Monthly Archives: November 2008

Hostage Thriller By Cape Author

NOT LONG AGO, I received an advance reader’s edition of a new novel from the William Morrow imprint of HarperCollins. The book is Takeover, by Lisa Black — a name unfamiliar to me. How did the publicist get my name and address? Curious, I reviewed the author’s biography and a light went on. The details about a Cape Coral forensic scientist who formerly worked in Cleveland (the novel’s setting) revealed that Lisa Black was an author whose work I had read (and in one case reviewed), though those two novels were published under the byline of Elizabeth Becka. Well, I had really enjoyed Becka’s work, so why shouldn’t I like Lisa Black’s?

Read the complete review published in the Fort Myers Magazine, September-October 2008 issue

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Aram Schefrin’s “The Tenth Cow”


[first published in the October 2008 issue of the Federation Star, the newspaper of the Jewish Federation of Collier County, Florida]

by Philip K. Jason

In The Tenth Cow, Aram Schefrin has built an intriguing, suspenseful, and highly original novel around the Old Testament requirement of sacrificing an unblemished red heifer as part of a purification process. Biblical and Mishnaic references stipulate that Temple priests purify the Temple itself by sprinkling the blood of the animal. Then the burned heifer’s ashes are mixed with water and used to purify those who have come into contact with corpses. The suggestion in the novel is that this ash solution would also be used to purify those assigned to build the Third Temple and to perform the Temple rituals. The rarity of such an animal, coupled with the necessity of the strictly defined slaughtering and purification ritual, suggests ongoing suspense regarding the maintenance of the temple as the center of worship and as the continuing locus of the living covenant between God and the Jews. In effect, there can be no Temple without ritual purity, and there can be no such purity without the discovery and sacrifice of a red heifer. Tradition holds that only nine such animals were found and sacrificed between the days of Moses and the destruction of the Second Temple. The tenth red cow has been sought for centuries as one prerequisite for the rebuilding of the temple and the ushering in of the Messianic Age.

Both Orthodox Judaism and Fundamentalist Christianity (though not for identical reasons) await the reestablishment of the Temple in Jerusalem. The faith traditions contain internal conflicts about whether or not human initiative and action should promote this end. Many believe that God alone means to bring about the restoration of the Temple and the Messianic Age when He sees fit.

Out of such materials, Schefrin has built a time bomb of suspense. The site for the Temple is perhaps the hottest potato in the Middle East, a spot claimed by the major faith traditions of the region. A plan to build the Third Temple at the Temple Mount is promoted by a Christian televangelist and abetted by certain sects in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Such a plan is likely to engulf the region in a Holy War among Muslims, Christians and Jews, a war that could truly bring about the End of Days. The discovery of a genetically engineered red heifer on a Florida farm signals that such a plot is underway.

Schefrin’s narrator, a Palm Beach journalist, is set onto the story by Arthur (“don’t call me Artie”) Kagan, a retired lawyer with some social standing in the Palm Beach community, especially among the polo set headquartered in Wellington. Arthur has been drawn into the flow of events as the unwitting accomplice of his older brother, Teddy, who had long been an unofficial undercover agent for Jewish and Zionist causes. Teddy’s home contains a computerized command center for the gathering and dissemination of information crucial to Jewish interests. It is Teddy who discovers the existence of the red heifer and recognizes the threat to world stability that it represents. Until he is murdered and Arthur takes on greater responsibility in the cause of thwarting the Fundamentalist initiative, Teddy rallies forces, including secular and moderate Jewish activists and those Orthodox Jews to whom the religious underpinnings of the plan is anathema, to undermine the effort.

The adventure is populated by a wide range of memorable characters, most notably the formerly estranged but slowly reunited Kagan brothers, but also including Shaya, a troubled Israeli beauty who captivates Arthur; Shaya’s father, a wise elder from the town of Tsfat who is steeped in Kabbalah; Shaya’s daughter, Chickie; and Arthur’s son, David (the latter too predictably become a loving pair). There is also a secretive university professor; several independent actors with connections to the Israel Defense Forces; the Reverend Moony Brice; and an MIT geneticist.


“The Tenth Cow” pulses and plays with the realities of contemporary politics while it explicates arcane aspects of traditional theology and legend. There is a world of learning in this book, as well as a high-speed adventure. The narrative draws and redraws a vivid map of Israel, Jerusalem in particular, in following the path of its characters. Schefrin is masterful in making contemporary Israel come alive, along with its tortured past and threatened future.

As well, the reader spends time in New York City and in a wide range of Palm Beach County settings. We follow Florida’s mysterious Route 80 west from its urban anchor near Palm Beach International Airport through the northern border of Wellington (where Schefrin lives) and out through the sugar cane fields into unknown territory. We stop along Worth Avenue in Boca for upscale shopping. We enjoy some off-track polo.

Essentially, The Tenth Cow is a provocative “what if” story, a rich stew of fascinating ingredients that shocks readers with the knowledge that its premise is not as far-fetched as one might at first believe. Kudos to Aram Schefrin for cooking it up.

Authorhouse. $17.99 trade paperback. 400 pp.

Note: See my review of Schefrin’s earlier novel with bio:

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Naples The Hero of New Novel

by Philip K. Jason

“Like writers of old,” says novelist Tina Murray, “I have worked in various types of jobs, from clerk to actress, real estate pro to assistant professor. I was a teaching assistant in art education at FSU while pursuing my doctorate.  I have seen the world — and people — from many different points of view.”  

She has also seen a lot of Naples. Murray lived here as a child in the late 1960s, when her dad set up a business as a consulting electrical and mechanical engineer. She returned to Naples in between periods during which she lived in other parts of the United States, including Arizona, California, New York, and Indiana. She became a full-time resident of Naples again about eight years ago.

Murray is a big fan of writers’ groups and writers’ conferences. She insists that “networking with other writers has been tremendously important to me.  Invariably, these days, when anyone asks me how to become a writer, I immediately advise them — after first telling them they must write, of course — to attend writers’ conference and join writers’ groups.  That’s what worked for me.  I met one of my publishers, Robert Gelinas, through the Florida Writers Association.  This led directly to the publication of my debut novel.”  Murray has also benefited from activities of the Southwest Florida Romance Writers, Gulf Coast Writers, and the now-defunct Lifelong Writers at USF. She attended the Sanibel Writers Conference for the first time in this year, and she also signed copies of her new book at the Florida Voices Book Fair in Gainesville.

This first book from Tina Murray is an unmitigated and unabashed romance. A Chance to Say Yes (from Archebooks Publishing) features a successful film actor, Heston Demming, who has returned to his home town of Naples with two conflicting motives. One motive is to lord his success over those who doubted him or who thought he’d never amount to anything. The other is to make amends with those he might have hurt along the way. Demming is ready for full-blast enjoyment of his celebrity and wealth, especially his Port Royal mansion and magnificent yacht. At that same time, maturity has brought him emptiness and guilt. He has been a reckless, self-centered careerist. He has been a boozer and a remote parent who has made several poor choices that have led him into doomed relationships. Demming wishes to right his moral compass.

Murray has whipped up more than a sufficient or credible amount of unhappy, unpleasant, mean-spirited women to offset the sweet and genuinely caring nature of her heroine, Poppy Craft-Talbot. There is Demming’s first wife, Inez Vega (the powerhouse realtor), with whom he shares an adolescent son, Franco – though Inez seems to have primary custody as well as Franco’s loyalty. There is his second wife, Maude (the model), with whom Demming shares a young daughter, Winnie. And there is his sometime mistress, Montserrat (the adventurous travel writer), with whom he shares nothing but hot sex. Each has her distinctive kind of good looks, bitchiness, shallowness, and selfishness. Each has her own style of manipulation. Poor Heston Demming! Oh yeah, there is one more evil woman, Poppy’s supposed best friend and confidant, Sasha Bassett, who turns out to be a traitor.

Poppy was Heston’s childhood playmate and high school sweetheart. Though hurt by the abrupt end to their youthful romance, she has carried a flame for him and is uncertain about what to expect from his return to Naples. The novel plays out the tentative steps that each takes toward the other and the complications of negotiating Heston’s other relationships, as well as a series of sinister subplots. Meanwhile, Poppy’s own marriage is in decline, though she is hesitant to renege on her vows.  

Murray sets a large cast of characters in motion, including Inez’s husband and stepson; Poppy’s business partner in her art gallery; and Cedric Spicer, an eccentric and unscrupulous artist.

For many readers, the real hero of the story will be the setting – Naples itself. The characters and action weave through a good part of our town. Poppy’s gallery is at The Village on Venetian Bay, while she lives in a Vanderbilt Beach high-rise condo. Fifth Street South features prominently, as do Port Royal, Pelican Bay, (pre-renovation) Waterside Shops, and other familiar areas. Heston grew up in the Lake Park community. Sasha, who has a catering business, lives in “a dreary little apartment in Coco Palms.” I go out of my way to discover novels that use Naples as their setting, and none that I’ve so far discovered employs Naples as expansively and evocatively as does A Chance to Say Yes.

Though this intriguing romance may have one too many nasty women, Murray has a facility with description of place and action and of the physiques and psychology (often perverse) of her characters that makes for an entertaining read. There are ample plot complications and questions hanging in the air that push the reader forward, turning the pages. And how goes the romance between Poppy and Heston? Well, that’s what you’ll have to read A Chance to Say Yes to find out.


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Holocaust Survivor Recaptures the Boy He Was

  [A review of 1111 DAYS IN MY LIFE PLUS FOUR, by Ephraim F. Sten. Translated from Hebrew by Moshe Dor. Dryad Press (distributed by University of Wisconsin Press), 2006]

 Ephraim F. Sten (born Sternschuss) led a full and fascinating life. In post-war Poland, he was an engineering student before becoming a playwright and theater director. By 1950, at the age of twenty-six, he was the artistic director at Gdansk’s Municipal Theater. Then he moved to Israel where he learned Hebrew and worked for Israeli Radio, becoming the director of radio-drama. He later moved on to Israel National Television, published short stories in various periodicals, and wrote two novels. But before all this, young Ephraim was boy with a copybook into which he wrote, “Maybe I’m so anxious because I can’t tell her about Father, who was drafted yesterday into forced labor and Mother still believes he’s alive.”

 The burgeoning library of Holocaust literature makes it seem almost impossible to expect something unique and fresh. This is especially true in the area of Holocaust diary and memoir, an area (unlike fiction) tied directly to experience and thus to patterns that repeat and overlap – no matter how unique each survivor’s particular perceptions and recollections. Yet I believe there is something quite unusual and engaging about this recent book.

 The author, who lived in a small town in Poland, began a diary at the age of thirteen. This was in July of 1941, and the town was suffering under Nazi occupation. Young Ephraim was relocated and lived in hiding in a neighboring village (now within the Ukraine). He, along with his mother and several other Jews, was protected by a Catholic family until liberated by the Russians. The young man continued this diary, with some lapses, for the stretch of time indicated in the first part of the title. It is one of the most intimate and detailed diaries that we have of a young person’s life under such circumstances. 

 It would be enlightening and engrossing enough to enter this world of adolescent fear and longing, with the threat of detection part of the daily diet – a diet that is itself an intriguing part of the story. Just as intriguing is the spirit-saving value of gossip – the hints of good news that make hope (usually false hope) possible. What makes this book stand out from others is that Sten saved but essentially ignored this journal for decades and then, as an aging Israeli citizen, began translating it into Hebrew so that his children and grandchildren would know what he had experienced. In the process of translation, Sten could not keep from annotating the entries. In a strange way, the teenager and his older self hold a conversation. The mature, worldly Sten knows more, but at first feels less. Clearly, his post-Holocaust life and his professional and economic success have allowed him to distance himself from the desperate boy.

 But as the process of translation and recollection goes on, Sten’s repressed feelings emerge, and his memories and thoughts jotted down in the 1990s become more and more a search for meaning. A part of his identity that he had left behind speaks out to him, demanding respect, honest respone, and integration. Reluctantly at first, but then as if to literally and figuratively save his life, Sten allows a sort of reconciliation to take place. But the process is neither smooth nor complete. It cannot be.

 The decision to translate the diary, which had been sitting in the bottom drawer of Sten’s desk, came upon making a visit to Zloczow – the village of his youth – after an absence of fifty years. That visit constitutes the other four days mentioned in the title. Readers can be thankful especially for those four days in Sten’s life that persuaded him to share the earlier 1111, as well as his complex, often searing, ruminations.

 At one point, Sten reflects: “It is difficult to accept that the writer of the diary was a boy, a teenager who was supposed to go on living a complete life, maybe even happy. More and more I identify with myself in that time. More and more I think like that boy in the diary. I’m afraid that at the end of the translation we’ll become one. And even worse, we’ll have the same mind. Maybe it’s a good idea to slow the pace of the work, because it seems its end will be mine as well.”

 By the time he was involved in he process of translating his long-neglected diary from Polish into Hebrew, Sten had contracted cancer. Thus, even as that cancer was making its advances, of which he was well aware, Sten was preparing this important legacy. He lived long enough not only to complete his Hebrew translation and additions, but also to be convinced of publishing the interacting passages as a book and to review Moshe Dor’s brilliant translation into English. Then, during 2004, the period when publisher Merrill Leffler was putting the finishing touches on the manuscript, Sten was gone.

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Crossing the Chesapeake In Winter

From this bridge that arcs
like the spine of a lover’s back,
the broad bay seems a black and white
aerial photo of farmland, silver-tipped,
the fences and walls exchanged
for the zig-zag gaps in the heaving ice,
the fields in rhomboid and trapezoid
sheets that subdue the struggling waves.
Oh what a weight this winter has placed
on this frail and fecund sea.

To see it like this,
the bay in its glacial mask,
makes one image the world of mussel and crab
as a place of secret secretions:
crystal, claw, and shell. –And ice
as the skeletal house of salt and blood.

Your tires follow the vanishing arch
raised by fog-kissed buttresses
against which ice-fields nuzzle and split,
and deep in your fingers’ flesh
the steering wheel winces
as the bridge cushions the ice
that is traveling somewhere too.

As you reach mid-bay
the channels of open water widen;
scattering ice-slabs mirror
the bleachy clouds on a darkening sky.
Below, a lone gull captains his raft of ice
beyond, the horns of distant ships
blast out their names on the frosted air.


from Near the Fire, © 1983 Philip K. Jason, originally published in Chesapeake Country Life

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Shenandoah Weekend


The snow-muffled hum of engines,
the roof-racks loaded high,
the approach to a bare place in a barren season.


The squeak and crunch of dry snowfall,
the firewood buried under the fresh snow,
the three rough rooms of knotty pine.

Cross-country stalkers on narrow rails,
tracks of deer and fox,
bird-hops divided by tailfeather slashes.

The strange near-silences
and the far, far leafless view,
the swell of hollow and hill.

The cowering branches in sleeves of snow,


The Separation by Philip K. Jason, 88 pages, perfectbound, White Noise #8,1995, $12.00; ISBN: 1-885215-17-5.

the brook running hide-and-seek
under the delicate capes of ice.


The coffee and burning wood,
the puddles in entranceways,
the sour steam of wet wool.

The ache of heavily-booted legs,
the deep scale gripping the lungs,
the squint of light-bludgeoned eyes.

The white crests probing the gray-white clouds,
the footprints we try not to plant,
the clean wordlessness of winter woods.


(from The Separation, © 1995 Philip K. Jason, originally published in The Willamette Journal)

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The Synagogues of Spain

In the old synagogues of Spain,
no one is praying,
no melodies of Sephardim
echo in the arches.
Dodging purse-snatchers in Seville,
we lost our way three times
before finding the unmarked building
named on the dog-eared guidebook.
The doors were closed to our questions.

And in Toledo,
we had to wonder at the name:
Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca.
We learned of its various uses
as arsenal and warehouse
but doubted the truth of the claim
that it had been refurbished
to “its former glory.”
No matter how well restored
the Moorish plaster cast
of capitals, the gilded shells
upon four pendentives
that hold the central chapel dome;
no matter that in the Synagogue
of the Transito, Samuel Levi,
“treasurer and friend of Pedro the Cruel,”
once voiced the Hebrew still held
today in friezes and turned his head
away, perhaps, from the women’s galleries —
these places are at best museums.

In scores of churches and cathedrals
the hum of worship greets the visitor
and sounds the spirit of a culture,
but in these synagogues
the voices of the guides rehearse
some dusty facts; the racks
of postcards spin; the Jews
of Spain who didn’t burn
remain long silent.

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Making Change

Change is what happens
when you’re not looking,
when you’re counting on
(not up) that old tie
that old joke that old recipe
to see you through
and it won’t.

Making change is nature’s way
of keeping you sharp,
unspoiled, unrelaxed.

When you hand over
what’s higher than the price,
making change is what
the seller must do
to make you even.

For some, change is coin,
bright medallions of the realm,
maybe of some intrinsic worth
unlike the promissory paper
that you bring into the store
to get change for the parking meter
(change is measured time).

When you change the tire,
you actually replace it with another —
same with the lightbulb,
same with the tv channel.

And when you change your mind, well,
you’re trading in the currency of thought.
You feed some vapid
long-green legal tender
into the hungry slot
and what goes ka-chinging
at the bottom of the tray
are shiny little spendable ideas.

Hoard them,
they may be the exact change needed at life’s tollbooths
or redeemed at casino windows
for the self-worth you arrived with,
more or less, when you came in.


(from Making Change, Argonne House Press © 2001. Originally published in Tampa Review)

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St. Thomas Blues

It’s as if squares of sky
had drifted down to kiss
each home along the hillsides,
as if each of these modest dwellings
had broad courtyard pools,
of the same pale blue
or enormous sky-blue tables
awaiting picnics.
From mountain overlooks
or low-flying planes
these azure rectangles invite
until one learns
that all this riot of blue
is temporary plastic
sheeting where roofs had been
before the hurricane.

(from Making Change. Originally published in WordWrights, Fall-Winter 1998)

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Oh Yes

Just three months after he died,
my father came back all snappy and tart
in a trim fedora and houndstooth jacket.
He was driving a white De Soto ragtop
and flashing money he’d won at the track.

Somewhere up there,
a waiting room clerk
had sent him in for restyling
and smuggled him back to 1948.

Though he knew I was fifty-two
and not the six-year old Long Island kid
he’d sometimes take fishing,
we talked about whether or not
he should stay with Mom,
add my brother to the household,
settle for weight upon weight
of respectable forty-hour weeks,
bland business suits, commutes,
dumb bosses, budgets, and canasta.

We both knew that the dull long haul
had played out flat and mean,
that he’d flee to joyless dreams
that would silence our cries: “he’s sacked
out on the couch again,” we’d say.
He snoozed through decades, half-waking
when we’d taken care of this or that without him.

Now he was dead and gone and back,
assertive and clear-eyed,
pursuing his hungers into the world,
suggesting that only a buffing up
had been needed all the time —
or perhaps a different life.


He told me he’d always been proud
about how I’d turned out,
didn’t know why he’d never said so,
and that even though he had regrets
about his seasons of oblivion,
he wasn’t going to wallow in the future
now that he was back in action.

He was looking to take chances,
to try out everything he could,
because if there was one thing he had learned
it was that you could just blink or doze
for a moment and the whole damn thing was over.
And then he was off to check out
some beachfront property. Did I want in?
Yes, oh yes, I said, –but he was gone.


(from Making Change, Argonne House Press © 2001. Originally published in Poetry Motel)

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