Tag Archives: nonfiction

Jewish Book Festival Launches Fifth Season

By Phil Jason, Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival Co-Chair

Beginning in November and concluding in March, the 2019-20 Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival will offer a dazzling series of author events, building upon the highly regarded and jam-packed 2018-19 season. The festival, a project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Naples in cooperation with the Jewish Book Council, will once again provide an outstanding contribution to the cultural life of our community. The festival will offer 12 events at several venues, covering 19 books with 22 visiting authors. 

Many of the festival events will feature two authors matched by a common theme or genre. Other events will feature a dynamic solo presenter. One event will feature a book created jointly by three talented authors, all of whom will be on hand.

Be at the Hilton Naples on Tuesday, November 5 at 7:00 p.m. for the festival’s lead-off speaker, Elyssa Friedland, who will discuss her novel The Floating Feldmans. Annette Feldman, hoping to inspire family unity, has chosen to celebrate her 70th birthday on a cruise ship with her entire family. It’s a high-risk piece of wishful thinking that troubled relationships will be healed and that proximity will foster togetherness. Pathos and humor blend as rivalries re-emerge, secrets are revealed and surprises abound. This opening event will feature a 15-minute preview of the entire festival. The event features cruise-themed fun, with prizes for the best cruise photos; book and ticket giveaways; music; drinks and light bites; and other surprises.

On Monday, November 11 at 1:00 p.m., enjoy a fiction session at the Naples Conference Center. Best-selling thriller writer Andrew Gross will talk about his terrifying work of historical fiction, The Fifth Column. A huge Nazi rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden eerily suggests Hitler’s popularity in the winter of 1939. Charles Mossman, despondent from losing his job and family, strikes out at a Nazi group. Two years later, still struggling as the threat of war grows, Mossman finds himself in a world in which Nazi spies are everywhere and his daughter Emma’s life is in jeopardy. Former New York Congressman Steve Israel’s novel, Big Guns, takes us behind the scenes into the political mayhem of the gun debate. After the mayor of a small Long Island town passes an ordinance to ban guns, he is countered by an arms manufacturer’s scheme to promote a recall election. As with Gross’s book, the possible future is horrifying and what seems absurd may come to pass.

On Monday, December 2 at 11:30 a.m., a special food-related event comes to town. Alana Newhouse’s book, The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List, becomes the inspiration for lunching at the Hilton. The James Beard Foundation nominee for innovative storytelling is informative, passionate, quirky and rich with layers of tradition and history. Which Jewish foods are the most significant, culturally and historically, to the Jewish people? Find out from this book, brimming with recipes and thoughts from a gallery of important contributors. Newhouse is the founder and editor of Tablet, the daily online magazine of Jewish news, culture and issues.

History lessons continue with the hilarious A Field Guide to the Jewish People by Dave Barry, Adam Mansbach and Alan Zweibel. Return to the Hilton on Monday, December 9 at 7:00 p.m. as the authors let us in on such critical information as why yarmulkes are round and who was the first Jewish comedian. Finally, you can learn why random Jewish holidays keep springing up at unexpected times. Floridians are long familiar with Pulitzer Prize-winning Barry. Mansbach has several bestselling titles and an award-winning novel, The End of the Jews. Zweibel, who wowed us during the 2017-2018 festival, has won five Emmy awards for his work on The Late Show with David Letterman and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

On Thursday, December 19 at 7:00 p.m., come back to the Hilton for a non-fiction duet. Hear Adam Chandler expound on America’s romance with fast food as described in Drive-Thru Dreams. It’s been at least a century since the bond between American life and fast food took hold. The food has been addictive; the operations of the major players have been questionable. Chandler reveals the industry’s history through heartfelt anecdotes and fascinating trivia. From its White Castle beginnings to its international charisma, Chandler provides food for thought and thought for food. Stephen M. Silverman, who has written 13 books, takes readers on the ultimate nostalgia trip with his captivating history of The Amusement Park. He tells the story through tracing the lives of the characters who envisioned and built these parks. Have a reading vacation with him as you visit Sea World, Coney Island, Tivoli Gardens, Six Flags, Dollywood, Riverview and all the rest. Silverman’s work appears in such topnotch periodicals as Harper’s Bazaar, The London Times and Vogue. Enhancing their presentations, both authors will use photos and graphics projected on large screens in the Hilton ballroom.


On Wednesday, January 8 at 1:00 p.m., Temple Shalom will be the venue for a historical fiction session. In Pam Jenoff’s The Lost Girls of Paris, a seemingly abandoned suitcase is found by a woman who discovers that it holds photographs of 12 different women. Through a series of setting and point-of-view shifts, Jenoff reveals that the woman who misplaced the suitcase was the leader of a cadre of women who served as secret agents during World War II. They did their work in Occupied Europe as couriers and radio operators. Several of these women are profiled in detail and their fates are revealed. Melanie Benjamin’s Mistress of the Ritz is a fictionalized representation of Blanche Auzello’s amazing life. This Jewish-American woman used forged papers to create a new life as an undercover Resistance worker. Her cover was playing hostess to the invading Germans at the legendary Ritz in Paris. Both authors have several bestselling books. 

Monday, January 13 brings the festival to the Naples Jewish Congregation for a memoir session beginning at 1:00 p.m. Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love relates the experiences of a mixed-race woman who, after 15 years of estrangement from her racist great-aunt, helps bring her home when Alzheimer’s strikes. This inspirational story probes what people inherit from their families: identity, disease and, in the best case, love. Gad holds an advanced degree in modern Jewish history from Baltimore Hebrew University. Angel Himsel’s A River Could Be a Tree tells of being the seventh of 11 children growing up in southern Indiana in an apocalyptic, doomsday Christian faith. A trip to Israel to learn what’s behind the church’s strict tenets made her question Christianity and ultimately convert to Judaism. Himsel’s writing has appeared in The New York Times and Jewish Week. Her book is listed in 23 Best New Memoirs (bookauthority.org).

On Tuesday, January 28, return to the Hilton at 7:00 p.m. for an exciting non-fiction event showcasing two entertainment media specialists. Ken Sutak’s Cinema Judaica: The Epic Cycle 1950-1972 is the stunning sequel to Cinema Judaica: The War Years 1939-1949. It is illustrated with more than 400 four-color, high-definition images of Jewish heroines, heroes and history (biblical Holocaust and Israel foun­dation) taken from the breathtaking movie poster art of the post-war cycle of spectacular, epic films. Sutak has also produced museum exhibits and is a donor of the Cinema Judaica Collection at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Elizabeth Weitzman’s Renegade Women in Film & TV blends stunning illustrations, fascinating biographical profiles and exclusive interviews with icons like Barbra Streisand, Rita Moreno and Sigourney Weaver to celebrate the accomplishments of 50 extraordinary women. More names? Lucille Ball, Oprah Winfrey and Nora Ephron. Weitzman was named one of the top film critics in New York by The Hollywood Reporter.

This year, the Evy Lipp People of the Book Cultural Event will be part of the Jewish Book Festival. Be at Temple Shalom on Wednesday, February 5 at 7:30 p.m. to hear psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb talk about her book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. Gottlieb invites us into her world as both clinician and patient, examining the truths and fictions we tell ourselves and others as we teeter on the tightrope between love and desire, meaning and mortality, guilt and redemption, terror and courage, hope and change. The book is a disarmingly funny and illuminating account of our own mysterious lives and our power to transform them. The author is well known for her many television appearances and contributions to such periodicals as The New York Times and The Atlantic’s weekly “Dear Therapist” column.

Also at Temple Shalom, on Wednesday, February 26 at 1:00 p.m., is a multifaceted program that begins with Bob Mankoff’s Have I Got a Cartoon for You. The cartoon and humor editor for Esquire and former New Yorker cartoon editor has put together his favorite Jewish cartoons. He explains the importance of the cartoon in the vibrant history of Jewish humor and plumbs Jewish thought, wisdom and shtick for humorous insights. “It might be strange,” says Mankoff, “that the People of the Book became the People of the Joke.” Jewish culture is more broadly explored in The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia by Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz and Mark Oppenheimer (Butnick and Oppenheimer will present at the festival). The authors host Tablet magazine’s wildly popular Unorthodox podcast. Their book is an edifying, entertaining and thoroughly modern introduction to Judaism, an alphabetical encyclopedia of short entries featuring an exhibition of divergent voices.

On Wednesday, March 4 at 1:00 p.m., the Jewish Congregation of Marco Island will be the venue for two Holocaust-related non-fiction books. Jack Fairweather, former Baghdad and Persian Gulf bureau chief for the Daily Telegraph and former correspondent for The Washington Post, discusses his book The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz. A Polish resistance fighter infiltrates the camp to sabotage it from within. He attempts to warn the Allies about the Nazis’ plan for a “final solution” before it’s too late. Jack J. Hersch’s Death March Escape: The Remarkable Story of a Man who Twice Escaped the Nazi Holocaust tells the story of 18-year-old Dave Hersch’s year in Mauthausen Concentration Camp, his two escapes at the end of the war, and his son Jack’s journey back to Mauthausen decades later. After a year slaving in Mauthausen’s granite mine, Dave was put on a death march. Weighing 80 pounds and suffering from several diseases, he found the strength to escape, but was quickly returned to Mauthausen. Put on another death march, he escaped again.

On Wednesday, March 11 at 7:30 p.m., Temple Shalom hosts the final session of the Jewish Book Festival. Josh Frank’s Giraffes on Horseback Salad: Salvador Dali, the Marx Brothers, and the Strangest Movie Never Made is a re-creation of the lost-and-found script for the film in the form of a graphic novel. The book honors the would-be film by reflecting its gorgeous, full-color, cinematic, surreal glory. It is the story of two unlikely friends: a Jewish superstar film icon and a Spanish painter – and the movie that could have been. This is Mr. Frank’s fourth book and second illustrated novel. The event will include a multimedia presentation with film clips and photos, live music and songs.

For a complete schedule of events, ticket information, venue locations, contributing sponsors, author bios and book synopses, visit http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. For questions and general information, call 239.263.4205 or email fedstar18@gmail.com.


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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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Phil’s Top Picks 2015

philjason loves booksThe following titles, which I prefer to list without ranking them, are my top picks among those published in 2014-2015 that I reviewed during 2015. It would be easy to find room for another 5-6 fiction titles, but I’m staying with the top 12 selected.

Some years back, the nonfiction list was limited to a “top 8” because I reviewed far fewer nonfiction titles than fiction. That circumstance changed somewhat a few years ago when it became a top 10 list, and this year’s list for nonfiction is a “top 12,” matching an expanded fiction list.

The first two lists reflect my favorites among the trade publications that I reviewed. Separately, I’ve listed 4 self-published titles that seem to me especially worthy of notice.

The order in which the titles are listed has absolutely no significance.

FICTION [trade]

Alan Cheuse, Prayers for the Living

Michael Wiley, Second Skin

Ben Nadler, The Sea Beach Line

Jonathan Papernick, The Book of Stone

Robert N. Macomber, Assassin’s Honor

Alex Kava, Silent Creed

Joseph Kanon, Leaving Berlin

Steph Post, A Tree Born Crooked

James W. Hall, The Big Finish

Lisa Unger, Crazy Love You

Robert Levy, The Glittering World

Kim Michele Richardson, Liar’s Bench


Lyn Millner, The Allure of Immortality

Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning

Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapel, Lincoln and the Jews: A History

Patrick McGilligan, Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane

Joseph Telushkin, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History

Les Standiford, Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles

Patrick Bishop, The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land

Peter Longerich, Goebbels: A Biography

Guy Lawson, Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History

Norman J. W. Goda, Barbara McDonald Stewart, Severin Hochberg and Richard Breitman, eds., To the Gates of Jerusalem: The Diaries of James G. McDonald, 1945-1947

Anne C. Heller, Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times

Heidi B. Neumark, Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith


Robert Lane, The Cardinal’s Sin

Kay Taylor Burnett, Ginger Quill

Mike Hirsh, Fly Unzipped

Barbara Marangon, Detour on an Elephant: A Year Dancing with the Greatest Show on


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New studies illuminate the years leading up to Israel’s rebirth

To the Gates of Jerusalem, James G. McDonald; Norman J. W. Goda, Barbara McDonald Stewart, Severin Hochberg, and Richard Breitman, eds. Indiana University Press. 320 pages. Hardcover $30.00.

 The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land, by Patrick Bishop. Harper, 320 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

Perhaps no one had a better ringside and inside seat at the deliberations that eventually led to the United Nation’s actions paving the way to Israel’s 1948 declaration of statehood than James G. McDonald. His dogged and dexterous work as a key member of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry was positioned between two more notable posts: the League of Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees in the 1930s and the first U. S. Ambassador to Israel from 1949-1951.   
Gates of Jerusalem

The Committee had the double charge of proposing solutions to the enormous problem of Jewish refugees at the close of WWII and to the academically separate but finally inseparable issue of the British Mandate for Palestine’s eventual resolution. McDonald’s diary entries throughout the entire work of the Committee constitute a unique primary source of information about the progress of the Committee on its way to its ultimate recommendations.

The hearings, the partisan bickering and bargaining, the drafting and redrafting, the mixture of tedium and emotionally supercharged moments are captured in a sturdy, often eloquent style filled with colorful descriptions and sharp judgments. McDonald’s comments about his fellow committee members are fully engaging, as are his descriptions of travels, accommodations, and recreations that were very much part of the experience.

McDonald’s record of abominable refugee camp conditions crosses paths with notes on concerts, museum visits, glorious sightseeing, and grand dinners without any apparent irony in the juxtapositions.

The cast of characters with whom McDonald was in touch goes far beyond the Committee members to major government officials and leaders of international associations, all of them vying for influence – especially with regard to the partition and immigration issues. Indeed, it becomes clear that Truman’s final position on a Jewish State was largely shaped by McDonald’s shrewd management of the frustrated, suspicious president.

Surrounding the diary excerpts, the editors provide – as if with a single voice – expansive contextualizing commentary, biographies of key players, and a constant stream of useful, well-turned footnotes. Unusually engaging and suspenseful for a scholarly enterprise, To the Gates of Jerusalem is a must for all university libraries and all collections focused on the history of the Middle East in the twentieth century.

This volume, published in association with The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is the third in a four-volume series of McDonald’s papers.


Most literature about the steps that took Mandate Palestine to its demise and Israel to its rise focuses on Zionist enterprise in Europe, the U.S., and Palestine. In such explorations, little attention is paid to the purpose and effectiveness of the Palestine Police Force as a primary agent of British rule. What’s fresh about Patrick Bishop’s The Reckoning is his decision to focus on the PPF. In the book, we see less of the usual gallery of Jewish heroes and more of the upper-level British governing establishment in Palestine.

Ultimately, it is an archetypal David and Goliath story. David, in this case, is the Jewish terrorist cop-killer (freedom fighter?) Avraham Stern. Goliath is Geoffrey Morton, assistant superintendent of the Palestine Police Force. Morton is a rigid law-and-order man — a purist. In his own way, Stern is also a purist, his fanaticism more obvious and much closer to madness. Recokeninghcc

Bishop judiciously takes advantage of previously published writings while introducing newly discovered sources to sharpen his portraits of the times and the personalities battling over Israel. He creates complex depictions of his combatants, taking them back to their roots and up to the moment of ultimate confrontation.

For this reader, for all of their differences, both men shared the capacity for imagining a perfected self, role-playing that self, and becoming the part they played. Zionist Stern was far more flamboyant in dress and manner, but Morton had an edge to his conventionality. Neither respected shades of grey.

Spinning around these central figures are well-managed contextualizing treatments of the overall British mandate administration and its quagmire in which the promise of the Balfour Declaration kept butting heads with the need for Arab oil. The obvious Arab alliance with Nazi Germany was something Britain allowed to be colored by its nostalgia for its disappearing colonial heritage and its long relationship with Arab populations.

Bishop is also able to give an impactful sense of the Yishuv, the organizing Jewish community in Palestine, and its love-hate relationship with Stern. Major Jewish political forces in Palestine did not buy Stern’s assertion that the British were the real enemy of Zionism. Stern saw the policy of restraint following Arab attacks — in an attempt to win sympathy and favor in British and world opinion — as foolish.

Whether called the Stern Gang or the Stern Group, the Zionist leader’s insistence on terrorist tactics made him public enemy number one; wanted posters were everywhere. It was Morton’s job to maintain law and order, to put an end to the bombings and shootings of PPF personnel for which Stern was happy to take credit.

In this tale, of which we know the outcome — Stern dies at the hands (bullets) of Morton — it is still possible to build suspense.

Bishop manages this, in part, by creating a sense of the events happening now. He provides a wealth of precise, vivid detail that bridges the distance between the 1940s and today. He emphasizes what’s at stake for each man. He alternates points of view so that the emotional story of each contestant is interrupted by that of his counterpart, allowing a suspense-building delay before returning to the other perspective.

Like any good journalist, Bishop has occasion to weigh contradictory evidence. Sometimes, this is a matter of evaluating written or recorded testimony. How do you measure a statement from many decades back against a more recent one? What does “consider the source” really mean?

Case in point: Just what did happen in the final minutes of Stern’s life? Did Morton shoot him in cold blood? Did he shoot him to prevent Stern from escaping? Did Stern resist arrest in order to die a martyr?

Witness memories and testimonies vary. With Bishop’s guidance, we test the logic of the statements in terms of other things we know about the conditions and the actors. We wonder about motives for a suspect action detail and about information withheld. Sifting through such variations and lacunae has its own strong attraction and suspense.

Morton had a much longer life than did the man he shot. In following Morton’s diminished career and considering his way of dealing with his shrinking importance, Bishop suggests a kind of posthumous victory for Stern. In fact, it did not take long for Stern’s position to gain strength after his death, leading to the Mandate’s end in 1948. In 1978, an Israeli postage stamp was issued in Stern’s honor. Three years later, a town was named after him.

Patrick Bishop has given us a sturdy, lucid, and highly colorful look at the no-win situation of British governance during the closing years of the Palestine Mandate. His book reads like a thriller, with the added attraction of providing a compelling account of how history unfolds and memory is shaped.

These reviews were first published separately in (respectively) Jewish Book World Summer 2015, Vol. 33 no. 2 and Washington Independent Review of Books (posted January 29, 2015). Reprinted by permission. First published together in the July-August 2015 issue of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County) and the July 2015 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota Manatee).


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An exciting account of an astounding engineering achievement

“Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles,” by Les Standiford. Ecco. 336 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

WaterAngelshccCan statistics be exciting? In the case of Les Standiford’s energetic presentation of this enormous undertaking, the quantitative facts are essential and astounding. The goal was simple: to find a way for a small desert town to flourish. The lack of an adequate water supply circumscribed that possibility. William Mulholland had the vision, a vision many doubted and quite a few mocked.



He designed an aqueduct system to bring copious amounts of fresh water from 223 miles away via the power of gravity. Through landscapes often beautiful, but remote and stubbornly resistant to conventional reshaping methods, crews working under Mulholland’s leadership reshaped the flow of rivers, built conduits above and below ground, and established a network of dams incrementally taking the water from higher to lower levels.

Before the aqueduct could be built, an infrastructure for transportation; electricity; and the housing, nourishment, and medical care for countless workers was needed. Much of this construction was through a mountainous region, and unique equipment had to be invented and fashioned to solve engineering problems never before faced.

William Mulholland, a self-taught Irish immigrant, was up to the task that took six years and cost $23 million dollars. How did the fellow find himself in the position to do this job? To what extent did his colossal, confident, and forthright personality predict the course and eventual outcome of this venture? These are among the questions that Les Standiford answers in a book that is at once biography, history, and science.

Such projects need to be sold. Where does the money come from? What vested interests have to be satisfied? What kind of water and property rights need to be obtained? Mr. Standiford clarifies the economic and political issues, which are also enormous in scale. Indeed, often these issues threatened to cripple the endeavor.

Such gigantic undertakings are a bet on the future. For Los Angelinos, the bet paid off big – if you think immensity is desirable. Fresh water became more plentiful and less expensive, making all kinds of expansion possible. Confidence in the future of Los Angeles brought plenty of investment capital. Transforming waterpower into electric power helped to sell and sustain the aqueduct system.

Though people in the northern communities affected by the aqueduct construction often complained about the project’s negative impact on their property values, it is likely that some of those communities gained substantial benefits. The project, and the enhanced water and electric power system, was and is an employer. Mr. Standiford provides a fine analysis of the pros and cons, sorting out the claims, the facts, and the rumors. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 1, 2015 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 2 Naples, and Bonita Springs editions, click here Florida Weekly – Water to the Angels

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Interview with Yossi Klein Halevi

Yossi Klein Halevi’s first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, was first published in 1995 and was reprinted in fall 2014. At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land appeared in 2001. His latest book, Like Dreamers: The Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, won the Jewish Book Council’s 2013 Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award and was released in paperback in fall 2014. Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Philip K. Jason recently spoke with Yossi about his writing and his current project.

Philip K. Jason: In the course of your research and interviews for Like Dreamers, what were your most surprising discoveries?

Yossi Klein Halevi: I was constantly amazed at the intensity of life in Israel, from the very founding of the state. I kept wondering how one small country could contain so much history. One of the characters in the book, Arik Achmon, participated in every one of Israel’s wars, beginning in 1948. Where else does life make such demands on the citizens of a nation? Sometimes it seemed to me as if we were trying to compensate for centuries of Jewish life without sovereignty by cramming as much experience into our national life as possible.

I was struck too by the manic depressive nature of the Israeli experience. In 1967 we were euphoric with victory; in 1973, only six years later, we were in despair. And yet, militarily at least, the Yom Kippur War was in some senses more impressive than the Six Day War.

One pattern emerged in the post-67 story of Israel that has particular relevance today, and that is this: When Israelis feel that the international community is against them, they retreat into hardline positions. When they feel more accepted, they are ready to take risks for peace. The Oslo process was launched in an atmosphere of growing acceptance of Israel, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War. By contrast, the settlement movement became mainstream in the weeks following the 1975 UN Zionism-Racism resolution. Israelis pushed back by embracing the settlers.

PKJ: In Like Dreamers, you position yourself as a centrist, someone who is obligated to listen to both (or all) sides – perhaps more than listen. Has this stance helped you gain you access as a journalist?

YKH: Being open to hearing opposing voices gave me emotional access – allowed me to empathize with opposing camps. I moved to Israel at the beginning of the first Lebanon War in 1982, when Israelis were literally shouting at each other on the streets. That was the first time that war had failed to unite the country – worse, the war itself was dividing us. As a new immigrant I had two choices. I could either choose a camp, or learn to listen. I chose the second option and forced myself to listen deeply to what all of Israel’s political and cultural and ethnic groups were really saying. What were the fears of left and right? The visions of Israel being expressed by secularists and religious Zionists and ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis? I not only tried to become absorbed into Israeli society, but to absorb Israel, in all its complexity, into my being. That’s how I became an Israeli.

These exchanges are just the beginning of a hefty, provocative interview that appears in full on the Jewish Book Council blog. Click here: Jewish Book Council Interview With Yossi Klein Halevi. The interview also appears in Jewish Book World, Spring 2015, Vol. 33 no. 1. It was republished, with permission in the May 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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A Spellbinding Investigation of a Terrorist Act, Its Causes, Costs, and Consequences

The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice, by Mike Kelly. Lyons Press. 320 pages. Hardcover $26.95.

When two young American Jews living in Israel, Sara Duker and Matthew Eisenfeld, boarded the Number 18 bus in Jerusalem, their immediate plans to visit Petra in Jordan disappeared. Their likely future as husband and wife vanished, as did the careers they were preparing for. Along with twenty-four other passengers, they were killed by a suicide bomber who got on this bus shortly after they did. The tragic, senseless deaths of Sara and Matthew reshaped the lives of their parents and siblings.

Loss and reshaping are central themes in journalist Mike Kelly’s brilliant telling of the short-term and longer-term story: what led to this horror, what were its consequences, what is its meaning, and what hope regarding the possibilities for peace and healing does it destroy or inspire.

Mike Kelly in Jerusalem

Mike Kelly in Jerusalem

Using his wide range of resources and interviews superbly, Mike Kelly provides us with a strong sense of what exceptional people Sara and Matthew were. Matt was taking courses at the Schechter Institute as part of his rabbinical studies. Sara was busy working in a microbiology lab and planning to do graduate studies in environmental science. They were both high-level achievers with much to contribute.

With fewer, and yet abundant resources, Kelly takes us into the actions and mind of Hassan Salameh, the bombmaker and organizer for this and other suicide bombings. Once arrested, Salameh spoke extensively and matter-of-factly about his activities, and his conversations were recorded. He wished to be sentenced to death – a rarity in Israel – but he had to accept the harsher punishment of a life sentence (technically, many many life sentences).

Salameh always claimed his motive was to thwart Israel’s occupation of Palestine, not to murder individual people. It was just their bad luck to be in the way. He believed his actions to be sanctioned by the Koran and Allah.


A major part of the book closely examines the path toward finding some kind of justice for the bereaved. This pursuit was initiated by Stephen Flatow, father of a young woman who perished in a suicide attack almost a year before the number 18 bus incident that killed Sara and Matthew. This story line covers many years, and ends with a victory of sorts in which the absent defendant – Iran – was fined an astronomical sum in a civil trial that tests a very special piece of legislation that come into being during the Clinton administration.

The concept: make the funders and advocates of such terrorist acts suffer financially as a way of discouraging further such acts. Provide those awarded the judgments resources to take further political action.

The problem: enforcing payment, an objective undermined by other political goals of the Clinton White House.

Sara’s mother Arline (her father had died when Sara was eleven with two younger sisters) and the Eisenfelds were already bonded. Stephen Flatow became part of their emotional family and their mentor and exemplary figure through the years of struggling to shape public opinion and government policy to bring about significant action. After Flatow’s case is successful, Arline Duker and the Eisenfelds initiate a similar one that is also successful

Kelly’s exploration of the legal personalities, especially the presiding judge and the lawyers making the cases against Iran, is finely crafted and suspenseful. So is his portrayal of the emotional roller coaster that the plaintiffs endure.

It is inevitable that readers will encounter famous names in a book that uses its key figures to represent important historical dynamics on the bumpy road toward possible peace. Sketches of Yassar Arafat and other Palestinian leaders, Hassan Salameh’s collaborators, and several high profile Israeli leaders amplify the Bus 18 story. So do the appearances of U. S. government leaders like Senator Frank Lautenberg and multi-task upper echelon Clinton official Stuart Eizenstat.

Mike Kelly’s skill, besides digging into so much material and amplifying our knowledge base through his own interviews, is in mastering it all and weaving such a tight fabric of understanding elegantly expressed. One could say that this is just a great book about a suicide bombing. Or one could say this a great book about everything that is touched by a suicide bombing – by all the suicide bombings.

This review appears in the January 2015 issue of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte County), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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Phil’s 2014 Top Picks

philjason loves booksThe following titles, which I prefer to list without ranking them, are my top picks among those published in 2013-2014 that I reviewed during 2014. It would be easy to find room for another 5-6 fiction titles, but I’m staying with the top ten selected.

The first three lists (Young Adult now listed as separate category for the first time) reflect my favorites among the trade publications that I reviewed. Separately, I’ve listed four self-published titles that seem to me especially worthy of notice.

FICTION [trade]

Julia Dahl, Invisible City

Lisa Unger, In the Blood

Randy Wayne White, Haunted

Zachary Lazar, I Pity the Poor Immigrant

James Lilliefors, The Psalmist

Boris Fishman, A Replacement Life

Leonard Rosen, The Tenth Witness

Michael Lister, Rivers to Blood

Beverle Graves Myers, Whispers of Vivaldi

Michael Wiley, Blue Avenue


YA FICTION  [trade]

Gwendolyn Heasley, Don’t Call Me Baby

Amber Hart, Before You

Rick Yancey, The Infinite Sea



James Webb, I Heard My Country Calling

Artis Henderson, Unremarried Widow

Libby Garland, After They Closed the Gates

Neville Williams, Sun Power

Andrew Furman, Bitten: My Unexpected Love Affair with Florida

Natan Ophir, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy

Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure

Joshua Muravchik, Making David into Goliath

Anais Nin, Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anais Nin, 1939-1947. Ed. Paul Herron



Robert J. Taylor. Hardship Post

Robert Lane, The Second Letter

Gidi Grinstein, Flexigidity

Hélène Gaillet de Neergaard, I Was a War Child

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Phil’s 2012 Top Picks


The following titles, which I prefer to list without ranking them, are my top picks among those published in 2011-2012 that I reviewed during 2012. It would be easy to find room for another 5-6 fiction titles, like James W. Hall’s Dead Last and Paul Goldstein’s legal thriller Havana Requiem, but I’m staying with the top ten selected.

Because I review fewer nonfiction titles than fiction, I’ve made this list a “top 8.”

Finally, the first two lists reflect my favorites among the trade publications that I reviewed. Separately, I’ve listed 3 self-published titles that seem to me especially worthy of notice.

FICTION [trade]

Julianna Baggot,  Pure

James Lilliefors, Viral

Lisa Unger, Heartbroken

Irvin D. Yalom, The Spinoza Problem

Moira Crone, The Not Yet

Roberto Ampuero, The Neruda Case [first English publication]

Randy Wayne White, Gone

Amy Hill Hearth, Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society

Joanna Campbell Slan, Death of a Schoolgirl

Henning Mankell,  The Shadow Girls  [first English publication]


Kelle Hampton, Bloom

James W. Hall, Hit Lit

Les Standiford, Desperate Sons

Matti Friedman, The Aleppo Codex

Tonya Clayton, How to Read a Florida Gulf Coast Beach

Madeleine Albright, Prague Winter

Michael Grunwald, The New New Deal

Ellen Cassedy, We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust


Allen Malnak, Hitler’s Silver Box

Noha Shaath Ismail, East of the Sun: A Memoir

Leah Griffith, Cosette’s Tribe

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Belleville’s ode to Florida’s threatened wilderness

“Salvaging the Real Florida: Lost and Found in the State of Dreams,” by Bill Belleville. University Press of Florida. 240 pages. $24.95.

People who spend their lives marching in the parade of what we call progress need passionate artists like Bill Belleville to help us see – or see again – the natural world. Not just see it, but feel and respect it. Not just that, but blend into it, merge our souls into a wilderness landscape and match our heartbeats to the rhythms of flowing waters, birdcalls, and swaying branches. 

Mr. Belleville is a cautiously hopeful elegist and a word wizard. In his earlier books and in the 47 brief essays – most of them meditative narratives – that comprise “Salvaging,” he presents himself as a committed seeker of whatever he can learn about his own place in the world of living things, and the place of each in the whole. Most often, the whole is the microcosm known as Florida, or a region of Florida. It can just as well be a nature preserve, a fishing camp, a cave through which spring waters burst, or his semi-wild back yard in Sanford, Florida.

One theme is loss: how mismanagement, ignorance, and abuse of the land and its creatures threaten our humanity on several levels.  Bill Belleville’s elegy is rich in reminders of how immense the value is of what we allow to be destroyed.

Because we don’t really know what we are losing, Bill Belleville takes the time to educate us. However, his exposition is not primarily technical, but rather a blend of science and poetry. He respects myth, and he conveys it. He teases us into caring about the apple snail and the sand dollar. For Mr. Belleville, ecology is spiritual as well as material. To read him best, read your favorite passages aloud so that your lips join in prayers of praise for the created world and prayers for the wisdom and fortitude to love it actively.

Bill Belleville

Mr. Belleville writes, “We’ve compromised the river’s watershed with hard surfaces, and by doing so, have kept rainfall from soaking into the ground – and being absorbed by natural wetlands. Then, when things go terribly wrong, we blame nature, since blaming ourselves for our lack of wisdom is simply not an option.” Can we reverse flood-causing processes like this one?

To enjoy the full text of this review as it appears in the June 16, 2011 Naples Florida Weekly and the Fort Myers edition for June 15, click here: Florida Weekly – Bill Belleville pdf

See also the third item in this 3-part review essay: https://philjason.wordpress.com/2007/04/25/book-beat-41-three-best-bets/

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