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November 22, 2015

In you need reminding, November is Jewish Book Month. I just returned from a successful, and fun, mini-book tour where I spent just over a week in Massachusetts and the SF Bay Area. Other than doing Limmud NY 2016 next Presidents’ Weekend, I’m not scheduled for any other book talks. What a change from last year, when I did 127 events in 17 states between mid-October and Mother’s Day to promote my historical fantasy novel ENCHANTRESS.

Based on my extensive experience, here’s some advice for authors who want to go on book tour:

1. Know your audience and concentrate on venues where you’ll find them. For me that means Jewish women’s groups like Hadassah chapters and synagogue sisterhoods rather than libraries and bookstores.
2. Arrange your own schedule, keeping in mind the distance between venues, to maximize the number of events in the least amount of days. For long trips, rent a car [let the hosts share this expense] so nobody has to shlep you around.
3. Offer to stay in people’s homes rather than hotels. You’ll benefit by meeting many wonderful people, not being constrained by a hotel’s check-in & check-out schedule, access at odd hours to your host’s refrigerator & pantry, and not having to pay for WiFi or parking. The nonprofit you’re speaking at will benefit by not having to pay for your lodging, which may make the difference as to whether they’ll have you speak there or not.
4. Provide copies of your books yourself for sale/signing. You will be in control of which books to order from your publisher [you do get a significant discount, don’t you?] and where they should be shipped, so if there are any problems you can deal with them yourself. If your venue wants to handle this, and they have experience doing it, by all means let them. But most Jewish women’s groups are happy to let the author handle book sales, especially since they won’t be responsible for returning unsold copies.
5. Consider hiring a freelance publicist to get you media coverage and interviews, especially if you have several events in the same geographical area.
6. Have fun.

November 09, 2015

Years ago I learned that November is National Novel Writing Month, which challenges would-be authors to write a novel, at least the first draft, in 30 days. While I liked the idea, it never worked for me for several reasons. 1] My stories were so long, over 150,000 words, that I would have to average over 5000 words [40 pages] a day – a nearly impossible task. 2] I was researching as I wrote, which left even less time to write each day. 3] To get my novel out in early autumn, prime time for Jewish books, my publisher needed a finished manuscript in December. So I had to do my writing and editing in spring and summer; November was for compiling front and back matter.

This year I heard about a new November challenge, National Nonfiction Writing Month I admit I already wrote several drafts of my short book in October, but I’ve decided to take the challenge to complete it in November. Which is one of the reasons I haven’t blogged since the end of October. This time the timing works for me. I’m flying back east for a short, one-week, book trip – which means I’ll have two long flights with nothing much else to do but work on my monograph.

Those of you in the Boston area, here’s where I’ll be speaking:
Nov 12 - 11 am. Dutchess Co Hadassah luncheon. Christos Restaurant,155 Wilbur Blvd, Poughkeepsie NY 12603.
Nov 13 - 10:30 am [for students] and 1 pm [for parents]. The Rashi School, 8000 Great Meadow Rd. Dedham MA 02026
Nov 13/14 - Scholar-in-Residence. Agudat Achim, 268 Washington St, Leominster MA 01453
Nov 14 - 5:15 pm. Torathon. Congregation Beth Israel 15 Jamesbury Dr, Worcester MA 01609
Nov 15 - 7 pm. Temple Emanu-El, 393 Atlantic Ave, Marblehead MA 01945
Nov 16 – 7:30 pm. Shirat HaYam. 55 Atlantic Ave, Swampscott, MA 01907

October 23, 2015

Good news! I haven’t blogged in almost two weeks because I’ve been busy on my latest book. As you may recall, I’ve been intermittently working on two projects [both involving Talmud], one another historical novel and the other nonfiction. For several reasons, notably that the nonfiction work is a short monograph based on talks I’ve already given and research I’ve already done, which means I can get it published more quickly, I’ve set the novel aside to concentrate on the monograph. Monograph sounds too scholarly, something Sherlock Holmes would write. Since my book is approximately 10,000 words long, plus some illustrations, maybe I will just call it a booklet.

No, you haven’t missed anything. I have not told you its title, or even its subject matter. What I can tell you is that the manuscript is complete enough that I have sent it off to a few friends/associates to edit, as well as to my book shepherd so we can get production started.

Yes, I’m planning to crank up good old Banot Press and go the self-publishing route again. Eleven years ago, using the same book shepherd, I started my own small press and published Rashi’s Daughters: Book I – Joheved. Back then e-books were barely on the horizon, so I didn’t even bother with the format. Now, with my latest novels selling 50% as e-versions, my new booklet should be ideal for a short, snappy, inexpensive, screen read.

Not to worry – when I decide to announce the title, which should make the subject obvious, you will be among the first to know.

October 21, 2015

In the Land of Armadillos: StoriesIn the Land of Armadillos: Stories by Helen Maryles Shankman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Actually I give this 4 1/2 stars. Populated with monsters and heroes [human and perhaps not], but mostly with ordinary people caught up in horrific events they neither understood nor controlled - this series of intersecting stories drew me in completely, making read them again to find all the connections I missed the first time ["Armadillos" reminded me of "Cloud Atlas" in that way]. Weaving a tapestry of history and fantasy, Helen Shankman has brought us face to face with both the daily humiliations and terrors, and the occasional close calls and acts of goodness, the Jewish population experienced in this Polish village. The writing is literally fantastic, with flashbacks and flash-forwards mixed in so well I marvel at Shankman's literary skills. For those, like me, weary of Holocaust fiction focused on the death camps, this book is something different, focused primarily on the survivors who, coincidently or magically, were painted by a Jewish artist as cafe patrons in a child's room mural in the first story.

View all my reviews

October 10, 2015

I am about to recommend AFTERMATH, a compelling 2012 Polish movie I recently watched on Netflix knowing little more than it was a Los Angeles Times Critic's Pick [“One of the Best Films of the Year! "Gripping, excellent. A bombshell disguised as a thriller] and had received an 83% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. But my husband and I are always interested in discovering overlooked foreign film gems [that's how we found the fabulous French MICMACS, one of our all-time favorites].

By the way, AFTERMATH is streaming now on Netflix and seems to be available on Amazon, Hulu, iTunes, and probably other online sources. So no need to travel to some distant small theater that specializes in foreign films.

The Netflix description didn't say much: “Two decades after migrating to America, Chicagoan Franek returns to his native Poland only to find things deeply amiss in his family and town. With his brother, Jozek, who stayed behind, Franek sets out to discover the community's collective secret. Genre: mystery, suspense, foreign thriller.” I assumed it would be a modern take on the classic “Bad Day at Black Rock” town-with-a-secret genre, which it was. But it was much more, especially for Jewish viewers.

I don't want to give away the plot with spoilers, because like with all great thrillers, not knowing what’s coming and experiencing all the twists and turns as the characters do is what keeps us at the edge of our seats. The denouement, which is both awful and awe-full, is most powerful if you don't expect it, so I strongly advise you not to check it out on Wikipedia. Indeed, the less you know about the movie, the more impact it will have. Still, knowing that some of you might want to know more and maybe read a few reviews, here’s a link to the film’s website.

October 07, 2015

Get What's Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social SecurityGet What's Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security by Laurence J. Kotlikoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Written in simple English, with lots of examples [real & imaginary], this book explains and offers advice on how to maximize Social Security benefits in almost every possible family scenario. Yes, the authors repeat themselves, and they know it, but they want to make sure readers understand and remember their best strategy. For in many cases, those who make the wrong decision will leave lots of $$$ on the table. My only complaint is that they didn't completely address an increasingly common scenario - those who continue working after age 70 - and how income taxes on Social Security income complicates retirement plans.

View all my reviews

October 03, 2015

Sukkot is a busy time for me since we use the 9 days as an opportunity to host friends who haven't been to our home recently, possibly not since last Sukkot. Also this is my chance to reciprocate those who have hosted us throughout the year. We have a large lattice-covered patio, two walls provided by our house, that rather easily converts to a sukkah when we hang up some fruit-decorated fabric for a third wall and throw some palm fronds from our garden on top. Living in West Los Angeles, a little more than a mile from the beach, we are blessed with pretty much perfect weather for al fresco dining.

I say all this, not only to brag, but to partially excuse myself for not blogging for over two weeks. I don’t want to get into details about my attack of diverticulitis, or as a friend delicately called the “travails of my entrails,” only that I was nearly hospitalized. I’ve been pretty whipped even after finishing the nasty antibiotic regimen, still have occasional abdominal pain, and remain on a restricted diet [thankfully I'm allowed dark chocolate].

Now to answer the important question: Yes, I am writing. In fact I am working on two books, one nonfiction and one novel. But after hearing a TED Talk about how discussing a project in advance actually lessens the chances of finishing it, I've decided to keep mum about them until they're close to complete. This certainly worked for me in getting the first volume of "Rashi's Daughters" written. What I can say is that they both involve Talmud [no surprise] and that I don't have a publishing contract for either.

September 28, 2015

The Catch TrapThe Catch Trap by Marion Zimmer Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wonderful storytelling. Bradley not only brings the traveling circus world to vivid life, but all the characters as well. The gay sex scenes, while not graphic, capture the lust, love, and shame beautifully. I would have given this novel 5 stars but I disliked all the fighting; maybe the 1940-50's circus life was that rough & tumble, and maybe brothers did fight each other a lot in Italian families, but it was too much for me. While I love a happy ending and was both glad and relieved that "Catch Trap" had one, it did seem a little too pat the way everything came together for the heroes. But that's like complaining the bride is too beautiful.

All in all, an excellent read that I stayed up way too late to finish. Thanks, Emily Parkhurst, for recommending this to me.

View all my reviews

September 17, 2015

One of my secret vices is a passion for Chinese martial arts movies, dating back to finding Jackie Chan’s 1978 Drunken Master. I watched these on cable TV until I finally saw the 2000 masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in a theatre. Then came Hero, House of Flying Daggers, The Grandmaster, and of course, Karate Kid [among others]. Netflix and Rotten Tomatoes are a boon for me to catch up on the oldies but goodies.

This week I finally got a chance to see the “93% fresh” Journey to the West. Not only was it excellent, with all the awesome scenery and epic battles against nasty villains one would expect from this genre, but the main theme was redemption and teshuvah. Here’s what the film’s website says: “In a world plagued by demons who cause great human suffering, young demon hunter Xuan Zang risks his all to conquer a water demon, a pig demon and the demon of all demons, Sun Wukong the Monkey King. Adhering to his firm belief in giving of one’s self for the greater cause, our hero, a Buddhist monk, embraces the demons as his disciples. However, in order to atone for their own sins and save the common people, the four of them must embark on a journey to the West that’s full of challenges.”

There was also quite a bit of comedy, as well as a happy love story [a Chinese friend described their happy love stories as when the hero and/or heroine die in each others’ arms after learning that they love each other. Unhappy love stories are where they die thinking their love is unrequited.]

Here’s a review that says it well: “As sweet, silly, action-packed and ridiculous as director Steven Chow's best work, Journey to the West serves up dazzling action sequences while playing its disparate elements against each other with thrilling abandon.” For an unusual, yet inspirational, film for the Days of Awe, I recommend this one. See more at their website

September 11, 2015

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated AutobiographyPioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some words of warning - this is not light reading. It is a coffee table book, 10"x10" and weighing well over 3 lbs. You need to be a "Little House" diehard fan to slog through all the footnotes, but it's worth it if you, like me, are one. I adored these books as a child and have reread them several times.
But I'm only giving this 3 stars because the editor definitely needed an editor. The numerous footnotes that I first found fascinating soon became tedious, especially when they go onto the following page and interrupt the narrative. Way too many are superfluous, like telling us that "nigger" was commonly used at that time, explaining what a waltz, pelican, coyote, and other well-known things are. I did enjoy learning the historical and political background behind the events Wilder writes about, and as a historical novelist myself, I can appreciate how she massaged some of the "facts" to make a more interesting story.

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September 06, 2015

HushHush by Eishes Chayil

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I recently finished reading Hush, another book about women in the Hasidic world, this one for teen audiences. Dealing with sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community, Hush is written under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil [Hebrew for “Woman of Valor,” the prayer from Proverb 31 that a Jewish husband traditionally addresses to his wife just before Shabbat dinner].

A hybrid novel-memoir [the author admits changing details to protect people’s privacy], this is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. The author, who has since come out as Judy Brown [another pseudonym? – doesn’t some very Hasidic], manages to expertly balance her horrific subject matter with sweet, and sometimes amusing, vignettes from the heroine Gittel’s childhood and family life.

Here’s an example of the delightful tumult that surrounds shopping as Gittel prepares to marry: “We combed through Macy’s, cleared out Lord & Taylor, and began exploring Bloomingdale’s. We made long lists of items needed, stores to check out, and hints to convey to the in-laws. There was the Wedding Night Itself, The Day After, and Life in General, which require an exhaustive investigative committee of experienced wedding people that included my aunt – who married of five, my second cousin – seven; and my mother’s former classmate Mrs. Frish and her eleven daughters. Shoes, clothes, lingerie, head coverings, linen – all this needed expert advice on what to buy where, and for how much, and most important of all, how long it would last. Elegant’s linen lasted until at least the third child’s bed-wetting. We weren’t to bother with cheaper brands; they could barely absorb one child’s vomit.” I have 4 small grandchildren and I couldn’t help but chuckle over the last two sentences. Some things are universal.

Nearly all female protagonists in novels are called heroines, but this one really is. After ten years of agony haunted by having found her best friend hanged in her bathroom at age nine after being regularly raped by her older brother [which our heroine witnessed after spending the night there], Gittel challenges her community by publically telling her story and demanding change. Astonishingly, her husband supports her, giving us a hero too – and a hopeful ending to this tragic tale.

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September 04, 2015

[Those of you who follow me on Facebook may find this familiar] Nothing like a health emergency as we approach the Days of Awe to make a person reassess priorities. Last Sunday morning, after day and a half of terrible abdominal pain, lethargy, and fever, my husband took me to WLA Kaiser's Urgent Care Center. By the time we got there I could barely stand, and thankfully they called me promptly. My sitting blood pressure was low [70/50] so the nurse had me stand up, at which it point it dropped to 45/22 – which is apparently only slightly better than “almost dead,” as they say in Princess Bride.

That brought the doctor in quickly, who ordered IV saline started plus a bunch of blood tests and a CT scan. Nothing by mouth allowed in case I needed surgery. Six hours later, between my highly elevated white blood cell count and the CT scan, I was diagnosed with diverticulitis , and sent home with two antibiotics [Cipro & Flagyl]. I was told to stay on a clear liquid diet for a couple of days, and if all went well, I could switch to BRAT [banana, rice, applesauce and toast]. If I wasn’t better in two days, I should come back.

Thankfully I was already better the next day. The pain, while not gone, had lessened considerably, and I had managed to sleep 10 hours with the help of Tylenol PM. Thank goodness for modern medical technology, especially CT scans, which is the gold standard for diagnosing diverticulitis [of course I’d gone online to learn everything I could about my illness].

My regular physician called me Tuesday morning [so early that she woke me up] to see how I was doing and to have me come in to check my blood pressure and white blood cell count to make sure my infection was getting better. Apparently my CT scan was worse than I knew, showing an abscess along with the inflammation of diverticulitis. The CT doc had wanted to hospitalize me so they could start IV antibiotics and I'd be there if the abscess burst, but the Urgent Care doc allowed me to go home.

Today, Friday, the antibiotics are definitely working and my white cell count is normal. I'm graduating from BRAT diet to adding some protein and cooked veggies. This morning added scrambled eggs to my diet, and I plan to add plain yogurt at lunch, then a Shabbat dinner of plain chicken, yams and zucchini [all well-cooked]. At the advice of Kaiser pharmacist, I added probiotic Culturelle to my regimen for 30 days. I don't know if it has helped, but as my Bubbi used to say, "it can't hurt." Yesterday I finally got some exercise by walking to the library [1.5 miles round trip] for more reading material.

Now that the worst is over, it’s an awesome thing to think what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten to Urgent Care so soon, if I didn’t have good medical insurance, if I lived in a third-world country. Last Rosh Hashana might really have been my last Rosh Hashana. I’m sure this year I’ll be praying the Un’taneh Tokef [On Rosh Hashana it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed … who shall live and who shall die] with particular kavanah.

Maggie Anton

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