Monthly Archives: March 2013

Novelistic non-fiction reveals Depression-era Jewish immigrant life

 My Mother’s Wars, by Lillian Faderman. Beacon Press. 264 pages. $25.95.

 This strikingly intelligent and emotionally wrenching narrative traces almost a decade in the life of its main character. Mary Lifton. Set in New York beginning in 1932, the story explores Mary’s life as a Jewish immigrant from Europe. Her good fortune is that her family got her out of Latvia long before Nazi power and U. S. quotas severely limited chances for such relocations. Mary’s life as an uneducated, Depression-era foreigner, a woman without influence or meaningful support system, represents the life of many such desperate individuals. And yet Mary is remarkably well profiled by the author. This shouldn’t be surprising, as the author is Mary’s daughter.  FADERMAN-MyMother'sWars

 I haven’t yet used the word biography to label this work because given the liberties that Ms. Faderman admits to taking, the book could have quite easily been published as fiction. The main sources for building character and situation are conversations between mother and daughter over the years.  Many of these conversations (as well as conversations between Faderman and her mother’s younger sister) belong to a wholly different era than the events, beginning perhaps in the 1960s.  Given the richness of the source material, this reader finds an unexpected remoteness between author-daughter and mother-character. In spite of this sense of distance, and due no doubt to the author’s skill and inventiveness, a luxuriantly imagined Mary Lifton explodes from the pages.

 Whether viewed as fiction, biography, or creative nonfiction, My Mother’s Wars is a powerful achievement. One of its many glories is Prof. Faderman’s portrait of the New York Depression-Era garment industry. Her descriptions of work spaces and conditions, interactions among employees, and operations of union and nonunion shops, are totally engrossing and ring with authenticity. In these descriptions, the author demonstrates her ability to turn voluminous research into flowing action and imagery.

 Faderman underscores not only that this industry depended largely on Jewish and other immigrant laborers, but also that Jewish ownership was prominent – even dominant.

 The author creates additional context by beginning each chapter with carefully constructed “Time on the March” introductions. Having the feel of movie-house newsreels, these nuggets of historical fact are drawn largely from contemporary reports in Time magazine and the New York Times. They outline the different stages of two processes: the horrific rise of Nazi Germany and the disastrous slide of the U. S. economy.

Lillian Faderman

Lillian Faderman

 The story proper begins in 1932 with Mary already in her mid-thirties. She had already lived more than half of her life in the United States. Anti-Semitism, which Latvia had in abundance, did not seem to have influenced her relocation at the age of seventeen. Rather, her marketable skills in clothing manufacture and her determination to become a professional entertainer led her to accept her step-sister’s invitation to immigrate.  But the sponsorship of the step-sister and her step-sister’s husband created an awkward sense of obligation, and the clash of personalities was extreme.  After only a few months, young Mary was out on her own. At first, she loved the freedom. However, over time, loneliness engulfed her. . . .

The full review is available at the Washington Independent Review of Books. See: My Mother’s Wars | Washington Independent Review of Books

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The future of climate change drives environmental thriller

The Year of the Bad Decision, by Charles Sobczak. Indigo Press.  352 pages. $16.95.

The premise of this frightening novel is that man’s activities do impact climate change – particularly global warming – on an enormous scale. Over time, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will raise the earth’s temperature beyond a level that will support human and most other life forms. CO2 will also deaden the seas. Tracing the accelerating changes out thirty years from today, Mr. Sobczak imagines the stages leading to inevitable doom and the bright idea that is meant to reverse the deadly process.  frontcoverBD.indd

Scientist Warren Randolf has carefully studied the plan to save the planet. It involves dotting the atmosphere with tiny mirrors to reflect light (and thus heat) back toward its source, cooling the earth to an inhabitable level. Meanwhile, CO2 scrubbers will cleanse the atmosphere. These mirrors are designed to self-destruct before the cooling goes too far. Warren discovers that there is a flaw in the system’s design: the self-destruction of the mirrors will not occur.

It’s Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” revisited.

Man’s recklessness since the dawn of the industrial revolution has created one disaster; his proud determination to correct the situation has created another. No one heeds Warren’s warning. They can’t believe his maverick viewpoint is correct.

Sanibel author Charles Sobczak mixes narrative, dialogue, and action to help readers understand a future of severe crop failures that can result either from the increase in CO2 or from the shrunken growing seasons resulting from blocking the sun’s rays. Worldwide hunger is the consequence of either petroleum industry greed or Green regulation miscalculation. Chaos and depravity seem assured.


Acting on his understanding of what’s coming, Warren Randolph moves from Chicago to Bozeman, Montana and sets up a survivalist compound on the outskirts of the town. He employs a “runner” to bring invitations to a handful of friends and accumulates a large hoard of foodstuffs and other supplies to last through the several years until the normal seasonal cycles are expected to return.

The day to day, season to season, and year to year lives of those in the Bozeman compound and those in other situations (government scientists and officials in particular)are given credible detail. The greatest capital is food, and the greatest future capital is seed. Though seeds stored by Warren are stolen when his compound’s larder is raided, there is a chance they can be replaced by seeds surreptitiously brought from a regional seed bank. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the March 20, 2013 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the March 21 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, click here Florida Weekly – Sobczak 1 and here Florida Weekly – Sobczak 2

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The ghost at the keyboard: Mary Jane Robinson in her own voice

Naples resident Mary Jane Robinson is a busy writer who makes her living by remaining invisible. She rarely receives any mention in the books she writes for others.  In turning people’s stories into effective narratives, her job is not only to be true to the storyteller’s voice, but also to bring the prose to a professional level. For more than twenty years, Ms. Robinson has been doing this exceptionally well, having ghostwritten over 100 memoirs. IMG_3185

Without mentioning names, her website alludes to many prominent clients, including “a cabinet member in the Reagan administration; numerous Fortune 500 CEOs; an Emmy Award-winning actor; the ringleader of the “Dinnertime Burglar Gang”; and several founders and founding families of both public and privately-held prominent U.S. corporations.” Her primary focus lies in the preservation of personal, family, and corporate histories.

PJ: What is/are the most difficult part/parts of your work as a ghostwriter?

MJR: Because a ghostwritten memoir can only be as good as the interview (and the backstory I add to enrich the text and context), the interview is the most challenging aspect of my work. In using oral testimony as the foundation for the life stories I write, I have learned a valuable lesson: It works best to know little or nothing about the subject of the interview. When I know little or nothing about my client, eliciting their story is like turning the pages of a book—for both of us. I am not reaching for what I already know is ahead.

Because I know nothing, I must listen intently and pose good questions as I guide people through their lives. If my task is to take them on a guided tour, the interviewee can relax and tell the tale, which is the true beauty of working with a ghostwriter. Listening to what is being spoken and thinking of what question will follow is difficult. When the interviewee has finished answering my question, he or she looks at me for the next one.

The way one asks a seeminglysimple question is crucial.If I say, “Tell me about the first time you saw your future husband,” the interviewee might feel overwhelmed. If I ask, “When you first met your future husband, what were you wearing?” the answer will lead to more questions. The first question is too general; the second question is specific.  Specific questions feel simpler to answer.

As a ghostwriter, I writein first-person narrative, assuming my client’s voice and form of expression. Effective ghostwriting is all about “voice,” and it cannot be mine. When it comes to the intimacy of the interviewing process, beyond listening closely to what is said, my ears are alert to the individual’s intonation, form of expression, humor, and heart. I hear that again in working through the word-for-word transcript. Beyond telling a great story, my goal is to submit first drafts that inspire my clientst to say, “How did I do this?”

The full interview, as it appears in the March 14, 2013 Naples Florida Weekly, can be found on the following three pages: Florida Weekly – Ghost Writer 1 , Florida Weekly – Ghost Writer 2, and Florida Weekly – Ghost Writer 3

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Love is the hero of novel partly set in 1950s Naples

Seagrape Sands, by Jessie Allen Chesser. CreateSpace [Amazon]. 184 pages. $16.00.

This romantic, uplifting tale brings into view the charms of two attractive settings. One of these is Naples, Florida in the 1950s when it was not much more than a fishing village. The other, which we get to a bit later and visit through the 1960s and well into the 1970s, is St. John, the smallest of the U. S. Virgin Islands.  Along with the fictional characters who reside in these places before the intrusion of large-scale development, we enjoy the largely unspoiled beauty and the easy-going lifestyles of these communities.  SeagrapeSands

And what better surroundings within which to follow the paths of two lovers who fall for one another at first glance and live together with the most ideal blend of passion and consideration? 

A masonry contractor for a big project in Naples sends a crew down from Venice. When Sam Johnson and his friends on the crew look for after-hours entertainment in the sleepy town, recent high school graduate Lillie and her friends help them get acquainted. Before long, Sam and Lillie are mutually smitten. Ms. Chesser portrays their blossoming romance with flair, getting into the emotions and concerns of each and conveying the tension of eagerness and caution as they move toward becoming a devoted couple.

Lillie decides to move in with Sam. Marriage isn’t even under discussion until cohabitation makes them more and more certain of a shared destiny. The couple moves out of Florida and then out of mainland U.S.A., as Sam sees business opportunities and a new lifestyle on St. John. Though Lillie’s parents and sisters first question her decisions, they come to accept and admire Sam. No one is enamored with the separation that Lillie’s adventurous life entails, but they make the best of it, visiting when they can – particularly on special occasions.


Sam builds the homestead of Seagrape Sands: it is a lovely place, part residence and part resort investment. Sam’s enterprises (dive shop, etc.) make Lillie and him integral parts of their new home territory. Author Chesser underscores how this couple can create powerful bonds with others. Friendships old and new run deep. In fact, friends quickly and permanently become extended family.

“Seagrape Sands” is filled with larger and smaller adventures, most often uplifting ones, that dot the courtship and married life of Sam and Lillie. Many of these take place in the wilder natural settings of Southwest Florida or on St. John. However, not all of the episodes in this book are so uplifting. When pregnant Lillie loses her first child after a bad fall, she is thoroughly despondent and the healing process – physical and spiritual – is difficult and extended. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the March 7, 2013 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly and the March 14 Bonitia Springs edition, click here:

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Romance and moral reckoning float Civil War thriller

“The Reckoning,” by Bob Larranaga. CreateSpace. 290 pages. $14.99. Kindle e-book $3.99.

Though former custom publisher Bob Larranaga has published several nonfiction titles, this is his first novel. It’s a grand debut, filled with carefully researched history, strong characters, stunningly textured settings, and dazzling action. Set near the beginning of the Civil War in coastal Southwest Florida, “The Reckoning” is a grand adventure that explores a damaged father and son relationship, the nightmare of warfare, the nightmares that continue long after combat, and the exploitation of the war situation for personal gain. Did the author miss a note? No, there is also romance.  Thereckoning_082312_Front

The flawed hero is Ed Canfield, a veteran of the Mexican-American War who has settled in the Cedar Keys area of Florida’s west coast. It’s a bustling community – at once port and railway terminus. Most of the book’s action takes place between there and Key West, as Canfield attempts to avoid the central issue of the day during the Civil War: “whose side are you on?” Though Florida is a secessionist state, Canfield is no friend of slavery. He strives to be independent, but that’s not easy to do. Hot-tempered by nature, he has disciplined himself to a cooler emotional temperature. That, too, is threatened by what he needs to confront.

Seeing injustice and cruelty on both sides, Canfield’s outrage builds. His passion grows for beautiful young Maureen, a neighbor’s daughter who has returned to Cedar Keys to teach school. Most importantly, his ex-wife has sent their teenage son, Jesse, to live with him. Jesse has harbored tremendous resentment toward Ed, whom he thinks abandoned them. Ed needs to navigate through this emotional hostility. Like author Larranaga’s adventure plot, his careful development of the father and son story is gripping and suspenseful.

Bob Larranaga

Bob Larranaga

An attack by a Yankee gunboat ignites the action. Ed Canfield can no longer play the uncommitted outsider. With his son and a few others, Canfield runs the Yankee blockade, searching for Maureen. He encounters her and others at an encampment where yellow fever is raging. Now he must somehow make it to Key West and back to bring the necessary medicine and other supplies.

Ed Canfield’s adventures travels in both directions via various waterways and across the Florida Straights are the heart of the novel. It’s not an uncontested journey. Conditions and treacherous outlaws provide the main hazards. Bob Larranaga’s descriptions of fight scenes, seamanship, the characteristics of boats is superb. So is his portrayal of the dangerous environment. In many scenes, he rivals Robert Macomber, the master of maritime historical fiction set in this era and region. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the February 28, 2013 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly and the March 7 Bonita Springs edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Larranaga

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