Monthly Archives: May 2016

New biography reveals the true “person of the book”

The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire, by Laura Claridge. Ferrar, Straus, and Giroux. 416 pages. Hardcover $30.00.

Jewish people like to call themselves “the People of the Book.” Since this proud appellation is self-applied to many Jews who have little interest in “The Book” (the Torah), it seems only proper to recognize the fact that the heart and soul of the Knopf publishing house was Blanche Knopf, even though her husband’s full name, Alfred A. Knopf, was the company name. Blanche, a brilliant and dedicated genius, was a totally secular Jew. As was Alfred. Books were Blanche’s religion. LadyWiththeBorzoi.indd

Laura Claridge’s biography effusively explores the implications of Blanche’s unique accomplishment, one fully against the time in which she was born and raised with respect to women’s roles and opportunities. Born in 1894 to Julius and Bertha Wolf, she and Alfred Knopf had planned to launch a publishing house even before their marriage in 1916. The pre-nuptial agreement obtained verbally from Alfred was that husband and wife were to share equally in all aspects of this venture. That equal sharing did not happen, and so the marriage was troubled from the start.

For fifty years, Blanche suffered from being slighted – not always silently. Though he knew better, Alfred always played the role of the mastermind, positioning Blanche as a fortunate assistant. But nothing could have been further from the truth. He took advantage of her, and she put on the best face that she could, building a reputation as a remarkable judge of talent and as a businesswoman who could bring that talent into the Knopf fold.

Putting on the best face included developing a personal style in bearing, clothing, and all aspects of appearance and expression. The Knopf offices and residences (except for those exclusively Alfred’s) also reflected her inimitable taste. She even designed the borzoi colophon for the Knopf imprint. Blanche created herself, driven by the need for acceptance and the desire to prove her worth. As a party-thrower, Blanche had few peers. Artists, composers, performers, intellectuals – they all showed up at her events, and she at theirs.

Laura Claridge credit Marion Ettlinger

Laura Claridge / credit Marion Ettlinger

There are many painful episodes in Claridge’s analysis of how and why Blanche made her choices and how she dealt with the consequences of those choices. Throughout, Claridge’s understanding, empathy, and sure-handed use of her sources make Blanche come alive.

One consequence of the more or less agreed-upon “open marriage” that emerged from Blanche’s shattered expectations was her series of affairs, often with prominent figures in the arts.

But that’s not the fun part of delving into Blanche’s life. The fun part is watching her build the firm, making things happen often in spite of Alfred’s interference or indifference – or hostility.

From the beginning, the Knopf enterprise imagined itself as a sort of boutique establishment dealing in refined literary sensibility. Early on, Blanche began to build their list by getting permission to publish English translations of established and up-and-coming European writers. Laura Claridge details Blanche’s scores of trips to Europe to meet and court her favorites, as well as her ardent hospitality to these writers when they visited her in New York or elsewhere. She developed an extended family of writers (and editors and agents and cooperating publishers) that brought her greater emotional rewards than did her family of record.

Knopf became a prestige house, and it didn’t lose that aura even when, many decades after its founding, it was absorbed into Random House (the proliferation of mergers and imprint swapping in the publishing industry is ongoing).

For all of its successes, its many award-winning titles (including a pile of Nobels and Pulitzers), Knopf had very few blockbuster best-sellers. It did, however, establish an enviable and lucrative backlist – titles that sold well year after year and hardly ever went out of print. That was the whole point of careful selection: not the short run fad, but rather the book with the long future. These floated the boat, as did having many titles selected by the Book of the Month Club and the Literary Guild Book Club.

Here is very short list of authors published by Knopf during Blanche’s lifetime, either original titles or first English translations: Sigmund Freud, Albert Camus, André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Ilya Ehrenburg, Mikhail Sholokhov, Thomas Mann; John Updike, Julia Child, Carl Van Vechten, James M. Cain, Willa Cather, John Hersey, Raymond Chandler, H.L. Mencken, William Shirer, Dashiell Hammett, and Langston Hughes; Wallace Stevens, Elinor Wylie. Beyond the list is Laura Claridge’s energetic and alluring recounting of their various relationships with Blanche.

Blanche Wolf Knopf died in 1965, shortly after her company’s fiftieth anniversary. Unlike her parents, who were buried in Brooklyn’s Salem Fields Cemetery affiliated with Temple Emanu-El (where funerals for friend George Gershwin and father-in-law Sam Knopf were held), Blanche chose the incineration route.

While leaving, perhaps, some aspects of Blanche’s outer and inner lives their mystery, Laura Claridge has provided as many facts and insights as anyone needs to understand and admire the industry, creativity, and courage of her subject. At the same time, she has masterfully set Blanche Knopf into an exciting milieu – the American publishing industry from WWI to the first glimmers of a war in Vietnam. We have here a spellbinding tale of shifting tastes and hard-won survival in the literary world.

Next time you think about “People of the Book,” think about Blanche Wolf Knopf.

This review appears in the June 2016 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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King Solomon’s frailties threaten to doom his kingdom

The Judgment, by D. J. Niko. Medallion Press. 292 pages. Trade paperback $14.99.

An ambitious historical novel, The Judgment spans the years 965-925 BCE, the reign of King Solomon after the death of King David. It is a tale of gigantic personalities, huge ambition, fervent nationalism, fragile treaties, and multiple betrayals. Solomon, charged with ruling the united monarchies of the Hebrew people, is also charged with establishing David’s goal of a colossal temple in Jerusalem. It is envisioned as a place with the God of Israel will dwell, and thus its design and materials must match that aspiration.

Daphne Nikolopoulos, photography by Lauren Lieberman / LILA PHOTO

D.J. Niko

Upon visiting Egypt to make a bargain with Pharoah Psusennes II for huge quantities of gold to adorn the Temple, Solomon is smitten by the Egyptian leader’s beautiful daughter, Nicaule. The marriage between the King of the Hebrews and the Pharoah’s daughter creates an allegiance of mutual benefit to both nations. However, Nicaule – who has been forced into the marriage – is resentful of her situation, lavish though it is. She loves another, the Libyan warrior who will in time become Pharaoh Shoshenq I. He, in turn, is most desirous of her.

Nicaule’s resentment at finding herself the virtual slave of what she considers a lesser people whets her appetite for revenge. She uses her considerable sexual prowess to blind Solomon to her schemes to undermine his power. Solomon is shown to be a weak, soft, self-indulgent leader, as well as a man whose behavior suggests a loss of faith.


Basemath, Nicaule’s daughter by her lover Shoshenq, has been raised as Solomon’s daughter. This subterfuge was Nicaule’s first betrayal.

The novel is structured so that we meet Basemath first. That is, we first see the crisis facing the people of Israel from Egypt’s attack in 925BCE. Then we are taken back to the time of Solomon’s ascent to the throne and follow the action until we catch up with 925BCE once again – and then move forward to the resolution. This is a standard point of attack and it works well for this material.

Basemath is perhaps the only character in the novel who is truly likeable and admirable, yet she is reserved for the opening and closing sections of the novel. Other characters – certain Egyptian and Hebrew military leaders; the estimable high priest (Kohain Gadol) Zadok; the temptress Queen Makeda of Sheba; Nicaule’s friend, attendant, and counselor Irisi – are among those of ongoing interest.  Indeed, Ms. Niko populates her story with a large cast that is needed to fulfill a wide range of functions at upper and lower levels of the principals’ actions. Many are simply go-betweens; others have more important duties. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the May 25, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 26 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach / West Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The Judgment

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“So Close to Home: A True Story of an American Family’s Fight for Survival During World War II”

By Michael J. Tougias and Alison O’Leary. Pegasus Books. 256 pp. Hardcover $27.95.

A lightly fictionalized, little-known tale of disaster at sea

A thrilling story of courage and eventual good fortune, this historical narrative recounts one Texas family’s near-disaster at sea within a larger, relatively unknown bit of World War II history.

To improve their fortunes, Ray and Ina Downs move their family of three children to Colombia and then to Costa Rica for Ray’s lucrative temporary job with the United Fruit Company. The oldest child, 14-year-old Terry, soon returns to the U.S. Lucille, then 11, and Sonny, 8, stay with their parents until the end of Ray’s contract.

While sailing home on their return trip from Costa Rica, just miles off the coast of New Orleans, their ship, the Heredia — an old freighter originally built as a luxury passenger ship; the Downs family is among the small number of civilians aboard — is attacked by a German U-boat. It is May of 1942, and America is still recovering from the Pearl Harbor bombing that led to a declaration of war against Japan’s ally, Germany, on December 11, 1941.

The ship sinks quickly and violently. Ray and Sonny end up on a tattered raft with two other men. At first, the whereabouts of Ina and Lucille are unknown.

The authors’ genius is in timing the shifts of focus, thereby heightening suspense. While most chapters follow the fortunes of the desperate Downs family, these are alternated with chapters that focus on the U-boat enterprise. Readers receive well-rounded portraits of Admiral Dönitz, overlord of the German “Grey Wolves” (as these submarines were named), and of the commanders of the two subs that unexpectedly and programmatically destroyed many ships nearing the southeastern U.S.: “The U-507 and U-506 were the perfect vessels to send into the Gulf because they were of the larger, long-range class called Type IXC, both built in 1939 in Hamburg.”

These U-boats had enormous range, and they usually carried 22 torpedoes along with other weapons, including anti-aircraft guns that were mounted on deck. They also had skilled, committed commanders whose training was exceptional: “Those on U-boats sent to American were the best of the best, on a new mission that might decide the outcome of the war.”

Commander Harro Schacht controlled U-507, the first U-boat to enter the Gulf of Mexico. Tougias and O’Leary develop a vivid personality sketch of this capable leader and record his many successes sinking ships in Gulf waters.

Erich Würdermann, the commander of U-506, receives similar treatment. Clearly, the authors are impressed by these two dynamic individuals who found themselves in an unusual competition. Was it the number of ships destroyed or the tonnage of cargo rendered useless that would be the measure of superiority?

The other side of the story, of course, is the dismal preparation and performance of U.S. forces. Why were they unavailable or unable to protect these commercial vessels, whose cargo was important to the war effort? How well was the U-boat threat recognized? On many of the freighters in the region, the lives of U.S. citizens were in jeopardy. Citizens like Ray Downs, his wife, and his children. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: So Close to Home | Washington Independent Review of Books

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Key West Halloween festival brings downfall to would-be queen

Killer Takeout, by Lucy Burdette. Obsidian/NAL. 304 pages. Paperback $7.99.

The titles that comprise Ms. Burdette’s Key West Food Critic Mysteries are always a delight. Her young protagonist, Hayley Snow, is one of those amateur sleuths who just can’t help sticking her neck out. She is always sure the professionals are overlooking something, and her curiosity and desire to help gets her into trouble. Thank goodness, so far she has continued to find her way out of that trouble. KillerTakeout-1-1

While Hayley’s personality is a major ingredient in the appeal of these novels, the quirky atmosphere of Key West is just as important to readers’ pleasure. Throw in the love of food, especially as enjoyed in good restaurants, and how can the recipe fail?

It doesn’t.

This time out, we are witness to a series of events called Fantasy Fest – parades for the most part – leading up to Halloween festivities. The zombie theme has taken hold, and a king and queen have been selected to head the processions and other doings. The crowded streets of Key West are packed with costumed exhibitionists mimicking madness and mayhem.

Moving along with the crowd, many of them repeatedly yelling “zombie down,” Hayley becomes aware of a woman who has indeed fallen. It’s hard to tell if she’s leaking real blood or fake blood from her costume. In fact, it is the same woman – a rival for the queen’s crown – who had previously attacked Hayley’s friend Danielle, the person anointed as festival queen. Before long, Danielle is being interrogated by the police. Her moment of glory has been turned upside down. Sweet Danielle, Hayley’s co-worker at “Key Zest” magazine, is suspected of murdering Caryn Druckman, the nasty zombie.



This series is all about the various things that Hayley tries to do at the same time. Aside from crime-solving, she is working on her next restaurant review column for “Key Zest.” This time, she has chosen to review takeout establishments, some of which are food trucks while others offer carry-out from standard restaurants. Naturally, this decision allows readers to do a couple of things as once: tour Key West and imaginatively savor tasty food. It also allows new glimpses of Hayley’s ongoing insecurities about keeping her job, as she has a run-in with her boss Palamina.

Of course, any part of her life would find her scooting around Key West. She doesn’t need an excuse.

It just so happens that Hayley’s mom and mom’s boyfriend Sam are about ready to tie the knot – additional complications to Hayley’s busy life, emotional and otherwise. Speaking of things marital (or almost), Hayley’s ongoing/offgoing relationship with police detective Nathan Bransford keeps that strand of interest alive through this Monster Mash of danger and fun. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the May 18, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 19 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte and Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Killer Takeout

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“As Close to Us as Breathing,” by Elizabeth Poliner

Lee Boudreaux Books. 368 pages. Hardcover $27.00

There is no shortage of books focused on Jewish family life, but Elizabeth Poliner’s stands apart as an instant classic. It is an inspired literary exploration of the tension between personal and family identity, between masculine and feminine models of achievement, between tradition as habit and tradition as choice, between love that gives and love that demands.

Though the novel examines an extended family and its world over three generations, its point of focus is the summer of 1948, immediately following modern Israel’s birth and, for the Leibritsky family, the trauma of its youngest member’s accidental death. Spatially and culturally, its main arena is a place informally named Bagel Beach: the family vacation area on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound that constitutes a summer Jewish beachfront neighborhood in the midst of other ethnic enclaves. Poliner_AsClosetoUsasBreathing

The narrative reaches us through the voice of Molly, middle child and only daughter of Ada and Mort Leibritsky. Mort, the kingpin of the family, owns Leibritsky’s Department Store in Middletown, inherited from his father. His brother, brother-in-law, and, occasionally, his older son work there. A moderately observant Jew, Mort carries on his father’s mantra of responsibility to his God and to the Jewish people. It’s a noose and a blessing.

The men enjoy the beach cottage over weekends; the women live there through the summer months. Beautiful, queen-like Ada reigns over the household: her sisters Vivie and Bec; her children Howard, Molly, and young Davy; and Vivie’s daughter, Nina, who is a few years older than Molly. At the time of her brother’s death, Molly is twelve years old; in her middle age, she delivers the grand Leibritsky saga, passed down to Molly by her parents and aunts.



Poliner treats the summer of 1948 as if it were the hub of a wheel from which extend spokes of increasing significance through the power of this family disaster. Like all families, this one has many challenges, as do its individual members. Molly allows us to see them, feel them, and understand them. Sisters are estranged. Love is frustrated by duty. Marriages fail. A boy dies for no reason. And still, individuals persevere to lead remarkable lives. By opening and closing the aperture, Poliner is able to sweep us through decades of change, growth, accomplishment, and frustration. We witness her characters responding to social changes, their own maturing and aging, their own realized or thwarted sense of destiny. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner | Jewish Book Council

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African darkness looms over high-stakes thriller

Choice of Enemies, by M. A. Richards. Sunbury Press. 224 pages. Hardcover $24.95. Trade paperback $16.95.

Billed the first Nathan Monsarrat Thriller, “Choice of Enemies” introduces Nathan working as an academic dean at a Greylock College in Western Massachusetts. Actually, the novel opens a couple of years earlier, with the narrator detailing the last chapter in Nathan’s career as a CIA deep cover operative. We see a confused tableau in which Nathan is rescued after many months of incarceration and torture in Africa at the hands of a Nigerian rebel group named FATA. His rescuer, who is also his CIA superior, is a man of many identities. One of those identities is as Felix Sanhedrin, a cruel egocentric with expensive tastes, a warped sense of fashion, and no loyalties. COE-Super-Hi-Res

Nathan had been caught up in the battle to control African oil, the goal of a consortium of American oil companies in league with the CIA. African national leaders, who may just as well be called African criminal gang bosses, have other ideas – as do the rebels seeking to overthrow them. Nathan is still not done making the transition to his new bucolic life in Berkshire territory when Sanhedrin shows up with an assignment that has the additional benefit of allowing Nathan to settle scores and perhaps rescue a woman very dear to him.

The assignment has to do with the transfer of a rare terracotta statue, but that mission soon leads to others, including an assassination that leaves Nathan rather gleeful.

The lure of Mr. Richards’ book is its virtuoso game of high style and authentic details of espionage tradecraft.  Clothes and gadgets make the man, whether we are observing Nathan Monsarrat or Felix Sanhedrin. It’s hard to know what kind of audience they are dressing for, especially the zany Sanhedrin, who has at some point assumed a surname that is the Hebrew word for the high court of ancient Israel. (His surname for another persona, Seleucid, also alludes to the ancient Middle East.)



The author has a penchant for Jewish references, including choosing a setting in Namibia that has the same name as a town in Israel – Rosh Pinah. Mr. Richards even finds room for a minor character called the “yeshiva bocher” (an Orthodox Jewish schoolboy), now switching from Hebrew to Yiddish for his Jewish-toned running in-joke.

Threat and suspicion are everywhere in Nathan’s world, and he himself is the cause of it in worlds that he enters. Thus, suspense is everywhere, too. Mr. Richards is already a master at manipulating his readers and raising the suspense thermometer to higher and higher levels. Nathan Monsarrat’s stony deliberateness is part of the process. Will all of his careful planning produce its intended end result? Or will things go wrong? . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the May 11, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 12 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter, and Palm Beach/West Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Richards

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“After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition”

by Hillel Halkin. Princeton University Press. 240 pages. Hardcover $27.95.

 This new edition to the Library of Jewish Ideas series is at once a scholarly journey, a meditation, and a remembrance. Most likely there is nothing comparable in print. In fact, toward the end of the book, Halkin lets us known that the concerns he has pursued are barely mentioned in the works of modern and contemporary Jewish writers, including those who belong to one or another segment of Orthodoxy. hillel-halkin1


And yet Halkin has created something at once intellectually stimulating, profoundly frightening, and ultimately reassuring. It is like plunging into the abyss and finding the buoyancy and healing power of salt water. Some sugar as well.

Halkin makes it clear that his perspective is that of a non-observant Jew, yet he is a knowledgeable one and, perhaps more importantly, he is a curious one. He asks, “how can a life that has existed cease to exist without a trace? How can the universe have no memory of it?” From here he enters the world of Jewish texts that consider Jewish notions of the afterlife.

After a pleasantly teasing introduction, Halkin builds five sturdy chapters in which he navigates through the history of ideas as Jewish culture undergoes large and small shifts and larger and smaller degrees of influence from neighboring cultures. He sets Jewish considerations of death and something beyond it in the context of Greek, Egyptian, and Babylonian constructions, finding the common denominators and the essentially Jewish distinction. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: After One-Hundred-and-Twenty | Jewish Book Council

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Gainesville through the eyes and ears of someone who helped make its music

Music Everywhere: The Rock and Roll Roots of a Southern Town, by Marty Jourard. University Press of Florida. 224 pages. Hardcover $19.95.

What a surprising breath of fresh air this is. Marty Jourard’s book is an insider’s story of how Gainesville, Florida developed into an important, though relatively isolated, capital of American popular music – rock and roll in particular. While Mr. Jourard offers a good deal of interesting speculation about why this happened, the fun of the book is in watching it happen. An effective narrative style; a compelling array of facts and profiles; and a low-key, comfortable sense of authority are hallmarks of Marty Jourard’s infectious blend of remembrance and research. Music_Everywhere_RGB

Organized chronologically, “Music Everywhere” begins at the beginning of rock and roll history, 1955, with a song written by a Gainesville musician named Tommy Durden. That song, soon after recast as “Heartbreak Hotel,” sits on the front porch of the black and white, country and urban music that in various combinations became the prevailing American popular music.

Mr. Jourard rocks back and forth between the macrocosm of larger trends (the Beatles’ invasion and takeover, the growth of the hippie counterculture) and the daily lives of aspiring musicians living in or passing through Florida’s heartland. He also notes the community’s happy support of and identification with a music culture. This sometimes means the roll of the University of Florida in supporting live performances and generally interacting with the music culture that is growing up along with the burgeoning university.

And then there is the dependable marijuana production.

Musicians need audiences, and University of Florida students showed up to hear the cover bands and the bands focused on original songs – bands that sharpened their skills on and off campus.



Can you guess the outstanding musicians you might recognize who are part of Marty Jourards’s Gainesville R & R tapestry? Well there’s Stephen Stills, a strong solo performer better know from his group work in Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and sometimes Young). There’s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, one of the world’s best-selling bands ever. Don Felder and Bernie Leadon went from gigs in Gainesville to becoming part of the endlessly chart-topping Eagles. The list goes on, and the stories Mr. Jourard tells about them are most engaging.

Marty Jourard himself hit it big as part of The Motels in the 1980s.

The book provides insights into the life of professional musicians, whether famous or obscure or in between. More importantly, it is an effective as study of a community. The people writing, performing, and recording music cannot flourish without the support of others who work in the music industry. It is with a sense of reverence that Mr. Jourard writes about the owner of Lipham’s music company whose shop became a refuge for the Gainesville musicians. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the May 4, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 5 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Jourard

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