Monthly Archives: November 2009

Spark’s “Good for the Jews”

Published as “Esther the Midwester” in the December 2009 issue of the (Jewish Federation of Collier County) Federation Star.

“Good for the Jews,” by Debra Spark. University of Michigan Press. $24.00.

The Megillat Esther is the classic tale of a plot against the Jews being overturned. Jewish children learn the story, often reading a watered-down version, and come to know the principle characters: King Ahashueros, Queen Vashti, hateful Haman the grand vizier, the attractive young Jewess named Esther, and Mordecai – her uncle and foster father, a man of some rank. The story is set in Shushan, capital of ancient Persia. Although the survival of the Jewish people is at stake, the text seems only pretending to seriousness. A Jewish beauty contestant wins the day?

Debra Spark’s version is set in Madison, Wisconsin: state capital and home of a major college football power. The authority figure is Alex Decker, superintendent of schools. His marriage to Valerie – a culture queen who is busy organizing a season of arts events based on the theme of hate – is crumbling. Maybe it’s mid-life crisis. Fair young Ellen Hirschorn works at a day-care center that occupies space in Valerie’s cultural arts facility. Her cousin, Mose Sheinbaum, raised her (and her sister Barbara) since the tragic death of the girls’ parents, bringing the girls to Madison a little over twelve years ago to take a second-career position as a high school teacher. Now sixty-five, forty years older than Ellen, he is a popular teacher at Sudbury High, where Alex was once the principal. Jewish antennae alert, Mose is an ardent spokesman on what’s “good for the Jews.” Inevitably, Alex and Ellen run into one another and romance blooms. 

Though Mose and his now-grown charges might be thought of as new to the town, the  Jewish community has long roots there, including an old synagogue that is now a historical landmark. While Mose lives and breathes his Jewish identity and heritage, Ellen, attractive and athletic, wears hers lightly – she has rarely attended synagogue since her Bat Mitzvah, shortly after arriving in Madison.

Hyman Clark, an emergency hire as the new principal at Sudbury, is about to become Alex’s second in command. Hyman is soon in conflict with Mose, criticizing his teaching methods, his failure to follow established policies (Spark explores how bureaucracies function), and his unwillingness to participate in school activities outside of the classroom. He calls the award-winning teacher unprofessional, singling him out as not meriting a pay increase. Is Hyman’s by-the-book administrative style a cloak for anti-Semitism? This and related questions keep us turning the pages.

A bit of anti-Semitic graffiti, mysterious threatening messages sent to Mose, and Hyman Clark’s palace guard trio of high school tuffs combine to create an atmosphere of threat. When a synagogue is set ablaze, a teenage girl found burned to death inside, it seems as if Shushan has come to Madison after all. When Ellen shares Mose’s suspicions about Hyman with Alex, now her lover, the echoes between this early 21st century story and the Book of Esther grow louder and louder.

Written with a simple elegance, wearing an eerie smile, and – for all its allusiveness – constructed with a life of its own, “Good for the Jews” works on many levels as a contemporary cautionary tale. It is good for the reader.

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Naples Author Wins Prize for WWII Autobiography

The following review, first published on this site in late November of 2008 with an alternate title, remained unpublished in print until the November 5-11, 2009 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly, the editor being persuaded by the approach of Veterans’ Day and the Florida Writers Association prize announced a few days earlier. See Florida Weekly – Leon Hesser. It also appears in the November 11-17 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly.

The original version, republished below, contains material on Hesser’s earlier books not found in the print edition. The newspaper version carries information about the prize.

Young Leon Hesser was fresh off the Indiana farm when he enlisted in the Army toward the end of WWII. He had just met his great love, Florence Life, and they promised each other to tie the knot soon after Leon’s return. After basic training, teenager Hesser was shipped out to the Pacific Theater, where he saw first-hand some of the most horrendous battles of the war, serving during various battles in the Philippines. He also served with the post-war occupation forces in Japan. This author is likely to be the only person you’ll ever meet who earned both the Combat Infantry Badge and the Combat Medic Badge as a teenager. Hesser tells the story of these two years in uniform in his new book, ZigZag Pass: Love and War, a Memoir.


Hesser at Naples Press Club Authors & Books Festival, April 2008

Hesser at Naples Press Club Authors & Books Festival, April 2008

In creating a narrative at once personal and representative, Naples resident Hesser strikes a fine balance between presenting the authentic pulse and flow of his own experience and filling in the larger picture of U. S. forces in the Pacific. His research is sufficiently thorough without becoming overbearing or bogged down in dry fact.

Hesser is quite adept at sketching the pre-war milieu of rural Indiana and the reactions that follow upon the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when he was a sixteen year old high school junior. He traces the U. S. military build-up in the Pacific and reminds us of how farming communities met the demand for increased food for the war effort. Upon turning eighteen in the summer of 1943, Hesser registered for the draft, receiving a deferral as his services were needed for food production. By the spring of 1944, after troop quotas were increased, he was classified as 1-A. He had just met Florence, and so their courtship would be interrupted by Hesser’s time in uniform. In June, he reported to Fort Benjamin Harrison for induction processing. Although he indicated a preference for Navy duty, Hesser was taken into the Army and sent on to Camp Hood (Texas) for basic training.

After further training at other locations, Hesser finds himself aboard the “General Howze,” a Liberty ship that transports him across the ocean in time to reach the island of Leyte in the Philippines just after its retaking by Allied Forces. Hesser was among the large number of replacements needed after the casualty-heavy Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Hesser summarizes that battle, then explains the necessity of clearing ZigZag Pass as a preliminary to opening up Manila Bay. His fifth chapter, “Three Days in ZigZag Pass,” is the heart of the book. Here the narrative pace slows to allow full dramatic detail: Hesser stresses the risk from well-situated enemy defensive forces, the suffocating heat, and the extremely difficult terrain, including the “tangled growth of the jungle flora.” Here, also, Hesser is most attentive to conveying his own personal ordeal. Surrounded by casualties, Hesser joins with others to “carry litters of the dead, near-dead, and seriously wounded to awaiting ambulances and 6x6s.”

Following the ZigZag Pass ordeal, Hesser has the opportunity to train as a combat medic, and as he recounts that training, readers learn about the uses of sulfa, penicillin, and morphine as well as steps needed to prevent malaria. Stationed on Mindoro during a lull in the action, Hesser’s unit had time for recreation, which he describes with pleasure. During the two months on Mindoro, news reaches the troops of President Roosevelt’s death and that Harry S. Truman is now their president and commander in chief. Hesser’s division next sails from Mindoro to the large island of Mindanao in order to retake Davao – the Philippines second largest city — from the Japanese.

In describing his duties as a “Pill Roller,” Hesser simultaneously outlines several more battles, leading up to the plans to invade Japan. He recounts the efforts aimed at pressing the Japanese to surrender, and he reviews the background of nuclear weapon experimentation and government policy that leads to the use of the A-Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Finally, Hesser describes his experiences as part of an Army of Occupation, his discharge from service, and his homecoming.

All through the war-time narrative, Hesser keeps us in touch with his feelings for Florence. Their relationship is nourished by exchanges of letters, some of which are shared with readers. Ultimately, we see the two young people reunited and a long-awaited wedding.

Hesser’s ZigZag Pass, though brief, is a sterling addition to the literature of WWII memoir. Such additions to the cannon will grow rarer at “the greatest generation” ages and vanishes.

The longer story of the relationship between Leon and Florence is told in his 2004 book “Nurture the Heart and Feed the World: The Inspiring Life Journeys of Two Vagabonds.” Here, Leon makes the case for initiative and determination, drawing upon first-hand experience and the example of his wife. From becoming a Purdue freshman at the age of thirty to earning a Ph.D. in agricultural economics to running programs that ushered in the “green revolution” of increased food production in third world countries, Hesser has had a remarkable life story and career. Florence’s path is similar. After helping Leon get a good start on his graduate studies, she entered Purdue at the age of thirty-five and eventually earned an Ed.D. She became a professor of education at George Washington University.

Hesser’s career brought him into contact with Norman Borlaug, whose scientific achievements revolutionized world food production. Borlaug became a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and Leon Hesser tells Borlaug’s story in the authorized biography The Man Who Fed the World (2006). This book brought Hesser much acclaim, including the Florida Writers Association First Place in Biography, Florida Publishers Association Best Nonfiction, and Best Books Award Winner by USA Book News.

Hesser’s turned author soon after he and his wife relocated to Naples in 2000. His first book is The Taming of the Wilderness: Indiana’s Transition from Indian Hunting Grounds to Hoosier Farmland: 1800-1875 (2002).

ZigZag Pass and earlier Hesser titles are available from Bavender House Press. For details, see The book is also available from major on-line booksellers.


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Peg Longstreth: Renaissance Woman

Indiana-born Peg Goldberg Longstreth is a woman with many college degrees and many areas of accomplishment.  Trained as a classical musician, she first built a 15-year career in social work and health care administration, helping sexually abused and battered kids. She performed in a dance band and as a duo piano partner. In 1980, she began a new career as a private art dealer. In 1998, shortly after her marriage to Joseph Longstreth – known as a concert harpist, author of award-winning children’s books, and a force in the publishing world – the Longstreths moved to Naples. By year’s end, she and her husband opened the Longstreth Goldberg Art Gallery, the largest contemporary gallery in the area. First located on 12th Avenue South, the gallery moved to 5640 Taylor Road on the infamous date of September 11, 2001.

Along the way, Peg Longstreth developed a career as the classics and pops music reviewer for Naples’s daily paper, and more recently as a features columnist for Florida Weekly. She is also involved in charities and animal rescue programs.

And now Peg Longstreth is a book author and publisher.

Peg Longstreth always wanted to write, and she kept journals for years. Because her father managed the Farm Bureau Printing Corporation in Southern Indiana, the smell of ink and the noise of presses was part of her childhood, as was hand-setting type, reading upside down and backwards. Even today, she “gets high on the smell of paper and books.”

These paragraphs preview an article that appears in the November-December 2009 issue of Fort Myers Magazine. The full article is available at: Ft.Myers magazine – Peg Longstreth


Peg with hero of "A Bear Called Charlie"

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Choices Meant for Authors: Sandy Lender

The sequel to Naples resident Sandy Lender’s 2007 fantasy novel “Choices Meant for Gods” was a long time coming. Now, to the great satisfaction of her fans, the long-awaited “Choices Meant for Kings” is available. Like the first title, it is from ArcheBooks Publishing.

Why the wait? Well, not because of any writer’s block on Sandy Lender’s part. Writer’s block is something this committed author has never experienced and doesn’t understand. LenderKingsCover

Most of “Choices Meant for Kings” was already completed when “Choices Meant for Gods” appeared. However, she says, ArcheBooks “had hiccups with the production schedule,” and many other titles were slated for production ahead of hers.

Ms. Lender originally conceived of a two-part series, but when she presented Archebooks with a 270,000-word manuscript, some rethinking was necessary. The cutting process required to make  “Gods” an affordable project left material available to be relocated in “Kings.” What was intended as a two-part series has now become a trilogy in order to distribute effectively all the material Ms. Lender created to explore the doings in the land of Onweald.

To enjoy the rest of this article, as it appears in the Oct. 29-Nov. 4, 2009 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly, Click here: Florida Weekly – Sandy Lender.

See also: Sandy Lender


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