Archive for Phoebe Gaston

Out The Nose

Posted in Fiction, New release with tags , , , , , , , on October 4, 2010 by jaclemens

I was a fan of the tv show Frasier. Dr. Frasier Crane was a psychiatrist and the type of refined aesthete who would discuss his blend of bath salts on his radio show with the quip “Love does enter through the nose.” This naturally leads to his being lampooned by other radio hosts, but as it turns out he was not the first psychiatric proponent of such a theory.

Dr. Wilhelm Fliess, a German otolaryngologist, devised a theory of reflex nasal neuroses, which drew a direct link between the nose and the genitals. His friend and confidant Dr. Sigmund Freud espoused this radical thinking. Freud recommended that his patient Emma Eckstein undergo a procedure that Fliess concocted with disastrous results for the young woman’s face.

Peering through the curtains at the side of this historical stage is Dr. Jakov Sammelsohn, an oculist and errant Jew who chases Fraulein Eckstein into Freud’s orbit. Sammelsohn entreats Freud to introduce him to the hysterical young woman, and Freud only relents in the interest of analysis. Eckstein’s condition has manifested an interest in Sammelsohn, and Freud employs him to draw it out. Is it Eckstein’s condition, or can it be Ita, Sammelson’s spurned wife, returning as a dybbuk to possess Eckstein’s body? Was it the dybbuk’s departure or the doctor’s delusion that dealt the damage? Old World disbeliefs vie with “modern medicine” in this new interpretation of a famous case by Joseph Skibell.

Sammelsohn’s second encounter with a great thinker is also female-driven. He doesn’t take to his fellow oculist Dr. Zamenhof’s linguistic aspirations until he meets Loë Bernfeld, an ardent supporter of the universal language Esperanto. A language intended to cross all cultural barriers becomes the language of their courtship, proving that it can change the heart of one man if not all mankind. Esperanto’s embrace is directly related to Loë’s embrace of Yakov, as its rejection.

Later in life he travels to Warsaw with the ill-conceived notion of taking one of Zamenhof’s daughters as his wife. History moves about him once more and he is enclosed within the Warsaw ghetto. This third section held the most appeal for me – Mila 18 by Leon Uris is a sentimental favorite – although it was the least satisfying. It’s not without its otherworldly charm, but it has the feel of a tacked-on dénouement rather than a full third of the book. That was my impression from reading the advance reader’s copy (furnished by the fabulous Phoebe Gaston) at any rate; the finished product is likely another first-rate publication from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.


Walking in Memphis

Posted in Fiction, Recommendations with tags , , , , on April 6, 2010 by jaclemens

I need to see Tennessee. Not as much as I need to visit Virginia, but Memphis is definitely a destination. The Tennessee Titans (my favorite NFL team) play in Nashville, so I would want to get over to the Music City as well (preferably in the fall), but there is something going on in Memphis. At least that’s the impression I get from reading The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern, who is from Memphis and now teaches in upstate New York. A (very) good amount of the back story takes place in New York City as well as the traditional Jewish settlements in the Russian Pale and Eretz Israel, but the real action is in modern Memphis.

That’s where fifteen year old Bernie Karp discovers his family’s peculiar secret in the basement freezer. The Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr was in a state of transcendent meditation when his body was submerged and frozen by a freak storm. The only heirloom of the Karp family to survive the upheaval from Poland to America, the former Boibiczer Prodigy emerges from his suspended trance in new surroundings that are equal parts Gan Eydn and Gehenna. The tzaddik’s passage through time is remarkable, although the frozen rabbi serves primarily as a device for propagating the mystical transformations of a long line of Karps, including Bernie.

References to prominent Jewish texts and Yiddish terms abound, but Stern wields them with such fluency that they never become recondite. For a multiple award winning author (National Jewish Book Award) with multiple books published (The Angel of Forgetfulness), Stern is underappreciated (The Frozen Rabbi ought to have been an Indie Next pick for May). His writing has been compared to Michael Chabon’s, and it’s an apt comparison. There are elements reminiscent not only of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, as promised, but of Gentlemen of the Road as well. Phoebe Gaston, a book rep and friend who knows I have a weak spot for Chabon and writing that won’t tolerate a weak constitution, made that very comparison when she pitched The Frozen Rabbi to me. She knows her books and her audience! This is not a book for the faint of heart; credit Steve Stern for writing the book he wanted to write, and credit Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill for publishing it.

In June I will be in North Carolina, home of Algonquin. To be in such close proximity to both Tennessee and Virginia without the time to go to either state will be excruciating. If only I could learn to send my soul aloft, as Bernie and the Rabbi do, I could cover more states, mental and physical!

Reading Deprived

Posted in Reading List with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2010 by jaclemens

In an earlier post (Reading vs. Writing 9/16/09) I wrote that I was scaling back on reading in order to write more. I have yet to complete the chapter of Grandpa Art I’ve been working on over the past few months, so I banned myself from reading altogether.  It wasn’t a matter of time distribution so much as it was high time I reclaimed my imagination  for my own story. The self-imposed hiatus went into effect three weeks ago, and the results have been mixed.

I succeeded in rerouting my imagination and now have the scene almost fully realized, but it still hasn’t translated into words. The description has come haltingly, without flow. The language has dried up. My mind feels dessicated, parched from a lack of literature. This became keenly evident while I was reading an exceptional short story in The New Yorker (the singular source allowable).

Fjord of Killary” by Kevin Barry is about an Irish poet who buys an old hotel on the west coast of Ireland in his search for inspiration. He finds only a deeper melancholy, out of place amid the locals, until a tremendous storm causes the waves to overflow the sea wall and flood the hotel. The proprietor and his colourful clientele seek refuge on the second floor, and as the water rushes in so too does the poetic inspiration. I felt the flood of Barry’s words seep into my thirsty mind, filling the basement and lower levels. I soaked up his story like a spent sponge.

Yet even after that experience I continued to deny myself the pleasure of reading, as if I had given it up for Lent (despite the fact that I’m not Catholic, as I cracked on my twitter account @JACrobat). My friend Phoebe Gaston, a book rep for Algonquin, went out of her way to provide me with an advance reader copy of The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern which sounds fantastic, but I forced myself to leave it on the shelf until I finish this chapter. It’s been three weeks and my resolve, like the ice encasing the rabbi, is starting to melt.

I have deprived myself long enough. Based on the theory that what you get out of an activity is proportionate to what you put in, I’m going to start putting words back into my mind. My narrator is from Richmond, so I’m going to pick up Richmond Noir, a recommendation from Kelly Justice at the Fountain Bookstore. The Frozen Rabbi will have to remain in suspended animation for a little longer!

Side note: not reading on the train every day has afforded me the chance to catch up on some Writing Excuses podcasts, which are most beneficial!

Current Reading List

Posted in Reading List with tags , , , , , on March 18, 2008 by jaclemens

White GuardI’ve finished reading the two books that weren’t on my list and just when I was about to start The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov along came another welcome deviation, courtesy of my intrepid Book Travelers West rep Phoebe Gaston! She sent me an advance copy of The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell, which comes out next month from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Algonquin puts out such a nice selection I was inclined to buy everything in their catalog; it’s no wonder Phoebe is so enthusiastic about her line of work!