Monthly Archives: May 2012

Dorothy Mills hits a home run with baseball novel

“Drawing Card,” by Dorothy Seymour Mills. McFarland. 265 pages. $25 trade paperback. 

Dorothy Seymour Mills

Sitting down with a new book by Dorothy Mills is always a rewarding experience. In her latest, she mixes two of her areas of expertise – historical fiction and baseball history – to provide an unusual and provocative novel. The protagonist, Annie Cardello, is a young woman of Sicilian heritage whose youthful passion is playing baseball. 

Readers will be familiar with the common meaning of “drawing card,” a person or attraction that lures people to a place of entertainment. In her short career in baseball, Annie Cardello, her last name shortened to its first syllable, earned the nickname “Drawing Card” as she was skillful and colorful enough to be a drawing card for her team and for her sport. 

Mills’ portrait of teenage Annie adroitly playing women’s baseball in a Cleveland area industrial league is vivid and exciting. The character’s enthusiasm is delightful. However, in fictional Annie’s time there was far less of a future in this kind of athletic pursuit than there is today. She had no place to go with her talent. No way, that is, to be true to herself.

The man with the power to open professional baseball up to women, Judge Landis, would not honor contracts between female athletes and the clubs and leagues he ruled. It’s easy to think that if had ruled in favor of women players, it would have been smooth sailing for the best of them. Of course, it would not have been. However, Annie takes the judge’s ruling hard. She swears vengeance. She feels that something within her has died.

Ms. Mills carries Annie’s life forward through the years of the Great Depression and the decades that follow. She marries into an upper-crust family, primarily to be in a position to support her own family. However, her husband, John Smith, turns out to be an uncontrollable abuser. By the time that they make a trip to her ancestral homeland of Sicily, Annie needs to be free of him – and she manages to manipulate his demise. The years that follow are ones of subservience to the influential Smith family and of mounting frustration. They are also years in which self-justification and guilt war within her.

Late revelations about money left for Annie without her knowledge only complicate her situation, as that money is owed to someone who would threaten her life and the lives of those around her to get what he wants.

Annie’s personal story is set into larger contexts in various ways. The most risky is the author’s decision to include time travel. We meet earlier incarnations of Annie’s competitive feminist spirit in ancient Greece (as Demetra) in the late Middle Ages (as Demona) and protesting the first modern Olympics held in 1898) (as Stamata). This is an interesting way of universalizing Annie’s dilemma, but it takes attention away from Annie herself. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the May 30, 2012 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the May 31 Naples edition, and the June 7 Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter edition, click here:  Florida Weekly – DrawingCard 1 pdf and here: Florida Weekly – DrawingCard 2 pdf

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From shipwrecks to salvation: breaking the blockade

Blockade: The Story of Jewish Immigration to Palestine: 1933-1948, by Gerald Ziedenberg. Authorhouse. 204 pages. $24.95 hardback, $19.95 trade paperback. E-book available.

Although this study has several problems, it is nonetheless extremely useful and deserves our attention. It is not smoothly written, and it is unclear in too many places. It is not organized for maximum impact. The author has not made use of many recent books that are relevant to the topic. What does it have going for it? First of all, Ziedenberg exhibits a passionate concern with creating a fair-minded rendering of this important slice of 20th century history. Secondly, he introduces unique primary materials; namely, interviews with survivors of the blockade experience conducted in 2010 and 2011.

As one might expect, Ziedenberg’s treatment is mostly chronological, but it is also topical – which is what forces some sections to take readers over the same ground they’ve already traveled. He begins with an overview of the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate, then moves on to the main business of the immigration experience. Ziedenberg recognizes three distinct phases of immigration following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. The first phases, essentially legal, lasts until the later thirties. After the Arab revolt in 1936, the mandate administrators tightened immigration quotas to Palestine. This second phase runs through the war years and is a period in which Britain’s naval blockade is largely successful. In the post-war period, beginning in 1945, there is much more intense and effective piercing of the blockade, along with other efforts against the British forces in Palestine. 

The author is careful to differentiate among the various components of the Zionist movement and to sift through the political biases of these oft-times adversarial factions.

Clearly a Zionist himself, Gerald Ziedenberg is not blinded by his sense of Israel’s necessity and his love for the country. That is, he clearly recognizes that others, let’s call them Palestinian Arabs for convenience, suffered greatly both before and after the creation of the Jewish State. However, this issue is not his main focus.

The clock is ticking, the Jews of Europe are being slaughtered, many are heading for Palestine, and the British are blocking the sea-path to survival. The heart of Ziedenberg’s book, what I expect will most fully engage his readers, is his narrative of the failed and successful attempts to overcome the blockade. These stories are told in terms of the seacraft themselves: age, condition, size, number of passengers, routes, supplies, and living conditions.

They are also told as the stories of individual experiences. Here the thirteen interviews that Ziedenberg conducted serve him well in particularizing the physical and psychological ordeal of a wide range of personalities. The passages of the book based on these interviews bring the past alive. The author also draws upon the previously published testimony of other blockade-runners.

Gerald Ziedenberg

For the most part, Ziedenberg describes the transit of motor-driven boats. However, he has a chapter on “The Sailboats” that is particularly riveting in which he traces several of these fragile sailboat voyages.

Other chapters treat such issues as detention and captivity, the Tehran children, the special situation of legal immigration, the substantial presence of Jews in the British police and armed forces in Palestine, post-liberation activity, and of course the Exodus story. He calls the Exodus “the ship that launched a nation.”

Ziedenberg’s narrative is aided by the many fascinating photographs and several maps that he includes for the reader’s edification. Along with the customary bibliography, glossary, and index, the author provides a special bonus: he provides thumbnail sketches of the future lives of those who had risked breaking the British blockade.

Concludes Gerald Ziedenberg, “The inability of the Jews of Europe to flee to their sole sanctuary cost the Jewish people and the world dearly.”

This review appears in the June 2012 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee & Charlotte Counties), and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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A powerful , bittersweet memoir of multicultural existence

East of the Sun: a Memoir, by Noha Shaath Ismail. Authorhouse. 196 pages. $24.95 hardback, $16.95 paperback. E-book available.

Noha Ismail’s odyssey is one in which her world keeps changing and an idyllic sense of the past is challenged, even threatened, by each change. Many of the changes involve shifts – or confusions – of identity. Ms. Ismail was born in British Mandate Palestine to a Lebanese mother and a father born in Gaza. The family lived in Jaffa, moving to Alexandria, Egypt five years after she was born, but she carries nonetheless a sense of loss for what she calls her homeland, since 1948 under Israeli sovereignty. 

When the author speaks of having “lost her country” and of spending her life “hitched to a place that did not appear on the map,” one can empathize with the emotional truth while recognizing that the existence of an independent Palestinian nation is a continuing matter of debate among historians and political leaders. Early 20th-century maps of the region show Palestine as an outpost of the Ottoman Empire or a ward of the British Mandate. One cannot find a recognized nation or country, but certainly British Mandate Palestine’s predominantly Arab city of Jaffa was her first homeland.

Thriving in the cosmopolitan, Western-influenced Alexandria of her youth, Noha is placed in English speaking schools, including the Sacred Heart School and the prestigious English Girls’ College (renamed the El-Nasr Girls’ College). She is selected for admission to the University of Alexandria and earns a degree in English Literature. As a young woman, Noha Shaath makes an adventurous relocation to the U. S., earning a Master’s Degree in Library Science at Philadelphia’s Drexel University. She soaks up the spirit and energy of the tumultuous 1960s, including student protest movements.

The Alexandria that is functionally her first home, the home she can truly remember, loses the charm it once held as Egypt suffers setbacks of national confidence and prestige. Europeans leave. Many Arabs look for opportunities elsewhere. After the Suez War in 1956, Arab nationalism swells while repressive measures set gloom against expectation. Nasser’s humiliation in what the west calls the Six Day War (1967) furthers the flight of important segments of cosmopolitan Alexandria, changing the mood and character of the city.

Ms.  Ismail looks carefully and lovingly at the lives of her parents and her husband’s parents. Through these remarkable biographies, she paints luminous portraits of times and places across the spectrums of class and culture. She gives readers an education in Arab and Muslim sensibilities: what bonds them and what (like the various dialects of the Arabic language) separates them. The lost world motif remains in focus. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the May 23, 2012 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 24 Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Ismail 1 pdf and here: Florida Weekly – Ismail 2 pdf

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What makes for a bestselling novel?

“Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers,” by James W. Hall. Random House. 336 pages. $16.00.

James W. Hall, best known as the prize-winning author of the Thorn thrillers, has fashioned a practical guide to the must-have ingredients for commercial success as a writer. Drawing upon his own experience as well as the insights developed from teaching his popular college course on bestsellers, Mr. Hall presents a lively discussion of twelve blockbuster novels. While each is distinctive, they share many features in ways that are sometimes immediately obvious, sometimes less so. 

The author focuses on twelve well-known titles, including “The Godfather,” “Gone with the Wind,” “The Hunt for Red October,” “The Firm,” and “The Bridges of Madison County.” He shows how each of the twelve, to a greater or lesser extent, orchestrates twelve features. One of these features is the centrality of a “hot-button” item that reveals “some larger, deep-seated, and unresolved conflict in the national consciousness.” For example, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” published in 1960, tapped into the nation’s concern with the stresses and strains of the civil rights movement and vigilante justice while probing the longer, deeper issue of America’s troubled history of slavery and racial prejudice.  

Another shared ingredient is the presentation of America as the golden land of innocence and opportunity, or at least the nostalgia for such a vision. While some of the novels under consideration tap into this vision in a positive sense, others invoke it only to mourn its contamination. Mr. Hall explores “Peyton Place” and “Valley of the Dolls” from this perspective, but it becomes clear that the other ten novels also make use of this ingredient. “The Exorcist,” “Jaws,” “The Dead Zone,” and “The Da Vinci Code” are the titles not previously mentioned that are also treated in this entertaining, informative, and totally reader-friendly study. . . .

James W. Hall

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the May 16, 2012 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the May 17 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, and the May 31 Palm Beach Gardens edition, click here: Florida Weekly – HitLit pdf

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Foreigners and Their Food

Foreigners and Their Food: Constructing Otherness in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law

by David M. Freidenreich / University of California Press. 352 Pages. $60.00

In this tantalizing study, Freidenreich pays less attention to which foods are permitted and which excluded than to with whom the members of a particular faith group are permitted to eat. While both issues have been used historically to define cultural boundaries, and both are inextricably related, the issue of commensality reveals more about how groups define themselves. Freidenreich takes up, in turn, the legal strictures regarding commensality in the three “scriptural” monotheistic faith groups, eventually clarifying similarities and differences about how these groups view themselves and assess outsiders.

The order of treating the communities is, of course, chronological. It’s only later in the study, when the groups exist contemporaneously, that the communities can be compared and contrasted in full. However, a general pattern is discernable in terms of the rigor of distinctions. Scriptural legalisms (in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an) are more rigorous regarding commensality and other issues than later authoritative writings. This is largely the consequence of the scriptural communities becoming rivals, if not enemies, over time. . . .

The full review can be seen on the Jewish Book World site: Foreigners and Their Food

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In White’s latest, Doc Ford’s adventure runs aground

“Chasing Midnight,” by Randy Wayne White. Putnam. 336 pages. $25.95

Like some other recent novels in the Doc Ford canon, this latest thriller deals in painstaking detail with a very brief time period and – almost literally – a ticking clock. When environmental do-gooders, some of them crazed, manage to inject themselves into a secret meeting of kingpins in the beluga sturgeon (caviar) industry, Ford and his buddy Tomlinson discover that there is a plot to blow up the meeting and, perhaps, a large boat carrying a huge tank filled with a new sturgeon breed. 

The explosion is set for midnight.

The men holding the meeting are competitors, and one of them claims that his new breed will revolutionize the industry by replacing the threatened beluga that is nearing extinction from overfishing.  The ultra-extreme environmentalists, actually rank amateurs at terrorist doings, take control of the meeting and threaten to kill people off – one an hour – until their demands are met. At midnight, the time for capitulation runs out.

Ford and Tomlinson conceive a plan of investigation and counteraction that just about exhausts the clock, but then discover that the extremists had set their timed explosive on West Coast time. The adventure is then reset for three more hours of action-filled exploits and heart-pounding suspense.

For several reasons, the formula in “Chasing Midnight” produces a less exciting, less rewarding result than Mr. White’s readers have previously enjoyed. More has become less as readers encounter excessive repetition of boat-driving maneuvers, employments of a heat-sensitive optical device, descriptions of weaponry, and examples of Ford’s skills of improvisation and calculation. Every step shouts its importance in a way that levels them all so that, after a while, none seems important.

Randy Wayne White

 In addition, who Ford is and why we should care about him are not sufficiently developed, especially for initiates to the series.

The cast of grotesques with whom Ford and Tomlinson are at war seems overdrawn.  It is hard not to want to laugh at the threat provided by the dwarfish, unstable Neinabor brothers and the dead brother who supposedly speaks through one of them.  Their associates in do-gooder terrorism seem even less equipped to battle the forces of the wily Russian named Viktor Kazlov and the other menacing overlords who constitute the “big four” of the beluga caviar trade.  Individually interesting, there are just too many of them (along with bodyguards and other underlings) to focus and hold attention. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the May 9, 2012 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and in the May 10 Naples, Bonita Springs, and brand new Viera/Suntree editions, click here: Florida Weekly – RWWhite pdf 1 and continue here: Florida Weekly – RWWhite pdf 2. It also appears in the May 17, 2012 Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter edition.

Other books by RWW are reviewed elsewhere on this site. Use the search box to find them on the right-hand column to find them.

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The Two Sams – memoir

This is the fourth of the five Bookbinders sketches that orginally appeared in Fall/Winter 1997 issue of WordWrights. Those previously posted are found in the “Musings” category: “Butterfly Dress,” “Grandpa Jake,” and “Frieda.”

Like many of you, I had two Uncle Sams. One was my father’s older brother. This Uncle Sam lived in Brooklyn with his wife Minette and adopted daughter, Edlee. We didn’t see them very often. Uncle Sam was so much older than my father that they had each grown up as only children and didn’t have much in common. Even now, though I can see his face in my mind’s eye very clearly, I can’t tell you very much about what he was like. I think he was tall and kind of gentle. I can’t be sure. I don’t even remember how he made his living, nor can I recall anything he ever said. There was a stiffness to his gait, back trouble perhaps, and a way he had of looking sorrowful about some endured failure.

The other Uncle Sam was my mother’s younger brother. Swarthily handsome, slim, thin of hair but not really balding, and slightly bug-eyed, he carried himself with confidence and had a congenial, knowing air. When I first became aware of him, he was the family’s war hero. Actually, he’d had jobs in uniform that connected him to the entertainment industry and U.S.O. activities. He worked in Armed Forces radio, managed clubs for servicemen, and spent time in places like Paris.

There were rumors of his gorgeous Belgian girlfriend, a singer or actress, whom he gave up because he knew she could never be comfortable in his unstylish, lower class Jewish Bronx milieu. Or maybe it was she who ditched him. But he was already beyond that milieu anyway: an articulate, artsy guy who’d seen the world and charmed fantastic women.

Nevertheless, she had been the love of his life and as I grew up and go to spend more and more time with him, it became clear that his dalliances with other women were only that.

He was a great son to Grandma Ida, helping her financially and in almost every other way as she struggled into old age. He was the talented one who seemed to sacrifice a brilliant future to shoulder family responsibilities.

New York fed his interests. He saw all the shows, learned to play the flute, went to gallery openings, shopped at Barney’s long before everyone else caught on. A wholesale liquor salesman whose route took him to stores and bars all over the city, he played golf whenever he could and knew show biz folks from Times Square to The Hamptons. Familiar with the jazz scene (he’d probably known it in Paris), his speech was spiced with hipster argot. An engagement was a “gig”; an assent was “yeah, man.”

He remained a young sport as middle age drew near, and when I moved to New York to finish college and work on my relationship with my lady fair, he was open to us as if we were generational peers. During my first half-year in the city (late 1960), I lived with Grandma Ida and usually slept in what had been Uncle Sam’s bedroom. Sleeping, reading, and imagining in his old bed gave me a worldly feeling that helped my comfort level in Greenwich Village and other exotic haunts.

Sometimes Uncle Sam would leave his suave bachelor pad in the West Twenties and stay over at Grandma’s for a night. During and around dinner and breakfast, he’d give her some quality time. Then I’d switch over to Aunt Emma’s old room.

Sam (by now I’d dropped the “Uncle” in addressing him) was the natural choice for best man at my wedding, though some mistook him for the groom.

Years later, something happened to his circulatory system. His hands, in particular, were affected, and he had to seek a warmer climate to improve his condition and to find congenial work. He didn’t go to Florida, Southern California, or Mexico. No, Uncle Sam went to Spain and settled in the Costa del Sol area. He ran a photo shop, wrote for golf magazines, and settled into an international community that must have held some of the buzz he’d enjoyed as part of the allied establishment in France at war’s end – but without the danger or damage.

My wife and I lost direct contact with Sam, but news filtered through. At some point, we heard that he’d sired a daughter with a Swedish expatriate, and then later we discovered that he was living with a British countess, or ex-countess. Romance dogged him. From a distance, he seemed so glamorous. His letters to my mother, which she would read to me over the phone from her retirement home in Arizona, were filled with references to luminaries like Sean Connery.

After twenty of more years of this, he became seriously ill. Medical treatment in Spain proved inadequate, so he returned to New York and with Aunt Emma’s help tried out the Veterans’ Administration doctors as well as those at New York University Hospital. He brought with him the countess, whom he had married shortly before leaving Spain. Her accent cut through the family’s sludgy New Yawk patois like a gin and tonic heavy on the twist. Operations and strokes followed that left him helpless, inarticulate, that fine cultured mind buried in frustrated silence.

In the end, then, he resembled the older Uncle Sam: stiff and sorrowful, quietly bearing a burden. Looking at him, it was hard to remember all he had been, all the color he’d lent to our humdrum lives.

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Finding new directions in blocked expectations

“Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected – a Memoir,” by Kelle Hampton. William Morrow. 288 pages. $24.99.

Kelle Hampton relates with courage and exhilaration a story of how life gets in the way of the dreams and values we create for ourselves. The white picket fence life-style of her imagination, fed by her habitually rose-colored memory of her childhood, confronts the big fact that doesn’t fit. There is no place in the story-book life she imagines she is leading for a Down syndrome daughter. When Nella is born, Kelle has to learn how to deal with reality and re-write the book, in the process making important discoveries about herself and opening up to change. 

The journey is arduous, and the road is filled with boulders and false trails. Kelle has to figure out how to process the immeasurable and unconditional love she feels for her second child as well as the initial disappointment that she can’t deny. Raising Nella will mean disappointing two year old Lainey, protecting Nella from the mocking cruelty and hurtful judgments of others, and dealing with the full range of Down syndrome’s medical and developmental issues.

One of the first things Kelle learns is that Lainey has better equipment for coping with Nella than she does. Lainey’s innocence is her protection, her lack of expectations a blessing. She relates to Nella immediately and positively. Is it that Lainey doesn’t know any better, or that she knows (feels) what’s really important?

Shame, guilt, inadequacy, helplessness. These are among the feelings roiling within Kelle in the aftermath of Nella’s birth. To allay these feelings, she not only had to tap deeply into her inner resources, but she also had to learn to seek and accept the emotional support that friends and family could offer. Kelle had already led her life in a way that had created strong bonds. She had long practiced active friendship. Her independent streak had always been tempered by a sense of community.

Kelle Hampton

Choosing to “live big,” Kelle Hampton  knew how to choose occasions for celebration, which meant investing the occasion with meaning, vitality, and shared future memories. She calls herself a “ceremonialist,” and it is no coincidence that she is also a photographer – someone who saves the occasion for future use. All of these talents have served Kelle Hampton well, as they continue to do.

The basic time line of the book is the first year of Nella’s life and all of the turmoil, adaptation, and growth that accompanied it.  However, many of the chapters are structured to provide background and context. Readers learn about Kelle’s own childhood, both its idyllic aspects and its fracture when her parents were divorced after her father, a clergyman, admitted to being gay. Readers discover Kelle’s slow self-making as a teen, college student, and young professional. We share her sense of good fortune in meeting Brett, the divorced somewhat older man with two sons who became her husband and the father of Lainey and Nella. We enjoy their exquisite bonding into one family. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the May 2, 2012 issue of Fort Myers Florida Weekly as well as the May 3 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, click here Florida Weekly – Kelle Hampton pdf 1 and here Florida Weekly – Kelle Hampton pdf 2 

[Fort Myers and Naples editions also include Q & A with the author.]

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