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Monthly Archives: November 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.

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.

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.

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.

Sallie’s Book Reviews and More: Interview with Ronald Fischman, Author of 3 Through History: Love in the Time of Republicans

Sallie’s Book Reviews and More: Interview with Ronald Fischman, Author of 3 Through History: Love in the Time of Republicans