Tag Archives: book reviews

Journalist pokes some fun at Florida’s official symbols

Roaring Reptiles, Bountiful Citrus, and Neon Pies, by Mark Lane. University Press of Florida. 152 pages. Hardcover $19.95.

What do you hope to get from your reading materials, information or laughs?  If you want both, and you are curious about Florida, this is the book for you. Writing as an amused and sometimes perplexed Florida partisan, Mr. Lane zeros in on the symbols that define the state and the legislative process of how they come into being. In nineteen hilarious and often wacky vignettes, the author presents a wealth of information.

With something often approaching a straight face, he keeps his tongue in his cheek. It’s a winning performance. 

Many of the chapters benefit from Mr. Lane’s decision to surround or imbed the story of how a symbol became the Official Florida this-or-that with bits and pieces of his own personal story. His long-developed sense of Florida culture and his knowledge of state and local politics affords many opportunities for him go embellish the bare bones facts about how the selection for officialdom occurred. The story-telling is always pleasant, even when the facts themselves often are not.

Here are some of Mr. Lane’s chapter subtitles that give a taste of what readers are in for:

“Welcome to the Sunshine – Not the Alligator – State,” “Welcome to the Land of the Manatee Mailboxes,” “Ponce de Leon Schlepped Here,” “The Mockingbird Will Not Be Mocked, Tree Huggers,” and “In God We Trust (All Others Pay Cash).”

Mark Lane photo by Cindi Lane

The chapters are usually headed by the official language of incarnation. Some are straightforward, following the pattern of “Key lime pie is designated as the official Florida state pie – Florida Statute 15.052.” The elevation of the orange to reign as the state fruit is easy to anticipate, but the ways in which Mr. Lane embroiders and personalizes the story will surprise you. Elsewhere one learns about Myakka fine sand, credentialed as the official Florida state soil. (Is this the kind of exercise we want state legislators to spend time on?)

You get the idea.

Each one of Mark Lane’s chapters is a little gem, a kind of inspired dose of the ridiculous. The actual statute that elevates the sabal poem (aka the sabal palmetto palm and/or cabbage palm) as the state tree of Florida (even though it’s actually a tree-like plant) is just the kind of discovery for which Mr. Lane cannot resist witty remarks and satiric story-telling. He includes some laughs at the expense of the sabal palms post-hurricane trimmings. “It’s the poodle-cut of palms.”

. . . .

For the rest of the review in October 17, 2019 Bonita Springs Florida Weekly,  info about Mark Lane, and an interview click here:  Florida Weekly – Roaring Reptiles. Then continue to review’s second page. Also appears in Palm Beach and Venice editions.

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Best-selling novelist Andrew Gross is featured speaker at Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival

Review article by Phil Jason, co-chair of Jewish Book Festival and Florida Weekly book columnist

The Fifth Column: A Novel, by Andrew Gross. Minotaur Books. 336 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

This fast-paced historical thriller has all the ingredients of another best seller for its prolific and popular author. In the late 1930s, the concept of a fifth column, a seditious group forming in the United States in league with this country’s enemies or potential enemies, gained quite a bit of attention. Anti-war sentiment was high, and it raised the possibility of anti-government action. 

Many groups, especially after France fell, admired Hitler and fascism. They admired authoritarian leadership. U. S. security agencies recognized the threat, but agents’ hands were tied without solid proof of law-breaking.

Worst of all, the more sophisticated Fifth Column groups were adept at fitting in, keeping a low profile, and passing for loyalists while planning to undermine the country or its principles.

There were plenty of pro-Nazi rallies, anti-Semitic rants, and New York area neighborhoods in which children wore swastikas.

Andrew Gross describes such an atmosphere, and he finds the perfect premises and plot line to bring it to life in a most horrifying fashion.

We meet the central character and main narrator, Charles Mossman, in a New York bar continuing a pattern of drinking way too much while pondering the political stories of the day. His drinking had brought Charlie low, costing him his job as a history professor at Columbia University. A minimally observant Jew, Charlie is dismayed about the popularity of figures like Father Coughlin and Joseph McWilliams who stirred up trouble and spread hate. He is also grieving over the loss of his twin brother Ben, who died fighting the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Worse yet, Charlie had been unfaithful to his wife Liz, who has become the main breadwinner.

He hopes to regain her trust and to never lose it again. His worst nightmare is failing their six-year old daughter Emma.

This night, even more disaster for Charlie comes to pass. Drunk beyond sense or stability, he manages to get into a fight and accidentally murder a teenager.

Two years later, when a clean Charlie is released from jail, determined to claw his way back to respectability, just about all of Europe is at war. Charlie has a lot to prove to regain the faith of his wife, who has changed the last name on the door from Mossman to Rubin. When he hears his daughter’s voice calling “Daddy,” he knows more than ever how much he has missed.

It’s clear that Liz is a long way from trusting him. She is not willing to have him return to their home. Charlie understands; he is hoping – over time – to make amends and prove himself worthy.

Liz agrees to allow Charlie to visit with Emma twice a week after school, but he must leave before Liz returns home. Liz has Mrs. Shearer helping her out minding Emma, and Liz is working to support the tenuously balanced family. There are also elderly neighbors, the Bauers, who have befriended Liz and Emma.

The novel shifts into a new gear when Charlie begins to feel that something is not quite right about the behavior of Trudi and Willi Bauer, who long ago established themselves as Swiss citizens of German heritage enjoying their senior years in the United States. They seem somehow too close to Emma, and she to them.

Charlie is also perplexed by their furtive-seeming visitors, whom they call “customers,” whom the Bauers invite on a regular basis. While it is no surprise that Emma has been developing something of a German vocabulary from her interaction with the Bauers, Charlie is shocked to hear his daughter use the word lebensraum, the oft-repeated justification for Germany’s military aggression.

When Charlie asks Emma what the word means, she responds, “the future.” Now he is further worried. His concern deepens when he notices, in the Bauer home, a strip of partially burned paper containing numbers that might be a secret code. Charlie is also troubled that nearby German bars hold meetings of groups like the German American Bund at which speakers offer Nazi propaganda.

Without much to go on, Charlie – on his lawyer’s advice and without Liz’s consent – takes his concerns to the local police station. He receives a patronizing response and little satisfaction. Given his background, this down-and-out ex-con doesn’t have a chance of getting a fair listening from the police officer, who at least pays him some attention.

The narrative builds in various ways. Charlie continues to tell his story, including his discovery of more suspicious items, including a hidden radio transmitter, in the Bauer home. Gross sets Charlie’s personal story against the larger story of the German advances in Europe and the growing anti-war sentiment in the United States. Although Charlie thinks he has an FBI-connected ally who can put his findings to good use, progress is iffy.

He gets no support from Liz, who acts like a divorce is forthcoming. In her view, Charlie’s behavior is ruining their chances for a normal family life. Hating to be seen in this light, Charlie is nonetheless driven to find the truth for his daughter’s sake – and for his country’s sake.

Charlie’s desperation makes him an easy mark for those who can read it and maneuver him to their advantage.

Andrew Gross masterfully portrays the details of how Charlie’s quest plays out, including the setbacks along the way, Charlie’s emotional predicament, and the forces arrayed against him. I can’t tell you more without giving too much away!

Book lovers can hear Mr. Gross discuss this blazing thriller – which imagines a carefully planned, deadly threat against the U. S. – on Tuesday, November 11 beginning at 1:00 at the Naples Conference Center. The book will be available for sale and signing. Also speaking at that event will be Steve Israel, author of Big Guns. Find details about the complete Festival series of events, along with an order form, author bios, sponsor news, and contact information at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. Need an answer fast? Send an email to fedstar18@gmail.com or call the Federation office at 239.263.4205.

This review article first appeared in the October 2019  edition of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples).

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Soon-to-be-classic Holocaust narrative is a gripping tale of reinvention and romance

No Past Tense: Love and Survival in the Shadow of the Holocaust, by D. Z. Stone. Vallentine Mitchell. 288 pages. Hardcover $49.00, Trade paperback $22.95.

D. Z. Stone

This unique and almost accidental biography of two young people, separately, living through horrible events during the Holocaust is bound to be considered a classic telling of the Holocaust experience. How is it accidental? Willi and Kati Salcer spent decades of there lives as Holocaust survivors shunning any and all opportunities to tell their stories. They were not interested in bringing those memories to the surface. Kati, in particular, did not think their horrible experiences could be made shareable. They finally succumbed at the insistence of their son Ron, who came to understand – without knowing any details – that his parents, once two young Jewish Czech teenagers, had been through terrible experiences during WWII.

He managed to have them record their experiences for the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1996. The Foundation is housed at the University of Southern California. Ron felt that more could be drawn out of them, and he also felt that their story to be available in book form. He sought and found the ideal person to build the chronicle for readers, preserving the couple’s voices while adding her own as well as an engaging narrative structure. That person is journalist and cultural anthropology specialist D. Z. Stone. 

Katarina Kellner and William Salcer, both from small Czech villages, met in 1944. Both had been educated in topnotch Budapest schools. After the German’s invaded Hungary, the young people, who had met in a ghetto, found themselves forced into labor camps. Willi survived Mauthausen and Kati survived Auschwitz. Hearing of Willi’s survival after Germany’s defeat, Kati successfully searched for him. Though their personalities and values were not entirely harmonious, they married. In 1946, they smuggled themselves into pre-state Israel, where they flourished until they felt the need to move on.

After leaving Israel, they lived in many places, but most of their several homes were in the United States where they maintained citizenship and where Willi rebuilt and improved upon his remarkable career as an inventor and businessman. He held sixteen patents.

All through the early part of their lives, and even into their later years, the Salcers suffered frequent, and sometimes unspeakable, hardships, as did their Czech relatives. How they faced and fought through those obstacles is illuminated by the dozens of stories synthesized brilliantly by Ms. Stone.

Every reader will have his or her favorite story. Here are some of the:

In April 1944, Hungarian Gendarmes push Kati – along with her mother, brother, and grandmother – from their home. Laughing all the way, the gendarmes direct them to enter the next-door home. Incredibly, this new Jewish ghetto included the home of Kati’s great uncle, Oscar Bing. It was actually a very nice home, well-supplied with food and other necessities. It was the nicest place of confinement one could imagine. Other aspects of the ghetto, however – as stepping stones to labor camps – were not so pleasant. Soon enough, the confiscated homes of the town’s Jews were taken over by their non-Jewish neighbors, few if any of whom showed any sympathy for their plight.

In August of 1945, after Kati’s liberation from Auschwitz and return to her family’s village, she went to the mayor’s office to discuss the return of the family-owned home and pharmacy. She wanted those Christians to be gone and everything restored. After the mayor hemmed and hawed, not ready to take such a step, Kati took matters more fully into her own hands and moved into the adjacent gardener’s shed. She became a grand example of positive chutzpah. In Kati’s own words decades later, she explained: Yes, you can say this was a provocative act. I knew people were watching from the house and there was a small crowd of villagers pointing at me and whispering, “What is she doing?” I was glad I was getting attention; let the entire village be reminded of what they had done.

In February 1946, the recently married young couple, disgusted with conditions in postwar Europe, connected with an organization called Hakshara. This entity provided agricultural training for Jews hoping to emigrate to Palestine. Illegal immigration was the only immigration possible for the Salcers and other Jews. Just as luck would have it, while they were pursuing this aliya hope, Willi received a notice demanding him to report for duty in the Czechoslovakian army! How they finally made their way to a new life in pre-state Israel is one of the most fascinating stories in the book. The ship purchased for the voyage was renamed “The Jewish Soldier.” Willi contributed his skills for what would become the new Jewish State by designing and constructing tanks. Thus, he played his part in the unofficial Israeli army. Soon after, in 1948, he became a member of the newly formed Israeli Air Force.

These vignettes, presented much more elaborately in the book, offer a taste of what No Past Tense has in store for readers. In the domain of their experience, there can only be now and the future. Thus the book’s title. October 16, the book’s publication date, is also the couple’s wedding anniversary. Even though they are gone from this world that tested them so severely, their abiding love and resilient natures come alive on every page.

This review appears in the October 2019 editions of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte County), and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota Manatee).

 

 

 

 

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A first-rate crafting of a tale about a series of heinous crimes

No Good Deed, by James Swain. Thomas & Mercer. 336 pages. Trade Paperback $15.95.

The second installment of the Jon Lancaster & Beth Daniels Series, following “The King Tides,” is a blessing for crime thriller fans. It continues to build the shaky relationship between the highly engaging and original lead characters while exploring a heinous series of crimes in human trafficking. What’s happening is terrible, but the crafting of the tale is first rate.

What begins as a missing person case turns into a horror story involving the disappearance of twelve young women within the state of Florida. Who is preying on them? Why? How can this serial abduction nightmare be terminated? 

Jon, retired from police work, has long been associated with Team Adam, part of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The missing person he is tracking is young Skye Tanner, whose grandmother was murdered by the felons during her attempt to protect her. When he discovers that Skye’s abduction is part of a pattern, Jon puts himself on the case.

Of course, for a crime spree like this one, not only local authorities but also the FBI will be involved. Thus, Agent Beth Daniels will re-enter Jon’s life. Sparks will fly, a consequence of their mutual attraction and their contrasting understanding of the value of rules. Beth is a by-the-book person, Jon can justify breaking rules – and does.

The emotional dimension of the novel is deepened by the fact that Jon’s long estranged and often imprisoned brother, Logan, turns out to be working for the organization doing the human trafficking.

Swain

The mood of No Good Deed is lightened by such touches as Jon’s employment of teenage students, Beth’s niece and some of her classmates, to do computer search work that helps answer some questions about the perpetrators and their location. . . .

To  enjoy the full review, as it appears in the September 11, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the September 12 Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, Palm Beach, and Venice editions, click here:  No Good Deed

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Failure to protect a witness rocks self-esteem of protagonist

A Beautiful Voice, by Robert Lane. Mason Alley Publishing. 404 pages. Trade Paperback $14.95.

Lane

It’s difficult, and not terribly important, to summarize the plot of Robert Lane’s latest novel, the sixth in his “Jake Travis” series. The attraction of this crime thriller is less in the plot line than in the high quality of characterization, physical setting, and moral ambiance. Meeting Jake and his friends, his girlfriend Kathleen, and several other well-drawn characters who are newly developed for this novel is the real pleasure.

 

Here’s the set-up: When a government agency assigns Jake to safeguard a witness who is brought into the U. S. to testify about the head of a major drug syndicate, the idea is that the witness will keep a low profile. Without warning, this man, an accountant with priceless information, arrives with a family – a wife, two young daughters, and an even younger boy. When the family disappears just a few days later, Jake gathers that he has been misinformed, but why? What has happened to Alejandro Vizcarro and his young family?

Lots of surprises follow, including the fact that the gorgeous wife, Martina, is actually the accountant’s first daughter, much older that her siblings. And it’s possible that one of the children is not a sibling to the others.

The Mexican drug cartel leader, Sergio Flores, has a thriving business. His tainted drugs kill thousands of Americans. No wonder the U. S. government wants him brought to justice. In addition, he has murdered two DEA agents. Some of his books are kept by an American, Richard Bannon, and it’s the hope of Jake’s associates that Mr. Vizcarro’s testimony will tumble Bannon and, in turn, Flores.

Well things just don’t work out. Vizcarro’s protection, set in place by Jake, is just not sufficient. A remaining part of the mystery is the to discover and protect Vizcarro’s children. Assuming they are still alive.

As readers follow the plans that Jake puts in place for himself and his comrades, they enter Jake’s world more fully. This is a world of weapons that Jake’s team knows how to use. It is a world of waterways along the western edge of the Florida peninsula (the St. Petersburg area) that is at once the setting for Jake’s home and the action center of the novel. It is a world of magnificent boats and crime-busting accessories that Jake has long mastered. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the September 4, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the September 5 Bonita Springs and Charlotte County editions, and the September 12 Naples and Key West editions, click here: A Beautiful Voice

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A life of ballet

Ballet dancer/teacher/businesswoman tells the inside story in a captivating memoir

Chasing Castles: Nineteen Years Living & Teaching Ballet in Italy, by Barbara File Marangon. Ogham Books International. 286 pages. Trade Paperback $15.95.

This marvelous story of nearly two decades of perseverance is filled with colorful vignettes and valuable life lessons. The author takes her readers through a highly creative period of her life running from her early thirties through her early fifties. As a young woman, Ms. Marangon (hereafter Barbara), had prepared for a career in ballet. We meet her during a time when the ex-New Yorker is dancing and training others in Los Angeles.

But something is luring her in another geographic and cultural direction. She has fond memories of friendships made in Europe, of refinement of her skills there, and of European performances in which she participated. Ready to live in a kind of exile, and hardly speaking any Italian, she is determined to live and work there. Another motive is the need to withdraw from her doomed, painful relationship with her father.

Venice is the first stop.

Marangon

What she didn’t realize was that she would be a victim of a deeply-rooted European prejudice against foreigners. This affected where she could live, what amenities she could obtain, work opportunities, and many other areas of life. Her Venice experience of feeling like an outsider was offset someone by the romance that ended in a marriage to her first husband and her gradual, hard-won successes in developing a career as a ballet teacher. Unfortunately, she discovered that her husband was a very childish person. Their unhealthy relationship lingered on for a long time.

More opportunities arose outside of Venice – in small towns in which ballet education was well established and in which she was able to make her mark even while dealing with the resentment of others about making room for an outsider to flourish. Barbara made at least two of those small towns her home.

What is success as a ballet teacher? How does one manage to turn craft and teaching skills into a successful business? Most of the book details Barbara’s struggle to answer these questions. . . .

The full review, along with an interview, was originally published in the September-October 2019 issue of Ft. Myers Magazine. To read the full review, click here:  Chasing Castles

 

For her earlier Detour on an Elephant, click here:   Detour

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“MOON WATER,” BY PAM WEBBER

She Writes Press. 280 pages. Trade paperback $16,95.

Pam Webber

This tantalizing and sometimes frightening coming-of-age story centers on a strong-minded girl of sixteen, Nettie, and her battles with faith, sexuality, and a near-apocalyptic storm. Set in mountainous Central Virginia in 1969, the novel vividly captures the time and place with authority and respectful understanding. An intriguing extra ingredient is the influence of a native Monacan Indian leader, the grandmother of Nettie’s friend Win, who is an important force in the cultural and spiritual life of her community. This woman, Nibi, can read changes in the weather and restore health through the use of natural medicines. She is in tune with her environment, both a healer and a seer.

Nettie had been friends with Andy since they were in grade school, and now, in their teens, the relationship is maturing in a troublesome way. It’s not clear if they are ready for deep commitments to one another. Nettie is perplexed about “forever love.” She needs to explore what that means much further. How can she – or Andy – know what forever will bring?

Andy is hurt by Nettie’s inability to speak the familiar words of commitment without knowing herself better. He withdraws to give her the room she needs, but before long she finds him too often in the presence of Anne, who has been Nettie’s nemesis since they were young kids. Nettie cannot fathom what Andy sees in Anne, but it’s clear that Anne wants to lord it over the girl she sees as her rival.

For adult readers, such conflicts and uncertainties are long familiar. However, Ms. Webber probes these matters with sensitivity and nuance. Young Adult readers at the threshold Nettie is reaching (high school graduation and the unfathomable “then what?”) are likely to find Webber’s treatment of this theme particularly engaging and useful.

Commitment is a problem for Nettie in other ways as well. It is time for her to be baptized, but the priest at her church is dismayed by Nettie’s unwillingness to accept and voice traditional religious formulas. She is an independent thinker who wants to make her own decisions, not merely mouth platitudes that she hasn’t tested and explored for herself. When the priest observes that Nettie is not yet ready, Nettie is in agreement. However, she and Pastor Williams don’t mean the same thing. He means subservient, she means convinced.

As with her feelings for Andy, this young woman does not want to testify to feelings and beliefs that she isn’t sure are true to her sense of herself.

Pastor Williams sets up an intermediary, an associate pastor named Danes, to guide Nettie in the right direction. While Mr. Danes is a smooth operator and helpful in some ways, he turns out to be a sexual predator. Pastor Williams has put Nettie in harm’s way. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Southern Literary Review, click here:  Moon Water

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One family’s story of hope and triumph over evil

Resilience, by Judy Stone. MD. Mountainside MD Press. 384 pages. Trade paperback $17.95.

As the number of Holocaust survivors continues to dwindle, only a scant remnant remains to tell their stories and verify the facts. Scholars continue to explore the field, but testimony is so much richer than the results of research. Dr. Judy Stone, the daughter of survivors and, with this book, the voice for both the survivors of a large, extended Jewish-Hungarian family and their memories of those who perished, connects the past with the present in an inspired and chilling way. 

The time came when Judy Stone knew that it was up to her to convey the traumas of her elders, giving meaning to their perseverance and courage, remembering their trials and tribulations, and acknowledging that the dead can tell no tales: whether those who died in the nightmare of the Holocaust or those who survived it either speechless or simply mortal. In the latter case, the author needed to get their stories before it was too late.

It’s all here, the result of committed passion lifting the heavy weight of assumed responsibility.

This is one of the answers to the haunting question “who will tell our story?” that becomes more pressing every year.

Dr. Stone has a second motive for bringing her family’s Holocaust experiences, and the political backgrounds of those experiences, to the attention of readers. She sees, and hopes her readers will see, the parallels between what happened in Europe before and during the Holocaust years and what has been happening once again in Europe as well as in the U. S. and elsewhere. She fears the rise of nationalism and isolationism. She fears the vilification of the mainstream press and the proliferation of hate crimes. For her, the handwriting is on the wall – in blood! She is bringing us her family history, in context, so that such potential atrocities are recognized and snuffed out early so that the hideous mass crimes of the past will not be repeated.

Many aspects of this book are remarkable, among them the simple fact that there were so many survivors. The extended Ehrenfeld and Glattstein families suffered in almost every way one can imagine. They were imprisoned into forced labor inside of and outside of concentration camps, places whose names we know all to well. They were tortured. They suffered from malnutrition, exhaustion, and sheer barbarism. Among them were Judy’s mother and father. She writes of her parents’ siblings – her aunts and uncles. These people have stories now told because Judy drew the stories out, laboriously, and over a long period of time.

Listen to the names: Magdus (the author’s mother), Bözsi, Miklos, Klari, Kati, Pista, Miki (the author’s father), and Sanyi.

Judy Stone

These Hungarian Jews, some more religious than others but generally followers of traditional Jewish customs, established and maintained households, educated themselves, ran businesses, and watched – with growing concern – the beastly takeover of Hungary and the ascendance of Nazi rule. In late 1938, they heard about Kristallnacht and then later (after German occupation) saw it paralleled in their hometown of Sáránd. Soon after, everything was gone. Hungarian Jews were either in hiding or essentially prisoners of the Nazi empire.

Dr. Stone tells their stories, which include their various relationships, in an accessible, colorful style. We get to know them. We see them in full disorientation after the Allies turn the tide of war. We see them attempt (often with success) to rebuild their lives. We see most of them, each in his or her own time, decide that Hungary is not the place to continue their lives. We see them rebuilding lives and having families in the United States. We see their children, Dr. Stone’s generation, participate in the American Dream.

We witness family reunions, temporary returns to Hungary, and – ultimately – the deaths of the Holocaust generation: Dr. Stone’s mother, as well as her aunts, uncles, and cousins. We know there must have been instances and prolonged periods of trauma, yet their lives turned out to be the heartbeat of resilience.

 

 

About the author:

Dr. Judy Stone, with her longstanding interest in genealogy and oral history, has fulfilled the wishes of her mother by researching and writing her survivor family’s memoir.

Professionall, she is an infectious disease physician who is experienced in conducting clinical research. She is the author of Conducting Clinical Research: A Practical Guide for Physicians, Nurses, Study Coordinates, and Investigators, which a text used widely in medical education.

For twenty-five years, she ran a solo practice in rural Cumberland, Maryland, and she now cares for patients part-time as a locum tenens (substitute) physician. She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, then completed medical school at the University of Maryland, residency at Rochester General Hospital (New York), and a fellowship at West Virginia University.

Dr. Stone is a Forbes Pharma and Healthcare contributor and former columnist for Scientific American.

This review appears in the September 2019 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and  The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

Proceeds from this book are donated by Dr. Stone to organizations that promote Holocaust education.

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Teenager’s diary reveals the world of a promising life cut short

Renia’s Diary: A Holocaust Journal, by Renia Spiegel, with Elisabeth Bellak and Sarah Durand. Translated from Polish by Anna Blasiak and Marta Dziurosz. Introduction by Deborah E. Lipstadt. St. Martin’s Press. 336 pages. Hardcover $27.99.

This book, a diary never meant for publication, is not what one would expect from something labeled as a Holocaust diary or journal. In it, young Renia gives very little attention to the immediate effects of Nazi aggression on a Jewish community. Most often, she seems barely aware of it. Perhaps it’s fairer to say that she is only intermittently aware of the establishment of a Ghetto near her grandparents’ home, where she has been living since being separated from her parents. She hears rumors that over time solidify. 

Most of her impressions of ongoing or expected destruction of Jewish communities seem second hand, and perhaps they most often were second hand – until the end.

Readers will wonder why they are not getting the kind of scenes that make up the bulk of first person Holocaust writings.

Deborah E. Lipstadt’s Introduction helps clarify the issue by making the important distinction between  diary and memoir. Diary writers are writing for themselves or for an alter ego. The diary is a companion (“dear diary”). Such journals are about the happenings and concerns of the immediate present.

Memoirs are retrospective. The writer knows the outcome of events initiated in the past and has processed the experiences after the immediate has become the remembered. Memoirs are meant to have an audience and they are written in anticipation of that audience.

Renia spent her time writing her observations, her primary concerns as a teenage girl in the last years of her well-designed secular schooling. Boys and possible relationships are on her mind, as are her female peers in the school. She writes about her moods, whom she likes, and whom she thinks does and does not understand her.

Foremost here is the student who becomes her committed boyfriend, Zygmunt. Her word portraits of this young man are astonishing, as are her records of their meetings and conversations. Parties, dances, and other standard teen activities are on Renia’s mind, as is her sense of how she is maturing physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Like most diary writers, she is talking to herself, addressing the diary directly as if it were a sympathetic friend: a true and loyal confidante.

The diary also records her concern about her mother’s situation, her longing for her mother to visit, and her high esteem for her absent mother. Many entries end with the author’s cry for help from her mother and from God. She needs them both desperately.

Renia’s diary is also, perhaps primarily, a collection of her poems, both recent and brand new. Her writerly aspirations drive her to produce more and more poems.in which she skillfully employs nature imagery to help explore her emotional life. The poems fall short of greatness, especially in that they are so repetitive of one another, but Renia is clearly a promising poet whose work could have grown in depth and sophistication if her life had not been cut short.

Meanwhile, she was trusted to run her school’s student newspaper.

While the last passages that Renia wrote do focus on the conditions of ghetto life, a fuller picture of that period and the family’s life before and after can be found in two additional sections of the book prepared by Renia’s younger sister. They are not journal material but a mix of memoir and research. Titled “Epilogue” and “Elizabeth’s Commentary,” These sections provide much-needed context that is otherwise missing from the journal proper. With these additions, the answers to questions that are not answered in journals or diaries like Renia’s are brought fully to light. It is here that readers receive the conditions of Holocaust life in Poland.

RENIA SPIEGEL was born to a Jewish family in Poland in 1924. She began her diary at the start of 1939, right before the invasion of Poland by the German and Soviet armies. In 1942, she was forced to move to a ghetto, but was smuggled out by her boyfriend and went into hiding with his parents. She was discovered by the Gestapo and murdered on July 30, 1942.

ELIZABETH BELLAK (née Ariana Spiegel), Renia’s sister, born in 1930, was a child actress once called “the Polish Shirley Temple.” In 1942 she and her mother fled to Warsaw, and then to Austria, finally arriving in New York City, where she lives today.

This review appears in the August 2019 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee)

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A fun-packed mystery with food for thought and thought for food

A Deadly Feast, by Lucy Burdette. Crooked Lane. 228 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

It may be that calling a book and its main character “delightful” does not seem like a term of high praise. However, how much in our lives is delightful? How often might we wish to be delighted? Like its eight predecessors, this latest title in the “Key West Food Critic Mystery” series will put a smile on your face while keeping you engaged with suspenseful plot details and the charms of idiosyncratic Key West.

Exuberant, curious, and good-natured Hayley Snow is the restaurant columnist for Key Zest magazine, and as readers now expect, doing her job is likely to lead her into trouble. She is covering a seafood tasting tour orchestrated by her friend Analise, an event meant to show off Key West cuisine, when things go wrong. One of the customers mysteriously dies while feasting at the tour’s last stop. Analise enlists Hayley’s help, and the game is on.

It’s not that Hayley has nothing else to do but go sleuthing. On the schedule is a special Thanksgiving celebration tied to Hayley’s marriage to her handsome, protective beau Nathan – a police detective stressed out by a dangerous case he’s working on, the impending marriage, and the need to meet many of Hayley’s relatives for the first time.

Lucy Burdette / photo credit Carol Tedesco

So, we have a recipe for stress and mayhem.

Oh, one more thing: Hayley and Nathan are hoping to have a houseboat restored in time to move into soon after the wedding. As is so often the case with such endeavors, things are not going well and contractors are not showing up to meet the schedule.

Was the victim killed by something she ate at that last tour stop? Did something go wrong with chef Marsha Hubbard’s Key Lime pie – her virtuoso signature item? Is Marsha’s career doomed? Was the event – and the pie – sabotaged? Will the restaurant’s reputation collapse?

And then there’s a second death!

The police, including Nathan, are on the case, and the lovers have their usual conflict over Hayley’s need to get involved and Nathan’s need to keep her safe and perform like the professional that he is.

It’s all about friends, relatives, food, excitement, and danger. Readers will enjoy the spunky Miss Gloria, who has shared her houseboat with Kayley and is a “poster girl” for active, insightful octogenarians. Lorenzo the Tarot Card guru is another loveable Key Wester. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 21, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the August 22  Charlotte County and Venice editions, and the August 29 Naples  edition, click here: DeadlyFeast

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