February 27, 2022

How Books are Made

I was away last week visiting my son’s family in Scottsdale, so I didn’t see this New York Times Magazine article about how books are physically made [not how they are written]. It is a highly visual resource, showing a sequence of photos that detail each step in the printing process. If any one of these steps is interrupted, whether due to Covid-related employee absences or supply-chain problems, the longer the delay until the finished book is available. Right now both problems plague the production of my upcoming book, The Choice: A Novel of Love, Faith and the Talmud, in particular the lack of printing paper, but more on that a future blog post.

I found the NYT article fascinating and informative, and I recommend that readers also peruse the comments section. I was greatly disappointed that comments were closed by the time I opened the website, thus preventing me from putting in my 2-cents worth.

Posted by maggie at 03:19 PM | Comments (0)

February 24, 2022

Two-star review of "Rachel & Akiva"

Rachel & AkivaRachel & Akiva by Hugh Levenbach
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This novel is bizarre. The prose is good, which is why I give Rachel & Akiva two stars instead of merely one, but the story is a mess. For a book that's titled "Rachel and Akiva," Rachel get so little attention that she seems to be a minor character. Other characters, for example an Arab merchant who deals in bitumen bulls from the Dead Sea, appear in early chapters, have no place in the plot and are never seen again. Entire scenes are extraneous, like the Roman general with a bad back going to a Jewish mystic for healing.

Worse than that, some scenes are completely gratuitous. After Akiva asks Rachel's father (whose every scene shows him to be more evil than the last one), for permission to marry her, the father arranges for the Romans to arrest Akiva on a trumped-up murder charge. Before Rachel can manage to buy his freedom with gold she steals from her father, Akiva must fight in the arena--first against a lion and then against an experienced gladiator. These violent scenes are not only horrific, but completely unrealistic considering the Akiva is only a shepherd. Even more improbable, in between these two battles the Roman governor's wife has Akiva tied naked to her bed and rapes him (although, in a truly fantastic S&M sex scene, he does enjoy it). Finally, Akiva is freed and Rachel runs away to him in the middle of her wedding to a scholar. Nobody finds them, and they appear to live happily ever after.

Strangely, this book has no mention of Rachel sending Akiva away to study for years during which they don't see each other and she lives in poverty, nor of him returning with many thousands of students, after which her father forgives them--all of which is detailed in the Talmud. We do, however, get a great many quotes from the biblical text "The Song of Songs."

One last thing: two illustrators are given credit but there are no illustrations except for the cover.
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Posted by maggie at 02:31 PM | Comments (0)

February 22, 2022

Check out the marvelous Miriam Anzovin

Gmail sends me google alerts for my name and book titles, so I was pleasantly surprised to receive an alert about Rav Hisda that linked to an article in the Jerusalem Post. It was actually a great article about my new friend Miriam Anzovin, who does TikTok Daf Yomi. She describes herself as “writer, visual artist, nerd, makeup aficionado, and human symbiote to a small opinionated dog. I make Daf Yomi reaction videos and other fun things.” In my opinion, funny, weird, sexy, outrageous and feminist don’t even begin to describe what she does. But I love it, especially the Talmud part.

She’ll be doing her thing at Limmud NA this Sunday, where you can join a conversation with the social media personality whose work documenting her daily study of Talmud has gone viral. With wit, sass and a healthy dose of humor, Miriam summarizes ancient rabbinic arguments, democratizing the study of Gemara and pushing boundaries of gender inclusion through her work. Read more about her in the Times of Israel.

“Let women study, pray and observe the way they choose. When women want your opinion we’ll ask for it. The door has opened and can’t be shut again. Listen closely.”

Posted by maggie at 11:59 AM | Comments (0)

February 17, 2022

My 5-star review of "The Assignment" by Liza Wiemer

The AssignmentThe Assignment by Liza M. Wiemer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve seen quite a few books labelled “powerful” that don’t live up to that description, but The Assignment affected me powerfully. It was the trigger to propel me back to my junior high school days in 1963. My father was active in the Civil Rights and Ban-the-Bomb movements, and my family took part in many protest marches and demonstrations. It had only been a year or so since I’d learned about the Holocaust, first by reading Exodus and then verifying what I’d learned there about the death camps by reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, which was on a bookshelf in den. Those were the days when nobody, especially in my Jewish Sunday school, spoke about the camps—and certainly not to children. Suddenly I realized that I would have been killed if my family had lived in Poland back then. And that what Germany had done to Jews was an extreme version of what the South was doing to Negroes.

There wasn’t much that I, a twelve-year-old girl, could do about either, but it happened that I had an unrepentant John Bircher for my homeroom teacher. So I decided to stay seated when it was time to say the Pledge of Allegiance; the USA was definitely not the “land of the free,” and I didn’t believe in God either. Unlike in Wiemer’s novel, I didn’t have a friend to sit down with me, so I got in trouble all by myself. Without going into the messy details, a compromise was made where I didn’t say the Pledge, but I stood up silently while everyone else said it.

As usual, I won’t go into this novel's plot; other reviewers have done that. I identified with both protagonists—especially Cade as he deals with learning that his Nana had survived a concentration camp and that he too was Jewish. Which transformed the angry anti-Semitic internet comments into something personal. I appreciated the growing affection between Cade and Logan, and hoped it would strengthen while they were separated at different colleges. One thing I didn’t quite understand was the portrayal of the teacher who came up with the assignment. Especially strange were the later chapters devoted to his POV. How could such an excellent and experienced teacher, one year away from retirement, not understand how wrong such an assignment was? How had it not even crossed his mind that some students and parents might be offended, not to mention outraged? He seemed like such a nice, sympathetic guy, yet he was so clueless.
Oh well, I’m still giving this book 5-stars.
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Posted by maggie at 05:44 PM | Comments (0)

February 13, 2022

4-star review of "The Rabbis Who Prayed with Fire."

The Rabbi Who Prayed with FireThe Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire by Rachel Sharona Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I confess that I'm a fan of Harry Kemelman's murder mystery series starring Rabbi David Small, so I was eager to read this modern homage to him. The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire won't win a Nobel Prize in literature but it's a quick, likable read with an undercurrent of feminism and social commentary. I especially liked how the three women clergy let their hair down when they met for drinks and conversation. My husband and/or I have been on synagogue boards and committees for most of our adult lives and most are even more boring and unproductive than those displayed here. But the romance was sweet with no surprises in the classic "girl meets girl, girl gets girl, girl loses girl, girl gets girl" plot. No surprise also as to who was the real arsonist and who was the fall guy. My main complaint was that it took half the book before the crime happens, although we did get a tease about the fire in the short prologue. However, I appreciated the pun in the title, as our protagonist certainly plays with fire in her dealings with the synagogue board.
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Posted by maggie at 10:05 PM | Comments (0)

February 11, 2022

Happy Birthday Maggie

I love opening FaceBook on the morning of my birthday and seeing all the hundreds of birthday messages and gifs. It's also nice to come into the kitchen where, in addition to the coffee my husband always makes for me, there's a small chocolate cake. Oh yes, and also a new coffee cup with the logo “Only the Strongest Women become WRITERS.”

Posted by maggie at 10:04 PM | Comments (0)

February 07, 2022

4.5 star Review of "Spinning Silver" by Naomi Novik

Spinning SilverSpinning Silver by Naomi Novik
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I thought Spinning Silver was fantastic [pun intended]. Historical fiction/fairy tale/Jewish content was a winning combination. Especially since instead of the classical fairy tale plot, where the brave, handsome prince slays the dragon/demon and rescues the poor maiden, here the brave, poor maidens slay the demon and rescues the king/tsar. Set in an imaginary medieval kingdom of Lithvas where antisemitism is just as insidious as it really was in Eastern Europe, there are hints of Rumpelstilskin, the Frost/Ice King, and various other tales where the devil/demon takes on human form. There are wonderful descriptions of the hovels, cottages, merchant homes, nobles' mansions, and so on up to the Ice King’s strange palace where “entire chambers wandered off and had to be called back like cats.” I reread some chapters several times because I enjoyed them so much.

I did have two complaints, which is why I only give 4.5 stars. 1] The entire novel is written from the first person (I, we) POV of various characters. At the beginning we were only in two character’s heads, heroine Miryem and servant Wanda. It was pretty obvious who was narrating: reference to "my mother," a brother's name, descriptions of a wealthy grandfather's grand residence. Even so I sometimes had to read a few sentences before I was sure I had the right character. But later, as more characters became the first person POV, all in the same chapter, it got annoying to go back a paragraph or more to determine the POV. Some readers noted how the different characters had different ways of speaking, but I didn’t notice any speaking style that enabled me to differentiate one character from another, except for the Staryk ice king, who was never the POV. 2] I realize that this is a YA novel, so I didn’t expect any sex scenes despite two of the heroines getting married (this is not a spoiler; all good fairy tales end with a wedding and "they lived happily ever after"). But most reviewers called this a love story, and I kept waiting for at least a hint of sexual tension between the pairs. Sorry, not even a kiss, let alone a declaration of love. But that wasn’t a big problem; I had fun imagining those missing scenes myself.

However, the great ending more than made up for my small grievances. The final sentence still makes me grin. View all my reviews

Posted by maggie at 11:57 AM | Comments (0)

February 06, 2022

Sexual abuse in the Haredim

As a historical novelist, I try to keep my plot and characters as reality based as possible. I’m careful to avoid anachronisms, and try to base my storyline around historical events. Truth may indeed be stranger than fiction, but I don’t like to make something up for my novels that doesn’t have at least some basis in fact. Which brings me to a full-page article in last week’s New York Times about two prominent Haredi leaders who attempted suicide, one successfully, after being publicly accused of sexual assault and child molestation.

It is acknowledged that child sexual abuse happens in a wide range of religious organizations, where perpetrators—nearly all of whom are male—use trust, faith and authority to groom victims and keep abuse secret. But religions with a hierarchy of revered male clergy, like Catholicism and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, have until recently closed their eyes to such evildoings, other than to blame the victims. The closed Haredi community has traditionally used the fear of public shame and gossip to keep the families in line, as well as the centuries-old halachic prohibition against mesirah (a Jew reporting the illegal activities of another Jew to the secular authorities). The mesirah prohibition is not supposed to apply in a place with a just legal system, but historically many Jews did not live in such places. For a deeper discussion of mesirah, see this article in the New York Jewish Week.

So why am I blogging about this? Because child sexual abuse in 1950s Hasidic Brooklyn is a subplot in my new book, "The Choice: A Novel of Love, Faith and the Talmud." Coincidentally, it is also in the plot of Naomi Ragen’s new novel, "The Observant Wife," set in the same community today. I didn’t write "The Choice" as a jeremiad against child molesters. But my secondary male protagonist, inspired by a character in Potok’s early novels, was studying child psychology and I needed to show him practicing his profession. In 2010 I came across an anonymously written novel, "Hush," that focused on child sexual abuse in Borough Park. When I read about the heroine being treated by a therapist, I decided to give my psychologist a similar practice. Owing to the Catholic Church child molestation scandals surfacing twenty years ago, there was plenty of research available. It was unpleasant to read, to say the least, but it was a perfect situation for my psychologist character to not only demonstrate his profession, but being a Talmudic scholar, to fight mesirah and bring the pedophile to justice. Want to read the NY Times article? Click on this link .

Posted by maggie at 09:48 PM | Comments (0)

February 02, 2022

No star review of "To the End of the Land"

To the End of the LandTo the End of the Land by David Grossman
I can't remember any time in the last 20 years that I have failed to finish reading a book even if it's slow and boring. Yet I have to report I did not finish To the End of the Land. I was greatly disappointed in this book. The reviews here are largely 4 and 5 stars so I was eager to read it. But I quickly felt like I was reading “Waiting for Godot,” plodding along with the two main characters, waiting for something interesting to happen. I’m in my 8th decade and have lot of other books on my “to read” list, so I gave up. In brief, I found the book tedious, a long slow suck of a novel, devoid of the comforts of plot and action—interminable, repetitious and ultimately, pointless. I cannot even rate it 1-star.
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Posted by maggie at 10:09 PM | Comments (0)