Category Archives: Authors and Books

“In the Shadow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and Song,” by Jerome Charyn

Review by Philip K. Jason

Bellevue Literary Press. 272 pages. Trade paperback $16.99.

A prolific novelist and cultural critic, Charyn has brought together a group of autobiographical and critical essays energized by a distinctive, memorable style at once accessible and brimming with erudition. As the all-American child of parents defined by the immigrant experience, Charyn includes several essays having to do with his Bronx childhood. His parents’ silences were the silences of displacement, and Charyn’s eventually countervailing life in language becomes his ironic emergence from that silence into well-scored, elevating song.

Jerome Charyn – photo by Jorg Meyer

Charyn writes with passionate precision about writers, films and filmmakers, about New York’s marginalized classes, and all manner of cultural icons. He gets under the veneer of icons like Negro League baseball titan Josh Gibson. He celebrates the works of such Jewish writers as Isaac Babel, Henry Roth, the underpraised Samuel Ornitz, and the game-changing Saul Bellow, putting their radically different oeuvres in context. (His essay on Babel, a gem over fifty pages long, dazzles.)

 

 

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here:  In the Shadow of King Saul

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A war orphan’s journey from trauma to transcendence, with all the stops along the way

Review by Philip K. Jason

A Life Rebuilt: The Remarkable Transformation of a War Orphan, by Sylvia Ruth Gutmann. Epigraph Books. 318 pages. Hardcover $26.95, trade paperback $18.95.

This is one of the most heart-wrenching and ultimately uplifting Holocaust narratives. While the Holocaust is mostly in the background of this personal memoir, it is the driving force of the author’s life – and of her parents’ death and the death of many other relatives. It is the story of living in a vacuum that created self-doubt, depression, and poor choices. Sylvia’s story is a highly complex story that is simply told in an open, friendly manner. It is a story of self-discovery and self-making. It is a story about victory after failures, humiliations, and destructive patterns of behavior. It is honest to its core. 

Three-year-old Sylvia’s parents managed to arrange for the young girl and her two older sisters to reach safety before the parents met their deaths at Auschwitz.  She reached the United States at the age of seven, along with her sisters Rita, then fourteen, and Susi, a year or so younger. The series of traumas that brought Sylvia to New York obliterated her memory and left her with emptiness, foreboding, and a sense of unworthiness. She is taken in by her Uncle Sam, who shows strong affection, and his wife Gerdy, who treats her terribly, amplifying the child’s sense of unworthiness. This couple has two sons, the older of which, Michel, becomes a life-long friend, but there are periods of hostility between these cousins.

Sylvia has no memories, and she has a struggle to access the English language necessary for her education. Her sense of her younger self comes from conversations with Rita, who serves a maternal role. Rita builds a sense of Sylvia’s past that is largely accurate, but many decades later, as an old woman, Sylvia discovers inaccuracies and fills in blanks that were outside of Rita’s knowledge.

During her school years, Sylvia gains solace from her sense of non-belonging by over-indulging in sweets, and her weight problem brings humiliation. Addictive behavior of various kinds shows up throughout much of her life, as do periods of self-control and achievement. Her choices in men seem to bode well at first, but too often end up being disasters, plunging her into despair. However, she finds employments that allow her a modest income. The yearning to free herself from poor choices and low self-esteem brings her to successful periods of professional therapy. And Rita is always available, if not in person, then over the phone, to console her.

Over time, Sylvia gains self-knowledge and strength. Her one positive marriage, with Milton, a very wealthy and caring man, helps her gain balance, but after his death, with no continuing support from his heirs, she is back in a panic situation for herself and her son David, whom she must often support even in his adulthood.

One of her more eccentric relationships is with a young man named Jannek, a Czech student studying in Germany. At sixty-two, Sylvia is about forty years older than her suitor, but she travels to Germany to live with him. It is in the country that still holds the secrets of her early childhood that Sylvia begins telling her story to various groups, people of all ages and backgrounds, and their positive responses create a mission that soon dominates her life. The feedback she gets even ameliorates her hostility to the German people.

Sylvia Ruth Gutmann

While in Germany, she finds the place of her birth and meets individuals who knew her parents – and even knew the toddler Sylvia. Amazingly, she also meets the woman who so many years ago, at the age of nineteen, was entrusted by Sylvia’s mother with the fate of her three daughters.

While the historical and personal events, the few satisfying and frequent debilitating relationships, the kaleidoscopic moods, and hard-won insights of A Life Rebuilt are enough to draw readers to the book and its amazingly resilient author, it is Sylvia’s voice that is extraordinarily compelling. It is a voice like no other: sometimes frantic, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes fragile, sometimes strong, but always authentic and deeply revelatory. Over the decades, it shifts from being a voice of innocence to a voice of experience. It is a most remarkable and valuable voice. Hear it and you will be moved, enlightened, and changed.

Sylvia Ruth Gutmann immigrated with her two older sisters to the United States in 1946, four years after the murder of her parents in Auschwitz. Sylvia is a former spokesperson on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York City. Every year she shares her story at numerous Holocaust remembrance and Wounded Warrior ceremonies organized by the U.S. Military. She has also spoken extensively throughout Europe and was granted honorary German citizenship in 2002 for her peace activism. Sylvia currently lives in Massachusetts. In addition to having spent several years in Berlin, Germany, she has also lived in New York City, San Diego, Miami, Washington, DC, and Rhinebeck, New York. Over the years her friends learned to use a pencil when adding her home to their address book!!

See https://sylviaruthgutmann.com/

This review appears in the August 2018 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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“THE SISTERS OF GLASS FERRY,” BY KIM MICHELE RICHARDSON

Kim Michele Richardson (photo by Andrew Eccles)

Kensington Books. 272 pages. Trade Paperback $15.00.

This spellbinding new novel by the author of Liar’s Bench and GodPretty in the Tobacco Field powerfully blends teenage angst, a rich portrait of the American South, the blessings and curses of twinship, and the inevitably destructive nature of secrets. Ms. Richardson provides rich dosses of sensory imagery, emotional stress, and moral upheaval in the small, rural town of Glass Ferry, Kentucky. This is a town whose residents are at once desirous and fearful of leaving. It’s in their blood, and their blood is in it.

Just as Liar’s Bench links two periods of a town’s history, shuttling between them, much of The Sisters of Glass Ferry oscillates between the years 1952 and 1972, though there is much that extends into later decades. The title’s sisters, Patsy and Flannery, are non-identical twins. While chapters alternate between these temporal settings, they also alternate between the twins as centers of consciousness. Thus, Patsy and Flannery are defined against one another as well as in terms of their relationships with their parents and other characters in the novel.

Patsy, eight minutes older than Flannery, is clearly the mother’s favorite, both for her status as the oldest and her good looks. From the beginning, Flannery learned to defer to her twin – and most of the time she resented it. Their father taught both girls to handle firearms, but he also taught Flannery some of his whisky-making secrets. In a way, he treated her like the boy in the family. (Two infant sons had not survived.)

We meet the sisters as teenagers: Flannery the more subdued and dependable one; Patsy the more impulsive and popular. Flannery doesn’t get to go to the prom; Patsy meets what remains for a while a cloudy fate, her anticipated success as the belle of the ball transformed into tragedy. Her date’s older brother Hollis assaults her; then Patsy and her boyfriend Danny disappear. The girls’ parents are crushed, particularly the mother. She continues to hold birthday parties for her twins, convincing herself that there is a possibility of Patsy showing up. Mrs. Butler’s decline is not remedied by Flannery’s attempts to console her.

Flannery escapes to college and becomes a schoolteacher in Louisville. It comes as no surprise that she marries a controlling, abusive husband. How deftly Ms. Richardson handles this material is a most pleasant surprise, though the details are quite ugly. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in Southern Literary Review, click here: Sisters of Glass Ferry

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James Swain’s new thriller takes him in a new direction

The King Tides, by James Swain. Thomas & Mercer. 303 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

If you are looking for a new James Swain novel, a tantalizing tale of magic, gambling, and casino chicanery, don’t look here. Mr. Swain has launched a new character, and I hope he’s launching a new series. Jon Lancaster is something of a throwback to the hardboiled detective school; but the label has tears in it. He doesn’t completely fit. He’s tough, but he has a heart. A former Navy SEAL and a former policeman, Lancaster has a formidable package of skills and experience. As a private detective, freed from the restraints of federal or local governments, he has maintained connections that serve him well.

Slovenly and seemingly out of shape, Lancaster doesn’t make much of a first impression. But that’s how he likes it. To his adversaries, and even to his clients, he is a man of surprises.

Attractive teenager Nicki Pearl’s life has been turned upside down. She is constantly being stalked by perverts. Except for one rebellious misdeed, she can’t figure out why. If we can believer her innocence, we must wonder how she finds herself in this situation.

Swain

Dr. Nolan Pearl, Nicki’s father, has a difficult time thinking that Lancaster is the right man for the job. His wife is even more reluctant to trust rough-hewn Lancaster. But they succumb to his self-confidence and credentialed experience. They are in a panic, especially since two creeps had attempted to abduct Nicki at a nearby mall. When Lancaster sees a video of the mall scene, he can tell the men are professionals.

I may be giving too much away by saying that Nicki is being mistaken for someone else, someone in porn videos designed and circulated to attract and trap degenerates. The actress is Beth Daniels, an FBI agent who turned to crime fighting after surviving abduction in her college years. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the July 25, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 26 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The King Tides

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A highly original time-shifting thriller rendered in gorgeous prose

The Shimmer, by Carsten Stroud. Mira Books. 304 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

Here is a daring, magnetic, and brilliantly constructed novel that takes readers places they’ve never been. Well, you may have traveled to Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and New Orleans – but you will not have encountered the kind of time-travel orchestration of action that Mr. Stroud has managed to portray with such power and authoritative detail. “Authoritative” is the right word. These places and what happens in them – and then unhappens – are so compellingly imagined that you will believe what can’t be true.  

The narrative begins with a high-speed chase episode that is unforgettable – and it gains momentum from there.

In the present, Florida Highway Patrol’s Sergeant Jack Redding pursues a serial killer, a kind of time traveling femme fatale, who back in 1957 was sought by his grandfather, Clete Redding, of the Jacksonville police. The cycles of pursuit and escape follow this evil spirit known as Selena, Diana, and by several other names as well. Her lifetime is extended by time shifts that involve riding a time-bending force called The Shimmer. To catch her, one must follow her. Time markers in the Selena story go back to 1914.

Carsten Stroud photo credit Linda Mair

One aspect of the plot premise is the possibility that the damage Selena has done can be undone by adjustments in – or to – time. However, these adjustments – if made by entering through the wrong temporal portal – can have disastrous unintended consequences. Characters travel into the past to shape (reshape?) the future, but the outcomes of their efforts, even if in pursuit of justice, are unpredictable.

Mr. Stroud builds a fascinating logic of cause and effect that keeps readers hooked while it keeps them guessing. As the characters slide (or shimmer) from the world we share to the world adjusted by time travel, our belief in them is carried over to our belief in what they experience and hold true.

Can a tragedy that occurs on the Matanzas Inlet bridge along Florida’s route A1A be wiped away by a time shift back to before the bride was built? If so, what other time-bound occurrences will be altered? . . .

To enjoy the full review, as it appears in the July 11, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 12 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Springs editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The Shimmer

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“Patient Care: Death and Life in the Emergency Room,” by Paul Seward, MD

  • Catapult.  240 pp.  Hardcover $25.00.

This insider account of the ER provides high drama, fascinating detail, and unexpected humor.

Paul Seward’s half-century in the emergency room has yielded a bounty of stories illustrating the joys and frustrations of his trade. The 21 friendly, well-carved vignettes he shares in Patient Care penetrate the mysteries of emergency medicine while underscoring the compassion, skill, and dedication of the modest practitioner/author.

One of the recurrent concerns expressed by Seward is his inability, when sharing his reminiscences here, to remember everything relevant to a particular patient’s case and to his own behavior during the crisis. He fills in these blanks by explaining what his customary action would likely have been.

Why does he take the time to worry about these memory lapses? Perhaps it is one way of admitting the human fallibility to which physicians, like all people, are prone. And while he often puts his colleagues on a pedestal, he keeps himself on the ground.

Paul Seward.. credit Carl Burkard

Seward reveals that he has always taken great personal interest in the people and situations he has encountered. While emergency medicine is characterized by its dependence on tried-and-true routines, it’s important to recognize when a situation is going off the rails — and to be able to improvise or ask for help.

It’s a highly pressurized workplace in which minutes, even seconds, can mean the difference between life and death. Seward emphasizes this reality over and over. And he makes the stakes feel real for readers.

One of his patients in the ER was a middle-aged man sitting stiffly in a wheelchair, a pair of shears sticking out of his back. The man looked like “some kind of grisly windup toy with a key in the back of his neck shaped like the handle of a pair of shears.”

The man was a professional gardener attacked by a co-worker; the shears’ blades had entered “exactly in the midpoint of his neck, halfway from his shoulders to the back of his neck.” They stopped just short of the spinal cord.

The description of the neurosurgeon removing the weapon, with exquisite care, is charged with suspense, but the real miracle was the amazingly lucky placement of the shears. The man just needed to have the wound flushed and closed. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Patient Care

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The surprisingly influential Jewish community at the southernmost corner of the United States

The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823-1969), by Arlo Haskell. Sand Paper Press. 208 pages. Deluxe Trade Paperback $24.00.

In seven well-shaped chapters, Haskell packs an enjoyable and frequently astonishing history of Key West’s Jewish community. Hearing of the topic, some people will assume that this is a slender thread to spin into a book. However, they would be wrong. Haskell’s research has turned up a considerable amount of information that brings to life 144 years of Jewish involvement in this most idiosyncratic town.

Young Men’s Hebrew Association

The chapters bite off chronological slices of history, each focusing on the economic and cultural aspects of Jewish life. Thus, the journey begins with a discussion of sailors and merchants in an era of military events,stressing the importance of Key West as a port town, a multilingual place that had an international flair. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Jewish community was tiny, hardly a real community. Early Jewish settlers included Mordecai White and Samuel Cline, who were tailors and clothes merchants. The naval presence brought them customers.

During a twenty-year span that followed the initial attraction of Jews to Key West, opportunities in a growth industry took hold and swelled the population, including the Cuban and the Jewish population. Samuel Seidenberg “was the first manufacturer to capitalize on the fact that a cigar as good as the Cuban ones could be made in Key West at significantly lower cost.” He constructed a huge factory. His Jewish rivals included M. Myerson, Max Marx, the Pohalski brothers, and Julius Ellinger. Haskell’s narrative of the Key West tobacco boom shows how it promoted the town’s economy, attracting investment with its hundreds of employees. The Pohalski brothers built a company corner of town with homes for their workers. Their section of Key West gave rise to dry good and grocery stores, as well as a drug store and a saloon. These leaders were primarily secular Jews.

Arlo Haskell photo Nick Doll

As he traces the growth of the Jewish presence in Key West, Haskell keeps us in touch with larger issues of the time, including the Civil War and the Ten Years’ War fought to liberate Cuba from the Spanish Empire. He points out parallels in the age-old Jewish and nineteen century Cuban struggles for autonomy and independence. Haskell points out the need for Key West’s Jews to form alliances with exiled Cubans who, under the leadership of José Martí, had made Key West their command center.

The latter decades of the nineteenth century mark the beginning of a true Jewish community. New Jewish settlers in Key West often continued their European enterprises as peddlers and shopkeepers. Though Key West was ravaged by a fire in 1886, the rebuilding of the town brought new opportunities. Abram Wolkowsky and other Eastern European Jews shared religious customs, the experience of exile, and the Yiddish language. Slowly, Jewish institutions begin to take hold. Congregation B’nai Zion, still functioning, gives 1887 as its date of origin.

The Jewish Alliance’s Key West chapter emerged in 1891. Its primary concern was to establish a Jewish cemetery, and it did so. As the century wound down, “Jews had become an important and highly visible component of Key West business life.” One of the community leaders, Louis Fine, was not only a successful business man, but also served as lay leader for religious matters until Key West had its first rabbi.

Fine’s grocery store had a lower level used “to store weapons for the [Cuban] rebel army.” Haskell devotes a chapter to exploring the phenomenon of “Jewish Revolutionaries” in the 1890s.

The first two decades of the twentieth century witness a strong, thriving Key West Jewish community. The Jewish congregation held services and other activities on the second floor of the Fine family’s hardware store. When Fine was not available, itinerant Rabbi Herman Horowitz handled the community’s religious needs. All kinds of Jewish businesses were set up along and near Duval Street.

Marks, Rosenthal & Wall Family

Jewish shoe merchants

On top of the Honest Profit House, a clothing store run by the Wolkowsky family, sat the office of the U. S Immigration Inspector, and through that office many hundreds of Jews took their first steps toward citizenship.

Key West rode the wave of nationwide improvements in communication and other technologies. The growing Jewish population was serviced by efforts of the Jewish Alliance to find jobs for Jewish immigrants. This initiative included relocating immigrants from overcrowded New York to various other places around the country, Key West included. By 1905, the Jewish community reported having 158 members. Its members joined efforts to reunite Jewish families that had been separated. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 4, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 5 Naples and  Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Key West’s Jews 1  and Florida Weekly – Key West’s Jews 2

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Musical genius helped others reach success while fighting his inner demons

Phil Gernhard, Record Man, by Bill DeYoung. University Press of Florida. 208 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

The University Press of Florida has published an unofficial series of books about the state’s role in American’s popular music. These include “Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band,” “Music Everywhere: The Rock and Roll Roots of a Southern Town” (about the Gainesville scene), and “Elvis Ignited: The Rise of an Icon in Florida” (all reviewed in these pages). Mr. DeYoung’s effort is essentially a biography of a relatively unknown giant in the popular music world. Following along the trail Phil Gernhard’s life, the author paints a vivid picture of the U. S. music industry in the second half of the twentieth century.  

Trained neither as a musician nor a businessman, Gernhard picked up what he needed to know through hustle and hard work. He began early, and by the time he was nineteen he had produced a million-copy recording: “Stay,” a monstrous hit performed by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. It was 1960, and Gernhard had already recorded a few other songs by his group.

Gernhard’s career was hardly a straight or unbroken line. He had many ups and downs. Still, he managed to produce an amazing amount of recorded music, and a high percentage of those releases become hits, bringing money into the pockets of the musicians, songwriters, studio technicians, and owners of record labels. He succeeded through changing times and changing tastes.

DeYoung

Mr. DeYoung makes it only too clear that Gernhard was an accomplished and somewhat greedy dealmaker, negotiating contracts that gave him many slices of the pie. Sometimes songwriter credit for doctoring a needy lyric, sometimes a percentage for enhancing production quality, and sometimes simply by writing himself into the contract for being able to put all the pieces together. He was labeled as a producer, and he produced.

He worked to get studio time, rehearsal time, radio play, engagements for live performances, and whatever else might make a record a success. When the industry changed from one in which singles lost out to albums in the economics of the industry, Gernhard learned how to adapt and how to help others adapt.

Originally based in his home state of Florida, Gernhard also rose the ladder of influence in such music capitals as Los Angeles and Nashville.

Now it’s time to name names: Dion DiMucci’s career was resurrected by Gernhard with the improbably successful ballad “Abraham, Martin and John.” He produced hits for Lobo, Jim Stafford, the Bellamy Brothers, Rodney Atkins, and Tim McGraw. It wasn’t just hustling. Gernhard was credited with having “magic ears.” He could tell that a song (or a singer) had a lucrative future. He knew how to match a song and a singer for maximum effect. . . .

 

To read the full review, as it appears in the June 27, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 28 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Record Man  

See also: Skyway

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“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” by Yossi Klein Halevi

HarperCollins. 224 pages. Hardcover  $24.99.

Yossi Klein Halevi yearns for a meaningful conversation with a Palestinian counterpart who is willing to read, listen respectfully, and respond. He hopes to determine whether two peoples can share a land while maintaining their separate contiguous states. Halevi understands that his overture must be rooted in his own willingness to listen. With some admitted reluctance, he has accepted the two-state solution as the only way to move forward.

Halevi

Halevi makes this overture with the utmost sincerity and a fully nuanced understanding of modern Israel’s evolution and challenges. He seeks a Palestinian partner whose desire for peace is equally fervent, a person whose vision of the past includes the understanding that neither party can afford to be stuck in that past. The voice in the letters is filled with empathy, hope, and a bit of despair. It has an inviting, embracing, and winsome lyricism, as well as dignity and resolvethe perfect pitch for its colossal purpose.

Halevi has crafted a sequence of ten letters, imagined for a reader whose dwelling is nearby but who he hasn’t yet encountered. The letters have overlapping concerns, with undulating shifts in emphasis. These concerns include the functions of Holocaust memory, the need to pursue justice, and the many profound parallels in Jewish and Islamic holy texts and religious practices. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here: Palestinian Neighbor

See also this Interview with Yossi Klein Halevi

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Portraits of shakers and makers whose efforts shaped today’s Florida

Florida Made, by George S. LeMieux and Laura E. Mize. The History Press. 284 pages. Trade paperback $21.99.

Made elegant being printed on glossy paper, which makes the illustrations stand out, this is a must-have book for Floridians who love their state and want to brag about it. It will also bring pleasure to readers who love history and enjoy seeing how the present attributes of an area grow out of the creative genius and hard work of far-sighted individuals. Written in an attractive, engaging prose style, it will make a fine addition to any Florida library. It’s also a good choice for gift-giving.  

The essays touch some common themes, but they are essentially independent. Readers can choose their own pace regarding whether to read a chapter at a time or move along through four or five before taking a break.

Many of the names will be familiar and thus expected. Yet even when reviewing the profiles of Walt Disney and Margery Stoneman Douglass, most readers will encounter information they didn’t have before. Florida Made is a user-friendly way of absorbing Florida history and learning how especially talented and dedicated individuals make game-changing contributions.

Mize and LeMieux

Some of the individuals are important because they launched something that gave the state an important new dimension. Ted Arison’s contributions to building the cruise ship industry allowed Florida’s ports to blossom and to make Florida not only a destination but also a gateway to countless other destinations. Now, it’s hard to think about Florida without thinking about the opportunities for pleasurable travel abroad.

Wayne Huizenga succeeded in many businesses (Waste Management, for example), before becoming involved with sports franchises, boosting Florida’s number of professional sporting teams and sporting events and helping brand Florida as a major sports capital. . . .

To enjoy the entire review, as it appears in the June 13, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 14 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Florida Made

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