Tag Archives: book reviews

“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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“True Crime” writer makes exposing miscarriages of justice his mission

Justice on Fire: The Kansas City Firefighters Case and the Railroading of the Marlborough Five,”by J. Patrick O’Connor. University Press of Kansas. 352 pages. Hardcover $34.95.

Long-time Naples resident Pat O’Connor presents “true crime” addicts with a treasure trove of juicy information in this case study of the judicial system operating at its worst. What’s criminal in this story is not those who have been convicted and sentenced. Rather, what’s criminal is the systemic failure itself and those whose indifference, ineptitude, or careerist blinders corrupted the process and the outcome. 

Thirty years ago, on a construction project near Kansas City Missouri’s once promising, but then and now impoverished Marlborough neighborhood, disaster struck. A guard on the construction site reported that a pick-up truck was on fire. Then came the news of fierce explosions and more fire. When the bodies were counted, six firefighters were found dead and the charge of arson was in the smoke-filled air.

Mr. O’Connor pays a great deal of attention to the Marlborough neighborhood and the five residents who were indicted and convicted of the crime. The bad reputation of the neighborhood, in the author’s view provides a prejudicial force from the beginning of the investigation, a force that never ceases to be part of the cause and effect links to the miscarriage of justice.

O'Connor

O’Connor

The author’s sketches of those soon known at the Marlborough Five reveal backgrounds that would also prejudice juries or judges. Arrest records, often for minor crimes, are not evidence – but they can affect attitudes toward the defendants. Somehow, this quintet of characters found trouble of various kinds, and sometimes arrests for other crimes (outside of the arson charge) were used as leverage by the prosecutors.

How does it happen that that “by the time the indictments came down . . . only Richard was not in prison on other chargers?”

That’s how the testimony of jailhouse snitches comes into play, an overused weapon in a rush to judgement that ironically took way too much time. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the the February 14, 2019 Naples, Bonita Springs, and  Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Justice on Fire

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“The Dark Young Man,” by Jacob Dinezon

Tina Lunson, trans; Scott Hilton Davis, ed. / Jewish Storyteller Press. 253 pages. Trade Paperback $19.95

Review by Philip K. Jason

First published in 1877, Jacob Dinezon’s Yiddish novel The Dark Young Man, with its blend of romance and realism,launched him as a major voice in the Jewish literary world. Tina Lunson’s excellent English translation (the first ever) vividly captures mid-nineteenth century Jewish life in Eastern Europe, revealing not only its particular culture but also its parallels to today’s Jewish experience.

When young Yosef leaves his parents’ home to work for a wealthy family, he is admired by the members of his new household—except Meyshe, the husband of the family’s oldest daughter. He soon sees Yosef as a threat, someone who might replace him as the person with authority over the family and its fortunes.

The Dark Young Man might make readers feel overwhelmed—as the main characters are—by the novel’s overall mood of claustrophobic despair, intermittently pierced by brief periods of hope. The only major character who doesn’t share this emotional ride is Meyshe Shneyur, the dark young man of the title. Unlike most title characters, Meyshe is far from the story’s hero. He is the villain, the destroyer of all hopes, made gleeful by his destructive accomplishments and the suffering of others—and Dinezon’s novel is a treatise on this dark soul’s power and methods.

This family drama is set against the cultural background of mid-nineteenth century Jewish life in Eastern Europe. This was the period of Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, when long-observed Jewish traditions were being questioned and threatened. Those holding on to the old ways had no respect for new ideas and assimilationist tendencies, and the young moderns saw little value in traditional strictures that seemed unjustified by new secular learning. . . .

To see the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here:  The Dark Young Man

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Enchanting historical mystery features intrigues of the Byron-Shelley group

Claire’s Last Secret, by Marty Ambrose. Severn House. 192 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

Set primarily in Florence and Geneva, this highly atmospheric historical novel honors a period of European high culture with a portrait gallery of a tightly knit group. One is Mary Shelley, formerly Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who had recently eloped with the poet. She is the author of the forever popular novel “Frankenstein” and the stepsister of Claire Clairmont. At the time the novel opens, 1816, they are both attractive, precocious women in their later teens.  

The Shelley Circle is also the Byron Circle, and Claire is carrying Lord Byron’s child, though it takes a while for her to let him know. The group is summering together in Geneva. Claire is something of a hanger-on, as she is the most financially needy.

In Claire’s mind, Polidori, Byron’s personal physician and traveling companion, seems to be antagonistic to her desire to rekindle Byron’s passion for her. She would settle for the passion, since marriage is unlikely, as long as their love-child is somehow supported.

When not practitioners, the friends are devotees of the arts. Claire’s narrative, from the perspective of 1873, offers memories of the impressive architecture of homes and public spaces that the group, or a subset thereof, visited. The actual quarters they occupied were usually modest.

Ambrose

The greatest art that they shared amongst themselves was the art of conversation, with the upbeat Percy Shelley leading the way, and the frequently morose Byron contributing dramatic verbal gestures. His life is clouded by his self-created tarnished reputation.

There is a strong attraction, in all four of these friends, for rebellion against convention social behavior. Claire expresses the wish to follow her heart unencumbered by what others will think. She and Mary are aware of the stricter judgement that women receive for what may be considered immoral behavior.

One of Professor Ambrose’s gifts is capturing the individuality of these sometimes frivolous, sometimes insightful, and always enchanting voices. They speak a brand of English that seems authentic to the time, the personalities, and the social milieu. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the January 30, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 31 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, Venice, and  Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Claire’s Last Secret

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“The Wartime Sisters: A Novel,” by Lynda Cohen Loigman

  • St. Martin’s Press. 304 pages. Hardcover $27.99.

Women bond — and sometimes break apart — in WWII-era New England.

The title of Lynda Cohen Loigman’s new novel, The Wartime Sisters, has two dimensions. The more obvious is the horribly strained relationship between two sisters, Ruth and Millie Kaplan. The other is the wider sisterhood of women who toiled in preparing the U.S. to enter WWII and during the war years that followed. These are women who had factory jobs or positions, clerical and otherwise, that supported the manufacture of weapons.  

The Brooklyn-born Kaplans, first Ruth and, later, Millie (the younger by three years), relocate to Springfield, Massachusetts, to rebuild their lives after shaky, if conventional, beginnings.

They seem to have been the victims of unrealistic expectations and misguided parenting. Ruth’s controlling nature, an echo of their mother’s, leaves Millie feeling demeaned and marginalized. More open and spontaneous, Millie’s attractiveness to people, especially to boys and then men, is a constant threat and humiliation to Ruth.

The narrative is structured to oscillate among three kinds of scenes: Scenes that give an overview of their early years; scenes set in Springfield that reveal the sisters as young adults making their separate ways in the world; and scenes reverting back to more detailed Brooklyn episodes that explore the seeds of conflict and unwise decision-making that continue to have consequences in their new environment.

Loigman

Loigman further complicates the bond between the sisters through the jobs they have in Springfield. Ruth does paperwork, and Millie puts triggers together on the assembly line. From Ruth’s perspective, Millie is trouble — a person who always needs looking after. Ruth had enough of that unwanted responsibility as a girl; she doesn’t want it now as a married woman raising children — especially when her husband is called away from his position at the Armory to dangerous duty in Europe.

But back in Brooklyn, Millie was rather desperate. She was alone in the wake of their parents’ death in an accident, and her ill-fated marriage left her a victim of abuse. Maybe Springfield will supply an answer, whether it be via Ruth or in some other way.

The war between the sisters is carefully orchestrated and is the central action that holds readers glued to the story. However, the portrait of the Springfield Armory community is also a major achievement. Persuasively imagined over a framework of impressive research, the sights, sounds, and patriotic flourishes of its residents during 1942 and 1943 leave readers with a sense of pride.

However, all is not well in this capital of wartime industry. Questions of social and economic justice loom. . . .

To read the entire review at it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  The Wartime Sisters.

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INDELIBLE WIT: The Political Cartooning of Bill Sanders

NewSouth Books. 232 pages. Hardcover $28.95

For sixty-plus years, Fort Myers resident Bill Sanders has made a living as a political cartoonist. Yes, he’s one of those rare birds who can make your laugh – or at least grin – at individuals and actions in the political world that might otherwise simply make you sick. He can make you angry, too. Riled up about some piece of nonsense about which you share Bill’s perspective – or angry at Bill because you disagree. In either case, you wouldn’t be bored.  

Readers can find the engaging story of Bill’s live – both personal and profession – in a gorgeously designed book with a longish but fitting title and subtitle: Against the Grain: Bombthrowing in the Fine American Tradition of Political Cartooning. Bill’s memories about the stages of his life are accompanied by a generous supply of his classic cartoons. The book, published by New South Books, lists for $28.95, but who buys list? Just get it online for about $10 less from Amazon.com.

Editorial cartoons are meant to be opinionated. That’s why we read them. In the case of a practitioner like Bill Sanders – or such other masters of inky bombs as Herblock, Oliphant, Trudeau, and foreword writer Jules Feiffer – a well crafted political cartoon requires a knowledge base, a sense of the ridiculous, and distinctive skill with the pen. For these commentators, their drawing style is their trademark. Bill Sanders most likely spends more time researching the material that will spark a cartoon than most. He needs to know what he’s talking about before he plays with the issue in ink.

Bill Sanders

Over the years, his main “home base” publication vehicles were the Greensboro Daily News, Kansas City Star, and Milwaukee Journal. His work was syndicated in 100-plus other papers. It’s clear that he had talent, perseverance, and made an impact. He covered everything of political consequence from the Eisenhauer era into the time of Trump, most recently publishing his work on an internet blog. Take a look at http://sanderscartoon.blogspot.com/.

Born in Springfield, Tennessee, Bill fell in love with sports there. His family moved to Dothan, Alabama and then Pompano Beach, Florida. Bill was a high school basketball standout at Pompano Beach High School and was named to the Florida All-State Team in 1948. He later played on a University of Miami freshman football team before transferring to Western Kentucky University, where music and art became important parts of his life. He started dabbling in drawing seriously there, and he also set an NCAA pass completion record while on the WKU football team that won a minor bowl game.

By the mid-Fifties, Bill had married his lifetime partner, Joyce, and found himself wearing an Army uniform in Korea. He began cartooning for armed forces Stars and Stripes publications and found himself imagining making a career of it – if he could. He calls this turning point his “Herblock Epiphany.”

To see the full article, as it appears in the Jan-Feb 2019 issue of Ft. Myers Magazine, click here: Bill Sanders

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“The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World,” by Robert Mnookin

    PublicAffairs. 320 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Who gets to decide what it means to be a Jew?

In The Jewish American Paradox, Robert Mnookin puts effective lawyerly reasoning and compelling personal experience to work in service of sketching the situation of 21st-century American Jews. He plays and wrestles with large questions regarding the elements of Jewish identity and how the power of these elements has changed over time.  

The author launches his discussion with an attention-getting overview of “identity” illustrated by the life and work of identity’s master theorist, Jewish-born Erik Erikson. This strategy proves to be intellectually stimulating and colorful. Having grabbed the reader’s attention, Mnookin holds onto it with an accessible presentation about how to make both the “American Jewish community” and the various American Jewish communities thrive.

Among the many traditional components of Jewish identity probed by Mnookin are identification through matriarchal lineage, religious commitment, and the racial — or “Jewish blood” — concept. He probes deeply into each, testing its utility for a vibrant Jewish future.

Mnookin

The context here is the declining Jewish population. Can changes in the dynamics of Jewish identity stabilize or reverse the downward trend in the identified Jewish population?

Mnookin finds most of the identity elements restrictive and therefore limiting. Can one have a Jewish life without Jewish knowledge? Without Jewish DNA (if there is such a thing)? Without ascribing to behaviors (both does and don’ts) provided in holy scripture and authoritative commentaries?

Mnookin argues for inclusiveness, and his arguments are well shaped and compelling. He is more comfortable with notions like nationhood or peoplehood, in part because such concepts have malleable borders. . . .

To see the full review as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  The Jewish American Paradox

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Confronting past trauma and betrayal on the path to revelation

Dark Rhapsody: A Novel, by Helaine Mario. Oceanview Publishing. 368 pages. Hardcover $26.95.

Ms. Mario’s new book is a sequel to The Lost Concerto, and now both titles are listed as parts of the Maggie O’Shea Mystery Series. The story concerns a series of secrets and misunderstandings, each with a dangerous obstacle on the path to revelation. It’s a story about trauma, harmful memories, betrayal, and ultimately the majesty of love. 

The author’s breathtakingly luxuriant prose captures the communicative emotional power of symphonic music. The plot winds through vividly rendered locales including Virginia, New York City, East Hampton, Tuscany, Rome, Vienna, Salzburg, and Provence.

Ms. Mario’s descriptions of the various settings are simply magnificent. She handles the interaction of character and scene with confidence and brilliance. She has a clear vision of the interplay between natural, man-made, and supernatural forces.

Mostly, she has a grand story, lavishly elaborated.

In the immediate aftermath of WWII, a young Austrian girl named Gisela finds a box among other containers holding gold and other Nazi-captured treasures. The box, which she hides, includes a rolled canvas marked as the property of Florence art dealer Felix Hoffman. From this opening scene, the story jumps into the present time.  We are brought to a cabin in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains and introduced to the renowned pianist, Maggie O’Shea; her companion, retired Colonel Michael Beckett; and Michael’s beloved Golden Retriever – “Shiloh.”

Helaine Mario

Michael has pledged to protect Maggie from her threatening oppressor, a revenge-seeking madman named Dane, who had attacked her and injured her fingers, attempting to thwart her return to the concert stage.

Maggie suffers from blackouts that leave her unable to remember key elements in her life and nightmares that hint at truths she has repressed. Michael’s strength and dedication help alleviate her suffering. Maggie works to recover her abilities in time for the scheduled performance of an extremely difficult rhapsody.

Several scenes set in Italy develop the grotesque Dane, a fugitive disguised by botched plastic surgery, who is striving to gain control of the black market for rare, including stolen, art.

Secrets, lies, and misunderstandings have left Maggie with two major mysteries. One is to discover the truth about how her mother died. The other is to understand the reason behind an action of her father, the great conductor Finn O’Shea, who one day walked off the concert stage, stared at or through Maggie, and completely disappeared from her life. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the December 26, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 27 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Charlotte County editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Dark Rhapsody.

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“God Is in the Crowd: Twenty-First Century Judaism,” by Tal Keinan

Spiegel & Grau. 336 Pages.  Hardcover  $28.

Review by Philip K. Jason

This game-changing exploration of a possible path for a Jewish future is both alarming and hopeful. The facts Keinan relays about Jewish population trends, weakening Jewish identity, and the costs of exclusivity in Jewish movements and organizations are heartbreaking. His most frightening observation is that his book, and the understandings and arguments it offers, may be ninety years too late. Keinan is pointing the way toward a revolution, a last-ditch effort to combat and counter the forces that, if not checked will, in a few generations or less, make Judaism extinct.  

Keinan won’t allow Jews to keep betting on God’s love for the “chosen people” to save the day. God’s love has always been conditionalIf God is anywhere, it is in the hard-won consensus about Jewish identity and values that those who care will bring about. In this way, God is in the crowd.

Tal Keinan

In a situation that demands greater inclusivity, Keinan argues that embracing the standards, practices, and goals that approach universal acceptance among Jews worldwide represents our best best at turning the tide and ensuring a Jewish future. To get there, educational patterns and priorities must change, and steadfast commitment needs to go viral. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: God Is in the Crowd

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Lost love regrets lead to uncovering the cause of a mysterious death

The Ephemeral File, by Henry Hoffman. Melange Books. 197 pages. Trade paperback $12.95.

The third installment of the Adam Fraley Mystery Series is an easy-to-like group of tales with an easy-going style and an unusual hero. What’s unusual about Adam? He’s normal: he’s not a superhero, he’s not a tough guy, and he’s not obsessed about firearms, forensics, or procedural conventions. He’s just there to help people and go where the case takes him.  

When Adam’s office manager, Tamra Fugit (pronounced how?) asks him to meet with an elderly man who’s a friend of her aunt, Adam is somewhat hesitate. Taking a case as a favor to someone is not high on his priority list. But he succumbs to Tamra’s entreaty. She’s a person he owes a favor, and she’s extremely good looking.

Roland Westwood is hoping to locate a long-lost love. Adam finds Roland’s lengthy story interesting enough to take the case, even though Roland’s relationship with the girl – Staci Carew – was a tenuous one that began and ended more than fifty years ago during WWII. At that time, Staci was finishing high school and Roland had already begun college. They met at the movie house where Staci worked.

Hoffman

Set largely in Florida’s Pasco County along the Withlacoochie River, Adam’s investigation leads him to a bridge where Staci’s fraternal twin sister, Kati, lost her life. While Mr. Hoffman’s description of this rural area is exceptionally expressive, the interest in the location remains the actions that took place upon the bridge, which soon come into focus.

With Adam, readers learn that the twins had contrasting personalities and didn’t get along well. Kati, an aspiring gymnast, was highly motivated to excel and had the discipline to keep challenging herself and improving her skills. Staci was less motivated. Kati used the bridge structure as an exercise platform.  On one occasion, it seems, things went wrong and she plummeted to her death.

From information that Roland reveals, it seems possible that Staci, jealous of her sister’s acclaim, might have taken the practice session on the bridge as an opportunity to harm her sister, who outdid her in cheerleading competitions and who ended up being favored by Staci’s boyfriend.

Such complications of the available information bring lawyers (including Staci’s husband) and police officers into the story line. The accumulation of facts eventually leads to a highly unexpected resolution in a court of law. . . .

To see the full review, as it appears in the December 12, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 13 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Ephemeral File

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