Again I’ve gotten behind in my blog posts. It’s partly my husband’s fault, or rather the fault of his retiring last month and abruptly being home all day. Not that he bothers me; mostly he is in his office practicing shofar blowing, Torah chanting, and choir music for the upcoming High Holy Days. Or arranging music and practicing for the klezmer band he’s in. But when he stops to take a walk, I like to join him, both for the company and the exercise.
OK – it’s not really his fault. The major reason is that as summer wanes, my book biz is heating up. I have no idea why, but for the entire month of August, Amazon discounted the print version of Fifty Shades of Talmud almost 60% to $3. Unsurprisingly, sales went up, with the result that the distributor asked for another 1000 copies just as the supply in my garage was also running out. With a big East Coast book tour looming in six weeks, it was apparent that we needed a new printing.
But instead of just reprinting the original, we had time to make some minor changes - those that didn’t involve repaging. There was one piece of Talmud that I’d wanted to use in the first edition, but I couldn’t find the reference in time. Of course I found that just when it was too late to make changes, but now I had the opportunity to include it on a page that had some empty space at the bottom. Also we now had some media reviews that we could put in at the beginning along with the blurbs we’d started with.
So I dropped everything to furiously write the new text, choose which reviews to insert, and then edit these to ensure they’d fit in the available space. A new printing takes five weeks, leaving me less than two weeks to get the new interior in shape. But I OKed the page proofs on Thursday, just in time to head off on a weeklong book tour to northern California. More on that later.
Sinners and the Sea: The Untold Story of Noah's Wife by Rebecca Kanner
It's my own fault that I cannot rate "Sinners and the Sea" any stars. Yes the prose is excellent, yes it focuses on the unknown women behind the Bible story of Noah's Ark, and yes it ultimately has a, if not a happy ending, at least a hopeful one. But there was no way an author of any integrity could write this historical novel without dedicating a majority of the scenes to the evil acts and degradations of the sinners that Noah failed to save. For these could not be merely ordinary sins. No they had to be so terrible that God would send humanity to a watery grave.
Since a novelist must show, not tell, we get depictions of rapes, child abuse, torture, and murder along with detailed descriptions of the terrified people clinging to rafts, tree branches, etc. until waves upend them and they drown. I confess that the higher the page number the more quickly I skimmed through them. I also confess that I knew very well what Book of Noah entails, yet I read this novel anyway. My only valid complaint is that [spoiler alert] the name our heroine receives at the end is not Naamah, the name the Talmud gives her - a name the author would have found had she done a simple google search.
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Continuing my reports on Jewish fiction, I recently read Amy Gottlieb's The Beautiful Possible and Dara Horn's The World to Come back to back. I didn't know that these novels shared the similarity that both books range in time/place from early-mid 1900's Europe to 1950's and contemporary New York. I just knew about the main similarity in that both are considered "Jewish" fiction. I don’t feel comfortable writing about The Beautiful Possible, other than that I read it in one day, because Amy is a friend of mine. Here are the two descriptions:
The Beautiful Possible tells the braided love story of three characters. Walter Westhaus is a German Jew who spent the war years at Tagore’s ashram in India, before arriving at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. There he meets Sol Kerem, a promising rabbinical student, and Sol’s free-spirited fiancée Rosalie. Walter and Rosalie begin a transcendent love affair that is shattered when Walter moves to Berkeley and Rosalie and Sol move to to lead a congregation in the suburbs. A chance meeting years later reconnects Walter, Sol, and Rosalie—catching the three in a web of desire, heartbreak, and redemption.
In A World to Come, a million-dollar Chagall is stolen from a museum during a singles' cocktail hour. The unlikely thief, former child prodigy Benjamin Ziskind, is convinced that the painting once hung in his parents' living room. This work of art opens a door through which we discover his family's startling history--from an orphanage in Soviet Russia where Chagall taught to suburban New Jersey and the jungles of Vietnam.
But here is what I thought of The World to Come. I found this novel fascinating, beautifully written, and wonderfully creative - especially the final chapter. I appreciated all the Jewish references and how Horn resurrected so many forgotten Yiddish writers. So why only 4 stars instead of 5? Because the characters' stories were so darn sad, so much death and despair. Also because I found myself unable to identify with any of the protagonists; none of them seemed like real people. Eventually I didn't want to care about them after realizing they were pretty much all on their way to a dismal end.
I apologize for not posting some of my reviews/thoughts about Jewish novels I’ve read recently, but my son’s family was visiting for a week from Phoenix, so I was fully occupied with them. Especially my newest grandson, age 3½ months, who will engage in a laughing contest with the smallest provocation. But all good things must end, so to make amends I’m starting with the book I liked best.
Those who regularly read my Goodreads updates know I rarely give 5 star reviews. But I not only greatly enjoyed reading The Mathematician’s Shiva [a debut novel, no less, by Stuart Rojstaczer], I found no flaws worth mentioning. Here is the Goodreads description: “Alexander ‘Sasha’ Karnokovitch and his family would like to mourn the passing of his mother, Rachela, with modesty and dignity. But Rachela, a famous Polish émigré mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin, is rumored to have solved the million-dollar, Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem. Rumor also has it that she spitefully took the solution to her grave. To Sasha’s chagrin, a ragtag group of socially challenged mathematicians arrives in Madison and crashes the shiva, vowing to do whatever it takes to find the solution — even if it means prying up the floorboards for Rachela’s notes.”
I found this story funny, poignant, clever, delightful, and exciting, with an amazing array of well-fleshed out fascinating and fabulous characters. Especially nice to read a book with a heroic Jewish mother who's a genius and a feminist, for a change. Most authors are lucky to manage one flashback well, but the author succeeded at taking me back and forth between past, present, and future without ever losing me along the way. I salute his writing skill and hope he won't be a one-book-wonder.
I finish by mentioning that this novel meets the foremost criteria for a book I want to read/write [small spoiler alert] - a happy, or at least satisfying, ending. Only caveat: you don't need to be Jewish or know Yiddish to appreciate this novel, but it doesn't hurt.
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Like many other GR readers, I very much liked The Secret Chord. The descriptions were well-written, the characters nicely brought to life, and I was pleased at how she included so many of the women in David's circle without ignoring the frankly homoerotic love between him and Jonathan. However, unlike most of those reviewers, I liked this novel better than Geraldine Brooks' others.
I admit that I have an advantage over other readers in that I took a class taught by Rabbi Rachel Adler, professor at Hebrew Union College, where we studied the story of King David as told in biblical books Samuel I and II plus Kings I. Thus I did not find the beginning so confusing since I knew what was going to happen and when. I did think things got off to a slow start, especially for a historical epic that needed to cover David's entire lifetime, which led to his later years being given short shrift. But this is a story that needed telling, to show that there was more to David that killing Goliath with a slingshot [btw - a great scene in this book].
I highly recommend this historical novel to synagogue book groups, especially in conjunction to studying Samuel I and II. Yes, it starts slowly and readers may be confused, but I urge them to persevere and reap the rewards that come later. Spoiler alert - I had no idea what the title meant until the very end. I would have given this novel a different title that actually indicated what the book was about.
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Way back in the previous millennium, before I decided to write Rashi’s Daughers, I made no special effort to read Jewish fiction and hardly ever read Jewish historical novels. But once embarking on my own book, I thought it necessary to become familiar with what my potential readers would be reading. In between doing research and writing, I used the little spare time I had to read to concentrate on this genre. Eventually Jewish fiction became more like homework than a pleasure, especially after I got famous enough that publishers sent advanced copies of their Jewish novels to me in hopes that I’d like them enough to write a blurb for them. So when I finished writing my last story, Enchantress, I went back to catch up on all the novels I’d missed from my old favorite genres: murder mysteries, fantasies, and science fiction.
Then came the recent debate over the 100 best Jewish fiction and I realized that I’d missed quite a few of them. So I’ve started reading Jewish novels again, this time relying on my Goodreads.com friends’ reviews and recommendations to find those I’ll actually enjoy. And I’m posting my reviews in return. My next few posts will focus on these novels and summarize my reviews. But before I do, I must share my review of a delightful nonfiction book of quotations by women that was invaluable in my writing Fifty Shades of Talmud, again on sale for $3.10 on Amazon.
Women Know Everything, by Karen Weekes, is a book I will never stop reading, because I'll never know when I might need a quote for a certain occasion. Some of the 3241 quotes are funny, some are serious, and some disagree with others. Its 480 pages contain a true cross-section of women's opinions from different ethnicities and centuries on a myriad of subjects from Ability to Youth. I particularly appreciated that while the quotes are arranged alphabetically by subject, there is an index of women quoted in the back. Also each attribution includes the woman's birth & death dates, her occupation, and country of origin. Beware, readers - once you start perusing this book, thinking you'll only check one subject, the next thing you know it's an hour later and you're on to a whole new set of subjects.
Today is National Tell A Joke Day [who knew?] Since my new book, Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say about You-Know-What, has 87 quotes, quips, and jokes in addition to the fifty sections of actual Talmud. I couldn’t resist sharing six of my favorites with you, in alphabetical order.
1. Any woman who thinks the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach is aiming about ten inches too high.–-Adrienne Gusoff
2. By all means marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll become happy. If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.—Socrates
3. Give a man a free hand and he'll try to put it all over you.--Mae West
4. I don't know the question, but sex is definitely the answer.--Woody Allen
5. Lead me not into temptation; I can find the way myself.--Rita Mae Brown
6. Which do I prefer? Sex or chess? It depends on the position.--Boris Spassky
I conclude with a link to a URJ.org article about jokes concerning God. Note one of mine in the comments.
Between Moment Magazine’s new Summer Books Issue and the many discussions/debates/complaints over the “100-must-read-works-of-Jewish-fiction” blog, I’ve decided to catch up a little on my own reading in this genre. I am following several criteria:  the novel must be available from the Los Angeles library system,  reviews from my Goodreads friends must be very good,  I haven’t read more than one other book by that author, and  no Holocaust or Spanish Inquisition novels. I’ll be updating my blog with reviews as I finish each one.
In the meantime, I wrote a guest post for the Whole Megillah blog [the Writer's Resource for Jewish-themed story] about how and why I took an unexpected detour from historical fiction to nonfiction. So those of you who wondered whatever made me switch from novels like Rashi’s Daughters and Rav Hisda’s Daughter for Fifty Shades of Talmud, here is an answer at The Whole Megillah
The World to Come by Dara Horn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I found this novel fascinating, beautifully written, and wonderfully creative - especially the final chapter. I appreciated all the Jewish references and how Horn resurrected so many forgotten Yiddish writers. So why only 4 stars instead of 5? Because the characters' stories were so darn sad, so much death and despair. Also because I found myself unable to identify with any of the protagonists; none of them seemed like real people. Eventually I didn't want to care about them after realizing they were pretty much all on their way to a dismal end.
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Here are 36 of another Jewish fiction fan’s favorites, of which I’ve read ten, although I have heard of the majority of them:
1 The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
2 The World to Come by Dara Horn
3 A Pigeon and a Boy
4 Dropped from Heaven
5 Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter
6 My Father’s Paradise
7 SUITE FRANCAISE by Irene Nemirovsky
8 Peony by Pearl Buck
9 Sarah’s Key
10 A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz
11 DREAMERS OF THE DAY by D. Russell
12 The Little Bride by Anna Solomon
13 Jerusalem Maiden by Talia Carner
14 Day After Night by Anita Diamant
15 Seven Blessings by Ruchama King
16 By Fire, By Water by Mitchell Kaplan
17 Land of the Beasts
18 City of Slaughter by Cynthia Drew
19 Daughters of Iraq
20 Road to Valor
21 The Fish that ate the Whale by Rich Cohen
22 Unsaid by Neil Abramson
23 The Invisible Bridge
24 Hope of Israel followed by Legend of the Dead (2 book series by Patricia O’Sullivan)
25 Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman (about Masada)
26. Suitable Husband by Susan Lerner (about Poland, Zionism, Bundt)
27 Those Who Save Us
28 The Wayward Moon
29 Once We Were Brothers
30 The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult
31 The Lost Wife
32 After Anetevka by Mitchell Bard
33 City of Women by David Gillham
34 Exile by Richard North Patterson (FABULOUS discussion book)
35 Clay Messiah by Karen Levine
36 Exodus by Leon Uris
A couple of weeks ago, I learned about a book blog touting what it considered the “100-must-read-works-of-jewish-fiction.” Of course none of my novels were there. Even worse, not only had I read only about ten on the list, but I didn’t even recognize the majority of them. True I knew quite a few of those authors, but their book this blogger had chosen was not the one I would have picked for best. And I consider myself very familiar with this genre.
Apparently I wasn’t alone. Nine people commented on some egregious omissions [i.e. Franz Kafka, Mordecai Richler, Sydney Taylor] because several members of the Goodreads Jewish Historical Fiction group vehemently disagreed with the list. Some of us felt compelled to come up with our own lists of either 25 or 36 works of Jewish fiction.
Here’s my favorite 36, and I’ll post others’ lists in upcoming posts. I’m only listing novels with Jewish content, not merely a Jewish author. Thus nothing by Isaac Asimov and Dr. Seuss, for example. I’m also not including more than one book by the same author, but I do include children’s books and graphic novels. Most important – these are my favorites, books I enjoyed reading, which means some fine, but horrific, Holocaust novels didn’t make the cut [i.e. Sophie’s Choice, The Painted Bird, and Sarah’s Key], as well as those set during the Spanish Inquisition that depicted graphic torture scenes [i.e. People of the Book and By Fire, by Water].
I start with one of my own novels, the book my readers seem to like best, but the others are in no particular order except that I conclude with my absolute favorite.
1. Rashi’s Daughters by Maggie Anton
2. All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
3. Periodic Table by Primo Levi
4. Night by Eli Wiesel
5. Mathematicians Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer
6. Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
7. Peony by Pearl S. Buck
8. Hush by Eishes Chayil [Judy Brown]
9. In the Land of Armadillos by Helen Shankman
10. The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar
11. The Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska
12. Exodus by Leon Uris
13. Henna House by Nomi Eve
14. As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg
15. Jerusalem Maiden by Talia Carner
16. The Ghost of Hannah Mendez by Naomi Ragen
17. The Genizah at the House of Shepher by Tamar Yellen
18. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
19. The Ladies Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis
20. The Chosen by Chaim Potok
21. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
22. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
23. City of Thieves by David Benioff
24. Almonds and Raisins by Maisie Mosco
25. The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick
26. Journey to the End of the Millennium by A.B. Yehoshua
27. The Source by James Michener
28. Collected Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer
29. Tevye’s Daughter Stories by Sholom Aleichem
30. The Dybbuk by S. Ansky
31. Maus by Art Spiegelman
32. Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth
33. Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk
34. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
35. The Rabbi and the Twenty-nine Witches by Marilyn Hirsh
36. And my all-time favorite: He, She and It by Marge Piercy
Feel free to check out the list and see what you think.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Trying to describe this 'farbondjet' story [or maybe it's merely 'tsedrayt'] is enough to drive me 'meshuggeneneh.' Calling it a noir-ish detective, alternative history, love story about loss and redemption just skims the surface of what happens after Sitka homicide cop Meyer Landsman [yes, his name and most characters' names mean something appropriate in Yiddish] finds a young heroin junkie shot dead in a room in the same flophouse hotel our protagonist occupies. But for me, the actual plot is merely an excuse to enjoy Chabon's prose.
Sometimes Yiddish phrases in English [don't knock me a teakettle], sometimes vice versa, and sometimes just sounding like it ought to be Yiddish ["an Aramaic allusion to abject obedience quoted from the Tractate on the Hierarchy of Dogs, Cats, and Mice"] - so many 'geshmak' passages that made me stop in the middle of the murder mystery to go back and reread them that I had to check the e-notes to verify who really did what to whom and why. As for what this book has to do with any Yiddish policemen’s union, don’t ask? But I'll never change a grandbaby's loaded diaper without thinking of Chabon's complaint to the mother, "something, I think it might have been a sea otter, died and is rotting in the little one's diaper."
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