Tag Archives: biographical novel

“The Old Stories,” by David Selcer

How a seemingly ordinary individual can play an extraordinary role

Review by Philip K. Jason

The Old Stories, by David Selcer. Biblio Publishing. 234 pages. Trade paperback $12.95.

It’s hard to separate the strands of memoir, history, biography, and imagination in David Selcer’s provocative, informative, and deeply moving book. Perhaps the genre doesn’t matter that much. It’s a feast of information and revelation, past and present, satisfaction and regret.

As the Nineteen Century came to a close in the town of Kherson within the Ukrainian province of Greater Russia, a young boy – not at all a scholar – toiled with his lessons at the Great Choral Synagogue. He hated his studies, but enjoyed paging through the stories of Sholem Aleichem, the great Jewish storyteller whose Yiddish tales offered humor and profundity. At nine, Chaim Zelitzer could not absorb the great teachings of the Torah and the Talmud. He had a practical turn of mind. At a young age, his was happy enough to please his father and uncle by becoming a skilled metal worker. But he stumbled through his Bar Mitzvah preparation.

Chaim did honor the traditional goal of the Tzadik: of becoming a righteous man.

His older brother, Shmuel, was on his way to becoming a famous cantor.

Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1905) prompted the teenage sailor (Chaim) to “go AWOL” to Manchuria.

He made his way to the United States via Canada (where the immigration process changed the name to Selcer), and a fortunate arranged marriage provided the opportunity to raise a family, and, with his wife, run a business. His children were often embarrassed by his accent, his foreign ways, and a certain coarseness of manner.

No one expected that this man, in his middle years, would become a hero of sorts. Without explanation, soon after the close of WWII, Chaim (now long known as Hyman), became involved for about eighteen months as a worker for the entities that would soon help bring forth the State of Israel. This man, who never had a birth certificate, somehow, with his sophisticated and well-connected Ohio friend Herschel Bloom, worked for the cooperating Jewish organizations that would change the history of the Middle East.

They were part of Aliya Bet, the secret organization that created a secret Jewish fleet for the purpose of facilitating Jewish immigration to Palestine, a crucial step toward undermining the power of the British Mandate for Palestine, which favored other political outcomes for the remains of the former Ottoman empire.

This part of the story is told, long after Hyman’s death, by Bloom, who is questioned relentlessly by Hyman’s younger son, Lester. Lester had been a resentful son growing up in the shadow of his older brother Ben. Just like Chaim had grown up in the shadow of Shmuel. Lester never could please his father; never received praise, encouragement, or even useful answers to his questions. His understanding of his father is modified through hearing Bloom’s narrative of courage and commitment.

This brief stretch of time within the overall narrative includes a romantic subplot in Hyman’s relationship with an attractive woman, Leila, he meets on Kfar Giladi, a kibbutz that absorbed many newcomers to nascent Israel.

Mr. Selcer’s prose has an abundance of descriptive power. He is able to put his complexly-drawn characters into vivid, realistic settings across the decades of his fable-like tale. The author is also able to set forth the historical issues and events with clarity and precision. Moving as well is his handling of the various characters emotional ups and downs.

Is Lester, who is the novel’s primary first-person narrator, actually David Selcer in disguise? It sometimes seems that way. But no: David Selcer is the son of Lester and thus the inventor of the needed fictional answers to the narrative’s questions that would otherwise go unanswered.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A former Ohioan, David Selcer now lives in Sarasota, Florida with his wife, where he decides employment cases for federal agencies as a Federal Agency Decision Writer. Always a buckeye, the Buckeye Barrister (lead character in Selcer’s 4-part mystery series) is an avid OSU fan. Another of his books is the historical novel Lincoln’s Hat and the Tea Movement’s Anger.

This review first appeared in the May-June 2020 issues Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation Lee and Charlotte Counties, and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).  It was also expected to run in my Florida Weekly “Florida Writers” column, but that column, if not dead, is on hiatus. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generally, he gets what he wants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An immigrant story with a Jamaican lilt

“Ginga’ Root Tea: An American Journey,” by Naomi Pringle. Book–broker of Port Charlotte. 292 pages. $15.00.

Ordinarily, I would not consider a book for review with a copyright date two years past brought out by an unknown publisher. However, in this case I’m happy to have taken a very pleasant, enlightening journey into the lives of a Jamaican family who came, in fits and starts, to a new life in the United States. Ms. Pringle offers this fictionalized version of her family’s journey with an eye for historical accuracy, compelling drama, enticing romance, and valuable cultural insights. Her key characters, Isabel Hanson Buckley and her husband, Walter Buckley, are drawn with precision and a rich complexity. The author’s evocative prose, especially the dialogue, embraces the cultural milieu like a musical score. 

Naomi Pringle

In describing the Jamaican world of the Hanson and Buckley families, Ms. Pringle simultaneously offers readers a view of the island nation as it existed in the first two decades of the twentieth century. She attends to the daily life of Jamaicans at that time – a time when modern conveniences were not even imagined. Widower Walter Buckley, a prosperous Kingston entrepreneur, is more or less the city slicker, while young Isabel Hanson, from the tiny village of Rose Hall, is imaged at first as the beautiful country bumpkin.

However, as their courtship, marriage, and the general course of their lives develops, they seem to change places more than once – the dynamics of their relationship hinging on changing tides of circumstance, personal need, and personal growth. The shifting tides of passion play a role as well.

Among the various circumstances of their lives, attitudes toward skin color and social class play a major part – both in Jamaica and in the United States, where the immigrant Jamaican’s relationship to American Negro society adds a new and powerful complication. The racial strands in the composition of Isabel and Walter produce four daughters in the main portion of the novel: two light-skinned, and two dark-skinned. Though no one is color blind, aspiring Isabel cannot find her way to closeness with her middle daughters – the two dark-skinned children who for several years were raised by Isabel’s parents while she and Walter were striving to “make it” in New York City.

To read the full review as it appears in the February 2, 2011 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the February 3 issues of the Naples and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Naomi Pringle

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Lander Duncan’s Saga of Secrets and Skin

Once in a long while, the unexpected power of a book by an unknown author comes as a revelation. Such is the case with “Children of Secrets,” an autobiographical novel by Naples resident Lander Duncan that examines the debilitating cruelty of racial prejudice and the devastating consequences of family secrets.

The story opens on the Alabama campus of the famous Tuskegee Institute, sanctioned by Congress in 1881 as a Negro Normal School. It is 1939 when we meet the family of influential Tuskegee Chaplain Bryant, who successfully argues for Tuskegee to maintain an officer training program as a way of enhancing graduates’ opportunities.

Dr. Bryant’s daughter Abigail, a voluptuous woman at fifteen, is a flirtatious campus head-turner. She entices the extremely guarded CJ Duncan, the best hope of a poor Arkansas Delta family. When the imaginative, eccentric and light-skinned Abigail reveals that she is pregnant, chaos reigns until Dr. Bryant decides not to report CJ’s infractions. CJ graduates and receives his lieutenant’s bars. Married by Dr. Bryant in a private ceremony, the couple is banished to the impoverished Duncan Arkansas home.

Abigail has their first child, James, while CJ performs stateside military exercises. Shortly before she visits CJ on a military base, Abigail becomes pregnant by a white man. She passes this child, Lander, off as a premature child of CJ’s. Before CJ is sent overseas, Abigail becomes pregnant with a third son, Daniel.

The author vividly describes CJ’s service in Europe during WWII. CJ, an able and courageous leader of his all-Negro unit, faces unimaginable dangers defusing land mines. He is depressed by the high attrition rate of his company and how the Negro soldier seemed expendable. While his letters home form the basis of remarkable combat narratives, they don’t reveal his brief affair in occupied Germany.

Returning from army duty, CJ’s plans to use his GI Bill for medical school are blocked at every path. Merely another black man in the segregated south, his combat ribbons only aggravate – as they challenge – the white establishment. Finding work only as a redcap at the train station, accomplished and ambitious CJ becomes a dispirited, bitter man.

For voicing his outrage, CJ is falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman, an accusation that leads to a lynch-mob death. Abigail and the children barely escape from their burning house. Fortunately, they had already made plans to flee KKK-infested Arkansas and resettle in a relative’s vacant home in Washington, Pennsylvania.

To read the full review, as published in the July 25-August 3, 2010 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 26-August 4 Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Lander Duncan

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