Tag Archives: book reviews

“Promised Land: A Novel of Israel,” by Martin Fletcher

Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press. 416 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

Martin Fletcher’s Promised Land is a literary triumph of near-contemporary historical fiction that is magnetic, surprising, and should be read and enjoyed for decades to come. The scope of the book runs from 1950, shortly after Israel’s establishment as a modern nation, to 1967, a time of its most severe testing.  

Fletcher deals in wars: the wars amongst the Jewish citizenly, the wars with Israel’s neighbors, and the wars within an extended family that contains Egyptian Jews exiled (fortunately) to the Jewish state.

And there is the aftermath of war, too, expressed through the sons of Holocaust victims, the elder of whom reached freedom in the United States before settling in Israel, and the younger son — emotionally wounded — who was incarcerated, tortured, and barely escaped with his life.

For all of its impression of compactness, Promised Land is a novel of generations, reminiscent of the Old Testament’s presentation of Jewish families to whom, as the story goes, the Creator conditionally gave the original promised land. What would seem more biblical than warring brothers?

When they were still children, Peter Berg was put on a train that took him west, the initial stage of a journey that led to safety with an American family. He grew up with their children. Arie, then called Aren, was somewhat later put on a train that took him, his parents, and his sisters to the concentration camps. Aren alone survived, but at great cost to his psyche.

Martin Fletcher – Credit Chelsea Dee

Miraculously, the brothers are reunited in 1947. Peter, who had been in the U.S. Army, is already a founding agent of the young CIA. Learning of his brother’s survival, he searches for him in Palestine. Aren Berg is now named Arie ben Nesher, and Peter Berg decides to become Peter Nesher, transferring his allegiance to the cause of Jewish nationhood.

Peter becomes a leader in matters of Israeli security, and Arie becomes a prominent entrepreneur who enjoys showing off his wealth. Along the way, another family enters their lives, a family of Jewish-Egyptian refugees whose glory is their beautiful, intelligent daughter Tamara.

The time markers move along: 1950, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1956, and so on into the 1960s, with the author carefully developing his characters and his portrait of the burgeoning Israeli nation, along with reminders of the constant menace of its nearby Arab-Islamic neighbors. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  Promised Land.

Martin Fletcher appears on the January 9 program of the Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival. See GNJBF

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Coming Events, Jewish Themes

Comedy superstar headlines Greater Naples Jewish Film Festival

When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win (Villard, 2009) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying (Quirk, Books, 2014).

Carol Leifer

Carol Leifer’s stories bring tonic laughter and wacky wisdom.

As she does in her classic stand-up routines, Carol Leifer talks about herself as a way of talking about all of us, certainly the female spectrum of all of us. The chapters of these two books, books which are different in several ways, are either chapters in her own life or observational chapters about what goes on around her. Sometimes abrasive, sometimes sensitive, but always funny and wise.

In When You Life About Your Age, the Terrorists Win, a good deal of the focus has to do with turning forty and what follows from that time marker through another decade or so.

The perspective is feminist, Lesbian, and Jewish all braided into one brainy package. 

It is not about her career, but in a way it is very much a part of her career. You can hear her voice bringing her material to an audience – all of us.

The title of the second chapter says it well: 40 Things I Know at 50 Because 50 is the New Forty.

Enjoy family stories about growing up, mom and dad, exploring and enhancing her Jewish identity, discovering and acting on her Lesbian inclinations, and the family she creates with her partner and their adopted son. The stories explore the tension that we all share between the way we’d like things to be and the way they are: our appearance, our values, surviving our mistakes, our health, and our relationships – including relationships with pets.

Considering the need for better quality breast implants, devices she would never use, she shouts out in the safety of her thoughts: “Why am I fighting for your fake tits when you’re not bringing anything to my table?”

Carol wonders about the women she meets who are a generation or two younger than herself. She doesn’t see them carrying the torch as she and her contemporaries carried through the earlier decades of the Women’s Movement.

She wonders about her “quid pro quo” attitude toward gift-giving. Is getting even what it’s all about? Is it just a family or “Jewish” thing? And how did a classic gift, the “chafing dish,” get its name? Should it be treated with Vaseline before use?

Have we become “lazy-ass weenies,” she asks, needing “comfort grips” on our tooth brushes and pens? What’s that all about? 

Carol’s experiences in her various doctors’ offices will bring knowing smiles from her readers. But when they get to the part about a mammogram, when the radiology tech says that the doctor wants “a few more films of your left breast,” readers will know we’ve slid off the comic table for a page or two. Luckily all turned out well. What tremendous emotional resonance is in that vignette.

Ultimately, this earlier book is a celebration of aging. Carol helps us all celebrate together.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying, published in a small page format, is also a memoir, and it covers some of the same thematic concerns. This time, however, Carol plunges into her career history as both a hugely successful stand-up comedian and brilliant television comedy writer. Guess what? Carol has found a way to make this self-help book applicable to almost any career that one might wish to enter. And it’s not just about breaking in, but about staying and rising to the top.

While she draws examples from her own experiences – and these are all terrifically entertaining stories – she extracts the transferable lessons in a way that make sense to anyone aspiring to get started in the world of work, to change directions, or to reach a higher level of achievement.

Carol underscores the need for constructive attitude building that leads to positive action plans. She explores the value of making and keeping useful connections. She insists that consistently treating others well will pay off, while treating them poorly is likely to come back to haunt you and block your path. She shows how you can rebound from a negative experience and often transform it into something unexpectedly positive.

It doesn’t hurt that we get to encounter models of successful professional performers whom we think we already know: Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Bette Midler, David Letterman Jay Leno, and Frank Sinatra are only a small handful of the many show business celebrities with whom Carol has worked and who have helped shape her own expertise about climbing the ladder of success and not falling off. Her rules for the road are in themselves quite a ride. Laughs are everywhere.

An extra added ingredient in this book is the inclusion of dozens of photographs.

Well known for her stand-up specials on TV and her award-winning contributions as a writer to such television series as Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live, and Modern Family, Carol Leifer will be joining the staff for the upcoming season of Curb Your Enthusiasm as a Writer/Producer.

Come to the Hilton Naples to laugh and learn when trailblazer Carol Leifer leads off the Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival on October 17 at 7:30 p. m.  Schedule and ordering Information is available online at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. You can also send email to fedstar18@gmail.com or call the Federation office at 239.263.4205.

This review appears in the October 2018 Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples) and also in the Naples Florida Weekly. See Leifer

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Coming Events, Jewish Themes

“On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash”

Ellen Cassedy, trans. Northern Illinois University Press. 192 pages. Trade Paperback $16.95.

Review by Philip K. Jason

The sixteen stories in this collection, carefully selected and translated from Yenta Mash’s life’s work in Yiddish, form a series of quiet explosions. Though they sometimes cry out, the voices are strangely subdued, recording as they do life behind the Iron Curtain in the decades of Soviet strangulation of subject peoples. Communities in Bessarabia, Moldova, and Siberia were at best unofficial prisons for aspiring souls and curious minds and at worst, official ones. For the surprisingly large, if relatively unknown, Jewish communities, the burdens included that of anti-Semitism.

For some, including Mash, immigration to Israel during and after the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the 1970s was a mixed blessing. There was so much that was unfamiliar, so much to get used to. More importantly, there was so much to remember before the memories would vanish.

In one story in this collection, Mash takes us into the lives of two young women, foresters working long hours for a bare subsistence. They cut down trees, prepare the trunks and branches for usable lumber, and carry them to be examined by their boss. The narrator is dependent on her more skillful coworker, Riva, without whom she would be lost. It’s the dead of winter, and there is no expectation of respite from the frozen misery of their lives. These intimates are the family breadwinners. From time to time, they make one another laugh. Though their relationship turns sour in later years, readers are left with their strength and indomitable spirits. What’s enchanting in this story and others is the comfortable way in which the characters carry their Jewish selves—with a mixture of knowledge and habit that sometimes seems more nourishing than any other part of their existence. . . .

To see the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here: On the Landing

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

Educating, entertaining fiction about seniors and assisted living

Don’t Admit You’re in Assisted Living – First Mystery: The Kiss, by Dorothy Seymour Mills. Blue Water Press LLC. 154 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

This delightful three-part mystery series by Ms. Mills, who recently turned ninety, provides an insightful and humorous look at senior living communities. The author’s model for the setting, a place she calls Locksley Glen, is her Naples home of The Carlisle. However, she is writing fiction and she means for her exploration of such a community to be representative. Through this book, readers will journey into a world of people “who are past being active physically and whose ability to contribute to modern life is limited by physical decline and encroaching age-connected illness.” 

As the novel makes clear, these people, mostly women, are abundantly alive, curious, engaged, and brimming with experiential knowledge. They offer one another vital, shareable experience in a setting made to order for their needs.

When 80-year-old Locksley resident Clarence is spotted accepting a kiss from a young Greek waiter named Petros, the rumor mill starts grinding. Alice, the principal character and the narrator, wonders if this behavior – an elderly man showing sexual interest in a teenage employee – fits into the parameters of normality. What is the revealed relationship all about? What is the mystery behind the kiss?

Some speculation about sexual activity between senior citizens follows, but the question is left up in the air. It seems less and less important as another strange event take over the imaginations of the residents. Someone is stabbed during a Halloween party.

Dorothy Mills

Preparations for the party involve the creation of costumes. A most popular and attractive resident, Starr, borrows some paint from Alice, who is an artist about to have a significant exhibition of her paintings. Starr uses the paint to fashion a cardboard gun and knife as part of her outlaw cowboy costume. Somehow the imitation knife is replaced by a real one – a steak knife stolen from the Locksley Glen kitchen.  It ends up being used as a weapon in a real crime against Petros’s father, Tzannis Papadopoulos, who Petros had been trying to prevent from being allowed into the United States. Meanwhile, the cardboard knife is found to have real blood on it. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the September 27, 2018 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions and the October 3 Fort Myers and Charlotte County editions, click here:  Assisted Living

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Florida Authors

“Hearts and Minds: Israel and the Battle for Public Opinion,” by Nachman Shai

SUNY Press. 284 pages. Hardcover $85.00.  

Review by Philip K. Jason

Hasbara, or Israel’s social diplomacy, is the focus of Knesset member Nachman Shai’s excellent study Hearts and Minds, winner of the 2013 Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. According to Shai, hasbara is what Israel’s leaders have neither taken seriously enough, nor implemented well enough throughout the country’s existence.

נחמן שי
Nachman Shai

 

 

Moving chronologically, Shai analyzes how Israel’s leadership has dealt with conflict. Though Israel has won many victories on the military front by exercising hard power, in the arena of soft power, or hasbara, Shai argues, resources have been either ineffective, reluctantly employed, or nonexistent. There are recent signs, however, of shifting attitudes. Public and private media and non-governmental organizations are playing a growing role in the battle for “hearts and minds.”

To read the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here:  Hearts and Minds

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump, by Jonathan Weisman

St. Martin’s Press. 256 pages. Hardcover  $25.99.

Review by Philip K. Jason

The heat of Weisman’s outrage, tempered by the precision of his arguments, elevates this book to a must-read examination of the contemporary renaissance of anti-Semitism.

It is a call for action, part warning and part how-to manual, addressing individual American Jews, Jewish communities, and, especially, Jewish institutions. The ugly head of

anti-Semitism has returned to “the land of the free,” most notably in the messages and methods of the alt-right movement. According to Weisman, it is time to cut it off.Partly rooted in Timothy Snyder’s writings, Weisman’s study provides a compact history of the rise of the alt-right, its canny exploitation of social media, its odd success at resurrecting ancient European clichés about Jews, and the affinity that seems to exist between the group’s rise and that of Donald Trump.

Jonathan Weisman credit Gabrielle Demczuk

Weisman’s first chapter begins: “The Jew flourishes when borders come down, when boundaries blur, when walls are destroyed, not erected.” Weisman considers the Age of Trump to be an Age of Walls, at least in its aspirations. He identifies the success of the man he calls “the first Jewish citizen of the world,” Maimonides, as an outgrowth of the

tolerance of the twelfth-century Islamic Empire, a time and place of fewer boundaries. Weisman goes on to address other exceptional “international” Jews in the context of their times, including Moses Mendelssohn. . . .

To see the rest of this Jewish Book Council review, click here:  Semitism

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

Blood, bullets,brutality abound in latest from Jeffery Hess

Tushhog, by Jefferey Hess. Down & Out Books. 330 pages. Trade paperback $17.95.

Set in 1981 in Fort Myers, Florida and nearby Lehigh Acres, Mr. Hess’s second Scotland Ross novel abounds in blood, bullets, and brutality. Rival crime cadres vie for power, alliances are reshaped, and conditions are such that not taking sides can be an act of courage. Scotland, still mourning the death of his young son, is preoccupied with trying to achieve a life on the right side of the law, but all around him forces are at work to push him over to the wrong side.  

Though he has a sense of right and wrong, Scotland has a history of poor choices. Also, he has difficulty in checking his instinctive reactions to situations that come his way.

Does he have a girlfriend? Well, course. What would a tall, trim, muscular dude be without a beautiful girlfriend? Gorgeous Kyla, his sexy drummer girl, has an independent streak that makes Scotland nervous. He wants to take care of her – to keep her safe. But she has other ideas. Kyla is a fine character, and one can hope that she has a future in the next installment. Like all of us, she keeps secrets. Finding the balance of intimacy and independence is difficult for each of them, and Mr. Hess paints their ups and downs with convincing precision.

Hess

For an action novel, this one has a lot of talk. Ordinarily, I would find dialogue this detailed and prolonged to be out of balance with the other elements of story-telling. However, Jefferey Hess has a flair for orchestrating the various voices (characters) he has created, individualizing them and giving their interplay rhythm and force. The voices project social class, ethnicity, education, and personal style. It’s mostly a southern smorgasbord, with a bit of New York and Cuba thrown in depending upon which part of the novel’s criminal spectrum is being represented. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the September 19, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly as well as the September 20 Charlotte County edition and the  September 13  Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Tushhog

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Florida Authors

Dazzling epic about memory that integrates fiction with memoir is deeply original and ambitious

Returning, by Yael Shahar. Kasva Press. 504 pages. Hardcover $28.95; Trade paperback $19.95

Returning is an extraordinary and challenging book on many levels. It attempts to make the intangible as close to tangible as possible. It engages readers in a kind of time travel that has nothing to do with science fiction. It might remind some of paranormal romance, but the stakes are much higher.

What genre does is belong to? Author Yael Shahar once thought of calling it “fiction memoir,” but that does not capture enough of its essence.

The workings of dreams are central to the book’s technique and meaning, but what if you dream someone else’s dreams? What if someone else dreams yours and remembers yourmemories? Shahar’s artistry is to make these “what-ifs” credible and meaningful; in fact, inevitable and necessary. She imbeds these actualized possibilities in a theological — or, at least, a biblical — context.

The primary character is an older man named Alex. He is a tormented, guilt-ridden soul who has lived in Israel for many decades following his escape from slave labor at Auschwitz-Birkenau. A Greek Jew from Salonika (“Saloniki” throughout this book), Alex, whose given name is Ovadya (servant of God), was part of a sonderkommando crew, mostly Jewish, who were worked to exhaustion day after day hauling away the bones and ashes of incinerated Jews and other doomed prisoners.

All of his adult life, Alex has been trying, without much success, to resist the constant pressures of memories that take him back to his sonderkommando experience, a trauma that he’d like to forget. As an unwilling witness and assistant to the obliteration of his people, Alex is a man with a diseased soul. Part of him knows that he must face his past and accept responsibility for actions taken and not taken.

He seeks the help of Rabbi Ish-Shalom (“man of peace”), a person of remarkable learning, wisdom, and sensitivity. The rabbi becomes a spiritual coach who leads Alex on the path of self-knowledge, atonement, and redemption.

Yael Shahar credit Rahel Jaskow

But this is not a feel-good journey; it is filled with harrowing confrontations with Alex’s younger self. The rabbi insists, through a series of questions and refutations of Alex’s answers, that there are times when the giving of one’s own life may be the moral choice.

Alex’s resistance to his job of making room for the next victims to be pushed into the gas chambers would not have saved those lives, but that defense is slowly taken away during his conversations with the rabbi.

As Alex releases his memories, first by writing them down and later by speaking them aloud, he undergoes renewal and revelation that properly elevate his sense of self. He can take back his given name because he earns his right to it.

Yael Shahar as a character in her book is an intermediary between Alex and Rabbi Ish-Shalom. She brings them together. In a literal sense, with her name given as author of the book, she is telling Alex’s story — including his dialogue with the rabbi. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Returning

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

Florida, families, and fruit trees anchor a dazzling fiction set in the early 1960s

Goldens Are Here, by Andrew Furman. Green Writers Press. 364 pages. Trade paperback $21.95.

There are so many strands and points of interest in this fine, highly original novel that it’s hard to know where to begin. In the background is the Cuban Missile Crisis, the blooming (technically and economically) of Florida’s Space Coast, and the Civil Rights struggle. In the foreground is the Florida citrus industry in the early 1960s as represented by a body of small grove owners along or near the Indian River.  

In these communities, the white folks own the groves and the black folks perform much of the labor. Race relations are in an uneasy truce, a tangle of old habits and shaky dependencies. A great freeze threatens to destroy the groves, even if insects don’t.

The central character, Isaac Golden, has abandoned his career as a physician and set out on a grand adventure with his wife Melody and their two young children – Sarah and Eli. Moving away from the Philadelphia area, where their Jewish identity was readily reinforced, they have settled in a small town with only one other Jewish family and a considerable ride to Jewish institutions. The Goldens are clearly outsiders, and the way they are addressed by many of the townspeople carries a brand of politeness that barely veils a cultural tradition of anti-Semitism.

Professor Andrew Furman
Credit Benjamin Rusnak

Prof. Furman portrays how Isaac and Melody deal with their displacement and discomfort with skill and sensitivity.

The story of Isaac’s attempt to develop improved breeds of oranges becomes a continuing lesson in citrus science. Prof. Furman provides a large specialized vocabulary that is the basis for reader understanding of Isaac’s mission and of the industry he has entered. This material and the extensive exposition should fall flat, but somehow the author makes it sing. He does this by capturing Isaac’s poetic passion, especially his interest in avoiding chemical pesticides and employing means of protecting his groves using natural, nontoxic agents.

Well, he is spending more money than he is likely to make. Melody develops a roadside business selling from her vegetable garden, from the groves, and from the kitchen – her wonderful pies add much-needed income to the Goldens’ enterprise. . . .

To see the entire review, as it appears in the August 22, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 23 Naples, Bonita Spring, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Goldens Are Here

2 Comments

Filed under Authors and Books, Florida Authors, Jewish Themes

When you hear voices, is someone there?

Flame Vine: His Voices, by Charles Porter. Privately published. 338 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

This, the second volume in Mr. Porter’s The Hearing Voices Series, is not like anything else I’ve come across in my many decades of avid book reading. Really! The author provides a truly original voice, a distinctive cast of characters, and an East-Central to Southern Florida landscape that sweeps upward from norther Palm Beach County, touching Wellington, Stuart, Belle Glade, and perhaps Mr. Porter’s home town of Loxahatchee. The narrative has the smell of the burning sugar cane fields up that way, and its characters engage with a lot of other substances that are turned to smoke or imbibed in some other way.

The novel portrays the cultural scene of this swath of Florida as being in many ways representative of the U.S.  during the second half of the 20th century. It opens in 1950 and takes us into the life of Aubrey Shallcross, his friends, and his resident voices through the early 1980s—when things change for the worse as an age of materialism seems to override an age that fostered various types of spirituality.

Did I say “resident voices?” Well yes. Aubrey has been hearing voices since childhood, living with them, confiding in them, even learning from them. The primary voice, capable of positive influence, is Triple Suiter, affectionately called Trip. Other voices – or presences – are Amper Sand and a darker presence called Slim Hand. Traditional psychiatric medicine would call Aubrey’s condition schizophrenia, but Charles Porter is wary of this label to the point of suggesting that no treatment need be recommended. Aubrey is a fully functioning individual whose unconventional, unwilled, capacities extend rather than limit his sense of the world and his humanity.

Porter

He is a member of a community that not only tolerates him but finds him to be a steadying anchor. The gang that meets at the Blue Goose for nourishment and alcoholic refreshments – and every kind of narcotic – is a group given to excess. While some, like murdering vigilante Sonny, who stuffs his dead victims in refrigerators, are truly over the top, they are nonetheless reasonably loyal to one another. . . .

To read the entire review, as published in the August 8, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 9 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach additions, click here: Florida Weekly – Flame Vine

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Florida Authors