Tag Archives: cultural history

Florida: at once a real place and a state of mind

“Florida,” by Lauren Groff. Riverhead Books. 288 pages. Hardcover $27.00.

The eleven short stories in this daring, luminous book reveal, in various and complex ways, the truth of the poetic adage in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” We carry our minds with us, wherever we reside. We can’t get away from who we are. Forget about blaming your troubles on your environment.

Lauren Groff photo by Kristin Kozelsky

The narrators in most of these stories, especially the recurring one with two small sons and only the pronoun “she” for a name, suffer from being too self-aware. They have expectations of themselves that sometimes seem imprisoning. They have intellectual and creative tools that are burdensome. They can wear their friends out by being unintentionally demanding.

They are lonely, and they are worthy.

If you are a person who often feeling threatened, imagine how much additional threat you would feel living in a place brimming with snakes and alligators, real and metaphorical sinkholes, and violent storms. A place like Florida.

Through the book, Ms. Groff builds conundrums of inner and outer weather, interweaving landscapes with emotional states. 

Ms. Groff understands North Florida communities like a native. She is alert to neighborhood changes – sometimes gentrification, sometimes something worse. The unnamed judgmental character who narrates the first story, “Ghosts and Empires,” is an evening walker who enjoys scrutinizing those she meets or merely sees or expects to see along the way. She measures her distance from those she knows and those who remain strangers, and she measures how quickly time is passing her by.

In another story, the author focuses on a young man, the son of a herpetologist, who has “learned how to keep a calm heart when touching fanged things.” Also, how to survive the distance between his mother’s and his father’s polar sensibilities.

Ms. Groff can pinpoint the loneliness and sense of isolation that breeds within members of the same families. And she is alert—makes readers alert – to such things as “how the screens at night pulsed with the tender bellies of lizards.” She knows how houses express themselves. Her imagery is consistently fresh, vivid, and unexpected. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 25, 2019 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions of Florida Weekly, and the May 1 Fort Myers and May 2 Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Florida 

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Silents were golden in St. Augustine for two dazzling decades

Silent Films in St. Augustine, by Thomas Graham. University Press of Florida. 198 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

This totally engaging, compact treatment of early U. S. film history is packed with a lot of information and a lot of fun. Before Hollywood was crowned the movie capital, St. Augustine was right up there. Over 120 movies were filmed in whole or part in St. Augustine, revealing the talents of major producers, directors, and actors. The fledging silent film industry made St. Augustine sizzle in the winter, when film makers and performers escaped the unpleasant New York weather to enjoy themselves in a town that seemed to have been created to provide the kind of scenic beauty cameramen feasted on. 

Though the span of St. Augustine’s life as a home to the film industry ran from 1906-1926, its heyday was much briefer. Mr. Graham can survey the first 11 years in a single chapter. The core years were 1912-1919, last few years of this period undermined by World War I.  There was at least one good year with many productions in the early 1920’s, but the fade had begun. New York film industry investors were moving west, as was the talent pool for movie making.

While it lasted, the comings and goings of the film people brought a great deal of excitement to St. Augustine’s residents and visitors. Most of the films needed “extras” for crowd scenes and brief walk-on parts. Even more fun than having the camera look your way would be the follow-up thrill of seeing yourself and your fellow townspeople on the screen when the move was shown. St. Augustinians got a kick from their brush with fame.


And the brush with fame included being in the company of notable performers and other celebrity movie folks. You might get to open a door, in real life or screen life, for Ethel Barrymore, or Norma Talmadge. You might have to avoid staring too hard at that iconic vamp, Theda Bara. You may have laughed at Oliver Hardy, either on-screen or in person.

You could mix with, or at least hear gossip about, the heads of studios or their senior staffers. People who could write stories, design costumes, or turn St. Augustine into almost anyplace you could imagine. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the September 6, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly as well as the September 7  Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Silent Films in St. Augustine

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“Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence”

by Paul Robert Magocsi and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern. University of Toronto Press. 320 pages. Oversized hardback $44.95.

An amazing exploration of the relationship between two marginalized peoples, Paul Robert Magocsi and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern’s narrative is accompanied by 335 color illustrations and 29 maps in a well-designed oversized page format.


After an introduction that focuses on the stereotypes and misperceptions that Jews and Ukrainians have had about either other over the centuries, the authors of this interdisciplinary work lay out twelve chapters, at once accessible and complex, covering a wide range of topics. One explores physical and human geography, another explores history, while others examine economic life, traditional culture, religion, language and publications, material and artistic culture, and diaspora life as defined and experienced by Ukrainians and Jews. Latter chapters focus on the contemporary situation.

Petrovsky-Shtern. Photo by Andrew Collings.

The structure of each chapter is such that the section featuring some aspect of the Jewish situation in Ukraine is framed by the necessarily much larger treatment of the Ukrainian experience and situation. This pattern often becomes complicated by the fact that the Jewish situation is not necessarily uniform throughout Ukraine and because the story of Ukraine is a story of flux. Jews of Galicia, Bukovina, and Transcarpathia require treatment distinct from that of Jews who live—or once lived—elsewhere in Ukraine. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here:  Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence

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Touring with young Elvis: the making of a phenom

Elvis Ignited: The Rise of an Icon in Florida, by Bob Kealing. University Press of Florida.  280 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Bob Kealing makes the case that the best Elvis is the earliest Elvis and that the managerial strategies of Tom Parker kept a great American original from reaching his full potential. By focusing on the emergence of Elvis during his Florida tours in 1955 and 1956, Mr. Kealing can handle in lavish detail the months of a young, unschooled performer’s leap from total unknown in May of 1955 to – by August of 1956 – a celebrated icon of a burgeoning culture without a name. A hillbilly rocker with a sexy performance style, Elvis had the girls swooning, their parents fuming, and the music industry paying close attention. 

Tom Parker helped shape the Elvis who caught fire, but his dominating and generally conservative decisions about girlfriends, songs, and – only too soon – insipid movie rolls, repressed rather than released Elvis’s unique talents. Parker shielded Elvis from other influences and demanded total loyalty.

Packaged in road tours to Daytona Beach, Tampa, Fort Myers, Ocala, Orlando, Jacksonville, and elsewhere, Elvis and the two musicians who accompanied him nurtured a distinctive sound blending various musical and cultural traditions. They learned by doing. They didn’t begin as headliners, but in a remarkably short time ascended to top billing. They moved from smaller venues to more prestigious ones and attracted both critical and supportive journalists who helped shape expectations.

Bob Kealing has the details. Ransacking print coverage of the young troubadour, interviewing scores of people who met him along the way, following the one-lane paths of those early tours, the author captures the spirit of time and place as a new kind of music made its way up of the charts. Mr. Kealing must have tracked down almost every young woman still alive with whom Elvis flirted in about a year and a half of performances. No longer young, they have great memories to share.



As have other biographers and music historians, Mr. Kealing pays attention to the nurturing of Elvis by the genial owner of Sun Records in Memphis. When Parker pushed for the big time by switching Elvis over to the giant, less edgy RCA, something was already lost.

West Palm Beach, Sarasota, Pensacola, Miami, Lakeland, (Waycross Georgia), St. Petersburg – and then on to the greater stages of big cities, television, and movies. It’s as if once out of the Florida orbit, Elvis lost his essential self, smothered under packaging that distorted his true nature and gift. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 5, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 6 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach editons, click here: Florida Weekly – Elvis Ignited

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A piercing narrative of what binds and separates parents and children

The Nix, by Nathan Hill. Knopf. 640 pages. Hardcover $27.95.

Riff is the word I’m looking for. But which definition will succeed in making the connection to Mr. Hill’s grandly ter-riff-ic first novel? Here are two from the online Oxford English Dictionary: (1) A short repeated phrase in popular music and jazz, typically used as an introduction or refrain in a song; (2) A monologue or spoken improvisation, especially a humorous one, on a particular subject. Many of the most astounding passages in this are in a kind of riff style, but the best are extended riffs that go on for many pages. They are boldly and darkly satiric. thenixcover

Laura Pottsdam, wayward student of English Professor Samuel Anderson, is revealed through riffs that express the self-indulgent thoughts that run through her mind and slither out of her mouth. She is at once airhead and supreme manipulator. She defeats Samuel’s attempt to bring her plagiarism to any kind of just resolution. She exhibits a shrewd gamesmanship through which she threatens his career, a career already threatened by his inability to deliver and promised book manuscript to his publisher.

Readers first meet these two characters, and many others, in scenes set in 2011. The major piece of Chicago news that summer is that a former radical female hippy, now middle-aged, has attacked Governor Packer. That woman is Samuel’s mother Faye, from whom he has been estranged since she walked out of their suburban household when Samuel was still a boy. She had found and lost herself in the violence of the 1968 Chicago riots.


This inventive novel is mostly fashioned by filling in the blanks between occurrences that happened during and between those polar years. A large cast of characters is needed do this imaginative work, and an astounding representation of cultural and physical environments anchors and validates the characters who moved through them.

Samuel is something of an addict. He spends way too much time play computer war games, in this case “World of Elfscape,” inside of which he is Dodger the Elven Thief. Learning about the game and its allure is important to understanding Mr. Hill’s vision. For Samuel, the game keeps his mind off how far his star has fallen (and his marriage fallen apart) since being named a sure-bet young author at the age of twenty-four. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 16, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 17 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter, and Palm Beach / West Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The Nix

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“German Jewry and the Allure of the Sephardic,” by John M. Efron

Princeton University Press. 352 pages.  Hardcover $45.00.

Challenging, invigorating, and inspiring, Professor John M. Efron’s study opens up a swath of Jewish cultural history that is familiar to few scholars and fewer general readers. He is concerned, though he wouldn’t use such a formulation, with a special manifestation of Jewish self-hate as defined by its proposed remedy.

The setting is primarily Germany of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the time of the European Jewish Enlightenment, a movement known as the Haskalah. Those most concerned are the Ashkenazi cultural and intellectual elite, the Maskilim. They fear association with the Poles and other Eastern European Jewish communities, considered coarse on several levels: physically, linguistically, intellectually, spiritually, and creatively.

John M. Efron

Reveling in a relatively liberal timewarp that seemed to promise acceptance into the high German mainstream, the Maskilim were at pains to capitalize on that possibility by reconstructing the image, and perhaps the reality, of Jews as individuals and as a civilization. They planned for a more dignified future by looking back to the glory days of Jewish achievement and status on the Iberian peninsula: the so-called Golden Age when Jews spoke well, looked attractive, had refined habits, and generally invited acceptance and admiration.

Efron neatly categorizes and exemplifies the concerns of these thinkers. Jews from Eastern Europe (or too many such Jews) seemed to be handicapped by ugliness in physiognomy and behavior. The Maskilim perceived an ugliness as well in the spoken languages of Yiddish and Ashkenazi Hebrew, so inferior to the crisp Sephardic soundings and rhythms. . . .

To read the full review as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here:  German Jewry and the Allure of the Sephardic | Jewish Book Council

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