Tag Archives: family relationships


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

Southern Literary Review’s


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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“Run You Down,” by Julia Dahl

  • Minotaur Books. 304 pages. Hardcover $24.99.

This page-turner of a mystery, set in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community, brings a mother and daughter together at last.

It would be hard for author Julia Dahl to match the impact of her novel from last year, Invisible City, let alone provide a fresh experience with a story that mines a similar milieu: the mysterious death of a woman in New York’s Hasidic community. However, she has done it — in part by having left the door open for a continuation of the earlier work’s underplot: a young woman’s quest to find the mother who abandoned her as a baby.
One would suspect that Run You Down was in development even before Invisible City was published. In the later book, tabloid stringer Rebekah Roberts, a half-Jewish woman raised in Florida by her Christian father, Brian, has taken a step up the ladder at the New York Tribune. She’s doing rewrite, an indoor job, rather than chasing around the city investigating possible stories. Rebekah is also fighting a severe bout of depression in the aftermath of her first major assignment.

Her roommate, Iris, is pushing her to get help.Rebekah meets with her friend Saul, a retired policeman and the one person of her acquaintance (besides her father) who’d known Aviva, her mother. Aviva had contacted Saul about possibly getting in touch with her daughter. Saul passed on the message, but Rebekah’s nerve failed when it came to picking up the phone; too much fear and anger, too many unknowns.While wrestling with this problem, which is pulling her into a dangerous withdrawal state,

Rebekah agrees to meet Levi, a man from the Haredi (extreme orthodox) world. Levi’s young wife, Pessie, has recently died, but he suspects something has gone wrong with the investigation of her death. (Echoing the circumstances in Invisible City, Pessie was rushed to the funeral home without an autopsy being done.)Levi can’t find out how she died . . .

Read the entire review at: Run You Down | Washington Independent Review of Books

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Unwelcome changes open door to redemption in a small Florida town

Heart of Palm, by Laura Lee Smith. Grove Press. 496 pages. Trade paperback $16.00.

This is the one I’ve been waiting for. The big surprise. A debut novel set in Florida that has it all: family, community, dreams, secrets, the best kind of local color, tragedy, humor, hatred, compassion. Love. Change. HOPCoverArt

It’s 2008. Arla Bolton Bravo, of the fashionable St. Augustine Boltons, is sixty-two years old. Her no-account husband Dean, who fathered their four children, has been long gone. When she chose Dean without even considering more appropriate suitors, her parents could hardly bear the disgrace. The Bravos were riff-raff, troublemakers.

When handsome, reckless Dean took Arla to the moonshine town of Utina, just outside of St. Augustine but culturally light-years away, the fulfillment of a promise that Arla had carried into her eighteenth year – the promise of being truly special – was poisoned. When he accidentally severed her foot during a boating frolic, their relationship was double-doomed. How could they survive her handicap and his guilt?

How could they, Dean and his older sons in particular, survive the accidental death of the youngest child, Will, whom Dean had egged on to drink himself silly as a proof of manhood? It wasn’t long after that disaster that Dean took off.

Arla had purchased a local restaurant, Uncle Henry’s Bar and Grill, and Frank had been its nonstop manager for two decades. It was a modest success, enough to keep them going what with the oldest child – troubled, unmarried Sofia – coming in early each morning to scour the place from the crud and spills of the day before. Uncle Henry’s was notable for its beautiful view along the Intercoastal Waterway. When its next door rival, Morgan’s Fish Camp and Fry House, burned down, Frank hired Morgan Moore to assist him and put Morgan’s most popular items on the menu.

Frank had a pile of deferred dreams, but he never seemed to be able to go beyond meeting his family responsibilities. One of those dreams had died when Carson had stolen the beautiful Elizabeth whom Frank had adored in high school.

Laura Lee Smith

Laura Lee Smith

Carson, his older brother, was much more ambitious. He had pieced together some education and credentials, eventually opening up a financial management firm. Until the economy went south, he was doing well, but then he slipped into pushing hollow new investments to pay the promised income of those already gone bad. He hated himself for running a Ponzi scheme and frantically sought a way to dig out of the hole.

The way comes. An Atlanta-based real estate development company has its eye on the combined properties of Morgan and the Bravos, which include Uncle Henry’s as well as  Arla’s dilapidated but imposingly-sized home that Dean had incongruously named Aberdeen. The fear of change depresses Arla and her dependent forty-three year old daughter, and to some extent Frank – so fully identified with Uncle Henry’s. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 7, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly; the January 8 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions; and the January 29 Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter edition, click here Florida Weekly – L.L. Smith 1 and here Florida Weekly – L.L.Smith 2

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YA novel explores limits, privacy, blogging – and Naples, too

Don’t Call Me Baby, by Gwendolyn Heasley. HarperTeen. 304 pages. Paperback $9.99.

What’s an old-timer like me doing with a book written about teenagers? Well, my granddaughter is one, and I think she’d love this book. It’s aimed right at the middle school to high school crowd: it’s sensitive to their concerns, colorful, and well-focused on the problems of mother-daughter relationships as well as the overwhelming role that communications technology plays in their lives.  DontCallMepbc

Imogene is the main character and the narrator. The lucky fifteen-year-old lives in Naples, Florida and attends a private school. She’s soon to enter high school, and the thought of no longer having to wear a school uniform delights her. Imogene’s adoring mother is a successful blogger who is able to supplement the family income by having enough readers to attract advertisers. Writing as Mommylicious, Meg Luden is a blogger for other mommies who fills her postings with photos and updates about Imogene’s life.

For example, she loves to post photos of a disheveled Imogene waking up.

Imogene, often called Babylicious on Meg’s blog, hates all of this. And, in truth, she’s is being seriously exploited by her mom, whose dedication to her blog and her readers seems to far outweigh her concern for Imogene. Imogene has become an internet presence, though she hardly recognizes the character that bears her name. She wonders how her mother could have so little understanding of who she really is.

Imogene shares her outrage with a school friend who well understands the dilemma of the blogging mom. As the daughter of Veggiemom, Sage Carter is not pleased to be part of her mother’s online campaign for healthy eating: “Sent Sage off to her first day of ninth grade with this spinach and kale smoothie. Yum!!!” Of course, a photo shows a disgruntled Sage with her beverage. The real Sage is dying for junk food.



Don’t Call Me Baby is essentially about the adjustment of boundaries that is needed as children reach those years of strong identity formation and wished-for independence. The negotiation of boundaries is almost always a problem between parents and adolescent children, but here it is brought into startling and frightening vividness through the unwitting disrespect these mothers show their daughters.

Certainly in Imogene’s case, her mother abuses her authority. And Imogene needs to do something about it.

Everything else in Meg’s life has become subordinated to her blog. She is always looking for the next photo, the next bon mot, the next touch that she can give to her Imogene character – whether truthful or not. Meg is blind to her addiction and to the fact that she is damaging her relationship with her daughter. And here she is, giving advice on being a great mommy. . . .

To read the entire review, plus Q & A with the author, as it appears in the June 12, 2014 Naples Florida Weekly, click here Florida Weekly – Heasley 1 and here Florida Weekly – Heasley 2.

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Shteyngart memoir aches with longing, sparkles with buoyant wit

Little Failure: A Memoir, by Gary Shteyngart. Random House.  368 pages. Hardcover $27.00.

When President Carter traded grain for the freedom of Soviet Jews in the late 1970s, young Igor Shteyngart, along with his parents and other family members, was transplanted to the Borough of Queens in New York City. A dreamer and a loner, Igor – now Gary – continues to contend with the clumsy way his parents have of showing love. The books’ title phrase is a painful parental term of endearment. “Snotty” is another unsettling nickname for their asthmatic child. His mother alternates between smothering him and not talking to him at all; his father is way too quick to smack him.  LittleFailureCover

In 1979, soon after arriving in Queens, the seven year old is enrolled in a Solomon Schechter Jewish Day School, where he feels doubly or triply misplaced. The comforts of habit and the strong Soviet identity developed in his early years in Leningrad are gone. He arrives without the crucial tool for early success – the survival level of English that immigrants need to begin their ascent. Soon, he is dropped a grade below the level at which his age and Soviet education would otherwise place him. It’s really tough learning Hebrew from scratch when the teaching language is also one you don’t know.

Beyond that, Gary was one of those kids who draw attention in the worst way. His personal mannerisms were easy to make fun of. Once he became a target, it was hard to build a positive identity. Fortunately, the oversized head that tottered on Gary’s flimsy shoulders was filled with brains. He was able to get through, occasionally excel, without ever become a very conscientious student. Few recognized his promise, and his parents were not among this few, though they harbored great expectations.

Maybe labeling him “Little Failure” was his parents’ idea of a challenge.

After finishing the eighth grade at the Schechter School, Gary attended selective, demanding Stuyvesant High.  His despair about not fitting in, perhaps not deserving to fit in, increased. His dreams of having some appeal to the young women he met there were frustrated. Slowly, the idea that he might become a writer infiltrated his shaky identity. Getting accepted to Oberlin was another sign of failure to his parents, who held nonsensical Ivy League aspirations for him, but for Gary it ended up being a great blessing in spite of Gary’s extreme addictions to alcohol and narcotics.


Perhaps it’s not important to tell more of the story, the story of making friends, finding his first true love, having his talent recognized, continuing a complex relationship to his Jewish identity, dedicating himself to his writing, adjusting to his parents’ endlessly unproductive means of having a fulfilling relationship with their only child. Eventually, the award-winning novels.

The story, magnificent as it is, remains only one dimension of this memoir’s uniqueness and power. The writing itself is everything else, including the structure.

From the acknowledgments, it is clear that many of the chapters were first published separately in periodicals. Though relatively self-contained vignettes, they certainly interact with one another beautifully, many of them moving back and forth (and sometimes back again) in time. Shteyngart is concerned with the presence and power of the past, and he structures his individual units and the entire work to juxtapose various stages of his own and his family’s journey.

Among the book’s many important themes, one resonates quite strongly: Jewish dread. When Gary asks his mother why he is so often afraid, she attributes his experience to something almost genetic, Jewish fear. This suggests a timeless condition of Jewish experience amplified in the diaspora and especially in the modern European era of Jewish history, the age of pogroms and genocide.

Jewish dread is passed on from parents to children, much like a predisposition to a disease. It crosses borders. Shteyngart’s power as a wordsmith includes his ability to make readers feel this emotional truth, this constant shadow that darkens success, circumscribes happiness, and feeds like a vulture at the heart of relationships. It’s personal, but not only personal.

The brooding tone of Little Failure is constantly punctuated by wit and hope. It is a remarkable accomplishment: self-absorbed and generous, petty and cosmic. With half a life to go, Gary Shteyngart stands on a sturdy plateau of achievement. The cures he has taken for his particular version of Jewish dread seem to be working, moving him far beyond paralysis.

Baruch Hashem.

 This review appears in the March 2014 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).


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Tradition and defiance war in culturally insightful novel

The Sisters Weiss, by Naomi Ragen. St. Martin’s Press. 336 pages. Hardback $24.99.

This bestselling novelist has carved an intricate tale out of the lives of two sisters, at one time inseparable, but later living in separate and incompatible worlds. Rose and Pearl Weiss are born into a caring, rule-bound ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn family. Rose, the older by three years, has the kind of curiosity that is dangerous in this kind of community – dangerous because it cannot be satisfied without stepping out of the cocoon and risking ostracism.  SistersWeiss

Befriended by a girl whose French immigrant family is at the margins of acceptance by this community, Rose finds herself captivated by art photography found in a book in the girl’s father’s library. She is allowed to borrow the book, which she knows she must hide. However, she soon aspires to becoming a photographer – which clearly means she aspires to seeing things in her own way. In several seemingly inevitable steps, Rose finds herself at odds with all that has been built to comfort and protect her. At seventeen, she runs away from an arranged marriage, disgracing her family and cutting herself off from the only world she has known. 

Slowly but steadily, she builds a new life, eventually establishing herself as a prominent photographic artist. To her family and community, she is an object of scorn and a source of shame.  Pearl is left to be the model daughter, her behavior fitting the mold of her community. The family scandal severely narrowed Pearl’s matrimonial choices, but she has made the best of her situation.

Forty years after Rose’s self-exile, her daughter Hannah, a fledgling graduate school student, receives a barely literate note from a teenager named Rivka. Rivka is Pearl’s daughter, and she is desperate to escape from a future that affords no hope for her individual happiness or growth. Rivka is seeking temporary shelter with cousin Hannah. Weiss family history seems to be repeating itself. When Hannah reveals the note to her mother, Rose warns her not to get involved. No good can come of it. But then Rivka simply shows up!


Somewhat reluctantly, Hannah offers her temporary shelter. She is impressed by Rivka’s gratitude and how she gives the apartment a thorough cleaning without being asked. Still, Rivka acts like an immigrant. It’s as if the community she left behind is a foreign country. She is unprepared for the new world.

Hannah asks her friend Simon to tutor Hannah toward a GED, but before long that relationship becomes a torrid romance. Hannah’s hidden feelings about Simon are wounded by his succumbing to Rivka’s advances. She feels that Rivka betrayed her, though Rivka had no knowledge of Hannah’s supposed claim on Simon.

Rivka disappears and reappears a couple of times in response to the stresses and strains of her situation.

Before long, the inevitable happens. Imagining what Pearl and her husband must have been going through since Rivka’s disappearance, imagining what her own parents had gone through forty years earlier, Rose works to negotiate some kind of communication, if only so that Rivka’s  parents can stop worrying and know that their child is okay.

 A guarded, fragile rapprochement is set in motion, the distance between the sisters’ lives narrowing and widening as attempts to heal keep running into the decades’ old habits of intolerance and animosity.

Ms. Ragen’s skill at crafting all the emotional nuances of this tentatively wished-for reunification between the sisters, and between child and parents, is convincing and suspenseful. Readers are reminded of the need people have to stand their ground, the ground of values and ingrained behaviors, and how understanding and compassion are always crippled by the need to be the party that is uniquely in the right.

To learn how and to what extent these issues and conflicts are resolved, how Rivka survives the risks she has taken, requires, dear reader, that you take your own journey into this powerful, wise book. I think you will find The Sisters Weiss very much worth your while. You will discover a provocative study of how identity is formed and reformed. You will witness the tug of war between nature and nurture, between loyalty to self and to others, and between sophistry and sincerity. This is a most thoughtful and passionate entertainment.

This review appears in the November 2013 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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BOOK BEAT 34 – Kristy Kiernan

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   March 7-13, 2007

by Philip K. Jason

Five years ago, Kristy Kiernan’s grandfather – a natural story-teller – mentioned to her that he regretted never having written anything. This observation made Kiernan realize that she did not want to reach eighty-two with the same regrets. After all, she had wanted to write since she was a child, but it had been a goal postponed over and over again. Now she was ready. Four manuscripts later, she had a book contract with Penguin’s Berkley imprint – and on March 6 the trade paperback of Catching Genius reached the book stores.

Kiernan admits to being addicted to research. Once she committed herself to a writing career, she scrutinized all the websites about writing and publishing and, in effect, gave herself an internet education. A good one. While working on her first manuscript, Kiernan was also learning about query letters, agents, and so forth. Chat rooms helped, too. All along the way, she was mastering her craft. The first manuscript went nowhere and Kiernan insists that it will never see the light of day. It was practice. The query letters kept going out while and after she wrote her second book-length manuscript. This time, she secured a top-notch agent: Anne Hawkins. 

So now Kiernan had a manuscript that major editors at major publishing houses would take seriously. But while it received “great rejections,” it did not click. The encouragement spurred Kiernan on. While Hawkins did not like Kiernan’s third manuscript, she prompted her to develop another idea that the two had discussed – a book about sisters. When the fourth manuscript was completed, Hawkins loved it and started sending it out. Catching Genius sold on the first round. It was purchased by the Penguin Group’s Senior Editor Leona Nevler, a major player in the book industry. Now for some high drama. Nevler passed away before the contract was concluded. Luckily, Jackie Cantor, an executive editor at Berkley/Penguin, was equally committed and the deal went through.

Kristy Kiernan arrived in Naples sixteen years ago. A store opener for T.G. I. Friday’s, she came down here from Clearwater to open the local restaurant. At the same time, her fiance’s family was looking for a Florida base for their New England art gallery. Once they chose Naples at Kristy’s suggestion, she never went back to Clearwater and settled here with her husband. The place is the well-known Marine Arts Gallery at Venetian Village. (Hint: when you enter the Gulf Coast town called Verona in Kiernan’s novel, see if it reminds you of another Gulf Coast town named after an Italian one.)

Kiernan daydreams a lot. She always has. One day, sitting on her patio, she began playing a mind game, inventing two-word combinations of words that wouldn’t ordinarily fit together. The phrase “Catching Genuis” popped into her head, and the novel in large part developed from exploring this strange, evocative juxtaposition. This kind of mind-gaming is the way a poet often begins, and it perhaps explains the qualities that best-selling author (and former critique partner) Sara Gruen notes in characterizing Kiernan’s narration as having a “lilting and luminous voice.” Tasha Alexander has also praised Kiernan’s “lyrical prose.”

The buzz about the book is already strong. It has been chosen as an Ingram Reading Group Selection, along with new titles by established authors. Laudatory comments have already appeared in BookPage, Publishers Weekly, and in Harriet Klausner’s well-respected online reviews. Just to give you a taste of the book and one reviewer’s perspective, I’ll quote from BookPage: “Florida author Kristy Kiernan’s stunning debut explores the lives of two sisters who were very close as children but drifted apart as they moved into adulthood… Connie and Estella’s poignant journey back toward the friendship of their youth will resonate with readers. Catching Genius is simply mesmerizing, not only because it expertly captures the unbreakable bond between sisters. The novel also explores the many facets of very real characters, breathing life into the seamlessly plotted storyline.” Another fascinating element in the book is Kiernan’s adept handling of an alternating point of view

Who does Kristy Kiernan read and recommend? The list would include Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Jodi Picoult, author of My Sister’s Keeper. Like Kiernan’s, these books are centered on family relationships. She is also a big fan of Pat Conroy and Anne Rivers Siddons.

With Catching Genius in print, Kiernan is now well along in the research stage of her next novel, Matters of Faith. You can keep up with her by visiting kristykiernan.com, and you can keep up with some her writing friends by visiting thedebutanteball.com

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club. Send him your book news at pjason@aol.com.

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