In The Catskills by Phil Brown

In The Catskills

I grew up in a Protestant Midwestern town.  Anything Jewish was just as alien to me as Mars, but then I moved to New York City.  I discovered a whole subculture of Americana during my seven years there. I spent Passover with a co-worker’s family in Long Island, I learned the various Yiddish words that were sprinkled throughout conversation, and I constantly heard reference to “Grossingers” in the “Catskills.”

The Catskills was the penultimate summer vacation spot for American Jews, from the end of the 19th century until it’s dying days in the 1980’s.  I heard about it during it’s last gasp, when my boss would mention time spent there, and everyone awed at Patrick Swayze as an on-screen dancing instructor at a Catskills hot spot in “Dirty Dancing.”

In the Catskills is an interesting and charming work – part history, part memoir, and part fiction.  Phil Brown presents a history of the summer destination, what it was like and what it meant to American Jews.  Also included are excerpts from such famous Jewish writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Herman Wouk, about the Catskills.

Anyone who has a connection will greatly enjoy the memories inspired by this book. Even those who’ve never been there (like me!), will appreciate learning about this unique part of American history.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2004
415 pages

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The Nix by Nathan Hill

The Nix

The Nix is Hill’s first book, but he’s been writing for some time and it shows. The book is engrossing but with lots of weird tangents that slowly weave themselves into a single theme. There are times the novel seems a little boring but I did not struggle much. Parts of it read like a black comedy, and I often thought to myself, “this reminds me of later day Tom Wolfe.”

The hero, Samuel Andresen-Anderson is a English professor at a small midwestern college. Sam escapes his dismal life by playing an online game: World of Elfscape. Sam’s mother walked out of his life when he was young. She reappears when arrested for attacking a Presidential Candidate. Hill takes us back to Sam’s childhood where we meet his friends. We travel back further and meet his mother. These flashback stories go along way to explaining what happened to Sam and what happened to his mother. It also spawns a mystery that is revealed at the end of the book. There are lots of other side trips.. it is a long book. I hear Meryl Strep is thinking of making this into a movie. I wish she wouldn’t. Too much would have to be cut out. It’s the kind of book that just plays better in your head.

642 pages

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Black River by S.M. Hulse

Black River

This book was billed as a Western by Goodreads, but I would describe it as literature and art before I would use that term.  In short, I was blown away by Black River.  Hulse uses a former correctional officer to address the issues of self-imprisonment, forgiveness and redemption, within a gorgeous literary style and a stunning Montana backdrop.

It was a page turner, but even more, it was an eloquent and rewarding work of fiction that will haunt you long after you’ve read the last page.

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2015
240 pages

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The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries

The Winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize, The Luminaries is an intricate mystery that becomes unraveled, layer by layer.  It is set in 1866 New Zealand, where a gold rush has brought a variety of characters to try their fortunes. There are the gamblers, the opium dealers, the merchants, the prostitutes, the seamen and of course those who take advantage of them all.  The story begins when a man is found dead, another is missing and a prostitute has attempted to take her life.  A small fortune in gold is right in the heart of the matter.

There were several main characters, at least a dozen, but I didn’t have too much trouble keeping them straight.  And Catton’s amazing prose and literary talent, kept me fixated even when I was in doubt.  This is a gem of a book, and one very worthy of the prizes it’s received.

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2013
848 pages

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Driving Hungry by Layne Mosler

Driving Hungry

Driving Hungry is part travel memoir and part foodie experience, as Layne Mosler chronicles her adventures of finding good, cheap food by asking taxi drivers in Buenos Aires, New York City and Berlin.

I will admit that this is more of a travel adventure, with a few comments about food, but that was okay with me.  I enjoyed seeing Argentina through Mosler’s eyes, learning the tango and feeling romantically conflicted by her partner.  I used to live in New York City, so I very much understood her challenges in getting cab drivers to open up.  She eventually got her own hack license, and her experiences of being a New York City cab driver were both interesting and amusing.  On the word of an essay she read, the author decided that Berlin was a city she needed to experience, and so we, the readers, also traveled there, experiencing a city that is in continual change.

Driving Hungry is a must read for anyone interested in travel and adventure!

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2015
256 pages

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Pitching My Way Through World War II by Joy & Rosanne Bliss

Pitching My Way Through World War II

Pitching My Way Through World War II: Letters Home To North Dakota; co-written with G. L. Dybwad.

Private First Class Vernon E. Ellingson was just a Midwest boy who was drafted into WWII. Growing up in Grand Forks, ND his life was school, sports and girls. Once in the US Army, he had to grow up fast. Ellingson soon found comfort in his faith.

The book is based on 300+ letters Ellingson wrote home. Unfortunately, the content of letters was censored, so there little information about the war in them. Ellingson was a message clerk in the Battalion Headquarters Company of the 359th Regiment of the 90th Infantry; running back and forth on the front lines. But you might think he was still home doing basic training in Fort Snelling in Minneapolis; Camp Barkeley in Texas, Camp Polk in Louisiana, Camp Granite in California, and Fort Dix in NJ.

Ellingson was an older than normal draftee. He had bad teeth. It was painful to read as the Army decided to pull out most of his teeth. Vernon was okay with this. He wanted them to pull out the rest. He liked playing softball, and was a good pitcher. He liked to go bowling, and loved to read about and watch boxing matches. Once in Europe he had little time for sports. Ellingson’s letters deal with food, money (both asking for loans and sending money to his mother), cigars, cigarettes, and a lot of church services. The 90th Infantry Division fought in five campaigns across Europe and was training to fight Japan when the war ended. Already well steeped in religion before the Army, (Lutheran Brethren school) his faith got stronger and stronger the closer he got to the front. Something he noticed in his letters. Not only his own personal faith but those soldiers around him. We follow Ellingson to England, then to Normandy (June 8th), across France, the breakthrough into Germany and finally stopping in Czechoslovakia.

The book is assembled by his nieces: Joy Bliss and Rosanne Bliss. Both born while he was in the service. They did a good job of researching: finding photos, documents, and newspaper clippings that help illustrate the letters. They also pull quotes from “A History of the 90th Division” by 1st Lt. William P. Flynn, Jr., which helps fill in the gaping holes that the censored letters gloss over. It isn’t until the final letters that Ellingson shares some of his combat experiences. Even then he wants to spare his mother the worry and he arrives home shortly after and there is no mention of Ellingson’s combat experiences thereafter. There is a chapter on Ellingson’s life after WWII. It’s pretty low key. He had enough excitement for ten life-times. The foreword is by Lt. General Orwin C. Talbott who saved Ellingson’s life just after D-Day, and was his commander at the end of the war.

392 pages

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The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared tells the tale of Allan Karlsson, who loves his vodka. So much so that he escapes from his nursing home on the morning of his 100th birthday. From here he sets off on an adventure the devolves into a nationwide manhunt. The story is interspersed with “Forrest Gump” like flashbacks as we see what a unique character Allan Karlsson is. How his love of explosives gets him on the Manhattan project during WW-II and from there into the company of many world leaders and famous people like Einstein. No, not Albert but his dumb half-brother Herbert. It’s an imaginative story and laugh out-loud funny. It should make for a funny movie (or two); full of bizarre situations and unusual characters. Allan Karlsson may be 100-years-old, but he has a lively spirit, a rich background, and an easy going outlook on life, “whatever is meant to happen will happen.” He’s never worried or stressed.

396 pages

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