Category Archives: Authors and Books

Super Bowl scam and fix threaten master con man

Super Con, by James Swain. Thomas & Mercer, 376 pages. Trade paperback. $15.95.

Swain

James Swain has long been the king of mystery fiction that deals in magic, gambling, and graft. His newest series, featuring Billy Cunningham, entices readers with insider information on Las Vegas, the gambling industry, and the myriad ploys of cheaters. The moral premise of the series is that the gambling industry is by its very nature corrupt. The odds are against us whenever we step into casino.

The sounds of the coins jingling in the slot machines, along with the occasional large payoffs at the roulette wheels and the blackjack tables, whet the appetites of both the naive and the addicted. If the casinos only exist to take our money, it seems fair enough for there to be specialists in the gaming arts who are there to take the casinos’ money.

There are such confidence men, and Billy is the top dog. Clever, usually cautious, and a shrewd reader of human nature, Billy has an effective crew of subordinates who can execute his plans to rip off one or another casino income source. He can create big winnings at the card tables, manipulate the slots, and — in the case of this caper — design a plan for windfall payoffs in sports betting.  

This time out he is going to fix the betting strategy for the Super Bowl so that huge winnings come his way. For this momentous payoff, he needs allies who will share in the execution, the risks, and the profit. Billy’s plans are compromised by Broken Tooth, a Chinese crime boss who has leverage on Billy and wants him to assure the Super Bowl’s outcome through rigging the game, a quite different matter from rigging the betting.

Readers will enjoy the various scams and devices that allow the desired cheating to be accomplished. They will enjoy the feeling that Mr. Swain’s descriptions allow them of feeling like they are part of this unfamiliar world with its secrets and codes of conduct. The will get to know the members of his crew, the major figures from other crews with whom Billy associates, and the sometimes shady figures who police the gambling industry, supposedly on behalf of the public. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the December 6, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 7 Naples, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Super Con

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A powerfully imagined novel explores the causes and consequences of an unjust murder conviction

Monument Road, by Michael Wiley. Severn House. 256 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

When we first meet Franky Dast, he is just out of prison. Falsely convicted of a double murder eight years ago, Franky, in is mid-twenties is entering a world he has not yet begun to figure out. Largely due to his own efforts, his has been given his freedom. He was betrayed by Higby, a demonic arresting officer who put him on death row, by his ill-equipped public defender, and by a system that had no interest in raising questions about the past. Bitter over the lost years and the taint on his name, Franky gains employment with the Justice Now Initiative, a small organization that aids people facing the same problem of having been unjustly imprisoned.  

A haunted man, Franky is not an ideal employee, but his supervisors nurture him as best they can.

In order to more fully establish his innocence, Franky feels the need to discover who was really guilty of murdering those two brothers, young teenagers, with whom Franky had an innocent encounter that doomed him.

Just as he had done much of the investigative work that set him free, Franky is back at it again, trying to to follow up on the death of those boys and to others whose lives and deaths seem to have linked circumstances and details.

With no bars hemming him in, often confused, and determined to be in charge of his own life, Franky is taking chances that might get him in trouble.

Michael Wiley

This gorgeously crafted, shudderingly dark novel blends the genres of psychological thriller and murder mystery. Many will find the author’s probing of Franky’s tormented psyche to have primary appeal. However, the young man is also an adept reasoner and a bulldog at getting close to people who may have secrets that he needs to draw out.

The version of Jacksonville that Mr. Wiley takes us through is a stretch of the urban and suburban American South blighted by corruption and contamination of all kinds. Autopsies reveal unusually high mercury levels; a powerful judge holds sway over how and whether law –  as actualized in the sheriff’s department and the courtroom – is administered; and the low-end rooming house where Franky rents a room is a sordid, grimy place (although its owner/manager seems to be a competent and caring person). . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 29, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 30 Naples, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Monument Road

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“Barren Island: A Novel,” by Carol Zoref

New Issues Poetry & Prose. 408 Pages. Hardcover  $26
Review by Philip K. Jason

Can you imagine making a life in the shadow of a rendering plant, a place where the stench of rotting horse carcasses and related animal decay is ever present—a place isolated from the Brooklyn shore, though regularly visited by barges bringing an unending supply of disintegrating remains for the glue factory? Such is Barren Shoals, which, like the neighboring Barren Island, is a last resort for poor immigrant families. 

Zoref’s narrator, eighty-year-old Marta Eisenstein Lane, was born and raised in this repugnant place. Through Marta, the author traces the life of a neglected, impoverished community that is distanced in every way from the American Dream. Indeed, a critique of that dream is one level at which this exceptional and surprising novel operates.

There are many other levels. Zoref’s book is truly an historical novel, taking us through the aftermath of World War I, the brief epoch of good times for many that followed, and the crushing Depression eventually to be relieved by the dawning of World War II. She explores how people outside of the mainstream receive news and process it: news about government programs, about the unionization of labor, and about the various utopian “isms” for redistributing power and wealth.

Carol Zoref

The heart of the novel covers Marta’s life from the age of about seven through her high school graduation and her refusal to pursue an opportunity to enter Hunter College. It focuses on the Eisenstein family and other immigrant families (Greeks, Italians, etc.), revealing the hardships of their lives and the power of their passions. Its large cast of memorable characters includes Marta’s mother and brother, her best friend Sophia, and her teacher—the wise, talented, and effective Miss Finn. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Barren Island by Carol Zoref | Jewish Book Council

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Showing kids how ordinary people can have enormous effects on our world

I Am Gandhi and I Am Sacagawea, by Brad Meltzer. Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos. Dial Books for Young Readers. 40 pages. Hardcover $14.99.

Meltzer

These two recent titles add scope and impact to the already substantial “Ordinary People Change the World” series. The series of picture books, which has 2 million copies in print, provides young readers (as well as their parents and grandparents), with laudable heroes. The hook is that as children they were no so exceptional. Another attraction is that Mr. Meltzer has these historical characters tell their own stories. He invents friendly voices for each of them, voices inviting to the children being addressed. 

“I Am Gandhi,” the narrator announces his inauspicious beginnings. Small of stature, the socially backward boy was a poor soccer player and a mediocre student. Early on, he became attracted to the lives of those who had helped others. He was sensitive to the fact many people were desperately poor and consistently treated as unworthy beings. Laws prevented them from improving their lives.

He reveals how his life in South Africa, where Indians were suppressed, led him to be politically active but never violent. He would break laws that were prejudicial, accept the punishment, and exercise his mind to find new paths for successful protest. His paved the way for the Indian Relief act of 1914 and set the pattern for his later activities back India through the Indian National Congress. This political force slowly broke down the shackles of British rule of India. Gandhi’ commitment to nonviolent but unshakeable protest influenced future leaders throughout the world.

“I Am Sacagawea” repeats the formula while providing insights into a very different slice of history. The young Shoshoni Indian tells about her tribe being attacked by another tribe. Captured, she was given to a French Canadian man. At that time, she received her name. She also became pregnant and had a child named Pomp.

This teenager proved her worth as a translator, as someone who understood the terrain that the Lewis and Clark expedition first encountered, and as someone capable of finding food and of rescuing supplies that had fallen off a boat. . . .

Eliopoulos

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 22, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 23 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Meltzer’s books for kids

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Arab Spring the driving force in taut international thriller

Come Home, by Patricia Gussin. Oceanview Publishing. 368 pages. Hardcover $26.95.

Remember 2011 – the year of the Arab Spring? The turmoil in the Middle East provides a backdrop for Ms. Gussin’s fast-paced thriller. Ahmed Masud, middle son in a wealthy Egyptian family, is called back to Cairo to help prepare for his family’s future after the Mubarak regime collapses. Their wealth derives being favored by Mubarak’s son, who handed them an Egyptian cotton empire. Also, Ahmed’s parents wish to see his five-year-old son, Alex. Succumbing to their pressure, and unsettled by medical malpractice lawsuits, Ahmed steals his son away to Cairo, rashly jeopardizing his marriage and the American dream lifestyle he and his wife, also a plastic surgeon, have shared.  

Readers will be puzzled by Ahmed’s sudden sense of family duty, as was his wife, Dr. Nicole Nelson, who is outraged and crushed by his behavior. She wants her son back! Nicole rallies the support of her twin sister Natalie and their accomplished, successful brothers.

A second crisis hits Natalie, who is in charge of a major program at a large pharmaceutical company. Its cancer drug has tested well and is saving lives with the promise of saving many more. However, people are dying – of constipation. The FDA insists that this serious problem be cleared up. The drug itself is not deadly; rather, the painkillers prescribed to lessen the patients’ suffering are causing the problem. Her career in the balance, Natalie has a difficult time balancing the needs of her company and her desire to aide her sister, reeling from Ahmed’s behavior. Natalie, however, is up to the task.

The Nelson family hires a major security agency to work on rescuing Alex. The chief of the security team has extensive connections and immediately puts them to use.

Gussin

The plot runs back and forth among happenings in Egypt, Philadelphia, Uruguay, Belgium, and Liberia. The Masud family is under great stress, and Ahmed’s older and younger brothers are power-crazed psychopaths driven to extremes by the threats to the elite Mubarak establishment and by their own greed. There is a race to solve the pharma problem, another to control and relocate the Masud family, and through it all the chase after Nicole’s missing son. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 15, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 16 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly -Come Home

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A delightful novella about learning to color outside the lines

Her Fake Engagement, by Gigi Garrett. St. Martin’s Paperback. 157 pages. Kindle e-book $3.99.

It is a pleasure to meet a talented writer entering new territory. Naples resident Gwendolyn Heasley made a reputation for her young adult (YA) novels, including the remarkable Don’t Call Me Baby (2014) reviewed in these pages. Now she fathoms the more complicated depths of women who have extended their single lives for one reason or another. 

In Her Fake Engagement, Lotti Langerman is approaching thirty with questions about her unsatisfying love life. A successful New York real estate agent, she is attractive and yet not sure of herself. She has established a list of rules to help her navigate the stormy seas of romance. Lotti hopes to avoid mistakes; she’d rather be a bit boring that be caught off-guard, too easily impressed, or sending misunderstood signals. Her friends make fun of her rule-bound existence, but Lotti is determined to avoid reckless spontaneity and play it safe. This gambit isn’t quite working.

The events in this delightful, breezy book derive from two situations. One of these is Lotti’s career as an upscale real estate agent. It is her good fortune to meet well-to-do young men on whom she can work her considerable sales skills. Lotti is really good at what she does. She is well prepared, persuasive, good at reading her clients’ personalities, and especially good at minimizing their objections to perceived shortcomings about residences and neighborhoods. Readers receive an enjoyable lesson in salesmanship and in the New York real estate scene.

Gigi Garrett

At the same time, they look into the life of an independent woman trying to build a career in the big city. Her clients include two young men, Andrew and Tyler, whom she explores in her imagination as possible boyfriends — and maybe more. However, one of her rules is to avoid mixing business with pleasure. Lotti wonders what attracts her to Tyler, whose interests and traits would seem to be red flags warning her to back off. His work as a jewelry designer is especially intriguing, as is his appraisal of an engagement ring Lotti wears — or doesn’t wear — depending upon how she wants to present herself: available or not. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the November 8, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 9  Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Her Fake Engagement

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Politics and power block the truth about mysterious disappearance

Naked We Came, by Robert Lane. Mason Alley Publishing. 355 pages. Trade paperback $14.95, Kindle e-book, $4.99.

This fifth Jake Travis Novel has plenty of Mr. Lane’s familiar mix of grit and literary style plus a more personal premise than the earlier titles. When a man who was the primary suspect in his missing sister’s disappearance is found dead on the beach near Jake’s home, the floodgates of emotions long held in check open and threaten to overwhelm him.

Why now, thirty years after her abduction, has this man Hawkins been left to be discovered? Is the confession he wrote just before his body washed ashore genuine or coerced? Jake feels that latter is likely, and that the identifying DNA evidence has been manipulated.

The discovery of the corpse raises hundreds of questions, but three are central. What happened to Jake’s slightly older sister, whom Jake had last seen when she was seven? Is there any chance that she is alive? Was Jake in any way responsible for leaving her vulnerable?

Riddled with long-suppressed despair and guilt, Jake commits himself to find the answers and mete out personal justice to whomever is responsible for her disappearance and possibly her death.

Robert Lane

All of Jake’s investigative and martial skills, along with those of his loyal friends and the understanding of his devoted girlfriend, will be needed to sustain Jake in this time of raging personal need.

Before long, Jake discovers that people in private and governmental corridors of power are determined to thwart his quest. The truth about what happened to Brittany includes secrets that they need to keep hidden. Following up on the long-terminated official investigation of her disappearance does not get Jake far, but it does bring the forces arrayed against him to attention.

Searching for a starting point to pursue the thirty-year-old crime, Jake retraces events at the southwest Florida Vanderbilt Reef Motel where he and his family were vacationing. His efforts lead to three linked figures who would have been young men spending time in the area back then. Well-connected attorney Bernard Carlsberg is one of them. Carlsberg has a connection to a shady Russian wheeler-dealer named Peter Omarov. And Omarov has connections to U.S. government agents who protect Omarov because he is a valuable source: a conduit to what’s going on in Russia and Ukraine. The third man, David LeClair, is clearly a key – but Jake learns that LeClair has been dead for thirty years. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 1, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 2 issues of the Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Naked We Came  

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Collier County Jewish Book Festival goes from strength to strength

By Phil Jason, Jewish Book Festival co-chair

This season, the third annual Collier County Jewish Book Festival will build upon the successes of its first two years, continuing this superb contribution to the cultural life of our community. A project of the Jewish Federation of Collier County in cooperation with the Jewish Book Council, the Festival will offer 11 book events at several venues, with a total of 18 authors visiting from November 2017 into April 2018.

Five of the Festival events will feature a dynamic solo presenter. Another five will feature two authors matched by a common theme. The authors sharing the bill will not co-present or share the stage, but provide back-to-back presentations. Each speaker will give a 30- to 45-minute talk followed by 15-20 minutes of Q&A plus book-signing time. There will be a short break between presentations. One event will showcase the writing talents of three debut novelists. Each author will speak for approximately 25 minutes, followed by a Q&A session with the three authors on a panel.

Dorff

On Thursday, November 16 at 7:00 p.m. at the Hilton Naples, meet Steve Dorff, author of I Wrote That One Too…a Life in Songwriting from Willie to Whitney. This witty biography includes anecdotes about stars who have recorded Steve’s songs, many of them Top 10 hits. Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Ray Charles and Garth Brooks are among the stellar cast. Steve will perform many of his best-known songs and share the stories behind them. Refreshments provided.

Wednesday, December 6 at 11:30 a.m. brings another solo presentation at the Hilton. Eminent actor Stephen Tobolowsky will discuss his memoir, My Adventures with God, a series of vignettes, at once humorous and profound, that review his Texas childhood, his adventures of the heart, and his struggles with matters of faith aided by encounters with the Torah and the Talmud. You’ve seen this top-drawer character actor in Mississippi Burning, Glee, Groundhog Day and Memento. Tobolowsky, who has been in more than 100 movies and over 200 television shows, has become a legendary storyteller. The event price includes a luncheon and a copy of the book.

Tobolowsku

On Sunday, December 10 at 7:00 p.m., return to the Hilton for Alexandra Silber’s After Anatevka – A Novel Inspired by “Fiddler on the Roof.” What happens to the characters invented by Sholem Aleichem and brought to the stage (and screen) after the curtain falls? It takes an actress like Alexandra Silber, who knows the play from the inside, to imagine what comes next. She does so in a sweeping historical novel. Silber has played Tzeitel in the play’s most recent Broadway revival, and Hodel in London’s West End. Alexandra will blend musical stylings with spoken words from her book in a theatre-like setting. Refreshments provided.

On Monday, January 8 at 1:00 p.m., the Naples Conference Center is the venue for history. In his Angels in the Sky, Robert Gandt relates “How a Band of Volunteer Airmen Saved the New State of Israel.” It’s a suspenseful and upbeat story tracing these courageous volunteers from their various home countries as they moved themselves and the needed equipment to the nascent Jewish state. This is popular history at its best, drawing upon first-person interviews and extensive archival research. It’s David-and-Goliath all over again. Gandt is paired with Bryan Mark Rigg, author of The Rabbi Saved by Hitler’s Soldiers. Amid the chaos and hell of the emerging Holocaust, a small group of German soldiers shepherded Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneersohn and his Hasidic followers out of Poland on a dangerous and circuitous path to America. You will be surprised to learn about the Wehrmacht soldier who led them.

Silber

On Wednesday, January 24 at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom, meet Pam Jenoff (The Orphan’s Tale) and Gavriel Savit (Anna and the Swallow Man). Both of these inventive novels touch upon the Holocaust in unique ways. Jenoff’s, based on true stories, tells of a German circus that becomes the home and refuge of two young women. Teenage Noa, disgraced by her pregnancy, is forced to give up her baby, but she rescues another – a Jewish child – from a boxcar destined for a concentration camp. Astrid, Jewish and a professional trapeze artist, is already headlining the circus, but must teach Noa the necessary skills to fit in. Their unstable relationship is magnetically portrayed. Savit imagines Krakow in 1939. Young Anna, her father taken by the Nazis, meets a mysterious, somewhat magical fellow whom she follows through the most dangerous situations. This startling novel will entrance readers of all ages – especially if they are interested in European Jewish history. 

Stop by the Hilton on Monday, January 29 at 1:00 p.m. and you are likely to go away laughing. Multi-talented sitcom writer Susan Silver will talk about Hot Pants in Hollywood: Sex, Secrets & Sitcoms. She promises that the book is funny and sexy, so let’s see if she keeps her promise. Tales of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Newhart and Maude can’t be anything but riotous. But who can tell the tale of Joan Rivers? No one better than her biographer, Leslie Bennetts, author of Last Girl Before Freeway. The story of the trailblazing comedian’s battle to break down barriers for women is not all laughs, but there should be enough of them to balance out the darker moments in her subject’s life as ambition and insecurity collide. After all, Rivers made people laugh for 60 years.

Family-focused memoir is the theme on Wednesday, February 14 at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom. Playwright and film producer Peter Gethers’ My Mother’s Kitchen tells the heartwarming story of his determination to bring his aging mother’s friends and loved ones to the table one last time for a feast featuring her favorite dishes. This desire springs from Peter’s growing closeness to his mother and his desire to hear about her colorful past and her kitchen secrets. Actress Annabelle Gurwitch’s Wherever You Go, There They Are describes the family she tried to escape and the ones she joined by accident or on purpose, including her southern ancestors, the sisterhood, and an adult summer camp for vegans. She trades one crazy family for several. Annabelle has appeared on episodes of Seinfeld, Murphy Brown and Dexter, and she formerly hosted Dinner and a Movie on TBS. 

On Monday, February 26 at 1:00 p.m. at the Naples Conference Center, three authors will discuss their new works and their careers. Meet Jane Healey (The Saturday Evening Girls Club), Sana Krasikov (The Patriots) and Ellen Umansky (The Fortunate Ones) as they make individual presentations and then interact with one another. The title of Healey’s book refers to a group of four young immigrant women who meet with others to escape hectic home lives in Boston’s North End during the early 1900s. Krasikov’s novel follows a young woman who leaves her middle-class Brooklyn Jewish family during the depression expecting a better life in Stalin’s USSR. What she discovers is not what she expects. Umansky’s book is set in 1939 Vienna, from which Rose Zimmer’s parents try to send her to safety via the Kindertransport. The search for a missing painting and the consequences of that search lead to unexpected revelations.

On Wednesday, March 7 at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom there will be a love and relationships session with Marilyn Simon Rothstein’s Lift and Separate and Renee Rosen’s Windy City Blues. Rothstein creates Marcy, a Jewish mother of three grown children, whose husband of 33 years leaves her for a fitting model he met at his brassiere empire. How she rebounds from this setback will keep you reading. Rosen’s riveting story, set in 1950s and ’60s Chicago, tells of a young Jewish Polish immigrant, and a black blues guitarist who left the south to play in the burgeoning Chicago music scene, who risk threats of violence in an era in American history that frowned on mixed-race couples. Their story of forbidden romance is weaved into the history of Chess Records and the birth of the blues and rock ’n’ roll in Chicago.

Friday, March 16 at 1:00 p.m. brings five-time Emmy Award-winner Alan Zweibel to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples. A writer for Saturday Night Live and Curb Your Enthusiasm, his novel The Other Shulman won the Thurber Prize for American Humor in 2006. He collaborated with Billy Crystal on the Tony Award-winning play 700 Sundays. His latest project is the Passover Haggadah parody For This We Left Egypt? – co-written with Dave Barry and Adam Mansbach. Light food and refreshments provided. And laughs!

The Festival closes on Monday, April 9 at 2:30 p.m. at Beth Tikvah Synagogue with Abigail Pogrebin, who will talk about My Jewish Year. As a character in her own book, Abigail is presented as a somewhat rebellious family member who feels her Jewish life has not been as rich as it might have been. So she embarks on an entire year of research, observance, and writing about every ritual, fast and festival in one Jewish year.

Zweibel

Festival sponsors include: Florida Weekly, Hilton Naples, U.S. Bank, Barnes & Noble Waterside Shops, Steinway Piano Gallery, Women’s Cultural Alliance, JFCS of SWFL, TheatreZone, John R. Wood Properties, JNF, Senior Housing Solutions, AJC West Coast, Beth Tikvah, Collier/Lee Chapter of Hadassah, Clive Daniel Home, FIDF Miami Chapter, Holocaust Museum & Education Center of SWFL, Temple Shalom Sisterhood, Dr. Barrett Ross Ginsberg and Naples Jewish Congregation.

A complete schedule of events, ticket information, venue locations, author bios and book synopses is available at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. For more information or to order tickets by phone, call Renee’ at the Jewish Federation of Collier County at 239.263.4205.

Note: This article appeared in the October 26, 2017 Naples Florida Weekly.  See CCJBF 2018

 

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An engaging history of Fort Myers through the lens of its private residences and their owners

River & Road: Fort Myers Architecture from Craftsman to Modern, by Jared Beck and Pamela Miner. University Press of Florida. 208 (oversized) pages. Hardcover $45.00.

This copiously illustrated book is a lifestyle junkie’s delight. Delightful story-telling traces the history of the city’s architectural heritage while providing engaging stories of the houses’ various owners. Landmark neighborhoods get special attention, as does the interplay of the natural and man-made environments. 

The prose style of this book, at once technically professional and adoring of its subjects, makes one wonder just how the selection process was made. How many residences had to be eliminated so that the twenty-eight survivors could be presented to tell the story?

After an efficient and yet alluring introduction, the book jumps into high gear with the exploration of a Craftsman bungalow with an oriental motif. Most people think of Craftsman structures as being fairly small, but this one on Osceola Drive in the Riverside Subdivision has imposing dimensions as well as the character of an edgy individual.

Beck

The blending of styles is not unusual, or perhaps it’s a characteristic that the authors value highly. The very next representative, a “Spanish-Italian-Moorish hybrid,” introduces readers to the all-important McGregor Boulevard area, the proud spine of Fort Myers. The photographs, here and elsewhere, are dazzling and make a powerful contribution to the book. These, credited to Andrew West, are exceptional.

 

Miner

 

 

One of the features of sub-tropical living is the interaction of indoor and outdoor living. This factor is evidenced in the discussions of most of these homes, including the “porch-centric bungalow” (another Crafstman), which also is notable for its evolution through layers of renovation over the years. This feature is inevitable for older homes too attractive to demolish and yet not up to the needs of modern family life. The question is, how faithful to the essential character of the original dwelling are the renovations and additions? This Poinciana Park property evidences judicious compromises. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the October 25, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the October 26 Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and  Palm Beach editions, click here: https://fortmyers.floridaweekly.com/pageview/viewer/2017-10-25#page=56

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The making of a mensch

My Adventures with God, by Stephen Tobolowsky, Simon & Schuster, 320 pages Hardcover. $25.00

By Philp K. Jason

Premier character actor Stephen Tobolowsky offers a wide-arching memoir in the form of a series of remarkable vignettes. He positions himself as a man of faith who remains a questioner. He describes himself as a man whose outlook involves an internal competition between experience and more formal modes of learning. Light doses of Torah and Talmud interact with memories of crises, illuminations, losses and unalloyed satisfactions. Tobolowsky’s insights are often humorous, but never cruel. He takes us on a remarkable voyage – a sophisticated everyman, a committed yet somewhat restless Jew, and a profound and fluid storyteller.

Tobolowsky

The overall story could be accurately labeled “The Making of a Mensch.”

In telling his stories, Tobolowsky draws amazingly efficient portraits of those who meant the most to him: his parents and children, his first and second wives (and his childhood love for his second-grade heartthrob), rabbis and others from whom he gained understandings and solace, and close friends. As a man trained to inhabit a character, he has an instinct for the telling detail. As a man trained to deliver his part of a scripted conversation, he has an ear for recreating the vivid and meaningful conversations of times gone by.

The vignettes are grouped into several sections whose titles reinforce Tobolowsky’s development as a committed member of the Jewish community across time. You will recognize the echoes: “Beginnings,” “Exodus: A Love Story,” “The Call,” “Wilderness” and “The Words That Become Things.” Within these sections, which hold between five and eight stories (in some cases linked stories), Tobolowsky displays his marvelous ability to draw meaningful comparisons between the distant past, today, and stops along the way. Though the plan is primarily chronological, it is not always so. Sometimes, episodes are linked by association rather than by chronology. Sometimes, it is necessary to proceed backwards.

The author shares with us his interests and his explorations of books both sacred and secular, often the result of blurring such distinctions. He attests to the importance of dreams in his life, which he tells us “whisper rather than roar.” He is a man open to epiphanies. He is a man open to the mysteries of science and the possible parallels, if not necessarily links, between scientific thought and religious experience.

This is not a career biography. Readers won’t discover much about Tobolowsky’s work in GleeMississippi BurningGroundhog DayMemento and other roles. Details about auditions and rehearsals, career successes and failures, and showbiz gossip, rarely surface (perhaps waiting for another book). An exception is the treatment of his first wife’s giant success as a playwright. Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The story of Stephen and Beth’s relationship becomes a cautionary tale.

The focus, rather, is more on Tobolowsky’s life as a synagogue regular. How it began, how it developed, what kind of structure it gave his days and weeks, how it adjusted his vision of human nature on the one hand and Jewish wisdom on the other.

One can imagine that this book could have been more Job-like, more about the author’s quarrels with God. To use the word “adventures” in the title suggests an attitude of openness, of seeking and accepting challenges. It has a humorous tone. Throughout, it is this humor that floats the friendly scholarship, serious intent and occasional desperation of an exemplary seeker. It releases the joy.

This book is good for the Jews. It’s good for all lovers of wonderful stories.

 

Note: Tobolowsky appears December 6, 2017 at Jewishbookfestival.org.

 

This review, slightly reduced, was first published on the Jewish Book Council website and is reprinted with permission in the November 2017 editions of  Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee). Find the original at jewishbookcouncil.org/book/my-adventures-with-god

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