Tag Archives: Boston

Melting pot Boston in mid-twentieth century explored from Jewish perspective

Review by Philip K. Jason

My Mother’s Son, by David Hirshberg. Fig Tree Books. 368 pages. Hardcover  $23.95.

This is one beautiful book. It portrays a pivotal period in U. S. history flavored by the scrambling lives of European immigrants, their acculturated children, and their more fully Americanized grandchildren. Its action springs from family and historical events of 1952-1953, though it manages to cover decades both before and after. The narrator, not yet thirteen as the story begins, is looking back from near the twentieth century’s end. His name is Joel. At one point he is told that he wasn’t named for anyone in particular, but for the Jews as a whole.

The shadow of the Holocaust haunts Joel’s family, and for very good reasons that are made clear in the stretches of family history and family memory that run through the book. The Korean War is threatening to become the next world war.  The polio epidemic is on everyone’s mind. On the local level, Boston’s beloved Braves, a baseball team with which so many identify, may be preparing to relocate to Milwaukee. The seeds are being planted in Boston for the future presidency of a still very young and inexperienced Massachusetts politician – a man whose Catholic identity inspires the immigrant population and points to the character of the city.  

There are signs that the keyholders of political and other kinds of power may be changing. Representing this change is Joel’s powerful grandfather – a man whose business, ostensibly furniture, interfaces with various criminal activities. Even Joel and his brother Steven are involved.

Aside from marvelously recreating the time and place action, Hirshberg does a fine job of balancing the understanding and sensibilities of the young Joel against the much older and wiser version of himself that is telling the story. The story itself grows out of the bits and pieces of the past – and the application of the past to current events – that have been the bread and butter of the radio show that has been Joel’s occupation and occupational therapy for almost fifty years, drawing a large audience.

Devices that deepen the novel with additional key perspectives include most notably entries in his Aunt Rose’s diary. Rose is the most enigmatic character in the novel. Her attempts to come to terms with the Holocaust, with her years of travel as a circus performer, her transit to the United States, and her relationship to her husband Jacob– whose long preparation for death is a chilling strand of this complex, vividly detailed, yet  richly satisfying novel.

Conversations between family kingpin “Papa” Mischal (Rose’s father) and his lieutenants Murph Feldman and Moses O’Neil (whose names are symbols of the immigrant melting pot) explore the motives behind the shady dealings out of which Boston’s family, community, and political lives are constructed. It’s payback time for repressed or humiliated minorities.

Hirshberg

And these underhanded enterprises are presented in colorful prose vignettes that suggest a kind of innocence to the era while admitting to its harsh edges.

Although the early 1950s period is the core of the book and the fulcrum of Joel’s meticulously painted coming-of-age self-portrait, Hirshberg understands the need for readers to discover the steps that lead to the grandfatherly Joel whose voice has dazzled his listeners for so many decades. He allows us summary glances at Joel’s high school and college years, his military service, and his lifelong situation of needing to wrestle with important and transformational secrets about identity and the many faces of love.

It may seem curious that Hirshberg, after concluding his narrative, adds a glossary of foreign language terms – the list reinforcing the polyglot nature of Boston at the middle of the twentieth century. This spray of German, Hebrew, Irish, Italian, and Yiddish – plus a dash of Latin – suggests how the various ethnic groups interacted with one another, and in an unexpected manner, it enriches the cultural broth.

The glossary is also a reminder, if one is needed, that this is a very Jewish book – Jewish in the American way of successive generations being influenced by and reshaping a vanishing but not quite extinguished past. It is a world of Hebrew School lessons, Yiddish phrases being maintained and even penetrating the dominant non-Jewish community, and ethnic foods and – of course – memories. There are stories hidden until they must be revealed. There are other stories repeated and reshaped, perhaps with no expiration date.

I have not addressed the title of the book because to do so carries the likelihood of giving away something important too soon. I say this, dear reader, to entice you to this beautifully prepared feast of wisdom and discovery.

This essay appears in the May 2018 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).

 

 

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A rooming house and an inn: two visions of fifties Boston

Kenmore Square: A Novel by Carol June Stover. Champlain Avenue Books. 264 pages. Trade paperback, $13.99.

Set in Boston during the 1950s and early 1960s, this curious coming-of-age tale involves unusual characters and several life-altering secrets. 

Iris Apple’s world is rocked at the age of 10, when her mother is murdered. Iris suspects her crude and cruel father might very well be the murderer, but she has no way of acting on her suspicions.

Nick Apple, son of a well-known Boston bookie, runs the Kenmore Square rooming house where the family lives among the down and out boarders. One boarder is very special: Madame Charlemagne, a once-popular performer who has become a recluse. The aging cabaret singer and young Iris assist and console one another in various ways.

As the years go by, Iris more and more feels an obligation to herself. At 18, soon after graduation from high school, this lovely but lonely girl with no suitors determines to find out what or who caused her mother’s death. The search requires that she first find out more about her mother’s life.

To accomplish her ends, Iris needs to make several trips from the bare bones rooming house to the elegant Wellesley Inn where her mother had worked before marrying Nick. The owner-operator is Buffy, who had been her mother’s best friend.

Carol Stover

Iris learns a lot from Buffy and in this way comes closer to understanding her mother — who, as it turns out, was not murdered by Nick. Iris also learns that the Wellesley Inn has fallen on hard times, though it is still well maintained. Buffy’s health begins to fail, and while there is a chance for Iris to follow the dream of working there, she feels she owes Nick something to atone for her suspicions. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the March 8, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the March 9 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / port Charlotte, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Kenmore Square

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“Brighton: A Novel,” by Michael Harvey

Ecco. 368 pp.  Hardback $27.99.

This taut thriller tackles the perils of going home again.

A superb crime thriller with all the hallmarks of high-end literary fiction, Michael Harvey’s Brightonemploys — and brilliantly handles — the two-timeline structure. What happened in 1975, and seemed to have been buried there, bubbles up to the surface 27 years later in frightening and grotesque ways. The exposure of secrets, even the threat of exposure, can change lives — mostly for the worse. What happens in Brighton may not stay in Brighton. And yet it doesn’t leave, either.

Michael Harvey

Michael Harvey

The Boston neighborhood of Brighton that Harvey paints is rich in physical detail and cultural character. It might as well be called Blighton for the moral blight that reflects and nourishes the socio-economic blight. The economy of drugs, gambling, extortion, and other criminal occupations is pretty much above-ground — and yet there are secrets.

It’s a place where survival of the fittest is not merely a theory. Brighton is its testing ground.

The novel focuses on the man who got away: Kevin Pearce. Kevin was a high-school hero. Baseball star, outstanding student, pretty much liked by all, he was the pride of Brighton when he suddenly disappeared at the age of 15. The violence he got into with his best friend and mentor, Bobby Scales, would have doomed his great promise. Aided by Bobby, he vanishes and slowly builds a reputable life. Bobby stays behind to sacrifice his future, shielding Kevin’s name.

BrightonhccFINAL

Bobby’s advice to his friend is never to return.

Brighton’s newspaper readers could have followed Kevin’s success as an investigative reporter who, as the 2002 timeline reveals, has just won a Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, the story has connections to Brighton. Loose ends and suspicions bring Kevin back to visit his old neighborhood, where his presence is met with mixed reactions. . . .

To read the entire review, click here: Brighton: A Novel | Washington Independent Review of Books

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A semi-private war against terrorism continues in a fast-paced thriller

Unit 400: The Assassins, by T. L. Williams. First Coast Publishers. 298 pages. Trade paper $14.50.

Former Navy SEAL Logan Alexander’s semi-private war against Islamic terrorism continues in this high energy novel that grows smoothly out of its predecessor, “Cooper’s Revenge” (2012). Now running a maritime consulting business in Boston, Logan is soon involved in payback for payback. A year earlier, he had put together a special forces’ team, funded by a wealthy Kuwaiti businessman, that had destroyed an Iranian IED facility. The businessman’s son, Hamid, who had saved Logan’s life during the raid, has come to Boston to pursue a graduate degree. As he and Logan are about to meet for lunch, Logan is witness to Hamid’s murder in front of the restaurant. Unit400Cover

This killing is not a spontaneous event, but a carefully planned execution that is payback for the episode back in Iran. Iran’s Qods Force had compromised Kuwaiti intelligence and gained detailed information about the IED raid. This means that the participants, including Logan, are known and in danger. Iranian leadership wants to make it clear that it will brook no interference with its jihadist intentions. In fact, it has created a special cadre known as Unit 400 to carry out actions such as assassinating Hamid.

Logan had a glimpse of the assassin, a Middle Eastern man whom he described to the police. The killer’s weapon? It’s Logan’s own knife that he had plunged into an enemy leader during the raid.

While meeting with the Boston police detective assigned to the case in the police station, Logan sees a picture of the very man who killed Hamid. He is part of the police academy’s recent graduating class! Armeen Khorasani is quickly identified, but he has an ironclad alibi. He also has a twin brother, Nouri, who had left the family home in Massachusetts five years ago and was last reported to be living in Tehran.

Soon, Mr. Williams widens the lens of his novel by introducing the assassin and writing chapters and subsections from Nouri’s perspective. We learn about his motives, his training, his strengths, and his weaknesses. Through Nouri, readers come to know more about the mission and strategy of Unit 400. He is a credible, dedicated, cold-blooded monster.

T. L. Williams

T. L. Williams

Unit 400 plans take Nouri from Spain to Venezuela, then to Mexico and back to Boston. T. L. Williams does a spectacular job of describing Nouri’s precautions, in particular how he manages to avoid being followed and finds ways of moving from place to place so that he can confidently determined that he is not being followed. Readers learn, as well, about his ability – through specialists who assist his Unit 400 mission – to shift identities and deflect suspicion.

Nouri’s travels posit an Iran-Venezuela axis of rogue nations. Soon, his handlers get him back onto the completion of his mission to revenge the IED raid, which means having him return to Boston. What transpires there and what lies ahead for Logan Alexander must await your own reading of this most exciting story. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the March 19, 2014 For Myers Florida Weekly and the March 20 Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Naples editions, click here Florida Weekly – Unit 400 1 and here Florida Weekly – Unit 400 2.

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