Monthly Archives: August 2010

Three from “Jewish Book World”

I have begun publishing short reviews in Jewish Book World, the quarterly publication of the Jewish Book Council. Here are the first three.

From Summer, 2010 issue:


Sharon Gillerman

Stanford University Press, 2009. 238pp. $50.00

ISBN: 978-0-8047-5711-9

 Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

 During Germany’s parliamentary (Weimar) republic, 1919-1933, Jewish citizens sought to redefine and re-energize themselves. Diminished population growth and the perception of diminished population quality fostered therapeutic theories and programs. Urbanism, modernism, and individualism threatened family identity and family values, seen as the heart of Jewish vigor and continuity. The influx of Eastern European Jews brought positive models with regard to having large families, but problematic ones with regard to orderliness, economic productivity, and hygiene.

Such concerns among Germany’s Jews echoed those of the encompassing German population after its defeat in WWI and consequent economic and moral decline, accompanied by a decline in birth rate. Professor Gillerman sees the Jewish rejuvenation effort as at once a subset of an emerging German national agenda and as a movement committed to maintaining Jewish particularity. To be a biologically, socially, and economically productive Jew was to be a good German. However, the Jewish agenda had its own nationalistic (and Zionist) component as well. A healthy, proliferating Jewish citizenry was required to insure the transmission of Jewish values, culture, and identity.

Professor Gillerman strives to define a set of issues and actions intellectually insulated from the post-Weimar (Hitler era) situation. By not succumbing to the received wisdom of understanding modern Jewish-German history as being defined exclusively by anti-Semitism, Gillerman offers fresh and valuable perspectives.

While a must for academic libraries and specialist scholars, opacities of academic style and lack of narrative underpinning handicap the study’s interest and accessibility for the general reader.

Bibliography, index, notes. PKJ

 From Fall, 2010 issue:


Benjamin Balint

PublicAffairs, 2010. 304pp. $26.95

ISBN: 978-1-58648-749-2

 Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

 In meticulous detail, Balint traces the steps by which this influential and paradoxically anti-intellectual monthly reconfigured itself from a post-WWII voice of liberalism to a post-Sixties voice of conservatism. Though Balint pays significant attention to the contributions of each the three key editors of Commentary – Elliot Cohen, Norman Podhoretz, and Neal Kozodoy – he makes it clear that the transition was in good measure a reflection of the personal journey and persuasive power of Podhoretz.  

 Balint provides a useful preamble on the Jewish experience in America, particularly its intellectual history. He defines Commentary as the voice, first of all, of “The Family” – a cluster of first-generation Jews with cultural roots in the motives and immigrant experiences of their parents. Almost exclusively products of New York’s City College, these young men (and the women with whom they toiled and built households) articulated an understanding of Jewish self-interest as coincident with American values and prosperity.

 When The Family was most cognizant of its outsider status, liberalism offered itself as the hospitable political vision. Eventually the outsiders came to see themselves as insiders, and as such adopted what was coined the “neoconservative” orientation. Balint explores the rich complexity of this transition, including its connection with changing attitudes toward Israel, offering colorful portraits of the key members of The Family and their intricate, shifting relationships.  

 Bibliography, notes. PKJ


Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer; translated by Shelley Frisch

Other Press, 2009. 240pp. $23.95

ISBN: 978-1-59051-296-8

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

This is the remarkable story of a prosperous Jewish-German immigrant family whose leader founded and shrewdly developed a successful industrial business in pre-WW2 Germany only to see it stolen away during the Nazi regime. Julius Fromm’s contribution was to take advantage of the rubber vulcanization process in new ways, producing a prophylactic product far superior to any made before. “Fromms Act” condoms were extremely popular, and Fromm’s production facilities were trend-setting. 

The authors reveal, through the meticulously kept records of the Third Reich, the economic side of anti-Semitism, tracing the step by step “Aryanization” of Fromm’s wealth, property rights, and business. The story of the strained legalisms by which an entrepreneur’s vision and industry were confiscated is less horrifying than extermination camp narratives, but it is consistent with such stories.  

Aly and Sontheimer do a fine job in presenting the social changes behind Fromm’s success: increased awareness about sexual health, liberalized sexual mores, and the desire for family planning. They also note that Fromm’s self-image as a thoroughly German citizen-innovator did little to save him from Hitler’s grand plan. From exile in England, he watched the theft of his life’s work. Many of his relatives died in the camps.

This extremely readable book presents its findings economically and with a fine narrative flair.

 Bibliography, genealogy, index, notes, photographs. PKJ

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Allegra Goodman’s Serious Romantic Comedy

This review appears in the September 2010 issues of the (Jewish Federation of Collier County) Federation Star and the (Lee & Charlotte Counties Jewish Federation) L’Chayim. You can see it in the latter by clicking here: L’Chayim – Allegra Goodman and then going to page 10.

The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman. Dial Press. 416 pages. $26.00

Allegra Goodman’s fictions explore issues of identity and relationship. To varying degrees, each work sets these issues in a religious, specifically Jewish, context. The Cookbook Collector offers a stunning cast of characters, many of whom have Jewish or Jewish-sounding names. However, for the most part their Jewishness is problematic. They are busy being graduate students and teachers, founders of high-tech start-ups, owners of rare book shops, and volunteers for save-the-trees organizations.  They are the cream of the hybrid cultures that radiate from Boston and San Francisco. Their Jewish identities seem incidental – but are they? 

Emily and Jessamine Bach are sisters. In her late twenties, Emily, the extremely focused founder of Veritech, is on the fast track to professional and financial success. Jess, five years younger, is more spontaneous and less judgmental, but not a finisher. She balances graduate studies in philosophy at Berkeley with volunteer activism as a tree-hugger. She works for George Friedman, at 39 retired with a Microsoft fortune (it is late 1999), assisting at Yorick’s, his rare book store. George falls for her, and the banter of their intricate courtship is a treasure. Jess’s labor of love is helping George acquire a matchless collection of rare cookbooks, and then preparing a descriptive catalogue. Inserted in the books are the long-dead collector’s notes and drawings that reveal his obsession with a woman beyond his reach. This inner story of passionate longing haunts the novel.

Emily’s long-time boyfriend, Jonathan, has his own tech company, a rival operation, in the Boston area. He spends much of his time at ISIS, at the expense of the relationship. Allegra Goodman paints the frantic days of high-tech industry just before and after Y2K, as paper fortunes are made and often lost with can’t-lose IPOs. She is superb in handling the technical and cultural dynamics of this economic environment.

The sisters’ father, Richard Bach, is not Jewish. Their mother, Gillian, who died 18 years before the novel opens, was a Jewish woman whom Richard met while studying at Cambridge University. By marrying Richard, Gillian completely estranged herself from her family. Emily and Jess know nothing about their mother’s past, nor does the reader, until late in the novel.

In Berkeley and in the Boston suburb of Canaan (biblical allusion here), two Hasidic rabbis lead outposts of the worldwide Bialystok movement. These men, Rabbi Helfgott and Rabbi Zylberfenig, are in-laws: their wives are sisters. Running Bialystok Centers out of their child-filled homes, these smiling couples are busy reclaiming lost Jewish souls. Though Richard Bach is nastily suspicious of the Bialystok movement’s intentions, Jess becomes a regular at Rabbi Helfgott’s teachings. The Bialystok influence (read “Chabad-Lubovitch”) has a significant place in the novel’s theme and design.

These various threads interact marvelously as Goodman takes us through 2001. Jonathan and a colleague lose their lives in one of the 9/11 plane crashes. At Jonathan’s funeral, Emily discovers that he had betrayed her, stealing a Veritech idea she had mentioned. But why did she test him? Why did she endlessly postpone their marriage plans?

Because of its meticulous, probing social portraiture, The Cookbook Collector can be called a “comedy of manners,” the label frequently attached to Goodman’s novels. However, it is far from unalloyed comedy. Suffering is part of its complex fabric. The Cookbook Collector is highly rewarding work from an amazingly skilled and fully mature writer.

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Alex Kava’s “Damaged” has the goods

“Damaged,” by Alex Kava. Doubleday. 272 pages. $24.95

How did Nebraskan Alex Kava get to Florida? “I was looking for a writing retreat when a friend invited me to her hometown of Pensacola. I love the beaches and the area, so I bought a house on Blackwater Bay. That was in 2004. Six months later Hurricane Ivan hit. Nine months after that – Dennis. I spent the first several years cleaning up.” So, at some point, you put a hurricane in a novel, right?

Here are the ingredients: a category 5 hurricane approaches Pensacola; the Coast Guard finds a cooler filled with body parts floating off Pensacola Beach; a mysterious string of deaths plagues the medical facility at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. Who do you call? Maggie O’Dell.

In this, Alex Kava’s eighth Maggie O’Dell novel, the intrepid FBI profiler-agent has her hands full. Assigned to team up with a Homeland Security official in dealing with the body parts issue, Maggie is thrown into this complex of interwoven concerns. Where did the cooler come from? How has it ended up near Pensacola? What is causing the fatalities among servicemen who have had limbs replaced? How will the approaching hurricane affect finding the answers to these questions?

The medical issue is not directly Maggie’s concern. A Navy captain, the head medical doctor on the base, runs a surgical transplant program. He has invited an Army doctor, an infectious disease specialist, to help address the unknown disease. However, Alex Kava will bring this mystery and the mystery of the stray body parts into an unexpected relationship. The ticking time bomb of the approaching hurricane adds intensity and anxiety, and Kava’s portrait of how different townspeople respond to the approaching threat is handled with impressive skill.

In this novel, Maggie O’Dell is one of two heroic female figures. The other is Liz Bailey, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer whose exploits begin the novel and who just about takes it over at other times. For all of her courage, Maggie cannot imagine herself doing the kind of thing that Liz does; for example, being deployed from a hovering helicopter to secure people in danger – or in this case to secure a floating container. With the hurricane on its way, Liz and people with her training might have plenty of work to do.

The read this review in its entirety as it appears in the August 11-17, 2010 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 12-18 Naples Florida Weekly and Charlotte Florida Weekly click here: Florida Weekly – Alex Kava

Bonus Material: the following Q & A did not get into print because of space limitations:

Where did you get the idea of the epidemic-threatening infection?

 I love the character of Col. Benjamin Platt (who debuted in EXPOSED) and I wanted to bring him into the story. Pensacola has several military ties so it made sense to find a connection. In the meantime I had read an article about staff infections in soldiers who had lost limbs. The article mentioned a new bone paste that was being used to preempt these infections because they could add antibiotics directly to the paste which was added directly to the wound. As strange as it sounds it was almost like kismet, because I had already started asking questions about possible contamination of donor body parts including bone.

 For “Damaged,” which came first: the hurricane situation, the body parts issue, or the infectious disease?

 The hurricane came first. Ever since I experienced Ivan (2004) and Dennis (2005) I’ve been chomping at the bit to send Maggie O’Dell into the path of a hurricane.

 Will we see Liz Bailey again? She’s a winner.

 I hope so. She certainly won me over, and I ended up giving her a more prominent role than she initially had.

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Lisa Unger: delicate bonds stretched to the limit

“Fragile,” by Lisa Unger. Shaye Areheart /Crown. 336 pages. $24.00.

In The Hollows, a small town 100 miles from New York City, a rebellious teenager named Charlene disappears. Pressed into service is Jones Cooper, the head of detectives on the local police force. Concerned as well is his wife Maggie, a psychologist who has insights into Charlene as well as into Charlene’s mother, Melody, once a high school classmate, as was Jones and many other townspeople. The Hollows holds onto its young, who turn into its parents and then its retired grandparents – like Maggie’s declining mother, Elizabeth, once the high school’s principal.

One of Maggie’s patients is Marshall Crosby, a troubled boy at the edge of destructive behavior. He is the son of disgraced former policeman Travis Crosby – a high school crony of Jones’s – and grandson of the older Travis Crosby, retired from his mean-spirited reign as the town’s police chief.

Center stage for the Coopers is their son, Ricky, who considers goth-fashioned Charlene his girl friend. Exactly how close they are is not clear, but Ricky has also been rebellious and secretive. What does he know about Charlene’s disappearance? What will he reveal?  

Is Charlene a runaway – or has she been abducted? Will she end up like one of her mother’s classmates, Sarah, who a generation back was found murdered shortly after her disappearance? Questions about Charlene bring up memories of Sarah’s death – a closed case, but with some loose ends.  

And why is Marshall Crosby, the son and grandson of abusers, trying so hard to find out if he is a good person or a bad person?

While Lisa Unger shows amazing skill at plot development, pacing, and projecting a rich sense of place, her talent in characterization – in plumbing the depths of her characters’ inner circumstances – is truly exceptional. Readers will be enthralled by the access they gain to each major character’s fluctuations of emotional temperature. Even more important in this novel is Ms. Unger’s penetration into the nuances of relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, public and private roles, friendships and mere dependencies, the self as child and the self as adult. How strong, or fragile, are these ties?

To read this review in its entirely, as it appeares in the August 4-10, 2010 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Lisa Unger’s FRAGILE

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Lander Duncan’s Saga of Secrets and Skin

Once in a long while, the unexpected power of a book by an unknown author comes as a revelation. Such is the case with “Children of Secrets,” an autobiographical novel by Naples resident Lander Duncan that examines the debilitating cruelty of racial prejudice and the devastating consequences of family secrets.

The story opens on the Alabama campus of the famous Tuskegee Institute, sanctioned by Congress in 1881 as a Negro Normal School. It is 1939 when we meet the family of influential Tuskegee Chaplain Bryant, who successfully argues for Tuskegee to maintain an officer training program as a way of enhancing graduates’ opportunities.

Dr. Bryant’s daughter Abigail, a voluptuous woman at fifteen, is a flirtatious campus head-turner. She entices the extremely guarded CJ Duncan, the best hope of a poor Arkansas Delta family. When the imaginative, eccentric and light-skinned Abigail reveals that she is pregnant, chaos reigns until Dr. Bryant decides not to report CJ’s infractions. CJ graduates and receives his lieutenant’s bars. Married by Dr. Bryant in a private ceremony, the couple is banished to the impoverished Duncan Arkansas home.

Abigail has their first child, James, while CJ performs stateside military exercises. Shortly before she visits CJ on a military base, Abigail becomes pregnant by a white man. She passes this child, Lander, off as a premature child of CJ’s. Before CJ is sent overseas, Abigail becomes pregnant with a third son, Daniel.

The author vividly describes CJ’s service in Europe during WWII. CJ, an able and courageous leader of his all-Negro unit, faces unimaginable dangers defusing land mines. He is depressed by the high attrition rate of his company and how the Negro soldier seemed expendable. While his letters home form the basis of remarkable combat narratives, they don’t reveal his brief affair in occupied Germany.

Returning from army duty, CJ’s plans to use his GI Bill for medical school are blocked at every path. Merely another black man in the segregated south, his combat ribbons only aggravate – as they challenge – the white establishment. Finding work only as a redcap at the train station, accomplished and ambitious CJ becomes a dispirited, bitter man.

For voicing his outrage, CJ is falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman, an accusation that leads to a lynch-mob death. Abigail and the children barely escape from their burning house. Fortunately, they had already made plans to flee KKK-infested Arkansas and resettle in a relative’s vacant home in Washington, Pennsylvania.

To read the full review, as published in the July 25-August 3, 2010 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 26-August 4 Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Lander Duncan

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