October 26, 2021

My 3.5-star review of "Rebel Daughter" by Lori Banov Kaufman

Rebel DaughterRebel Daughter by Lori Banov Kaufmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'd say this is more of a 3.5 star review. For the first third of the novel, maybe longer, the protagonist Esther is a spoiled rich girl, daughter of an aristocratic high-level priest. She constantly makes dumb decisions and comes to wrong conclusions about what is going on around her. I really didn't like her. Maybe because I'm more inclined towards the rabbis/Pharisees than the priests/Sadducees, I quickly tired of all the descriptions of the Temple and its activities. Things got a bit more interesting when the Romans showed up, but I found it difficult to sympathize with the Jews who were so sure God would save them. I don't think the author meant to portray them as lambs going to the slaughter along with the actual lambs that the priests sacrificed, but I found it an apt comparison. Although I think she did provide an apt comparison between the bitter infighting between the Jewish sects and the ever-growing partisan divide and hatred between groups in American society today.

One of my difficulties reading this book was knowing what disaster was going to happen and when. Perhaps readers needed to see all the good times for Esther's priestly family before the siege so we could commiserate more, or maybe gloat at how the mighty had fallen. Only then did Esther develop a spine and show some resourcefulness; only then did she realize that the man she'd despised until they married was a good husband who cared for her. Only then did she see that Josephus [yes, that Josephus--who seemed to be a character only so the author could do drop his name] cared for his own advancement no matter what the cost to others. Only then did she see that a Roman man could be something besides evil.

The part where Esther manages to survive, only to become a slave, was the most fascinating. Not that I enjoyed it, but I finally began to care about her and her little brother when they got to Italy. I think I would have appreciated more scenes there and less in Jerusalem. This is labeled a YA novel, although I thought the violence and slavery descriptions might be too much for younger readers. The chapters are quite short, some only a few pages, so it was easy to keep on reading just a little more until I looked up and an hour or two had passed in a flash.

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Posted by maggie at 07:59 PM | Comments (0)

October 24, 2021

Zoom Amulet talk at Magnes Museum

For those interested in learning more about ancient Jewish magic, the Magnes Jewish Museum at UC Berkeley is offering zoom presentations on the Amulets in their collection. Here's the link

Posted by maggie at 12:32 PM | Comments (0)

October 21, 2021

Goodreads 4.5-star review of “The Forest of Vanishing” by Kristin Harmel

The Forest of Vanishing StarsThe Forest of Vanishing Stars by Kristin Harmel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would have given this novel 5 stars, but some of the forest scenes dragged and seemed to repeat themselves. Also I was disappointed at the (spoiler alert) cliched "surprise" ending where it is revealed that the heroine, daughter of a Nazi officer, has a Jewish mother and thus is actually Jewish. But I enjoyed how this novel reminded me of Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear, The Valley of Horses, The Mammoth Hunters where a girl with no family thrives while living alone in the wilderness and then has to learn to get along with other people. Very disappointing how Auel's following three volumes declined so precipitously in quality.

I appreciated that this was not your typical WW2 Holocaust novel that concentrated on what happened in the death camps. Instead there was magical realism as I learned that there were Jewish refugees who escaped the Nazis into Polish forests and then organized into a partisan fighter force, a story based on historical facts. I liked how the Jews weren't all heroic; like real people, some were nicer than others. Some had character flaws, both minor and serious. There were even some good Christians, particularly the nuns, but a few of the villagers too. But Harmel was at her best in describing the hardships the refugees suffered, and endured, in order to survive. I almost felt like I was there with them.

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Posted by maggie at 01:37 PM | Comments (0)

October 19, 2021

What to do with ancient Jewish magic bowls

I’m not sure how I came across this five year-old article on ancient Babylonian magic bowls recently, but it’s just as timely now as then. Those who have read my duology [two-book series] about Rav Hisda’s daughter—"Apprentice" and "Enchantress," published in 2012 and 2014 respectively—will find something familiar in the piece. Which is because, after learning about those bowls during my research about women’s lives in the 3rd-4th century rabbinic communities that created the Talmud, I chose to make my heroine a charasheta, a sorceress who created bowls like these.

Unearthed under homes in what is now Iraq, these were common items of household pottery inscribed with spells to protect the inhabitants from demons and the Evil Eye, believed to cause illness, unsuccessful pregnancy and other misfortune. Undoubtedly of Jewish origin, the incantations are written with Hebrew letters, quote the Bible, and call upon Jewish angels and divine names. Those under the same house had identical incantations, mostly to protect and/or heal the client whose name was inscribed in the bowl. But the bowls under each house were unique, both the incantation and client’s name. Obviously the charasheta who inscribed them had to be learned to create a different incantation for each client, and to know which specific Jewish angels and Torah verses to use. I was astonished; I had no idea that such magical devices existed nor that Jewish women in ancient Babylonia may have created them.

The problem today is over what to do with these bowls, many of which were dug up during the 1991 Gulf War by non-archaeologists, looters in other words, and passed into the hands of foreign collectors with no providence as to where they were found. I personally own two such bowls that I acquired in Israel. Typically when antiquities are looted, the country of origin retains ownership and usually wants them back. Not that museums and collectors want to return them, and as a practical matter, the country of origin rarely has the power to reclaim them. In the case of these Magic Bowls, there are conflicting claims between Iraq, where they were created, and Israel [and other Jewish venues] which is where the Iraqi Jewish community that created the bowls fled to. This article delves into the question, but comes to no satisfactory conclusion.
I can only say that I’m not returning my bowls to Iraq.

Posted by maggie at 09:01 AM | Comments (0)

October 17, 2021

My 4-star review of "A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York" by Lianna Finck

A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New YorkA Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York by Liana Finck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve known about The Forward’s advice column for many years [my bubbe subscribed to it]. In fact I’m pretty sure I read A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward in the 1970s. But Liana Finck's wonderful illustrations make A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York an entirely different way of seeing the world those letters came from.

A small complaint is the 10-page Gallery of Missing Husbands offers no explanation of why their deserted wives placed these ads, while there were none of missing wives. According to Jewish Law, the only way a wife becomes unmarried is for her husband to die [with witnesses] or divorce her. She cannot divorce him and there is no legal way to declare him dead if he disappears. She remains in limbo, married with no husband. So even if she gets a secular divorce, or if a secular courts declares him dead after seven years missing, Jewish Law says she's still married and it would be adultery if she wed again. Any children she had with her new husband would be mamzers, cut off from the Jewish community. A Jewish man, however, is not limited to one wife [Abraham had two, Jacob had four], so he can remarry with impunity.

My main complaint, which is actually a compliment, is that the book is too short. How short exactly, I don't know, because there are no page numbers. But it took me less than a day to read the whole thing. My husband is a cartoonist, so I know how long it takes him just to draw one, but I wanted to dwell longer in this graphic depiction of the Lower East Side. I guess I'll have to buy my own copy after I return this one to the library.
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Posted by maggie at 11:37 AM | Comments (0)

October 14, 2021

Goodreads 5-star review of “The Premonition:A Pandemic Story" by Michael Lewis

The Premonition: A Pandemic StoryThe Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 2012 The New York Times praised Michael Lewis for his ability to use his subject's stories to show the problems with the systems around them. Which is exactly what he does in The Premonition: A Pandemic Story as he describes all the debacles in the various US public health departments, from the CDC on down, that lead to our ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

He doesn't just tell the story, he shows how it develops by focusing on the parts played by various individuals. We feel the triumph when one of them figures out where a cluster of Hepatitis-C cases originated in Santa Barbara. Or another, years later, manages to find out what's going on in Wuhan by using google translate to read Chinese news articles. But we also feel their frustration, anger and despair as their warnings and advice are ignored by bureaucrats whom he accuses of "suffering from malignant obedience." His descriptions far more eloquently mirror the frustration, anger and despair that I, an ex-clinical laboratory professional, have experienced during the last twenty months than anything I could write myself.

As with his other works, Lewis acts as a Cassandra, who was a priestess in Greek mythology cursed to utter true prophecies, but never to be believed. Today her name is employed as a rhetorical device to indicate someone whose accurate warnings or explanations of disaster are ignored. Distinct from his financial books like The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine and Liar's Poker, here the calamity is not in the past, but still unfolding.

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Posted by maggie at 11:51 PM | Comments (0)

October 11, 2021

Good and bad news for authors/publishers

For an author/publisher with a new book coming out soon, it’s unnerving to read the Good News-Bad News about author Rebecca Donner, whose third book hit the New York Times bestseller list just as her publisher ran out of copies. Blame it on global supply chain disruptions. Books in color are usually printed in Asia, but getting them to the US involves shipping containers, lines to dock at backed-up ports, and lack of distribution workers. Covid has exacerbated staffing shortages as workers, only 30% of whom are vaccinated, get sick and have to quarantine.

But books printed in the US aren’t out of the woods. Cheaper printing costs overseas have caused American printing plants to shut down. Those printers still in business prioritize scheduling those books expected to be bestsellers. But sometimes the bride is too beautiful. The nonfiction buyer at Barnes & Noble loved Donner’s new book and ordered so many copies that they still have it in stock. But Amazon misjudged demand and it took over seven weeks to resupply their warehouses. Brick-and-mortar bookstores also suffered, but not as much. Once potential customers ask for a specific book that is backordered, staff can recommend others that they could buy instead; or better yet, buy a different book now and put the desired book on order.

Which may explain why publishers’ income was up 17% for the first six months of 2021 compared to those months in 2020, which was up 10% over 2019. As frustrating as it can be when demand exceeds supply, it’s better than the other way around.
To read the entire NY Times article, click on the link.

Posted by maggie at 11:33 PM | Comments (0)

October 09, 2021

Dodger baseball now and in 1955

Those of you who have read my blog from when I restarted it in June might have noticed that I’ve written a new novel. We’re finalizing page proofs and gathering blurbs in preparation for printing ARCs [Advance Reader Copies], but I’m holding off on the big reveal until it’s up on Amazon. However, I can tell you that a little of it involves baseball, specifically the Brooklyn Dodgers. Indeed, there is an important scene that take place at the seventh game of the 1955 World Series, where the Dodgers beat the Yankees.

Learning that Sandy Koufax started with the Dodgers in 1955 brought back memories of being a huge fan during my early teenage years when he won the Triple Crown of pitching in three of those seasons (1963, 1965, and 1966). My family lived about fifteen miles from Dodger Stadium and my then boyfriend was not only a fan, but had a car. Student/child seats in the bleachers cost only 25 cents back then, so we could get a carful of buddies, all of whom were Jewish too, into the game for less than two dollars. Which we did for as many home games as possible. Thus I saw all four of Koufax’s no-hitters, including his perfect game, in person. And though my family were secular Jews, it was a source of great pride when he refused to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.

After Koufax retired and I headed to UCLA, I became a basketball fan. But something compelled me to go watch the Dodger wildcard game with my son-in-law and grandson on their big-screen TV. And what a game it was. Tension increased as eleven players were left on base as nobody could break the 1-1 tie. Finally it was bottom of the ninth with two outs and with Bellinger walked to first base, Chris Taylor is up to bat. It was almost nine pm and Taylor wasn’t a great hitter, so I was wondering when I should leave to walk home when Bellinger stole second. Now Taylor only needed to single for the Dodgers to win. Everyone at the stadium was standing, and a lot of people were already leaving, when Taylor hits a walk-off homer. The three of us jumped up from the couch and began doing high-fives, while Dodger Stadium went crazy. Probably a similar reaction as when the Dodgers won the 1955 World Series in seventh game.

Here’s a link to the game’s highlights

Posted by maggie at 09:09 PM | Comments (0)

October 05, 2021

5* review of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRueThe Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

V.E. Schwab has written a fantastic novel in both senses of the word: extraordinarily good and imaginative or remote from reality. I will leave the plot description to earlier reviewers and try to just explain what I found so wonderful about The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. I've read quite a few novels recently that take place over decades, yet not in a linear fashion. Some do it better than others, but none as well as this one. I was never confused about where Addie was, or when. Her earliest days—friendless, sad, solitary, and often painful—were difficult to get through, but Schwab’s tantalizing flashes forward and back in time compelled me to continue, and soon I was looking forward to whatever new adventure Addie was going to experience.

Things changed, and got even more interesting, when a handsome bookstore clerk named Henry remembers Addie after she returns a book she stole the day before. She has lived almost 300 years and in all that time, the only one who remembers her is the dark god Luc who originally cursed her and shows up periodically, apparently to gloat and see if she's ready to give up her soul. Which she is NOT. Especially now that she is falling in love with Henry. Things change again when Addie, and the readers, learn why Henry can remember her. And again when she and Luc also appear to be falling in love, or whatever passes as love between a human woman and a god/demon of darkness.

Yes, the plot is excellently executed, the characters finely-drawn, plus the people, places and things described perfectly. The writing was so beautiful and evocative that I was regularly depressed at the knowledge that I, a mid-level historical novelist, could never write as well. But as the story raced to its unknown conclusion, it fulfilled one of my [and many women's] great fantasies: loving and being loved by two different amazing men, one very human and the other undeniably not.

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Posted by maggie at 10:39 AM | Comments (0)

October 03, 2021

Got my Covid-19 Vaccine Booster

Three days ago, I received my Covid-19 booster shot. Compared to arranging for my original 2 vaccinations back in January, this was a breeze. Back then I spent hours a day for several days searching various websites for an available vaccination time and location. Several of my friends were doing the same thing and whoever found an opening would quickly alert the others. Which how my husband and I ended up sitting in our car for over an hour in January as we snaked our way through a line in The Forum parking lot that would have rivaled Disneyland lines in convolutedness. Thankfully we’d followed website directions and brought all the required documents: driver’s license photo ID, Medicare card, Kaiser insurance card, printout of our appointment info including QR code. Just to be sure, we brought our passports too.

Actually getting our Pfizer vaccine took only a few minutes, most of which verifying our data. We waited 15 minutes without reactions, then received our vaccine card with that date’s dose and location. Thankfully I didn’t have to spend any time trying to schedule the second dose; my appointment was already on the card, same time and place in three weeks. Side effects were minimal—a little pain on my upper right arm and some lethargy the next day. Three weeks later we went through the same drill, and the side effects were slightly worse. Which was a relief since it meant the vaccine was working.

Fast forward to last Monday. After getting an email from Kaiser that I was eligible for the booster, I clicked on the link and made an appointment for Wednesday at their clinic only a few miles away. There was no line to check in, and it didn’t seem to matter if patients were early or late. The slight delay, which they told us about, was because they had to defrost a new vial. I was prepared to wait; I was playing Pokemon Go on both my phone and iPad. But I wasn’t prepared for side effects. That night my injection shoulder hurt too much to sleep on that side, but the other shoulder was the one I’d previously torn its rotator cuff so it hurt to lie on that side too. Finally I took an extra-strength Tylenol.

The next day was no fun. Both shoulders hurt, I had a headache, and I was so tired I took three naps. Thankfully, I’d stopped at the library on my way to get vaccinated, and picked up a fantastic [by both definitions: extraordinarily good or imaginative/fanciful] novel that made me happy to stay on the couch reading. Review to follow soon.

Posted by maggie at 10:47 AM | Comments (0)