Tag Archives: literary fiction

“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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A soaring cry, a classic expression of the Jewish American experience

Prayers for the Living, by Alan Cheuse. Foreword by Tova Mirvis. Fig Tree Books. 380 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

A major literary achievement, Alan Cheuse’s magnificent novel takes us through three generations of a Jewish American family, revealing an odd mix of dysfunction and accomplishment, belonging and estrangement, sacrifice and betrayal. Minnie Bloch’s story, told from the perspective of her identities as immigrant and grandmother, reaches us through intermediary listeners, visitors whose near silence tempts us to ask questions. However, if we – the ghostly eavesdroppers – can be patient, they will all be answered. Though she protests otherwise, Minnie has all the answers. Though her eyesight is failing, her insight rarely falters. PrayersForTheLiving-forWebNov14

The impact of the novel comes from two centers of interest: Minnie’s arcing, arching voice and her son Manny’s careers. The voice, like the spirited personality behind it, is inexhaustible. In her stream of revelations showered upon Mrs. Pinsker and a few other visitors, she elaborates what others would most likely keep secret about unfortunate familial matters. There is a great need in Minnie to reveal all: the successes of course, but why the frailties and failures?

There is no stopping her soaring cry. When Mrs. Pinsker remarks that she too has a life story to tell, Minnie replies: “I’d love to hear, Mrs. Pinsker, but not now. Now I’m remembering my own. Oi, I remember so hard.” And indeed, she does.

The texture of Minnie’s life and that of her family is built up in arcs of repetition. Crucial memories and images, key words and phrases, are repeated over and over again, gaining significance and force. Layer upon layer, Minnie’s memories grow and expand; themes and variations compound and resound. The voice becomes hypnotic and embracing, releasing as it unfolds the voices of her late husband Jacob, of Manny and his wife Maby, of Maby’s abusive brother Mord, of the rebellious granddaughter who has renamed herself Sadie, and of many others in the sweep of her long life.

All is hung on the identical trademark black suits of Manny, all is illuminated by Manny’s white mane, which bursts upon his head when he is very young, in the aftermath of Jacob’s accidental death. If Jacob is the father, an echo of his namesake who sired the Israelite clan, then Manny – Emanuel – is the assurance that, at least for the rabbinic part of Manny’s adult life, God is with us.

Young Manny studies at the Reform seminary in Cincinnati and becomes a successful pulpit rabbi in New York. His is a master of the ordinary things expected of him – the routines of educating, inspiring, influencing committee meetings, and fundraising. His most successful religious service is one in which he needs to present a sermon on the concentration camps. After much agonizing and writer’s block, he offers as his sermon twenty minutes of absolute silence. It’s the high point of his pulpit career. His congregants love it. There are low points too, including one in which he takes a literal and figurative fall.

Gradually, another calling overtakes Manny. That of entrepreneur, investor, and man of business. One business is added to another, and then another: shipping, warehousing, and ultimately major agricultural interests in Central America. Once he redefines himself as a businessman and former rabbi, Manny readily discards the life of the synagogue and traditional observance. How does he make this transition so effortlessly? How deep did it ever run?

The story of Manny enfolded in Minnie’s linked narratives is also the story of his ill-fated marriage to Maby (a family nickname), a beautiful woman overwhelmed by insecurity and alcoholism. She spends way too much of her life in a comfortable rehab center, but when she ventures out in the world – at one point attempting to become a writer – she makes poor choices that lead to new bouts of depression.

Alan Cheuse

Alan Cheuse

Along the way, Manny is drawn to another woman, Florette, a Holocaust survivor.

Both Maby and Manny are weak parents whose emotional absence predicts Sadie’s rebellious behavior. Is she a victim by nature or nurture? Sadie’s traumatic gang rape by college boys is an almost incredible echo of Maby’s rape by her older brother Mord (who later ends up being Manny’s business partner).  Maby’s idealization of a self-seeking writing guru almost predicts Sadie’s infatuation with her super-liberated and exploitative female art teacher.

Looking for encouraging authority figures, mother and daughter succumb to false gods.

We must remember, of course, that these stories and the repeated patterns and voices they contain all go back to Minnie’s memory and her conscious or unconscious mission. These coincidences are no more unlikely than the repeated narrative patterns in the Jewish Bible: older brothers being replaced by younger, parental favoritism warping sibling relationships, and former slaves repeatedly longing for the comfort of their predictable slave lives.

What hath Cheuse wrought? A one-woman show with one character playing many parts? A prose epic of the American Dream corrupted by some kind of insidious moral disease? A portrait of the archetypal Jewish grandmother?  Prayers for the Living reminds me of Frank Norris’s McTeague, Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (especially the portrait of the hero’s mother and the irony of the title), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Allan Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” (don’t ask me why), and Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep.

It also reminds me of Molly Goldberg, Gertrude Berg’s iconic character who embodied the Jewish-American quest for and realization of upward mobility. Not only the “yoo-hoo,” but also the worship of family.

I expect a long life for this book, though not necessarily an explosion to the top of the best seller lists. It is made of sturdy stuff, esthetically and imaginatively. It requires a patient reader, and it pours abundant riches on such a reader. It may very well take its place among the classic novels of the Jewish American experience.

This review appears in the June 2015 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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Set in Southwest Florida, Harry Brock Mystery rises above the crowd

An Anecdotal Death, by Kinley Roby. Five Star Publishing. 310 pages. Hardcover $25.95.

The tenth “Harry Brock Mystery” finds the game warden turned detective continuing to ply his trade in and near the Southwest Florida town of Avola. The place names Tequesta County and Avola allow Mr. Roby some imaginative space; many readers will quickly identify the setting’s originals as Collier County and Naples. More important than this identification is Mr. Roby’s worshipful perspective on the natural beauty and vulnerability of a patch of Florida wilderness that seems to be receding as the burgeoning town advances. Harry Brock works in both worlds, but he makes his home in a remote, simple dwelling on the edge of the Everglades.  AnAnecdotalDeathFront

The beautiful and wealthy Meredith Winters has summoned Harry to discover whether or not her missing husband, Amos Lansbury, is alive or dead. While the Coast Guard had rendered the verdict that Lansbury had died in a diving accident during a fishing expedition with several friends, no corpse has been discovered. Meredith has a feeling that Amos was murdered.

Touching base with his friends in the sheriff’s department, Harry worries about their reluctance to open an investigation. It soon becomes clear that political concerns are at work. When two more of Lansbury’s diving buddies turn up dead, it is hard to call the pattern a mere coincidence, especially since the common dominator seems to be that all worked in a very rough political campaign for a seat in the state senate. When a fourth campaign worker, not part of the diving activity, is found dead – the question becomes: who suffered so mightily from the outcome of the senate race that he (or she) has a serial score to settle.

Soon enough, Harry is nearly a victim, suggesting that the killer finds Harry too close to figuring things out.

As the investigation moves along, Harry’s personal life becomes just as much a center of interest as his professional one. He is meeting many divorced and widowed women in the course of the investigation, women connected with the victims in one way or another. Author Roby goes a bit overboard in describing each one, as well as Meredith and her secretary, as a surprisingly beautiful specimen of femininity. Or is that perception only Harry’s, a consequence of his own situation, appetites, and tendency to idealize?



Harry’s two failed marriages, and his impasse with his present love, have left him lonely and longing. Meredith throws herself at him, and there is plenty of flirtation in his sequence of investigatory interviews. Hey, whatever Harry’s got, I want some.

His emotional state is also colored by the growing fragility of his best friend and mentor, Tucker Labeau, whose residence on Bartram’s Hammock, a state nature preserve, is near Harry’s. The winding waterway named Puc Puggy Creek is for Harry something like Thoreau’s Walden Pond and its surrounding woods: a place to get back to basics. The profound friendship between the two men is based in part on their deep mutual respect for the natural world and a desire for self-reliance. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 9, 2015 Naples Florida Weekly and also the Punta Gord/Port Charlotte edition, click here: Florida Weeky – Anecdotal Death.

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BOOK BEAT 70 – Lisa Unger

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   June 5, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

Where is the borderline between popular genre fiction and “literary” novels? This is a question that comes up more and more often, as some of the most accomplished novelists writing today choose to mine popular modes. Perhaps that’s the only way of attracting an agent or publisher. In a world of market-driven publishing decisions, one has to aim at a designated section of the bookstore: science fiction, romance, thriller, etc. At the outset of his career, James Lee Burke was a well-reviewed “literary” writer whose books did not sell well. But once Burke hit upon bad-boy Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, he found himself regularly on the best-seller list. 

 Like Burke, like Geraldine Brooks in her astounding history-rooted fictions “March” and  “People of the Book,” Clearwater resident Lisa Unger has gone beyond the conventions and formulas of a popular genre and now knocks on the door of true literary artistry. “Black Out,” Unger’s third novel, is a powerful, penetrating, and truly frightening look at a compromised mind in a series of desperate situations. Her protagonist, Annie Powers, lives a fairly comfortable life with her husband and young daughter in the suburbs outside of (unnamed) Tampa. However, the substance of Annie Powers’ identity is a shell, a graft upon a young woman named Ophelia March who had suffered every kind of abuse, beginning with parental neglect and ending with forced complicity in a series of horrible crimes.

Ophelia was a prisoner to her lack of self-esteem, easy prey to manipulators and control freaks. Her escape from her dead-end life required, ironically enough, her apparent death, and her ultimate psychological freedom demands the sure knowledge that her principal jailor – the dark, mesmerizing, yet vacant young man who is also her lover – is dead.

Somehow (you’ll have to read the book for the slowly and artfully revealed details), Ophelia March disappears to be reborn as Annie. But Annie is haunted by the past, by memory gaps, by nightmares, by threats to the fragile peace of mind she has achieved. “Black Out” becomes the story of a lost identity, a divided identity, struggling to find itself and yet fearing what it will find. The reader can’t be sure, during Annie’s searing journey, if she is doomed to paranoia or if there are external forces at work to thwart her quest for wholeness.

Unger complicates her narrative and deepens the resonance of her psychological probing by interweaving several timelines. Each timeline has its own suspenseful integrity, and yet each is part of Annie/Ophelia’s horrendous, tortured path. By juxtaposing different stages of her protagonist’s real and imagined journey, Unger at once ratchets up the suspense and allows the reader to share Annie’s bewildering disorientation. Readers also recognize her determination to reclaim her life, which means to redeem Ophelia.

The supporting cast of characters is superb, including Ophelia’s inept parents; the psychotic criminal Frank Geary and his equally twisted son, Marlowe, who becomes Ophelia’s lover and controller; Annie’s husband, Gray Powers, and Gray’s manipulative father and stepmother. We meet as well Annie’s amazingly well-balance daughter, Victory; a compromised police detective; an equally compromised therapist; various thugs; and an assortment of lesser characters that are sharply individualized if only in walk-on parts.

So, we could say that “Black Out,” published by the prestigious Shaye Areheart imprint of Crown (itself a division of Random House), is an outstanding example of the psychological thriller. It’s also a white hot page-turner. However, this book is more than a thrill ride. Its feeling-tones and issues linger after the denouement, as is the case with significant literature. Its exploration of the human psyche brings insights both authentic and profound. Annie’s plight will mean something to astute readers – they will take it personally. Lisa Unger is not – or not yet – the American Dostoevsky, but she may be on her way.

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.

Note: I was pleased that the “Book Beat” column ended on this high note. Lisa Unger is among the most talented authors now writing in Florida. You can find two reviews of her more recent books on this site.

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