Author Archives: Yona Zeldis McDonough

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March 3, 2016 by

Rebecca Kanner Retells the Biblical Story of Esther in Her New Novel

estherA young Jewish girl is ripped from her hut by the king’s brutish warriors and forced to march across blistering, scorched earth to the capitol city. Trapped for months in the splendid cage of the royal palace, she must avoid the ire of the king’s many concubines and eunuchs all while preparing for her one night with the monarch. Soon the fated night arrives, and she does everything in her power to captivate the king and become his queen.  Her name is Esther, and Rebecca Kanner has brought her memorably to life in this retelling of the Biblical story.

Kanner’s Esther learns that wearing the crown brings with it a fresh set of dangers. When a ruthless man plies the king’s ear with whispers of genocide, it is up to the young queen to prevent the extermination of the Jews. She must find the strength within to violate the king’s law, risk her life, and save her people.  Kanner talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she went about researching the novel and what she did to make the ancient text feel new again.

Q: What drew you to the subject of Esther? 

A: I was intrigued by the feat that Esther carried off—saving her people. I retold the story so that beauty and obedience weren’t her most important characteristics. I was inspired by looking at paintings of Anne Boleyn and reading descriptions of Cleopatra (as well as looking at pictures of the coins that feature her). While these women are widely believed to have been gorgeous, they were not actually pictures of traditional physical perfection. Their personalities, including both wit and charm, are what I believe accounted for much of their attractiveness. We have continued to mythologize their beauty as an explanation for their success (however short-lived it was for Anne Boleyn), instead of focusing on their intellects.

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February 23, 2016 by

Why Did Véra Nabokov Destroy All Her Letters to Vladimir?

  Letters-to-Vera-coverVéra Nabokov was half of one of the most famous—and enduring—literary couples of the twentieth century. She and Vladimir met in Berlin, in 1923, at a charity ball peopled with Russian expats like themselves. The party was a masquerade, and throughout the evening, Véra kept her face masked, a seemingly unimportant bit of behavior—except that it was not.

Véra Slonim was already aware of Nabokov’s reputation as a gifted poet who was quickly gaining prominence on the literary scene, and she rather boldly let him know of her admiration.  Their courtship was playful and passionate, and they married in 1925, when he was 26 and she 23.  For the next half century, Véra was Vladimir’s everything: first reader, editor, secretary, cook, maid, mother of his child, even protector—it was rumored she carried a gun in her purse.  She was also Jewish, a fact that forces all the other facts about her to realign into a new and surprising order.

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February 15, 2016 by

“The Man Who Got Her Pregnant Was Never Even Named”

Two hundred fifty years later, women are still being punished for their sexual behavior, and reproductive rights still loom large as an unresolved social justice issue. Though Yona’s story is fiction, the backstory is rooted in chilling reality.

I’ve always set my novels in New York City, where I was raised, and where, with brief exception, I’ve lived my entire life.  This was less of an active decision than a default position.  New York was familiar, New York was easy. I knew the nuances of the neighborhoods, the traffic patterns, the sounds of the birds, all without having to reach or stretch.  But at a certain point, this very familiarity began to chafe, and I decided to expand my horizons.  I settled on New Hampshire as the locale for my new novel, The House on Primrose Pond, because my husband is a New Hampshire native, and over the years, we’ve spent a good bit of time there. I wanted a place with which I was familiar, a place I could easily bring to life—because place does function as a character in a novel—and NH fit the bill.

2_HouseonPrimrose_4_withpeople-1I already had my two main characters in mind—Susannah Gilmore (it had been Goldblatt, and changed by her grandfather Isaac) and her older neighbor, Alice Renfew.  But somehow I wanted more, something big and cataclysmic that was connected to the state of New Hampshire that would, in some as-yet-to-be-revealed-to-me way, resonate with these characters and the particular challenges they faced. So I typed the words “New Hampshire tragedy” into Google, thinking I might find a flood, a fire, or a storm of epic and Biblical proportions. 

Instead, I found a book entitled Hanging Ruth Blay: An Eighteenth Century New Hampshire Tragedy.  I was hooked even before it arrived, with two-day expedited shipping, from Amazon.   And when it did show up, I devoured Blay’s story with measure of fascination and horror, and knew that I had incorporate these eighteenth-century events into the contemporary story of Susannah and Alice.

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December 29, 2015 by

Long Before Moosewood, There Was…

Vilna_Vegetarian_cover

Long before there was the Moosewood Cookbook and the explosion of interest in vegetarian cooking and eating, there was Fania Lewando, pioneering cook, thinker and educator. Born in Poland in 1889, Fania was the second of Haim and Esther Fiszliewicz’s six children—five of whom were girls. Her family immigrated to England in 1901 and changed their name to Fisher.  As a young woman, Fania married an egg merchant, and together they moved to Vilna, where she opened a kosher dairy restaurant on the border of the Jewish quarter in old Vilnius. She also ran a cooking school nearby, and presided over a salon whose guests included Marc Chagall, and Yiddish poet and playwright Itzik Manger. She even supervised a kosher vegetarian kitchen on the MS Batory, an ocean liner that sailed between Gdynia, Poland, and New York City. 

Fania

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November 24, 2015 by

Talking in Shul

TheBookofFaithSmart yet tender, funny yet deep, The Book of Faith, is a sly, witty send-up of squabble-filled synagogue politics deftly penned by Elaine Kalman Naves.  At the heart of the novel are Faith, Rhoda and Erica, three bosom buddies, not young but not old either, affectionately known as the Three Graces. When Rabbi Nate announces that he wants a new building to house their congregation, he sets the community into a small uproar, and each of the women—well-drawn, sympathetic and complex—have a role to play in advancing or impeding the conflicting agendas that emerge. Will Rabbi Nate get his heart’s desire?  Can Erica appease the whims of a rich and unpredictable donor? What does Rhoda learn and what becomes of Faith?  Below is a teaser; you’ll just have to read the book to find out more. 

 

Erica backed out of her driveway on Saturday morning in some haste. It was five past ten—she would have to hustle to make it. Since Faith’s investiture as president, this had become their routine. Instead of lingering over the fat Saturday paper, catching up on phone calls, or doing the groceries, they were off to shul together.

Erica had learned to be on time for these outings; Faith was starchy if kept waiting. “On time,” though, meant a calibrated degree of lateness. Services started at ten, but being there for Mah tovu, the first of the morning prayers, showed greater eagerness for religion than Faith deemed necessary. On the other hand, she considered arriving after 10:20 bad form for her new presidential status. A decorous entrance before the Amidah, the standing prayer, was just right.

Erica pulled up in front of Faith’s brick and stone split-level on Rosedale, just as Faith, who’d been watching for her from inside, came sailing down the stairs.

“A new outfit?” Erica asked her as she buckled up.

“Rhoda and I found it on sale at BCBG. It was a steal.”

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November 19, 2015 by

“Greatest Generation Women”

 

Eva Zeisel. Photo by Ellen Wallenstein.

Eva Zeisel. Photo by Ellen Wallenstein.

Ellen Wallenstein’s astute and tender eye falls gently upon this group of over-80s, all photographed in the natural light of their homes or studios. The subjects, several of them notable Jewish women, skew towards artists and intellectuals, all born at the beginning of the last century.  “Known as the ‘Greatest Generation’ and coming of age between the two World Wars, the effect of this generation’s contribution is evident in their creative work, which includes books, poems, paintings, photographs, plays and performances,” notes Wallenstein. “My photographs are meant to celebrate these individuals and to inspire admiration by future generations.”

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October 28, 2015 by

“We Want to Save Lives With This Book”

HADESIn 2013 (the most recent year for which full data are available), there were 41,149 suicides reported in the U.S. Someone in this country died by suicide every 12.8 minutes, and suicide was the tenth leading cause of death for Americans. And while there was a slight decline in suicides from 1986 to 2000, over the next 12 years the rate climbed steadily.

Given these sobering statistics, Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide and Feeling Blue, edited by Amy Ferris and just out from Seal Press couldn’t be more timely.  The 34 essays represent a wide range of perspectives ranging from writers who reveal their own failed suicide attempts to survivors struggling to make sense—if not peace—with the wreckage left by the suicides of loved ones. Fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough asks Ferris about how she came to compile these accounts and what she hopes readers will take away from them.

 

YZM: What inspired you to assemble this collection?

AF: Robin Williams’s death. Just like most folks, I was in deep, deep sad shock that he had committed suicide, and I felt this urge, this need to do something. I’m a writer. I write. I also had never come out about my very own suicide attempt when I was a young woman. And so I decided to write a post about that, which was doubly inspired by a friend sending me an email, and the subject line read: did you ever try it? I knew exactly what she was asking. So, I sat down and wrote a piece about my greatest failure—my suicide attempt, and it went viral, and folks shared it, and it sort of circled the globe and then I had that ‘aha’ moment—I wanted to put together an entire collection of stories, essays, pieces from other writers, artists, authors, creators who experienced all shades of blue: depression, attempted suicide, family members who had both depression and or attempted suicide, postpartum depression.

YZM: Did you find writers eager or reluctant to talk about their experiences with depression?  

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October 21, 2015 by

A Novel About How Blogs Have Changed Our Lives

the good neighbor final coverThere are approximately over 152 million blogs on the Internet and incredible as it may seem, more blogs are going up all the time. In fact, a new blog is created somewhere in the world every half a second, which, if you do the math, means that 172,800 blogs are added to the Internet every day.  So is it any wonder that the art and science of blogging has worked its way into the pages of contemporary literature?

The Good Neighbor (Griffin Books, October 2015), Amy Sue Nathan’s second and latest novel, introduces us to Izzy Lane, Jewish, recently divorced and still reeling from the break-up of her marriage. The newly single mom moves back to the Philadelphia home she grew up in, five-year-old Noah in tow. On a whim, she starts a blog and with the help of her close friends—and her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Feldman—begins to feel like she’s stepping closer to her new normal. Until her ex-husband shows up with his girlfriend. That’s when Izzy invents a boyfriend of her own.

Blogging about her “new guy” provides Izzy with a way to entertain herself Noah’s asleep. After all, what’s the harm, right? But then her blog soars in popularity and she’s given the opportunity to moonlight as an online dating expert. How can she turn it down? Soon everyone want to meet the mysterious “Mac,” someone online suspects Izzy’s a fraud, and a there’s a new, real-life guy who seems pretty interesting. Nathan’s sharp-eyed look at how the blog culture has changed our lives is a smart, stylish read; here’s an excerpt below. 

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October 20, 2015 by

Ethel Rosenberg Reimagined in “The Hours Count”

jillian cantorAlthough it’s been more than 60 years since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed, their horrifying story still has a powerful hold on the public imagination.  As recently as August, 2015, the two sons of the couple wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times that concluded with these words:

Our mother was not a spy. The government held her life hostage to coerce our father to talk, and when that failed, it extracted false statements to secure her wrongful execution. The apparent rationale for such action—that national security demanded it during a time of international crisis—has disturbing implications in post-9/11 America. It is never too late to correct an egregious injustice. We call on the government to formally exonerate Ethel Rosenberg. 

And now there is the publication of The Hours Count, a novel that focuses squarely on the last five years in the life of Ethel Rosenberg.  Author Jillian Cantor hewed closely to the facts, but added several fictional characters, including a neighbor, Millie Stein, her Russian husband Ed and her son, David, who at age three is still not talking.  Millie is the lens through which we are able to view Ethel in a wholly unexpected way: as wife, mother and friend.  Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talked to Cantor about why she chose to write Ethel’s story and how she was able to blend the factual with the fictional.

YZM: What drew you to the subject of Ethel Rosenberg? 

JC: I came across the last letter Ethel (and Julius) wrote to their sons in an anthology of women’s letters that I’d checked out of the library. One of the last things they wrote is for their sons to always remember that their parents were innocent. Before I read this, I hadn’t thought of Ethel as a mother (her sons were six and 10 when she was executed – very similar to the ages of my own sons) or even as potentially innocent. So I did a little research, and I began to believe that she might actually have been innocent. I wanted to reimagine her as a mother, as a woman who was unjustly taken from her family.

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October 19, 2015 by

From the Lilith Slush Pile to a Sarah Silverman Film Deal

sarahsilEver since I discovered the work of Amy Koppelman winking up at me from Lilith’s slush pile I’ve kept her on our radar.  We published her short fiction a few years ago. She’s a novelist of astonishing depth and power, with a dark and haunting voice that is both lyrical and fearless. The rest of the world seems now to agree, as the film based on her novel I Smile Back, starring—yes—Sarah Silverman in a dramatic role, opens commercially later this month after being received enthusiastically at Sundance.

hesitation woundsIn her new novel, Hesitation Wounds, Koppleman introduces us to Dr. Susanna Seliger, a renowned psychiatrist who specializes in treatment-resistant depression. Skilled and compassionate, Susa is always ready to discuss treatment options, medication, and symptom management but draws the line at engaging with feelings. Her own damaged past is made present by one patient, Jim, whose struggles tear her open, revealing her latent guilt that she could have saved the people she’s lost, especially her adored, cool, talented graffiti-artist brother. Spectacularly original, gorgeously unsettling, Hesitation Wounds is a novel that will sink deep and remain—like a persistent scar or a dangerous glow-in-the-dark memory.

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