Category Archives: Authors and Books

Storms of the heart bring violence, catharsis

Mine, by Courtney Cole. Gallery Books. 304 pages. Original Trade Paperback $16.00.

This scorching-hot novel of infidelity, its causes, and its consequences is structured as a two-narrator duet in which harmony is unlikely. Accomplished and confident Tessa is taken by surprise when she discovers that there is a rival for her husband’s favor. At forty, and with three children and a booming career, she felt she and Ethan were on a steady path.

Twenty-six-year-old Lindsey, gorgeous but insecure about everything except her good looks, has set her sights on Ethan, whom she met online. She offers him literally everything, using her neediness as a weapon. 

Ms. Cole has clearly distinguished her two combatants. She has pitched their voices perfectly to capture the many contrasts in their personalities.

As a coastal Florida storm intensifies into a hurricane, blocking Ethan’s return home from a business trip. A glance at Ethan’s iPad turns Tessa’s world upside down. Ethan has been having a sex-tinged flirtation with a beautiful younger woman whose seductive photos are a challenge and a threat to his wife.

Courtney Cole photo by Christine Arnold

Alternating chapters reveal the two women’s thoughts, emotions, and words. Readers get to know them, and a clever plot device forces them to get to know one another.

Throughout the novel, the hurricane is effectively used as a metaphor for the darkness and danger of the women’s emotional situation.

There are interesting ironies that affect the relationship between Tessa and Lindsey. Not the least of these is that Lindsey, a nursing student, saves Colt, Tessa and Ethan’s oldest child, when he has what could have been a terminal bout with his serious disease. Not only must Tessa thank Lindsey for saving the young man’s life, but she begins to see Lindsey as a person with more dimensions than husband-snatcher.

Seeing the two women in the context of their families provides for engaging contrasts. Tessa’s accomplished brood of two sons and a daughter (her other children are Connor and Ava) reflects Tessa’s care and expectations. Ethan has been in the picture, but Tessa is the driving force. Reader’s learn little about the older generation – Tessa or Ethan’s parents.

On the other hand, there is a well-turned portrait of Lindsey’s mother, who has become the caretaker for Lindsey’s eight-year-old son, Logan, since Lindsey’s situation does not leave her with the resources or confidence to be raising him. Lindsey’s mother, a practical person, perceives and announces the many flaws that she finds with Lindsey’s decisions and expectations. She scolds her regularly.

There are several large-scale flareups between Tessa and Lindsey . . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the June 19, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 20 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Mine

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The traumas of our individual and collective pasts do not simply vanish

Review by Philip K. Jason

Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Trauma, by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, Ph.D. Monkfish Book Publishing / Adam Kadmon Books. 240 pages. Hardcover $26.95.

Here is one of the most valuable new books for 2019. Though it seems at first that it is aimed at health professionals and religious leaders, particularly of the Jewish faith, it has a much wider application. Someone in your family needs this book to help come to terms with the residual effects of complex trauma – trauma that is transmitted, sometimes within a particular ethnic group from generation to generation. 

Others need this book to understand the seemingly strange and often self-destructive behavior of loved ones, close friends, co-workers, and other victims of psychological trauma who suffer without even knowing why.

Rabbi Firestone’s book is intellectually challenging, spiritually rich, infinitely patient, and filled with healing optimism. It offers understanding, strategies for overcoming trauma, and accessible case histories of a varied group of trauma survivors whose paths and personalities will encourage all who seek  recovery and renewal.

The peculiar history of Jewish populations – a history weighted with pogroms, genocide, exclusion, and endless epochs of plain old anti-Semitism – receives startling, illuminating attention. Rabbi Firestone knows of what she speaks. Her discussions include slices of her own family history.

Significant here, beyond but yet entangled with the family dynamics, is the author’s withdrawal from Jewish life and identity and – some time later – her reconnection. Her discovery of the wisdom in Judaism’s fundamental texts opened channels of learning that eventually led to her studies and work as a psychotherapist and her emergence as an influential rabbi in the Jewish Renewal movement.

Firestone

However, the value of this study is not limited to Jewish sufferers or Jewish families and communities.

One theme of the book is that we have, or can develop, the insights and tools to make our lives whole again if they were fractured by trauma. Another theme is that “intergenerational trauma” is a genuine, verifiable medical condition, and that it even has a significant physical dimension. Yet another theme is that such a condition must be attended to – it will not cure itself.

Rabbi Firestone’s exploration of this condition includes the introduction of recognizable behaviors (warning signs) and the professional vocabulary that assists in the understanding of trauma-induced or trauma-prolonged behaviors.

Other provocative explorations in this book include a productive revisioning of the stigmatizing label that the Jews are a “chosen people.” Similarly refreshing is Rabbi Firestone’s perspective on the troublesome biblical pronouncement about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children for generations. The understandings she suggests are a fine capstone to her tonic presentation exploring “intergenerational trauma.”

Of immense practical value is her construction of the seven “principles of Jewish cultural healing.”

A lively mind, a caring heart, and a love of Judaism’s profound soul make this a must have contribution to the literature of healing.

About the Author:

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, Ph.D., is an author, Jungian psychotherapist, and founding rabbi of Congregation Nevei Kodesh in Boulder, Colorado. Ordained by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in 1992, she is a leader in the international Jewish Renewal Movement and has served as co-chair of Rabbis for Human Rights, North America, which is now known as T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. She holds a doctorate in depth psychology from the Pacific Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California. She has written several other books, including With Roots in Heaven: One Woman’s Passionate Journey into the Heart of Her Faith.

This review appears in the June 2019 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

 

 

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Moving ahead requires inventorying ugly truths from the past

Moral Inventory, by Tara Johnson. Austin Macauley. 154 pages. Trade paperback $10.95.

An intervention program named Helping Hands has, with her alcoholic mother’s connivance and permission, yanked young Elizabeth out of her downward spiraling life and provided a structure of rewards, punishments, and self-evaluation that might save her. At seventeen, she had found herself flattered by the attentions, muscles, and rebelliousness of Marcus, an unemployed predator several years too old for her. His controlling nature had become intolerable, though he had ways of making her feel important as well.

Not seeing him is part of her path to staying off drugs and making a meaningful, respectable life for herself.

Ms. Johnson’s portrait of about a half year in Elizabeth’s life is extremely vivid. It is a harrowing emotional ride in which the young woman’s intelligence is at war with her bad habits, including dangerous dependencies.

Elizabeth wavers between taking the lessons and regimen of Helping Hands to heart and merely playing the game of going along while looking for an out. Her life is on hold until she finishes the program – or runs away from it. She meets other young adults working their way through the program and in some cases assisting the director, Mrs. Stein. There is a well -constructed hierarchy of relationships and responsibilities that offers hope.

Readers will grasp the importance of such a “tough love” program, yet also understand Elizabeth’s ambivalent attitude and inconsistent behavior.

While the focus of the novel is Elizabeth’s struggles and successes within the confines of the Helping Hands structure, Ms. Johnson paints Elizabeth’s life and personality with a broader brush through flashbacks. The author clarifies the effects of Elizabeth’s father’s disappearance and her mother’s alcohol problem on Elizabeth’s early years.

Tara Johnson

The flashbacks include Elizabeth’s friendships with other girls and with temporary boyfriends. Her home environment places her in a low socio-economic class without the tools to transcend it. Though Elizabeth has a strong love for her mother, she also feels bitter about the unsought responsibility of dealing with a desperate drunk. At times, she is forced to take over the parent role. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the May 15, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 16 Naples, Fort Myers, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here and see lower half of page: Florida Weekly – Moral Inventory

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“Greenhorns,” by Richard Slotkin

Leapfrog Press. 186 pages. Trade Paperback $16.95.

The six sto­ries in this col­lec­tion explore the green­horn expe­ri­ence in the con­text of Jew­ish immi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States, par­tic­u­lar­ly to New York City, from the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry through the ear­ly years of the Great Depres­sion. Slotkin has based his tales on inter­views he held with fam­i­ly mem­bers who came to the Unit­ed States from Rus­sia and Poland between 1900 and 1921.

Through his fic­tion­al retellings, Slotkin demon­strates how his­tor­i­cal mark­ers shaped and defined the par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence of immi­grants. In 1905, Jews escaped the lat­est out­bursts of vio­lent anti­semitism in Rus­sia and Poland, and made their way to what many believed would be the promised land. The end of World War II brought aware­ness of the Holo­caust, which many new immi­grants had man­aged to escape. The found­ing of the mod­ern Jew­ish State was anoth­er mile­stone: a pin­na­cle of Jew­ish pride.

Slotkin photo by Burkhardt

Slotkin’s col­lec­tion also explores fam­i­ly dynam­ics, and the gen­er­a­tional gaps that com­pli­cate them. While young­sters often adapt and assim­i­late with ease in these sto­ries, old­er immi­grants are more like­ly to have a dif­fi­cult time, some nev­er find­ing true com­fort in the nation or neigh­bor­hood in which they now live — they nev­er stop being green­horns. One man, back in ​the oth­er side” a promi­nent wheat bro­ker, can­not recon­struct his suc­cess in his new envi­ron­ment: he has lost too much sta­tus, too much con­text for the mean­ing of his life. He becomes a recluse. Oth­ers find ways to fit in, grasp­ing when pos­si­ble the help­ing hand of a cousin already estab­lished or a friend­ly neighbor. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: Greenhorns

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A lesson in Florida’s fresh water crisis worth reading and understanding

“Drying Up: The Fresh Water Crisis in Florida,” by John M. Dunn. University Press of Florida. 272 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

Mr. Dunn, an experienced journalist, educator, and water advocate, puts the Florida particulars of the world-wide fresh water crisis before readers in an accessible, well-researched, and well-balanced study. The information is, in fact, horrifying. The warnings have been around for so long, people of good will have worked so diligently, and yet for a host of reasons the steps taken have often been misguided or insufficient. 

There is a war going on between those who use and abuse fresh water selfishly and those who truly recognize that the clock is ticking. While local jurisdictions issue building permits nonstop and new communities spring up overnight fed by new roads and hooked to the water infrastructure, their inevitable paved over appeal threatens the water supply by blocking drainage into the soil, while the sheer number of new users threatens it even further.

This battle rages almost everywhere. In Florida, the issues are complicated by the invasions of stupidity and greed that have crippled irreplaceable ecological wonders, most notably the Everglades. “Big Sugar,” dependent on the astronomical use of fertilizers that pollute the waters and overcharge plant growth while harming wildlife, threatens whatever is in its way. Lawyers and lobbyists prevail.

John Dunn – Credit SusanDunn

Reading through this book is a pleasure because of its carefully structured chapters and subchapters. Though the material is abundant and often complex, the packaging is extremely reader-friendly. Readers can set their own pace, and there is just enough repetition of key concepts and issues to create emphasis with the downside of tedium.

Here’s an example of concept clarification:

When one washes a car, most of the water eventually rejoins the aquifer. So that water is used, but not consumed. Some of the water evaporates, and some is relocated through the stormwater system. That water is used and consumed. Such distinctions run through the book, building a lexicon of critical terminology.

Running through the many chapters, more prominent in some than in others, is a well-turned geological history of Florida. This history, voiced eloquently and vividly by Mr. Dunn, is essential background for his detailed treatment of our recent centuries: Florida from the Industrial Revolution to the present time. Many of the most consequential chapters involve attempts to re-engineer the flow of water through the state, from Lake Okeechobee downward: attempts that have had questionable intended consequences and dangerous – indeed calamitous – unintended consequences. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in May 8, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the May 9 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions, and the May 16 Venice edition, click here:  Florida Weekly – Drying Up

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ISIS vs the Catholic Church: a Thriller

The Canonical Order, by T. R. Kurtz. 318 pages. Trade paperback $9.99. Kindle E-book $4.99.

This supercharged techno-spy thriller has it all. First of all, it has an intriguing premise. Kurtz imagines that the Catholic Church has developed a first-class intelligence operation with resources comparable to those of the superpowers. The Canonical Order is that impressive force, and it is presented as a late incarnation of the ancient Knights of Malta. Kurtz’s protagonist, Chad Stryker, is a highly experienced and outlandishly skilled former CIA agent who now works with the Canonical Order and has mastered its amazing resources. He is a leader of Black Swan, its covert action arm.

Why would the Vatican need such a warlike entity? Because a radical Islamist supergroup, led by a pair of Chechen brothers loyal to the Islamic State, has plans to destroy the Catholic Church and, by extension, all of Christianity.

Indeed, the Pope has been shot and is severely wounded.

What is amazing is the author’s ability to make his premise seem plausible. He has crafted a dynamic, suspenseful tale in which all of the many and often unexpected details fit together.

Stryker’s mission seems motivated in part by his need to redeem himself for any missteps he might have taken during the later stages of his wife’s death from a rare form of cancer. The portrait of the lovers’ relationship is powerfully drawn, and though Jennifer must always be offstage, she is as well-developed as any of the book’s many important characters.

Kurtz

Novices in the field of espionage and security countermeasures won’t know if Kurtz’s descriptions of the Order’s tools are accurate or not. However, they sure are appetizing. Devices are programmed to guide, respond to, and refine the parameters of the task at hand. Artificial intelligence seems to be blended with human assessments. Stryker is assisted by something called the “e-Mission Manager” that is as important as his Canonical Order human associates: namely, D’Orio, Moldovan, and the brains-and-beauty-blessed Sonia Navarre.  Another resource is curiously named MILEAGE.

However, as the mission progresses, it becomes clear that the outcomes are not what was hoped for or expected. Some tools have been improperly calibrated or otherwise compromised.

Dedicated readers will find out by whom and why.

Chad Stryker’s action tools include weaponized gear of all kinds. He has outfits that disguise and protect him, while hiding an array of immediately accessible, personal armaments. One imagines a world at techno-war in which new kinds of haberdashery adorn the compatible, superbly-trained agent.

Well-chosen bible passages connect chapter titles with the moral and “end-of-world” motifs of the action.

Kurtz is adept at describing intriguing settings and putting readers on the spot of the action. A long sequence set in Dubai engagingly establishes the interplay of character and place. Scenes in Kurdistan and elsewhere are similarly effective.

T. R Kurtz’s first novel has the makings of a best-seller, and its inventive imagery could inspire a movie.

Where did all this potentially history-changing imagining come from? . . . .

The full article, with  capsule profile and interview in the May-June 2019 Ft. Myers Magazine, has the answers.  You can read them by clicking here: CanonicalOrder

 

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“The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek,” by Kim Michele Richardson

Sourcebooks/Landmark. 320 pages. Trade Paperback Original. $15.99. 

Readers are likely to find Ms. Richardson’s fourth novel to be one of the most original and unusual contributions they will encounter in the realm of the current literature of the  American South. Set in the heart of the Great Depression, this engaging story rests on two little-known historical features. One of these is the existence of a shunned community of blue-skinned people who fight racial prejudice on a daily basis. However, they are not racially different from the whites who taunt and disrespect them. The are Caucasian in physical features and in all ways but skin color. Nonetheless, being different dooms them, defining them as misfits.

The other historical feature is the author’s exploration of the “book women,” workers in one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s projects to rebuild the U. S. economy and provide useful employments along the way.

Richardson

The project is essentially educational – an attempt to bring reading materials – and enhanced literacy — to isolated communities. In this case, the communities are in Kentucky’s coal mining belt. The Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project is staffed by dedicated people, mostly women, who not only travel arduous routes to serve their clients, but who bring an unexpected, uplifting enlightenment to those who are brave enough to find value in books other than the bible.

These workers help the children, and even the parents, develop a love of reading along with greater reading skill. They provide reading suggestions, they keep tabs on the books in their charge, and their visits become high points on the calendars of those whom they visit. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the Southern Literary Review, click here: Book Woman

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Florida: at once a real place and a state of mind

“Florida,” by Lauren Groff. Riverhead Books. 288 pages. Hardcover $27.00.

The eleven short stories in this daring, luminous book reveal, in various and complex ways, the truth of the poetic adage in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” We carry our minds with us, wherever we reside. We can’t get away from who we are. Forget about blaming your troubles on your environment.

Lauren Groff photo by Kristin Kozelsky

The narrators in most of these stories, especially the recurring one with two small sons and only the pronoun “she” for a name, suffer from being too self-aware. They have expectations of themselves that sometimes seem imprisoning. They have intellectual and creative tools that are burdensome. They can wear their friends out by being unintentionally demanding.

They are lonely, and they are worthy.

If you are a person who often feeling threatened, imagine how much additional threat you would feel living in a place brimming with snakes and alligators, real and metaphorical sinkholes, and violent storms. A place like Florida.

Through the book, Ms. Groff builds conundrums of inner and outer weather, interweaving landscapes with emotional states. 

Ms. Groff understands North Florida communities like a native. She is alert to neighborhood changes – sometimes gentrification, sometimes something worse. The unnamed judgmental character who narrates the first story, “Ghosts and Empires,” is an evening walker who enjoys scrutinizing those she meets or merely sees or expects to see along the way. She measures her distance from those she knows and those who remain strangers, and she measures how quickly time is passing her by.

In another story, the author focuses on a young man, the son of a herpetologist, who has “learned how to keep a calm heart when touching fanged things.” Also, how to survive the distance between his mother’s and his father’s polar sensibilities.

Ms. Groff can pinpoint the loneliness and sense of isolation that breeds within members of the same families. And she is alert—makes readers alert – to such things as “how the screens at night pulsed with the tender bellies of lizards.” She knows how houses express themselves. Her imagery is consistently fresh, vivid, and unexpected. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 25, 2019 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions of Florida Weekly, and the May 1 Fort Myers and May 2 Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Florida 

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The shadow of 9/11 looms over the lives of an otherwise privileged generation.

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck: A Novel, by Ann Beattie. Viking. 288 pages. Hardcover $25.00

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, Ann Beattie’s 21st book, is extremely smart: edgy, infectious, witty, and yet a bit brooding. Some readers will wonder if it is too smart; if, in style and tone, intelligence has conquered feeling in paralyzing ways. It certainly seems to have done so in several of the major characters. They are oddly desperate and oddly blocked. 

We meet Ben and his classmates during their senior year at Bailey Academy, a co-ed New Hampshire boarding school designed to discover and promote the ambitions of a privileged generation — and/or its parents.

Beattie’s handling of how these classmates interact, especially how they speak to one another, is remarkable. So is the anonymous narrating voice, who seems, at times, like an invisible overseer of the teenagers’ potentialities and handicaps — like someone who may have graduated from Bailey a decade or so back and can guess what they’re going through.

Positioned somewhere in between this voice and those of the students is Pierre LaVerdere’s. This master teacher is a complex personality who challenges his students in ways that don’t always seem responsible. LaVerdere manages the school’s honor society, but honor means different things to different people.

Beattie

LaVerdere is youthful and easily relates to his charges. Sometimes, he seems too close to them; sometimes, his closeness feels like an act — a test. He is a brilliant talker who knows how to take full advantage of his charm. But one suspects a hollowness within.

The students are going through the usual crises: Their nuclear families are breaking down through divorce and/or illness. Generational tensions are accelerating. In September of 2001, the fall of the Manhattan towers and part of the Pentagon introduces an unfathomable element into their lives.

Has something about dependable dreams and life patterns changed forever?

Beattie, to her credit, resists the temptation of laying it on too thick. She carefully times the occurrences, character, and intensity of her 9/11 references. They invade Ben’s consciousness — or the reader’s — in ways that compromise progress in Ben’s adult life. He and his Bailey cohort are having trouble betting on the future or even gauging the “really” in “What do I really want?”

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  A Wonderful Stroke of Luck

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Miami a major setting in spellbinding thriller with gruesome killings

Verses for the Dead, by Douglas Prescott and Lincoln Child. Grand Central Publishing. 352 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Billed as “A Pendergast Novel,” this latest entry in the thriller series about a legendary, iconoclastic FBI superstar is brimming with suspense, surprise, and imagination. Fabled rulebreaker A. X. L. Pendergast, always at odds with FBI standard procedure, must take an assignment that keeps him on the payroll by agreeing to accept a partner. What a restraining humiliation! However, this premise allows the authors to build a new, unique character, Special Agent Coldmoon, whose Native American heritage brings a special flavor to the table. 

The assignment has the men prowling around every kind of Miami neighborhood to find out facts and discover the psychopath behind a series of outrageously gruesome killings. The killer skillfully excises the hearts of his victims and places them against gravestones in Miami cemeteries.

He also leaves behind strange letters filled with literary allusions and quotations. The perpetrator has taken for himself the name Mr. Brokenhearts

Want more? Each of the grave holds the remains of a woman who, years ago, committed suicide.

The perpetrator seems to be conducting a ritual of his own crazed making that is in some ways a form of expiation.

Centers of interest include the interaction between Pendergast and this somewhat resentful FBI superiors, the FBI’s interaction with local police departments, the growing relationship between Pendergast and Coldmoon, and the dogged if often irregular investigatory process.

Preston and Child

The large cast of intriguing characters provides many who are in themselves centers of interest. These include a modestly successful journalist, Roger Smithback, who makes a big, if short-lived, splash through his coverage of the case. Dr. Charlotte Fauchet, of the medical examiner’s office, puts in the beyond-the-call-of-duty hours that change the direction of the inquiry.

Another fascinating character, once discovered and confronted by the FBI duo, is the killer – a fellow who for all of his murderous deeds qualifies as someone to pity for the miserable life that had been handed to him. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 10, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 11 Bonita Springs, Charlotte County,  and Venice editions, and the April 18 Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Verses for the Dead

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