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October 18, 2016

Several new things have kept me busy over the last two weeks, which I expect to blog about in more detail, but right now I’ll just whet your curiosity. In no particular order they are: 1] I’ve joined a gym. 2] I’m finalizing all the details for my three-week, 24 event, mid-Atlantic East Coast book tour that starts Oct 28, 3] I’m preparing two scholar programs that will also involve some vacationing: Dec 1-8 for Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, and Dec 19-29 for Limmud UK in England, and 4] I’m trying to put together a Spring 2017 book tour that focuses on the DC/VA/MD and Philadelphia area.

Regarding subject #1. Starting in the early 1980’s, I used to be a body builder and worked out in the gym with weights regularly until I hurt my neck and shoulder in a car crash in 1998. I've missed being in shape, but I was afraid to re-injure myself. But now we live less than 10-minute walk from LA Fitness, so I tried it over free Labor Day weekend and then got a free 3-day pass. I liked the machines and didn't feel hurt afterwards, but wanted to wait for a membership sale. Then after we paid to fix our daughter's car, she stepped up and added us to her membership.

So I've been working out with weights twice a week for over a month, and recently tried out a yoga class to improve my flexibility and balance [which I definitely need to improve at my age]. While I understand the importance of keeping this up for my health, the time I spend doing it is not trivial.

October 13, 2016

I’d been saving this quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things to share during the High Holy Days, but only remembered it today. I consider myself a scientist and a religious person, and as such have no trouble reconciling evolution with the existence of God as Creator. In my opinion, a God who creates the universe over time through an evolutionary process is greater than one who creates by fiat.

I’m not sure I need any proof for God’s existence, but in case I did, the view expressed by the heroine of Gilbert’s historical novel most nearly sums up my view. Which is asking what evolutionary purpose can there be for all the things that fill people with awe—the Grand Canyon, beautiful sunsets, or music that brings tears to our eyes for example?

“I believe that evolution explains nearly everything about us, and I certainly believe that it explains absolutely everything about the rest of the natural world. But I do not believe that evolution alone can account for our unique human consciousness. There is no evolutionary need, you see, for us to have such acute sensitivities of intellect and emotion. There is no practical need for the minds that we have. We don't need a mind that can play chess ... We don't need a mind that can invent religions or argue over our origins. We don't need a mind that causes us to weep at the opera. We don't need opera, for that matter—nor science, nor art. We don't need ethics, morality, dignity, or sacrifice. We don't need affection or love—certainly not to the degree that we feel it. If anything, our sensibilities can be a liability, for they can cause us to suffer distress.”

October 02, 2016

A Monstrous Regiment of Women (Mary Russell, #2)A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had a lot of mixed feelings about this book. I thoroughly enjoyed two other Mary Russell mysteries, Vol 1 and Vol 4, and expected to like this one as much. It started out very promising with the feminist slant, and parts involving Judaism and women's lives in the aftermath of WW1 were fascinating. I certainly appreciated Russell's theological discussions with Childe on female influences in the Bible. However, I thoroughly disliked the heroin subplot, wherein Russell is kidnapped by mysterious men, imprisoned in a dark room, and rendered helpless until she is eventually rescued by Holmes. What happened to the plucky and intrepid heroine I'd come to know and love? After all this feminism, she has to be saved by the hero. And then the villain turns out to be someone we never heard of until the end. I could have believed Childe's husband as the murderer if only there had been somer earlier setup.

Two other complaints, one I saw in other reviews and the other apparently unique to me. Yes, I cringed at the sexual/romantic relationship between 21 year-old Russell and 60+ year-old Holmes, especially to learn he felt this way when she was 15. Yuck! And how come the epilogue never tells us what happened with the paper/lecture Russell was on the way to discuss at Oxford when she was kidnapped? This was such an important project for her and yet it seemed to be completely forgotten. But on the positive side, the writing is so good and the characters and locations so well drawn, that I never considered giving up. Maybe we'll learn what happened to Russell's thesis in Vol 3?

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September 26, 2016

After completing my No. Calif. Book events, I spent a few days at my sister’s home in Sacramento. As it happened, Thursday evening is when her writing group meets. Ann Bancroft, a local journalist, facilitates the group by giving the women a prompt to start them writing, at which time each participant, including Ann, writes for anywhere from 5-20 minutes. Then everyone reads their story aloud in turn, and after each one the group offers comments. But not just any comments. We were limited to: What you liked about it, what was strong about it, and something you’ll remember. Of course after these, other positive critiques were welcomed.

My sister’s practice is to write her stories as memoirs, and over the last several months she’d shared some of her stories with me--those that brought back memories of family experiences. These prompts included Forgiving Enemies, The Moment After Which Everything was Different, and Going through Someone’s Pockets [she wrote about going through our Dad’s after his death].

As luck would have it, the only attendees on this particular Thursday were the leader, my sister, and me. This was a relief, since I didn’t want my writing to be judged by strangers against a higher standard since I was a published novelist. Having already outlined my next historical novel, I decided to try to use the prompts to write scenes for it. Our three prompts were: Somebody Offers Advice You Don’t Want, The Most Annoying Person You Know Gives you a Gift, and “Have You Forgotten Me?” To my surprise and gratification, I easily thought of 3 scenes to illustrate these ideas. However in the 20 minutes allowed, I only got the bare bones down. But I can now say that I’ve started writing what I hope/expect will be my next book.

September 18, 2016

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.

September 06, 2016

Sinners and the Sea: The Untold Story of Noah's WifeSinners 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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September 05, 2016

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.

August 29, 2016

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.

August 23, 2016

The Secret ChordThe 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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August 21, 2016

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 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.

August 16, 2016

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 article about jokes concerning God. Note one of mine in the comments.

August 14, 2016

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: [1] the novel must be available from the Los Angeles library system, [2] reviews from my Goodreads friends must be very good, [3] I haven’t read more than one other book by that author, and [4] 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

MaG_author pix 2016small.JPG
Maggie Anton

More sites to read

Erika Dreifus

The Talmud Blog

The Forward Sisterhood

Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance

Whole Megillah