Monthly Archives: November 2012

No one ever steps on the same beach twice

“How to Read a Florida Gulf Coast Beach,” by Tonya Clayton. The University of North Carolina Press.  228 pages. $40 hardcover, $16.00 paperback.

When I came across this title, part of the publisher’s “Southern Gateways Guides” series, it was apparent to me that I had an obligation to review it for this column. By the time I had read the first two chapters, my sense of obligation had turned into astonished pleasure. Tonya Clayton loves her subject and respects her readers. Her prose is clear, sinuous, and delighted. Her transformation of scientific information into an accessible guide for the beach-loving non-specialist is a total success. She has earned the glorious excess of her subtitle: “A Guide to Shadow Dunes, Ghost Forests, and other Telltale Clues from an Ever-Changing Coast.” 

Ms. Clayton begins with an overview of Florida’s Gulf Coast beaches, indicating the hallmarks of the various locations along the long, long stretch of mostly sand-blessed shoreline. Then she introduces us to the key elements that define the character of any beach, beginning with the overall tectonic setting of the coastal area. Sand supply (and the nature of the sand types), the effects of waves and tides, local geological history, climate and weather, and sea level are the defining factors in the very existence and personality of a beach.

I use the word “personality” to capture the author’s style and vision. Not only are the flora and fauna of the beach world alive, but also each beach has, as Tonya Clayton sees it, a living quality: a pulse and individuality. And, like our friends and family members, these beaches are processes more than finished products. They have something like life cycles. The causal factors of change are Ms. Clayton’s primary subject. Those factors, summarized early in the book, get detailed exploration in the later chapters.

Tonya Clayton

Readers will learn how islands are formed and how their shapes change. They will come to understand the language of striation, the comings and goings of dunes, the movement of sands through actions of wave and wind. Inviting us to look closely, Tonya Clayton validates what is probably the most charming assertion in her book: “No one ever steps on the same beach twice.”

Coastline Floridians know well the influence of large-scale natural disruptions to the normal patterns of beach evolution. Without ignoring to teach us about such blows (no pun intended) to the everyday patterns, the author makes sure that we also understand the influence that we can control: the human factor. The residential and commercial development that takes esthetic and economic advantage of attractive beaches is also their nemesis. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the November 28, 2012 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the November 29 Naples edition, and the December 13 Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Tonya Clayton 1pdf and here: Florida Weekly – Tonya Clayton 2pdf

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Roman forces threaten a resurgent Jewish nation in this suspenseful family saga

And So It Was Written, by Ellen Brazer. TCJ Publishing. 338 pages. $14.95 trade paperback.

Ellen Brazer has taken on quite a challenge in her quest to breathe life into the story of Bar Kokhba’s rebellion against the Roman rulers that took place around 130 C.E. In imagining this long-ago world during the Israelite struggle for survival, she frames a narrative that includes two sets of rival brothers. In this way, she follows the grand tradition of Biblical story-telling: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau. Her Jewish pair is the sweet, contemplative Livel and the physically imposing Masabala. They, at least, are friendly rivals.

Ellen Brazer

The studious Livel is taken as a slave into the family of a powerful Roman leader after he is captured in a Roman raid not far from his home in En Gedi. His brother Masabala, the true warrior, takes upon himself the guilt of his brother’s uncertain fate. Both young men are the sons of Rabbi Eleazar, the Aaronic high priest. The Israelite people are living at a curious time, dazzled by the self-confidence, charm, and military prowess of Bar Kokhba – at once military leader and self-proclaimed messiah with a growing number of devoted followers. Bar Kokhba has successfully freed the Hebrews from Roman rule, but now the brief recurrence of their national independence is threatened by the return of determined Roman forces.

Taken into the household of his conqueror, the Roman senator Marcus Gracchus, Livel becomes a tutor to this accomplished leader’s sons, Scipio and Domitius. For these brothers, the rivalry is not friendly. It is so fierce that it is potentially deadly. Scipio is a man of integrity and humane values, while Domitius is vain, cruel, and driven. Marcus consciously sets them against one another. Scipio is winning Livel’s sympathies as a student; Domitius is haughty, irresponsible, and dangerous.

Once the story lines are established, Ellen Brazer skillfully moves us back and forth between the Roman family and its larger world and the Jewish family and its Israelite context. We meet the woman whom Masabala marries and get close to other members of Rabbi Eleazar’s family as well as leaders of Bar Kokhba’s forces. This part of the story involves a rediscovery of the Ark of the Covenant holding the Ten Commandments.

Livel’s experiences within the power centers in Roman culture bring him into the orbit of the great physician, Galen (these episodes are consciously anachronistic – Galen’s life as a scientist is actually somewhat later than the years being recreated in the novel). Livel becomes Galen’s student and is trained and mentored along with Galen’s daughter, to whom he is attracted. However, the young woman is jealous of Livel for several reasons, making their relationship awkward as well as intriguing.

The strengths of And So It Was Written are many and varied. It is truly suspenseful. Characters and setting, including material culture, are handled with authority, as long as we remember that the book is not history, but rather based on history with imaginative leaps in the service of story-telling.

The contrast between the monotheistic religion of the Jews and the Roman polytheistic world view provides a provocative undercurrent. The thirst for knowledge shared by the exemplary characters and the yearning for matching destiny with identity probed within almost every character relate to eternal issues as relevant today as they were in the past that Mrs. Brazer embroiders.

In her fictional delineation of striking individuals, families, and nations, Ellen Brazer gives readers much with which to identify. In following the threads of her “what if” premise, she entertains, teaches, and teases. “Could this be?” we wonder. Each reader will have his or her answer, but the process of questioning is really the novel’s power and reward.

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

Reprinted in December 13, 2012 Florida Weekly. Click here:  Florida Weekly – Brazer 1 and here:  Florida Weekly – Brazer 2

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“The Shadow Girls,” by Henning Mankell

The Shadow Girls,  by Henning Mankell. Translated by Ebba Segerberg. The New Press. 336 pages. $26.95.

Henning Mankell’s The Shadow Girls is a moving, perplexing, and nightmarishly humorous novel.  First published in Sweden in 2001, it is now available to English readers. The protagonist, Jesper Humlin, is a well-regarded Swedish poet whose life has become routine. His girlfriend strongly articulates her need for marriage and children, a desire he does not share.  His unappreciative mother, who always belittles his achievements and views, provides another source of tension in his life.  To subdue such discomforts, Humlin has numbed his sensitivity, and with it his spirit.   

Moreover, he is having trouble making decisions, or even facing the fact that decisions need to be made. Humlin is at the mercy of those prepared to make decisions for him. These include his publisher, who urges him to take up crime fiction. In fact, he tells Humlin that he has no choice. Humlin, outraged, refuses. Likewise, his stockbroker, blandly reviewing the collapse of the poet’s portfolio, offers him no satisfactory advice except not to worry. Some day his stocks will rebound.

The poet is drawn in a new direction by his unexpected engagement with three young women, struggling immigrants with different backgrounds but the shared situation of living on society’s margins. Tea-Bag fled from a sorry existence in Nigeria to a refugee camp in Spain and then fled again to Sweden. Tanya, from Russia, was deceived by tales of improving her desperate situation and fell into a nightmare life as a prisoner in the human trafficking underworld.  Having escaped, she, too, is now an illegal living by her wits in Sweden. Leyla immigrated with her family from Iran. However, she remains oppressed by her father’s cruel manner of controlling her life.

All three live in “a depressingly generic city suburb” of Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city. Many of the novel’s darker scenes are set there, and in particular at a boxing club run by Humlin’s old friend, Törnblum, who insists that Humlin teach these young women how to write about their lives. The poet is unsure about this undertaking and affronted, as with his publisher and broker, by how his friend is forcing the direction of Humlin’s life.  But he goes forward anyway, because he is drawn to their desperation and senses that finding out about their lives may help him reclaim his own. 

Should he help them escape from the shadow world they live in? Do they want his help? Can he draw their stories out of them? Will anyone care if he succeeds? After beginning a series of informal workshops, Humlin faces new frustrations: the girls’ distrust, their faulty command of Swedish, and their continuing need for the protection of the shadows. Fear and distrust rule their lives. Slowly, usually in two or three bursts of nervous speech, their stories emerge. Intermittently, Humlin toys with the idea of using their stories as his raw material and writing a book about them, in place of the crime novel his publisher expects. . . .

There is much more to the full review. See it here: Washington Independent Review of Books » The Shadow Girls

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Novelist Ken Pelham debuts with a perfect storm of menace

Brigands Key, by Ken Pelham. Five Star. 374 pages. $25.95.

Some books have plots sprung from contagion and epidemics. Others feature natural disaster plots, like hurricanes. Still other books involve tales of buried or sunken treasure, or a mysterious disappearance. Many authors build plots around intriguing misfits, loser types who win in the end. Brigands Key knots together all of these plot strands and more. It begins with an unusual mystery. Archeologist Carson Grant, a man with a tarnished reputation, thinks he’s onto something big.

On an unfunded research dive in the Gulf of Mexico, over twenty miles from the coast and a long way down, Grant finds a cave out of which gushes a freshwater spring. Nearby, he finds a marvelously preserved corpse. It looks like a recent death. However, the autopsy reveals a strange assortment of facts that don’t fit together, making the time of death impossible to determine.

This same Gulf area has also attracted a fisherman turned fortune hunter, Roscoe Nobles, and his teenage assistant, computer geek Charley Fawcett. Roscoe is one of Brigands Key’s real characters. He’s a schemer and a dreamer. And suddenly he is gone, without a trace.

Okay, we’ve got a dead guy (whose finder is under suspicion) and a missing guy. Soon, a mysterious illness breaks out. Maybe a virus, but maybe not.  Some kind of poison? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta sends an investigator, a Japanese American named Kyoko whose career is in jeopardy. Before long, she is in jeopardy.

Hurricane Celeste is bearing down on Brigands Key. Now the head of the local police and the town mayor are at odds about how to handle the twin situations, and soon the Florida governor and the federal government are involved. Official orders of evacuation and quarantine bump heads. Should the folks on Brigands Key be saved from the hurricane at the risk of exposing others to the spreading, undiagnosed illness?

Ken Pelham

This novel progresses like one of those suspenseful juggling acts in which the juggler gets three balls into rotation and then adds the third, the fourth, and the fifth while the audience waits for the next increment of complication or the ultimate collapse. Maybe the juggler will add bowling pins, axes, or flaming torches to the routine. These acts can be breathtaking, but they are over in a matter of minutes. Brigands Key is similarly breathtaking, but reading it takes a lot longer. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the November 21, 2012 issue of Fort Myers Florida Weekly, as well as the November 22 Naples and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions and the December 13 Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Pelham 1pdf and here: Florida Weekly – Pelham 2pdf

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 by Bernard Alpert and Fran Alpert. Hamilton Books. 110 pages. $24.99.

Though the Alperts make great efforts to distinguish (and separately value) the world of faith from the world of scientific discovery, their compact, knowledgeable book will probably ruffle many feathers and be declared heretical by those who read the Bible literally. The findings of modern archaeology, findings that Bernard and Fran Alpert have helped make, simply demolish the Old Testament narratives as history. While the books of Moses, the prophets, and the chroniclers are treasures, they are treasures of a special kind: repositories of truth rather than fact. They provide masterful portraits and understandings of the human condition; they set down guidelines for moral and effective human interaction; and they etch the birth struggles of a civilization.

 The authors point out that there is very little archaeological evidence to support the events and personages laid out in the Bible (which here means Old Testament). What we have in that assemblage of narratives, laws, and prophecies is a magnificent attempt, assembled in the 6th century BCE, to give coherence, meaning, and status to the Israelite experience.  Divinely inspired? Perhaps. . . .

To see the full review, on the Jewish Book Council site and slated for Jewish Book World, click here: Archaeology and the Biblical Record

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“Weapon of Choice,” by Patricia Gussin

Weapon of Choice

Oceanview Publishing, $25.95, 328 pages.

In Tampa, chief of surgery and research professor Laura Nelson finds her hospital’s intensive care unit ravaged by a virulent rogue bacterium. Among those threatened are her teenage daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend. Aided by her Atlanta-based friend Dr. Stacey Jones of the Center for Disease Control, Laura helps put quarantine measures into effect and seeks an effective countermeasure. 

Patricia Gussin

Readers soon discover that the killer bio-agent has been purposely planted by a mad scientist who wants revenge on his former NIH colleague, a man who had attained great prestige and wealth developing formulas on which the men had collaborated.

As is common research practice, the virulent bacteria strain was developed not for biotech warfare, but rather as a first step toward designing its antidote. . . .

To read the full review, my last for the team, click here: Weapon of Choice | City Book Review

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Hearth, home, and the humor of humanity

“Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society,” by Amy Hill Hearth. Atria Books/Simon & Schuster. 278 pages. $15.00 trade paper.

One can feel the immense joy of Amy Hill Hearth’s engagement in her first novel. It radiates through every scene and through every page. Sometimes, an exceptional writer finds an exceptional premise, and the result is a truly exceptional book. Such is the case with “Miss Dreamsville.” Inspired and inspiring, it is already a top pick of many literary groups and is sure to be an immense hit at book clubs, as was Mrs. Hearth’s first book, the best-selling “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.”

 And it’s set in Naples, Florida circa 1962-63. 

 This was a time of small town claustrophobia for those women who were feeling the winds of cultural change but had been habituated to a narrow conformity. To be divorced, like the narrating character Dora Witherspoon – who works in the post office – is to live in exile. Divorce is disgrace. To be “suspiciously single,” like librarian, Miss Lansbury, isn’t much better. To be a young, highly literate Black woman in the still-segregated South, like Priscilla Harmon, is to be a misplaced person. To be a reluctant, outspoken Yankee transplant, like Jackie Hart, is bound to make you the subject of gossip and scorn. To be a released murder convict, like Mrs. Bailey White, does not win you friends. To be a reclusive, middle-aged poet carrying the moniker “Plain Jane” puts you out of the mainstream.

 And to be an obvious, though closeted gay man, like Robbie-Lee Simpson, who runs the Sears catalogue store, is . . . Well, you know.

 Jackie, a restless and bored mother of three whose husband is always away on business trips, sets the literary society idea in motion and is its guiding force. As this magnificent seven tentatively begins its exploration of books, what the members really explore is one another. Secrets are revealed. Empathy and understanding flourish. Bonds are created.


 There is a great mystery demanding the town’s attention. It is not the Cuban Missile Crisis or the testing of a young Catholic (!!!) president. It is not the burning of a local Negro church by hooded figures. Rather, it is the mystery of Miss Dreamsville’s identity. Who is that woman with the sexy voice on late-night radio?  

 Pretty much left to themselves, the members (we can’t say “the women” because Robbie-Lee has been allowed to join) in the Literary Society make some splendid, sometimes daring, selections for discussion. One is the old favorite, “Little Women.” Another is a title by Priscilla’s favorite, Zora Neale Hurston. The group also reads Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and the notorious “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan.

The meetings anchor their lives, and the discussions open up their hearts while enlarging the novel’s scope to the world of ideas about race, gender, and identity on many levels. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears (retitled) in the November 15, 2012 Naples edition of Florida Weekly, along with an interview, click here: Florida Weekly – Hearth 1, Florida Weekly – Hearth 2, Florida Weekly – Hearth 3, and Florida Weekly – Hearth 4. The review (without the  interview) appears in the November 14 Fort Myers edition and the November 15 Bonita Springs edition.

It also appears in Southern Literary Review: “Miss Dreamsville” by Amy Hill Hearth

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What words are for: Two reviews from Jewish Book World

by Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz







by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger








These two reviews were combined as a single review article and published in the March 2013 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlottle Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).


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Birdie Dewey’s South Florida: from wilderness to paradise

“Pioneering Palm Beach: The Deweys and the South Florida Frontier,” by Ginger L. Pedersen and Janet M. De Vries. The History Press. 128 pages. $19.99.

The authors bring us on a delightful journey into the history of that part of Florida defined largely (in the nineteenth century) by the borders of Lake Worth. It truly was a frontier. Sketchily populated and without much of a commercial or transportation infrastructure, this beautiful but isolated region appealed to only the hardiest souls. Fortunately for the authors, they found a magnificent focal point in the lives and writings of two such pioneers, Fred and Birdie Dewey, providing readers with a general story of the region’s gradual development anchored by a specific, personal story.  

The opening chapters outline the lineage of Fred Dewey’s lineage and Byrd Spilman. Each person’s family gave rise to many prominent American citizens. Birdie, in fact, was a great-niece of President Zachary Taylor. Ms. Pedersen and Ms. De Vries trace generations of the families’ activities in Kentucky and Illinois, where Fred became a notary public for the town of Salem. In 1876 or 1877, Fred and Birdie met and were soon married. He was thirty-nine and she was eighteen years younger. Fred’s later work included being a bank clerk. They both loved pets, and as they never had any children, pets played a large part in their family life.

Birdie was a well-educated book lover, and she would became a productive, successful writer. In fact, the narrative of Fred and Birdie that the authors have constructed depends largely on three published novels by Birdie, all set in Florida, which they treat as disguised autobiography. Fortunately, the authors bolster these sources with many others, rendering their autobiographical readings of the novels plausible.

Fred’s physical discomfort in Illinois winters was one motivating factor in the couples’ decision to consider a relocating to Florida. More importantly, they were both adventurous, independent spirits. They had energy and imagination. They wanted to be part of something new and to test themselves. Homesteading in an unsettled patch of Florida seemed to be just the right thing. The Deweys settled on the Lake Worth area after exploring several more northerly locations.

DeVries and Pederson in front of Birdie Dewey portrait

In treating the Deweys’ role as settlers, Pedersen and De Vries detail the history of the region leading up to the Deweys’ arrival on the scene, then continue by stressing the hardships they had to face. Readers receive vivid images evoking the material culture of the time. Once committed to Lake Worth (the lake – there was no town), they built several homes, bought and sold large property tracts, and generally did quite well for themselves.  In the early decades of their Florida lives, Fred and Birdie dealt with a remoteness and isolation that made it very difficult to obtain necessary supplies. Transportation was mostly along rivers and the lake. Merchants were few and far between. There was little social intercourse and no amenities of higher culture. For Birdie, this isolation was depressing. . . .

To see this review in its entirety, as it appears in the October 31, 2012 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 1 edition of the Naples and Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Pedersen and DeVries

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