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October 03, 2022

Have You Seen Luis Velez?Have You Seen Luis Velez? by Catherine Ryan Hyde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What can I say - I loved Have You Seen Luis Velez?. It was the perfect book to read in the days approaching Yom Kippur. I'd never heard of this novel until I saw it recommended by the Jewish Book Group on Goodreads, although I quickly learned that author Catherine Ryan Hyde had also written Pay It Forward.

I was astounded to find a book that begins with an actual "save the cat moment." *And from a NY Times bestselling author. Yet it's a wonderful beginning and I knew our protagonist Raymond would meet some interesting, though incorrect, other Luis Velezs before finding out about the one is searching for. But I didn't expect such a lovely, heartwarming (and heartbreaking) story as teenage Raymond experiences the tribalism in our society today. I don't think it's a spoiler alert to say that this story shows how kindness and friendship can help overcome the unfairness in every day life. And gives us hope that in the end, justice will be served.

*The Save The Cat template was first published in Blake Snyder's best-selling Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need, a guide to plotting dramatic structure. Its name from the movie “Aliens” (1986). In the film, the audience is incited emotionally, when Ripley's cat disappears. The audience anticipates that the cat may be the prey of a vicious extraterrestrial that is aboard her spaceship. It plays with the idea that if you show your character doing something that makes the audience root for them (such as saving a cat), then the audience will be immediately more invested in those characters.
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October 01, 2022

M is for Malice (Kinsey Millhone, #13)M is for Malice by Sue Grafton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Over the Rosh Hashana break, I read M is for Malice, the 13th of Sue Grafton’s alphabet murder mystery series. That should mean I’m halfway through them, except that Grafton died after finishing Y is for Yesterday I appreciated how Kinsey grows and changes with each novel, and also how Grafton keeps turning out great, yet different, plots. One would think the stories would become repetitive after a time, but they don’t, even if the characters spill over from one novel to the next. On that note, I really liked that Robert Dietz was back, and though Kinsey has mixed feelings (to put it mildly) about him, I hope he’ll be a recurring character. Both of their efforts were needed to solve the mystery. I would have given this volume 5 stars, but the ending was too sudden and unexpected. Also I found it sad; I felt sorry for both the murderer and the victim, yet it looked like the actual criminals wouldn’t face justice. So much family dysfunction and suffering. But definitely worth reading
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September 26, 2022

L is for Lawless (Kinsey Millhone, #12)L is for Lawless by Sue Grafton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished L is for Lawless a few weeks ago, before my 10-day book tour to Chicago, but finally had time to write this 4-star review now. I enjoyed this crazy road-trip with redneck criminals trying to find a bunch of stolen loot that may or may not exist. Kinsey, who can’t resist poking her nose into somebody else’s mystery, gets dragged along for the ride yet provides both definitions of intelligence that decipher the clues. Her running commentary on the other characters was a hoot. About the ending, you’ll need to read my spoiler in the next paragraph.

If it weren’t for the cover with its detailed illustration of money and jewels galore, I would have wondered if there was any treasure at all or if this was a wild-goose chase. Thus giving only 4-stars instead of 5. I liked how the evil villain was tricked into getting his just desserts and I considered this justice considering how many people he’d betrayed and murdered. I sympathized with the family of the original burglar when they got away with the loot. I wished Kinsey had come away with some reward but understood that while she has no qualms breaking and entering in pursuit of her quarries, she wouldn’t accept stolen goods.

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September 22, 2022

Dirshuni: Contemporary Women’s MidrashDirshuni: Contemporary Women’s Midrash by Tamar Biala
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When the ancient rabbis had a question about the Torah—an important detail that seemed to be missing, an inconsistency between two passages, even a redundant word or verse—they would solve the problem by writing a midrash, or story, filling in the missing piece or reconciling the seeming contradiction. One well-known example of such a midrash is the story of the young Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s workshop, then claiming that the largest idol had done it, so as to trick his father into admitting the idols were merely powerless statues. People often assume this is part of the Bible story, but in fact it is the rabbis’ creative answer to a question not answered in the text: Why did God choose Abraham to convert the heathens to monotheism?

Many of these invented stories reflect sensibilities that bother contemporary women, and women have responded by composing a rich variety of feminist midrash in response. (I take pride in thinking I have been part of this effort, particularly in two novels that seek to flesh out the life of the otherwise unnamed “Rav Hisda’s daughter,” exploring why the Talmud would describe her as having married two, not just one, of her father’s best students after being asked to choose “Which do you want?” and responding boldly, “Both of them.”) For an example of the conversation between ancient and modern values in midrash, consider the story of Lilith. Traditional rabbis wanted to reconcile the two different accounts of the creation of man and woman that appear in Genesis: Chapter one describes God's creation of man and woman at the same time, but chapter two recounts how God makes man in the Garden of Eden and then creates woman as man’s mate later.

The rabbis wondered what happened to that first woman—why was Adam alone again and in need of a mate? They contrived the legend of Lilith, created as Adam’s equal, who left him when he insisted on dominating her. In this tradition, Lilith became a baby-killing demon, while Eve, created from Adam’s body in the second story, was more willing to submit to him, and thus more acceptable to the ancient rabbis. In 1972, though, feminist theologian Judith Plaskow wrote “The Coming of Lilith,” which transforms the fearsome, demonic Lilith into a wise and brave woman. Instead of a rival to be feared, she becomes Eve's friend and empowerer.

Dirshuni: Contemporary Women’s Midrash is the long-anticipated English edition of a collection of midrash composed by Israeli women. Three of the Dirshuni authors are rabbis; all are educators, many with advanced degrees. Using the classical forms developed by the ancient rabbis, they contribute their Torah to fill what the book calls “the missing half of the sacred Jewish bookshelf.” Like other feminist approaches to the Torah, Dirshuni asks: How might women have told their stories if they were central, rather than peripheral, characters in the tradition?

As with traditional midrash collections, this volume begins with Genesis and Exodus and continues through Prophets and Writings. Here the similarity ends, as the following seven chapters are arranged by subject, including Fertility and Parenthood, Holidays, Inequality in Jewish Law and The Rabbinic Court. Each is fashioned in the traditional form of individual midrashim based on a specific text of Torah: first the text, then the midrash explaining or expanding on it, then commentary on its implications, legal or otherwise.

Some of the authors retell stories in a way that highlights women’s pain with greater detail, creating sympathy and revising traditional judgments. Retired high school teacher Ruti Timor offers a heart-rending explanation of why Lot’s wife was punished by turning into a pillar of salt after she looked back at Sodom: "She was unaware of God’s command not to look behind (Gen 19:17). Lot said to his wife, quick…we’ll run for our lives or be killed. She said, we’ll save ourselves, and our (married) daughters will stay here? …He walked sure-footed and she lagged behind. Her heart was heavy upon her, she looked back and saw her city, her family, and her property going up in flames. Tear after tear dripped from her eyes, and the tears grew fuller and fuller, stronger and stronger; until they became a pillar of salt. She stumbled and fell, and stirred no more. And Lot did not look back. Our Sages said, She sinned and with salt was punished. And I say, she sinned not, but was punished all the same."

Other retellings add new voices and new takes on long-standing debates, such as whether Sarah was complicit in Abraham’s decision to obey the command to sacrifice their son Isaac. Biala, a feminist scholar and longtime Torah teacher, imagines the voices of various female biblical figures reacting to the verse describing Abraham’s early morning departure (Genesis 22:3): "And where was Sarah at the time?... Jezebel said: Sarah was of one mind with Abraham and she too sought not to withhold her only son, whom she loved. For Abraham and Sarah both worshipped the same God, and would convert people to Him; he the men, and she the women. Dinah said: Sarah was in the tent and didn’t know of their departure, for ever since she had returned from the palace of Avimelekh, her husband had told her All the princesses’ treasure is inward (Ps. 45:14). She would hide within the tent and no longer took notice of other people. The Great Woman of Shuman said: Sarah hurried after Abraham to stop him from slaughtering her son, but judges and officers at the gates prevented her."

Biala, in her own commentary, concludes by blaming God: "…for the Holy Blessed One had told Abraham Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice (Gen 21:12). But He had not said those words to her. … Against a patriarchal reality in which women truly do have the power to intervene and avert catastrophe … yet they fail to act because are unaware of their own strength."

Some midrashim in this collection go further and depict women studying together in the Beit Midrashah shel Beruriah—Beruriah’s Study House, an imaginary yeshiva headed by Beruriah, the learned wife of Talmudic sage Rabbi Meir. This allows for narratives in which women are shown studying text and contributing legal rulings as in classical Talmudic passages. One of my favorites, by Rivkah Lubitch, a scholar and an advocate for women in religious courts, is about mamzerut, or the issues surrounding bastards—children born to parents in a forbidden union. In Lubitch’s midrash, Moses ascends to heaven to write down the Torah as God dictates it: "He came to the verse Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister, she is your father’s near kinswoman (Leviticus 18:12), and he said, isn’t my mother my father’s aunt? After all, Amram, my father, is the son of Kehat and grandson of Levi … And Yocheved, my mother, is the daughter of Levi…Moses felt faint. He came to the verse, No mamzer will enter the assembly of God, even to the tenth generation (Deut 23:3). … He said: Could I and my siblings, Aaron and Miriam, be mamzerim? He grew weak. He wept and wept… He [traveled forward in time] and sat in the beit midrash of Beruriah. He heard a woman ask: Why is the law of mamzer not practiced today? And they answered her: Because we do not receive testimony on a mamzer; because it has already been decided that the entire community are presumed to be mamzerim, and are permitted to one another. Moses’s mind was eased.

In commentary following this story, Lubitch shows how one might use this midrash as a basis for contending with the mamzerut problem today, starting with the notion that Jacob violated the prohibition against marrying two sisters, Leah and Rachel, during their lifetimes: "Halakha maintains that the entire Jewish community is presumed to be bastards and thus all are permitted to marry one another. … Throughout the generations, rabbis have made such general statements and legal presumptions … Similarly the entire Jewish community is presumed to have been rendered impure by contact with the dead, such that most of the purity and impurity laws no longer apply."

Not every midrash in Dirshuni is so encouraging. Attorney Oshrat Shoham’s trilogy of tales in the Rape and Incest chapter (“The Father’s Scream: Concealing and Revealing,” “The Mother’s Scream: Uncovering and Expulsion,” “The Woman’s Scream: Cover-Up and Tikkun”), where each victim is ignored, shamed or both, upset me so much I could barely skim them. Upon reflection, however, I think they were written to make readers outraged and empathetic, to force changes in attitude and to demand justice. By contrast, two contributions to the chapter on post-Holocaust theology are more comforting, drawing on texts about Noah’s dove and raven and on passages from the Song of Songs to emphasize how important it is for humanity to feel God’s presence, especially in a difficult, frightening, and painful period. The human tendency is to forget God and ignore His presence when all is well; the closeness between God and humanity depends on both working to ensure that the bond endures.

These are merely a taste of the formidable resources in Dirshuni. While scholars will relish the book’s nuances, it is the less experienced Torah students who will learn most from this wealth of new insights into the tradition.

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September 07, 2022

K is for Killer (Kinsey Millhone, #11)K is for Killer by Sue Grafton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was one of those mysteries were almost every character seems guilty. They are all a little bit off, and at one point I was almost positive that everyone was guilty. It seemed like many details were left out and there were too many red herrings. For example, she goes up to SF, why I don’t know, but is lied to and never pursues why the producer omitted important information. Luckily, it was irrelevant to the story line. I was left with so many unanswered questions when the book ended. The victim's sister discovers the body within 24 hours of the murder(?) but never reports it; so body decays for weeks and cause of death is never determined. Why doesn't she report it? Why did the killer do what he did? Did he commit all the killings in the book? Who was the mysterious attorney? Did Serena play a role? How did the death at the hospital occur? Could it have been foul play? There were too many names and characters to keep up with. I had to go back in places to figure out who she was talking about. Oddly, this mystery contained a similar plot point with Rita Mae Brown’s Cat on the Scent where rich land developers kill over water rights.

The ending of the book was rushed, as if the author decided she had 2 pages in which to finish this book, sensibly or not. No plausible motive was given, too many loose ends not tied up, and as one reviewer said earlier, Kinsey's relationship with Danielle is just not plausible. When at her best, Grafton is an amazing writer, her ability to set a scene with vivid descriptions a joy, but it just wasn't in evidence at the end of this book. True the killer of the first murder victim was identified (and the fate of the killer was indicated), but what was the motive? There were two distinct different possibilities. Also, the reader might reasonably think that this killer was also responsible for the second murder (although that was never revealed), but what about the third attack and resulting death? There was no explanation, or motive given - and no indication that the same killer was responsible. Grafton is a great writer - if she had just written 4 or 5 more pages to resolve the unanswered questions, it could have been a good book instead of a disappointing one. I was expecting the standard Sue Grafton crafted dramatic shoot-out, but not in this one. If we could have gotten more of a resolution and a deeper dive into the relationships, this book would get a full 5-star rating.
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September 05, 2022

The Last Graduate (The Scholomance, #2)The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was going to give The Last Graduate 2-stars because of its long, tedious start where I didn't learn much new about El, our first-person POV narrator. It also annoyed me that the chapters are so long [25-35 pages] so I end up having to stop mid-chapter. But then, on p. 177, at the end of Ch 6, we get a surprise hot make-out scene between El and her nemesis Orion that forced me to continue reading. After that the action finally takes off, although the long chapters still frustrated me. At least I could see the emergence of a plot that weaves together romance, sci-fi fantasy, and "rebirth" story that follows a character with a tragic past that informs their current negative view of life, through a transformation from bad to good. So I bumped my rating to 4 stars. But it took almost until the final chapter for the romantic leads to actually “do it,” although from El’s description I wasn’t sure how they were doing it. Yes there was mention of belt undoing and pants removal, but only when she said “he came less than five minutes into the festivities” did I understand that they’d consummated their relationship. I know this is a YA novel, but surely Novik could have written a better sex scene. Which how I ended up with a 3-star rating. Other earlier reviews criticized the big cliff hanger at the end, but since the final volume to the trilogy is coming out this month, I’m fine with waiting.
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September 03, 2022

From My Jewish Learning
Over a dozen of the most gorgeous, impressive, amazing (choose your own jaw-dropping adjective) synagogues in the world. For when you just want to sit and be awe-struck. This one is the Princes Road Synagogue in Liverpool, England. I regret to admit that I haven’t been inside any of these places.

August 30, 2022

Pawing Through the Past (Mrs. Murphy, #8)Pawing Through the Past by Rita Mae Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed Pawing Through the Past and its twin high school reunions. I especially appreciated seeing that Blair Bainbridge, admittedly a minor character, was doing well after being shot at the end of the previous Mrs. Murphy mystery. I also liked the growing relationship between Harry and her ex-husband. I even admit that I had some sympathy for the killer after learning why these particular victims had been chosen, but I had absolutely no idea who done it until the very end. Several other reviewers objected to the [spoiler alert] killer being a trans woman who used her new identity to get revenge against the teenagers who gang-raped her/him in high school. Just because author Rita Mae Brown is an out lesbian doesn't mean she shouldn't write about a queer murderer. I can imagine how there might have been a few guys who taunted her in high school that she wouldn't mind seeing dead. The ending was thrilling, especially with the barn owl participating.
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August 27, 2022

J is for Judgment (Kinsey Millhone #10)J is for Judgment by Sue Grafton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kinsey Millhone is back on another insurance fraud case, this time on the trail of Wendell Jaffe. He's supposed to have died five years earlier, except that somebody saw him in a bar in Baja California with an attractive woman, not long after his wife collected on his life insurance policy. Not only does the insurance company want to find him and get their money back, but so do a lot of folks who invested in his "too good to be true" Ponzi scheme. And I only have sympathy for his abandoned wife and sons, who had no idea that he'd absconded with the loot. So it didn't bother me at all when Kinsey uses some unethical/illegal methods to track him down. Funny how I was angry when the murderers in my most recently read Mrs Murphy mystery got away with their crime, but it didn't bother me that some of the criminals [I'm not saying who] in J is for Judgment escaped justice.

August 23, 2022

As a member of the AJS (Assn of Jewish Scholars), I'm entitled to have a book I've authored this year listed in it annual "AJS Honors Its Authors 2022" program. In addition to the usual information about "The Choice: A Novel of Love, Faith and the Talmud," (title, description ISBN number, author bio and photo) they asked for a 30 second video . I'd already done a 2-minute video for the Jewish Book Council, but cutting that down 75% was much more difficult than I'd anticipated. I managed to hold this one to 32 seconds.

Here's my original text: Maggie Anton’s The Choice: A Novel of Love, Faith and the Talmud is powerful love story with a purpose: to challenge Jewish customs and laws that have led to disadvantages and inequality for women in marriage, ritual observance and Torah study. The book is a wholly transformative novel that takes characters inspired by Chaim Potok and ages them into young adults in Brooklyn in the 1950s. When journalist Hannah Eisin interviews Rabbi Nathan Mandel, a controversial Talmud professor, she persuades him to teach her the mysteries of the text forbidden to women, though it might cost him his job. Secret meetings and lively discussions about what Talmud teaches concerning women’s inclusion in sacred space and communal life bring the two to the edge of a line neither dares to cross, testing their relationships with Judaism and each other. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, author of twelve books including Deborah, Golda, and Me and the upcoming Shanda, says, "The Choice is about the choices Jews make and the rules we break for reasons of conscience, consideration, logic, and love. In addition to the endearing romance at its core, there’s a feminist brief for women's inclusion in sacred space and communal life, plus twenty brilliant Talmud lessons. A surfeit of riches."

Here's what I ended up with: Maggie Anton’s The Choice: A Novel of Love, Faith and the Talmud is a wholly transformative work that takes characters inspired by Chaim Potok and ages them into young adults in Brooklyn in the 1950s. When journalist Hannah Eisin interviews Rabbi Nathan Mandel, a controversial Talmud professor, she persuades him to teach her the mysteries of the text forbidden to women. Secret meetings and lively debates on what Talmud teaches about women’s disadvantages inequality bring the two to the edge of a line neither dares to cross, testing their relationships with Judaism and each other.

August 19, 2022

Cat on the Scent (Mrs. Murphy, #7)Cat on the Scent by Rita Mae Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cat on the Scent is one of my least favorite Mrs. Murphy mysteries. Roller coaster: the beginning is a long slow slog up the hill in preparation for the excitement to start, then comes the crazy fast downhill of murders, shootings, and unearthed dead bodies that ends the ride before you know it. I couldn’t figure out the motive for the murders; it seemed to me that there was plenty of money to go around so no need to kill anyone for more. And this being the eighth book in the series, you’d think they’d run out of people to kill in such a small town as Crozet, or that the residents would notice the high murder rate and want to do something about it.

Other readers complained about the heroic and unlikely way the animals save one of my favorite characters, Blair Bainbridge, but I thought that scene was a hoot. I hope Blair appears in a later book so I can find out what happens to him. However, I greatly disliked the ending (view spoiler) and was surprised that Rita Mae Brown would conclude with such an injustice.
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August 18, 2022

Apparently there's a debate regarding the use of Yiddish and needing a glossary in fiction. I've read quite a few memoirs and novels that take place in Ultra-Orthodox communities and a complaint I have about many of them is that you'd never know that these characters are speaking Yiddish, not English (this was a frequent criticism of Chaim Potok's works). It's a tricky task for authors to write dialogue that is true to how the characters speak and still make it understandable for English readers. Nobody, authors especially, wants readers to interrupt the story to check a glossary, but in my opinion inserting a translation (in parentheses) after every Yiddish word is worse. I had this problem while writing my most recent book, The Choice:A Novel of Love, Faith and the Talmud. So I compromised by using enough Yiddish that I included a glossary, but I also put translations in parenthesis for lengthy expressions. It helped that we had a copy editor who grew up in Borough Park and was fluent in Yiddish.

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Maggie Anton

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