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Phil’s Picks 2017

The following is a list of outstanding books reviewed in these (Florida Weekly) pages during the past year. In a way, all the books reviewed are outstanding, as they were selected from a much longer list of books crying for attention and in many cases deserving such attention. However, I can only review one each week in my column.  The full reviews can be found by using the search box on the Naples edition of the Florida Weekly web site: Floridaweekly.com. So, here are an even dozen titles, nine fiction and three non-fiction, for your reading and gifting pleasure.

To encounter reviews that I’ve prepared for other publications, go to philjason.wordpress.com.

The Magdalen Girls, by V. S. Alexander. Kensington. 304 pages. Trade paperback $15.00. 

Set near Dublin in the 1960s, this unusual novel carefully constructs a powerful vision of religiosity run amok. Its focus is two teenage girls who are assigned to the Magdalen Laundries at The Sisters of the Holy Redemption Convent. Their parents have assigned their care to the convent, believing that its discipline and Spartan living conditions will bring the young women to faith, responsibility, and eventually to productive, upright lives. That’s the positive spin on the parents’ motives, which readers will find far less noble.

In fact, the institution is a prison and slave labor operation, all in the name of Jesus and his Father.

An Honorable War, by Robert N. Macomber. Pineapple Press. 392 pages. Hardcover $26.95. Trade paperback $16.95.

How does Mr. Macomber keep doing this? The thirteenth installment of his splendid Honor Series, like the earlier titles in the series, once again transforms a pile of historical fact into a colorful, well-imagined, and highly suspenseful entertainment. Captain Peter Wake, assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence, is no desk-jockey, but a man of action – in this case leading the action plan that he designed to satisfy the ambitious and often outlandish Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The author’s subtitle sets the historical scene: “The Spanish-American War Begins.”

This episode, cast as another segment of the memoirs of Peter Wake, launches a three-part trilogy within the burgeoning series.

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.

The Red Hunter, by Lisa Unger. Touchstone. 368 pages. Hardcover $25.99.

This delicately constructed thriller explores the distance and proximity between two women whose paths cross in strikingly unusual ways. The younger of the two, Zoey Drake, has lived through a lengthy and ongoing recovery from a devastating childhood trauma. Her parents were murdered before eyes in their rural home outside of New York City. Zoey, who barely survived, has lived with a rage she must control to function effectively. Rigorous martial arts training has been her coping mechanism and her security against being victimized in her adulthood as she was in her childhood.

She has been reared and put through college by the man she calls Uncle Paul, and she assists him as he struggles with poor health. She supports herself through cat-sitting jobs and by helping her martial arts mentor teach self-defense to young girls. Nightmares haunt her, but she has gained a healthy self-confidence.

An Ice Age Mystery: Unearthing the Secrets of the Old Vero Site, by Rody Johnson. University Press of Florida. 224 pages.  Hardcover $24.95. 

For 100 years, the human and other remains of Vero, Florida have engaged the skills and imagination of professional and amateur archaeologists. Just what was the region like during the Ice Age? What grew there? What were the geological features? Did animals thrive? Did humans leave their marks — and their bones – somewhere in the layers of sediment washed by intruding waters? Why are these questions important?

The history of archaeological investigations of “the Old Vero site” is characterized by sporadic periods of accelerated interest and action separated by longer periods of general neglect. Rody Johnson tells the story in a highly accessible style, even making the forays into science understandable and engaging.

The Late Show, by Michael Connelly. Little, Brown. 416 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Several years ago, I fell in love with Randy Wayne White’s new Hannah Smith series. The Hannah Smith character provided a fresh focus for Mr. White’s considerable skills, while the Doc Ford series continued to satisfy his devoted following. Now we have Mr. Connelly, masterful creator of both the Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller (Lincoln Lawyer) series, launching a new venture centered on a distinctive and totally engaging female character. Detective Renée Ballard is a winner. I swooned over Hannah, and now I’ve fallen for Renée as well.

Mr. Connelly mastery of the police procedural, honed throughout the Bosch series, is put to good use here. Ballard is a credible mixture of impulse and orderliness, and the latter trait usually allows her to follow the steps – regulations and protocols – that underpin effective police work.

The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn, by Robert P. Watson. Da Capo Press. 304 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Lynn University Professor Robert P. Watson makes reading history a totally engaging experience. He does so by choosing unusual and challenging topics, setting them into contexts rich in detail, and presenting them in a prose style that is clear, vivid, and uncluttered by academic jargon. His latest book is a piece of fine storytelling, accessible to the general reader. Prof. Watson makes historical events shine as if they were today’s news. Readers will care about what happened on HMS Jersey, the major British prison ship during the American Revolution.

As he must, the author attaches his relatively narrow topic to a few larger concentric circles: prison ships in general; overcrowded British prisons in the colonies and insufficient buildings to repurpose; and the overall Revolutionary War. The book’s spatial focus is New York, particularly Brooklyn waterways, and New England.

Cold Water Canoe Club, by Jeffery Hess. Down & Out Books. 292 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

I can’t think of another short story collection that I’ve read in recent years that has given me such a jolt of vicarious experience and insight. Original, fraught with every kind of pain, clearsighted and despairing, Mr. Hess’s book takes us to external and internal places that most of us have been able to avoid. And that avoidance has distanced us from people, whole swaths of society, who we have unwittingly depended on to keep us safe – and even prosperous.

Given today’s concerns about American’s conflicts and rivalries with Putin’s Russia, a group of 15 stories focused on the lives of Navy seamen during the Cold War has an added dimension of relevance. In addition, the stories are amazingly well-written, filled with an abundance of explosive imagery, and presented through unmistakably authentic first or third person voices. Well, perhaps there is a bit of literary overlay on and around these voices.

Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band, by John Capouya. University Press of Florida. 374 pages. Hardcover $24.95. 

For a scholarly enterprise, this book is notable for its high energy and conversational tone. One can feel the author’s obvious excitement over the opportunity to celebrate the dazzling contributions of those in the art and business of soul music. It’s a sizeable group of talented and inventive characters who make longer or shorter appearances in this lively slice of Florida’s cultural history. Interestingly, though soul is thought of as a sturdy branch in the tree of Afro-American music, Mr. Capouya makes it clear that white performers and other white music industry professionals played major roles in the regional and national success of this musical genre.

Mr. Capouya’s chaptering system links the recording artists and other music professionals with key ciites, large and small, in the history of the genres development and significant presence. His titles add up to a map of the world we are exploring, but without an actual map. Clearly, the state has been saturated with native born or adopted Floridians who build a musical tradition.

Come Home, by Patricia Gussin. Oceanview Publishing. 368 pages. Hardcover $26.95.

Remember 2011 – the year of the Arab Spring? The turmoil in the Middle East provides a backdrop for Ms. Gussin’s fast-paced thriller. Ahmed Masud, middle son in a wealthy Egyptian family, is called back to Cairo to help prepare for his family’s future after the Mubarak regime collapses. Their wealth derives being favored by Mubarak’s son, who handed them an Egyptian cotton empire. Also, Ahmed’s parents wish to see his five-year-old son, Alex. Succumbing to their pressure, and unsettled by medical malpractice lawsuits, Ahmed steals his son away to Cairo, rashly jeopardizing his marriage and the American dream lifestyle he and his wife, also a plastic surgeon, have shared.

Readers will be puzzled by Ahmed’s sudden sense of family duty, as was his wife, Dr. Nicole Nelson, who is outraged and crushed by his behavior. She wants her son back! Nicole rallies the support of her twin sister Natalie and their accomplished, successful brothers.

The Shark Club, by Ann Kidd Taylor. Viking. 288 pages. Hardcover $26.00. 

Maeve Donnelly is the thirty-year-old protagonist of this elegantly written first novel. She is part of the shark club triumvirate, the other two being her long-time boyfriend Daniel and Daniel’s daughter, six-year-old Hazel. This informal mutual interest group was put together to help Hazel find stability in a young life that has been – and still is –filled with uncertainty.

Maeve and Daniel have decided to see if their long-severed relationship, once seen as strong and vibrant, can be restored. Hazel is the unplanned child of a woman with whom Daniel had a quick affair. That misstep cost him Maeve’s trust. Hazel’s mother died. Now the question is whether these three individuals – the only members of the shark club – can form normative family bonds. Maeve and Hazel are bonding in beautifully, but there is still something keeping some distance between Daniel and Maeve.

When They Come for You, by James W. Hall. Thomas & Mercer 288 pages. Trade Paperback $15.95.

Add James W. Hall to the list of premier mystery/thriller authors who have jumped tracks from a classic series featuring a male protagonist to a new series featuring a female character. Having raved over Michael Connelly’s Renée Ballard and Randy Wayne White’s Hannah Smith, I am now gushing over Mr. Hall’s Harper McDaniel.

We meet Harper on a pleasant February day in her Coconut Grove home. Her husband Ross, an investigative reporter, is shaving while holding their infant son Leo. Harper must snap a picture of them. That’s part of her nature as a professional photographer who is also the daughter of Deena Roberts, a photographer superstar and a suicide. A few blocks away, Spider Combs performs his electronic surveillance of the home, taking pictures and filming the movements of the gorgeous Harper. He knows a lot about this family, a family he has been contracted to destroy. Only Harper survives the fire.

That’s all, folks! See complete review as it appears in the the December 21, 2017 Naples Florida Weekly , the December 27 Fort Myers edition, and the December 28 Bonita Springs and Charlotte County editions. Link is to first page of article. Continue through the following pages.  Florida Weekly – Phil’s Picks 2017

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Collier County Jewish Book Festival goes from strength to strength

By Phil Jason, Jewish Book Festival co-chair

This season, the third annual Collier County Jewish Book Festival will build upon the successes of its first two years, continuing this superb contribution to the cultural life of our community. A project of the Jewish Federation of Collier County in cooperation with the Jewish Book Council, the Festival will offer 11 book events at several venues, with a total of 18 authors visiting from November 2017 into April 2018.

Five of the Festival events will feature a dynamic solo presenter. Another five will feature two authors matched by a common theme. The authors sharing the bill will not co-present or share the stage, but provide back-to-back presentations. Each speaker will give a 30- to 45-minute talk followed by 15-20 minutes of Q&A plus book-signing time. There will be a short break between presentations. One event will showcase the writing talents of three debut novelists. Each author will speak for approximately 25 minutes, followed by a Q&A session with the three authors on a panel.


On Thursday, November 16 at 7:00 p.m. at the Hilton Naples, meet Steve Dorff, author of I Wrote That One Too…a Life in Songwriting from Willie to Whitney. This witty biography includes anecdotes about stars who have recorded Steve’s songs, many of them Top 10 hits. Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Ray Charles and Garth Brooks are among the stellar cast. Steve will perform many of his best-known songs and share the stories behind them. Refreshments provided.

Wednesday, December 6 at 11:30 a.m. brings another solo presentation at the Hilton. Eminent actor Stephen Tobolowsky will discuss his memoir, My Adventures with God, a series of vignettes, at once humorous and profound, that review his Texas childhood, his adventures of the heart, and his struggles with matters of faith aided by encounters with the Torah and the Talmud. You’ve seen this top-drawer character actor in Mississippi Burning, Glee, Groundhog Day and Memento. Tobolowsky, who has been in more than 100 movies and over 200 television shows, has become a legendary storyteller. The event price includes a luncheon and a copy of the book.


On Sunday, December 10 at 7:00 p.m., return to the Hilton for Alexandra Silber’s After Anatevka – A Novel Inspired by “Fiddler on the Roof.” What happens to the characters invented by Sholem Aleichem and brought to the stage (and screen) after the curtain falls? It takes an actress like Alexandra Silber, who knows the play from the inside, to imagine what comes next. She does so in a sweeping historical novel. Silber has played Tzeitel in the play’s most recent Broadway revival, and Hodel in London’s West End. Alexandra will blend musical stylings with spoken words from her book in a theatre-like setting. Refreshments provided.

On Monday, January 8 at 1:00 p.m., the Naples Conference Center is the venue for history. In his Angels in the Sky, Robert Gandt relates “How a Band of Volunteer Airmen Saved the New State of Israel.” It’s a suspenseful and upbeat story tracing these courageous volunteers from their various home countries as they moved themselves and the needed equipment to the nascent Jewish state. This is popular history at its best, drawing upon first-person interviews and extensive archival research. It’s David-and-Goliath all over again. Gandt is paired with Bryan Mark Rigg, author of The Rabbi Saved by Hitler’s Soldiers. Amid the chaos and hell of the emerging Holocaust, a small group of German soldiers shepherded Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneersohn and his Hasidic followers out of Poland on a dangerous and circuitous path to America. You will be surprised to learn about the Wehrmacht soldier who led them.


On Wednesday, January 24 at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom, meet Pam Jenoff (The Orphan’s Tale) and Gavriel Savit (Anna and the Swallow Man). Both of these inventive novels touch upon the Holocaust in unique ways. Jenoff’s, based on true stories, tells of a German circus that becomes the home and refuge of two young women. Teenage Noa, disgraced by her pregnancy, is forced to give up her baby, but she rescues another – a Jewish child – from a boxcar destined for a concentration camp. Astrid, Jewish and a professional trapeze artist, is already headlining the circus, but must teach Noa the necessary skills to fit in. Their unstable relationship is magnetically portrayed. Savit imagines Krakow in 1939. Young Anna, her father taken by the Nazis, meets a mysterious, somewhat magical fellow whom she follows through the most dangerous situations. This startling novel will entrance readers of all ages – especially if they are interested in European Jewish history. 

Stop by the Hilton on Monday, January 29 at 1:00 p.m. and you are likely to go away laughing. Multi-talented sitcom writer Susan Silver will talk about Hot Pants in Hollywood: Sex, Secrets & Sitcoms. She promises that the book is funny and sexy, so let’s see if she keeps her promise. Tales of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Newhart and Maude can’t be anything but riotous. But who can tell the tale of Joan Rivers? No one better than her biographer, Leslie Bennetts, author of Last Girl Before Freeway. The story of the trailblazing comedian’s battle to break down barriers for women is not all laughs, but there should be enough of them to balance out the darker moments in her subject’s life as ambition and insecurity collide. After all, Rivers made people laugh for 60 years.

Family-focused memoir is the theme on Wednesday, February 14 at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom. Playwright and film producer Peter Gethers’ My Mother’s Kitchen tells the heartwarming story of his determination to bring his aging mother’s friends and loved ones to the table one last time for a feast featuring her favorite dishes. This desire springs from Peter’s growing closeness to his mother and his desire to hear about her colorful past and her kitchen secrets. Actress Annabelle Gurwitch’s Wherever You Go, There They Are describes the family she tried to escape and the ones she joined by accident or on purpose, including her southern ancestors, the sisterhood, and an adult summer camp for vegans. She trades one crazy family for several. Annabelle has appeared on episodes of Seinfeld, Murphy Brown and Dexter, and she formerly hosted Dinner and a Movie on TBS. 

On Monday, February 26 at 1:00 p.m. at the Naples Conference Center, three authors will discuss their new works and their careers. Meet Jane Healey (The Saturday Evening Girls Club), Sana Krasikov (The Patriots) and Ellen Umansky (The Fortunate Ones) as they make individual presentations and then interact with one another. The title of Healey’s book refers to a group of four young immigrant women who meet with others to escape hectic home lives in Boston’s North End during the early 1900s. Krasikov’s novel follows a young woman who leaves her middle-class Brooklyn Jewish family during the depression expecting a better life in Stalin’s USSR. What she discovers is not what she expects. Umansky’s book is set in 1939 Vienna, from which Rose Zimmer’s parents try to send her to safety via the Kindertransport. The search for a missing painting and the consequences of that search lead to unexpected revelations.

On Wednesday, March 7 at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom there will be a love and relationships session with Marilyn Simon Rothstein’s Lift and Separate and Renee Rosen’s Windy City Blues. Rothstein creates Marcy, a Jewish mother of three grown children, whose husband of 33 years leaves her for a fitting model he met at his brassiere empire. How she rebounds from this setback will keep you reading. Rosen’s riveting story, set in 1950s and ’60s Chicago, tells of a young Jewish Polish immigrant, and a black blues guitarist who left the south to play in the burgeoning Chicago music scene, who risk threats of violence in an era in American history that frowned on mixed-race couples. Their story of forbidden romance is weaved into the history of Chess Records and the birth of the blues and rock ’n’ roll in Chicago.

Friday, March 16 at 1:00 p.m. brings five-time Emmy Award-winner Alan Zweibel to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples. A writer for Saturday Night Live and Curb Your Enthusiasm, his novel The Other Shulman won the Thurber Prize for American Humor in 2006. He collaborated with Billy Crystal on the Tony Award-winning play 700 Sundays. His latest project is the Passover Haggadah parody For This We Left Egypt? – co-written with Dave Barry and Adam Mansbach. Light food and refreshments provided. And laughs!

The Festival closes on Monday, April 9 at 2:30 p.m. at Beth Tikvah Synagogue with Abigail Pogrebin, who will talk about My Jewish Year. As a character in her own book, Abigail is presented as a somewhat rebellious family member who feels her Jewish life has not been as rich as it might have been. So she embarks on an entire year of research, observance, and writing about every ritual, fast and festival in one Jewish year.


Festival sponsors include: Florida Weekly, Hilton Naples, U.S. Bank, Barnes & Noble Waterside Shops, Steinway Piano Gallery, Women’s Cultural Alliance, JFCS of SWFL, TheatreZone, John R. Wood Properties, JNF, Senior Housing Solutions, AJC West Coast, Beth Tikvah, Collier/Lee Chapter of Hadassah, Clive Daniel Home, FIDF Miami Chapter, Holocaust Museum & Education Center of SWFL, Temple Shalom Sisterhood, Dr. Barrett Ross Ginsberg and Naples Jewish Congregation.

A complete schedule of events, ticket information, venue locations, author bios and book synopses is available at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. For more information or to order tickets by phone, call Renee’ at the Jewish Federation of Collier County at 239.263.4205.

Note: This article appeared in the October 26, 2017 Naples Florida Weekly.  See CCJBF 2018


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“So Close to Home: A True Story of an American Family’s Fight for Survival During World War II”

By Michael J. Tougias and Alison O’Leary. Pegasus Books. 256 pp. Hardcover $27.95.

A lightly fictionalized, little-known tale of disaster at sea

A thrilling story of courage and eventual good fortune, this historical narrative recounts one Texas family’s near-disaster at sea within a larger, relatively unknown bit of World War II history.

To improve their fortunes, Ray and Ina Downs move their family of three children to Colombia and then to Costa Rica for Ray’s lucrative temporary job with the United Fruit Company. The oldest child, 14-year-old Terry, soon returns to the U.S. Lucille, then 11, and Sonny, 8, stay with their parents until the end of Ray’s contract.

While sailing home on their return trip from Costa Rica, just miles off the coast of New Orleans, their ship, the Heredia — an old freighter originally built as a luxury passenger ship; the Downs family is among the small number of civilians aboard — is attacked by a German U-boat. It is May of 1942, and America is still recovering from the Pearl Harbor bombing that led to a declaration of war against Japan’s ally, Germany, on December 11, 1941.

The ship sinks quickly and violently. Ray and Sonny end up on a tattered raft with two other men. At first, the whereabouts of Ina and Lucille are unknown.

The authors’ genius is in timing the shifts of focus, thereby heightening suspense. While most chapters follow the fortunes of the desperate Downs family, these are alternated with chapters that focus on the U-boat enterprise. Readers receive well-rounded portraits of Admiral Dönitz, overlord of the German “Grey Wolves” (as these submarines were named), and of the commanders of the two subs that unexpectedly and programmatically destroyed many ships nearing the southeastern U.S.: “The U-507 and U-506 were the perfect vessels to send into the Gulf because they were of the larger, long-range class called Type IXC, both built in 1939 in Hamburg.”

These U-boats had enormous range, and they usually carried 22 torpedoes along with other weapons, including anti-aircraft guns that were mounted on deck. They also had skilled, committed commanders whose training was exceptional: “Those on U-boats sent to American were the best of the best, on a new mission that might decide the outcome of the war.”

Commander Harro Schacht controlled U-507, the first U-boat to enter the Gulf of Mexico. Tougias and O’Leary develop a vivid personality sketch of this capable leader and record his many successes sinking ships in Gulf waters.

Erich Würdermann, the commander of U-506, receives similar treatment. Clearly, the authors are impressed by these two dynamic individuals who found themselves in an unusual competition. Was it the number of ships destroyed or the tonnage of cargo rendered useless that would be the measure of superiority?

The other side of the story, of course, is the dismal preparation and performance of U.S. forces. Why were they unavailable or unable to protect these commercial vessels, whose cargo was important to the war effort? How well was the U-boat threat recognized? On many of the freighters in the region, the lives of U.S. citizens were in jeopardy. Citizens like Ray Downs, his wife, and his children. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: So Close to Home | Washington Independent Review of Books

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Exploring the Koreshans

The Allure of Immortality: An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet, by Lyn Millner. University Press of Florida. 368 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

Maybe the approach of a new century fostered utopian, apocalyptic, and millennialist communities to flourish, though the career of self-proclaimed prophet and savior Cyrus Teed began in the 1870s in upstate New York. Here he started preaching his ideas regarding a hollow earth (we live inside of the sphere, not on top of it), socialism, celibacy, his own transcendence, and other arcane matters. The Koreshan Unity didn’t gain much traction until after Teed relocated its headquarters to Chicago in the late 1880s. Allure_of_Immortality_RGB

However, it would be impossible to found a New Jerusalem in the Windy City, though Teed was able to build his following and do a better job of funding his movement’s activities there. He developed ardent supporters, far more women than men, and built larger audiences for his lectures. There were always those who considered him a quack, but the movement was sustained by diehards.

The would-be New Jerusalem ended up being built in the community of Estero in Southwest Florida. After beginning to develop its new home in 1894, Koreshanity flourished for about a dozen years, attracting about 250 members at its peak. After Teed’s death in I908 (he didn’t ascend, though followers were watching hopefully), the movement began to fade. What’s left of it now are the historic buildings and interpretive exhibits at the Koreshan State Historic Site – and in the comprehensive history and assessment found in Professor Millner’s glorious book.

Prof. Millner’s study is at once fascinating biography and contextualizing cultural history. She puts the Koreshan movement squarely in the company of many other friendly and rival organizations. These would include Christian Science, Swedenborgian thought, the Brook Farm community, and many other initiatives. Some of these shared Teed’s mistrust of capitalism as well as his enthusiasm for reconciling science and religion. Labeled by Mark Twain as “The Gilded Age,” the late 19th century saw rapid industrialization, wage growth, and life-changing technologies that kept proliferating

Railroads soon drew the country together, electric lighting turned night into day, and soon the motor car exploded the horizons of families and individuals.  Lyn Millner sees Teed and his Koreshan Unity church against this backdrop of accelerating technological change. One of the book’s spellbinding sections describes the experiments by Teed supporters that proved – to themselves at least – the validity of their hollow earth theory.



Teed and others were enthralled by the amazing rebirth of Chicago after its near-death by fire. The iconic World’s Columbian Expedition (Spring-Fall 1883) was a major stage in projecting an era of limitless possibilities. It was the magnificent anteroom to the twentieth century.

To tell Teed’s story is to tell the story of his supporters, followers, rivals, and detractors. Prof. Millner breathes life and magnitude into a large cast of characters, people who were ready to take chances, who needed to give their lives meaning, and who would find both ecstasy and disappointment in their relationships to the charismatic Teed and his grand endeavor. . . .

To read the full review, as well as an interview with Lyn Millner as it appears in the October 21, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the October 22 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, and the October 29 Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter and Palm Beach/West Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Millner 1 and here: Florida Weekly – Millner 2


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“Goebbels: A Biography” by Peter Longerich

Translated by Alan Bance, Jeremy Noakes, and Lesley Sharpe. Random House. 992 pages. Hardcover $40.00.

A stunning, encyclopedic study of Hitler’s propaganda minister

Joseph Goebbels’ life was certainly history-making, but it’s a piece of history noted for its grotesque notions of nationalism, democracy, and leadership. For many years the Nazi regime’s Minister of Propaganda, Goebbels refined the art of mass psychological manipulation, over and over again rallying a despondent and pride-hungry people into becoming more and more the fervent worshippers of a mad genius and a mad vision of national and racial destiny.

Peter Longerich, who first published this book in Germany in 2010, conceives of three major phases in his subject’s life.

First, he portrays an insecure fellow whose compensatory delusions predict greatness of some sort. This young man needed large doses of positive feedback, beginning with mother love which eventually developed into an addiction to Führer love. His doctorate in German letters did not open doors for his aspirations as a literary and cultural shaper. Once Goebbels turned his attention to political action, he made the right moves to advance quickly through party ranks.  Goebbels cover

The second phase concerns his activities as pre-war propaganda minister, hammering an imaginary political and cultural consensus into place through skillful manipulation of news and entertainment media and through staged demonstrations. He was adept at building Hitler’s image as a demi-god (demagogue?) and in building a strong personal relationship with his mentor and hero.

Finally, he beat the drums for war, wartime sacrifices, and the ever-out-of-reach peace that would arrive with the continental dominance of a never-realized superstate.

For all this, Longerich insists that Goebbels was not a true insider but was often surprised by actions set in motion by Hitler during meetings to which Goebbels was not invited.

Of particular interest is Goebbels’ role in developing the political uses of anti-Semitism. Even as any remaining Jewish civil rights were demolished, even as mass executions began, even as Jews were fleeing or being relocated out of headquarters Berlin, Goebbels found ways of making the Jews responsible for all of Germany’s problems. It’s hard to say what he truly believed about Jews, so overwhelming was his commitment to using anti-Semitism as a political instrument.

Longerich’s primary source is his subject’s diaries. Indeed, they are important historical documents that give unparalleled coverage of hundreds of events. They also provide unintentional clues to Goebbels’ anxieties and nonstop posturing. Longerich points out instance after instance in which narcissistic Goebbels interprets an event’s outcome to his advantage. In the author’s capable hands, we discover how the diaries reveal just what Goebbels would not want them to reveal. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  Goebbels: A Biography | Washington Independent Review of Books

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What words are for: Two reviews from Jewish Book World

by Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz 








by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger









These two reviews were combined as a single review article and published in the March 2013 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlottle Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).


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The Körbels of Prague and the Demise of Jewish Identity

Prague Winter:  A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, by Madeleine Albright. Harper. 480 pages. $29.99.

Most Jewish readers attracted to Madeleine Albright’s recent book are no doubt curious about the degree of Jewish identity that attached to the author upon her discovery, late in her life, that both of her parents came from Jewish families. Yes, the 64th U. S. Secretary of State (and the first woman to hold that position) was born a Jew, but she didn’t know it. Many of her relatives, including three of her grandparents, died in the Holocaust, but she didn’t know it. She has no meaningful Jewish identity, but that in itself hints at a story of Jewish families in Nazi-infected Europe that perhaps can never be told. 

The story Albright does tell has three dimensions: it’s a WWII narrative with a Central European focus; more precisely, it’s a Czech-eye view of WWII and its aftermath. More narrowly (and richly) yet, it’s a perspective that hinges on the part her father, Josef Körbel, played in the Czech foreign ministry as press attaché  and ambassador to Yugoslavia, as scribe and mouthpiece for the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile (in London) after his country fell to the Nazis, and as effective subordinate to the major Czech leaders, Edvard Beneš and Jan Masaryk, even through his country’s second fall, to the Soviet Union, after a very brief hope of renewed democratic independence.

Readers will be frustrated once they realize that Albright was barely a toddler when the historical timeline she fleshes out began. She is rarely writing from memory, as she was much too young to have experience-based insights on the events that she relates. In addition, Albright spent very few of her early years living in Prague, and more of them living in either Belgrade or London.

His own future insecure after the Soviet regime took hold, Josef Körbel was able to gain political asylum from the U. S., bringing his family here in 1948 and building a significant career as an international studies professor at the University of Denver. Albright’s positions in the U. S. government and her father’s place in Czechoslovakia’s government gave her access to materials that she fashioned industriously and intelligently. She explores, with clarity and dramatic pointing, the political twists and turns by which the democratic Czechoslovakia that came to life in the aftermath of WWI became a victim of Nazi aggression and then a pawn in the east-west game following Germany’s defeat. The Czechs had the bad luck to be liberated by the Soviets.

Madeleine Albright – official photo as Secretary of State

Madeleine Albright’s narrative of how a small European nation caught in the crossfire fared during the stormy years leading up to and following WWII is bolstered by an abundance of sources, an array of captivating photographs, a cast list of principal characters, a detailed time line, and a bountiful index. Fortunately, this apparatus does not interfere with accessibility. On many occasions, Albright’s personal (as distinguished from professional) voice adds charm and wit to the presentation of unfortunate occurrences.

The story of Madeleine Albright’s response to the discovery of her Jewish ancestry is a leitmotif running through the analysis of Czechoslovakia’s fate. Once their Jewish parentage became known, she and her younger siblings explored family papers, government records, and various archives to piece together a good bit of their parents’ Jewish past. There was no one from whom Albright could receive the answer to this question: What led her parents to convert to Roman Catholicism when Madeleine was still very young and never reveal the truth about their Jewish origins?

Knowing the character of her parents, the author surmises that their decision was meant to be protective. It’s not clear whether or not Josef’s assignment to work with the Czech government-in-exile was intended as an escape from his family’s likely discovery and probable extermination as a Jews. Albright suggests in various ways that the young Körbel couple had worn their Judaism lightly, making it relatively easy to leave it behind.  Prague Winter reveals no information about Albright’s grandparents having relationships with Czechoslovakia’s Jewish communities.

The questions that linger include these: (1) Did Josef Körbel attempt to get his parents and in-laws out of danger? (2) As the Nazis rose to power, how many other Jewish individuals or families disowned their Jewish selves to save (or try to save) their lives? (3) How many succeeded?

This review appears in the August 2012 editions of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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The missing child case that revolutionized law enforcement

“Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America,” by Les Standiford with Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews. Ecco. 304 pages. $24.95.

Les Standiford’s career has taken a fascinating turn. Once best-known for his popular genre novels, notably the John Deal mystery series, he has now become a first-rate fashioner of suspenseful and informative nonfiction narratives.  Some of these books, like “The Man Who Invented Christmas” (about Charles Dickens) and “Washington Burning” (about Pierre L’Enfant and the founding of Washington, DC), re-imagine important historical figures and their times. Others, like the already-classic “Last Train to Paradise” (about Henry Flagler’s railroad fantasy) and the present title, explore more recent, Florida-based historical materials, investing them with the urgency, cultural insight, and telling detail of the best fiction. 

“Bringing Adam Home” is less about the crime that took the life of TV host John Walsh’s son and Walsh’s achievements through the “America’s Most Wanted” series than it is about an endlessly bungled investigation. Though Mr. Standiford attends to how John Walsh and his wife Revé turned their grief into transforming the ways in which crimes against children are handled, his gripping, central story is about the combination of laziness, arrogance, and unprofessional police work that left a readily solvable crime unsolved for decades. It is also about serial killer Ottis Toole, who committed the crime, confessed to it over and over again, and yet escaped responsible detection until after his death.

Here’s where Joe Matthews comes in.

Early on, soon after Adam Walsh’s disappearance from a shopping mall Sears store, Joe Matthews was borrowed from the Miami Beach police to help the Hollywood, Florida police department with this case. He had the expertise and experience to make a difference.  However, Detective Hoffman, in charge of the case, seemed reluctant to make full use of Matthews’ talents and suggestions. Hoffman pursued the fruitless investigation of his favorite suspect and wouldn’t take seriously any ideas that pointed elsewhere. The case Hoffman attempted to make went nowhere. . . .

Les Standiford (photo by Marla Cohen)

To read the entire review as it appears in the April 27, 2011 issue of  Fort Myers Florida Weekly and April 28 issue of the Naples edition, click here:  Florida Weekly – Les Standiford.

pdf version: Standiford pdf-1 and Standiford pdf-2

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Marya Repko’s brief books bring Old Florida to life

“Grandma of the Glades: A Brief Biography of Marjory Stoneman Douglas,” by Marya Repko. ECity Publishing. 80 pages. $10.00

This flavorful biography of Marjory Stoneman Douglas is a primer on the life, times, works, and significance of a major figure in southern Florida’s modern history. Ms. Repko begins with a thumbnail history of Florida, after which she focuses on early Miami and its attraction for Marjory’s father, printer-publisher Frank Bryant Stoneman. Mr. Stoneman fit right into the Miami scene, which he entered in 1903. He had already published a newspaper in Orlando, and soon after establishing himself in Miami he founded a newspaper in his new home town that became, with Mr. Stoneman as editor, the Miami Herald.

Marjory Stoneman , born in 1890, spent her early years living with her mother’s family (her parents had separated when she was five yours old). In 1915, having graduated from Wellesley College three years earlier, she left an ill-fated marriage behind and joined her father in Miami.

Marya Repko traces Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s stint as society editor for the Herald, her WWI interlude working abroad for the American Red Cross and writing dispatches from various points in Europe, and then her return to the Herald as a columnist in 1920.

Ms. Douglas gradually became a devoted Floridian, active in social and civic affairs. Most notably, she participated in the state and national park efforts. She became an ardent conservationist, directing her considerable talents as a writer and speaker to promoting and celebrating such achievements as the Everglades National Park.

In 1947, Ms. Douglas published her masterpiece, “The Everglades: River of Grass.” Marya Repko traces the genesis and reception of this book, as well as the flood of books, both fiction and nonfiction, that followed. All had Florida themes and manifest the concerns of a cultural and biological environmentalist.

Ms. Repko takes us through the middle and late decades of Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s exceptionally long life, underscoring her nonstop, forceful efforts for judicious management of Florida’s resources and for Everglades restoration in particular. Bolstered by a generous assortment of black and white photos, “Grandma of the Glades” is a great way to make the acquaintance of this dynamo of a woman.  A list of recommended readings encourages further study.

The entire article, which includes interview material with Marya Repko, appears in the March 30, 2011 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the March 31 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly. Click here: Florida Weekly – Marya Repko

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How a young Annapolis grad helped found Israel’s navy

The following review appears in the April 2011 issues of the Federation Star (published by the Jewish Federation of Collier County, Florida) and L’Chayim (published by the Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties, Florida). It also appears in the August 2011 issue of The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

The Ablest Navigator: Lieutenant Paul Shulman, USN, Israel’s Volunteer Admiral, by J. Wandres. Naval Institute Press. 198 pages. $32.95.

J. Wandres has written a fast-paced and carefully researched study of one young American’s significant contributions to Israel’s War of Independence. The story of this unsung hero, Paul Shulman, is at once unique and at the same time representative of the efforts of many volunteer warriors whose exploits are largely unknown and certainly insufficiently appreciated.

Paul Shulman’s father, Herman, was a prosperous corporate lawyer in New York and an ardent Zionist. His mother, Rebecca, became a senior Hadassah executive. Thus, young Paul’s love for Israel was family-based, though the family’s Jewish life otherwise centered on observance of major Holy Days. Paul attended New York’s famed DeWitt Clinton High School, then the Cheshire Academy – one of the few prestigious prep schools open to Jewish enrollment in the late 1930s. 

Paul entered the University of Virginia because of its Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps preparatory program. He hoped NROTC would help him achieve his goal of being accepted at the United States Naval Academy. He did get accepted, but it is not clear what mix of congressional recommendations and scholarly achievements opened the door. By the summer of 1941, Paul Shulman was an Annapolis midshipman. His was in one of the accelerated wartime classes that underwent a compressed 3-year program.

Author Wandres traces Paul’s undistinguished Annapolis sojourn and then his duties as a junior officer on the USS Hunt in late 1944 and into 1945. He served in the Pacific Theater with some measure of distinction, returned home at war’s end, and resumed his naval duties with the rank of lieutenant j.g. (junior grade).  Early in 1947, he was separated from active duty.

The heart of Wandres’s book is about how Paul Shulman was recruited by the Jewish Agency and the Haganah to put together a training school for what would become Israel’s navy. Paul’s own enthusiasm, and a chance meeting – through his mother’s influence – with David Ben-Gurion, led to this surprising appointment for the 25 year-old.

Paul’s initial activities involved working on the purchase and refitting of surplus warships that would bring Holocaust survivors to Palestine. Mr. Wandres reviews these arrangements – and the consequent uses of the ships – in compelling detail. Soon after, Paul was urgently busy developing the naval training academy in Haifa under the provisional government.  In less than three months, Paul Shulman’s efforts led to the deployment of an Israeli squadron that performed successfully against enemy ships. It was a remarkable achievement performed under high pressure and with negligible resources. These encounters were an important part of the miracle of 1948.

Unlike most of the approximately 1,200 American and Canadian volunteers who fought for Israel’s independence, Paul Shulman stayed on to build a life in Israel. However, like the contributions of many others , Paul Shulman’s were buried by Israeli political maneuverings, which favored accolades for Sabras and those who had influence in the new political establishment. More than ten years after his death in 1994, Paul Shulman received recognition from his alma mater: a window was dedicated in his memory at the U. S. Naval Academy’s Uriah P. Levy Center when the building opened in 2005.

author J. Wandres

The main narrative of The Ablest Navigator is followed by two appendages that connect somewhat uneasily. The first such section, Chapter 13, is called “The Pages of History.” Here Mr. Wandres provides an overview of the Zionist dream and its implementation through and beyond 1948. This section sometimes seems ambiguous in its point of view about the validity of the Jewish State. Useful in providing the larger context for Paul Shulman’s story, this material may enhance the experience for some readers if read before Chapter 1.

An appendix, “From Argosy to Abril,” traces the strange, fascinating history of a particular vessel on its way to becoming part of the Israeli navy.

The extensive notes that J. Wandres provides are wisely saved for the back matter of the book rather than allowed to interfere with the flow of the narrative. Black and white photos, maps, and an index add to the interest and utility of this most readable and necessary slice of Israel’s history.


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