Tuesday, June 29, 2004

SEVEN BLESSINGS Gets More Critical Acclaim...

. . . and shoots up to 407 on Amazon's rankings. Here's Lisa Haddock's piece from www.jewishworldreview.com:

New Book Looks at Life and Love in a Jerusalem Few See

By Lisa Haddock

Meet the author of the critically acclaimed novel, one that makes for perfect summer reading


That word defines "Seven Blessings," the debut novel by Ruchama King.

The critically acclaimed book — set in 1980s, pre-intifada Jerusalem — is a love letter to the faith that King cherishes. That passion fuels a compelling story about the search for love — of G-d, of Torah, of life, of soul mates — in the land of Israel.

"Seven Blessings" tells the story of ordinary religious people in the spiritually charged city of Jerusalem: matchmakers and singles, bus drivers, grocers, lingerie merchants, rebbetzins, Torah scholars, and mystics.

"When we think of Jerusalem lately, the images that come up are of death and despair. And yet the people I know living in Jerusalem — family, friends — are going about their lives with a grace, a richness — and even joy," says the Passaic, N.J., resident.

"Of course we should be aware of the terrible things Israelis are going through. They are fighting our battle — the battle against Jew hatred — for all Jewish people, everywhere. But that battle doesn't have to eclipse who and what Jerusalem is. Jerusalem is life," says King, whose background reflects some of the diversity of Jewish life. She grew up in a religiously observant home with a U.S.-born Ashkenazi father and a Morocco-born Sephardic mother.

Just as the Torah itself does not shy away from the flaws of its characters, King points out, she also wanted to be realistic. She portrays the beauty and the flaws of the community she loves with poignance and humor.

"People hear 'matchmaker' and their minds turn to farce — caricature — Yenta, the local busybody. These are not 'Fiddler on the Roof' characters from a distant nostalgic haze. These are flesh-and-blood people — lovable, hatable."

Back in the Eighties, King spent nine years in Jerusalem, where she studied and taught Torah, volunteered with the disabled, and thrived on the spiritual energy of the city regarded as the center of the world.

In fact, she gained much of the inside knowledge for her book during the two years she lived in the home of a matchmaker.

"She told me her secrets of the trade. She critiqued Yeshiva scholars — their hair, their beards, their glasses, and they listened. She took young women by the hand and decked them out so they looked nice.

"Sometimes I thought these couples continued dating each other just to have this woman tinkering in their lives," says King.

The author describes matchmaking as a national obsession in Israel — and a natural extension of the belief that all Jews are responsible for one another.

"You can't go 10 feet without bumping into a matchmaker. ... Bus drivers and postal clerks get involved. Everyone does. After the Holocaust, every couple that comes together, every family formed, is cause for national celebration."

King's knowledge of Torah and matchmaking pay off. She uses her characters' relationships with G-d and religion as a litmus test for the difficulties they have in their intimate relationships.

Her matchmakers are well-drawn characters who face problems of their own. Judy, the wife of a rabbi who now works as an exterminator, misses the trappings and honors of being a rebbetzin. Tsippi, a Treblinka survivor who makes matches as a way of getting even with the Nazis, yearns for a romantic connection with her husband, who spends most of his time with his nose buried in the Talmud. Yet both women lay aside these hurts to help make the all-important match.

"I don't think people realize how much of a psychoanalyst a matchmaker can — or even must — be," says King, a native of Nashville, Tenn., who grew up in Maryland and Virginia.

And the single Jews she portrays also have their problems. Beth, a 39-year-old American, is afraid to hope that she's met the man of her dreams even as she struggles with religious questions. Akiva, a 41-year-old Canadian, is plagued by wild spasms that frighten away prospective mates. Binyamin, a 42-year-old American artist, is so fixated on superficial physical perfection that eventually, the matchmakers refuse to set him up — until he grows up.

King says she also wants readers to go beyond the basic question: Will these characters find true love?

"Matchmaking and romance are the perfect camouflage for thornier issues. Along the way, you can slip in a little Torah, a little G0d, a little coming to grips with the dark side of your own soul and self," says King, who has a master of fine arts from Brooklyn College.

After her own struggles as a single in a Jewish world that so highly values marriage and family, she's a happily married mother of four.

Her husband, Yisrael Feuerman, has been a big supporter of her ambitions.

"He is an excellent writer with a background in modern psychoanalysis. .... I cannot imagine a husband who could be more supportive: on the both the literary, emotional, and financial end."

For now, King is pleased that she's broken into the literary mainstream.

As for her future literary plans?

"I don't know what will be, but I'm growing more aware of what compels me to write." She pauses as her dark eyes grow pensive.

"I grew up with a skeptical eye toward religion and spirituality, and at the same time I was captivated by it. I was inside and outside at the same time. That's why I write. I'm in touch with that tension."

How a Writer Emerged from Childhood's Attic

Her newest novel, FALLEN, will be published next week, and Kathleen George has a wonderful column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about her creative origins.

The making of a writer
Sunday, June 27, 2004

By Kathleen George

Our guest book columnist this month is Kathleen George, a Johnstown native whose second novel, "Fallen," will be published this month.
When I was 8, I took my accumulated miseries up to the attic, where I had discovered I could make an area (a small "stage set"?) with table, chair, notebooks and pen, and suddenly my world seemed whole and good -- a secret and a treasure.

Mysterious and yet controllable, too. As my stomach tumbled with the thrill of hurtling up those steps, I could wonder what was in all the garment bags that hung on the lines and swayed when I moved, ghosts awakened by my presence.

Up in the attic, I could be alone. I could smell the raw wood heated by sun; I could catch in the air whispers of cedar and mothballs. I could think.

On many a day, I sat and thought and wrote down my thoughts. How did I know to do this? Nobody in my family talked about writing. I didn't know any writers.

Had I read a story about a writer and set out to imitate it? Was it the same year or an earlier time when I had made a summer carnival in our back yard?

I wrote lines and made tents out of sheets and blankets and dragged all the neighborhood kids into my yard and directed them on what to do.

Then I went door to door, drumming up audiences. When the parents and tiny children came to our yard to sample the acts I had organized, I collected money. The neighbors thanked me. I liked it.

One winter, I required entertainment and so, wrote lines for a cast of characters to speak. Casting was limited. My siblings were all I had. I gave them puppets and put them behind the headboard of the bed and told them what to say and how to move the puppets.

The potential for an audience was limited, too. I made my parents come in to see what I had wrought. They wanted to watch "Meet the Press," but they came.

I got to eighth grade and barreled up my miseries in the form of a very schlocky Christmas play. I took it to my teacher. She asked, "Can you put this on for the class?"

Had I ever seen a play? Or a puppet show for that matter? I must have, but I don't remember them. Nevertheless, I chose some classmates and told them when to come into the room and what to say.

My play was sad. The little girl in it saved her family from everything terrible. Poverty? Disease? I don't remember.

Anyway, my protagonist triumphed. A class full of kids looked puzzled and sober. The teacher patted my head.

In high school, I wrote another schlocky story about a little girl whose main virtue was that she lived when the other little girl in the story, a perfect child, died.

My protagonist's mother had to love her because she was all there was! And she was a well-meaning kid.

The point is, I was doing something -- what name shall we give this creating of an alternate world? Was it fiction? Sometimes. Was it theater? Sometimes.

I never asked. I was making up stories and sending them forth, one way or the other.

Let's jump ahead 30 years. I go to the Breadloaf Summer Writers Conference in Vermont. I'm writing some stuff now, of the attic sort, the lonely, dust-smelling sort, and I'm excited.

However my job is as a teacher of theater and a director of plays (carnival work). Theater is public and collaborative; writing is solitary. I have colleagues in the theater department looking puzzled and saying, "You're writing fiction. That's not one of our activities."

I am searching for a way to say, "That's one of my activities."

Up at the podium at Breadloaf is novelist Rosellen Brown. She has made the subject of her address the idea that writers should not stay in one place or genre, but should experiment with other forms.

Brown talks feelingly about writing for pleasure as a child, reminding all of us in her audience of the sheer sensual pleasure of discovery.

She explains that once a bit of mastery has been gained, the writer believes she is supposed to specialize; pressure of that sort comes from establishments to make most writers believe so.

But Brown, for one, didn't want to specialize. She wrote poetry. She wrote plays.

"With the hard-won expertise that allows us to do only one thing well, and that if we're lucky, has come a sort of tightness of the muscles that makes it hard and maybe even makes it feel unnecessary to adapt from one form to another, and I think it's a shame and a loss," she said (and wrote later in a now famous essay).

Brown helped me to understand there is a kind of unified search going on under all forms of storytelling, to get rid of demons, of course.

(Let's get this out of the way first: yes, all writers are crazy, all theater people are crazy.)

It's to find the words and images to tell the story that is troubling the mind and heart the right way. I realized that summer that, when I was in carnival mode, I'd been writing on the stage with people and things -- Henry Heymann's brightly designed scenery, Lorraine Vernberg's costumes, Dan Frezza's mellifluous voice.

At other times I was writing alone in my room -- paper and pencil, then typewriter, then computer. The dusty attic mode.

Both creative routes, the public and the private, give us opportunities to collect our miseries and to do something with them. As my former professor and lifetime mentor, the late Bert O. States wrote to me:

"The times when it is most rewarding to be alive are those when you are in another world of your own creation. There's an irony in that, I suppose. ..."

Oh, yes.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Something we always knew: C.J. Box is a star!

C.J. Box's latest, TROPHY HUNT, was given a star by Publishers Weekly. Congratulations, Chuck!

Here's the review:

TROPHY HUNT: A Joe Pickett Novel
C.J. Box. Putnam, $24.95 (384p) ISBN 0-399-15200-8

* Box's riveting fourth Joe Pickett adventure (after 2003's Winterkill) opens on a disturbing note, with the Wyoming game warden's chance discovery of the oddly mutilated body of a moose near his favorite fishing hole. When several mangled cows and two grisly human corpses are added to the macabre menagerie, Joe reluctantly joins a task force to investigate. Bud Barnum, the corrupt sheriff of Twelve Sleep County, attributes the mutilations to birds or a notorious grizzly bear from Joe's jurisdiction, but Joe isn't convinced. Enter paranormal expert Cleve Garrett, who zealously follows mutilation and alien sightings in his recreational vehicle laboratory. Despite ridicule from the task force, Joe interviews Garrett, who supplies little fresh information but gives off creepy vibes. The clues that the quietly heroic Joe gathers from many disparate witnesses, including his own young daughters and a mentally incapacitated fisherman, may point to the otherworldly, but readers will be well satisfied with the all-too-earthly solution to the bizarre crimes. With its credible and sensitively drawn characters, loads of interesting tidbits about the natural world and timely plot, this skillfully crafted page-turner should have wide appeal. Agent, Ann Rittenberg. Author tour. (July 1)

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

David Webber weds!

Novelist David Webber married Irit Tau on June 6, 2004. And it was a lovely, raucous, moving, slightly drunken affair--not unlike David's wonderful novel REID'S DILEMMA. Here's a picture of David and Irit's first dance, which was darn impressive.

Congratulations David and Irit!

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Kyoko is one of the best in America

Robert Atwan, Series Editor of "The Best American Essays," and Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and essayist Louis Menand have selected Kyoko Mori's essay "Yarn" for inclusion in the Best American Essays 2004. Houghton Mifflin will publish the collection in the fall.