The ProsenPeople

Campy Lizards, or, A Look Back to My Literary Beginnings

Friday, May 27, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, C. Alexander London wrote about being an accidental adventurer and sequels and the Torah.

In honor of the end of Book Expo America 2011, and appearing on a blog aimed at the People of the Book, I am presenting the full, unedited text of the first book I ever wrote: Lawrence and Luther Lizard Go to Camp.

This work, written in 1988 with my coauthor Jon Kleinman, tells the epic tale of two lizards on their first trip to summer camp. With its elements of the paranormal and vivid depiction of dystopian society, it was sure to be a bestseller had we ever gotten around to our revisions. As it stands, the book, written on an Apple IIe and printed on an old dotmatrix printer, was inspired by our own previous summer’s adventures at camp Kennebec in Maine, which, while being mostly filled with Jews (Wet Hot American Summer sums it up pretty well) had, like so many Jewish summer camps, appropriated North American indigenous culture in what I am sure are terribly offensive ways. That’s probably a blog entry for another time.

For now, I present Lawrence and Luther Lizard Go to Camp. I will leave the exegeses for the comments section.

It was the last day of third grade for Luther and Lawrence Lizard. They just said goodbye to their teacher, Miss L.E. Phant, and hopped on the school bus for home.

When they got home Mrs. Lizard had their favorite snack waiting for them; crickets and water. Mmm Mmm.

They were very excited because next week they were leaving for their first sleepover camp.

Camp Swampyland was far away from their home in Maine. Lawrence and Luther were only 9 years old and they never been away from home without their parents. They were a little nervous but they were happy to be away from their bratty little sister.

The week flew by and before they knew it, they were driving into the camp’s front gate. They saw the big lake and the cabins. There were lots of other guys all around. Everybody was playing and Lawrence and Luther couldn’t wait to join in.

They got out of the bus and saw a very large man. He introduced himself as Chris Crocodile, and said that he was their counselor. He said they should get their stuff into the cabin and get ready for swimming.

Chris took them to the lake for swimming and they met their swimming teacher, Fred Fish. Both of the boys passed their deep water tests and had fun goofing around on the waterslide and the big air tube. They asked Fred Fish if he would take them out for a canoe ride.

Fred said yes, so off they went. It was time for lunch. Everyone always complained about camp food. Luther said, “I bet this placemat will taste better than the food here!” Lawrence said, “Gee, I hope they serve crickets once in a while.”

They day went very quickly. At night the boys listened to ghost stories around the campfire. Then they went to bed. The next day was great! They played baseball against another cabin and won 6-2. They played football and went swimming.

The it happened! It was time for lunch. Everyone was saying they would rather be kissing a frog. The counselor told them about the big dance with Camp Swampyland for Girls. At the dance they served fresh crickets and water. The boys danced a lot and had fun. The next day they got a letter from their mom. It said, “How’s the camp food? Are you having fun? By the way, your sister wrote you a note: I miss U. I like ur toys-Linda.”

Lawrence and Luther suddently wanted to be home and to make sure Linda had not touched their new science kit! The next dauy was the beginning of switch week. This was when the kids became counselors and the counselors became kids. Lawrence became the head counselor of the camp and Luther became his assistant. The new cook, who was the boys’ friend Iswald, made wonderful meals. He fried crickets, roasted crickets, barbecued crickets and even mashed crickets. For desert one night they even had crickets with chocolate sauce!

The next day was very exciting for Lawrence and Luther. Their bunk was going on a campout. The campout was so much fun it went by too quickly. When they came back it was finally Saturday and the boys could wear whatever they wanted. They didn’t have to wear their camp uniforms that nobody liked. All too soon camp was over and the boys were sad.

Back home everyone said they had missed them. Lawrence and Luther remembered their science kit and raced upstairs to check it. They found it just the way they had left it. It was the end of a perfect summer, and they would soon have to go back to school.

Original first edition/printing can be read below:

C. Alexander London is the author of We Are Not Eaten By Yaks: An Accidental Adventure, and the forthcoming sequel, We Dine With Cannibals. As Charles London, his grown-up alter ego, he wrote One Day The Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War and Far From Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community.  

The Never Ending Book

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, C. Alexander London wrote about being an accidental adventurer. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

By far the question I am asked most often by my young readers is, as well as by teachers and librarians: “When does the next Accidental Adventures book come out?”

It’s a flattering question for an author, and one of the many blessings of writing series fiction. If the characters and the story resonate, readers will demand more. Having only published the first book (We Are Not Eaten By Yaks) in a planned quadrology about the TV-addicted children of world famous explorers, it is gratifying to know that readers are eager for more.

The hype surrounding The Hunger Games trilogy or The latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book or, of course, the mother of them all, Harry Potter, shows just how eager fans of a popular series can be for its continuation. Younger readers, who struggle with the constant state of change and loss that is childhood, yearn for familiar characters and the persistent worlds that exist in well-made series. It’s only natural. There is a sadness that comes with finishing a beloved book, whether you’re the writer or the reader.

“I grow fond of these characters I bring into being,” the acclaimed English novelist, David Mitchell, told an interviewer, explaining why he brings some characters back in book after book. “In my adult life I have spent more weeks in [their company] than I have with my own flesh-and-blood parents or brother. Letting them dissolve into nothingness feels too much like abandoning an inconvenient cat by a reservoir.”

This dissolution into nothingness is feeling well known to readers, the hollow feeling when the pages have all run out; the longing for more time in that imagined world when the author has no more to say.

Series books can keep this dissolution at bay, for both reader and writer, for years at a time. It was easier to bear sending Harry Potter back to the Dursleys when you knew he’d be back at Hogwarts in the next publishing cycle.

Of course, there is a dark side to the love of these series. A recent article in the New Yorker, “Just Write It,” about George R. R. Martin, the author of the Song of Ice and Fire trilogy, describes the madness that can descend on fans when the next book in the series is delayed, how adoration can quickly turn to resentment and the toll that can take on an author’s relationship with his readers.

It can be painful for an author, struggling to deliver. The more successful the series, the more pressure the storyteller is under to meet the needs and expectations of fans. And for the fans, there is always the lurking sense of the doom that their beloved world—whether it be Hogwarts or the conflict-ridden districts of the Hunger Games—must come to an end. After the 7th Harry Potter book, many people I know felt a real and profound sense of loss.

There is, however, a technology that has shielded the readers of one series from this sense of loss: Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the completion of the reading of the five books of Moses.

Every year, Jews read aloud these holy books and every year, at the end of the reading of the fifth book, Deuteronomy, Moses dies. Moses is the closest person that Torah has to a protagonist and, by some accounts, is himself the author of the whole shebang, or at least, the amanuensis for the Creator. And then boom, he’s dead, after a year of reading and study that has created more arguments than 1000 Tolkien message boards combined.

So what do the Jews who have been reading this series with more faith and fervor than even the most die-hard Twilight fans do to prevent that devastating feeling of completion?

They party and they start over.

Simchat Torah, which celebrates the end of the annual reading of the Torah, also celebrates the beginning of the annual reading of the Torah. After finishing the final passages of Deuteronomy, the first passages of Genesis are read.  The last breath of Moses goes right into the breath that creates the universe, that brings light into darkness and sets off what is, for believers, the first story ever told.

And then, to top it off, there’s dancing.

That empty of feeling you get when you finish a really good book doesn’t ever come, because you never finish. You read it again, and you dance. When the Rabbis are faced with the inevitable “what next?” they can answer with the creation of the world.

This didn’t happen by accident. It was in the 14th century that the idea of going right into the book Genesis after Deuteronomy was introduced. It was an innovation to give comfort at the end of reading and an affirmation that study and learning of Torah never ends.

As a thoroughly secular author, I do not pretend to have illusions of holiness for my books—there are wedgies and lizard poop and talking yaks, after all—and I don’t think my books could bear 2,000 years of rereading (maybe 200?), but Simchat Torah, does offer some help for secular authors and readers.

We rely on our own sages of literacy—librarians and teachers—informed, professional, and sensitive to the needs of readers, to find their own innovations to keep the cycle of reading going. There are summer reading campaigns and parties; there are new social websites for book lovers; there are always new series to discover.

No beloved series can last forever, but a reading life can, as one book breathes into another.

C. Alexander London is the author of We Are Not Eaten By Yaks: An Accidental Adventure, and the forthcoming sequel, We Dine With Cannibals. As Charles London, his grown-up alter ego, he wrote One Day The Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War and Far From Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community.  

The Wandering Jew and The Yeti

Monday, May 23, 2011 | Permalink

C. Alexander London is the author of We Are Not Eaten By Yaks: An Accidental Adventure, and the forthcoming sequel, We Dine With Cannibals. As Charles London, his grown-up alter ego, he wrote One Day The Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War and Far From Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community.  He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

It’s odd that a middle grade novel called We Are Not Eaten By Yaks about two eleven year old couch potatoes and their adventures should have its origins in a personal quest for Jewish meaning, but if I had not been for the scattering of the Jewish people, I never would have been in Rangoon to celebrate the High Holidays with a few of the last Jews in Burma, and I never would have written it.

I suppose I should start at the beginning, before I became a writer of books for younger readers.

I was in Asia doing research for what would become Far From Zion, a narrative of my journey through the far reaches of the Diaspora to figure out what it meant for me to be a part of the Jewish people. What did I have in common with a Jew in Rangoon? What did he share with a recent convert in rural Uganda? And what did all of us share with a Jewish community in Arkansas or with my Orthodox great-great grandfather who settled in Virginia or with the nephew of a Chasidic Rabbi in Jerusalem? What bound us together; why did Jewish community persist, and what was my place in it?

I took a trip, starting in Burma, to find out.

At the time, however, thousands of monks and pro-democracy protesters were clashing violently with government soldiers all over the country, and on Yom Kippur, things in Rangoon started to get crazy. I literally walked into the middle of the protests in front of a sacred Buddhist shrine in the center of downtown. Within twenty-four hours, the military junta, which controls Burma (and which they had renamed Myanmar) sealed off the country, shut down the internet and scrambled all western television. No CNN. No NBC. No Cartoon Network. And I really missed it.

Even as things were going insane in the streets, TV somehow made me feel safer, more comfortable, less far from home. After only a month, I was tired of traveling and chaos and excitement. I got out of the country just when things started to get violent in Burma and I flew to Mumbai, India in the middle of the festival of Ganesh. Fireworks and pink paint everywhere. Crowds of pilgrims and partygoers on every corner.

I was so over it.

I was homesick already and I had a year of travel ahead of me to places like Uganda, Bosnia, Iran, Cuba and, yes, even Arkansas. My friends and family were often jealous because I was always in some far-off place having some crazy adventure—family members pictured me as a cross between Indiana Jones and Woody Allen—but all I wanted was to be curled up on the couch at home watching TV.

It was on that first flight out of Rangoon (and a series of others as my year of wandering unfolded) that I imagined these two eleven year olds, Oliver and Celia Navel, who just want to be left alone to watch television, but are doomed for a life adventure. They lived at the Explorers Club and are the children of world famous adventurers, inheritors of a great tradition of globetrekking, with which they want nothing at all to do.

When we meet Oliver and Celia in the first book in the series, they wish they could cast off that inheritance and just be the normal children of boring parents. But their mother has gone missing; their father craves excitement, and they are doomed to travel the world, to encounter mystics and sages, discover ancient ruins, and come face to face with the mythic Yeti. They cannot cast off their destiny!

And they are so over it.

I guess there is something Jewish about that. After being forced to wander for thousands of years, the Jewish people too, were so over it.

Of course, Moses never had to fight a Yeti.

C. Alexander London is the author of We Are Not Eaten By Yaks: An Accidental Adventure, and the forthcoming sequel, We Dine With Cannibals. He will be blogging all week for the JBC/MJL Author Blog.

Are We Born to Wander?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Last night the Jewish Book Council attended a wonderful event, thrown by Reboot, called People of the Book: Are We Born to Wander?

The event featured a conversation between A.J. Jacobs, Mark Lamster, Charles London, and David Sax. The event was moderated by the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine, Alana Newhouse.

Jacobs, Master, London, and Sax discussed whether or not the Jewish people are innately drawn to wander because they are Jewish and what it is about wandering that feels so Jewish.

Mark Lamster, A.J. Jacobs, Alana Newhouse, David Sax, and Charles London

London discussed his work, and the experience of wandering the world in search of pockets of Jewish communities. Sax discussed the experience of wandering the U.S. in search of Jewish delis. Jacobs discussed the wandering of his mind from one experiment to the next, and the obsessiveness in his projects being a Jewish quality. Lamster questioned why he, as a Jewish man, felt the need to wander into the lives of 17th century Christian men.

To learn more about the wandering of these four authors, be sure to check out each of their books:

A.J. Jacobs: The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment

Mark Lamster: Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens

Charles London: Far from Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community

David Sax: Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen

Alana Newhouse: A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward

The Most Dangerous Contraband of All

Friday, August 14, 2009 | Permalink

In his last blogs, Charles London talked about a collected Jewish museum and the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda.

The ancient Israelites and I have something in common. When we travel, we tend to under pack the essentials—food, water, leavened bread—and to over pack books. They had the Torah, which I imagine was totally impractical in the desert. I have a library card from the New York Public Library, my own kind of Mt. Sinai, and before I travel, I stop by and try to choose books to take. As I often travel alone, I take the choice of my companions very seriously.

During research for my first book, I headed to war zones and refugee camps to work with children, and needed reading that would inspire, uplift, inform, and occasionally, distract. I went with Virgil’s Aeneid and Christopher Logue’s War Music. I brought along Nelson DeMille for when I needed to escape, and there was always a book on the region where I was heading — The Bridge on the Drina  by Ivo Andric for Bosnia, Adam Hochschild’s stunning King Leopold’s Ghost when I found myself in the Congo.

I took Rudyard Kipling’s Kim to Burma, where I would be talking to plenty of orphans and street urchins, but I brought along the first in the Hannibal Lecter series, Red Dragon, and a heavy book about the military junta, Living Silence.

I had my classics, my irrelevant thrillers, my informative nonfiction. It was all pretty clear and I always packed more books than I could ever read while I was working. I rarely travel for pleasure.

But then I set out on a year-long journey to far-flung and unlikely corners of the Jewish Diaspora. I didn’t know what to bring. DeMille felt too profane. Kipling felt irrelevant. Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean was checked out.

Monday morning services at the largest synagogue in Tehran

I couldn’t bring anything too political, either, ruling out so much. Burmese immigration agents might go through my bags; the Iranians and the Cubans certainly would. One doesn’t realize the limits on free speech in the world until one starts to choose books for a long journey. I had no desire to go to prison for a stray copy of Exodus or Portnoy’s Complaint.

Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book would be fine for my return to trip to Bosnia, with its compelling tales of the Sarajevo Haggadah, mixing the thrilling, the literary, and the divine, but otherwise, I was at a loss.

What kind of books do you take on a spiritual quest?

I knew the Five Books of Moses made sense, even though it stirred terrible memories of Hebrew school. Revisiting the stories could ground me in the narrative that unified the Jews of Burma with the Jews of Uganda and of Arkansas. They could be that normative document that would locate me in our peoplehood, while I found my head swirling through cultures and time zones, eating fesenjan in Iran and brisket in Arkansas, looking for the best roux in New Orleans, or having mangoes plucked right from the trees just before Sabbath in Uganda. God knows food wouldn’t unify my journey.

I needed more books.

I packed Buber’s On Judaism, and a collection of short stories by Isaac Bashevis SingerThe Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse  seemed an inspired find — 3,000 years of poetic rumination on God, Diaspora, faith, and even being drunk. I planned to explore all those things. It was nice to have the old poets as my guide.

But I worried that the friendly officer at Imam Khomeni Airport outside of Tehran would be suspicious of the Hebrew and Yiddish in the poems, thinking me some kind of Zionist agitator. He didn’t even look at bag, much less in it. Why hadn’t I brought Journey from the Land of No, Roya Hakakian’s memoir about being a young Jewish girl caught up in the 1979 revolution against the Shah? Why hadn’t I brought Peace Be Upon You, an exploration of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cooperation throughout the centuries? I found myself lamenting all the books I didn’t bring. No Sholem Aleichem? No Phillip Roth at all? Should I have brought a Jewish cookbook? More religious writing? Some Chabon? The Accidental Empire or The Case for Israel? Why had no one translated the great Jewish Cuban authors into English? Where was the epic of African Jewry? What was I missing?

In every airport, at night in every hostel or hotel or long dark bus ride, I found myself lamenting those books I hadn’t brought, the writing that could have shed some light on my searching that I would never know. I never missed clean socks or malaria pills or a decent first aid kit. I missed books. Perhaps that was the truly Jewish experience I’d been looking for.

Charles London, the author of One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War and the just-released Far from Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community, has been guest-blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council all week. Visit Far From Zion, his official website.

The Abayudaya Jews of Uganda

Wednesday, August 12, 2009 | Permalink

In his last blog, Charles London talked about a collected Jewish museum.

The Jerusalem Post has published a report, unsurprising to anyone who has spent time with the Abayudaya community in Uganda, that Israel is sending a Jewish response to the famine wreaking havoc in northern Uganda.

As the article says, Uganda’s Jewish community “has mobilized like few others to fight the famine.” While Israel will still not officially recognize the Abayudaya as Jews, they are demonstrating the best of Jewish values.

For several years, the Jews of Uganda faced threats of violence, oppression, and isolation if they lived openly as Jews. In the last 30 years, they had to fight their neighbors and the government to regain their own tiny patch of land, but they have turned that struggle into prosperity—opening a clinic and a variety of community institutions, and turning their former enemies into allies, in an attempt to lift everyone up from poverty and mistrust.

I saw this life-saving spirit last year when I spent time with the Abayudaya, who are mostly subsistence farmers living in the hills outside of Mbale in eastern Uganda. They had started an interfaith, fair-trade, peace-centered coffee growers cooperative, called Mirembe Kawomera, which means “Delicious Peace” and that promotes sustainable farming and interfaith cooperation.

In recent years, they have been having amazing success. While I was there, I heard tales of other communities witnessing the rebirth of the Jewish community — which, like so much in Uganda had been underground during Idi Amin’s rule — and trying to learn more about Judaism and Jewish history. This interest comes from the simple fact that where the Jews of Uganda live, they try to bring prosperity for their neighbors.

I went into a classroom at Hadassah Primary School, a school run by the Jewish community for students of all faiths. When I tried to get a sense of the diversity of the classroom, the students all made a point of telling me, “we are all Ugandan.”

This simple statement from a group of smiling Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and animist students filled me with admiration. On a continent where too often ethnic diversity has been exploited to tear societies apart for political gain, the Jews of Uganda are using difference to promote tolerance, mutual respect, prosperity, and unity.

Though they are officially converts to Judaism, there is a deep-seated historical basis for the multiplicity of identity that the Ugandan Jews are living out. Our long Diaspora has taught us how to inhabit multiple spaces — national, spiritual, physical, and political — in creative and productive ways. Any doubt that the Abayudaya are authentic Jews should be put to rest by the simple fact that they are living and sharing Jewish values every day in those dusty hills in east Africa. They are an amazing community, and one, which should be welcomed and celebrated in rich ecosystem of global Jewry.

Charles London, the author of One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War and the just-released Far from Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community, is guest-blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council. Visit Far From Zion, his official website.

Celebrating the Global People

Monday, August 10, 2009 | Permalink

Charles London, author of Far from Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community, is guest-blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Recently, Tel Aviv’s Museum of the Jewish Diaspora announced that it “will completely overhaul its exhibitions in an effort to put Diaspora Jews on an equal footing with those in Israel.” Part of that effort even means that museum is getting a new name: The Museum of the Jewish People.

This development acknowledges that the mindset in Israel has shifted from “the negation of exile,” to the reality that the Jewish People are a geographically and culturally diverse people, a global people.

In the past year, while doing research for a book, Far from Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community, I had the opportunity to explore some of that diversity. What I saw astounded me, from the Abayudaya in Uganda — black African farmers who have been converting to Judaism by the hundreds and building Jewish institutions in the dusty hills outside of Mbale — to the so-called Wal-Mart Jews of Bentonville, Arkansas, a group assembled from all over the country and all across the spectrum of Jewish affiliation who are creating an amazing community in the heart of the Bible Belt.

I was lucky enough to get into Iran, where I could learn firsthand about the large Jewish community living in the Islamic republic, and I even celebrated the High Holidays in Burma, while thousands of monks staged the largest pro-democracy demonstrations in decades.

Within each of these Jewish communities there was nothing static about their identities, but also something amazingly unified, a sense of history and purpose that was awe inspiring.

It is that awe that I hope the new Museum of the Jewish People will capture. Its newly-stated purpose reminds me of a famous Jewish explorer. In the 12th century, a man known as Benjamin of Tudela took a journey. He set out from Navarre, in northeast Spain, to visit the Holy Land, but he took the long way ’round, so to speak, and visited Jewish communities in India, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. His published account, The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, provided a description of western Asia one hundred years before Marco Polo.

At the time of his journey, things were pretty rough for the Jews of Spain. The published Itinerary told of countless other communities of Jews, some of which were thriving, some of which were suffering. His journey seemed to say to his people back at home that no matter their current state, there were Jews all over the known world whose circumstances were different. Sometimes we are up, sometimes we are down.

He even described a war-like race of Jews in India who raided the lands from high atop mountain castles. All these diverse groups shared a Jewish — which he read as distinctly religious — identity, and the rising and falling of the communities gave his brethren in Spain a sense of the historical sweep of the Jewish people.

We can’t be sure why he wrote the book he wrote, but I think of it as a kind of community therapy for the times he lived in. Things may be uncertain, his work said, but Jews will survive and will continue to find their place in societies as diverse as Ethiopia and Baghdad, the French countryside and Jerusalem.

I hope this newly-conceived Museum will provide a similar comfort to Jews now who worry about our unstable times. Everywhere we find ourselves, from Arkansas to Tehran, we find ways to build meaningful Jewish lives and meaningful lives as global citizens, serving our neighbors and our nations. My own journey through the Diaspora certainly made me optimistic that we’ll continue to do so for a very long time. I often think that the greatest gift of the Jews to the world was not Monotheism, but Diaspora — the ability to be a people scattered, home in a thousand places.

Charles London is the author of One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War and the just-released Far from Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community. Visit Far From Zion, his official website, and come back right here, where he’ll be blogging all week.