Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Woman Who'sWriting the Bible - Like, Right Now

San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum has been hosting an exhibit of a woman scribe (a soferet) who is writing out a Torah - the first five books of Moses, written on sheets of vellum (made from treated, scraped, softened cow-hide -- kosher of course -- and written with a quill pen and special black ink. Her name is Julie - yes, she's a J-Writer - and I met her today when I went down to view her exhibit. Julie is a well-spoken, slightly built young woman who is one of a very, very few women in the world who have trained to be a soferet. Her Torah, when it's finished (probably early next Spring), will be given to some lucky synagogue (reform or conservative, as orthodox congregations would not find a Torah inscribed by a woman to be acceptable) for their use in religious services. And, not only did I meet and speak with her, I gave her a copy of my "J" book - she almost gasped when she saw the cover, and said she couldn't wait to read it! I sure hope she likes it.

Anyone who's in the San Francisco Bay Area should definitely catch this exhibit - check their website ( for days and times - it's absolutely fascinating -- and there is a collection of old Torah scrolls and other beautiful, wonderful artifacts both new and historical to help present and explain the Jewish traditions.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Vietnam-Era Novel - Surprisingly Good

The Man from Saigon
by Marti Leimbach, Doubleday, 2010     

Here's another review I wrote for the May Historical Novel Society Review:

An absorbing, often gripping novel of a young woman reporter on tour in war-torn Vietnam in 1967, The Man from Saigon is gritty, realistic and poetically written. Leimbach is a master at describing the visceral: the humidity and heat of the jungle, the ache of hunger, the recoil of the body and the brain under fire, the insanity that comes from being surrounded by bombs falling for hours and bullets like hot rain.
    The protagonist, Susan, works for a woman’s magazine in Chicago and is sent to the war to gather human interest stories. She’s not supposed to leave Saigon, but of course she does. She gets drawn in to the addiction of war reporting, inching ever closer to the heavy action while putting light years of distance between her and the ‘normalcy’ of life back in the States—until life in the war zone becomes what’s normal. Two men, the Vietnamese photographer of the book’s title, and another reporter, an American, weave in and out of Susan’s mental, emotional and physical existence in a country too far from home.
    The images are often disturbing, but the insights into war and human frailty, love and courage are meaningful and intelligent. An excellent read.
-- Mary F. Burns

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Evening's Empire -- A Look Back at Rock'n'Roll

I recently reviewed Evening's Empire by Bill Flanagan, for the Historical Novel Society (it's online and in their print publication for May 2010). Here's what I wrote:

With a title nod to Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man, Flanagan’s 645-page epic about  rock music spans more than four decades in the life of the Ravons (Rave-ons), a fictional band that starts in London and careens like a pinball through the music universe that unhinged the popular consciousness with the arrival of the Beatles. The behind-the-scenes tales are told in the steady, likeable, first-person delivery of the band’s manager, Jack Flynn, who starts as a neophyte lawyer who shoulders the management of the Ravons’ tours and music contracts from his firm’s senior partners. The charismatic star—Emerson Cutler—is being sued for divorce and wants to catch his faithless wife in flagrante in a hotel in Spain (as leverage against his own adultery). Jack is dispatched to do the job because “you are young, Flynn. You are part of this…new vogue.”  The year is 1967 and Jack’s life is forever changed.

The band members have very distinct personalities, and it’s quite a ride as the group breaks up, reassembles, suffers reversals, betrayals, marriage, divorce, drugs, alcohol, wealth and poverty. Seen through the pragmatic eyes of Jack—the manager as confessor/father/nursemaid/fixer—the last four decades of the 20th century come alive in small details that give rise to larger, context-setting philosophical musings about how humans respond to the changing culture with fear and love, wit and courage, greed and selfishness. Even if you weren’t there, it’s fun to revisit the times—except when it’s not. The crashes, the greed, the waste of talent and energy, the money-grubbing snobbishness—from Woodstock up to 9/11 and a few years beyond—the last four or five decades have a lot to answer for. The story drags here and there, but at the end, you don’t want to leave Jack and his friends behind.