The ProsenPeople

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, August 09, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.


Traveling Back in Time, Writing a Prequel

Wednesday, August 07, 2013 | Permalink

This week, Pam Jenoff, the author of six novels blogs for The Postscript on writing a prequel to her first novel, The Kommandant's GirlThe 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" Pam at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

Six years ago, I published my first novel, The Kommandant’s Girl, which told the story of Emma, a young Jewish woman struggling to survive in Poland during the Second World War, while spying on – and becoming involved with -- a high ranking Nazi official.  Following the publication of its sequel, The Diplomat’s Wife, which followed Emma’s best friend Marta in the aftermath of the war, readers continuously asked, “Will there be another book?” 

I was not sure how to answer:  I had told the stories I wanted to tell about these two women, and going forward in time beyond the 1940’s didn’t feel much like the historical fiction my readers love so much.  Then I had an idea:  why not write a prequel to The Kommandant’s Girl?  My first novel alluded to a rich history of an ill-fated romance between the Nazi official Georg and his first wife Margot, who was Jewish.  I “discovered” that they had met at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and so began The Ambassador's Daughter.

Writing a prequel as not easy.  It is always difficult when writing historical fiction to balance the need for accuracy (which savvy readers demand) and the creative imperatives of plot, narrative arc, tension, etc.  Here, this challenge was compounded by the need to remain consistent with and true to a future history already written in the subsequent two books.  I was also initially worried about keeping suspenseful enough a story whose final chapter seemed to have already been told.  But there proved to be boundless mysteries to explore in the dark years before The Kommandant’s Girl, with twists and turns that continually surprised me.

The idea of going back in time proved to be exciting.  The period just after the First World War is such rich historical ground for storytelling, with the whole world being rebuilt.  I had some trepidation, though, as to whether the many readers who love the myriad novels that have been set during the Second World War would follow me back in time.  Fortunately, readers seem to be discovering this earlier era, as evidenced by the popularity of recent novels such as The Paris Wife and books about Fitzgerald and Zelda.

Perhaps my favorite part of The Ambassador’s Daughter is the final third, which follows Georg and Margot back to Berlin.  It was inspired by some research I had done for an earlier novel, The Things We Cherished, into the Jewish community of Weimar Berlin, where Jews were facing important questions Zionism versus assimilation, and what their roles were to be in the new order of Germany and Europe at large. It is simply fascinating to explore their perspective in light of the tragic events to come. 

My next novel, The Winter Guest, will return to the Second World War and twin Polish sisters who find an American paratrooper downed in the woods.  But I’m very grateful to have taken this detour back in time with The Ambassador’s Daughter to learn the story behind the story.

Book Cover of the Week: The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig

Tuesday, August 06, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This irresistible collection of stories by Stefan Zweig (translated by Anthea Bell) will be published by Pushkin Press in November (seriously: beautiful on the inside and beautiful on the outside):

View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.

Writing the Tradition

Friday, August 02, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Daniel Torday wrote about Jewish novella-writers and discussed the complicated "Jewish Writer Question." Daniel's novella The Sensualist won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award in Outstanding Debut Fiction. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

After five years as a magazine editor in New York City, I took the leap and the risk to exit the race and take an MFA. I was in my 20’s and didn’t know much more than that I loved books and wanted to write one. My first workshop there was taught by an African American writer whose novels I love, and whose advice—every word of it—has stuck with me every day since.

In one of my first days there, I turned in a short story about a Jewish kid who goes to visit his grandparents in Montreal, and after a long night of drinking ends up skinny-dipping in a hot tub only to see, dramatically and in great detail, that his grandfather isn’t circumcised.

This fact came under appropriate scrutiny by my fellow workshop members. Maybe the writing wasn’t so hot (it wasn’t). Maybe no one wants to read a long description of an octogenarian’s foreskin (they sure don’t!). So I demurred. The story’s been in a drawer since.

But in private conference after workshop, the novelist sat me down. He could see how dejected I was.

“Look look look—so maybe you didn’t pull of that scene,” he said. “But you’ve got material here.”

I looked at him. I said it seemed like people weren’t responding. Maybe I should find something else to write about—I’d been a magazine editor the past couple years, played mandolin in a successful bluegrass band. Who wanted to hear about these people in my family?

“But you’re part of a tradition, man,” the novelist said. “The great Jewish writers! Babel, Singer, Malamud, Bellow, Brodkey, Ozick, Roth! Part of the tradition. Keep after it.”

He was right. He didn’t know I’d spent the past decade reading the Russians, reading Melville, Hawthorne, Austen, Joyce, Woolf, Pound, Faulkner, James, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and that I’d never read a word of Babel, Singer, Malamud, Bellow, Brodkey, Ozick, Roth.

The Tradition. Keep after it. First I’d have some reading to do.

So I did.

Daniel Torday's debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2015.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, August 02, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

The Complication of the Jewish Writer Question

Wednesday, July 31, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Daniel Torday wrote about Jewish novella-writers. Daniel's novella The Sensualist won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award in Outstanding Debut Fiction. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

About three days after my second daughter, Delia, was born, I got a call from the editor of a novella I’d published the previous year. She said, “Congratulations!” I thought she was talking about the new baby. After three long minutes of my bumbling about diapers and sleeplessness she said, “You don’t know, do you? You won the National Jewish Book Award!”

My first response was: Holy Oh My God! My second was: I mean, G-d! And my third was: Wait, so, does this make me a Jewish Writer? Because some part of me doesn’t know what that means, and what that means for me.

So here are some facts:

My father was bar mitzvahed one year before I was. My grandparents both converted to Catholicism in Budapest in the ‘40s to survive the war. I have not been to shul in a very long time. I teach undergraduates, and when a seminar falls on Yom Kippur, I generally fail to cancel class. I have written and published short stories about a kid who makes a brother for himself out of duct tape; a guy who is being tortured for not believing the day is thirty hours long; an affair between two non-religiously affiliated adults who have an affair on or around September 11. My second daughter, Delia, who I mentioned above, definitely has an Irish name.

But then here are some concurrent facts: I was bar mitzvahed after many years of Hebrew school, and went on to be confirmed in the shul I attended all through my teenage years. I know what the word “shul” means. I fast every year on Yom Kippur even if I’m teaching—and would probably cancel class if I had the foresight when writing a syllabus. Though my grandmother died too afraid ever to admit she was Jewish after the war, having lost almost everyone in her family, my grandfather told us his family’s history long before he passed a couple summers back. My novella has a major scene that takes place at a Passover seder. I did not have to do “research” in order to find out how a seder goes, to look up the Hebrew for the Four Questions—my memory has them. The book I’m finishing now, a first novel, is in part about a Jewish teenager who is forced to leave his home north of Prague before the war and who ends up piloting a Lancaster bomber for the RAF. My first daughter, Abigail, has a name derived from the Hebrew for “a father’s joy.”

Which is all to say: Am I a Jewish writer? I am Jewish. I have now written two books with decidedly Jewish themes. I have spent time drafting stories and other books wholly absent Jewish themes. Earlier this week I posted a blog here about my favorite “Jewish” novella writers—Roth and Bellow, both of whom are widely thought of as Jewish writers. And who are among my major influences. But then I also love James Salter, who was born James Horowitz. And EL Doctorow. And JD Salinger. All of whom never quite got that moniker.

Which is all to say again: Am I a Jewish writer?

Here’s one more fact:

Last summer I was assigned a review of the New American Haggadah, translated by Nathan Englander and edited by Jonathan Safran Foer (Jewish writer; Jewish writer). And so for the first time in many years I sat down and read Genesis and Exodus. When I did, I had a feeling not of learning, or of readdressing, but of a bone-deep memory that put tears in my eyes by the end of my reading every day. Jewish writer? In many ways complicated. Jewish reader? I’ll own it without equivocation.

Daniel Torday's debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2015.

Michael David Lukas' Food For The Essence Of Life (Or Reading)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013 | Permalink

This week, Michael David Lukas, the author of The Oracle of Stamboul blogs for The Postscript on understanding the Middle East through food, and what to eat while discussing his book. 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" Michael at your next book club meeting, request him through JBC Live Chat

A few years ago, I wrote an essay for Slate arguing that food—particularly Claudia Roden’s cookbook, Arabesque—might be the best way to understand the Middle East. I may have overstated my case (I was working, at the time, as an assistant to the Jewish cookbook author Joan Nathan and was very much enamored by the power of food). But I still stand by the basic crux of the essay: food is an excellent means of understanding Middle Eastern history, society, and religion. Food brings people together and allows us to communicate beyond language. As the Turks say, “food feeds the essence of life.” Thus, I have devised the following menu for book clubs reading The Oracle of Stamboul.

Slow Roasted Lamb Stew
(About halfway through The Oracle of Stamboul, Eleonora and Moncef Bey have roast lamb and carrots for dinner. For those who don’t have time to roast a lamb, this Turkish inspired lamb stew is a great substitution.)

 Stuffed Grape Leaves
(Who doesn’t like stuffed grape leaves?)

(I made this recipe almost every week when I was living in Turkey. Make sure to use fine bulgur. Pomegranate syrup is an excellent addition if you can find it.)

Fried Artichokes, Jewish Style
(This recipe isn’t Turkish, per se. But it is goes well with the rest of the menu, and I wanted to include a recipe from Joan Nathan.)

(It’s probably easier to buy baklava at your local Middle Eastern grocery. But, for more confident chefs, I’ve included this recipe.)

Fresh Loquats
(I love fresh loquats and they are mentioned briefly in the novel.)

Turkish Tea and Turkish Coffee
(What Turkish meal would be complete without Turkish tea and coffee?)

To read more from Michael, see his blog posts for The Visiting Scribe

Want to share your own book club menu ideas? Go to the new JBC Book Clubs Menu page. Submit your book/food pairing before August 6, and you'll be entered to win a free bundle of books!

The Jews and the Novella

Monday, July 29, 2013 | Permalink
Daniel Torday's novella The Sensualist won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award in Outstanding Debut Fiction. His debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2015. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’m biased, having recently published a novella with strong Jewish themes. And this is deeply unscientific and probably not defensible. But I’ll just say it unequivocally and then back off if need be: the most timeless, lasting novellas of the second half of the 20th century were written by Jewish novella-writers. With apologies to Jim Harrison and Denis Johnson, whose novellas I love and teach, it seems to me that Philip Roth and Saul Bellow are the two major novellists (the proper epithet for the novella writer) of the past sixty years. You’d be hard-pressed to put Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus” and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day up against virtually any other novella of their epoch and find them wanting. Those novellas have grown to be foundational texts of their times, cornerstones of those two major Jewish American writers’ oeuvres.

But more than that, what distinguishes Roth and Bellow as novellists is the sheer quantity and quality of novellas each published—frequently. A quick perusal of the TOC of Bellow’s Collected Stories turns up nearly as many novellas as “stories”—“The Bellarosa Connection,” which was published stand-alone; “A Theft,” one of the Nobel-winner’s finest; “What Kind of Day Did You Have?” clocking in at 70-plus small-print pages. And after the small masterpieces of his mid-career gave us the 86 pages of The Prague Orgy, 96 pages of The Breast, and the speedy The Ghost Writer, the back half of Roth’s celebrated late-career output finds the hopefully-future-Nobelist (a fan can dream, can’t he?) alternating big novels with quick strike novellas published as “novels”: The Dying Animal and Everyman.

Now none of this is to asperse those great mid-to-late century gentile short-novels we can’t but read with envy: Tobias Wolff’s The Barracks Thief, the famous novellas of Marquez and the short masterpieces of Don DeLillo (which, OK, maybe start to poke some boulevard-size holes in my theory, but this is a blog post, after all, and far from comprehensive). And if we’re moving back more toward, say, 1940, I’ll read each piece of Faulkner’s Go Down Moses and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem again as soon as I get a chance (while trying not to make too much of their Old Testamenty titles).

But I’ll just end by saying that if there was a Jewish-ish writer of the mid-century who gives Roth and Bellow a real run for their money, we might need look no further than… JD Salinger. No one seems to claim Salinger as a “Jewish Writer”—certainly not the way we do Roth or Bellow—though the influence suffuses the Glass family, who like their creator were the scion of a Jewish father and gentile mother. Still: each part of Franny and Zooey, my favorite parts of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction— those I’ll go back to soon. And again. Right after my next run-through of that heavily Salinger-influenced novella I’ll always call my favorite: “Goodbye, Columbus.”

Read more about Daniel Torday's The Sensualist here.

Related: "West and Schwartz, Dreaming at the Movies" by Ilan Mochari.

Mid-Summer Check-in

Friday, July 26, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

What have your fellow readers been reading this summer? We have the top 12 titles you've been checking out on our website over the past two months:


Book Cover of the Week: The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

Friday, July 26, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Past Twitter Book Club author Natasha Solomons's new novel, The Gallery of Vanished Husbands, will be published in August by Plume.  In the meantime, enjoy the UK version of the cover below (designed by Jim Tierney) and check out some of her other titles here.

View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.