Tag Archives: identity

Superb thriller explores the lasting effects of trauma

The Stranger Inside, by Lisa Unger. Park Row Books. 384 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

Ms. Unger had done it again. She’s taken her readers to places that no one should have to enter, and she’s made it extremely difficult for them to escape from the spell cast by her soaring skill and fright-filled imagination.

A major question that the book explores is to what degree trauma can shape, perhaps misshape, identity and functionality. The premise involves three friends knocking on the door of their teen years who are engaged by a demonic lost soul (himself a trauma victim) who had been following one of them around. The central character is Rain Winter (who has other names). Her friends are Tess and Hank – who is also her admirer and rescuer.

Tess loses her life in the madman’s attack. Rain and Hank survive, the trauma having reshaped their lives in somewhat different ways. Each must deal with “the stranger within,” a haunted, stunted self that cannot quite be covered over by the more normal self – the self that has built a constructive life but is never completely free.

The abductor-murderer, considered a victim himself, served jail time for his crimes. But he, like several other madmen whose crimes had reached the media, had met a violent death. It seems like vigilante justice is getting these perverts off the streets. Are serial vigilante killers the good guys or just more bad guys?

Lisa Unger

When readers meet Rain, she is on hiatus from her work as a journalist to take care of her young daughter. But the news about possible vigilante justice keeps pulling her back to the memories imbedded in and surrounded by her traumatic experience. She needs to tell that story.

Rain is literally haunted by Hank, whose demons seem more out of control and who has a neediness that only Rain seems likely to understand and alleviate. Though he has established himself as a therapist and does important work, especially with children, he has not yet been able to fully heal himself.

Ms. Unger’s art is amazing in how she handles the special community of the three schoolmates who were attacked so long ago. Chapters begin with the voice or thought stream of one of the three. Readers cannot always be sure which one it is until the scene’s momentum develops. Each seems to need a psychic rendezvous with the others. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the February 12, 2020 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the February 13 Naples, Bonita Springs, Palm Beach, Charlotte County, and Venice editions, click here:  The Stranger Inside

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“Forest Dark: A Novel,” by Nicole Krauss

Harper. 304 pages. Hardcover $27.99

This ambitious meditation on spiritual transcendence and self-reflection hits all the right notes.

Only a handful of books that come out each year immediately signal “masterpiece.” Nicole Krauss’ Forest Dark, a brilliant effort that defines the human condition in an original way, is one of them. It is transformational, and it is about transformation. If not deeply religious (though perhaps it is), it is religiously profound.


The narrative unfolds in alternating chapters with two protagonists. One is a successful, fortyish writer whose path seems blocked. The other, nearing 70, is a successful lawyer and investor who discovers that his life’s patterns have been shaken up in a liberating way.

The transformations the characters undergo, whether sought after or suddenly realized, are described with staggering acumen and accuracy. Each conversion defines and redefines one of the central characters. The chapters that focus on the novelist — let’s call her Nicole — are told in the first person. Those given over to Jules Epstein (most often referred to as “Epstein”) are told in the third person, though the narrator has lavish access to the man’s thoughts and feelings.

Epstein’s life changes are extreme. Soon after his parents die, he ends his marriage, leaves his partnership in a law firm, and frees himself from the intimidating personality and identity he had built. He seems released into an alternate self. He smiles more, reads books on mysticism, and enters a new zone of experience characterized by a sense of lightness. He no longer believes in assurances. He wishes to be open.

His children worry about him.

Nicole comes to realize that her life has been overly structured. She is the result of confining and defining forces, including meeting other people’s expectations. She speculates about how space and time affect people’s identities and destinies. She notices her lack of drive to plan things, and she takes this suspension of will — as Epstein has taken his changes — as a kind of freedom.

A good part of the novel is played out in Israel, particularly Tel Aviv, which holds promises and challenges for both characters. It has long been part of their individual lives. The Tel Aviv Hilton looms large in Nicole’s psyche. Her ostensible reason for staying there is to base a novel on the hotel. However, while she knows that readers expect fictional characters to have reasons for what they do, she wonders if the actions of humans are truly rooted in such reasons.

Nicole is penetratingly occupied with such philosophizing. The author has the astounding ability to make her characters’ streams of interrogation and postulation as vivid and engrossing as powerful descriptions of places and actions. Her contemplations have the solidity and luster of polished stone.

Each character’s journey involves a sidekick, a kind of spiritual tour guide who often seems half-real. Epstein’s guide is Rabbi Menachem Klausner, who is in charge of researching the Davidic line, an enterprise in which the Epstein name plays a significant role. Or is he a charlatan? It’s hard to be sure. Klausner will open new vistas for Epstein by taking him to the renowned sacred city of Safed, a center for Jewish spiritualism.

Eliezer Friedman, a former literature professor, plays a role in Nicole’s journey that has similar ambiguities. He’s part mentor, part confessor, part spiritual seducer. Friedman has a strange destiny in mind for Nicole: finishing an unknown work by Franz Kafka. This goal allows the Nicole sections of the book to open up into an exploration of Kafka’s peculiar life and career. In these segments, as well, the mystique of King David, particularly his age-old role as a transcendent literary figure, haunts the narrative.

Tour-guide Friedman, rather than returning Nicole to her quarters at the Hilton, becomes — a bit forcefully — her guide to an Israel with which she is not familiar. His speech is hypnotic, somewhat like that of Rabbi Klausner, who magically flew from New York to Tel Aviv on the same plane as Epstein.

Of course, like Nicole, Epstein is staying at the Tel Aviv Hilton. . . .

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

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“Jumping Over Shadows: A Memoir” by Annette Gendler

  • She Writes Press. 232 pp. Trade paperback $16.95.

An exquisitely written conversion story which expounds upon personal and collective identity.  

On the website of Israeli-born New York artist Hanan Harchol, readers learn that “Harchol uses the family as a microcosm for the larger human condition, exploring the universal through the personal.” Annette Gendler’s new memoir, Jumping Over Shadows, does much the same thing, though the particularities of Gendler’s experience are deeply underscored and the universals are more subtly evoked.

Annette was born in New Jersey to an American mother and a father from Czechoslovakia. The family, including Annette and her siblings, moved to Munich, where she was educated. They practiced a sort of Catholicism-Lite. “In fact,” Annette writes, “to say I was raised Catholic is almost a misnomer.”

In her early twenties, she met Harry — a friend of a friend — who belonged to a traditional Jewish family. Their romance was guarded; each knew that a marriage between them was likely to shake their families to the core.

As Annette discovered, such a marriage had rocked the family when her German great-aunt had married a Czechoslovakian Jew in the early 1920s. Later, the Nazi takeover caused this mixed marriage to pose enormous problems for the extended family. Such was the baggage carried by these 1985 sweethearts.

Memoirist Annette alternates between scenes that trace her developing relationship with Harry and scenes that recapture the dilemmas brought about by her great-aunt Resi’s marriage. She makes the people and times of her family’s past ordeal, the taint of the family’s problems, come alive. She paints a world she never knew but learned to understand.

The question is, of course, what will Annette and Harry do and how will they negotiate the obvious problems — and the not-so-obvious ones? What will each give or give up? A major portion of this story springs from Annette’s carefully considered decision to convert to Judaism. In part, this is an intellectual process, but it is much more than that. The author recalls the steps that she took, the growth in her learning, and how her exploration of Judaism and of possibly becoming Jewish changed her.

Learning the tenets of the faith and some history is one thing; learning recipes for gefilte fish and other Jewish foods is another. Learning Hebrew is yet another. Discovering how to lead a traditional Jewish life and learning to love Israel are two more necessary strands. Annette’s education becomes an education for the general reader and a new kind of blueprint for the less observant or less committed Jewish reader. . . .

To see the entire review, click here: Jumping Over Shadows: A Memoir | Washington Independent Review of Books

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A stunning immigrant tale of identity, inheritance, and transformation

Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, by Boris Fishman. Harper. 336 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

This novel ties together an exploration of the immigrant experience, the roots of personal identity, and the possible shapes of families. It is an episodic quest narrative that attempts to answer the question: “What makes eight year old Max Rubin so strange?” This is the question that has been growing larger and larger in the mind of Maya Shulman Rubin, the woman who with her husband Alex adopted the infant Max. The quest is a journey to the Montana home of Max’s birth parents, where Maya feels the answer must lie.  Dontletmybabydorodeohcc

For Alex, Max doesn’t seem quite so strange; his reluctant agreement to take the journey grows out of his need to sooth a range of stresses in the marriage. That is, he wishes to satisfy his wife – somehow.

Alex and Maya live in suburban New Jersey. The son of Russian immigrants, Alex met Maya when she came to the U. S. from the Ukraine as an exchange student. They are both children of Jewish parents whose sense of Jewish identity, while strong, does not include active involvement in Jewish ritual or community life. Alex, who had struggled for a defining career, has ended up working for his father’s import business. Maya’s dreams of becoming a chef gave way to a job as a medical technician. Seemingly infertile (we learn late in the novel that their childlessness had to do with Alex, not Maya), she ironically meets breasts daily while taking mammography images.

Maya’s insistent need to be a mother leads them, in their mid-thirties, to adopt. Their steps in taking this action seem flawed – or at least naïve. The Montana couple, not yet out of their teens, needs to meet the adopters, and they deliver the child to the Rubins rather than use professional intermediaries. They give up all rights. It is the birth mother, Laurel, who utters the title phrase: “Don’t let my baby do rodeo.” She has seen how rodeo has torn up her husband.

The point of attack is eight years later. Maya is approaching her forty-third birthday. The Rubins’ situation as a family is not what they hoped it would be. Moreover, there is some kind of wildness in Max. He enjoys sleeping in a tent behind the house, collecting and perhaps consuming grass samples, and communing with animals. He doesn’t fit in at school. He doesn’t make friends. One day, when he is supposed to board the school bus for his return home, he gets on a public bus and disappears.



After he is discovered and brought home, and after professional help toward understanding Max’s behavior proves ineffective, the family begins the journey to Montana.

The 2,000 mile journey is a new beginning (perhaps actually the first beginning) of their American lives, which until now have been highly restricted. This is especially true for Maya, who came to the U.S. when she was many years older than Alex was upon his arrival and thus is not as fully acclimated. Still, they have been living inside of the older Rubins’ immigrant family patterns and still seem like they have not yet grown up.

The journey is an informal education in American openness, as well as other qualities symbolized by the immensity and variety of the landscapes they move through. Once again, it’s like they have moved to a foreign country – but this time they are much faster learners. They are tested over and over again, with mixed success, but always with personal growth. Again, Maya is more dynamic than Alex in these travel chapters, just as she is throughout the novel. Thus her eyes are opened more widely and she learns much more about herself.

An affair assists her education, as does a comment made when she finally engages Max’s birth mother again. (This scene has a dreamlike quality and might be taken as a dream or reverie.) Laurel suggests that Max’s wildness is not some eruption of genetic traits but rather the restless vibes he has picked up from Maya – the true, if repressed, wild one. Though they come from different color palettes, Maya and Max have become profoundly related.

Though the Rubins, returning to New Jersey, are not fully transformed, they seem far more capable of transformation. They seem capable of self-creation – of forging (such a double-edged word) identities more vital than the immigrant cloaks they have been wearing. As middle age approaches, they are finally growing up.

I came to love this book more and more as I stayed in it. The expository matter that prefaces the trip to Montana can drag a bit, though it is necessary. Fishman’s wit is not so fully on display here as in A Replacement Life, but you’ve got to like a guy who knows that the perfect car model name for this quest is the Ford Escape.

This review appears in the July-August 2016 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County) and the July 2016 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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A brilliant mosaic of voices, genres, and insights

Zachary Lazar, I Pity the Poor Immigrant: a Novel. Little, Brown. 256 pages. Hardcover $25.00.

This high-end literary novel is challenging and enthralling. It points in many directions, but its intertwined journeys ultimately have a rich closure. A fiction made in part of purported memoir(s), it probes the nature of memoir both philosophically and psychologically. The psychology of immigrant status and identity is another concern, here understood as having a connection to the Jewish condition throughout history.  The novel also explores the violent edge of Jewish experience, using the poles of King David and Meyer Lansky as well as the quandary of an incessantly armed Israel. I Pity Cover

The novel’s time line begins in 2012 before shuttling back and forth at intervals large and small. We meet Hannah Groff, a journalist nearing forty, who opens her relationship with her readers by telling of a meeting with her father that underscored the distance between them. She mentions her first book, “a memoir of my brief marriage,” and then goes on to tell of her 2009 visit to Israel. Hannah feels compelled to research and investigate the murdered poet-essayist David Bellen.

But this quest leads to Gila Konig, a Hungarian-born refugee who once knew Hannah’s father all too well when Hannah was a child. In fact, Gila worked in the Hebrew School of the Temple the Groffs belonged to. As we will later discover, Gila knew Meyer Lansky at least as well. So, yes, all of these lives touch: Gila also knew Bellen, author of a book called Kid Bethlehem that fashions King David as a twentieth-century gangster.

And then we jump back to meet Gila Konig in Tel Aviv circa 1972 during the time of Lansky’s failed appeal for citizenship and asylum in Israel. The reputed tough guy is “understated” and mannerly. Konig and Lansky are both immigrants to different countries (Lansky to the U. S.) at different times. They are part of the immigrant nation that is the still-dispersed Jewish people and, somehow, accounts for the existence of a Jewish mafia – even an Israeli mafia.



Then we jump back to New York at the end of the Roaring Twenties and find a much younger Lansky, making his way in the world of crime and easily available women.

And so it goes, layers of re-imagined history and biography with pure invention artfully blended into the mix, their several voices – all strangely haunted – wrapped inside of Hannah’s. Intriguing secondary characters, including Hannah’s father, an Israeli journalist named Oded Voss who serves as Hannah’s guide and interpreter during her research on Bellen, and a piecemeal portrait of King David – the primal Jewish gangster.

Hannah in particular, but also the other characters in this literary mosaic, is endlessly introspective.

One of the novel’s major sections is Hannah’s memoir of her investigation into Bellen’s death. She describes Bellen’s 2008 collection of poems as “in many ways a critique of current Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories.” This characterization suggests a motive for Bellen’s murder, but there are other possibilities. Following Bellen’s path allows Lazar, via Hannah, to bring the reader through Israel’s political, artistic, and physical landscape. It seems as if murder is everywhere.

Lazar also creates a voice and technique for Bellen’s own work, which forms another part of the intricate mosaic. When Hannah meets Bellen’s son Eliav, she learns even more about a heavy depression that clouds Israeli life. When she meets Eliav’s ex-wife, still other tones enter the novel.

Jewish mafia stories weave in and out of the novel, touching on Lansky’s later doings in Las Vegas, Cuba, and Miami.

The attraction of I Pity the Poor Immigrant lies in its sheer inventiveness, its surprising juxtaposition of incongruent elements that eventually click into place. Portions of the book are made up of short, polished vignettes that turn around in the reader’s brain like mismatched puzzle pieces until they fit. For example, as part of an extended linking of such short pieces – presented as a stretch of David Bellen’s essay called, of all things – “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” Lazar juxtaposes a piece called “Intifada” and another called “Permanent War.” The first piece, set in Israel in 2001, records events of the Second Intifada while at the same presenting Bellen’s worry over his son’s further withdrawal from their relationship.

“Permanent War” jumps to the constant conflict between “American’s heartland Protestants” and the threatening immigrant tides. The tides brought those who would become the Italian and Jewish gangsters, sometimes attacking the establishment, sometimes murdering each other.

Zachary Lazar spins these two passages in a way that allows them to echo and reflect one another.

Eventually, the book becomes a hall of mirrors, its various narrators, tales, and techniques forcing the reader to do the work needed to own the important insights that it offers. Making that effort pays off big-time.

This review appears in the September 2014 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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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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Identity quests drive thrilling psychological novel

The Imposter Bride, by Nancy Richler. St. Martin’s Press. 368 pages. $24.99.

This probing, dazzling fiction explores the nature – the relative stability and malleability – of identity. Its initial center of focus is the attractive but enigmatic Lily Azerov, a survivor of the Holocaust who as a young woman arrives in Montreal to fulfill an arranged marriage with Sol Kramer. Improbably, Sol severs the plan after glimpsing her at the train station. Nathan, Sol’s brother, partly out of genuine attraction but also motivated by family shame, takes Lily for his bride. Almost nothing is known about her background. ImposterBride

At the wedding , an uninvited guest suspects that something is wrong. Ida Pearl Krakauer, an immigrant diamond cutter and dealer, has crashed the event to see if this woman is her cousin Lily Azerov who vanished in the Holocaust. She is quite sure that this young woman is an imposter, even though she has identification papers. Ida’s suspicions eventually threaten Lily’s fragile cocoon of deception.

Lily lives reclusively among the Kramers, rarely venturing out of the room provided for her and Nathan. Her mother-in-law, Bella, cannot fathom Lily’s behavior. It’s clear that Lily is lost in her own thoughts, minimizes interaction, and probably has something to hide. A year goes by, during which Lily gives birth to Ruth, but soon after she disappears without a trace. Her legacy is a diary and an uncut diamond, which at one point she had brought to Ida’s shop for an estimate of its worth.

With her disappearance, the mystery of her true identity deepens, as does the reason behind her deceit.

Most of the story is told from the perspective of the daughter, Ruth, who is communally mothered in her Jewish Canadian Kramer family. She is raised in part by her grandmother Bella, and later also by her Aunt Elka, Ida’s young daughter whom Sol chooses to marry. The story eventually covers sixty years of history, from the late Holocaust years to 2005. During the journey, we receive a brilliant portrait of Jewish Montreal and an even more brilliant probing into the psychology of identity, the focus slowly shifting from Lily’s gradually uncovered secrets to Ruth’s need to define herself.


Generally, the story moves forward as it follows Ruth’s life: her school years at a Young Israel (modern Orthodox) day school, her college years at McGill University, her father’s remarriage and second family, her own marriage to the more religious Reuven, the births of her three children, her ongoing interaction with her father’s family, and the various degrees of emptiness and pain consequent upon being abandoned by her mother.

Interspersed throughout Ruth’s story are vignettes that go back to Lily’s time in Montreal, and Lily’s longer-reaching memories, each flashback revealing some important information. These occur, then, not where they fit into the larger timeline, but rather when they best serve readers’ needs to further understand Lily and when they maximize suspense.

Finding Lily is always somewhere in Ruth’s thoughts and reveries. The connection is fostered for a long time by mysterious gifts that Lilly sends to her without a return address. These are smooth stones, with notes about precisely where and when they were found. At first, they come at short intervals, then at much longer ones. Their colorings and other physical properties are provocative, but their meaning remains as elusive as Lily herself.  That Lily has touched them and remembers Ruth is what’s important.

Thus, these symbolic items connect to Ruth’s other items of inheritance: the uncut diamond and the diary of a young girl – the real Lily Azerov – that had been the imposter’s keepsakes since the war years. Like the stones sent by Lily, the diary and the diamond are totems of identity. The uncut diamond and the interrupted diary suggest unfinished processes. The stones are like ellipsis marks awaiting closure.

The final steps in Ruth’s quest are remarkable: courageous, revealing, and filled with a glimmering sadness all at the same time. I won’t give them away.

The Imposter Bride is meticulously constructed, and it is scored in glowing prose. Its combination of imagination and craft may remind readers of the novels of the late Canadian literary giant Mordechai Richler, Nancy Richler’s cousin. Ms. Richler, too, is highly acclaimed. Her first novel, Your Mouth Is Lovely, won the 2003 Canadian Jewish Book Award. The Imposter Bride, first published in Canada last year, was short-listed for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize.

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


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