Friday, April 9, 2021

The Trials and Tribulations of an Amateur Book Reviewer

"This is a novel I'm pretty sure you'd enjoy," my friend Ranen wrote to me. "It's very well plotted, and has gentle humor, and great characterizations."

The book did appeal to me. Exit by Belinda Bauer (Atlantic Monthly Press, February 2, 2021) tells the story of "Felix Pink, an older man with a group that helps people who have chosen to die with dignity. But there’s been a mistake, and Felix’s life is about to change forever."

That brief statement appears at the top of Exit's Amazon page, but the book is only available (so far) in hardcover, at least on the US site where I normally download Kindle editions.

I decided to request a review copy.

I enjoy reading, but I also enjoy writing reviews of the books I enjoy reading. Mostly, I review novels with a connection to Israel or Bulgaria, especially books being published in English for the first time. I am an amateur book reviewer. My reviews appear on my blog at the Times of Israel and on my personal blog.

Over the years I have established a connection with several small publishers, and they send me announcements of books about to appear in print. But I get most of the books I read to review by proactively requesting them, usually by emails written to publicists and marketing departments. I saw that Exit was available on NetGalley so I put in a request to review it.

"If you are simply an avid reader, we are happy to allow you access to a title, but in return we ask two things," responded the publisher of Grove Atlantic. "First, that if you have a chance to read the book, you take the time to write a review." The second thing was signing up for the publisher's newsletter. My request for a review copy was approved.

I downloaded a protected PDF from NetGalley and sent it to my tablet.

The other night I opened my tablet, eager to start reading, only to discover that the formatting of the PDF was horrendous. I didn't mind that it was an uncorrected proof, but how can


read a 

book if the lines

break like this. And then

paragraphs have no spaces between them.


The next morning, I logged into NetGalley directly from my tablet (a time-consuming process because I didn't remember my NetGalley password).

NetGalley has its own reading app, I discovered, and that is the preferred method for reading their review copies. I went to Google Play to download the app to my tablet (a time-consuming process because I didn't remember that password). Eventually the download started and then the screen said "installed successfully". I looked through the apps on my tablet, but I couldn't find the NetGalley Reading Shelf app anywhere!

Maybe I should try downloading the app on my phone, I thought. I returned once again to the NetGalley site (by now I had written down the password). I followed the trail to Google Play and downloaded the NetGalley app, installed it, logged in, and opened Exit.

The formatting was just fine.

So, now I am reading Exit on my phone.

Jodie asked me, "How can you read a book on your phone?"

 The next day, while waiting for my appointment at the dentist, I opened my phone and continued reading Exit.

So far, I am thoroughly enjoying it!

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Election Day. Again.

Benny Gantz came to visit yesterday. Israel's Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense stopped by my company's Passover toast as he campaigned one day ahead of Israel's elections, the fourth time we've gone to the polls in two years. Gantz was once head of the largest political party in Israel, the great hope to replace Netanyahu as prime minister. Today Gantz's Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) party is not even guaranteed a place in the next Knesset.

To say that I am disillusioned with Gantz is an understatement. I believe he is an honest, well-intentioned man but also a naïve, inexperienced politician who fell into Netanyahu's trap. He was warned, but he thought he could save the country. Netanyahu outplayed him at every turn and Gantz became a political laughing stock. Although a majority of Israelis believe that Netanyahu is personally responsible for the country's woes, and has led us to new elections because of his desire to avoid going to trial on charges of corruption, it is Gantz who will pay the political price.

I am very pessimistic about today's elections. I fear that Israel will soon see the establishment of its most extreme, right-wing government ever. An extremist political party that calls for the expulsion of Israeli Arabs from the country is bound to be a partner in the next coalition. The future of Israel's judicial system is at stake. And a corrupt political leader, whose time to leave office is well overdue, will continue to be in charge of our country.

I have never wavered from my support of Meretz, a left-wing, social-democratic and green political party that has maintained its values and principles throughout the years. In today's elections, Meretz is fighting for its political life. Like Gantz's party, Meretz may not make it into the next Knesset.

Hopefully, I will be proven wrong. Maybe the opposition parties will join forces to oust Netanyahu. Maybe Yair Lapid, Gideon Sa'ar, and Naftali Bennett will put their personal egos and political differences aside and jointly lead us to a better future. This would be the best result of the country's fourth elections in two years.

Today I will cast my vote as one of over 6 million Israeli citizens eligible to partake in the most important part of our country's democratic process. 

Passover, the holiday of freedom is just four days away. May we all be free men and women in the coming year!


Related Articles:

Political Leaders Behaving Badly

Taxi Politics (short story)

Why I'm voting Meretz, again

Friday, March 12, 2021

Review of ‘City of a Thousand Gates’ by Rebecca Sacks

Vera is a German journalist trying to sell stories about Israel and the Palestinian territories. Hamid is a first-year student at Bethlehem University. Ori, from Gush Etzion, is serving in the Israeli army. Emily, a Jewish American mother married to an Israeli animator, lives in Jerusalem. Mai is a Palestinian woman who studies with Hamid in Bethlehem. Miriam, Ori’s mother, gives religious instructions to young brides.

There is a large cast of characters in City of a Thousand Gates by Rebecca Sacks (HarperCollins, February 2021), and they live in close proximity to one another. The narrative follows their lives as they interact, although they rarely do. For the most part, the ensemble cast members avoid any contact with each other.

For Israelis and Palestinians alike, terror and tragedy are always present. On one side, a fourteen-year-old girl has been stabbed to death in her home in an Israeli settlement. At about the same time, a fourteen-year-old Arab boy has been beaten into a coma by an angry mob of Israeli teenagers.

These events, and how the many protagonists deal with their aftermath, are at the heart of this thought-provoking novel.

As the narrative follows the lives of Vera, Hamid, Emily, and the others, the reader becomes privy to their innermost thoughts, their desires, and their fears. Sometimes this exposure to their private lives becomes a bit too personal for comfort. The occasional explicit passage about sexual acts and fantasies distracts from the narrative and is not necessary for understanding the characters.

The most climatic moment of the novel comes not at its conclusion, but rather in its middle. It’s an explosive incident that draws the cast closer together, yet at the same time it drives them further apart than ever before.

For readers, the underlying message in the compelling, parallel stories of the novel, is that we know little about those who live on the other side of the fences and walls separating us. In City of a Thousand Gates, the author has given us glimpses of the other side. The interlocking tales may be fiction, but at their core is the reality of our lives.

Rebecca Sacks graduated from the Programs in Writing at the University of California, Irvine. In 2019, she received a Canada Council for the Arts grant, as well as the Joseph F. McCrindle Foundations Henfield Prize for fiction. She has been awarded fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Juniper Summer Writing Institute and the Mellon-Sawyer Documenting War Seminar Series. After graduating from Dartmouth College, she worked for several years at Vanity Fair before moving to Israel, where she received a masters in Jewish Studies. She is a citizen of Canada, the United States, and Israel. 

Monday, March 8, 2021

Running for Charity

I participated in a charity race last week, raising funds for Multiple Sclerosis care and research at Hadassah Hospital. The 10-kilometer run was at Park Adulam and I had a good result - 1:00:55, a pace of 06:05 per kilometer.

The race was a private event, organized by Jay's Athletes, a sports club for youth groups in Beit Shemesh. Most of the participants in the races (half marathon, 10 kilometers, 5 kilometers, and 2 kilometers) were school children. In the 10 kilometer event, I competed against teenagers! Still, my result placed me in 30th place out of 48 participants.

I hadn't competed in a race since the Jerusalem Marathon two years ago, Last month I ran in the digital version of the Tel Aviv Marathon, but I ran it alone, on Neve Ilan.

When you run with others, there is always someone just ahead of you, making you want to catch up, or at least keep pace with them. Hearing footsteps behind you also encourages you to run faster.

It was nice running in the countryside near Park Adulam, the morning cool and the air particularly fresh after some rainy days. There was one stretch of the 10 kilometer route that was, for me, a steep ascent. I ended up walking a bit, but I more than made up for this by running fast on the downhill and level parts of the course. In fact, my pace surprised me and I was quite pleased with my results.

I am happy that I participated in the race, and that I helped raise funds for a good cause. Now as my body recuperates from the physical efforts of the run, I am looking for my next challenge!

Friday, February 26, 2021

"Lockdown" - short story

They were seated two rows ahead of me on the half-empty plane and without seeing their faces, or knowing anything about them, I could tell that they were totally out of their element. What was it? The angle of their heads? The nervous glances back and forth? The constant whispering, even though there was no one nearby? I couldn’t overhear their low-toned conversation, but noticed it was interrupted every few minutes by what sounded like forced giggles. As if they were making the most of a confusing situation. As if they weren’t exactly comfortable being in the air. As if they didn’t really belong. When one of them stood up to make her way to the bathroom, my suspicions were confirmed.

Coming up the aisle toward where I stood, stretching my legs, was a young woman—a teenager maybe, or perhaps slightly older. The red-headed girl was religious; that was quite obvious. Not modern religious, but rather Haredi. Ultra-Orthodox. Her modest blouse had long sleeves, and she wore an ankle-length faded blue skirt. Attire that would be suitable to the streets of Jerusalem but which was strange to see on a flight to Bulgaria.

Read the rest of the story on Literary Yard.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Tel Aviv Marathon was yesterday. I ran my 10 kilometer race today!


It was raining yesterday, and very cold. Luckily, this year the Tel Aviv Marathon races are digital. Not only can you run wherever you are, but you can run whenever you want. The official app is available until the end of the month. Ever since I ran the 10 kilometer race in Tel Aviv two years ago, I have been eager to repeat the experience. This morning, with mostly sunny skies and much warmer temperatures in Neve Ilan, I started my race.

By running at home, I joined some 20,000 participants from 33 countries who were running in the races. The Marathon was organized this year under the slogan "All Running Together Separately". While it would have been great to start my race yesterday morning at the exact same time as runners elsewhere, I was very satisfied running "together separately" today.

Usually Marathon races are competitions. This year in a digital format, they are for pure enjoyment. I have taken up running as a hobby and have had 7 practice runs this month. My pace kept getting better and better. Even so, the Marathon's official app clocked me in a bit slower than what I've been seeing in Nike Run Club, the app I use to track my runs.

What will happen in the future? When will the pandemic subside enough that it will be possible to run Marathon races together, and no longer separately? Will I run in the 2022 Tel Aviv Marathon? I hope so! Until then, I will keep running!

Related articles:

Friday, February 5, 2021

Review of Shadow Falls by Wendy Dranfield

In Shadow Falls by Wendy Dranfield (Bookouture, January 2021), Nate Monroe and Madison Harper both have troubled pasts, and a lot more in common than they realize. Both of them spent time in prison, convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. Nate served time on Death Row after being framed for his girlfriend’s murder. And Madison, a former police detective, lost custody of her son after she, too, was framed on a manslaughter charge. Both of them are driven by a desperate need to right past wrongs.

Nate works as a private investigator while Madison is barely making ends meet as a waitress. She contacts Nate in hopes he will help clear her name and find her son. When Nate is hired to investigate the disappearance of a twelve-year-old girl at a summer camp called Shadow Falls, he reluctantly allows Madison to join him in the case.

The two of them travel to northern California to the camp, which is on the verge of closing down after all the bad publicity it received following the girl’s disappearance. Nate and Madison question the camp director and her staff, all of whom seem to be hiding secrets. The police are not sharing information, and the girl’s parents seem to know more than what they’re saying.

Nate and Madison are portrayed very realistically in this novel. They have lives outside of the narrative, and events in the past that affect what they do in the present day. They have faults and issues they need to handle in the future. Both are strong-willed individuals who won’t necessarily have happy endings in their quests for revenge. They are portrayed with a soft side as well, allowing a stray dog named Brody to join them on their journey.

Shadow Falls is well written, and certainly lives up to its name as an absolutely gripping mystery thriller. The plot moves swiftly as Nate and Madison pursue their investigation, keeping one glued to the page until the unexpected denouement at the very end. Except, it’s not the end for Nate and Madison. The two of them will continue their efforts to clear their names in the next novel of the series.

Wendy Dranfield is a former coroner's assistant turned crime writer who lives in the UK. Several of her short stories have been published in UK and US anthologies. She has also been shortlisted and longlisted for various competitions, including the Mslexia Novel Competition. She has previously written a Young Adult mystery and the Dean Matheson crime series. Shadow Falls is the first novel of her Detective Madison Harper series.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Incredible Shira Haas

Israeli actress Shira Haas has been nominated for a Golden Globes award in the category of Best Actress in a Limited Series for her role in Netflix’s series “Unorthodox.” In the series, Haas, 25, plays a young ultra-Orthodox woman from Brooklyn, who flees the community for an uncertain future in Berlin.

“I’m super excited and happy,” she said, quoted in Deadline. “It’s more than I expected. It’s the greatest.”

The series was inspired by the 2012 memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman. I previously reviewed that book here.

“Unorthodox” was also nominated for a Golden Globes award for Best Limited Series or TV Movie.

Haas’s breakout role was in “Shtisel,” an Israeli television drama series about a fictional Haredi Jewish family living in the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem. I am currently watching the third season of “Shtisel,” and Haas stands out for her stunning portrayal as a young ultra-Orthodox wife desperate to get pregnant despite a life-threating medical condition. The third season of the show has some very powerful episodes.

Haas’s nomination for a Golden Globes award is just the latest recognition for her incredible talents. She was previously nominated last year for an Emmy Award as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for her role in “Unorthodox”. She won the Ophir Award for Best Supporting Actress in the Israeli drama film "Asia", a film I have yet to see.

In the future, Haas told Deadline the she wants to keep portraying “different characters, that even though we are different from them, they can connect us all together. And to keep on telling meaningful stories.”

Good luck in the Golden Globes, Shira!

Related article:

Review of Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman.