Friday, January 30, 2015

7 Reasons Why I Read Haruki Murakami

For my birthday, my children bought me the book Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. This was exactly the present I wanted! I am a passionate Murakami fan and I was eager to read the new novel, which would afterwards find a place of honor on my bookshelf with all the other Murakami titles I own.

The new book, which sold a million copies in Japan in its first week after being released, may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it added to my appreciation of Murakami's writing. The book is quite different from 1Q84, Murakami's strangely-titled previous novel, in that it is a more simplistic, more human story, and at 297 pages in hardcover, it is one-third 1Q84's opus length.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki tells the "story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man haunted by a great loss," and this is a loss that accompanies you from the book's initial pages all the way to its somewhat unremarkable, inconclusive ending. Described as "a story of love, friendship, and heartbreak for the ages", the experience of the book would be optimized with a backdrop score of Franz Liszt's three solo piano suites "Années de pèlerinage" (French for Years of Pilgrimage), music that is mentioned repeatedly in the narrative.

Read the rest of this story on The Huffington Post.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Make Your Writing Appetizing to Readers

There's nothing I like better than reading a suspense novel that you literally can't put down. The action is so intense that you are riveted to the pages, staying up late into the night in order to finish reading another chapter, or even the entire book. The plot grips you, despite being occasionally far-fetched and unbelievable. The characters, although shallow and one-dimensional, keep your attention as they combat seemingly insurmountable odds on their way to the story's thrilling conclusion.

The most enjoyable suspense novels, in my opinion, are those that take place in exotic locations. I am fascinated by stories set in Japan, or in Paris, or which use Caribbean islands as their setting, because by reading these books, I feel like I have traveled the world. The authors, if they do their job well, transport me to places I've never been. By reading their colorful descriptions, I stamp the passport of my imagination and expand my mind.

Read the rest of this article on Imaginary Friends.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Bulgarian Rhapsody Recreates Lost World of Bulgarian Jewry

Unfortunately, you won't see the film Bulgarian Rhapsody vying for awards at the upcoming Oscars ceremony. The Bulgarian-Israeli co-production directed by Ivan Nichev was Bulgaria's contender in the Best Foreign Language Film category, but did not make the final cut of candidates. Yet, this World War II era melodramatic look at Bulgarian Jewry is definitely worth watching.

The year is 1943 and Bulgaria has sided with the Nazis. The Germans are pressing Bulgaria's rulers to deport the country's Jewish citizens to the camps in Poland. Against this backdrop, we meet Moni, a shy young Jewish boy living in Sofia. His best friend Giogio is much more worldly; he joins the country's youth guard while all the while trying to pick up girls.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Comparisons of New York and Tel Aviv

The short stories in New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 by Shelly Oria, are unconventional in structure and in the relationships they portray.


The first impression you get while reading this collection is that the format is different from what you're accustomed to seeing in fiction. Stories are fragmented into moments and episodes, marked in separation by numbers, calendar dates, or even by how many times the characters have kissed. Dialogue is included, but built into the paragraphs, without the familiar presence of quotation marks to guide you during the conversations. Yet, the pieces fit together into a cohesive whole, making the stories extremely readable despite their avant-garde construction.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Dining with the Druze

Mutkal Halabi serenaded us with an oud as we ate a scrumptious oven-baked lamb dish made with almonds, walnuts, and rice. A side dish of hummus beans and potatoes complemented the main course. We were in Halabi's restaurant—the only diners in fact—and we were enjoying every minute of our culinary adventure in the Israeli Druze town of Daliat al-Carmel.

The meal had started with a spread of sour labane cheese, zaatar salad, homegrown olives from the year's "good crop", creamy tehina, hummus with pine nuts, stuffed vine leaves, and Druze pita, which is flatter and thinner than pita bread available elsewhere in the country. The name of Halabi's restaurant—Misadat HaKeves—was quite fitting; it translates as The Sheep Restaurant.

Oven-baked lamb served with almonds, walnuts and rice

"I've had this restaurant for 31 years," Mutkal told us. We were more interested in knowing how long he had been playing the oud—a musical instrument of the lute family common to Arab countries.

"I started playing the violin at the age of eight," he said. "I studied other musical instruments, including all kinds of flutes. I studied the oud for two years." Mutkal, we learned, earned a degree in music. He bought the oud in Jordan in 2001. Handmade in Syria, it cost $2,800 at the time. Today, it was priceless.

We had come for a weekend in the town, home to the largest community of Israel’s Druze, an Arabic-speaking religious minority that split from mainstream Islam during the 11th century. There are some 122,000 Druze living in Israel, and they live in the Galilee, on the Golan Heights, and in the mountains near Haifa. The Druze serve in the Israel Defense Forces and are Israeli citizens who, with the exception of some living near the Syrian border, dissociate themselves from Arab nationalism. They are very welcoming and hospitable, glad to have visitors in their communities.

Delicious hummus and creamy tehina

And, Druze food is so good. On our first night we happened by chance on the Fakher el Deen restaurant, located in a residential neighborhood far from the main road that runs through the town. The chef/owner greeted us at the door and we sat down for some creative Druze fusion cooking.

The Chef's Salad was served hot, and contained a mixture of broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes, onion, tehina, and sumac. The Chef's Shishlik was pieces of grilled chicken breast served on a bed of eggplant, tehina and tortilla. The restaurant had been open for a year and a half, the chef told us. We especially enjoyed the warm chestnuts served at the end of the meal.

The Chef's Shishlik

Halabi seems to be a common Druze name, as in the center of Daliat-el-Carmel, all the storefronts bear that name. There is a Halabi Anter restaurant, where we dined on heart-shaped falafel and more of the creamy tehina, delicious hummus, and sweet stuffed cabbage and grape leaves. Next store is a tourist shop, operated by the Halabi Brothers. There are at least two dental surgeons and three lawyers with signs on doors advertising the name Halabi. In fact, the guest house where we stayed for two nights was owned and operated by Jamal Halabi.

Heart-shaped falafel

Traditional attire for Druze men is the baggy pants called the shirwal. The more religious women cover their hair with a white al-mandīl—a transparent loose white veil.

On our final day in town we stopped at a roadside stand not far from the Muhraka Monastery, where according to the Carmelite Order that maintains the sacred spot, Prophet Elijah battled with the prophets of Ba’al.

Have some coffee! And sour labane cheese balls.

"Have some coffee," our host said, pouring us each a small cup of the cardamom-flavored liquid. We sat with her and her husband, talking about life in Daliat al-Carmel. It turned out that the family lived on the same street where we had spent the night. Before we continued on our way, we purchased a jar of homemade labane, formed as semi-hard balls of the sour cheese floating in olive oil. We were glad to have a taste of Druze cuisine to take home with us.

Originally posted on The Huffington Post.

See also: Druze Villages on the Carmel.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Longing for a Home No Longer There

In the novel Ishmael's Oranges by Claire Hajaj, a mixed Palestinian-Jewish couple attempts to bridge the cultural and religious chasm between them.

At the beginning of 1948, over 50,000 residents called Jaffa their home. As the end of the British mandate neared, the Irgun paramilitary group launched an offensive on the town, starting with a three-day mortar bombardment. The vast majority of citizens fled, many of them escaping by sea.

Seven-year-old Salim al-Ishmaeli wants nothing more than to pick oranges in his family's orchard. But he is warned by a classmate that "The Jews are coming for you" and when the mortars fall, his family loses everything, including their orange house not far from the sea.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How Anticipation of Snow Shut Down Much of Israel

When a winter storm was detected approaching Israeli shores, bringing freezing Arctic temperatures, heavy levels of precipitation, and possibly snow as well, local officials didn't hesitate to announce their intentions to close down much of the country.

Schools would be closed for two days, authorities said. Tractors and shovels were positioned at major intersections, and the police stated that they would block the two highways leading from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as soon as the first snowflakes began falling from the sky. Hospitals went on alert, cultural events were canceled, and court sessions were postponed. The Israeli army sent armored personnel carriers to Jerusalem in anticipation of the coming storm.

Hearing the news, Israelis rushed to the nearest supermarket to stock up on basic supplies. Canned goods, dairy products, toiletries, and even bottles of mineral water were purchased as if a long siege was ahead.

Read the rest of this story on The Oslo Times.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Surviving the Quagmire of Querying

This came in the email today:

Thank you for the opportunity to consider your work, but I am sorry to say that I do not think this material would be right for me, and therefore I would not make your most effective advocate. Please remember this is just one agent's opinion, and there may well be other agents who feel differently. Thank you for thinking of me, and best of luck.

The good news is that I actually received a reply to my query! The bad news is that this is another agent to cross off my list. The worst news of all is not knowing why my query was rejected.

As you have just determined, I am currently seeking literary representation for my new novel. Why, you may ask, is someone who previously self-published a suspense novel with moderate success (some 10,000 copies downloaded), seeking a literary agent this time around? There are huge advantages in self-publishing – I know this from experience. I had total control of the look and feel of my book; I was in charge of marketing and promoting; and I could easily revise the text with small corrections whenever necessary. It was an awesome feeling, especially when reading the many positive reviews the book received.

I acquired quite a bit of experience about the self-publishing process and I frequently share tips with other aspiring authors. I have no doubts that I can self-publish my new novel as well, building on my previous success to gain new readers and more sales.

Querying for literary representation? Welcome to the slush pile!

But first, I am considering traditional publishing. There are a number of reasons why I am doing this. I believe that my writing has improved since completing my previous novel. The new book will have far greater marketing potential. Add to that the fact that I am an established, regular blogger at both The Times of Israel and The Huffington Post – I think an agent, and afterwards a publisher, will see the advantages of working with me.

Traditional publishing will open new doors. It is the only way I would get my book into book stores; it is the only way mainstream newspapers would agree to review it; and it is the only way that the book would have a possibility of being translated.

In my search for a literary agent, I am seeking someone who will share his/her enthusiasm for my book, someone who will help me promote and sell it. Signing a literary agent would be a significant achievement and would serve as a stepping stone to the main objective of selling the book to a publisher.

I am realistic about my chances. The publishing market is changing and literary agents are very hesitant to take on new authors. I am one of hundreds, actually thousands, of authors seeking literary agents and no matter how persuasive my query may be, the chances of being noticed are very slim. As one agent stated on her web site: she receives hundreds of queries every day, but only signs two or three new clients a year. Those are not great odds.

Even so, I carry on. I have done my research, compiling a long list of suitable agents to contact. I only send queries to those agents who will consider the genre of my book (suspense/thriller) and who are open to new authors. I submit according to the guidelines listed by each specific agent, including synopsis and sample chapters where appropriate. Each time I click the “Send” button I am full of optimism. And then I sit back and wait.

Advice commonly given to authors at this stage in their career is to make a handful of submissions, and then adjust query letters and elevator pitches based on the response. This is hard to do if a) there are no responses; and b) those who respond do not state the reasons for the query’s rejection.

To be an author, you must have thick skin. The lack of response is upsetting, but you can't let that stop you. The rejections hurt, but you must endure. The bad reviews after publication sting, but you must continue to write.

To be an author, you need to believe in yourself. If you are confident that you have achieved your goals in your writing, show it to others. Don’t forget to ask for help along the way. Beta readers can give you objective comments and honest feedback. Professional editors can correct embarrassing grammatical errors.

As I finish writing these lines, another impersonal "Dear Author" rejection arrives in my Inbox. Another agent to cross off the list. But there are still others to query. After all, it only takes one agent to say "Yes" to proceed. If you never query, you will never get rejected.

Surviving the quagmire of querying is just one of the many challenges on the path to publication, but there are many ways to get your book published. Don’t lose sight of the end goal. Continue to write!