Monthly Archives: September 2011

“Breaking Out”— a moving portrait of adolescent despair

Bob Brink, “Breaking Out.” iUniverse. 244 pages. Hardback $26.95, Paperback $16.95.

This is a noteworthy first novel, although it too often reads more like a case study or third-person autobiography. The reader is asked to attend to so many details, seemingly of equal importance, that control over emphasis suffers. Very minor characters are introduced as if readers had better get to know them, but this turns out not to be the case. They quickly leave the scene and the novel. Often, scenes that merit only summary presentation are elaborately dramatized.

Bob Brink

And yet “Breaking Out” is powerful and deals with important issues.  It is powerful in that Bob Brink’s writing style is clear and attractive. His sentences and paragraphs are well turned. His descriptions of persons and places are vivid and insightful. Thus, while larger structural elements are problematic, his evocative prose has polish and grace.

The important thematic issues have to do with diagnosing and treating potentially dangerous neurotic behavior and understanding the nature and consequences of parenting that is psychologically debilitating.

We first meet the main character, Britt Rutgers, when he is a high school student in the 1950s. Mr. Brink efficiently paints a telling scene about Britt’s extreme self-consciousness and sensitivity. Britt can barely bring himself to cross the crowded gymnasium of the Mayfield (Iowa) High School to take an available seat. He imagines that all of the students crowded into the bleacher seats will be staring at him, and the feeling of exposure and scrutiny is unbearable. He is almost paralyzed. 

We learn, as well, that Britt is sexually naïve and doesn’t even know the everyday language of sexuality that is constantly on the lips of his classmates.

From here, the author moves backward and forward in time, providing the causes of Britt’s painful self-awareness, innocence, and lack of confidence – as well as the later consequences of those causal factors.

The Rutgers household is a stern and emotionally cold environment. Informed by the fundamentalist Calvinist theology and discipline of the region’s strict Dutch Reformed Church, it is an environment with a strong work ethic and a strong sense of sin. Milton and Miriam Rutgers, Britt’s parents, seem incapable of healthy nurturing. Britt’s personality presents them with issues they can’t handle, but they have magnified his sense of worthlessness by offering only rejection while doing all they can to encourage and support the endeavors of their fairly ordinary oldest son, Kevin.

The parents never quite figure out that words of kindness, approval, and respect would do Britt far more good than their willingness to support psychological and psychiatric treatment, treatment that involves two periods of extended institutionalization and a regimen of shock therapy. . . .

To read this review in its entirety as it appears in the September 22, 2011 issue of the Palm Beach Gardens Florida Weekly, the September 29 isue of the Naples edition, and the October 5 issue of the Fort Myers edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Bob Brink.

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Lisa Unger’s latest thriller digs up dark secrets

Lisa Unger, “Darkness, My Old Friend.” Crown. $24.00. 368 pages.

Lisa Unger’s latest novel takes us back to The Hollows, an ordinary yet somewhat eerie suburb of New York City first probed in Ms. Unger’s “Fragile” (2010, now in paperback). Familiar to readers of “Fragile” will be Jones Cooper and his wife Dr. Maggie Cooper, a psychologist. Jones is a retired police officer who has been staying around the house and doing odd jobs for neighbors. “Fragile” records the unfortunate events that led to his retirement, which has left Jones somewhat unsettled. Though he had no plans to become a private detective, people are coming his way with problems that lure him in that direction. 

The other characters in “Darkness, My Old Friend” are new. Bethany Graves has only recently moved to the Hollows after a somewhat bitter divorce. She has left the city to protect her daughter, Willow, from its evils. But teenagers always find trouble, and Willow is a classic example of a young girl filled with resentment and overcompensating for low self-esteem. She is uncooperative at school, skips classes, and has one good friend, Jolie, who is even more of a trouble-maker. Both are drawn to darkness and danger. Together, they witness mysterious and suspicious behavior in the heavily wooded area that borders one of the town’s older neighborhoods. Someone seems to be digging something up – or trying to. Bethany is near her wit’s end in dealing with Willow, who has become Maggie Cooper’s patient.

Eloise Montgomery, a psychic (for lack of a better term), has been feeling the presence of danger involving townspeople past and present. There seems to be some connection between the digging, Eloise’s intuitions, and the long-ago disappearance of Marla Holt – a gorgeous young woman who was thought to have simply left The Hollows and her family to escape her life’s tedium. Her son Michael has recently returned to the family’s home after the death of his father, Mack. Michael, who is the person the teens found digging, has unfinished business. He engages Eloise and PI Ray Muldune to find out what happened to his mother.

Lisa Unger - by Tanya Sharkey

Another failing marriage involves Paula and Kevin Carr. Kevin has been a controlling, abusive husband whom Paula fears. She has agreed to add to their household young Cole, Kevin’s son by his first wife, Robin. Kevin claims that Robin is unable to raise Cole properly. Paula soon learns that Robin is missing, and she engages Jones Cooper to find him. Meanwhile, Cole attracts both Willow and Jolie, becoming part of a rather unhealthy teen triangle. Before long, Paula is missing as well and Jones sets out to find her. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the September 7, 2011 issue of Fort Myers Florida Weekly and in the September 8 issue of the Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Lisa Unger (2). For pdf versions, see Darkness pdf – 1 and Darkness pdf – 2

See also:

BOOK BEAT 70 – Lisa Unger

Posted by: Philip K. Jason on June 5, 2008

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Critical perspectives on modern Jewish literature

By Philip K. Jason

 This review essay appears in the Fall 2011 issue of Jewish Book World.

Two exciting new studies explore the contours of modern Jewish literary identity. While one surveys the pluralistic nature of modern Jewish literature through a variety of theoretical approaches, the other examines the particularities of Hebrew fiction written in early 20th century Europe and the transient lifestyles of its creators.


Sheila E. Jelen, Michael P. Kramer, and L. Scott Lerner, eds.

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. 368 pp. $59.95. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4272-0


Shachar M. Pinsker

Stanford University Press, 2011. 487 pp. $60.00. ISBN: 978-0-8047-7064-4

The plural noun in the main title of Modern Jewish Literatures raises the age-old question of how to define Jewish literature while suggesting the plurality of its achievements, cultural orientations, languages, circumstances, and genre manifestations. Although the fifteen chapters do not directly speak to one another, they draw significant portions of a map of understanding, a map for which the ultimate shape remains elusive. 

Each essay breaks new ground in addressing modern Jewish experience and its literary representation.  Several scholars attend to authors whose works promote a cultural campaign, trailblazers whose theoretical frames of reference simultaneously energize and circumscribe their creative efforts. Assumptions about Judaism and Modernism, the relative status of Hebrew and Yiddish, and relationships between Diaspora cultural creativity and that of Palestine/Israel are framing propositions. Is the deliberate production of a people’s literature a deliberate exercise in nation building?

Several essays look away from the creation of literature to concerns about its publication and distribution, thus the book offers lively explorations of uniquely Jewish publishing enterprises and of one very special Jewish book store.

This marvelously rich and varied gathering has many surprises for scholars and for general readers who have patience with academic style. It is a major resource for teachers and their students. Index, introduction, notes.


Professor Pinsker argues that the notable garden of Hebrew literature that blossomed in early twentieth century Europe is not well served by criticism that views it primarily as a strategy in the Jewish nationhood agenda. While Zionist impulses certainly encouraged the resurgence of Hebrew as a modern vernacular and literary language, the nature of the literature (primarily fiction) draws its energy from several other historical factors. Pinsker shows how this body of Hebrew literature is energized by the various esthetic and thematic concerns broadly labeled as Modernism.

Like the encompassing European Modernism, the new Hebrew literature is a literature of urban experience. Its major practitioners were wanderers who developed a café-centered community life in several cities where Hebrew periodicals and publishing houses also emerged. The Modernist urban themes of dislocation, alienation, and identity (thus the passport metaphor) preoccupied this group of writers, as did those of sexuality and gender. Pinsker explores provocative subsets of these concerns, including the crisis of Jewish masculinity, the interface of writing and sexual desire, and the Jewish version of the New Woman.

In a major section of his study, Pinsker examines how these writers express Modernist attitudes toward Jewish traditions and religiosity.

Professor Pinkser’s learned and lively exploration provides not only a rich theoretical context for examining a largely undiscovered body of important Modernist texts, but also a series of close, often original, readings. He offers a fine blend of lucidity, passionate attention, and intellectual play. Index, introduction, notes.

These two volumes enlarge our understanding of key issues, texts, and personalities. Pinsker isolates and expands a few of the areas of interest pursued in Jelen-Kramer-Lerner enterprise. Indeed, the two books conduct a fine, rewarding conversation.

Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore magazine, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.

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Chad Hautmann: The Downs and Ups of a Writer’s Life

As I read Magic and Grace, the highly entertaining, often thoughtful, and strategically humorous new narrative by Chad Hautmann, I couldn’t make up my mind whether or not there was any significant separation between the main character and the author. While most authors exploit their life experiences, Hautmann seems to have gone further than most – into the realm, perhaps, of creative nonfiction. In the end, it might not matter. Chad Hautmann traces Gibb Chapman’s late-blooming transition from a long-delayed adolescence to a semblance of maturity at early middle age with compelling insights, vivid details, and gentle satire. 

Like Hautmann, one might conjecture, Gibb Chapman had been in some kind of emotional holding pattern since shortly after the publication of his first novel, What Keats Would Do.  A modest, short-lived success (like Hautmann’s 2004 Billie’s Ghost), the book had a fame-to-fizzle path that disoriented Gibb, as did the divorce from his adored ex-wife. His is stuck in a place of grief and unrealistic expectation.

Gibb’s brief flush of flame had gone to his head, and he had behaved insufferably. After discovering that Gibb had been unfaithful, his wife threw him out – and Gibb went on a year-long bender. Now, in an attempt to right himself and win her back, Gibb has moved into a house across the street from his former home where he can be close to Laura and their daughter, Asia. He is off the bottle, but he has a lot to prove to them and to himself.

The main part of the book shows Gibb’s uncertain progress toward growing up at last. His job is to become the person he once aspired to be and to avoid the temptations that had made him into someone else. Tragi-comic episodes abound in Gibb’s attempts to repair a major roof leak; in his battle with the tourist trolleys that, in his view, terrorize drivers and pedestrians; in his confrontation with an evangelical group headquartered in a nearby town dedicated to the Virgin Mary; in his attempts to take responsibility for ending his aging mother’s auto thievery (she escapes from her assisted living home on a regular basis); and in his hospitality to his old, often stoned or drunk, college chum who one day just shows up and moves in.

Hautmann and daughters

Some readers may have guessed that Naples is the setting of Magic and Grace. Hautmann presents not a disguised, but a heightened version of this small city, magnifying its charms and foibles. In that way, Naples is treated just like Gibb Chapman, and man of many charms and many foibles.

Dedicated to walking Asia to and from school, he too often gets her there late (luckily – or not – Asia’s teacher has a crush on Gibb). Concerned about religious literature being handed out as children leave school, Gibb manages to have his house picketed by overzealous do-gooders. Curious about how Laura is managing her life (she has begun talking about marrying her new boy friend), Gibb violates the terms of their divorce and her privacy by entering her home without permission and rummaging through her intimate apparel.

Can this end well? Perhaps it can. How? Well, you’ll have to read Magic and Grace to find out. One sign is that Gibb reacts modestly to the unexpected second life given What Keats Would Do when a prestigious reviewer comes upon a used copy and brings the book renewed attention. Gibb no longer plays the big shot. Without losing his zest for life, he has come down to earth. . . .

To read this article as edited for publication  in the September-October issue of Fort Myers Magazine with the title “Real Lives Magnified,” click here: Ft.Myers magazine – Chad Hautmann

Bonus Material not included magazine article:


 “I’m working on two books right now.  One is a memoir of life with a golden retriever and Himalayan cat—before kids—sort of a meditation on the Zen lessons much-loved pets can bring to our lives.  And the other is a complicated novel about the fictional offspring of Madam Chiang Kai-Shek and American politician Wendell Wilke (they did actually have an affair).  In real life the two supposedly talked of marrying, using her money to get him elected President, and then ruling the world together, she in the East, he in the West.  Anyhow, in the novel I’ll have the offspring attempt to bring that plan to fruition.”

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My 9/11

united-states-naval-academy-photoShortly before 8:55am on September 11, 2001, I entered my Literature of War course in Sampson Hall at the United States Naval Academy. We were still near the beginning of the semester, the last semester of my college teaching career. The midshipmen looked uncharacteristically confused and unsettled. One of them asked me to turn on the television. They’d heard about some enormous calamity. Soon we were magnetized, almost traumatized, by repeat footage of the initial collision of an aircraft with one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. As the mix of news, conjecture, and wild rumor accumulated, it was suddenly ramped up by news and pictures of another plane blasting into the other tower.
It wasn’t long before we all suspected that our lives had changed dramatically. Our personal lives and our lives as U. S. citizens. These young men and women were processing their futures as junior officers in the United States Navy or Marine Corps. We talked a bit about what was going on. Facts were few. Still, there was something about the mids that impressed me. They were ready, or committed to being ready, for whatever was out there. They would not turn away from their responsibilities. That determination was written on their faces and in their voices. Also, they were smart enough to be afraid. I was proud of them. I still am.


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Velva Jean Learns to Fly, by Jennifer Niven

Jennifer Niven won much praise and many readers with her first novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive. In that book, the focus is on Velva Jean’s teen years in Depression era Appalachia. In Learns to Fly, which takes us from 1941 through 1944, Velva Jean matures into an independent, sometimes headstrong, young woman in her early twenties. With only a seventh grade education and only the dimmest glimmer of the world beyond the Fair Mountain community of her rearing, Velva Jean takes unexpected chances with mixed results. When her marriage to preacher Harley Bright falls apart, she drives her yellow truck to Nashville to follow the dream developed in the first novel – the dream of becoming a successful singer-songwriter. 

The journey in the decrepit old truck is an experience in perseverance and improvisation. When Velva Jean reaches Nashville, she finds out that most doors are closed to her – even the door of the record producer who encouraged her back in North Carolina. She wonders if her dream can be realized, works hard at various jobs, and makes one good friend. Nashville excites her. The Grand Old Opry is her shrine. However, she discovers another yearning that overwhelms and replaces her interest in the music business: she becomes determined to be an airplane pilot.

The fascination with and early pursuit of this goal depends largely upon an extended visit from her favorite brother, the adventurous Johnny Clay, who shares her enthusiasm and encourages her – as he has done since they were very young. Taking private lessons, she learns to fly a small, fragile, and antiquated aircraft. Johnny Clay is hooked on the idea of jumping out of planes.

Jennifer Niven

When Velva Jean learns about Jacqueline Cochran’s WASP effort (Women Airforce Service Pilots), nothing will stop her from being accepted into this trailblazing program. Despite initial setbacks, Velva Jean succeeds. From this point on, Velva Jean Learns to Fly becomes a very special World War II novel, focusing, through Velva Jean’s eyes, on the contribution of women aviators to the allied effort.

To see the full review as it appears in Southern Literary Review, along with an author interview and a review of the first Velva Jean novel, click here: Jennifer Niven | Southern Literary Review

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Forgotten fragments transform Jewish history

This review appears in the September 2011 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County, Florida) and L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties, Florida). It also appears in the October issue of The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole. Nextbook/Schocken. 304 pages. $26.95.

When I was a young graduate student in English, an assigned text was The Scholar Adventurers, by Richard Altick. This inspiring tome revealed the romance of the research enterprise. Turning scholars into heroes, Prof. Altick’s book was a “good read” for any educated person. Sacred Trash has the same allure. Without leaning on fictional hooks like the Indiana Jones series, it still engages in much the same way. Hoffman and Cole almost manage to turn Solomon Schechter into an action figure. 

The Cairo Geniza, at once dump and treasure trove, was a repository of manuscripts discarded and yet not destroyed – the accumulated written detritus of centuries. Located in an ancient synagogue in Old Cairo (Fustat), these scraps held the largely unknown, untransmitted history of Jewish civilization during the Middle Ages – and even earlier.  Hoffman and Cole tell key stories stretching over 100 years – from the late Nineteen Century up until our own time – of scholar adventurers acquiring, preserving, classifying, interpreting, and gleaning astounding knowledge about the continuity of Jewish experience.  We can no longer think of Jewish history “as a straight shot from the Bible to the shtetl, followed by a brief stopover on the Lower East Side.”

The authors begin with their colorful portrait of twin widows, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, who in the early 1890s made important antiquarian discoveries at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. In 1896, the sisters returned from a trip to Cairo and other places during which they purchased a bundle of antiquarian documents. They believed that their Cambridge neighbor, the eminent scholar Shneur Zalmon (Anglicized to Solomon) Schechter, could help them identify the documents. Schechter, a man of wide-ranging learning who was now about fifty, eagerly examined their findings. He quickly “identified one vellum leaf as a rare and valuable page from the Palestinian Talmud.” After seeing other remarkable items, Schechter was hooked. He would have to make his own journey to the Cairo Geniza.

Having begun “in medias res,” the authors now hold Schechter’s mission in check while they provide the background of sporadic scholarly interest in this most important geniza; lesser archival dumps; and important established collections. Then they explore Schechter’s motivations and the particular areas of his scholarly interests that would drive him to make this arduous journey.

The story of Solomon Schechter at the Cairo Geniza is brilliantly told, including as it does his many important discoveries and his dedication to relocating as much as possible to Cambridge University. There were many obstacles to overcome, but the mission was an enormous success. The long, patient work of cleaning, restoring, sorting, cataloging, and interpreting the import of these thousands upon thousands of disintegrating documents occupied Schechter upon his return to Cambridge. And this work was ongoing even after Schechter agreed to move to New York to head the newly founded Jewish Theological Seminary.

Authors Hoffman and Cole

This monumental scrapheap of Hebraic literature (sacred and profane) was so large that it continued to occupy a great number of scholars over several generations. Hoffman and Cole are judicious in selecting the most interesting scholarly personalities and their most stunning discoveries and achievements. The authors’ delightfully-crafted chapters include one on palimpsests: parchments that had been reused by obliterating older writing, restoring the surface, and writing anew. Restorations of the original writings have often revealed rare texts and remarkable information.

Shelomo Dov Goitein. Certainly not a well-known name, it belongs to a man who saw promise in the least regarded categories of Geniza refuse. While others valued traces of liturgy, rabbinic law, and midrash, Goitein saw in the secular, household writings labeled as rubbish the keys to the daily lives of forgotten communities. Personal and business letters, plans for a fund-raising drive, court records, financial accounts – what were these but the raw materials of a civilization? Goitein’s mult-volume masterwork, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, is, so far, the capstone of Geniza scholarship achievement. It brings dead centuries to life, and the Hoffman-Cole duo brings Goitein’s ambitious labor to life.

One cannot comment on this splendid book without noting, as the authors do at length, the role of Salman Schocken, founder of Schocken Publishing, in facilitating the work of Geniza scholars, in part through his Institute for the Study of Hebrew Poetry. How appropriate that Sacred Trash bears the Schocken imprint.

This is an enormously engaging and carefully focused narrative of scholarly adventure achieving astounding results.

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