Thursday, December 27, 2012

Unholyland: A Novel in Verse: a Review

Unholyland, a Novel in Verse: a Review

Every now and then, a reader finds an author who consciously strives to write A Novel of Great Significance. When a writer makes that powerful and audacious claim, a deep and powerful matrix of setting, time, mood, and human verity must be found within the pages. It doesn’t hurt to unearth a nearly unused literary structure, one which was born (and perhaps died) in the arms of Pushkin. Nor does it hurt the author to have functioned at the top level of his art for over two decades. . Unholyland, by Aidan Andrew Dun, is an epic poem made up of approximately 250 sonnets of a form unused since Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Speaking with a level of lyricism that bears comparison to Onegin, Unholyland  depicts forbidden love and a millennium-old legacy against the backdrop of one of the most intractable scenarios in human history, the Israel-Palestine conundrum.

For those who have encountered Onegin mainly through Tchaikovsky’s eponymous opera, a brief review of plot might serve. Set in Tsarist Russia, the archetypal novel in verse follows the dissolute title character, a wealthy twentysomething heritor of the Russian equivalent of a grand Southern plantation, where slaves are replaced with serfs. Onegin befriends a poet, Lensky, not yet twenty, who links Onegin to two sisters, one of whom falls desperately in love with Onegin, but whose passions are rebuffed coldly. Onegin and Lensky stumble over each other’s intentions at a country ball that parodies the social schedules of the idle Russian rich. Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel. Through further mishap, the duel comes off, and Onegin slays Lensky.
Onegin drifts around the world, never able to overcome his guilt. He winds up in Moscow, where he encounters the younger sister. She is now married to an elderly prince.Onegin tries to undo what he had done by spurning her years ago. The girl, now a woman even more beautiful than she had been as a youth, now spurns Onegin to remain true to her husband, while blaming him for the loss of their one opportunity.
Mr. Dun assures me that the saga of Unholyland continues, so that full plot comparisons are premature. To understand what Dun is attempting, it is important to see why Onegin towers over much of nineteenth-century literature, and why the setting of Unholyland provides an epochal parallel.
The character of Onegin represents the beginning of the end of the idle rich. The historical fact of the French Revolution and the upheavals in Europe that paused bloodily in 1848 certainly impacted all the nineteenth century novelists, especially the Russians (think Chekhov and his play The Cherry Orchard). Onegin’s desolation at the end of the novel represents the inherent purposelessness of wealth qua wealth, and Lensky’s martyrdom strikes me as the temporary subjugation of the will of the people that Karl Marx was already writing about. The girl, who we see later as a fully developed woman Tatyana, represents the truth and fidelity of the common man – a prototype for Marxian thought that would define the twentieth century.
Dun’s leading character, Moshe Rambam is the greightieth-great-grandson of the leading rabbi Rav Moshe Ben Maimon, known to history as Maimonides. There is no more famous figure in Jewish history than Maimonides, so the reader is warned against projecting any preconceived notions on his descendant. Moshe (usually called Moss in the novel) is a dreadlocked, pot-smoking, slingshot-rapping youth, about to be forced into his obligatory two years of military service. He crosses effortlessly into Palestinian youth culture, where oppression and poverty are the métier. This creates a paradox that seems more befitting of Lensky in the Russian novel-in-verse than of Onegin, but Dun’s vision of Israel reveals itself not as an old, crumbling estate that will fall of its own weight, but rather, an oppressor that will be just as liberated as the oppressed when the state of oppression ends.  Rambam’s slightly older Palestinian best friend Rayyan never turns against Rambam, but the tension from Rayyan’s people’s occupation by the Rambam’s people grips this reader as a second skin while reading – a shadow of foreboding. Still, the image of a scion of power reaching out and trying to blend with the powerless is almost a trope, having featured prominently since Victor Hugo’s fluid use of power and poverty in Les Misèrables.
The critical three-day period occurs on the first days of the Hebrew month of Nisan, on the Passover festival, in which Jews commemorate the Exodus from slavery to freedom. Dun leaves the Biblical reference more or less unexploited; he’s an artist, not a demagogue, but the irony is not lost on the reader. Moss, as Moshe is known colloquially throughout the book (except when he faces certain death at a Palestinian nightclub, where his fluency in Arabic and his Mediterranean features allow him to pass as Musa), is nearly killed as he crosses over to Palestine, and is rescued by Rayyan’s sister. In any other setting, and in less inspired hands, what follows would not be exceptional. Girl saves boy. Girl heals boy. Girl falls in love with other boy. First boy is set up to meet second girl. They fall in love. Will they live happily ever after?  But nothing is certain, not even love, under the shadow of occupation. I will make two further literary references, and in these two references, the detectives among you will find a spoiler. Therefore, I will not annotate these: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (cited by Moss Rambam in the text) and John Singleton’s 1991 drama Boyz in the Hood.
The structure of the sonnets that comprise this novel and Pushkin’s work is three quatrains with contrasting rhyme schemes ABAB, CCDD, EFFE, and a concluding rhymed couplet. Unlike Pushkin, who stuck strictly to iambic pentameter in Russian, Dun allows for excellent bleedthrough of the “slingshot hip-hop” resistance culture of the West Bank. Liberating the stanzas of the strict rhythmic leg-irons allows the poetry to dance when this is called for, such as in the following description of Jalila, the sixteen-year-old leader of the Slingshot Hip-Hop movement:
When I first heard her in Shatila
I realized she was a healer,
a poet and a peacemaker,
a woman and an earthshaker.
She’s what the Arab world’s waiting for…
I feel a shift from the first couplet (itself a pivot from the more classical verse that preceeds it) to the second couplet, which calls forth Jimi Hendrix to this reader. The actual raps are Dun’s imagination of the English translation over the Palestinian background music. This flexibility might have been unacceptable in Pushkin’s time, but it is mandatory in ours.
Dun ranges from the rough graphics of the above quatrain to verses that sound more like the Song of Songs, like this description of the heroine Jalila:
To some she brings velvet fruition,
to some, disastrous attrition,
the wearing down of all their dreams.
Or how about this couplet, and its simile across three thousand years:
Nazareth: Mobile phones, like ears of barley,
buzz with life in her underbelly.
I was captured by Dun’s lyricism from the first page, but never more so than at the first idyll between Moss and Jalilah. I quote the sonnet in its entirety, and an analog from the Song of Songs:
The atmospheric garden pleases;
it’s like being on another planet.
Here’s a waterfall that freezes;
here’s a fruiting pomegranate
where – through the dark – a nightingale
sang last night its lyric tale.
Ah! Here they are, sharing a joke
it seems, by a Palestinian oak.
Jalilah wears her black-fringed headshawl,
Moss has let his dreads hang loose.
Dove-calls seem to plead and seduce.
Now they wander by the waterfall
talking where a rainbow – over ferns –
makes a promise, while cool silver churns.
And Song of Songs Chapter 4: 10-17 (tr.
10: My beloved raised his voice and said to me, “Arise, my beloved, my fair one, and come away;
11: For behold, the winter has assed, the rain is over and gone.
12. The blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of singing has arrived, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
13. The fig tree has put forth its green figs, and the vines with their tiny grapes have given forth their fragrance; arise, my beloved, my fair one, and come away.
14. My dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the coverture of the steps, show me your appearance, let me hear your voice, for your voice is pleasant and your appearance is comely.
15. Seize for us the foxes, the little foxes, who destroy the vineyards, for our vineyards are with tiny grapes.”
16. My beloved is mine, and I am his, who grazes among the roses.
17. Until the sun spreads, and the shadows flee, go around; liken yourself, my beloved, to a gazelle or to a fawn of the hinds, on distant mountains.

I found that the more intense the plot became, the less tight the poetry. By Chapter 7 (out of eight), I found myself given a green light to speed through, and this disappointed me. Dun’s poetic forces surge back in time to create a dramatic climax, right when it is needed.  Even on the very last page, Dun gives us a plot twist in verse. I would imagine that, as the author of a novel in verse that was premiered at Royal Albert Hall, Dun is well in control of the theatrical elements in his writing.

Unholyland is not for the passive reader. This is not simple art. It’s not even an uncluttered story of young love. It’s not a one-sided political screed; not any apologetic for either side. Dun calls out the British, the Turks, and the Zionists, and (do NOT read a comparison or edit out this parenthetical note!!!) the Nazis without equating anyone to anyone else This is dangerous, challenging reading; don’t look here for a right or a wrong.  There is an ample, excellently documented preface and good enough endnotes to establish Dun’s own point of view. In the end, the art will have to stand on its own. This reviewer believes that it will do just that, long after the inevitable firestorm disappears like sand in a flash flood.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Meet Luna Nightwyn and her 13-y. o. Protag!

Ronald: Hi, Luna and Crystal, I’m glad to have you on my blog. First off, like any good partnerships, I want to know how you first met.
Luna: Well honestly Ronald, I met Crystal when I finally sat down and started putting the idea for the storyline for my book Legend 13.
Crystal: Yeah, she was very indecisive at first too. She was going to start the first chapter with me, but later she went with my older brother Owen.

Ronald: Luna, tell me what would happen if Crystal weren’t listening.
Luna: Well, Crystal is only 13 and 14 in the book, so that happens more than you imagine.
Crystal: Hey Now!
(Luna glances over to Crystal and raises an eyebrow.)
(Crystal crosses her arms and sighs.)
Luna: It has led to a lot of my writers block over the past year.

Ronald: What do you like most about Crystal?
Luna: I like the fact that she is persistent and she isn’t afraid to let the reader know she is having emotionally weak moments.

Ronald: What would you say was the quality you like least her?
Luna: Well as a teenager, she makes some poor choices.
Crystal: Well, how would you react if the power went off everywhere? And as for Todd, we are not going there.

Ronald:  Crystal, how would you describe Luna?
Crystal: I like her. I mean she put me through many scary things. But I know she loves me.

Ronald:  Do you like being written by her?
Crystal: Yeah, because I know that she listens to what I think. If she had a scene in mind and I told her that I wasn’t going to do that, she asked me what I would do. It made several parts of the book waaay different. And she designed the Sap Sphere in Photoshop. How cool is that? I know her daughter Rosie who is 13, wants one and her book for Christmas. So Luna designed one on some website.

Ronald:  Luna, describe Legend 13 in a way that will appeal to my audience.
Luna: Legend 13 is about the coming prophesied date 12-21-2012. The date wasn’t originally set by the Maya people, but long before them in the age of magic. Long ago, a spell was cast to banish magic from the earth that had become contaminated by humans who used what was once a tool for self-serving purposes. This constant misuse tainted it and it became unstable. That is why for so many years people were tortured and killed in the name of magic, though today we don’t know why.
And of course the scientific community is left trying to figure out what is causing the black outs and strange phenomenon but as the year comes to a close they have to admit that there is more going on than first expected. Crystal and her family and friends then try to work together to prevent the veil from falling.
Crystal: You forgot about that secret society psycho that has been stalking us. He tried to shoot me!
(Luna looks at Crystal and shrugs.)
Luna: There are those who work against them, making their task even more dangerous.
Crystal: Understatement of the year.

Ronald:  Crystal, what you think about being fictional?
Crystal: Fictional? After all I went through, you’re going to tell me this all wasn’t real? AAaagghhh!
(Crystal rubs her hands over her face and tugs at her hair.)
Luna: Shhh Ronald, I didn’t tell her that.
Crystal: This is so not happening….
(Ronald turns to Luna as Crystal pulls herself back together.)

Ronald:  What in your life made you want to do this crazy thing of putting words on a page or in a file, and hoping someone cares?
Luna: The plot had been dancing in my head for years but then once the DSL modem went down for weeks and we had no T.V. or internet. I would write a bit then later my kids would come around and I would read it to them. They both loved it so I just kept writing. I ended up reading a bit to my older brother, and then he insisted that I write in a character to represent him. I figured if they all liked it, so much I might as well share it.

Ronald:  Now, Luna, tell me all about this book and prequels/sequels. – Spoilers can be left out. Crystal, you may interrupt, but I have the delete key!
Luna: There is definitely more. When I wrote the original outline, I had planned for a book two. There are so many more storylines I can go with it.
Crystal: What about Zachery?
Luna: What about him?
Crystal: Does he? You know?
Luna: No, I don’t know.
Crystal: Well he is one of the dragon people.
Luna: Yeah, and?
Crystal: Ugh! Never mind!
(Luna stares at Crystal a moment, shakes her head, then looks back at Ronald.)
Luna: Um, ok then.

Ronald: OK, Goofy stuff.

Ronald: Favorite piece of music or song:
Luna: River Flows in You by Yiruma.
Crystal: A Thousand Years by Christina Perri.

Ronald: Favorite recording artist or group:
Luna: TSO.
Crystal: Oh My God, I  love Trans-Siberian Orchestra!
Ronald: ROFL! Do you even KNOW how many people beside us know about TSO!!?

Ronald:  NY Times or Post?
Luna: Both, I like reading mutable sources.
Crystal: Internet, but if the power isn’t restored I don’t think either will continue to exist.

Ronald:  Wine, beer, or liquor?
Luna:  Liquor. I have an intolerance for beer it makes me sick, same thing with some wines.
Crystal: Is he kidding? I am only 14! (Again, Crystal, ROFL - my main character was a pass-out alcoholic by the time she was 15, but she still wound up being CEO of a big Mexican consulting company)

Ronald: Poetry or song lyrics?
Luna: I am not so definitive. And it depends on my mood.
Crystal: Luna writes poetry… She has a book of a collection she had written since she was 13. So Luna’s poetry.

Ronald:  Pizza or pâté?
Crystal: What is pâté?
Luna: I dunno…
(Crystal pulls open her laptop and googles it.)
Crystal: It’s a paste made of meat. Sounds like spam.
Luna and Crystal: Pizza!

Ronald:  How do we find your blog, email you, or buy your books?
Luna: I am on Amazon, and Smashwords, and hopefully soon Barnes and Noble. You can visit me at or my Book’s site there are forms that you can email me right from these sites.
Crystal: There are links, videos, and neat stuff about the book on the Legend 13 site.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Magic Words, a Review

I like reading important stories. I like reading well-written stories even more. I even hope that 3 Through History ( is such a tale. When both needs are satisfied in one reading experience, I like to make it clear to as many people as possible that I have found a gem, a book that will live with the reader as a work of art and as a collection of memorable scenes and unforgettable characters.

Such a book it Magic Words, a meticulously researched historical novel by Gerald Kolpan (2012, Pegasus). The title is a complex play on words. By themselves, the magic refers to two magicians, an older and a much younger brother, who both used the same stage name and between whom there was bad blood boiling, both personal and professional, that extended to affairs of heart and bed, finally resulting in the murder that opens and closes the book. The “words” belonged to the protagonist and major character, Julius Meyer, whose rare gift for languages earned him the title of Speaker of the Ponca Indians, that tribe that was decimated in the Trail of Tears exile. As a phrase, the title captures the power that words, language,  and books have always had for Jews, and when this particular Jew, Julius, finds the Ponca, the phrase is transformed into a kind of prayer.

Kolpan sets himself a prodigious task. The mystery of the murder at the beginning is only solved at the end, and then in such a way that the reader is almost banging the book against the nightstand, demanding that three new questions be answered. So if this were a mere whodunit, it would stand up well. If it were the improbable story of the intrigue between two brothers, several assistants, and other figures of nineteenth-century hocus-pocus and illusion, the reader would be well-rewarded. But this narration informs us of a timeless revelation into what it means to be Jewish, discovered only by Julius One-Tongue Meyer after years of living at once an “egg-eater” and a Ponca: “Sometimes,  I imagine the Ponca are this tribe that was lost to me all that time ago – my people returned from wandering,” Julius tells his betrothed. Our wandering brings us closer to ourselves, if only we can recognize the lost tribesman from whom we were separated, literally or figuratively, so long ago.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Guest interview - The Fab Vallory Vance and her Main Character, Lena

Hi, Vallory and Lena I’m glad to have you on my blog. First off, like any good partnerships, I want to know how you first met.
Vallory: I should probably take this one. I was at an outdoor concert totally into the music and had a thought about what these guys, who had to the power to hold a crowd of thousands entranced, were like at home. I kept thinking about their wives and girlfriends and parents and kids. Ethan spoke to me first and then I met Lena.
Vallory, tell me what you would tell me if your character weren’t listening. Why do you love him/her? Hate him/her?
Vallory: I love Lena. I wish I could be her. Super-mom with a clean house and balanced meals and yoga and looking all cute!
What drives you craziest about him/her?
Vallory: I hate shopping and I have to envision outfits to keep up with her image.
You might know my son through his fictional avatar, Ezra the Dream-Traveller. He’s eleven-years-old. Would you introduce your character to Ezra – do it now, please!
OK, (character wakes up). 
ROFL!! Nothing like dodging a question by claiming that the questioner was asleep! 
Lena, welcome to my blog. I don't get a chance to talk to fictional characters often; perhaps that's why I wrote someone else's character into my latest novel. Now that I have your ears, how would you describe Vallory Vance? Do you like being written by her?
Lena Spencer: Vallory has her moments, but she can be a little scattered and is frequently late.
Each of you, tell me about a time when you had to share something with each other.
Lena: I shared with Vallory the importance of having a schedule.
Vallory: And I shared with Lena that the muse cannot be scheduled!
Now, how about a time when you had an argument.
Vallory: I think this is it right now. As Lena and I have discussed, I’m not as organized as her. Therefore she has to cut me some slack. Jeez, I feel like Ethan!
Lena: Do you think that was…
Vallory, describe your novels in a way that will appeal to my audience.
I like to think I write sweet and sexy romances that allow the reader a fun escape.
Lena, what do you think about being fictional?
Lena: It’s very hard to explain. I’m pretty real to myself!
Vallory, I’m going back to that first question. Did you start the book with Lena, with the plot, or some other way?
Vallory: I think I started with the hero’s job and went from there.
What in your life made you want to do this crazy thing of putting words on a page or in a file, and hoping someone cares?
Vallory: I’ve always wanted to be a writer and finally at 40, I decided just to do it.
Now, Vallory, tell me all about this book and prequels/seuels. – Spoilers can be left out. Lena, you may interrupt, but I have the delete key!!
Vallory: Music for Her Soul is a contemporary second chance romance. Ethan Holden is returning after a 10 month European tour to reclaim the heart of Lena Spencer. And as you’ve seen if it’s not on Lena’s schedule, it takes a lot to it done.
OK: Goofy stuff.
Favorite piece of music:  I’m really into Ray Charles and B.B. Kings’ Sinners’ Prayer right now.
Favorite recording artist: The Purple One - Prince
NY Times or Post? Times
Wine, beer, or liquor? Wine – Pinot Grigio
Poetry or song lyrics? Song Lyrics
Pizza or paté? Pizza (but still love pate)
How do we find your blog, email you, or buy your books? You can find me on the Vallory V Blog, Smashwords and Amazon!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

When We Danced on Water by Evan Fallenberg, a review

When We Danced on Water: A Novel

Dear Hitler:

If the word didn’t strangle me, I might thank you for creating a world that brought forth the legendary power and strength of my people. You yourself, through your propaganda film department, documented our ends, but you left it to masters of fiction like Evan Fallenberg to tell our stories of survival. You have created a universe of pain behind you. It’s not our deaths we rage against in the generations that follow; it’s the pain of the last three years, the last five years, the last twelve years, even, in the case of some of us, the last fifty or sixty years of our lives. You called us vermin; we looked our torturers in the eye and spat on them as we endured their blows.

Just ask Teo. Ask him, Herr Hitler, what he did the final moment of the War, when he escaped his six year slavery as the personal plaything of an obsessed monster, who rose to be your top Minister of Culture before this slavemaster was pressed into service as an increasingly overmatched lieutenant, Captain, Lieutenant General, and finally, escapee. Ask your Baron Friedrich von Sadistschafft how many boys he demolished on the way to his enslavement of potentially the best male dancer of his era, possibly even a rival to Nijinsky. Go to Israel, and ask Teo’s friend of his twilight, Vivi, whose life was dissolute, fading, even, at the age of forty-two, who met your survivor of Reichskutltursschafft and, fired full of passion, the holy twin of obsession, created legendary installations in defiance of everything you were and everything you twisted your people into becoming. Ask their child, conceived on the very last night of Teo’s life, the eternal tribute to the fact that you were defeated, whereas we were merely destroyed. From every destruction there are survivors, memories. From your defeat, a shame that no one nation could bear, not even one Germany.

We, the readers of Evan Fallenberg’s masterful tale, will feel the passion that Fallenberg nurtures, from the Teo’s first studio, the parks and balustrades of Warsaw, to the school in Copenhagen where he would emerge, ready to take over the Reich’s balletic imagination, to Teo’s capture, enslavement, and violation at the hand of the evil of this culture officer’s obsession. We will walk the streets of your Berlin with Vivi, the Israeli whose life, and passion, had fallen out of focus at the hand of another German, who could not shoulder your burden alone. We will feel the would that seared your city’s heart for thirty years. We will follow Vivi back to the streets of Tel Aviv where, through her association and eventual romance with Teo, discovered a wellspring of passion inside herself and went from coffee-shop waitress and dilettante to the artist to whom presidents paid obeisance. Finally, I call on your rotten bones to twist and cry out like the Biblical victims of Dathan and Abiram, wailing your apologies to the grave while Teo’s and Vivi’s son Nathaniel, “Given by G!d,” dances in some decades on your metaphoric and real grave.<br /><br />We, the survivors, their grandchildren, their neighbors and the descendants of their neighbors, read the words masterfully imagined by Mr. Fallenberg, and we give praise for passion, for it is passion that creates true art.<br /><br />You can watch Evan Fallenberg read from his novel When We Danced on Water at the PEN Written on Water festival at

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Girl, Unwrapped - A review by Ronald Fischman

I am almost as old as Gabriella Goliger. This may, in fact, be a disadvantage in reading and enjoying Girl, Unwrapped by Ms. Goliger, a long-term Canadian whose first novel has erupted on the world after fifty years of practice.  I am no stranger to memoir; my first novel is about 50% memoir. Neighter am I a stranger to Montreal, having hiked (and I use the term with full knowledge) the elevation from McGill up to the top of the mountain on which Toni Goldblatt, Goliger’s lead, spends her earliest years. The coming-of-age story of young Ms. Goldblatt seems as vital as the stories I hear from the college girls in my creative writing classes. The advantage that Goliger shares with us is the distance – a good thirty years – that brings with it the wisdom to choose just those moments that made Toni who she became.

Born to Holocaust survivors, Toni’s life goes off the greased rails of her parents’ expectations in the primary grades, when her mother brings home one pouffy, girly textile monstrosity after another. Young Toni, the epitome of tomboy, is as horrified by these creations as her mother is with the scruffy, dirty jeans and tops that she favors. Toni’s body further trumps her mother’s expectations, growing tall and rail-thin, like her father. Her expulsion from summer camp after her drunken pledge of eternal devotion and love for the music teacher, a woman, cement her status as a lost child for her poor mother. I almost feel sorry for Toni’s mom – almost.

This is how Goliger shines. I feel the spirit of the androgynous child. I feel the passion of her desperate crush on the music teacher, incredibly hot and barely old enough to be called a woman. I feel the need to connect, in Zionism, with an idea greater than oneself. I see the women, young and old, of Toni’s life through her emerging lesbian eyes, not my own.  There is only one beef I have with this excellent memoir. Goliger is of the “Hope-I-Die-Before-I-Get-Old” generation. It shows. Her protagonist lives 35% of this book as a child, and another 35% meeting her first crush and chasing her all the way to Israel. That leaves thirty percent of the book. I say that Goliger tried too hard to work Toni’s identity as a young adult lesbian in here, as if there wouldn’t be another book. Or could it be that the juice of Toni’s life is sucked dry by the time she is only 25? As “Girl, Unwrapped,” Toni is pretty well unwrapped and exposed by the time she ends her girlhood. As deeply as I bonded with Ms. Goliger’s character through her exodus from girlhood, I would have gladly read a sequel that revealed how this coming of age tale formed the young woman that I would have loved to come to know.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Best Book for Very Old (and some very young)

“Nothing, nothing I try, nothing I say, nothing I do, gets through to her!” How many times have we, the sandwich generation, heard this lament from our friends, our bridge partners, our work colleagues, or even ourselves? The problem is that our aged parents are confronted with the growing loss of mental capacity. Not being a clinician, I am not able to say what degree of self-awareness the increasingly demented family member retains, I know that the children or caregivers of elderly people facing dementia do not enjoy “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

So what do we do? How do we make the hours we spend with the elderly any form of a reward – or at least, not so punishing to our hearts and to our psyches? Music therapy is great, and we know that music makes a connection. In his new book, Blue Sky White Clouds: A Book for Memory-Challenged Adults (2012, Rainbow Ridge Books), Eliezer Sobel creates a storyboard of twenty-six evocative photographs in which the story ranges far, far beyond the four or five 48-point words captioning the picture.

When I first tried to use the book with a senior, I chose for one example the picture of a row of pines blanketed in snow, arising from a deep cottony landscape with the ever-so-common grey winter sky, rendered much more friendly by the black-and-white format. I was able to create a conversation about visiting a friend’s house for Christmas. My elderly friend selected one of the trees in the picture and imagined decorations. I know that I could have led an entire therapy session if that were my profession, using Christmas ornaments, gingerbread cookies, and candles, then going deeper into a patient’s own background to make deeper and deeper connections. My friend was able to read the caption out loud, and with the book open to that picture, remain engaged for  fifteen minutes. What a gift!

Because I am an older dad, I was able to test out another hypothesis. I have long known that the cognitive abilities of children far exceeds their reading level or even their linguistic capacities. Might the rich, real, pictorial stories rendered in Sobel’s book hold the attention of people at the opposite end of the age spectrum? My own daughter, at five years of age just beginning to read, was able to turn to any picture and with some help, read the caption. More importantly, the pictures evoked stories, coming out almost without prompting from a little girl who has suffered from expressive language delay. Ten minutes talking about a brilliant black and yellow butterfly on a purple and white iris.

I am suggesting, although I don’t have research to back this up, that these evocative, rich pictures of the great and small, the very old and very young, the tiny and the vast, reach in and touch the cognitive function and emotional processing of the very old and the very young in a way that is usually reserved for the music therapist. At 26 pages, the book is more than manageable to the reader, and offers the caregiver the opportunity to connect in a rich and vital way.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review: Broad Street, by Christine Weiser

My days of sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll may be a long time behind me. However, I am not alone in my admiration of people who pursue their dream and their passion. Christine Weiser is such a person. The author of Broad Street, a story of a young twentysomething who finds a passion in music and taps into a talent that she did not know she had, Weiser brings the reader into the life of young musicians, musician wannabes, and hangers-on in a way that puts the reader on the stage, in the studio, and between the sheets.

The narrator, Kit, starts the story as the humiliated ex-girlfriend of a struggling musician. She has a bass guitar in her sparse collection of stuff that survives the breakup. The bass guitar begins as an afterthought – something not returned to a cheater who deserves it back – over his head. She starts out as a Horatio Alger hero for the modern age – a girl in a modern-day sweatshop, proofreading texts for medical authors, under the hawk-eye of a boss who makes her tremble. The musical life, that she has found through her boyfriend, serves as her escape. Her self-loathing is amplified by the presence of her sister, Nikki, who is beautiful, smart, witty, and in love with a married man.

Margo enters Kit’s life through a band party in which they click over the small talk of the trade. What unites them is more the revenge fantasy of forming a band and surpassing their cheating boyfriends than their passion for musical expression. While hatching the plan for the band, from which Broad Street gets its name, the young women find that they really do have passion, and they can write sweet songs, angry songs, and passionate songs in addition to revenge songs. More importantly to them, they become best friends. Diligently, they work to master their instruments, find a permanent drummer, and become the best girl band in Philadelphia. Throughout the birth and launch of the band, we find the young women, especially Kit, drunk, hung over, and naked next to a man they didn’t know or who exploited them. Screwing and getting screwed. A continuous metaphor for the music business from women who were still at its periphery.

Kit’s great triumph comes near the end of the book, when she reconciles with the father from whom she badly longed to win respect. Because she needed some money to produce a professional demo, she has to make nice with Papa – where she is redeemed when he tells her that she doesn’t need to make it big to win his love.

Does the band hit it big? Do they get that breakthrough recording contract? Those are not the key questions asked by Broad Street. Rather, the book asks the question, “What does a young person need in order to emerge as a fully fledged adult in the postmodern world?” No one who reads this book can look back at her own postcollegiate years the same way.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander (Knopf, 2012)

Nathan Englander ( doesn't need my glowing review for his excellent 2012 collectionWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, but maybe you do. The winner of the PEN/Malamud Award for Jewish fiction, the 42-year-old writer has re-established the short story as the prime vehicle for the relating of history and the human reaction to it.

I know something about writing history in fiction. My novel 3 Through History: Love in the Time of Republicans (, covers secular Jewish life during the death and rebirth of History. From the Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union to the rise of violent Islamic jihad, I tell the story of three lives, up through their portentous meeting. Englander proves to be a true master in the parallel art of writing fiction in history. In particular, Englander creates the post-Holocaust traditional Jewish world in all of its pleasure, pain, and contradiction.

The collection can be divided into three themes: Direct reaction to the Holocaust, Haredism meets modernity, and coming of age in the shadow of antisemitism. The stories take place equally on Long Island, where the author hails from and where I spent the happiest years of my professional life, and in Israel, where the struggles within the Jewish community turn Jew against Jew, community against community.

The title story might be a shocker to non-Jews and the majority of Jews who lack a direct connection to the destruction of the Jewish civilization in Europe. Jews have reacted to lesser devastation, a community or a country at a time, either by abandoning the old mores or replicating their shtetl, lock, stock, and shtreimel. What would be done if the goal was annihilation, not simply exile? The "Anne Frank Game" is a macabre parlor game in which the assembled Jews ask each other that if a Nazi regime came to power in (pick one: England, the US, South Africa, Canada), what non-Jew would they hide with? Who would risk everything to do the right thing?

Another Holocaust story is at an Elderhostel bridge retreat that takes place on the same lake as a sleepaway camp. It turns out that, among Jews of a certain age, the little word "camp" is loaded. At once, it meant the Haredi bungalow colonies of upstate New York, the wider Movement camps like Ramah or Harlam, and ...Auschwitz.

In New York and in Israel, the fight is between those who insist on recreating everything, including dress and language, from the home village, those who follow ritual law but dress in a way more consistent with the conservative members of the new community, and those who, whether the observe traditional Jewish law in private, are indistinguishable from the secular world around them. One story about this struggle tells of two Haredi families who establish an outpost in the Arab West Bank. One prospers, while the other falls into bereavement and madness. The outpost becomes an established city. The mad widow and bereaved mother is just as forgotten as the displaced Arabs.

The last category in this collection is the coming of age story. It's one thing to grow up in bucolic Miller Place or Greenport on the North Shore of Long Island. It is altogether different to live on the South Shore, and fight for your right to attend the sameschools, play on the same playground, even breathe the same air as racists, antisemites, and xenophobes. The Jewish kids in this collection bear the burden of the victims of the pogroms in Europe, even if their grandparents (like mine) got out before the rise of Nazism and the end of free immigration into the US made escape impossible.

This is a collection that, taken together, paints the most complete picture of Orthodox Jewish life that I have ever read. Its themes of identity, rebellion, and dignity will connect to all readers, for "you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Englander will touch you in your own personal Egypt.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Writing Blogs Made Dead Simple

Ever want to know what is behind those AOL/Google/Yahoo headlines, like, “7 Ways to Better Sex tonight!” or “101 Techniques to Raising a Healthy Teen,” or “Crazy New Weight-Loss Bean?” There is a science to this, and Nick Thacker wants you to know how to use it. If you are blogging for a job, Thacker can help you get more sales. If you want to penetrate the blogosphere without selling a product, even better. Finally, and I will revisit this later, you can follow Thacker’s suggestion to build up a community that will help you sell books and help other writers. Let me put this in my opening paragraph: or The books are also available on Amazon.

Thacker chose for the first book in the Dead Simple Guide to address the topic of headlines. I don’t care if your goal is to sell toothpaste, you will fare poorly if you use a headline that folks will blow past when they search to find you – or your competitor. When I’m searching, if I think an article will not help, I’ll leave it unread – and move on, seeking a more likely-looking answer. Don’t you? Shouldn’t you invest some time making sure that you would click on your article, advertisement, or blog post if you were doing the searching? In The Dead Simple Guide to Amazing Headlines, Thacker helps you think through this, and provides shortcuts if you choose to use them.

Now you have your headline, or at least, you can conceive of a headline that would sell your next blog post. Now what? You can make your site awesome, make your content brilliant, and still attract nobody. I know. That’s me. In the second book, The Dead Simple Guide to Guest Posts, Thacker walks you through the process of creating community, which causes people to  link to you, host your guest posts, and cross-promote your blog. What is missing here is how to create the code on your site to do what you want. For example, I don’t know how to sell my own book (on on my own Blogger page. Hmmm.
The third book in the trilogy, The Dead Simple Guide to Pillar Content, shows that Thacker is really a novelist at heart. “Creating Pillar Content.” Ever heard of it? I hadn’t, either. Pillar content is why your blog exists. You need to make something stand out to let people know who you are and why they should care.  Thacker explains why you, a novelist, should write about your philosophy of writing, how you develop your characters, where your plot ideas come from, essentially who you are as a writer. Thacker explains that, whether you are writing a blog on fishing or on writing, that you make the “pillars” of your blog out of content that will draw readers.

Is this collection a real hack, meaning an elegant and quick solution to an intractable problem, to your marketing and blogging issues? If, like me, you don’t know much about the bits and bytes of what to do to achieve your blog goals, maybe not. But for anyone with web design assets, or even a few hundred bucks to handle the tech stuff, Thacker’s trilogy will set you on the right path.

Don’t forget to buy my book 3 Through History: Love in the Time of Republicans, at Thanks for reading!