real life is really like.

NSN: Do you see The Lake on Fire as a Jewish book?

RB: Well, yes and no. I kind of blew my cover as a Jewish writer with this book. Although there have been Jewish characters in my other books, it has not been the major thrust.

Chaya is a secular Jew; she marries a man who isn’t Jewish—it bothers her but not enough to not marry him. She’s not religious like some of the Orthodox people on the farm. I see it as a Jewish book, but up to a point. I really wanted it to be more than that. You never write about one thing.

NSN: There have been all these discussions about how people don’t want to be considered Jewish authors—Philip Roth, for example. Do you consider yourself a Jewish author?

RB: To a certain extent every writer wants to be considered as just a writer—it sort of goes without saying. But I don’t see why you can't ride two horses at the same time.

NSN: What kind of research did you do for this book?

RB: The stuff about the Columbian Exposition is easy if you live in Chicago. Anyone with forebears who go back a few generations has some souvenir from the fair. Twenty-three million people went to it! In terms of knowing how to make characters sound like they’re from the period they live in, I read novels.

NSN: What or who was the inspiration for the character of Asher?

RB: I don’t know where he came from. He just lit down on the page like something with wings and said, “Here I am.” I guess I realized I needed some sort of foil for Chaya.

I have no idea why it occurred to me that he would be this little genie, this little imp that isn’t quite real. I first wrote him as a five-year-old. He was a real magical realist kind of character and a good friend said to me, “He can’t be five. Make him older.” He’s still a little unreal. He’s very smart and a little strange and a little obtuse.WhenI aged him he didn’t lose too much of his fascination with language.

Someone recently was very excited about how on the first or second page he tells his mother that her breast milk is curdled. I sort of started with that, and it gave me the idea that he was going to be this wunderkind who had all of this language on the brain. A lot of people prefer Asher to Chaya; they find her tiresome but they like him.

NSN: You’ve been writing novels about complicated American family dynamics for years, and this book is no exception. How do you see The Lake on Fire as different from, and how is it similar to, your past work?

RB: Both its language and the setting are so completely different from my previous books. There is no way to compare them. Yes, my past books are about families, but they have been focused on one set of people. This book is really meant to represent the cosmology of the Gilded Age.

With this book I wanted to write about class, something I don’t do much in my other books. In The Lake On Fire, poor people come to Chicago, they’re starving. Chaya wakes up one morning with frost on her lips because they’re so cold. Then there are these people over in the fancy part of town living the Golden Age. At the center of the book is this girl who thinks she’ll betray her class if she marries this wealthy man; she grapples with her desire to be good, her desire to be useful. She grudgingly gives up her class.

Image credit: Lynn Sloan

New Reviews March 11, 2019

Monday, March 11, 2019 | Permalink

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Alice Shalvi

Monday, March 04, 2019 | Permalink

In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Alice Shalvi’s memoir, Never a Native,is the winner of the 2018 Barbara Dobkin Award for Women’s Studies. In her book, Shalvi recounts the lives of her parents and siblings, her family’s encounters with antisemitism, her Cambridge education, her commitment to Zionism, and her 1949 decision to make aliyah. She also discusses her happy and fruitful marriage and the challenges of balancing an academic career and raising six children. The judges on the Women’s Studies panel say: “Central to this story is Shalvi’s account of her gradual recognition of the endemic sexism in Israeli life and her emergence as an advocate for women’s welfare and for increasing women’s visibility and leadership in every aspect of Israeli society. Shalvi has been recognized and honored for her achievements both in Israel and the United States. Her vibrant memoir will enhance her legacy even as it inspires her readers to emulate her accomplishments.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

Glückel of Hameln, who, though not strictly an author, nevertheless wrote one of the most fascinating accounts of the life of a female entrepreneur; Emma Lazarus, because I’d like to know what inspired her to write “The New Colossus,” that wonderful embrace of strangers seeking refuge and a new life in an unknown country; and Ada Levenson, who was a witty English socialite and friend of Oscar Wilde and other eccentric authors and artists, and whose novels brilliantly convey the spirit of the fin-de-siècle.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis, a collection of witty poems that purport to be the biography of Mehitabel the Cat as written by Archie the Mouse. It is full of brilliant aphorisms, of which my favorite is “Time time said old King Tut / is something I ain’t / got anything but.”

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

Etgar Keret. His work captures the current nature of Israel, but in a light, witty manner.

What are you reading right now?

Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I just received it from a dear friend and I’m curious to know more about this remarkable woman (who could herself admirably fit the role of president).

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

Life, people, music, and nature. the first two lead me to contemplate the workings of the human soul and mind. The last two lead me to meditate on what I have learned. That, in turn, serves as a source of inspiration.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

To never give up on the hope of creating a better world, and to resolve to be actively involved in attempting to bring that world into being.

Image credit: Debbi Cooper

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Marcin Wodziński

Monday, March 04, 2019 | Permalink

In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Marcin Wodziński’s Historical Atlas of Hasidism is the winner of the 2018 Nahum M. Sarna Memorial Award for Scholarship. With seventy-four maps, hundreds of photographs, charts, and tables, and a well-organized text, the book explores the relationship between space and spirit, and the demographic expansions and shifts of Hasidic communities with a focus on the rank and file. The judges of the Scholarship Award say: “By mapping the geographic shifts and demographic expansions [of Hasidism], the book offers unique insight into the relationship between location, distinct types of religious leadership, and unique forms of cultural expression.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

Fania Lewando, S.Y Agnon, and I.B. Singer. Great authors who came from Eastern Europe, and were all vegetarians, so we could peacefully dine together.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

As I read mostly in Polish, I trust much of the literature I read is unknown to the readers of this blog anyway. If I were to choose, I’d pick House of Day, House of Night by my favorite novelist Olga Tokarczuk.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

Strangely enough, I come from a place where it is inappropriate to ask about people’s creed and ethnicity more generally. This is why I don’t divide writers into Jewish and non-Jewish.

What are you reading right now?

Adam Zagajewski, Selected poems (in Polish); Katja Petrowskaja, Maybe Esther (in Polish translation); Uriel Gellman, The Emergence of Hasidism in Poland; and galleys of Studying Hasidism, to be published in August.

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

People, of course. My father, who taught me thinking. Professor Jerzy Woronczak z”l, my first academic mentor. Professor Moshe Rosman, my ultimate academic mentor. My university’s financial office who teaches me every day how to survive in extreme conditions. My current government who teaches me to not take for granted democracy and constitutional rights and freedoms.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

First, the atlas looks at Hasidism beyond the leaders—at thousands of their followers living far from Hasidic centers. This is a new, innovative, and very needed corrective and I hope readers will appreciate it. Second, it examines Hasidism in its historical entirety from its beginnings till today. Few publications are similarly comprehensive. Third, responding to the challenge of digital humanities, it uses the diverse collection of qualitative and quantitative data, including extensive GIS-processed databases of historical and contemporary records. The largest database is nearly 130,000 records! Finally, many of the maps are simply beautiful, so my wife says they will make a perfect print on tablecloths, T-shirts, and postcards. We can’t wait to open the souvenir shop!

Image credit: Cezary Gwozdz

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Ronald H. Balson

Monday, March 04, 2019 | Permalink

In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Ronald H. Balson’s The Girl from Berlin is the winner of the 2018 Miller Family Book Club Award in Memory of Helen Dunn Weinstein and June Keit Miller. Balson’s novel centers around a seventy-eight-year old woman, Gabrielle, who is facing eviction from her Tuscan villa by one of Italy’s largest wine producers. Her nephew hires a Chicago lawyer and private investigator to help her keep her home. A handwritten memoir from the 1930s enters the picture; it holds the key to resolving the mystery of Gabrielle’s emotional attachment to the property, and the rightful ownership of the villa and land. The Book Club panel judges write that The Girl from Berlin is “a fast-moving, suspenseful and well-researched novel that illuminates the cruelty and horror of Nazi Germany and the heroism of ordinary people.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

Elie Wiesel, for his wisdom and poignant memories. Leon Uris, to discuss how he researched and created his stories. Jake Tapper, because of the clever things he would say.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

There is no such book. I love old Joan Didion books. I read them when my prose gets stiff and I need a new voice.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

Not a fair question. Who to leave in, who to leave out? There are so many excellent Jewish writers.

What are you reading right now?

Mainly research on a new book. On the side I’m reading Eunice by Eileen McNamara, and Big Fella by Jane Leavy.

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

(Do my eight children count? Can I say that?) OK, then it would be music.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope my readers will gain a better understanding of how the gradual impact of Nazification affected artistic life in Berlin, and ultimately Italy as well. I also hope readers will appreciate that the issue of Nazi seizures and confiscations continues through the present day.

Image credit: Monica J. Balson

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Leon Wiener Dow

Monday, March 04, 2019 | Permalink

In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Leon Wiener Dow’s The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law is the winner of the 2018 Myra H. Kraft Memorial Award for Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice. Bringing together qualities of memoir, modern Jewish thought, and halachic literature, The Going represents an innovative force in Jewish literature. Dow presents a vision of halacha (Jewish law) that can speak to Jews regardless of where they place themselves on the denominational spectrum. He explores halacha with an eye that balances reverence for tradition with a passion for what its future manifestations could be like. Judges say: “To read this book is to feel encouraged to embrace the challenge of locating traces of the divine in the world. [Dow’s’] powerful writing brings to the fore a fresh voice that is bound to influence the conversation of Jews around the world.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

Franz Rosenzweig, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, and Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. I would savor the opportunity to get a sense of the extent to which they live their writing.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

Jean Amery, At the Mind’s Limits. Every time I read one of Amery's essays I feel as if I have received a blow to the torso. I also have to include my brother Mark’s unbelievable book of poetry, Plain Talk Rising.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

I’m privileged to be able to go with my friends and colleagues—in English, Ilana Kurshan and in Hebrew, Dov Elbaum.

What are you reading right now?

I’m finally paying an outstanding debt to one of Daniel Boyarin’s early works, Carnal Israel. My “fun” reading is David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

Without a doubt, my greatest creative influence is certain people—friends, relatives, and teachers who are models of humanity for me. But the loving caress of nature and soulful music wield a profound creative influence on me as well.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope that upon finishing the book, readers will sense that the halacha offers a horizon of thoughtful, spiritual practice—one that nurtures and fulfills, even while it demands.

Image credit: Tamir Platzmann

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Ariel Burger

Monday, March 04, 2019 | Permalink

In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Ariel Burger’s Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom is the winner of the 2018 National Jewish Book Award for Biography. Elie Wiesel was mentor, trusted friend and advisor to author Ariel Burger for nearly twenty-five years. This remarkable book gives readers a front row seat in Wiesel’s classroom at Boston University, and allows us to benefit from his distinct teaching style. Burger honors Wiesel by striving to perpetuate and teach his mentor’s “methodology of wonder.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

The great medieval mystic and legalist Nachmanides; the historian Shimon Dubnov, murdered by his own student, a Nazi; and Leonard Cohen, who, in addition to a being a great songwriter, was a great writer and thinker.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe, a strange meditation on identity, memory, and narrative in three parts. (I hope I'm mistaken and people have heard of this.)

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

Rachel Kadish, Tova Mirvis, Shulem Deen, Yossi Klein HaLevi, and Dara Horn.

What are you reading right now?

The Divine Invasion by Philip K. Dick.

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

Elie Wiesel—his writing but also his teacher and presence as a person. My composer father, Rebbe Nachman's Tales, Ursula le Guin, Palker Palmer, Borges’s nonfiction, Chris Claremont, Kate Bush, Lewis Hyde, Thomas Merton, the songwriter Jason Molina, Maurice Sendak, Regina Spektor, and Jewish history.

Image credit: Maor Ziv-Kreger

New Reviews March 4, 2019

Monday, March 04, 2019 | Permalink

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Michael David Lukas

Wednesday, February 27, 2019 | Permalink


In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Michael David Lukas’s The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is the winner of the 2018 JJ Greenberg Memorial Award for Fiction. In a beautifully written novel that toggles between Cairo in the eleventh century, the nineteenth century, and the present day, Lukas has created a captivating story detailing the history of Cairo’s Ibn Ezra Synagogue, its treasures, and the divisions among people in its midst. The judges say: “Part family quest, part detective story, Lukas weaves a thrilling tale that brims with intellectual and emotional passion. This historically significant and distinctly modern novel is filled with erudition and charm.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

That’s a tough one. Part of me would want to invite Freud and Philip Roth then sit back and let them go at it. But, when it comes down to it, I think I would invite Emma Goldman, Moses Maimonides, and Franz Kafka.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

Not sure that no one's ever heard of it, but I'm a big fan of Walter Benjamin's Berlin Childhood around 1900.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

Another tough one. But, if I’m thinking about their influence on my own writing, I would go with Michael Chabon, Nicole Krauss, Etgar Keret, and Nathan Englander.

What are you reading right now?

Flights by Olga Tocarczuk. I read in transit, in little snips. And it’s hard to imagine a better book for that mode of consumption.

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

My family, my students, and other writers. Also my dog, Rashi, who is almost always there with me when I’m writing.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope every reader takes from the book what they most need. As far as what I took away from the writing process, the biggest thing was probably a broader understanding of Jewish history in general and specifically the history of Muslim-Jewish coexistence.

Image credit: Irene Young