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This Book Club and That Book Club

Friday, April 17, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Barbara Stark-Nemon wrote about writing visual arts into literature and how her family chose to remember Germany after World War II. She is the author of the recently published novel Even in Darkness. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Let’s talk about book clubs. I belong to two. I became part of the first one at the invitation of a neighbor, who is not only one of the best readers I know, but happily, one of the best people I know. He told me this book club had been in existence for many years and consisted of a core group of men and women with occasional temporary members.

Book selections for the club are limited to novels that have already come out in paperback. There is no moderator. This group consists largely of lawyers whose politics lean left. Two of the dozen members are practicing Jews. These lawyers read books. Lots of books. After joining the group, I realized that I would be reading many books that I would never read on my own. I liked some, didn’t like others, or had mixed feelings. The books were drawn heavily from Booker Prize lists, NY Times reviews, and referrals from other readers.

As I was beginning to shift my own career toward full-time writing, I thought it was important to read outside my comfort zone, which I’d happily inhabited with authors of literary fiction and the occasional historical novel. Enter, sharp edgy humorists, pessimistic political commentators, cross-cultural and international observers, regional writers, and mythmakers. Often a member researched a book’s historical and literary context, and reported to the group. The conversation was always engaging.

The occasional hard work of finishing well-written books I didn’t much like, and then defending my judgments, was and is good work, but I yearned to read and discuss more of the books I enjoy most. So five years ago, I joined a second book club.

This group consists exclusively of professional Jewish women, perhaps half of whom are lawyers. (What is it with me and book-crazy lawyers?) I almost always enjoy reading their selected books - heavy on the literary fiction, mostly contemporary, but sometimes historical. One person is assigned responsibility for presenting background about the book at each meeting, and then moderating the discussion. It’s a more formal structure than the other group’s, but seems to result in an equally lively interaction. There is more consensus among group members, but also more exploration of characters and thematic elements of books discussed.

One week, my original book club discussed a recent best-selling historical novel by a well-known author. The discussion was spirited, with half the members (including all the men) insisting the book was less engaging than promised, and too drawn out with clichéd characters. The charge of “classic women’s fiction” was leveled. A vocal minority argued that the book was engaging, well written, and deftly descriptive of the racial, gender and political limitations from which the characters had to break free.

In a revelatory summation, the book’s harshest critic asserted that he wanted the club to read books he wouldn’t read on his own, perhaps because they were too long, too challenging or unlikely to immediately draw him. Yet he still wanted them to be substantive and complex enough to occasion good discussion. He wanted the books to discomfit him and to teach him. He thought that evening’s book was too simple to meet these criteria. I disagreed, but was fascinated at how different his perspective was from mine.

The very same month, my all-women’s book club read the same book, and thought it was a fine conversion of real historical characters and events into an instructive, well-written, and engaging novel. The group derived inspiration from reading about the characters’ resilience, endurance, and victory over violence, intolerance, and physical and spiritual suffering. This was a timely lesson for me as an author – the same book, very different reactions. It helped me remember that readers come to the book for all different reasons, a good notion to keep in mind on the eve of a book release.

And, it’s why I’m in two book clubs.

Every story needs a narrator, and Barbara Stark-Nemon stepped up early in life. She learned a fascination with the magic of language from her storytelling grandfather. An undergraduate degree in English literature and art history and a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Michigan led Stark-Nemon to a career in schools, universities, and hospitals. As a teacher and speech-language therapist, Barbara specialized in child language disorder and deafness; everywhere, there were stories, and the need to be heard and seen that we all share. Today Stark-Nemon writes novels and family histories while gardening, cycling, and creating fiber art in Ann Arbor and Northport, Michigan.

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The Art in the Book

Wednesday, April 15, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Barbara Stark-Nemon wrote about how her family chose to remember Germany after World War II. She is the author of the recently published novel Even in Darkness. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

There's a special meadow in the forest of novelists who integrate the visual arts into their work. In Even in Darkness, there are four distinct scenes involving paintings or sculptures that produce transformational moments for the main characters. As a photographer, sketch and fiber artist, and art history student, I've long been attracted to the visual arts. Over time, I've come to realize how much that interest informs my writing.

When I first began work on the manuscript that became Even in Darkness, I had the good fortune to attend a weeklong writer's workshop with Elizabeth Kostova, whose novel Swan Thieves has artists as main characters. All week, the workshop experimented with various approaches to including visual arts in our work, and I came away with two of the scenes that remain in Even in Darkness today.

Since this novel is primarily based on the life of my great aunt, some of the works of art that appear in it are ones she owned, or saw and spoke about, and I admired them or learned about them when I visited her in Germany. Lithographs by Marc Chagall lined the marble-floored entry hall of the rectory where she lived, and the priest she lived with wrote a book about kings and prophets in Chagall’s art. A watercolor, by a little-known German Expressionist artist, hung on their dining room wall, and my aunt told me the story of how it represented her need to restore her capacity to see beauty after all she’d suffered during the war. An oil portrait of my great aunt graced a wall in the priest’s study. It made its way into Even in Darkness. When I walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, as my aunt and the priest once did, I imagined how her seeing a sculptural relief of St. Mary might have made her feel, as a grieving mother. I incorporated this scene into a chapter that catalyzed spiritual and emotional insights of Klare’s character for the reader.

Other art connections showed up in the book. On a research trip to an exhibit of German art rejected by the Nazis in the 1930s, I saw several portraits of the art dealer Johanna Ey, and I learned about the artists she aided. She became the basis of a character.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Museo de Picasso in Malaga, Spain, which houses an interesting collection of Picasso’s works spanning his whole career. A description of one of his mid-career portraits included a quotation by the photographer Roberto Otero that struck me as fundamentally true not only about drawing, but about writing.

"Of course, one never knows what's going to come out, but as soon as the drawing gets underway, a story or idea is born. And that's it. Then the story grows...and the drawing is turned into other drawings - a real novel."

When I write, I feel like I draw a character's portrait in words and then the picture is begun. It grows, and other pictures emerge and the images join into a whole. Otero's observation reminds me how closely the creative process is mirrored in visual and written forms and how I delight in that. As Alyson Richman says in an interview on the wonderful website by Stephanie Renee dos Santos about art in historical novels, “I feel as though I’ve been able to incorporate my love of art with my love of writing.”

Every story needs a narrator, and Barbara Stark-Nemon stepped up early in life. She learned a fascination with the magic of language from her storytelling grandfather. An undergraduate degree in English literature and art history and a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Michigan led Stark-Nemon to a career in schools, universities, and hospitals. As a teacher and speech-language therapist, Barbara specialized in child language disorder and deafness; everywhere, there were stories, and the need to be heard and seen that we all share. Today Stark-Nemon writes novels and family histories while gardening, cycling, and creating fiber art in Ann Arbor and Northport, Michigan.

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At the Heart of It

Monday, April 13, 2015 | Permalink

Barbara Stark-Nemon is the author of the recently published novel Even in Darkness. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Writing Even in Darkness fulfilled three important aspirations in my author life. It’s a love letter to a woman who influenced me more than she ever knew. It’s the fulfillment of the top item on my bucket list, which was to write a novel. And perhaps most interestingly, it represented the opportunity to write my way into an understanding of the impact my family’s Holocaust experiences had on me as a second-generation survivor.

The character Kläre Kohler in Even in Darkness is based on my great aunt, who was born in 1895, and lived her 100 years in Germany through two world wars and the Holocaust. I first met her when I was six years old during her first visit to America, an event which I dimly remember in the haze of rapid-fire German conversation, long meals, bottles of wine, and fragrant cigar smoke that characterized a lot of the time I spent at my grandparents’ home. I loved Kläre from the moment I met her, and her life in Germany seemed like a mystery. Why did she stay there after surviving the war and the concentration camp, when the rest of her family was in the U.S., Belgium and England? Why was she living with a Catholic priest?

In later years Kläre visited several more times for significant family events and I met and became devoted to the priest who is the basis for the character Ansel in Even in Darkness. I began to travel to Europe, often with my grandparents, and rarely did so without stopping to visit Kläre and Ansel in Germany or arrange for them to join us. Over those many visits I learned both Kläre’s and Ansel’s stories of childhood, war, loss and survival. They listened to my stories as well, and I found that across years, cultures, and language, each of them offered wise and astute counsel.

Only in the writing this novel about Kläre, however, did it become clear that in telling her story, I would reach an understanding of my own relationship to my family’s history in Germany and to the Holocaust. My parents had left privileged lives in Germany to escape the Nazis, coming to this country as teenagers. They had met at a German refugee group’s dance, and along with all four of my grandparents, returned to Germany shortly after the war to visit, take care of business matters and even vacation. My grandfather was an attorney who did restitution work, securing pensions and payments for Jews who had lost property, education, health and businesses.

My parents and grandparents were all practicing Jews dedicated to their temples and synagogues here, and were ever grateful to have become American citizens. However, there was no hatred of Germany or German people in our households. The adults around me frequently spoke German to each other and had many German friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish. My grandfather was always proud of his service in the German army in World War I and the Iron Cross First Class that was bestowed upon him. Different members of my family couldn’t agree whether we were escapees or survivors of the Holocaust. None of this went down well with some of my friends’ families, who rejected anything and anyone having to do with Germany. Navigating these different responses within and outside my family became a subtle skillset I had to learn.

Kläre helped me. All my life, I’d heard my grandparents describe her as “lucky,” even though her life in Germany was circumscribed by two world wars, time in a concentration camp, and enormous loss. Until I had to write her through all that, and reveal how she emerged as a vibrant, loving person, I didn’t understand that her “luck” was her remarkable capacity to reinvent herself in a way that honored the past, forgot nothing, but forgave much for the sake of creating meaning out of horror. I learned to embrace her example and acceptance of those whose experiences led them to very different places and perspectives as survivors. I treasure those lessons.

Every story needs a narrator, and Barbara Stark-Nemon stepped up early in life. She learned a fascination with the magic of language from her storytelling grandfather. An undergraduate degree in English literature and art history and a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Michigan led Stark-Nemon to a career in schools, universities, and hospitals. As a teacher and speech-language therapist, Barbara specialized in child language disorder and deafness; everywhere, there were stories, and the need to be heard and seen that we all share. Today Stark-Nemon writes novels and family histories while gardening, cycling, and creating fiber art in Ann Arbor and Northport, Michigan.

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