Tag Archives: short stories

It’s a little bit Brooklyn, a little bit Lower East Side

L’Chaim and Lamentations: Stories by Craig Darch. NewSouth Books. 160 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of writing about Richard Slotkin’s short story collection titled Greenhorns. I take the same pleasure in sharing Craig Darch’s somewhat similar collection. Darch, a professor at Auburn University, has crafted a compact, resonant memorial to the Jewish ethos as it existed in New York City for many decades.

Though there are few time markers, the ambiance seems to suggest the 1920s through the 1950s. These decades have faded away, with their various tones of hope and disappointment. They are almost forgotten, but the author brings them back through the sensibilities of people who themselves are on a point of balance between forgetting and remembering – as well as being forgotten.

Many live lonely lives, many have fallen upon – or always had – hard times. Many have a special kind of dignity and even courage. Darch’s nostalgic heart has made their ordinariness extraordinary.

These are people surviving inside their loneliness. The world they once fully inhabited has changed around them. The corner delicatessens run by hardworking neighbor- owners have vanished or been transformed.

Darch’s seven stories are seven gems.

Craig Darch

“Sadie’s Prayer” offers two aged roommates, Sadie and Esther. They are a kind of odd couple. Esther’s temperament demands neatness and convention. She can’t understand why the good lord has given her such an annoying partner and how the Jewish housing agency brought them together. Esther cannot adjust to Sadie’ smoking, to her Communist leanings, to her messiness. Esther looks backward; her memories of life with her deceased husband are a kind of anchor. She seems to talk to him, and Sadie is crass enough to point out that “Max is reading the newspaper and having his bagels someplace else this morning.”

Esther voices her wish that she had perished with her husband, and Sadie chides her for her silliness.

Knowing that they are each guilty of making each other’s lives much more miserable than they need to be, they agree – at Sadie’s suggestion – that the each treat the other with civility. Fat chance of that happening – at least not yet. They are wired differently and most likely it is too late for them to change.

While the women’s bickering dialogue is quite humorous, and perhaps will seem familiar to many readers. We all know people like this. They are our relatives, if not necessarily our friends.

They compete about who suffers the most, who prays the most, and who taste is superior.

In a sense, one can’t live without the other, and the conclusion makes clear that Sadie knows it and knows that even in the afterlife, Esther will need a friend like Sadie.

In “Kaddish for Two” we enter the lives of Zev Abramovitch and his thirty-three-year old unmarried son, Aharon. For Zev, it’s very important that his son continue the family line and experience its joys in the traditional manner. Readers will suspect the reason for Aharon’s resistance to such conversations long before Aharon ends the useless fencing back and forth by announcing that he is gay. Darch’s credible and powerful handling of this situation, the horrors of moral blindness and disappointment that overwhelm both men, is stunning. The premise, that a Jewish man needs a son to guarantee that there is someone to say Kaddish for him, resonates both in comfortable and uncomfortable ways.

“Who’s the Old Crone” raises the issue of Jewish continuity in a different way. Three old friends are chatting and noshing at a restaurant, Schwartzman’s Nosh, run by Sybil. They see a woman they haven’t seen there before who looks down and out. She seems at once pitiful and imposing. But who are they to judge? They are the remnants of the Romanian synagogue “bankrupt and boarded up years ago.”

Indeed, they are its last rabbi, last sexton, and last cantor. They are learned and somewhat cantankerous. The sexton, Eisenberg, “could kvetch fluently in seven languages.” Nachman, the cantor, who had lost his once-glorious voice, magically gets it back. Rabbi Fiddleman holds the group together. They have nothing to do except appraise the dishwasher and overhear a (beautifully rendered) mother-daughter confrontation.

An incident in the Nosh leads the three men, each in his own way, to contemplate death. The rabbi explains that “the Torah makes no definitive statement about an afterlife.” A year passes, and they are still talking about the old crone and muttering about how after coming to Schwartzman’s for ten years, there is “never a waitress when you need one.”

These tales, and their four companions, are sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes consoling, always luminously true.

This review appears in the January 2020 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee)

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

“Greenhorns,” by Richard Slotkin

Leapfrog Press. 186 pages. Trade Paperback $16.95.

The six sto­ries in this col­lec­tion explore the green­horn expe­ri­ence in the con­text of Jew­ish immi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States, par­tic­u­lar­ly to New York City, from the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry through the ear­ly years of the Great Depres­sion. Slotkin has based his tales on inter­views he held with fam­i­ly mem­bers who came to the Unit­ed States from Rus­sia and Poland between 1900 and 1921.

Through his fic­tion­al retellings, Slotkin demon­strates how his­tor­i­cal mark­ers shaped and defined the par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence of immi­grants. In 1905, Jews escaped the lat­est out­bursts of vio­lent anti­semitism in Rus­sia and Poland, and made their way to what many believed would be the promised land. The end of World War II brought aware­ness of the Holo­caust, which many new immi­grants had man­aged to escape. The found­ing of the mod­ern Jew­ish State was anoth­er mile­stone: a pin­na­cle of Jew­ish pride.

Slotkin photo by Burkhardt

Slotkin’s col­lec­tion also explores fam­i­ly dynam­ics, and the gen­er­a­tional gaps that com­pli­cate them. While young­sters often adapt and assim­i­late with ease in these sto­ries, old­er immi­grants are more like­ly to have a dif­fi­cult time, some nev­er find­ing true com­fort in the nation or neigh­bor­hood in which they now live — they nev­er stop being green­horns. One man, back in ​the oth­er side” a promi­nent wheat bro­ker, can­not recon­struct his suc­cess in his new envi­ron­ment: he has lost too much sta­tus, too much con­text for the mean­ing of his life. He becomes a recluse. Oth­ers find ways to fit in, grasp­ing when pos­si­ble the help­ing hand of a cousin already estab­lished or a friend­ly neighbor. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: Greenhorns

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

Florida: at once a real place and a state of mind

“Florida,” by Lauren Groff. Riverhead Books. 288 pages. Hardcover $27.00.

The eleven short stories in this daring, luminous book reveal, in various and complex ways, the truth of the poetic adage in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” We carry our minds with us, wherever we reside. We can’t get away from who we are. Forget about blaming your troubles on your environment.

Lauren Groff photo by Kristin Kozelsky

The narrators in most of these stories, especially the recurring one with two small sons and only the pronoun “she” for a name, suffer from being too self-aware. They have expectations of themselves that sometimes seem imprisoning. They have intellectual and creative tools that are burdensome. They can wear their friends out by being unintentionally demanding.

They are lonely, and they are worthy.

If you are a person who often feeling threatened, imagine how much additional threat you would feel living in a place brimming with snakes and alligators, real and metaphorical sinkholes, and violent storms. A place like Florida.

Through the book, Ms. Groff builds conundrums of inner and outer weather, interweaving landscapes with emotional states. 

Ms. Groff understands North Florida communities like a native. She is alert to neighborhood changes – sometimes gentrification, sometimes something worse. The unnamed judgmental character who narrates the first story, “Ghosts and Empires,” is an evening walker who enjoys scrutinizing those she meets or merely sees or expects to see along the way. She measures her distance from those she knows and those who remain strangers, and she measures how quickly time is passing her by.

In another story, the author focuses on a young man, the son of a herpetologist, who has “learned how to keep a calm heart when touching fanged things.” Also, how to survive the distance between his mother’s and his father’s polar sensibilities.

Ms. Groff can pinpoint the loneliness and sense of isolation that breeds within members of the same families. And she is alert—makes readers alert – to such things as “how the screens at night pulsed with the tender bellies of lizards.” She knows how houses express themselves. Her imagery is consistently fresh, vivid, and unexpected. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 25, 2019 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions of Florida Weekly, and the May 1 Fort Myers and May 2 Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Florida 

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Florida Authors

Follow the beat of off-beat short stories that surprise

Melanie to the Rescue and Other Unlikely Tales, by Carol June Stover. Book-broker Publishers of Florida. 121 pages. Kindle ebook $4.99.

Carol June Stover shows a miniaturist’s fine touch in this collection of intriguing, gem-like stories. The world of each story is tightly circumscribed, and most are focused on a single character. The various settings are handled with economy: just enough detail to conjure a neighborhood and a prevailing atmosphere. Additional characters have walk-on parts, but they often signal change – or the hope for change – in the central character’s life.

In the title story, readers discover that the author of the popular Melanie Marche novels, Lorraine Woodruff, is not at all like the savvy, confident, and gorgeous fashion model she has invented. Indeed, Lorraine aspires to be like Melanie, but can’t quite figure how to have the kind of success that her creation enjoys. Finally, Lorraine decides to let Melanie, who is something of a tease, be her guide. She takes tentative steps toward creating a new, edgier Lorraine.

In another tale, Dr. Shepard, a highly acclaimed physician nearing retirement, is hoping that his wife will not insist on holding the big retirement party she has been planning. A follow-up appointment from his most recent, perhaps final, patient reminds the doctor of her near-catastrophe because of a failure with the resuscitator pump. He learns that the patient had an out-of-body or near-death experience. Shepard is silently dismissive of his patient’s story. What happens on his way to meet his wife at an expensive hotel restaurant will leave readers’ heads spinning.

Stover

Many of the stories explore relationships – or the lack thereof. Several lead characters suffer from loneliness; others from a sense of unworthiness. When companionship is sought, it may or may not be achieved. One narrating character has a lazy sister. The women’s mother is always making excuses for Wanda’s seeming reluctance to help out or to interact in any normal way. When the roots of Wanda’s self-isolation and selfishness are revealed, older sister Mary Ann is in for a big surprise. . ..

To read the entire review, as it appears in the February 27, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the February 28 edition of the Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Melanie to the Rescue

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Florida Authors

“On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash”

Ellen Cassedy, trans. Northern Illinois University Press. 192 pages. Trade Paperback $16.95.

Review by Philip K. Jason

The sixteen stories in this collection, carefully selected and translated from Yenta Mash’s life’s work in Yiddish, form a series of quiet explosions. Though they sometimes cry out, the voices are strangely subdued, recording as they do life behind the Iron Curtain in the decades of Soviet strangulation of subject peoples. Communities in Bessarabia, Moldova, and Siberia were at best unofficial prisons for aspiring souls and curious minds and at worst, official ones. For the surprisingly large, if relatively unknown, Jewish communities, the burdens included that of anti-Semitism.

For some, including Mash, immigration to Israel during and after the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the 1970s was a mixed blessing. There was so much that was unfamiliar, so much to get used to. More importantly, there was so much to remember before the memories would vanish.

In one story in this collection, Mash takes us into the lives of two young women, foresters working long hours for a bare subsistence. They cut down trees, prepare the trunks and branches for usable lumber, and carry them to be examined by their boss. The narrator is dependent on her more skillful coworker, Riva, without whom she would be lost. It’s the dead of winter, and there is no expectation of respite from the frozen misery of their lives. These intimates are the family breadwinners. From time to time, they make one another laugh. Though their relationship turns sour in later years, readers are left with their strength and indomitable spirits. What’s enchanting in this story and others is the comfortable way in which the characters carry their Jewish selves—with a mixture of knowledge and habit that sometimes seems more nourishing than any other part of their existence. . . .

To see the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here: On the Landing

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Florida Authors

Startling tales of America’s Cold War sailors revealed

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.

The lives of shipboard sailors on patrol in potentially dangerous parts of the world are lives of confinement and compression. Their tasks as communications experts or engineers or electricians are tedious and tense. They perform maintenance, make repairs when necessary, and prepare to meet emergencies. A ship is a dangerous place even when not under fire. So many things can go disastrously wrong. Such things happen in Jeffery Hess’s stories.

These sailors are confined spatially, socially, and often spiritually. They depend on one another and yet can learn to both love and hate their workmates. The compression demands release: port days with a bit of time off, prostitutes, and all the drugs and alcohol one can manage or mismanage.

Hess

Mr. Hess begins with an early marker of the background history, a story set in 1949 near the outset of the Cold War. He moves us forward through the following decades, beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis, and up to the Reagan presidency’s achievement. He takes us to Lebanon, Turkey, Manila, Naples, Guam, and other places where a U. S. fighting ship might go – or stop.

Through flashbacks and other devices, the author sets these mostly young men into their larger lives: the kind of towns and families they come from, the marriages they have entered and exited, their relationships with the officer class that they serve under, race relationships, the ambitions they’ve put on hold, the children they hardly know, the injuries and other physical hardships that have aged them, and the inertia – or is it momentum? – that keeps them going. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 9, 2017 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 10 issue of the Naples, Bonita Springs, and Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Cold Water Canoe Club

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Florida Authors

“Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories,” by Blume Lempel

Translated by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub.  Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press. 240 pages. Hardcover $26.95; Trade paperback $16.95.

These spare, skillful tales are both introspective and illuminating.

oedipus-coverDoes it make sense to talk about a writer’s voice when responding to a translated work? In the case of Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, a book with two translators, a distinctive English voice — a blend of attitudes, mannerisms, and rhythms — rises off the page. In what ways is it true to the Yiddish original? This reviewer will never know. Still, the voice tests boundaries between the private and the public self, intimacy and isolation, confidence and insecurity.

Presented as works of fiction, these stories — many of them brief vignettes — have the ring and the stance of polished journal entries or memoir. These memories, meditations, and musings, which inhabit the same settings that author Blume Lempel lived in or visited, are at once introspective and filled with sensory detail. The searching soul often moves by association, turning many corners.

A good many of these pieces are inner portraits of the narrator, just as many are the narrator’s exploration of one other character — a person who is important to her life and to her understanding of it.

Lempel moves us back and forth among the sights, sites, and sounds of Jewish Poland, intriguing Paris, multilingual Brooklyn, with its heavily Jewish neighborhoods, Long Island’s Long Beach, and a handful of other places. Different phases of the narrator’s life — childhood, young womanhood, motherhood, spousal dynamics — are braided into each other beyond the simple, single thread of neat chronology.  2-lempel_blume-older

Lempel’s story titles, as translated, most often contain the name of a character: “Pachysandra,” “My Friend Ben,” “Yosele,” “Cousin Claude,” and “The Bag Lady of Seventh Avenue” are among the tales bearing such sparse, straightforward titles. Though the stories usually show the title characters in relationships (and Lempel has a fine ear for creating compelling dialogue), a recurrent sense of isolation nonetheless permeates the collection.

It springs out vividly in “The Little Red Umbrella,” when Janet Silver, out on a blind date, misplaces the umbrella that was meant to identify her for the poet she intended to meet. Janet seeks a relationship, though she has reveled in her independence. Suddenly, she is overwhelmed by the realization that freedom does not have the meaning it had in her younger days: “Now it meant free to bang her head against the wall and not even hear an echo.”

In “Neighbors over the Fence,” Jewish Betty tells the time by noting the routines of her neighbor, Mrs. Zagretti, an Italian widow. The women bond over their appreciation of horticulture. Mrs. Zagretti becomes a mentor to Betty, whom she considers a much better companion than her son’s wife, even though Mrs. Zagretti has long ignored her Jewish neighbor.

Feeling isolated from her son and daughter-in-law, she leans on this unexpected connection with Betty. She even confides her desperation: “Can you imagine feeling close to a fly?” She confesses that a fly’s death has shaken her: “I felt as if I’d become a widow for the second time.”

Here and elsewhere, Lempel connects this sense of aloneness to the Jewish condition. . . .

To read the entire review, click here: Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories | Washington Independent Review of Books

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

Exploring Sholem Aleichem’s double life as author and character

The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevya,  by Jeremy Dauber. Shocken/Nextbook. 480 pages. $28.95.

Sholem Aleichem rose to prominence in his lifetime, but as biographer Jeremy Dauber is at great pains to demonstrate, he rose to even greater fame in the many decades that followed his death. This phenomenon was due in large part to the several serviceable collections of his stories in English translation, to the revivals of his plays, and, eventually, to the grand Broadway and cinematic renderings of the interplay among Tevye the milkman, his wife and (especially) his children. The success of “Fiddler on the Roof” eventually opened the door to serious assessments of Sholem Aleichem’s substantial, foundational achievements.  DauberSHOLEMALEICHEM

To underscore the theatrical – or is it the dramatic? – nature of Sholem Aleichem’s life and career, both during and after the writer’s lifetime, Dauber harnesses his colorful, fact-filled chapters into the structure of a five-act play. Not only is this teeming full-length exploration of Sholem Aleichem’s person-hood and achievement presented as both melodrama and tragicomedy, it is also framed by an “Overture: Setting the Scene” and a lengthy epilogue in 10 brief scenes that follow the posthumous life, or “afterlife,” of the subject’s works.

Dauber doesn’t miss a chance to extend his theatrical motif. Each chapter captures the phrasing of Victorian episodic fiction and perhaps a bit of silent movie placard writing. For example, Chapter 13 is headed “In Which Our Hero Reads the Newspapers in Yiddish and Becomes a Media Star (1899-1903).” All the other chapters also begin with “In Which Our Hero …”

Jeremy Dauber

Jeremy Dauber

These trappings, at once charming and humorous, are also thematic. Dauber is concerned with art and artifice, and he underscores the various ways in which Sholem Aleichem’s life and art interact. In the beginning, there was the self-creation: A man named Sholem Rabinovich (1859-1916) turned himself into an author-character named Sholem Aleichem. . . .

To see the full review, which is considerably longer than this excerpt, as posted November 8, 2013 in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem

This review is reprinted in the February 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).

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

Parables for the 21st Century: Nathan Englander’s Short Story Magic

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander. Vintage. 240 pages. $15.00 trade paperback.

In the title story of this virtuoso collection, two fortyish couples come together for a kind of reunion. The wives grew up together in Forest Hills and went to Modern Orthodox schools for young women. Debbie married the narrator, who dragged her toward secularism and South Florida. Lauren (now Shoshana) married Mark (now Yerucham), and that couple has for twenty years lived in a Hassidic community in Israel. They have ten daughters; the Floridians, at whose home the meeting takes place, have one teenage son – Trevor.  Englander Cover

The brilliant dialogue spins out like a culture war, full of innuendo and one-upmanship about secular versus religious, American Jews versus Israelis. Each couple defends its own choices. Somewhat guarded at first, these extremely recognizable characters are reduced (or elevated) to a hilarious series of revelations once they begin sharing Trevor’s marijuana stash.

Much of the dialogue turns on Debbie’s obsession with the Holocaust and the question of a Jewish identity distinct from that catastrophic event.  Slowly, that edgy conversation unpacks the full meaning of the Englander’s peculiar title.

“Sister Hills,” is a long, complex fable that begins in 1973. It presents the relationship between the wives of two community-founding families settled on nearby hilltops in Samaria as the Yom Kippur War breaks out. Rena has three sons who follow their summoned father in case they can help the combat effort. Rena’s superstitious neighbor, Yehudit, rushes over with her infant daughter who is running an extremely high fever. She urges Rena to sign a contract transferring the child to Rena, releasing the girl from any harm from Yehudit’s sins that might befall her.

Rena signs, but also agrees to let Yehudit continue to raise the child. In time, Rena decides to enforce the contract as a kind of compensation for the loss of her husband and two of her three sons to war (the third is lost in an auto accident).

Englander connects Yehudit’s sense of sinfulness and her ailing child to the issue of Israel’s legitimacy in the disputed territories. Is this land a true homeland or a tainted region? What is the value and meaning of a contract, whether land, servitude, or a covenant between God and the Israelites? When a court of rabbis comes to settle the case of who is the true mother, they have their hands more than full with Rena’s Torah-based arguments.

The fable, with its encapsulated history this region and of the nation, is an unsettling inquiry into Israel’s soul.

Englander

Englander

Englander’s topics, tones, and techniques are spectacularly varied. In “How We Avenged the Blums,” the narrator takes a distanced, bemused look at how several Jewish boys strive to overcome their strongly engrained meekness in order to confront the Anti-Semitic bully who terrorizes them.  They learn useful lessons from a Russian immigrant and from their would-be savior, the one Jewish kid they know who has the physical prowess and know-how to take down the bully.

“Peep Show” has a nightmare premise. When Ari (now Allen) Feinberg (now Fein) scrapes his glossy, expensive shoe, his surface of success (gorgeous blond gentile wife, thriving law practice, stylish garb) is pierced. He crosses a threshold and is drawn into a peep show that first reveals his sexual hunger and lack of control and then reveals – through the whacky appearance of three rabbis from his religious school days – his mixture of guilt and resentment stemming from the black and white moral world he had left behind for a comfortable secular relativism.  Finally, Allen becomes the object of desire in the fantasy peep show cubicle.

“Everything I Know about My Family on My Mother’s Side,” “Camp Sundown,” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows” can each provoke endless discussion. Highly original and yet eerily familiar, each balances the particularity of Jewish experience with the universal connections that have earned Nathan Englander, at forty-three, a seat the table of major contemporary American literary figures. 

For all the celebrity he has attained, Englander still knows, or remembers, the inevitable frustration of finding an audience. In “The Reader,” perhaps the least Jewish-themed story in the collection, the unnamed author is on one of those book tours when audience’s are slim to nonexistent – a situation that threatens his very reality. The overwhelming need to reach others is something that writers like Englander are born with. A handful of them, like this exquisitely talented and disciplined man, succeed.

This review appears in the September 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).

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes