Tag Archives: coming of age

The shadow of 9/11 looms over the lives of an otherwise privileged generation.

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck: A Novel, by Ann Beattie. Viking. 288 pages. Hardcover $25.00

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, Ann Beattie’s 21st book, is extremely smart: edgy, infectious, witty, and yet a bit brooding. Some readers will wonder if it is too smart; if, in style and tone, intelligence has conquered feeling in paralyzing ways. It certainly seems to have done so in several of the major characters. They are oddly desperate and oddly blocked. 

We meet Ben and his classmates during their senior year at Bailey Academy, a co-ed New Hampshire boarding school designed to discover and promote the ambitions of a privileged generation — and/or its parents.

Beattie’s handling of how these classmates interact, especially how they speak to one another, is remarkable. So is the anonymous narrating voice, who seems, at times, like an invisible overseer of the teenagers’ potentialities and handicaps — like someone who may have graduated from Bailey a decade or so back and can guess what they’re going through.

Positioned somewhere in between this voice and those of the students is Pierre LaVerdere’s. This master teacher is a complex personality who challenges his students in ways that don’t always seem responsible. LaVerdere manages the school’s honor society, but honor means different things to different people.

Beattie

LaVerdere is youthful and easily relates to his charges. Sometimes, he seems too close to them; sometimes, his closeness feels like an act — a test. He is a brilliant talker who knows how to take full advantage of his charm. But one suspects a hollowness within.

The students are going through the usual crises: Their nuclear families are breaking down through divorce and/or illness. Generational tensions are accelerating. In September of 2001, the fall of the Manhattan towers and part of the Pentagon introduces an unfathomable element into their lives.

Has something about dependable dreams and life patterns changed forever?

Beattie, to her credit, resists the temptation of laying it on too thick. She carefully times the occurrences, character, and intensity of her 9/11 references. They invade Ben’s consciousness — or the reader’s — in ways that compromise progress in Ben’s adult life. He and his Bailey cohort are having trouble betting on the future or even gauging the “really” in “What do I really want?”

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  A Wonderful Stroke of Luck

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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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Sadness Is a White Bird: A Novel

  • By Moriel Rothman-Zecher. Atria Books. 288 pp. Hardcover $26.00.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes to life in this devastating tale of friendship and tragedy.

Searing in its beauty, devastating in its emotional power, and dazzling in its insights, Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s debut novel, Sadness Is a White Bird, is, I promise you, like nothing you’ve ever read.

If I’m wrong, you’ve been luckier than I have. His particular vision of today’s Israel, told through a coming-of-age story, will break your heart.

Has this author named himself, or has he grown into his name? After the hyphen, the name translates (from Hebrew) into “memory”; the first name into something like “God is my teacher.” There is something in a name.

The book’s protagonist and narrator, Jonathan, has returned to Israel in his late teens. He looks forward to joining the Israel Defense Force, in part to honor his freedom-fighter grandfather. His life undergoes a radical change after he meets and becomes intimate with Laith and Nimreen — dynamic Arab-Israeli brother-and-sister twins with whom he shares his deepest thoughts.

The three are inseparable. Their closeness offers a hint of hope for the remaking of Jewish-Arab relations. Indeed, for the remaking of Israel, almost by osmosis, as a peaceful, co-national state.

Can you love and admire people so deeply that the barriers between you are conquered? Will the real world even allow it?

The closer Jonathan comes to his military induction date, the more his various strands of identity are stressed. How can he become a soldier who will be at war with his dear friends’ people? How can he become an agent of their disgrace and humiliation?

For all of their ease with the Israeli brand of Western culture, Laith and Nimreen are, at a deep level, strangers. This is true even though they are the children of Jonathan’s mother’s friend.

Moriel Rothman-Zecher

The story, told by Jonathan, is presented as if he is addressing Laith. Sometimes, it seems as if he is rehearsing or imagining the conversation; at other times, it’s as if it’s really happening. Occasionally, it’s as though he’s addressing a dead person.

There is almost nothing of Laith responding, yet there are other scenes in which these friends are engaged in three-way conversations that are amazingly revealing.

Jonathan wavers somewhat before fully committing to his required military duty. And he wavers again when pressed into putting down a potentially dangerous demonstration. In the aftermath of the skirmish, Jonathan is imprisoned by his superiors.

The novel sings out in the distinctive voices of Rothman-Zecher’s characters, in their almost palpable presence, and in their hopes and hesitations. The authenticity of the voices is especially strong in the scenes populated by Jonathan’s friends, all serving in or inevitably bound for the IDF.

Rothman-Zecher shows great skill in portraying different neighborhoods, not only in terms of physical characteristics, but also through capturing the cultural and atmospheric dimensions. As an author/narrator, he seems to be on familiar ground. One wonders to what degree the novel is rooted in direct, if transformed, experience. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Sadness is a White Bird. 

This review was reprinted, by permission, in the July-August 2018 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), and the July 2018 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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“The Orphan’s Tale,” by Pam Jenoff

Jenoff

Can you imagine a Holocaust-related story that features circus performers? Can you imagine the Nazi regime, as it spreads across Europe, tolerating these vagabond entertainers? Historical facts support Jenoff’s imaginative story of hidden Jews, vulnerable women, younger and older lovers, twisting loyalties, and valiant spirits in The Orphan’s Tale, a colorful and moving dual narrative.

 

Jenoff tells her tale through two alternating characters whose similarities and differences bring out the best and the worst in each. Noa is a troubled teenager whose pregnancy leads to her parents casting her out. She seeks a means to support herself, and longs for the child she is forced to give up. Noa looks the perfect Aryan, but her baby does not. Her journey leads to the discovery of a boxcar filled with infants. One of the babies seems familiar to her. She takes him in her arms and can’t let go of it. After she discovers that the tiny boy is circumcised, Noa finds a hiding place in a milk delivery truck and takes the baby with her. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council Review, click here: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff | Jewish Book Council

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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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“The Education of Dixie Dupree” by Donna Everhart

  • Kensington. 352 pages. Trade paperback $15.00.

A harrowing story of domestic trauma with Southern Gothic flair.

In this intense narrative, set in a small Alabama town in 1969, 11-year-old Dixie is having what is no doubt the most difficult time of her childhood. Her coping mechanism has been her diary, given to her as a birthday present three years earlier by her mother. Among the many things recorded in the diary is material to be used in the New Hampshire trial of her Uncle Ray. With this information laid out, author Donna Everhart baits the hook and starts reeling her readers in. theeducationofdixiedupree

The Dupree family is ready to explode. The tension between Dixie’s mother and father is unbearable. Dixie and her older brother, AJ, are caught in the emotional maelstrom that surrounds their mother, Evie’s, wish to return to New Hampshire. Never being able to make a socially comfortable life for herself in the South, she talks endlessly about her idyllic upbringing in Concord — though she is silent about her brother, Ray.

Evie’s misery has made her husband miserable, too. It has torn them apart and sent him to drown his feelings in alcohol. Evie is often unstable, and Dixie never knows how “Mama” is going to react. She is often impatient, cruel, and physically abusive. Then Evie is apologetic, but soon doubly cruel. More and more out of control, Evie blames her husband for her unfortunate situation as an outcast in Alabama.

Dixie can be hotheaded, too. She feels the need to strike back. She fights any feelings of being intimidated. She is also a chronic liar whose lies serve many purposes beyond protecting herself. However, it is Evie who has the deeper secrets, secrets that drive the characters’ destinies long before those destinies are fully revealed.

Donna Everhart credit Gina Warren

Donna Everhart credit Gina Warren

Dixie is also our narrator. Her voice is clear and strong, though perhaps author Everhart has made her too articulate for a person so young. Dixie processes what is going on around her with a high degree of sophistication. Moreover, she is an unrepentant questioner. Often, her troubles with Evie stem from asking a fairly innocent question that sends Evie into a rage. Dixie has pushed a button without knowing it, opening up Evie’s fears and threatening her secrets. . .

 

To read the complete review, click here:  The Education of Dixie Dupree | Washington Independent Review of Books

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“GODPRETTY IN THE TOBACCO FIELD,” by KIM MICHELE RICHARDSON

Like its predecessor Liar’s Bench, GodPretty in the Tobacco Field is a powerful coming-of-age story complicated by lingering racial prejudice. The town of Nameless, Kentucky is a place where everyone suffers under the heel of grinding poverty, poor education, and images of a ruthless, punishing God from whom family elders take the cue to carry out ruthless, punishing child-rearing. It seems that when things are tough, teaching children to tough it out is considered a responsibility.

Richardson

Richardson

It also teaches them, of course, to be abusers in turn. Or at least quick to talk with their fists.

It’s a place where self-destructive behavior, like drunkenness, is prevalent. Where abuse of women and girls is manliness.

RubyLyn Bishop, approaching her sixteenth birthday during the blazing hot summer of 1969, keeps house and works in the tobacco fields for her Uncle Gunnar, who rescued her from an orphanage when she was five. Her parents had met tragic deaths, but living with Gunnar is something of a tragedy in itself. Out of notion of molding righteousness, he forces RubyLyn to hold a flesh-stinging and tissue swelling potion of bitters in her mouth as punishment for her lapses in behavior – whether talking back or not working hard enough.

And yet she is convinced that on some level Gunnar really cares for her, even though he never offers a compliment.

RubyLyn is enamored of her neighbor Rainey Ford, a handsome, caring, and upright African-American young man whom she would like to marry. Their clandestine interracial romance is not fully hidden, and that’s a problem; small town Kentucky has not evolved into a San Francisco zone of tolerance even by the close of the 1960s.

RubyLyn dreams of escape. Her curiosity needs wider venues. She has artistic abilities that need nourishing, a talent that could bring her an income. She needs to find or make opportunities, and getting to Louisville to display her tobacco plants might win her the prize money with which to stake hers and Rainey’s future.

godprettyinthetobaccofield-FINAL

Though he loves RubyLyn, Rainey – who is realized by the author with great delicacy – sees a future for himself in the army. It’s his way out of the impoverished, cruel town.

Seeing Louisville is a life-changing event for RubyLyn, though she does not win the prize because she missed the required arrival time. The people she sees are animated, friendly, and enjoying life, not stooped over and broken in spirit. She even makes a contact with someone who will help sell her artwork. . . .

To see the entire review, as it appears in Southern Literary Review, click here: “GodPretty in the Tobacco Field,” by Kim Michele Richardson – SLR

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Iconic monument raises brooding teenager’s fragile hopes

Ascent, by William Welsch. Book Broker Publishers. 324 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

This delightful and disturbing novel, set in St. Louis in the autumn of 1965, is essentially a coming of age tale focused on David Miles, a high school junior who defines himself as something of an outsider. The year is significant, as the Civil Rights Act had gone into effect only one year earlier, marking a kind of coming of age – though a tortured one – for the United States. It was also the time of a symbolic coming of age for the city of St. Louis, symbolized by the completion of the famous Gateway Arch, itself a symbol of a continent-wide nation.  ascentcover

The book, which takes its title (and cover art) from viewing the arch as a symbol of ascent and inspiration, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the arch. However, the crisis of race relations that is portrayed in the narrative has only amplified in this special anniversary year. One wonders: perhaps David Miles has grown up a bit, but has St. Louis and the country really matured?

When Douglas Findley, a new English teacher at Glendale Prep, challenges his students to widen their horizons by exploring beyond their comfortable neighborhoods, David is awakened to the sorry state of race relations and the enormous wealth and opportunity disparities in St. Louis. When his family’s Afro-American housekeeper and cook Dorothea, felt to be a second mother, is not invited to the wedding of David’s older brother Chip, the hardened barriers between White and Black St. Louis are potently underscored.

WilliamWelsch

The portrait of David as a shy, sensitive, academically weak high school student is amplified and rounded by his many other rolls: neighborhood baby sitter, stumbling seeker of young female companionship, dreamer, follower to nonconformist risk taker Jim, occasional assistant in his father’s furniture store, driver of Dorothea (the housekeeper) from and to her home in the “colored” district, brother in the shadow of the “perfect son” Chip, comforter to his cancer-plagued mother, and aspiring writer. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 20, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 21 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Ascent

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“THE WIREGRASS,” BY PAM WEBBER

She Writes Press. 341 pages. Trade Paperback $16.95.

Southern Literary Review’s

SEPTEMBER READ OF THE MONTH

Pam Webber

Reviewed by Phil Jason

It’s 1969 and helicopters drum above the town of Crystal Springs, Alabama twice a day. At ten each morning they leave Fort Rucker for a training field: Field 10. Twelve hours later, the choppers leave in formation to make the return trip. The scheduled explosions of light and noise define the days of those who live in the arc of flight, keeping them vaguely aware of the war going on in Vietnam. wiregrass-front-cover

However, in The Wiregrass, a region embracing parts of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, summer in the deep South offers fellowship, freedom, fun, and family to the young Campbell cousins (self-named as “Cussins”) who come each year to reconnect and frolic at and around the home of their Ain’t (this is the author’s dialect spelling) Pitty and Uncle Ben. Granny, the family matriarch, lives nearby.

Seven cousins, four in their teens, are ready for fishing, swimming, exploring, loafing, and also doing some tasks. The central character and narrator is fourteen year old Nettie, whose parents drive her, her one year older sister Sam, and her brother L’il Bit down from Virginia and leave them for the summer season. There they meet up with J.D. and his two sisters from another family and Eric from yet another.

It’s easy to label The Wiregrass a coming of age story, not only as it addresses the dawning of Nettie’s sexuality and moral insight, but also as it engages the issue of personal responsibility for all of the teens: Nettie, Sam, J.R. and Eric.

The catalyst for this growth is another teenage boy, Mitchell, a desperately troubled young man who is abused by his alcoholic father. The Campbell adults, charitably enough, allow Mitchell to mingle with their children.

Mitchell is the most sincerely respectful of the teens, clearly his mother’s child, and he is the most lost. Nettie develops a crush on him that at first is marred by Sam’s teasing, but soon enough Nettie is far more proud and pleased than embarrassed.

The idyllic nature of this tale is marred by two ingredients. . . .

To read the full review as it appears in SLR, click here:  Southern Literary Review — September Read of the Month: “The Wiregrass”

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“LIAR’S BENCH,” by KIM MICHELE RICHARDSON

This glorious debut novel is one of an unexpectedly fine crop of recent and *new Southern fiction. It confronts the tragic persistence of racism and the resilient, transcendent power of the human spirit. It is at once a story of young love, of traditions both poisonous and healing, and of murder. It is a brilliantly managed game played on a 100-plus year field whose goal posts are two hangings.

Richardson

Richardson

In 1860, a Black slave named Frannie Crow is charged by her mistress, Evelyn Anderson, with thievery and attempted murder by poison. Innocent Frannie was hung, and her son Amos was assigned the task of building a bench for the town square from the best pieces of oak and the best hardware that could be stripped from the gallows. The name “Square’s Bench” over time was replaced by “Liar’s Bench,” because of “its legacy of misfortune drawn from lies.” It is the multivalent icon of Peckinpaw, Kentucky.

112 years later, the Liar’s Bench continues to serve as a seat for both honest and deceitful promise making. Mudas “Muddy” Summers, daughter of the town prosecutor, experiences a very tumultuous 17th birthday. At an uncertain distance from the dizzying occurrences, she narrates her tribulations in a clear, powerful, and perfectly tuned voice.  liarsbench

Mudas’s mother, Ella, who had divorced her daughter’s father Adam over his infidelities, had then married an abusive bully, eventually moving with Tommy to Chicago and leaving Mudas feeling abandoned. Ella finds ways of still being supportive and moves back to Peckinpaw to be nearby. She works at various jobs including bookkeeping for a rich, crude good ole boy, McGee, who is running illegal businesses and blackmailing those whom he has pulled into debt or worse. When McGee’s incriminating business ledger for the Rooster Run disappears, his enforcer threatens Ella.

On Mudas’s birthday, her mother is found hung. . . .

To read the entire review, click here:Southern Literary Review — “Liar’s Bench,” by Kim Michele Richardson

*Other books of note include Laura Lee Smith’s Heart of Palm, reviewed elsewhere on this blog, and Steph Post’s A Tree Born Crooked, to be reviewed in late May.

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