I was enchanted with The Sisters of the Winter Wood; I couldn't stop reading it. Stories that my bubbe told me when I was little; "bubbe maises" she called them, but now I realize they were Yiddish fairy tales, like this novel. It begins with a fascinating scene of a Jewish family with two daughters living in Dubossary, a small Ukrainian village around the turn of the 19th/20th century. But there's a magical twist: the father can turn into a bear and the mother into a swan. The chapters alternate between the two sisters' POV; Liba, the almost 18 yo elder, writes in prose and Laya, 15 yo, in poetry.
The parents must leave the girls alone to travel to the shetl where the father's father is on his deathbed. Almost immediately Liba begins a relationship with Jewish Dovid, the butcher's son, and Laya with non-Jewish Fedir, the handsome mysterious fruit seller. Rena Rossner does a wonderful job of describing the girls' confused and escalating feelings towards the men; attraction mixed with guilt at having disobeyed their father's rules to avoid being alone with men. Then some strange things begin to happen in town. Villagers disappear and are later found dead, drained of blood. Jews are accused, but the reader knows it's the work of the strange fruit sellers. Swans and bears are seen in the forest, one of the fruit sellers turns into a cat, and slowly family secrets are revealed. Secrets that readers are privy to before the sisters know themselves.
The ending, which I won't give away, is both climatic and satisfying, as the villagers fight off a pogrom and the evil fruit sellers' true identity is revealed. And of course, like in all fairy tales, the sisters find true love. One small complaint: the back matter includes a glossary divided into Hebrew, Yiddish and Ukrainian words, plus a section of Yiddish sayings. Which meant I had to check four different lists to find a word I didn't know. In my upcoming book The Choice: A Novel of Love, Faith and The Talmud [pub date May 2022], I also needed a glossary of Yiddish and Hebrew words, but I interspersed them in one alphabetical list. I was pleased to see that for the most part, our transliterations matched.
Street Dreams by Faye Kellerman
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
I don't read many police procedural novels these days, but I'm glad I read this one. Like our heroine Cindy rescuing a newborn baby from inside a dumpster, I rescued Street Dreams from a pile of hardcover books discarded outside my local library. I enjoyed other mysteries by Faye Kellerman in her early career, so I picked it up. I give it 4.5 stars; it would have rated 5 stars except for the completely unnecessary, and boring, digression into Rina's grandmother's murder in Germany decades earlier.
There were so many parts I liked otherwise: the Jewish content, Cindy's need to put the stalker who terrorized her [in the previous novel] behind her, her dual relationships [daughter and protege] with her police detective father, her romance with Ethiopian-Israeli Koby, and how the three of them worked to solve the various intertwined mysteries. I particularly enjoyed how the author set so many scenes in and around my native Los Angeles, where I still live. I recognized many of her locations and it really brought the story to life. I also appreciated how Kellerman demonstrated the underlying racism and sexual harassment that was both prevalent and ignored 20 years ago when this book was published. I confess that I also enjoyed the pun in the novel’s title.
As for the convoluted mysteries, I admit that I had to read some of the chapters more than once to understand how all the pieces fit together. This is not a murder mystery where it's obvious who done it, but I found the ending highly satisfying. I am disappointed, however, that there are only two novels that feature Cindy Decker and apparently, I've read the better one.
Last month the Los Angeles Times cancelled the long-running comic strip, 9 Chickweed Lane, for using a racial slur. Written and drawn by Brooke McEldowney for over 25 years, “9 Chickweed Lane” follows the women of three generations of the Burber family: Edna, Juliette, and Edda. In cancelling the strip, the Times asked readers to recommend replacements. Here’s the letter I wrote to them:
“Right now only one out of 25+ strips on your comics page is written by a woman cartoonist. Surely you can find some others, maybe even do a combination of cartoons by women from the past. We get the New Yorker, so Liza Donnelly comes to mind. I suggest that you check out her article about the lack of women cartoonists: The New Yorker’s Women Cartoonists, Then and Now. It’s not only informative, bus has some great cartoons.
I've been a fan of Naomi Ragen for over twenty-five years, and this is definitely one of my favorite books of hers. The characters are well-drawn and though Ragen breaks the novelist rules of limiting scenes to one POV [point-of-view], I had no trouble following whose head we were in. I found some of the soul-searching inner dialogues too long. But as a woman in her 8th decade, I loved the romance between the elderly Rav Alter [alter means old in Yiddish] and widowed Bubbe Esther. Why should the young have all the fun?
As some of you may know, I have a new book coming out in the Spring, The Choice: A Novel of Love, Faith and The Talmud. As I read Ragen's novel, I was pleasantly astonished to notice the similarity between her subplots and mine. One, the prevalence of child sexual abuse by Haredi clergy and how to deal with it when the community both won't admit that such behavior exists and, once they can't deny it, refuses to file complaints with the secular authorities; both in the 1950s [my novel] and 2010s [hers]. In hers, the primary victim is our hero's daughter. In mine, my subplot's protagonist is the Hasidic child psychologist who treats the abused children and because of this, faces his community's hostility. Two, how to handle disillusionment with your religion's norms while retaining your faith.
But back to An Observant Wife. The most important comparison with my novel and Ragen's, is that we both leave our readers with a happy ending, something I appreciate more and more these days. View all my reviews
Happy New Year. If there’s anything I need more of in 2022, it’s serenity, equanimity, and quietude. By accident, while looking on the Huntington’s website to learn what days and hours they’ll be open next week, I stumbled upon this amazing virtual show by the American Viewing Stone Resource Center. In traditional Japanese culture, Seiseki are small naturally occurring uniquely shaped rocks which are appreciated for their aesthetic or decorative value. Suiseki are usually presented in two different ways:
• The stone is provided with a wooden base (daiza).
• The stone is placed in a waterproof tray or bowl of ceramic (suiban) or bronze (doban).
These stones are not just any stones which can be found in nature; they must be expressive stones and have a special shape, color and texture to be categorized as suiseki. There is a distinction between landscape and object stones. The former reflect landscapes such as mountains, lakes or rivers, while other stones have object shapes that resemble animals or sculptures. The stones are of natural origin and are found in rivers, oceans and karst areas. Popular types of suiseki suggest a mountain, a waterfall, an island, a thatched hut or an animal.
There are over 100 different stones in the three Huntington virtual shows. Watch them at whatever speed you prefer, stopping to admire one or another for seconds, minutes or any amount of time you want. Maybe listen to some soothing music as you take in one stone after another. Take screen shots of your favorites. Here are the links: By the Sea and California Aiseki
You can also see the National Bonsai Foundation’s viewing stone collection. Each stone is displayed to suggest an aspect of the natural landscape, such as a distant mountain or a waterfall. Thus, when these small-scale forms are viewed together in a complementary arrangement, the whole of nature can be imagined. The collection began with six Japanese viewing stones given by Japan on the occasion of the American Bicentennial in 1976. Today there are 105 stones from different countries: Japan, China, Indonesia, South Africa, Zaire, Namibia, Italy, Canada, and the United States.
The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I'm not so enthusiastic about The Fated Sky as I was with Mary Robinette Kowal's first book of the trilogy. Any Star Trek fan knows that a watching or reading about a long space flight can be pretty boring unless 1] a disaster happens or 2] there's an alien encounter. Since we weren't going to get #2 in this book, we got several disasters, including [in order of severity] a toilet clogged by a discarded condom, a ship full of diarrhea cases [in zero gravity], two deaths in space and a terrorist sabotage of power systems on Earth. Perhaps the descriptions of our intrepid heroine cleaning up a ship load of free floating diarrhea were suppose to be comic relief, but it didn't advance the plot.
Not that there seemed to be much plot; just page after page of day-to-day life on the space bus going to Mars. Including the cooking and laundry details, plus yaw/pitch/roll coordinates every other chapter. Elma and Nathan’s euphemisms were silly and repetitive in the first book, but they continue here even though the couple hardly ever see each other. Ultimately, since I didn't get to know the other characters well enough to care about them, their problems and deaths didn't affect me much. But the grand finale landing on Mars was rather uplifting. I'm undecided about reading the final novel in the trilogy, but I have a few other books I'd like to read first so I don't need to decide yet.
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At the end of November, I was surprised and honored to receive the following email: “Happy Hannukah from Limmud Seattle." We want to invite you, as a seasoned Limmud Presenter, to join us in January 2022 for our fifth annual Limmud Seattle eFestival. We begin Saturday evening, January 15, for a musical Havdalah and a session or two of learning. Then on Sunday, January 16, we have a full day of Limmud planned. Because of Covid, we are planning to hold this event virtually. We would love for you to be one of our invited Presenters. You could teach on something new, update an older lesson, or simply bring your A-game to one of your tried-and-true presentations. Whatever the choice, we want you!”
For those who haven’t heard of Limmud, it is a global movement of independent, volunteer-run Jewish learning events. Started in the UK in 1980, there are now over 90 Limmud groups in 42 countries! While each Limmud group is independent, they are all connected by common values, training and community, shared across the globe. Attendees enjoy leading educators, thought-leaders, and change-makers teaching about the most interesting Jewish ideas today.
Starting in 2016, I have presented at Limmuds in NY, SF Bay Area, San Diego, Los Angeles. Then, in 2018, at the granddaddy of them all, the week-long Limmud UK at a conference center just outside London attended by 4000 Jews of every religious persuasion from all over the world. They didn’t pay me to present, but did cover travel expenses. What an amazing experience. Then Covid-19 hit. In-person Limmuds were cancelled, and only this year are some returning as online alternatives. So I am thrilled to announce that I will be presenting as part of Limmud Seattle eFestival on Sunday, Jan 16 at 1 pm Pacific Time. Register now; it’s free for one attendee.
I'm not normally a fan of Westerns, but this one is different. The Whip is inspired by the true story of a woman, Charlotte "Charley" Parkhurst (1812-1879), a renowned stagecoach driver who lived most of her extraordinary life as a man in the Old West. My legal/married name is Margaret Parkhurst. Because genealogists say that 95% of Parkhursts in the US are descended from Englishman George Parkhurst who immigrated to Massachusetts in 1624 [more on that in a later post], my husband and children are surely related to this novel’s protagonist.
The book is divided into two parts; the first where Charlotte grows from a wayward orphan girl with an affinity for horses into a lonely woman who sees her Negro lover lynched and their child murdered. Desperate to escape and take revenge on the killer, she disguises herself as a man and heads for California. Part Two begins as she embraces her new life as a Wells Fargo whip [stagecoach driver] named Charley. The author does a great job bringing Gold Rush Northern California—the miners, the whores, the gamblers—to life. But she truly excels in describing the day-to-day world of the hard drinking, cigar smoking, constantly cursing whips. She even throws in a few stagecoach robberies. The chapters are short, some only a couple of pages, which regularly seduced me into reading “just one more chapter.”
Warning to reader: the action and language are far grittier, and surely more realistic, than the Old West movies and TV shows I grew up with.
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Last week I came across an interesting article in the New York Times about how the big publishers decide which books to acquire and how much of an advance to pay to an author for them. Unlike the good old days, when editors read promising manuscripts and bought the ones they liked [and thought would sell], today the big advances go to authors with large social media followers—who may, or may not, be good writers. Apparently lots of followers doesn’t guarantee lots of sales, especially if many of those followers are bots or paid for. Or “followers” who were fans years ago but don’t actually follow the potential author now.
So what does this mean for an indie-published author like me? I have over 2500 Facebook friends, but rarely do more than a few hundred of them comment on my newsfeed. I have almost a thousand friends on Goodreads, but who knows if they read my updates? My Rashi’s Daughters trilogy has sold over 100,000 copies, but generated less than 500 reviews on Amazon. I have websites for Maggie Anton and each of my books with a great deal of content on them, I blog 2-3 times a week, and review other authors’ books on Amazon and Goodreads. yet as the NY Times article concludes, “it isn’t accurate to say that social media doesn’t matter for book sales. But the truth is that the industry doesn’t really know what it will do for any given book.”
What has worked for me, and hopefully will work for my upcoming novel, is putting myself in front of as many potential readers as possible—either in person or on zoom. Next best is getting my book reviewed in a magazine, newspaper or other media that my potential buyers are likely to see; or at least placing an ad there. Last, but not least, is reaching out by email to the over 4000 Gmail contacts who have contacted me over the years and letting them know I have a new novel coming out soon.
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
More like a 3.5 star review. The writing wasn't great; I could tell that Mary Robinette Kowal had stitched this novel together from the several short stories and novelette she'd already written about the characters and their dire situation, none of which I read earlier. Scenes lacked smooth transitions and there were many redundancies. Also, we learn suddenly, at the very end of a Chapter Twenty-Three, that Elma had a breakdown in college and is still haunted by "the memory of the year that I tried to hang myself." Yet the next chapter starts and continues as if that previous line hadn't been there. No follow-up, no explanation.
But the idea behind the alternative history plot was great and having grown up in the 1950s-1960s, I recognized and flinched at the patriarchy, racism and antisemitism that was so accepted in white society. As a straight-A science major who couldn't get into Caltech because they didn't accept female students back then, and who was often the only girl in my advanced chemist and math classes at UCLA, I identified with Elma's situation. I applaud the author shining a light on an area that most SciFi novels ignore, even those not set in the mid-twentieth century. Also I appreciated the climate science that proved Earth would soon be too hot for humans to survive, yet so many people wouldn't believe it; JUST LIKE TODAY.
This is a fast, easy read, especially if you skim the equations and rocket science that keep interrupting the story. I'm looking forward to reading the sequel.
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I recently read an article in Moment Magazine about what the word "Talmudic" can mean in English. Of course I was inspired to comment, which I quote below.
“I completely agree with Adam Kirsch that Talmud study is "anything but a waste of time." Especially for women and progressive Jews, the former excluded from the text by misogynist Halachic rulings and the latter by the barrier of translating Aramaic. But now, in the 21st century, those are empty excuses. Sefaria provides an excellent English translation. Anyone can study Talmud online, where nobody knows a student's gender. There are many places where women can study Talmud in the traditional fashion, in person with a study partner; there are even yeshivot for women.
Both women and progressive Jews should especially study Talmud. Women because it's a matter of power. If women don’t know how halacha was formulated and established, then they can’t challenge it or change it. For progressive Jews, it's learning that not all Talmudic arguments end with one winner whose ruling, often the strictest, defines Halacha. Very often they end with "teiku," which means that both views have merit and a person/community can follow either one.”
Dave at Night by Gail Carson Levine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was torn between 4 and 5 stars, but I bumped it up after learning that Dave at Night was based on the author's father's [David Carson] actual childhood. I further appreciated that the novel was set in the Hebrew Home for Boys [HHB], based on the real Hebrew Orphan Asylum, which was also the setting for another novel I read recently, The Hidden Palace.
My sister, a big fan of YA literature, recommended this book to me years ago, and I'm so glad she did. I enjoyed how our rascal orphan hero found his way into the lively Harlem Renaissance scene to escape the awfulness at the HHB. The characters--buddies, allrightniks, nogoodniks--are so well drawn I never doubted that such people actually existed. I particularly liked Solly, the kindhearted gonif who takes Dave under his crooked wing. I also appreciated how, despite a publishing date of 1999, the black characters are individuals and not stereotypes.
Only people of a certain age will remember the Little Rascals and Our Gang movie shorts, which ran in 1922-1944. That's how I imagine the elevens of HHB to look and behave. No matter how much mischief they engaged in, everything always turned out well in the end. Same happy result in this book as well. View all my reviews