Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Release Qatari Poet Mohamed Ibn Al Ajami

We, the undersigned, including poets, men and women writing, performing and reciting poetry in all corners of the world, urge the Secretary of State or Foreign Minister of our respective countries to appeal to the Qatari Court for the immediate release of our colleague, Qatari poet Mohamed Ibn Al Ajami, who after spending a year in solitary confinement, on November 29, 2012 was sentenced to life in prison by the Qatari courts.

Mohamed Ibn Al Ajami’s crime consisted of reciting on November 16, 2011 a poem extolling the courage and values of the popular uprisings in Tunisia, /Oh revolutionary, sing the praises of the struggle with the blood of the people/ in the soul of the free carve the values of revolt/ and to those holding the shroud of the dead tell/ that every victory also bears its ordeals/.

According to the poet's lawyer, Najib al-Nuaimi, the judge made the whole trial secret [..]"Muhammad was not allowed to defend himself, and I was not allowed to plead or defend in court. I told the judge that I need to defend my client in front of an open court, and he stopped me."

Rather than making itself an instrument for cracking down on dissent, we believe that the Court should uphold Mohamed Ibn Al Ajami’s right to free speech.  In the tradition of speaking truth to power, following the footsteps of such great poets as Pablo Neruda, Majakovski, Nazim Hikmet, Mahmoud Darwish, Faraj Bayraqdar and innumerable others throughout the world today, such as Colombia’s poet Angye Gaona, Mohamed Ibn Al Ajami placed his poetic talent to the service of a movement for change. The poem he recited called for an end to intolerable conditions, a demand that for the past two years has been aired by millions throughout North Africa and the Arab world.

In this spirit, we poets and non-poets who perceive the need for worldwide change at the social, political and ecological level, call on the Court to review the appeal, stop siding with repression and lend its ear to the movements that have sprung up all over the world for dignity, social justice and freedom, virtues that poets all over the world are endeavoring to voice and deliver using the beauty and power of poetry.

Qatari Poet Mohamed Ibn Al Ajami has been sentenced to life in prison for the crime of reciting a poem. Help correct this injustice by signing the petition.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Breakup Letters From Famous Authors


Farewell letters from or to (mostly) jilted famous writers including Abe Lincoln, Anaïs Nin, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Mary Wollstonecraft, Oscar Wilde, Simone de Beauvoir, and Virginia Woolf.

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Adam Kirsch's "Rocket and Lightship: Meditations on life and letters"

"To become memorable or brilliant, language needs to be fertilized by egotism." 

Adam Kirsch's long but worth reading collection of meditations/prose epigrams on the position of writers WRT past writers, future readers, and the present tense; on the respective roles of literature and science; and the role of culture in a technologically evolving civilization (among other insights). 


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Monday, November 26, 2012

Jewish podcasts: "From Israelite to Jew" by Michael Satlow


I enthusiastically recommend Brown University Judaic Studies professor Michael Satlow's series of 23 half hour long free podcasts "From Israelite to Jew," a secular academic college level history of the Second Temple period on iTunes.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Jewish books: Kin by Dror Burstein


"Kinship is a central theme in Israeli writer Dror Burstein's novel Kin, which is published today in Dalya Bilu's English translation by Dalkey Archive Press. The book portrays the inner life of Yoel, a senior citizen, widower, and adoptive father who decides to find his adult son Emile's biological parents and reunite him with them."

Also see my New York Journal of Books review of "Kin":

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Stay home and watch an Israeli movie


To watch Israeli films via streaming video you'll need a credit card, a computer, and high speed broadband internet service (faster is definitely better). If your computer is connected to a high definition television you can watch Israeli movies from the comfort of your sofa, armchair, or in bed. And though this service is offered by a New York cultural institution it is available anywhere in the United States. Once you order a movie for the next 24 hours you can watch it as many times as you want.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Jewish books: The Middlesteins


Williamsburg, Brooklyn resident and Chicago native Jami Attenberg's third novel, The Middlesteins, published yesterday by Grand Central Publishing, explores how one woman's morbid obesity affects her Jewish-American family and its dynamics. Unfortunately the writing is inconsistent; in my New York Journal of Books review of the book I wrote, "the quality of its prose … is at best serviceable and at worst pedestrian…" Also read my NYJB review:

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Jerusalem Cookbook authors book talk in Park Slope tonight


Yotam Ottolenghi, author of Plenty and an Israeli, and Sami Tamimi, co-owner of the Ottolenghi restaurants and a Palestinian, were both born in Jerusalem in the same year and are now co-authors of Jerusalem, A Cookbook.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Friday, October 5, 2012

Question One, documentary about SSM ballot initiative, premieres in NY 10/19/12


"The film portrays the two sides of the 2009 campaign without taking sides. The filmmakers spent the duration of the campaign embedded in both sides' war rooms and strategy sessions and documented the private thoughts, insights, fears and conflicts expressed by key leaders as they crafted and created their messages and strategies."

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Jewish books: The Canvas by Benjamin Stein


"The Canvas has a unique structure: half way through the book the first of its two narratives ends, and to continue reading readers must turn the book upside down and start again at the other end. The book has two front covers, and readers can start with either one." Also see my review on New York Journal of Books:

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Art 101: BWAC's "Coming To Brooklyn 2012" autumn group art show


Many of the artists will be present at the opening and happy to talk about their work. Some of the art works are nudes, but parents who are not prudes will find the exhibit child friendly.

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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Make your own shofar at Columbia University


"Learn the entire process of creating a Kosher Shofar from the cooking to the final polishing (sorry we will not be hunting live rams)."

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

I'm trying to ignore the Republican convention

I can't watch or listen to the Republican convention. Of all the occupations that make up an economy and society, of all the ways one can make a difference in the world, the only one that matters to Republicans and whom they wish to represent is "business owner," and the solipsism of Republican entrepreneurs and the politicians who are their mouthpieces is truly nauseating. Of course not all American entrepreneurs are narcissists; some are Democrats and independents.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Three books by Danilo Kiš

A four part article: part one, introduction;

Photo of Danilo Kiš
Photo of Danilo Kiš
Tablet Magazine

part two, The Attic;

The Attic book cover
New York Journal of Books

part three, Psalm 44;

Psalm 44 book cover
New York Journal of Books

and part four, The Lute and the Scars.

The Lute and the Scars book cover
New York Journal of Books
The articles include links to my New York Journal of Books reviews of Danilo Kiš' books.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

2 book reviews: "Office Girl" and "I'm Trying to Reach You"

This article includes links to my New York Journal of Books reviews of the two novels.
  Most people will have multiple jobs and two or three distinct careers in the course of a lifetime. While those careers can be rewarding and fulfilling the transitional periods at the outset or in between careers can be emotionally difficult. Two novels published this month describe such transitional periods at different stages of life.

Office Girl hardcover book cover
New York Journal of Books
In Joe Meno's Office Girl the characters are fine-arts majors in their early to mid-twenties transitioning from college to establishing themselves as working artists. In this interim period they find themselves taking dull, dead-end jobs to make ends meet. In my New York Journal of Books review of the novel I compare it to Lena Dunham's HBO seriesGirls in that the characters are legally adults but are still growing up, and how their poor choices exacerbate their already modest and insecure circumstances. One of the characters has a role model in his Jewish step-father. The story is illustrated with line drawings by Cody Hudson and photographs (including one of a topless woman wearing a gas mask) by Todd Baxter. There is an excerpt from Office Girl in The Nervous Breakdown. Gray Adams, Barbara Browning's male protagonist inI'm Trying to Reach You is a middle-aged dancer turned academic (mirroring the author's career path) who is a post-doctoral fellow at the same university and the same department where in real life Ms. Browning is a professor. Post-doctoral fellowships are by definition transitional periods between graduate school and a college teaching career. Mr. Adams has few responsibilities, little money, is in a long distance relationship with an overseas partner, is applying to tenure track teaching positions for the following year, and is obsessed by the consecutive deaths in a period of months of great performing artists and by a series of home made YouTube videos featuring dance performances by Ms. Browning. In my New York Journal of Books review I recommend the novel "to anyone . . . who wants to experience a multimedia novel blurring genres and means of communication as well as the boundary between the author and her fictional narrative.” Ms. Browning discusses I'm Trying to Reach You in an interview on her publisher's blog.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Movie review: Compliance

My review first appeared on the now defunct In the years following World War II academic psychologists grappled with the phenomenon of apparently normal people following orders to act inhumanely to other people and indeed to participate in mass-murder. In 1947 California Psychologist Theodore W. Orno devised a personality test to measure what he termed the authoritarian personality. His work has since been refined to what is known as Right-wing authoritarianism and the number of criteria reduced to three traits:

Dreama Walker as an accused restaurant employee in Compliance

1. Authoritarian submission — a high degree of submissiveness to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives. 2. Authoritarian aggression — a general aggressiveness directed against deviants, outgroups, and other people that are perceived to be targets according to established authorities. 3. Conventionalism — a high degree of adherence to the traditions and social norms that are perceived to be endorsed by society and its established authorities, and a belief that others in one's society should also be required to adhere to these norms.
In 2004, a man named David Stewart was arrested in Panama City, FL, in connection with a series of prank calls to fast food restaurants around the country, in which he had allegedly impersonated a police officer and convinced managers to detain and strip search female employees that he accused of theft. Yesterday at The Broadway Screening Room I attended an advance screening of the movie Compliance which is based on one of those prank calls. The movie will open in theaters on August 17, 2012.
Had I not already been familiar with the psychological research on authoritarian behavior I would have found it hard to believe that the manager of the Ohio ChickWich restaurant (ably portrayed by Ann Dowd) and some of her employees could be so gullible, so utterly lacking in critical thinking skills. Why did they believe the caller was who he claimed to be? It seems that anyone who has watched television police dramas could find holes in his story. And yet in 70 cases across the country fast food restaurant managers followed the prank caller's instructions to the letter.
I found the film disturbing and thought provoking, but at 90 minutes (even though it condensed a three and a half hour conversation) I thought it was too long. If it were re-edited Compliance would make a fine one hour TV drama; I'm not convinced it needed to be a feature length film. The cinematography captures what running a fast food restaurant is like.
There is a perhaps unavoidably creepy aspect not only to what the prank caller (played byPat Healy), who identifies himself as "Officer Daniels," is doing but in the way the viewer is turned into his voyeuristic accomplice. This is exacerbated by the fact that Dreama Walker, whose acting performance as the accused employee is very good, has breasts that are so identical in shape and size as to appear unnatural and indeed look surgically enhanced. If viewers are expected to empathize with this character rather than ogle her why did directorCraig Zobel chose an actress for the role whose breasts resemble those of a porn star?
I'm glad I saw Compliance, but I'm also glad I didn't pay to see it. I'm sure the film will work as well on a smaller screen (and many of today's flat-screen TVs are not that small) and advise readers to wait for it to appear on IFC, the Sundance Channel, or on premium cable.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Author talks: Ethical Chic author Fran Hawthorne

Ethical Chic promotional flyer
Beacon Press

This article first appeared on the now defunct

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Jewish Literature: Mario Levi's "Istanbul Was a Fairy Tale" - New York NY |

Istanbul Was a Fairy Tale by Mario Levi book cover
Jewish Literature: Mario Levi's "Istanbul Was a Fairy Tale" - New York NY |
An addendum to my NYJB book review which appears here:

Istanbul Was a Fairy Tale book cover

Friday, May 18, 2012

Rejection Letters: The Publishers Who Got It Embarrassingly Wrong...

J.K Rowling was famously rejected by a mighty 12 publishers before Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone was accepted by Bloomsbury - and even then only at the insistence of the chairman's eight-year-old daughter.

Judy Blume, Gertrude Stein and D.H Lawrence all got a lot of 'no's from publishers before any said yes.

But while some were chucked quietly in the publishers' bin of doom, others recieved an additional slap in the face in the form of some frankly hilarious criticism.

It probably wasn't fun to receive at the time, but now these writers have found their place on bookshelves worldwide, we imagine they quite enjoy reflecting on those publishers who got it embarrassingly wrong...

  • Oscar Wilde's 'Lady Windermere's Fan'

    <em>Lady Windermere's Fan</em> was a hugely successful play from Wilde, but one publisher rejected it, with the rather polite, and shocked comment: "My dear sir, I have read your manuscript. Oh, my dear sir."

  • Anne Frank's 'The Diary of a Young Girl'

    Anne Frank's diary only found a publisher successfully after being featured in a newspaper article. Before this, the famous memoir was rejected repeatedly, with one publisher saying, "The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the 'curiosity' level."

  • Irving Stone's 'Lust For Life'

    Irving Stone's novel about Vincent Van Gogh went on to sell 25 million copies globally, but not before it was rejected 16 times, once with the announcement that it was "a long, dull novel about an artist."

  • D. H. Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's Lover'

    Lawrence's controversial novel was a bit of a publishing nightmare. One publisher warned: "for your own sake do not publish this book". It was published eventually, but it took until 1960 for the full version to be published by Penguin in the UK - over 30 years after it was first published in Italy in 1928.

  • Anthony Trollope's 'Barchester Towers'

    One publisher commented: "The grand defect of the work, I think, as a work of art is the low-mindedness and vulgarity of the chief actors. There is hardly a lady or a gentleman amongst them" when rejecting Trollope's <em>Barchester Towers</em>, before it was published in 1857.

  • William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies'

    Presumably not foreseeing Golding's classic novel becoming a schoolroom staple, 20 publishers rejected it. One with the damning comment, "an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull." Try writing that on a GCSE English paper.

  • Joseph Heller's 'Catch-22'

    Heller may have been trained in rejection from an early age; as a teen his short story was rejected by the New York Times. However, it probably still hurt when one publisher denounced <em>Catch-22</em>, saying: "I haven't the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say...Apparently the author intends it to be funny - possibly even satire - but it is really not funny on any intellectual level."

  • J.G. Ballard's 'Crash'

    One publisher rejected Ballard's dystopian novel with the note, "the author of this book is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish." How did the author react? By regarding it as a sign of "complete artistic success."

  • Vladimir Nabokov's 'Lolita'

    Eventually published in Paris (where else?), <em>Lolita</em> was rejected by Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Farrar, Straus, and Doubleday. Originally cast away as, "overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian...the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream...I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.", the American version of the novel went on to be a bestseller, selling 100,000 copies in the first three weeks.

  • Anita Loos' 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'

    Loos' comical novel was initially rejected, with this curt comment from a publisher: "Do you realize, young woman, that you're the first American writer ever to poke fun at sex." It subsequently because the second best selling title of 1926, a year after it was published, and was dubbed "The great American novel" by Edith Wharton. A musical and two film versions followed after. Poking fun at sex has never been so successful.

  • Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road'

    Kerouac's famous journey novel was rejected repeatedly. While some publishers thought it "pornographic", another thought it would never catch on: "his frenetic and scrambled prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don't think so."

  • Sylvia Plath

    Tragic poet Plath suffered rejection a number of times, including from one publisher who said, "there certainly isn't enough genuine talent for us to take notice." We think she took it rather well, saying, "I love my rejection slips. They show me I try." IMAGE: PA

  • Rudyard Kipling

    The <em>San Francisco Examiner</em> told Kipling, frankly, "I'm sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language." IMAGE: PA

  • Jorge Luis Borges

    One publisher claimed Borges was "utterly untranslatable". His global success would suggest otherwise. IMAGE: PA

  • Isaac Bashevis Singer

    A submission of Singer's was done so with the comment, "it's Poland and the rich Jews again." The author went on to win a Nobel Prize. IMAGE: AP

  • William Faulkner's 'Sanctuary'

    One editor exclaimed, of Faulkner's <em>Sanctuary</em>: "Good God, I can't publish this! We'd both be in jail." Nobody ended up in prison, but Faulkner's literary reputation was established as a result of it.

  • John le Carré's 'The Spy Who Came In From The Cold'

    It's not unusual for first novels to be rejected, but John le Carré's went on to make <em>TIME</em> Magazine's All-Time 100 Novels list. The publisher who passed on the author with the comment, "You're welcome to le Carré - he hasn't got any future", presumably didn't imagine this.

  • Stephen King's 'Carrie'

    "We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell." These were the words of one publisher who passed over <em>Carrie</em>, which King submitted when he was 20. By this point, he was fairly used to rejection, having sent off stories since the age of 16. He kept track of the rejection slips by sticking them on a nail, until he got so many he "replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing."

  • Kenneth Grahame's 'The Wind in the Willows'

    <em>The Wind in the Willows</em> very nearly didn't get published. After several rejections, one of which claimed it "An irresponsible holiday story", and a positive campaign from President Roosevelt himself, the much-loved story was published in 1908. Over 100 years later, it's still going strong.

  • Richard Adams' 'Watership Down'

    On a ratio of rejections to rabbits associated with Watership Down, the rejections would probably win. Adams received 17 'no's before being accepted by Rex Collings Ltd. One of whom claimed "older children wouldn't like it because its language was too difficult." It's since never been out of print, and is Penguin's best-selling novel of all time.

  • Norman Mailer's 'The Deer Park'

    The Deer Park was nearly at the centre of a court case, after Mailer's publisher, Rinehard & Company rejected it for obscenity, saying "this will set publishing back 25 years." Eventually, the matter was settled and Mailer kept the advance.

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'Great Gatsby'

    Fitzgerald's principle character is arguably as famous as the novel he appears in, yet one publisher advised the author in a rejection letter, "You'd have a decent book if you'd get rid of that Gatsby character."

  • James Joyce

    Joyce encountered many rejections - <em>Dubliners</em> was rejected over 20 times, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was only published after he re-wrote it several times.

  • J.D. Salinger's 'The Catcher in the Rye'

    Before Salinger gained success with coming-of-age masterpiece The Catcher in the Rye, he struggled to get a collection of short stories published. After the publisher suggested the book would be published and offered a $1000 advance, Story Press' Lippincott Imprint refused to print. All of which, ironically, made the debut an even more brilliant first novel.

  • Chuck Palahniuk's 'Fight Club'

    <em>Fight Club</em> was published twice - but only once as the novel we know it as today. Initially, Palahnuik's work existed as a seven-page short story, which then became chapter six in the full-length novel. It was a double success for the author, who managed to publish the previously rejected <em>Invisible Monsters</em> off the back of it.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article claimed Gone With The Wind author Margaret Mitchell was also turned down by several publishers. This was not case.


According to the publishers who rejected them Sylvia Plath had no talent, and Borges was untranslatable. An editor who rejected Nabokov's Lolita wrote, "overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian...the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy." Replace "unsure" with "brilliant" and subtract the adverb "overwhelmingly" and the adjectives "hideous" and "improbable" and his comment would be not far from the mark and an argument for why it should have been published.

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Near death, explained


‎"Studies suggest that after physical death, mind and consciousness may continue in a transcendent level of reality that normally is not accessible to our senses and awareness..." This resembles a traditional Jewish belief that in the first week after burial the soul of the deceased is in a confused state and wanders back and forth between the burial plot and his or her most recent place of residence.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012): For The Dead

I dreamed I called you on the telephone
to say: Be kinder to yourself
but you were sick and would not answer

The waste of my love goes on this way
trying to save you from yourself

I have always wondered about the left-over
energy, the way water goes rushing down a hill
long after the rains have stopped

or the fire you want to go to bed from
but cannot leave, burning-down but not burnt-down
the red coals more extreme, more curious
in their flashing and dying
than you wish they were
sitting long after midnight

An apposite poem at the time of her passing via
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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Book review: Left-Handed: Poems by Jonathan Galassi

In my New York Journal of Books review I compare Jonathan Galassi’s new book Left-Handed: Poems to the movie Beginners and recommend it “to all poetry lovers and to all readers who find they must radically change their lives in order to live more authentically.” via the late
"Left-Handed: Poems" book cover

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My Gene Ring via

My dad's ancestors immigrated to the USA from Lithuania, my mom's from Belarus, and my DNA most closely resembles that of people from Poland:

Your Top 10 Genetic Matches:
1. Poland
2. Hungary
3. Ireland
4. Spain
5. Macedonia
6. Slovenia
7. Brazil
8. Belarus
9. Croatia
10. Pakistan

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Monday, March 5, 2012

Book review: I Hadn't Understood

Will Europa Editions’ newly published English translation of Italian writer Diego De Silva‘s comic novel I Hadn’t Understood appeal to Jewish New Yorkers? In my New York Journal of Books review I compare Mr. De Silva’s sense of humor to those of Woody Allen and Philip Roth. Read the review and then the book and decide for yourself.via the late