Monday, May 30, 2016

Jewish books: in Max's Diamonds family secrets stalk its ambitious protagonist

maxsdiamondsbookcover "Max’s Diamonds, Jay Greenfield’s debut novel published last week by New York publisher Chickadee Prince Books, is a guilty pleasure, a book I enjoyed and could barely put down for its suspenseful serpentine plot despite its pedestrian and occasionally heavy-handed prose." -- From my examiner article (which begins in the next paragraph). Also see my New York Journal of Books review, which concludes "with Max's Diamonds readers are rewarded with a fun and absorbing read whose fortuitous May publication date makes it a felicitous beach or airplane book."

Max’s DiamondsJay Greenfield’s debut novel published last week by New York publisher Chickadee Prince Books, is a guilty pleasure, a book I enjoyed and could barely put down for its suspenseful serpentine plot despite its pedestrian and occasionally heavy-handed prose. Like Greenfield, the novel’s protagonist Paul Hartman grows up in a Jewish community in Rockaway, Queens and goes on to become a successful lawyer. Greenfield is old enough that like Paul he probably encountered anti-Semitic colleagues early in his legal career. To Greenfield’s credit he makes complex legal cases understandable to the general reader.
But this is a work of fiction, not a memoir, and some of the fictional character’s biographical details differ from those of the author. The eponymous diamonds, which fund Paul’s education, are of unethical provenance, and come with obligations that threaten to impede Paul’s professional advancement. In my New York Journal of Books review of the novel I compare Paul’s predicament trying to balance the irreconcilable demands of his professional ethics and his unethical relatives to that of the young Michael Corleone in The Godfather movies.
According to a mutual friend another difference between the author and his character is that Greenfield’s parents and grandparents were Eastern European Jews whose mother tongue was Yiddish, while Paul’s parents were German speaking Jews from a majority German speaking part of northwestern Bohemia who adopted Yiddish as adults to avoid speaking the language of the Nazis. The elder Hartmans’ decision to switch from German to Yiddish strikes me as implausible and ahistorical.
Historically inaccurate details are distracting to knowledgable readers. We read historical fiction to take our imaginations to another time and place, but when the details don’t fit that time and place the effect is spoiled.
Czech Jews switched from Yiddish to German in the 19th Century, Twentieth Century Bohemian and Moravian Jews were bilingual in German and Czech, Yiddish was no longer spoken, and early 20th Century Jewish writers wrote in German. How would people who did not grow up speaking Yiddish and were never immersed in a Yiddish speaking community suddenly know Yiddish?
Paul’s parents might have learned Yiddish from their Eastern European grocery store customers and fellow Orthodox synagogue congregants and/or taken Yiddish classes offered at The Workman’s Circle, YIVO, or local colleges, and his survivor relatives who arrive after the war might have learned it from other inmates in concentration camps and post-war displaced persons camps, but the narrative doesn’t spell out these details other than to say, “that although German, more than Yiddish, had been his parents’ principal language in Europe, they refused to speak it in America.”
But if the language switch is historically unlikely, it may nonetheless be emotionally accurate. When I recall the strong Jewish identities and sensitivity to anti-Semitism of Holocaust survivors in my acquaintance, the emotional tone of such a plot element seems right even though that specific detail is probably factually false.
I close my NYJB review emphasizing the positive, noting “Max’s Diamonds readers are rewarded with a fun and absorbing read whose fortuitous May publication date makes it a felicitous beach or airplane book.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

My poetry book Glued To The Sky is now an audiobook

GluedToTheSkypulpbitscover My poetry book Glued To The Sky is now also an audiobookGlued To The Sky includes both narrative and lyric poems concerning group identity and gender issues in a wide variety of forms. Glued To The Sky was published by PulpBits in 2003. Sadly, PulpBits went out of business in 2007. An ebook version of Glued To The Sky in the pdf format can be downloaded at

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Books: Charles Bock and Jennifer S. Brown portray Manhattan in earlier eras

bockbrownbookcoverscropped My reviews of the two novels appear in New York Journal of Books. Read those reviews first, and then go to the next paragraph to read my additional remarks that appeared in an article in a different and now defunct publication comparing the two novels that were published the same week.

At first glance two historical novels published last week have little in common. Where Charles Bock’s second novel Alice and Oliver is a starkly realistic and unflinching portrait of a marriage undergoing trial by health crisis in 1990s New York, Jennifer S. Brown’s debut novel Modern Girls , on the other hand, is a warm, heimisheh tale of two generations of women in a Jewish immigrant family on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1930s whose opportunities and choices were limited by their gender.

In my New York Journal of Books review of Alice and Oliver I describe how the novel “relates the physical and emotional toll cancer treatment takes on the patient, the spouse, their marriage, and how they face mortality.” My NYJB review ofModern Girls predicts readers will become “emotionally invested in Rose and Dottie Krasinsky, the novel’s Yiddish speaking immigrant mother and American born adult daughter characters who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant and who share the first person narration in alternating chapters whose action occurs over two months from July to September 1935.”

Though differing in tone, both novels portray Manhattan in earlier eras. Here is how Bock renders Manhattan during Alice and Oliver’s student days in the 1980s:

“During that most indulgent stretch of the eighties, in the wee hours of those wild nights; back when stockbrokers and club freaks had finished their cross-cultural tangles on the various dance floors of Limelight, or had tired of dry humping in the most impenetrable crannies of Tunnel, or had chopped out their final lines on Nell’s glossy tables; after the go-go boys of the Paradise Garage, the strippers from Billy’s Topless, the bears at Mineshaft, and drag queens of Jackie 60, to say nothing of the dominatrices from all those converted basements, and the chicks with dicks who were hooking tricks on Little West Twelfth, once all those beautiful and their damneds had finished crawling through the darkness, done with their respective hobbies, predilections, and transgressions; when they were still strung out, still jittery, and needed a place to calm down, somewhere to hash out all those loose ends, relive the night, perform some more, or just grab some decaf, accepted wisdom—among those who knew—had it that no matter where you’d been, no matter whom on the West Side you might have done, someone else from your particular locale of debauchery would have made their way toward that street of deep grooves and broken cobble-stones. The aquamarine-blue metal panels from a different era.”

If that decadent portrait makes you yearn for a more innocent time, try out Brown’s description of the Lower East Side in 1935 in the voice of Rose Krasinsky:

“The avenue was busy, with hawkers and carts and children playing in the streets and women bustling about, doing their shopping, pausing to gossip with friends. On one stoop, boys were shooting craps, yelling loudly as they rolled the dice, arguing over who owed what to whom. The scene was exactly like the one on my street, but here it had an ominous overtone, as I knew what else lived on this street.”

I conclude my NYJB review of Bock’s novel by noting that “Alice and Oliver is not appropriate material for a Lifetime or Hallmark movie. But as unsentimental realist fiction at its starkest it would make a raw, gritty HBO miniseries, and is strongly recommended to fearless, emotionally resilient readers who enjoy well-crafted prose.”

I could picture Modern Girls, on the other hand, as a Lifetime movie, though it is definitely not suitable for Hallmark. I conclude my NYJB review by praising Brown’s novel whose “simple, direct prose is accessible and notwithstanding its frank depiction of sexual desire traverses both the young adult and the adult historical fiction genres. Its suspenseful plot and warm emotional tone should appeal to a wide audience.” For fuller discussions of the two novels see my reviews in New York Journal of Books.