Monthly Archives: November 2016

Ambition, loyalty, and obsession darken dazzling bio-fiction treatment of Marc Chagall

The Bridal Chair, by Gloria Goldreich. Sourcebooks Landmark. 496 pages. Trade Paperback $14.99.

Who was Marc Chagall? Of course he was an immensely talented and prolific artist in many styles and various media whose works brought him a towering reputation and towering sales figures over several decades. He was a Russian Jew raised in a religious household whose life, until after the end of World War II, was a series of relocations brought on first by the need to escape Russian / Soviet anti-Semitism and later the Nazi’s brutal takeover of France. Though he spoke Yiddish and employed Jewish imagery and themes in some of his most renowned works, he was not otherwise attached to Jewish culture, theology, or ritual. bridalchaircover

While these elements of Chagall’s identity are well dramatized in Goldreich’s book, her main concerns are his personality and his relationships. The central strategy in revealing these aspects of the historical Chagall is Goldreich’s brilliant decision to make Chagall’s daughter, rather than the man himself, the book’s central character. It is through tracing (and perhaps imagining) Ida Chagall’s journey from the age of seven into early middle age as the adoring daughter, business manager, and enabler of Chagall’s best and worst qualities that the author paints her astounding word picture of the man in his time and in his places.

The teenage Ida is a ravishing young woman, a real head-turner who enjoys the smiles on men’s faces. She is confident, intelligent, fashionably attired, and articulate. Living in a world of art and artists, she is already quite knowledgeable about that world. She is pleased to be her father’s daughter. In time, she will want to be more than that – but Mark’s approval will always be important.

In fact, Marc’s estimate of people is directly proportional to how well they serve his needs. Vain in matters of appearance and status in the world of art, he is insecure and dependent in other ways. In some ways a rebel, he is also a slave to propriety. When Ida becomes pregnant, he is horrified. He and Ida’s mother, Bella, insist on an abortion. This is not Ida’s preference, but she agrees to it.  Somewhat less threatening to Marc is Ida’s marriage to a non-Jew, but he accommodates himself to it as long as Ida puts her father’s needs above all else.

And, sometimes reluctantly, she does. Her place in the world is not as someone’s wife, or an independent identity (which she often longs for), but as the great Marc Chagalls’ daughter.

Ida becomes the manager of the Chagall domestic situation and the Chagall industry. She selects their various residences, arranges for the smooth running of these households, and becomes the principal agent for the display and marketing of her father’s artworks. Thus she is in constant contact with prominent collectors, dealers, gallery owners, and museum curators. These overlapping responsibilities, which she handles with determination and skill, define her place in the world.

They also limit it. She couldn’t be doing this for Picasso, or for herself. Indeed, her personal artistic ambitions are sacrificed to serving her father, whose appreciation is rarely shown. She even arranges for his mistresses (officially housekeepers), one of which, non-Jewish, brings a Chagall son into the world.

Marc is a grand manipulator, whose practiced ineptness in many areas leaves others to pick up the pieces. He is not lazy. Indeed, his dedication to his art consumes him, but he shuns everyday responsibilities and insists that his work demands ideal environments without distractions.

Generally, he gets what he wants.

Eventually, Ida also gets what she wants: a fine, devoted husband; three children; respect; and much-needed piece of mind.

Goldreich’s narrative has many strengths beyond those of characterization and the exploration of relationships (though the large cast of vividly depicted characters is a powerful achievement). Readers will learn a great deal about the history of modern art, artistic technique, and the business of art. The author’s descriptions of particular artworks are spectacular.

Her handling of setting is also superb. Readers are invited to visit many places exquisitely described, places that have not only dimensions, materials, and colors, but atmosphere. We explore homes in Paris and its environs, other communities in France, New York City, upstate New York, Zurich, and many more. Goldreich’s descriptions are lavish backdrops for her characters’ actions. Almost too lavish.

The pace is leisurely, and on occasion seems too slow. The detailed descriptions slow it down. Some readers will feel that less would have been more. Others will enjoy every morsel of information.

All in all, The Bridal Canopy is a towering achievement: emotionally powerful, psychologically deft, and a feast of sensory images.

This review appears in the December 2016 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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Motives and means collide in shadowy Sunshine State thriller

The Gail Force, by Robert Lane. Mason Alley Publishing. 341 pages. Trade paperback $14.95.

This fourth title in the Jake Travis series maintains the powerful rush of suspense, the intricate observations about places and personalities, and the complex tradecraft of its hero that has come to be expected. The task that Jake undertakes is unusually convoluted, the stakes are high, and the women are so very, very attractive. gailforce-hi-res

Karl Anderson and his pretty wife Riley have found trouble. Karl has disappointed a sinister fellow named Phillip Agatha who under the cover of running an art gallery is an entrepreneur in blackmail and murder. Karl does not escape Agatha’s wrath, but he manages to get Riley on her way to safety. Soon she is depending on Jake to protect her, which means eventually dealing with Agatha.

Agatha, known as the Fat Man, is the target of an FBI investigation, but he seems to lead a charmed life for one in this position. Though there may be people he deals with who would like to rat him out, he may have influence inside the FBI, someone whose personal and professional interests benefit from Agatha’s services. This is truly one of those “you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys” situations, and Mr. Lane handles all the implications and nuances of this morally murky environment with great skill.

Jake and his long-time, super-skilled buddies team up with an FBI sting meant to bring down Agatha. Millions of dollars flow in and out of various accounts to make this happen. This alliance is managed by Jake’s FBI insider, attractive female Agent Binelli with whom Jake has partnered before. This task brings him, under cover of course, to Agatha’s offices and his super yacht, “The Gail Force.” Agatha is a man of incredible taste and the money to indulge it. He’d like to keep it that way. He sends his lovely assistant Christina to show Jake around. She is quite a distraction, and their relationships builds from role playing to flirtation and is on the edge of becoming much more.

Robert Lane

Robert Lane

In fact, just as suspenseful as the painstakingly schemed mission is the growing magnetism between Jake and the much younger Christina. Jake’s attraction to her complicates the reader’s understanding of his healthy, uplifting, and fortunate relationship with Kathleen. It’s clear that Kathleen, developed in the previous Jake Travis novels, is the love of his life, the perfect mate, and perhaps more than he deserves. The scenes between them are magic in every way. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 23, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 24 Naples, Bonita Springs, Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter, and Palm Beach / West Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The Gail Force

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“Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories,” by Blume Lempel

Translated by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub.  Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press. 240 pages. Hardcover $26.95; Trade paperback $16.95.

These spare, skillful tales are both introspective and illuminating.

oedipus-coverDoes it make sense to talk about a writer’s voice when responding to a translated work? In the case of Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, a book with two translators, a distinctive English voice — a blend of attitudes, mannerisms, and rhythms — rises off the page. In what ways is it true to the Yiddish original? This reviewer will never know. Still, the voice tests boundaries between the private and the public self, intimacy and isolation, confidence and insecurity.

Presented as works of fiction, these stories — many of them brief vignettes — have the ring and the stance of polished journal entries or memoir. These memories, meditations, and musings, which inhabit the same settings that author Blume Lempel lived in or visited, are at once introspective and filled with sensory detail. The searching soul often moves by association, turning many corners.

A good many of these pieces are inner portraits of the narrator, just as many are the narrator’s exploration of one other character — a person who is important to her life and to her understanding of it.

Lempel moves us back and forth among the sights, sites, and sounds of Jewish Poland, intriguing Paris, multilingual Brooklyn, with its heavily Jewish neighborhoods, Long Island’s Long Beach, and a handful of other places. Different phases of the narrator’s life — childhood, young womanhood, motherhood, spousal dynamics — are braided into each other beyond the simple, single thread of neat chronology.  2-lempel_blume-older

Lempel’s story titles, as translated, most often contain the name of a character: “Pachysandra,” “My Friend Ben,” “Yosele,” “Cousin Claude,” and “The Bag Lady of Seventh Avenue” are among the tales bearing such sparse, straightforward titles. Though the stories usually show the title characters in relationships (and Lempel has a fine ear for creating compelling dialogue), a recurrent sense of isolation nonetheless permeates the collection.

It springs out vividly in “The Little Red Umbrella,” when Janet Silver, out on a blind date, misplaces the umbrella that was meant to identify her for the poet she intended to meet. Janet seeks a relationship, though she has reveled in her independence. Suddenly, she is overwhelmed by the realization that freedom does not have the meaning it had in her younger days: “Now it meant free to bang her head against the wall and not even hear an echo.”

In “Neighbors over the Fence,” Jewish Betty tells the time by noting the routines of her neighbor, Mrs. Zagretti, an Italian widow. The women bond over their appreciation of horticulture. Mrs. Zagretti becomes a mentor to Betty, whom she considers a much better companion than her son’s wife, even though Mrs. Zagretti has long ignored her Jewish neighbor.

Feeling isolated from her son and daughter-in-law, she leans on this unexpected connection with Betty. She even confides her desperation: “Can you imagine feeling close to a fly?” She confesses that a fly’s death has shaken her: “I felt as if I’d become a widow for the second time.”

Here and elsewhere, Lempel connects this sense of aloneness to the Jewish condition. . . .

To read the entire review, click here: Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories | Washington Independent Review of Books

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A piercing narrative of what binds and separates parents and children

The Nix, by Nathan Hill. Knopf. 640 pages. Hardcover $27.95.

Riff is the word I’m looking for. But which definition will succeed in making the connection to Mr. Hill’s grandly ter-riff-ic first novel? Here are two from the online Oxford English Dictionary: (1) A short repeated phrase in popular music and jazz, typically used as an introduction or refrain in a song; (2) A monologue or spoken improvisation, especially a humorous one, on a particular subject. Many of the most astounding passages in this are in a kind of riff style, but the best are extended riffs that go on for many pages. They are boldly and darkly satiric. thenixcover

Laura Pottsdam, wayward student of English Professor Samuel Anderson, is revealed through riffs that express the self-indulgent thoughts that run through her mind and slither out of her mouth. She is at once airhead and supreme manipulator. She defeats Samuel’s attempt to bring her plagiarism to any kind of just resolution. She exhibits a shrewd gamesmanship through which she threatens his career, a career already threatened by his inability to deliver and promised book manuscript to his publisher.

Readers first meet these two characters, and many others, in scenes set in 2011. The major piece of Chicago news that summer is that a former radical female hippy, now middle-aged, has attacked Governor Packer. That woman is Samuel’s mother Faye, from whom he has been estranged since she walked out of their suburban household when Samuel was still a boy. She had found and lost herself in the violence of the 1968 Chicago riots.


This inventive novel is mostly fashioned by filling in the blanks between occurrences that happened during and between those polar years. A large cast of characters is needed do this imaginative work, and an astounding representation of cultural and physical environments anchors and validates the characters who moved through them.

Samuel is something of an addict. He spends way too much time play computer war games, in this case “World of Elfscape,” inside of which he is Dodger the Elven Thief. Learning about the game and its allure is important to understanding Mr. Hill’s vision. For Samuel, the game keeps his mind off how far his star has fallen (and his marriage fallen apart) since being named a sure-bet young author at the age of twenty-four. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 16, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 17 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter, and Palm Beach / West Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The Nix

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Weaponized virus threat sends special CIA team into action

Thawed! by Lawrence De Maria. 175 pages. Kindle E-book $2.99. Cole Sudden C.I.A. Thrillers Book 3.

Not many novels open at research stations in Siberia, but Mr. De Maria makes his initial scene on the frozen tundra of Siberia a vivid attention-getter. We first meet Vadim Bylinkin, the Russian helicopter pilot who ferries supplies and contraband to the isolated super-frozen arctic stations. At a particular station, world-changing research is underway under the leadership of Grigor Rusayev. A joke about “Tundra Dick” sets the tone as Grigor drools over Katarina, the red-haired botanist on the research team. But what’s going on here is more serious. The lead scientist has brought to life (or something like life) an extinct virus locked in permafrost for 30,000 years. A virus that can be weaponized. thawed20162

The Russian military investigates after the research station suffers a disaster, but those who are after the virus turn out to be highly capable and totally dedicated Islamic terrorists who have infiltrated the Russian operation.

Meanwhile, at the Philadelphia Naval Business Center, the ever resourceful and of often sarcastic Cole Sudden is buffing up his second career as a novelist. Being a roguish CIA agent is clearly not enough for him. How far he can go with his Jake Harms mysteries without risking his hidden identity is an open question. The facility where he is meeting with CIA colleague Nigel Buss hides an agency team of assassins. That’s why Cole is there. They run activities best kept away from the headquarters campus in Langley, Virginia.

By establishing Cole as a novelist, Mr. De Maria can play games with his readers. The ways in which Cole Sudden’s writing career mirrors that of his creator makes for a lot of insider fun.

De Maria

De Maria

When readers discover that Grigor Rusayev is sharing information with two French scientists associated with the University of Marseilles, they will wonder about the consequences of an obviously illegal partnership.

The Russian military is sent into action after something goes horribly wrong at the research station. The disaster is first witnessed by Bylinkin from the air. Moscow assumes the Siberian situation and the virus research is under control. However, Islamic fanatics have infiltrated the Russian enterprise with their own jihadist agenda. . . .

To read the entire review, as found in the November 9, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 10 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter, and Palm Beach /  West Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Thawed!

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“The Education of Dixie Dupree” by Donna Everhart

  • Kensington. 352 pages. Trade paperback $15.00.

A harrowing story of domestic trauma with Southern Gothic flair.

In this intense narrative, set in a small Alabama town in 1969, 11-year-old Dixie is having what is no doubt the most difficult time of her childhood. Her coping mechanism has been her diary, given to her as a birthday present three years earlier by her mother. Among the many things recorded in the diary is material to be used in the New Hampshire trial of her Uncle Ray. With this information laid out, author Donna Everhart baits the hook and starts reeling her readers in. theeducationofdixiedupree

The Dupree family is ready to explode. The tension between Dixie’s mother and father is unbearable. Dixie and her older brother, AJ, are caught in the emotional maelstrom that surrounds their mother, Evie’s, wish to return to New Hampshire. Never being able to make a socially comfortable life for herself in the South, she talks endlessly about her idyllic upbringing in Concord — though she is silent about her brother, Ray.

Evie’s misery has made her husband miserable, too. It has torn them apart and sent him to drown his feelings in alcohol. Evie is often unstable, and Dixie never knows how “Mama” is going to react. She is often impatient, cruel, and physically abusive. Then Evie is apologetic, but soon doubly cruel. More and more out of control, Evie blames her husband for her unfortunate situation as an outcast in Alabama.

Dixie can be hotheaded, too. She feels the need to strike back. She fights any feelings of being intimidated. She is also a chronic liar whose lies serve many purposes beyond protecting herself. However, it is Evie who has the deeper secrets, secrets that drive the characters’ destinies long before those destinies are fully revealed.

Donna Everhart credit Gina Warren

Donna Everhart credit Gina Warren

Dixie is also our narrator. Her voice is clear and strong, though perhaps author Everhart has made her too articulate for a person so young. Dixie processes what is going on around her with a high degree of sophistication. Moreover, she is an unrepentant questioner. Often, her troubles with Evie stem from asking a fairly innocent question that sends Evie into a rage. Dixie has pushed a button without knowing it, opening up Evie’s fears and threatening her secrets. . .


To read the complete review, click here:  The Education of Dixie Dupree | Washington Independent Review of Books

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A guide to understanding and addressing sea level change

Sea Level Rise in Florida: Science, Impacts, and Options, by Albert C. Hine, Don P. Chambers, Tonya D. Clayton, Mark R. Hafen, and Gary T. Mitchum. University Press of Florida. 176 pages. 76 color & 4 b/w illustrations. Hardcover $34.95.

Easily accessible to most readers with a scientific background, tougher sledding for the rest of us, this compact, well-illustrated volume clarifies the forces that cause sea level change and the consequences of such change. sealevelrisecover

Since we tend to use sea level as a basis for measurement, we assume it’s a constant. However, it is not a constant. The fact of sea level variation is true everywhere, yet Florida has its own unique variations to complicate the decisions of policy-makers. Yes, sea level is and has been rising, the pace of the rise has been accelerating, and there is reason to believe that this pattern will continue for centuries.

The opening chapter, simply and clearly titled “Sea Level Has Always Been Changing,” introduces the evidence regarding seal level fluctuation both globally and in our largely peninsular state. Graphs, charts, and photographs support the lucid explanations by Albert C. Hine as he presents the consensus understandings about how and why sea level changes occur. Geologic changes always have and always will affect sea level. Tides have an influence. Florida’s stressed coastal system factors into the sea level change equation, and the rise in sea level in turn adds to the stress.

Albert C. Hine

Albert C. Hine

Hine presents an abundance of scientific information on the technology and record keeping that bears witness to sea level change.

The second chapter, by Chambers and Mitchum, connects research on recent sea level rise with methods of predicting the future. The authors handle such topics as how the natural movement of water and how human enterprises, globally and regionally, affect the storage and release of water. The warming of the oceans is a significant factor in sea level change: “Warmer water is less dense than cooler water, so if the amount of mass stays the same then the volume must be larger, since density is mass divided by volume.”

Glacial melting has been and will continue to be a major factor in sea level rise. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appear in the November 2, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 3 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte and Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter editions click here: Florida Weekly – Sea Level Rise

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