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Read an Excerpt from Lore Segal's Half the Kingdom

Monday, November 10, 2014 | Permalink

Last year, we were excited to feature Lore Segal—of whom we're adoring fans here at Jewish Book Council—and her newest novel Half the Kingdom, which was published in hardcover by Melville House in October 2013. We were even lucky enough to interview her! Now we come with more good news from the Lore Segal front: in honor of last week's paperback release of Half the Kingdom (get excited book clubs...), we not only have an excerpt from the book to share with you, but we're also giving away FIVE copies of the book. If you want to get your hands on one, it's quite easy, just enter here. The winners will be selected at random on November 18th. [Note: This contest has now ended.]

The below excerpt (pages 116-120 of Half the Kingdom) has been reprinted with the permission of Melville House.

Ilka Weiss lay on the sofa with her legs up. She asked for a blanket. Little David helped, impatiently, to tuck it around his grandmother’s legs. He said, “So, go on.”

Maggie said, “Let Grandmother rest,” but Ilka said, “So the next time King David went down to fight those Philistines ...” and Maggie said, “Mom, Jeff and I stay away from the fighting.”

“Mommy,” said little David, “you can go. And take Stevie. Stevie, stop it.” Baby Steven’s newest skill was turning pages and he was practicing on the King James Bible on Grandmother’s lap.

“Not to worry. I know the story in my head. But let’s let Mommy and Stevie stay, because we’re coming to the baaaad stuff.”

“Go on,” the little boy said.

“King David,” went on Ilka, “was a great soldier, the soldier of soldiers, only he was growing old. King David was tired. His spear was an encumbrance.” Grandmother Ilka demonstrated the difficulty with which the aging king raised his weapon. “His armor was too heavy for him. Climbing the hill, he had to reach for one little low bush after another because his balance wasn’t what it used to be. He watched with a thrill of envy—with a thrill and with envy—how his young soldiers ran ahead while he stood and just breathed. Couldn’t tell if it was his hiatus hernia, his heart, or an attack of anxiety be- cause they all three felt the same.”

“And,” little David prompted.

“And Ishbi-benob, a Philistine of the race of giants, was wearing his new armor. His spear weighed three hundred shekels.” Grandmother lightly swung the idea of its superhuman weight above her head, “and he was going to strike King David down when—Stevie if you don’t leave King James alone, Grandmother can’t check the name of the fellow—here he is in verse 17: Abishai. He came and struck Ishbi-benob to death.”

“Mom!”

“Sorry,” Ilka said. “And King David’s men said to King David, ‘You’re becoming a liability. Next war, you’re staying home.’ And there was another war . . .” Ilka looked apologetically at her daughter, “and there was another giant. He had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot—which is how many digits, quick!”

“Twenty-four.”

“Very good. And this giant with his twenty-four digits just laughed at King David, and mocked him.”

“Why?” asked little David in a tone of strong disapproval.

“Why? Why indeed!” said his grandmother. “Because King David was old? Because he was a Hebrew? Just because he was on the other team? But King David’s nephew—his name was Jonathan—came running, and Jonathan knocked that mocking, laughing giant down just a little bit. Knocked the wind out of him.”

Little David suggested, “They should have tried talking it out,” in which he was going to remember being reinforced by a hug from his mother, and his grandmother’s kiss on the top of his head, for both women were against striking people dead, and the younger believed there was something one could be doing about it.

“They should have talked,” Grandmother Ilka agreed, “without precondition. And now,” she went on, “King David got really, really old and stricken in years and they brought him a blanket and another and more blankets but he could not and could not get warm.”

“How come?” asked little David.

“Because he was old,” Grandmother Ilka said. “And King David’s men said to him, “Let us go out and find you a beautiful young girl to lie with you.”

“What for?” asked little David.

“To make him warm. The blankets hadn’t done any good. So they sent out throughout all the land and found a beautiful young girl. Her name was Abishag the Shunammite and they brought her to the king.”

“Did she want to come?” asked David.

“A very troubling question,” said his grandmother.

“I always thought it was horrible,” said his mother.

“Yes, it was! Well, hold on, now. You know,” she said to David, “how your mommy had to rush me to Emergency, and then I was in the hospital, and had to go for rehab, and your mommy brought me back, and last night I had to go to Emergency again, and your daddy is coming in half an hour to take you and Stevie home, and Mommy is going to stay and take care of me? Maybe Abishag was one of those people who stay and take care of people, like your mommy, because she is good, which is a great mystery to the rest of us.”

“Mom, don’t,” said Maggie irritably. “I do it because I want to.”

“Which,” said Ilka, continuing to address the child, “is another mystery: Good people don’t think they are being good when they like doing a good thing. If they did it with gritted teeth, then they would think that it was good! Isn’t that funny of them?”

The little boy was listening to the old woman with an alert, bemused look.

“And Abishag,” continued his grandmother, “was young and beautiful and she cared for King David.”

“And made him warm.”

“No.”

Intrigued? Want to continue reading? Buy a copy of Half the Kingdom here.

Interview: Lore Segal

Friday, January 10, 2014 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

From the time I first remember knowing what a book was, Lore Segal’s Tell Me a Mitzi became my favorite book. The story of New York City children who get up and dress themselves before their parents are awake, go downstairs, get in a cab, tell the driver, “To grandma and grandpa’s please,” and are stunned when he can’t take them there without an address has timeless charm; fortunately for my reading pleasure, this book was also the favorite of my own children when they were the right age. Adult readers know Segal for her fiction, in particular Other People’s Houses (1964), about a girl who goes from her Vienna home to England at the age of 10 in 1938. It was with tremendous excitement that I recently ventured to Segal’s Upper West Side apartment to interview her about her newest novel for adults, Half the Kingdom, recently named one of the 100 Notable Books of 2013 by The New York Times—an achievement to take pride in at any age, but more so for an octogenarian.

The charm I adored in the children’s book is evident in Segal’s person and surroundings. When one enters her apartment, one sees two drawings by Maurice Sendak, who did the illustrations for an edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales that she translated from German. There is an illustration by William Steig of a possible cover for one of her books that was rejected by the publisher. We sat at her round dining room table and she brought me tea with Old World elegance, a tray with a pot of hot water, a selection of teas, lemon, a small pitcher of milk, a bowl of sugar, and a cup, saucer and a spoon. She was a gracious interview subject and eager to speak. Her energetic appearance and clear dynamic blue eyes make her seem at least 20 years younger than her 85 years. Her love of life is evident in the excitement with which she directed me to look out her windows as the sun set—the view of New York City reaching downtown stunning with its varied colors shimmering behind the buildings outside, beyond the grand piano with a prominent place in her living room.

When I mentioned I would be at the National Book Awards that evening and wondered whether Thomas Pynchon, who never makes public appearances, would come, she told me Pynchon had been in her apartment, brought by writer Robert Coover. She has been to the Yaddo Artist’s colony more than 10 times starting in 1958, and had delightful stories to share about Grace Paley and John Cheever being there with her. She has been in interesting Jewish milieus as well, as a participant in the Genesis study group made up of writers at the Jewish Theological Seminary on which Bill Moyers’ 1995 PBS Genesis series was based.

Beth Kissileff: Where do your ideas come from? Where is this story from?

Lore Segal: Let me give you one answer: E.M. Forster said, “Let the bucket down into your subconscious and see what it brings up.”

The longer answer is that my mother got to be almost 101. She died two months short of her 101st birthday. We had a lot of visits to the emergency room. The hospital put her right and I brought her home, and then, in 10 days we go back.

The hospital is another world, a world not on a parallel with ours; it’s an alien world.

Another thing that I might say is that I am one of those people who seems immensely brave about looking death in the eye, like my character Joe Bernstein. He is writing an encyclopedia of end of the world scenarios, but cannot sit through the anxiety of some old movie.

BK: Tell me about your involvement with the Genesis study group for writers at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

LS: David Rosenberg had a party for those of us who had written articles in Testimony and Burt Visotsky invited us to join the group that had already been going on for a year or so. It was a wonderful combination of sarcasm and erudition that suited me to a T. I remember feeling that I would rather be there than anywhere else in the world. 

BK: How did you get into writing children’s literature?

LS: It is much less interesting than you think. I wrote it when I had small children, and then stopped until I had grandchildren. I don’t think about writing for children unless I have children I happen to be addressing.

BK: How did you come to write a children’s book on the Bible? (The book was illustrated by artist Leonard Baskin and published in 1987.) What motivated you?

LS: No one in my Jewish religious instruction told me our stories. I am going to try to tell my grandchildren if they’ll only sit still for it.

My theory was that children should read the stories of King Saul and King David and Adam and Moses: the narratives only, but the full narrative—nothing simplified.

BK: Will you ever stop writing?

LS: People have asked if I will stop writing. The answer is no, because I wouldn’t know what to do from 8 to 1 seven days a week. It is a habit, easier to keep than to break. I get up in the morning, have my coffee, and go to my computer whether I intend to or not.

BK: Who are your favorite writers?

LS: The Bible, the Brothers Grimm, Kafka, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Gogol, Cynthia Ozick. That’ll do.

BK: What do you want readers to know about the book?

LS: Read a sad, funny book about being old.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.