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“Mark Twain’s Literary Resources: A Reconstruction of His Library and Reading”

By Alan Gribben. NewSouth Books. 328 pp.  Oversized hardcover $45.00.

This astonishing portrait proves the iconic author was a committed bookworm. 

The immense Mark Twain’s Literary Resources, requiring two more volumes for completion, is a model of disciplined, lively, and monumental literary scholarship. It is an expansion of Alan Gribben’s Mark Twain’s Library, originally published in 1980. This first effort was already a momentous work, but over the decades, new information has come to light that the author has now included, along with updated commentary. The additional volumes are expected later this year.

Though Samuel Clemens, as Mark Twain, often projected the persona of a somewhat noble savage, he was, in fact, a voracious book collector and reader, as well as a committed annotator of books.

Alan Gribben

He helped create libraries. He moved collections from one home to another. He lived in his books and was influenced by them. He learned about his world, past historical periods, literary classics, and the craft of writing through his adventures as a reader.

It is great fun to join Gribben as he puts us into this significant part of Twain’s life. While much of Gribben’s work is the bedrock business of fact-collecting, the delights come from his many ways of exploring for his readers what Twain’s collected reading means in understanding the classic American author as a man, a creative force, and as both an appreciator and detractor of the writings of others.

One strand of excitement for readers is Gribben’s discussion of Twain’s relationship with the eminent man of letters William Dean Howells, whose comments about Twain being an “unliterary” literary man held sway until they were slowly revealed to be false.

Twain himself enjoyed painting himself as an infrequent reader, but over decades the truth of his addiction to books — of many kinds — became indisputable. Why the charade? Was it to tamp down expectations?

First in his personal life, and later in his public life, Twain demonstrated a penchant for reading aloud. For him, the voicing of an author’s words was essential for full understanding and enjoyment. At his urging, he and his wife, Olivia, read to one another at the end of the day. Twain encouraged such activity in social settings at which he would frequently be the center. He was, more and more, a showman as well and an author, and his skills in both areas were complementary.

Twain was a popular lecturer and literary performer. His readings drew audiences, amplified as they were with comments on the text he voiced. Perhaps his favorite author to read aloud was Robert Browning, the study and performance of whose dramatic monologues may have helped Twain develop the right pattern of emphasis, pace, and tonality for creating the voices of his fictional characters.

In poetry and prose, he loved to find the “illusion of talk.” He worked hard a perfecting his deliveries, and what he learned in the process informed his own writings. . . .

To explore the entire review, as published in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  Mark Twain’s Literary Resources

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“A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror,” by Stephen M. Flatow

Review by Philip K. Jason

For many years, while waging a legal battle against Iran for sponsoring a suicide bus bombing in Israel that killed his daughter, Alisa, Stephen M. Flatow has told his story. His new book, which includes material not previously published, is less an account of the tragic event itself than it is a story about the nature of such loss in the context of a particular family’s history and values.

One thread of the story is the shortened life of Alisa: her promise, her personality, and her influence on others, as a child and then as a young woman. It was Alisa, readers learn, who from a very young age influenced the family to fully embrace Judaism and Israel. Flatow shows how much a parent can learn from a child, and how family members can work through their grief—though it never really ends.

Flatow

While the narrative generally proceeds from past to present, there are openings in the strict chronology that reveal additional background or impart new understandings and emotional resonance. These passages add to the book’s impact, providing it with heart and wisdom. . . .

To read the full Jewish Book Council review, click here: A Father’s Story

For a review of an  important related book, see The Bus on Jaffa Road

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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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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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A new and challenging understanding of a most imaginative, penetrating, and influential Jewish mind

Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud, by Barry W. Holtz. Yale University Press. 248 pages. Hardcover $25.00.

This recent addition to Yale’s “Jewish Lives” series addresses what can be discovered and reasonably imagined about the life of a man for whom there is no physical record. Rabbi Akiva, known as the founder of Rabbinic Judaism, is mentioned everywhere, but the mentions were written long after his death. Indeed, in Rabbi Akiva’s lifetime (considered to be 50-135 CE), the kind of recordkeeping and documentary evidence that is at the heart of biographical and historical writing did not exist. 

What’s a scholar to do?

In this case, he can write the biography of his subject’s mind, achievements, and reputation as transmitted to those many generations after Akiva’s time. They, the rabbis to follow, inherited and rehearsed the tales of his extraordinary insights into the Torah and how these insights live in the Talmud (and elsewhere), thus continuing to inform our sense – even today – of what Judaism is. Rabbi Akiva is the major founder and exemplar of Rabbinic Judaism – the Judaism that emerged after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) and the failed revolt against the Romans (132-135 CE). The Jerusalem Talmud calls him a “father of the world.”

In many ways, Rabbi Akiva must remain a mysterious figure. Nothing is known about his parents. We don’t know the place of his birth and where he resided. Stories about his execution have legendary power, but there are no references to this event in Talmudic sources. There is a frequently visited alleged burial place on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, but scholars don’t give it much credence. As Dr. Holtz puts it, what we must accept is in searching for Akiva “we remain caught between fact and legend, history and the shared memory of an old culture.

In order to put Rabbi Akiva in context, Dr. Holtz devotes a chapter to what is known about the world in which he lived. He draws upon the fairly proximate picture painted by the Jewish historian Josephus “who managed to negotiate the boundaries of the Jewish and Roman worlds in a savvy and successful way.” The author gives us enough history to make us understand that Jews, then as in more recent times, “were a nation, ruled by a foreign power.” They constituted roughly 50% of a Roman region called Palestine that had about one million people. Prof. Holtz explores the Great Revolt, it’s causes and consequences, and the important rabbis with whom Akiva interact. He explains how the group of scholar-leaders called rabbis emerged. He connects Akiva to the rabbis who were first his teachers, men who eventually saw him as their master.

Barry W. Holtz

The story goes that Akiva reached middle age with no significant Jewish identity or learning.  He was, in all the ways that we might deem important, a self-made man. One tradition suggests that Akiva the unmarried shepherd ‘began his studies for the love of a good woman.” Another tradition finds him already a married man with a son when he – on his own volition – took on the career of learning.

Does it matter? Perhaps not. What does matter is that his abrupt transition captured the imagination people who can never ask enough questions. Dr. Holtz guides us to understanding what it meant for others to probe, perhaps half-create, their hero teacher-scholar Akiva. If their answers to questions about this enigmatic figure are contradictory, so much the better. Comparing various sources, and the sources of the sources, Dr. Holtz develops a notion that important stories about Akiva led to discovering  Akiva’s own insights about the  shaping  — strengthening or softening – of his heart.

Much about Akiva concerns his career – in both life and afterlife – as an exemplary figure. For example, his modesty is often praised. We are urged to remember that his origins were in poverty. That he was a true nobody until he became committed to his religious studies.

Rabbi Akiva’s engagements with religious and ritual issues are often at the center of these biographical snapshots. One such tale involves Akiva coming upon a corpse and puzzling over its final disposition. The complexities of Jewish law make the decision difficult, and the still-young rabbi realizes how much he must learn in order to make sound decisions about what is the “right thing” to do.

Another tale tells of Akiva’s presence as part of a rabbinic triumvirate determined to overturn another celebrated rabbi’s earlier decision. The interplay among the rabbis clearly illustrates Akiva’s stellar status among them. He is regularly given the final – and decisive – word on a contested issue. This importance is underscored by the rabbinic interchange recorded in the Haggadah in which Akiva has the prevailing argument. Here and elsewhere, Dr. Holtz reinforces the Akiva principle of interpretation that “requires paying careful attention to every detail in the text.”

Other Akiva stories find him portrayed as “a spiritual master, a person capable of attaining an insight into God and God’s hidden realms that other worthy figures were unable to attain.”

Over and over, Dr. Holtz suggests and demonstrates fruitful ways of reading and drawing understanding from the Akiva stories. His book may be best valued as a remarkable primer in today’s methodology.

At the end of a reader’s journey through Holtz’s remarkable and inspirational “life of Akiva,” one is likely to agree with the author’s feeling that Akiva, a most eminent sage at the center of early rabbinic Judaism, prepared the Jewish world for its future.

This review appears in the July-August, 2017 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County) and the July issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee)

 

 

 

 

 

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Recent biography of Herzl brings us closer to the man and his times

Herzl’s Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State, by Shlomo Avineri. Trans. Haim Watzman. BlueBridge. 304 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

This gets the “must” award; that is, it’s a “must for every Jewish library.” Private or public. Personal or university. First published in Israel in 2008, it was translated into English for publication in Great Britain in 2013. BlueBridge brought out a hardcover edition three years ago. Now the paperback is here.  

There are many other Herzl biographies, many of them quite fine, but this one has a special value because it comes closer than any of the others to reflecting Herzl’s own perspective. This is because it leans much more heavily on Herzl’s diaries as well as the works he published during his lifetime. We have here Herzl the polemicist, Herzl the novelist, and Herzl the playwright – all looming large in combination many other aspects of an unusually complex Jewish man.

Like much successful biography – and fiction – this study begins with a gripping point of attack. It is the fall of 1898. Herzl and other Zionist leaders have come to interact with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who is touring the Holy Land. The chapter backgrounds the preparations for this trip, the expectations Herzl had, and the unfolding of the group’s ten days – mostly in Jerusalem. Herzl had to fight through a fever, but he was already speculating on how to restore dignity to the ancient, decaying city. Herzl had his audience with the German emperor, but his efforts at diplomacy that would lead to a Jewish State did not bear fruit. Yet seeds to that end were planted in the public arena.

What led up to Herzl making this trip? How had he prepared for it and arranged it? We must step back in time to understand how this journalist and playwright became a voice and a force for an independent Jewish nation. Then we can move forward, pick up his trail in the aftermath of his visit to Jerusalem, and follow him step by step until his untimely death in 1904.

Professor Avineri imbeds Herzl fully in his time and place. The author recreates the upheavals of later 19th century Europe, the ebbs and flows of Jewish hopes of ascendance followed by despair – which is to say the widening and narrowing of Jewish opportunities to live lives untrammeled by anti-Semitism.  He narrows the lens to focus on Herzl’s growing interest in the Jewish question and his growing understanding and rigorous search for the answer while his life and career moved through Budapest, Vienna, and Paris.

Avineri

We see the importance of Herzl’s journalistic eye and curiosity in the fashioning of means to an end. How he realized the necessity of the Jewish question becoming an international question at the highest levels of political power. He sought opportunities to lecture, to organize the unsteady threads of Zionist activity and commitment, to seek the attention and the ears of government functionaries who might in time get him an audience with a major office holder who might just get Herzl an audience with someone at the top of the ladder.

With Avineri, we wind through Herzl’s newspaper pieces, his trial balloon proposal titled The Jewish State, the building of the energy and connections that lead to the First Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland, after which the succeeding annual congresses became benchmarks of progress – or of something less than progress.

The author’s strategic use of materials from his subject’s diaries allows readers to feel something like Herzl’s emotional, ideational, and locomotive pulse. He was a traveling man. It’s not clear how or how well he rested. He mostly faced defeat. How did he keep picking himself up? How did he become a man of the world (or at least the world he had to win over), respected as the leader of a nation not yet born?

Professor Avineri examines Herzl’s several plays, drawing out how the operate to explore conditions and relationships relevant to his overarching concerns. He examines the compromised success of Altneuland, Herzl’s quasi-utopian novel that develops a middle road between collective and individual autonomy.

Avineri stands behind Herzl as the almost-prophet tries out the alternative homeland flavors – from El-Arish through Uganda (in the view of many Herzl’s greatest miscalculation). We feel the exhaustion and pain in Herzl’s need to heal the fractures that often crippled the Zionist movement.

Everywhere, the author blends Herzl the thinker with Herzl the doer – the activist: the man in motion. He does this with a sure hand and an attractive style that keeps readers engaged with the study’s scholarly underpinning.

At his death, Herzl could have been considered a failure. In the following decades, he would be revered, more and more, as the great prophet and leader who, like Moses himself, was not able to enter the Promised Land.

 

SHLOMO AVINERI, Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a graduate of the Hebrew University and the London School of Economics, and served as Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the first government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He held visiting appointments at Yale, Cornel, University of California, Cardozo School of Law, Australian National University, Oxford and Northwestern University; and has been a Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, both in Washington, D.C., the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow, and Collegium Budapest.

He is Recurring Visiting Professor at the Central European University in Budapest.

In 1996 he received the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian decoration.

Among his books: The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State, Israel and the Palestinians, Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization, The Making of Modern Zionism, Moses Hess: Prophet of Communism and Zionism, and Communitarianism and Individualism.

This review appears in the June 2017  issues 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).

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Touring with young Elvis: the making of a phenom

Elvis Ignited: The Rise of an Icon in Florida, by Bob Kealing. University Press of Florida.  280 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Bob Kealing makes the case that the best Elvis is the earliest Elvis and that the managerial strategies of Tom Parker kept a great American original from reaching his full potential. By focusing on the emergence of Elvis during his Florida tours in 1955 and 1956, Mr. Kealing can handle in lavish detail the months of a young, unschooled performer’s leap from total unknown in May of 1955 to – by August of 1956 – a celebrated icon of a burgeoning culture without a name. A hillbilly rocker with a sexy performance style, Elvis had the girls swooning, their parents fuming, and the music industry paying close attention. 

Tom Parker helped shape the Elvis who caught fire, but his dominating and generally conservative decisions about girlfriends, songs, and – only too soon – insipid movie rolls, repressed rather than released Elvis’s unique talents. Parker shielded Elvis from other influences and demanded total loyalty.

Packaged in road tours to Daytona Beach, Tampa, Fort Myers, Ocala, Orlando, Jacksonville, and elsewhere, Elvis and the two musicians who accompanied him nurtured a distinctive sound blending various musical and cultural traditions. They learned by doing. They didn’t begin as headliners, but in a remarkably short time ascended to top billing. They moved from smaller venues to more prestigious ones and attracted both critical and supportive journalists who helped shape expectations.

Bob Kealing has the details. Ransacking print coverage of the young troubadour, interviewing scores of people who met him along the way, following the one-lane paths of those early tours, the author captures the spirit of time and place as a new kind of music made its way up of the charts. Mr. Kealing must have tracked down almost every young woman still alive with whom Elvis flirted in about a year and a half of performances. No longer young, they have great memories to share.

Kealing

 

As have other biographers and music historians, Mr. Kealing pays attention to the nurturing of Elvis by the genial owner of Sun Records in Memphis. When Parker pushed for the big time by switching Elvis over to the giant, less edgy RCA, something was already lost.

West Palm Beach, Sarasota, Pensacola, Miami, Lakeland, (Waycross Georgia), St. Petersburg – and then on to the greater stages of big cities, television, and movies. It’s as if once out of the Florida orbit, Elvis lost his essential self, smothered under packaging that distorted his true nature and gift. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 5, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 6 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach editons, click here: Florida Weekly – Elvis Ignited

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“Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life,” by Sarah Kaminsky. Trans. Mike Mitchell

DoppelHouse Press. 256 pages. Trade paperback $18.95.

 finalcover-kaminsky-webSarah Kaminsky provides a brilliant biography of an enormously complex, creative, and heroic individual: her father.

Based on Adolfo Kaminsky’s extensive answers to his daughter’s questions, Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life was first published in French in 2009 and was subsequently released in many European languages before reaching English readers.

Adolfo with daughter Sarah.

Adolfo with daughter Sarah. Credit Amit Israeli

Adolfo Kaminsky’s remarkable journey was powered by intelligent longing and a deep, engaging sensitivity to personal destiny, Jewish peoplehood, and freedom. As a teenager, Adolfo (who wore many names in many roles) was fascinated by chemistry and technology. During the Nazi occupation of France, he became an important member of the Resistance movement—a collection of loosely linked organizations attempting to undermine Nazi domination and save lives in one way or another.

One important initiative of the Resistance was its provision of convincing identity documents that would fool authorities, which enabled many would-be victims of the Holocaust to avoid arrest (or worse) with these false papers and even cross the borders of Europe to freedom and safety. Adolfo became an essential player, managing to hide his own identity and activities while mastering the art of forgery. This art included the fabrication of authentic-seeming papers, inks, dyes, seals, solvents, and bindings of all kinds, as well as typography, signature forging, stain removal, and the production of rubber stamps. Adolfo invented solutions to technical problems and also developed skill as a photographer, which quickly proved itself another useful tool in his forgery career—and something he could use to support himself: though often starving, Adolfo took no money for his forgery efforts. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life by Sarah Kaminsky | Jewish Book Council Review

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New biography reveals the true “person of the book”

The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire, by Laura Claridge. Ferrar, Straus, and Giroux. 416 pages. Hardcover $30.00.

Jewish people like to call themselves “the People of the Book.” Since this proud appellation is self-applied to many Jews who have little interest in “The Book” (the Torah), it seems only proper to recognize the fact that the heart and soul of the Knopf publishing house was Blanche Knopf, even though her husband’s full name, Alfred A. Knopf, was the company name. Blanche, a brilliant and dedicated genius, was a totally secular Jew. As was Alfred. Books were Blanche’s religion. LadyWiththeBorzoi.indd

Laura Claridge’s biography effusively explores the implications of Blanche’s unique accomplishment, one fully against the time in which she was born and raised with respect to women’s roles and opportunities. Born in 1894 to Julius and Bertha Wolf, she and Alfred Knopf had planned to launch a publishing house even before their marriage in 1916. The pre-nuptial agreement obtained verbally from Alfred was that husband and wife were to share equally in all aspects of this venture. That equal sharing did not happen, and so the marriage was troubled from the start.

For fifty years, Blanche suffered from being slighted – not always silently. Though he knew better, Alfred always played the role of the mastermind, positioning Blanche as a fortunate assistant. But nothing could have been further from the truth. He took advantage of her, and she put on the best face that she could, building a reputation as a remarkable judge of talent and as a businesswoman who could bring that talent into the Knopf fold.

Putting on the best face included developing a personal style in bearing, clothing, and all aspects of appearance and expression. The Knopf offices and residences (except for those exclusively Alfred’s) also reflected her inimitable taste. She even designed the borzoi colophon for the Knopf imprint. Blanche created herself, driven by the need for acceptance and the desire to prove her worth. As a party-thrower, Blanche had few peers. Artists, composers, performers, intellectuals – they all showed up at her events, and she at theirs.

Laura Claridge credit Marion Ettlinger

Laura Claridge / credit Marion Ettlinger

There are many painful episodes in Claridge’s analysis of how and why Blanche made her choices and how she dealt with the consequences of those choices. Throughout, Claridge’s understanding, empathy, and sure-handed use of her sources make Blanche come alive.

One consequence of the more or less agreed-upon “open marriage” that emerged from Blanche’s shattered expectations was her series of affairs, often with prominent figures in the arts.

But that’s not the fun part of delving into Blanche’s life. The fun part is watching her build the firm, making things happen often in spite of Alfred’s interference or indifference – or hostility.

From the beginning, the Knopf enterprise imagined itself as a sort of boutique establishment dealing in refined literary sensibility. Early on, Blanche began to build their list by getting permission to publish English translations of established and up-and-coming European writers. Laura Claridge details Blanche’s scores of trips to Europe to meet and court her favorites, as well as her ardent hospitality to these writers when they visited her in New York or elsewhere. She developed an extended family of writers (and editors and agents and cooperating publishers) that brought her greater emotional rewards than did her family of record.

Knopf became a prestige house, and it didn’t lose that aura even when, many decades after its founding, it was absorbed into Random House (the proliferation of mergers and imprint swapping in the publishing industry is ongoing).

For all of its successes, its many award-winning titles (including a pile of Nobels and Pulitzers), Knopf had very few blockbuster best-sellers. It did, however, establish an enviable and lucrative backlist – titles that sold well year after year and hardly ever went out of print. That was the whole point of careful selection: not the short run fad, but rather the book with the long future. These floated the boat, as did having many titles selected by the Book of the Month Club and the Literary Guild Book Club.

Here is very short list of authors published by Knopf during Blanche’s lifetime, either original titles or first English translations: Sigmund Freud, Albert Camus, André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Ilya Ehrenburg, Mikhail Sholokhov, Thomas Mann; John Updike, Julia Child, Carl Van Vechten, James M. Cain, Willa Cather, John Hersey, Raymond Chandler, H.L. Mencken, William Shirer, Dashiell Hammett, and Langston Hughes; Wallace Stevens, Elinor Wylie. Beyond the list is Laura Claridge’s energetic and alluring recounting of their various relationships with Blanche.

Blanche Wolf Knopf died in 1965, shortly after her company’s fiftieth anniversary. Unlike her parents, who were buried in Brooklyn’s Salem Fields Cemetery affiliated with Temple Emanu-El (where funerals for friend George Gershwin and father-in-law Sam Knopf were held), Blanche chose the incineration route.

While leaving, perhaps, some aspects of Blanche’s outer and inner lives their mystery, Laura Claridge has provided as many facts and insights as anyone needs to understand and admire the industry, creativity, and courage of her subject. At the same time, she has masterfully set Blanche Knopf into an exciting milieu – the American publishing industry from WWI to the first glimmers of a war in Vietnam. We have here a spellbinding tale of shifting tastes and hard-won survival in the literary world.

Next time you think about “People of the Book,” think about Blanche Wolf Knopf.

This review appears in the June 2016 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee & Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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Phil’s Spring Review Schedule

Phil Jason loves books

Phil Jason loves books

Below you will find my intended schedule for the “Florida Writers” column in Florida Weekly. Two slots open in June — maybe you book will get one of them! The final decision, of course, rests with the editors of the various editions. Reviews also coming this spring in Washington Independent Review of Books, Jewish Book Council website, and Southern Literary Review. Check back often.

Stuart Woods

Stuart Woods

April 6/7 – Stuart Woods, “Family Jewels”

April 13/14 – Phil Beuth, “Limping on Water”
April 20/21 – Ian A. O’Connor, “The Wrong Road Home”

April 27/28 – Lisa Black, “That Darkness” 

Lisa Black

Lisa Black

May 4/5 – Marty Jourard, “Music Everywhere”
May 11/12 – M. A. Richards, “Choice of Enemies”
May 18/19 – Lucy Burdette, “Killer Takeout”
May 25/26 – D.J. Niko, “The Judgment”
June 1/2 – Lisa Unger, “Ink and Bone”

June 8/9 – Michael Wiley – “Black Hammock” 

Michael Wiley

Michael Wiley

June 15/16 – Howard P. Giordano – “The Second Target”
June 22/23 – TBD
June 29/30 – TBD

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