The Detroit Jewish Book Fair is seeking submissions by local authors. Who qualifies? A published author (Jewish or not) who is originally from Michigan or is currently living in Michigan and who has written a work of fiction or non-fiction with Jewish content. How’s that for leeway?
Book Fair’s local author event is an opportunity for authors to publicize their book, meet the public and be a part of an organization that celebrates books, their authors and the written word. (Where else to you get that today?)
During November (Jewish Book Month) Jewish Book Fairs are held across the country. Detroit’s is the oldest and with 20,000 + attendees, the largest. You don’t have to be Jewish to love or attend Book Fair. You just have to love books and love to read. Check out your community’s Jewish Book Fair come November. And if you’re an author with a Michigan connection and a book with Jewish content to promote send it tout de suite to Dalia Keene, Book Fair Director, 6600 West Maple Road. West Bloomfield, MI 48322.
I‘ve always recoiled from the categories: “children’s Holocaust literature” and “Holocaust picture books.” Can’t we leave children alone? Can’t we allow them their innocence without putting our angst upon the heads of those whose skulls have just fused?
Johanna Reiss’ Upstairs Room has won every children’s book award imaginable: Newbery Honor Book, Library of Congress Children’s Books. ALA Notable Children’s Book, School Library Journal Best Book, New York Times, Outstanding Book of the Year, and Jane Addams Book Award Honor Book. I haven’t read it but who am I to argue with the ALA et al? Her book, at least is aimed and readers twelve and up and not those who still need their books read to them.
Ms. Reiss was in town promoting A Hidden Life: A Memoir of August 1969. Promoting seems too crass a word for such a lovely woman who laid bare adult heartbreak with such honesty and wry humor. In August 1969 Reiss had returned to Holland with her husband, Jim, and their two young daughters. The purpose of the trip was to visit with the Dutch couple who had hid Reiss and her sister in an upstairs room, the very room that inspired the award-winning book.
Reiss was on her way to literary stardom happily married, the mother of two lovely young girls. Jim left Holland a few days before his family’s projected return to New York City. In the middle of the night this young wife and mother was awakened to take a phone call from home. Sleep-laden, Reiss didn’t quite catch the point of her brother-in-law’s call. Assuming her husband had been in an accident, she told her brother-in-law, “Tell Jim I’m coming.” “Too late,” he replied. Johanna Reiss took off for New York, leaving her daughters behind with the very couple who had protected her and her sister so many years before. Of this time in her life, Johanna Reiss calls it her second Holocaust.
A Hidden Life is the author’s attempt to make sense of this second cataclysmic tragedy of her life. And page by page she does, discovering that her husband’s mother had been mentally ill. HIs siblings, she reported had,”no recollections of their childhood. None.” Young Jim was the one who kept the household running, the one who tried to bring stability to his mother’s troubled mind. This legacy imprinted upon him a mission to be a saviour. Speaking to us that morning, Reiss mused that upon seeing the tiny room in which she and her sister had been kept, tripped something in his psyche. He had been unable to save his beloved wife. An irrational thought of course. But by then, perhaps, her husband was beyond the rational world. “I think he had a rescue thing,” she mused. “He worked for companies that were always going under. And perhaps I didn’t need rescuing any longer.”
A tiny woman, Reiss told her larger-than-life story with pathos and humor. “I am not a Sad Sack,” she said. “I am positive. I love music and travel. I play stick ball in the park with my grandchildren.” She told us that as she came to the end of the memoir, she began writing more slowly. She understood that once the book was finished, so too would end the years of connection to her husband untangling his suicide had given her. “In the end, he hurt himself more than me. He never got to see his daughters’ weddings. Or their children.”
At some point during the morning’s talk, Johanna Reiss misspoke and referred to her husband’s suicide as “Jim’s Holocaust.” Freudians can do what they wish with that one. In one sense, in this situation, the two words are indeed interchangeable.
“Are there any questions?” I asked. It was my second Book Fair reading of the day. The Book Fair folks had planned an amazing event; the room was packed with kids who had listened fairly attentively. Friends were there and it was great to look out and see not only sweet little faces but the faces of friends who had come from all over to hear my ten minute program. I pointed to a little boy across the room. “Yes?”
“When is this going to be over?” he asked.
W.C. Fields, where are you when we need you? Talk about taking the wind out of an author’s sails. I reminded the little tyke that there was still The Tushy Book to hear about and a visit with a dog who was blind and deaf but who was very sweet. Maybe if faces weren’t his thing, tushies and dogs would be.
It’s been a heady couple of weeks traveling to Connecticut to talk about I Love Jewish Faces and then being a part of Book Fair here, and then traveling to Ann Arbor for readings to two Sunday School classes and then a local author event out there as well. The response to the book has been so gratifying and the kids I read to in Ann Arbor really got the book’s message. They picked up on the image of a mom and her daughter adopted from China which led to a short conversation about how families are formed. Each event I felt a bit more confident, adding some elements to my program, taking away others.
The challenge remains getting the word out, hoping the book reaches the audience I want it to (basically every Jewish family in America, not to mention schools, libraries, and houses of worship!) And more than that I hope its message begins to broaden awareness that Jewish faces come in all colors, from all places and races.
Well, your erstwhile Book Fair reporter is back in the saddle. It’s been a wild ride being on both sides of the corral, listening to wonderful authors and having the delight of presenting my own book as well.
The Shanghai Moon, Rozan’s seventh suspense novel featuring P.I.Bill Smith and fellow gum shoe Lydia Chin, takes the pair in search of hijacked jewels. Long drawn to Chinese culture, Rozan dreamed up Chin — her slight, orderly, Asian, female private investigator to be Smith’s foil. “Straight and straightforward, Bill’s the archetypal voice over P.I.,” Rozan said. “He is healthy, [hetero], white. He’s an American male who can’t keep his soul clean.”
Creating Lydia Chin was a satisfying exercise of imagining for the Causasian, Jewish, East Coast Rozen. Characterizing Chin’s mother, however, came naturally. “All first generation ethnic mothers are similar,” she said. “They want their kids to, ‘Eat, eat, eat!’ They want their children to excel.”
The inspiration for Lauren Grodstein’s second novel was Melissa Drexler, the New Jersey teen who strangled her newborn son after giving birth to him in a bathroom during her high school prom. Childless at the time, Grodstein recalled creating scenes whose horror even she didn’t quite comprehend. Lost in fiction’s make-believable world, she said that she, “Didn’t understand how her editor found the [bathroom scenes] so disturbing.”
She admitted that once she gave birth she realized that she couldn’t have written the book had she already been a parent. It would have been too horrifying a place to enter she said. I loved how she described the wonderful alchemy of fiction writing: “It’s the paradox of the novel,” she said. “The imagination can grasp what the heart cannot reach.”
Lauren Grodstein also gets the Darvick prize for best way to find out your novel’s been sold: her agent called with the good news mere hours after the author gave birth to her first child. But since childbirth is no longer an option for yours truly, I’ll have to come up with a next best way to find out a novel’s been bought…..
Unlike SJ Rozan, who didn’t claim her writer’s soul until mid-life, Londoner Norman Lebrecht knew “from the time he was in his twenties” that he wanted to write fiction. But, he said, he turned to non-fiction because he felt he “wasn’t ready” to be a novelist. And so Lebrecht, who came to Detroit straight from London, turned to cultural and political commentary writing for the London Evening Standard, contributing to the BBC and Bloomberg News.
In town to talk about Opposites, he took attendees back to his first novel, The Song of Names, which won the Whitbread Award in 2003. The titular song of names, was a melody of memory, a way to remember the names of those murdered during the Holocaust. “It was a complete fiction,” Lebrecht said. “It came out of independent life. Not of me. I simply sat back and observed and fine tuned.” Only after the book’s publication does he learn of a real life situation eerily similar to the song of names his imagination grasped while he was “sitting back and observing.”
Tomorrow is the anniversary of Kristallnacht. I shall be back at Detroit’s Jewish Book Fair, keenly grateful for the miraculous quirk of history that allows me to report on Jewish books, written by Jewish authors. Amen.
And not because I like pumpkin pie. And definitely not because fall is waning and we begin the unavoidable trek into winter. No. The eleventh month is high on my list because November is Jewish Book Month, celebrated with a book lover’s equivalent to a ninth inning grand slam — Jewish Book Fairs.
You don’t have to be Jewish to love and attend Jewish Book Fairs. You just have to love books. Like them even. Each November, Jewish Community Centers across the country host authors galore who come to speak about their latest books. There are luncheons, Q&A’s with the authors, there are books to peruse and book lovers to chat up. There are books to buy (natch) and have autographed. What makes it Jewish? Author or subject matter. Or both. What makes it wonderful? All those books. All that energy. All those people who thrill at the written word and the authors eager to share their latest work.
Book history fact: Detroit is the birthplace of the auto industry, Vernor’s, Saunder’s fudge and my two beloved children. It’s also the birthplace of the very first Jewish Book Fair. Begun right here more than fifty years ago by Irwin Shaw, of blessed memory, Jewish Book Fairs are one reason publishers are willing to take a chance on so many books of Jewish interest. They know there is a readership and built-in promotional structure.
Now organized nationwide by Carolyn Hessel and her great folks at the Jewish Book Council, every major and not-so-major US city has a Jewish Book Fair (or Festival) in November. Check it out. Call your local JCC. Bring a friend or two. Or three or four.
Back in the days when we lived in NYC, we were given front row seats to Nine, a stellar musical whose genesis was somewhat matryoshkan. (OK, OK, I just made that one up; keep reading.) Based on a book by Arthur Kopit (music and lyrics by Maury Yeston) Nine’s plot had its roots in an Italian play by Mario Fratti which had its roots in Fellini’s autobiographical film 8 1/2 about a film director in the throes of a midlife crisis. Have we gotten the matryoshkan link yet? Think Russian dolls.
Jeffrey Toobin’s latest best seller The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court has nothing to do with Fellini, music, or Broadway. But it does deal with existential crises — precisely that of the Supreme Court, which, Toobin said at Sunday’s Patron Event (a spellbound crowd of 750+), is “at a great turning point.”
Contrary to what you might assume, the Court’s identity conundrum is not the result of a shift from Democratic Presidential appointments to Republican ones but instead, according to the author, mirrors the deep shift in the Republican Party. I’m not up to giving a brief on Toobin’s talk. Although I’m the granddaughter, daughter and wife of lawyers, I don’t even play one on TV so instead, I’ll share a few impressions and vignettes.
1. The late 60’s the Court was a liberal institution rendering decisions about freedom of the press, legality of birth control (Griswold v. CT, based on a married couple’s right to privacy), defendants’ rights (can you say Miranda?), and Loving v. Virginia which struck down any laws against interracial marriages.
2. In 1969 four Justices vacated the Court. Richard Nixon (as Toobin wryly noted, “had to leave early”) after only five and a half years, appointed four Justices. The four, though appointed by a Republican President, did not move the Court drastically to the right.
3. In fact the ensuing decade saw a series of liberal decisions on issues as wide ranging as school busing, the death penalty (outlawing it for two years, anyway); the Pentagon Papers, and US v Richard Nixon, the case over the Watergate Papers that resulted in Nixon’s resignation.
4. A shift began in the 1980’s with Ronald Reagan, who set out to methodically change the court, bringing religion into the public sphere and setting the course for a conservative agenda with his appointments of Sandra Day O’Connor (fulfilling a promise he made to appoint the nation’s first female Justice); Antonin Scalia; and the naming of William Rehnquist as Chief Justice. When Robert Bork’s nomination was scuttled in the eleventh hour Anthony Kennedy was named and eventually confirmed. Having one’s surname entered into the lexicon, though small and bitter comfort to Mr. Bork, stands as a perpetual reminder of what the systematic defamation by one’s fellow countrymen can do to candidates up for public office. (That’s me talking, not Toobin.)
5. The 80’s brought about other changes: a reduction in case load from 150 to 80 and the proposal (never happened) to add a Supreme Appellate Court.
7. What was the reason for this shift? Three words: Justice O’Connor changed. Toobin said that the “evolution of the Republican party shocked her, alienating her from her own party.”
8. The clincher was the Terry Schiavo case. At the time, Justice O’Connor, whose husband had developed Alzheimer’s, began bringing him to work with her. Eventually she stepped down in June, 2005 to care for him full time leaving one and then two (upon the death three months later of Chief Justice William Rehnquist) openings on the Supreme Court.
9. With the confirmations of Chief Justice Stephen Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, Toobin concluded that there was “a complete transformation of the court as it reflected the change in the Republican party.”
With apologies to William Rose Wallace, it is interesting to note that as the hand that rocked the cradle rules the world, the hand that guided her beloved ultimately changed the Supreme Court.
What Star Trek conventions are to Trekkies, Jewish Book Fair is to, um Bookies? A week plus of author talks and book signings, movies, programs, luncheons and everywhere you turn… books, books and more books. Books to peruse; books to scan, to read, to buy for yourself and your loved ones; or your favorite literacy cause. We’re the People of the Book, right? Forget the apple. Eve probably tempted Adam with Dr. Seuss’ Ten Apples Up on Top or maybe Ruth Reichl’s Comfort Me With Apples.
This morning I heard Tatiana De Rosnay author of Sarah’s Key. Journalist De Rosnay became a novelist the old fashioned way — by accident. A non-Jew born in Paris in 1971, she was noodling around on the internet, trolling for “places in Paris where dark deeds happened.” She stumbled upon mention of the rue Nelaton, site of a dark chapter in France’s even darker Vichy complicity during World War II — the round-up of 4,000 Jewish children and their families on July 16, 1942, a total of over 13,000 Jews. The Vel’ d’Hiv round-up, so called after the enormous Velodrome d’Hiver indoor stadium where French police brought their captive French citizens before sending them on to Drancy internment camp and then to Auschwitz.
“Why had we never learned this in school?” De Rosnay recalled wondering. Her initial attempts at research went nowhere; any book on the subject she sought was out of print. The stadium was torn down after the war, replaced by schools and apartment complexes. DeRosnay approached neighborhood residents only to have her questions rebuffed with apathy and, from those well on in their years, with downright anger. “Don’t talk of this,” she was told. “[Vel’ d’Hiv’] means nothing to me!”
But the Vel’ d’Hiv’ round-up did mean something to De Rosnay. “I’m not Jewish,” she said, but I’m French. This hapened in my country. [Without intending to] I learned the truth. I learned it late and I learned it hard.” What she learned led to the writing of Sarah’s Key, a novel interweaving the fictional life of ten-year-old Sarah, taken with her parents by the French police on that fateful night and that of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist investigating the roundup sixty years later.
“I wrote this book with my heart,” De Rosnay said this morning. When she handed the first 20 pages to her husband he, “took a long time to read them and then asked me why I had written them in English. I hadn’t realized until he mentioned it that I had written in my mother tongue. It was as if I had to get out of the French side to write this book.”
I’ve not yet read Sarah’s Key but I bought it. By all accounts it’s one of those can’t put it down reads.
I’d write more about Ms. DeRosnay who was fascinating, engaging and modestly jubilant that her book has been sold in 25 countries and is already slated for the sliver screen but I’m heading back to the JCC for tonight’s event. So stay tuned. Come back tomorrow. I aim to share with you as much of this wonderful week as I can. Pass these posts along. Support the authors. And support your local Jewish Book Fair! These yearly events are Herculean labors of love. Without them Jewish authors would have a much harder time getting published. (As if it’s so easy, anyway.) So get thee to thy local Jewish Book Fair. You don’t have to be Jewish to love it. And you can leave the funny ears behind!