Saturday, December 15, 2018

Review of The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Right from the start I will tell you that I don’t usually read this genre—the coming-of-age story of a teenage girl caught up in her parents’ stormy relationship—but there is one reason that I couldn’t put down The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin's Press, February 2018). To say it in a word – Alaska.

Hannah’s vivid descriptions make America’s last frontier come alive. “It was otherworldly somehow, magical in its vast expanse, an incomparable landscape of soaring glacier-filled white mountains that ran the length of the horizon, knife-tip points pressed high into a cloudless cornflower-blue sky.”

In Hannah’s writing, all your senses are drawn into Alaska’s allure. “The air smelled briny, deeply of the sea. Shorebirds floated on the wind, dipped and rose effortlessly.”

This is Alaska, in all of its beauty and all the perils of living there. The extreme cold, the snowstorms, the brown bears and the packs of wolves, the king salmon and the bald eagles, and more than anything else, the isolation.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Traveling in Southern Bulgaria: Rhodope Cuisine and Culture

An exploration of the Rhodope Mountains in southern Bulgaria would not be complete without taking advantage of the opportunity of tasting the region’s unique, and tasty cuisine.

During our stay at Villa Gela we are spoiled with the food. The owners’ family owns the Terra Tangra Winery located on Sakar Mountain, 200 kilometers to the east. We are served Yatrus Syrah and the white Tamyanka. We start our meal with homemade rakia – the national, very strong fruit brandy of Bulgaria. In the mornings we drink a mixture of vinegar and honey that cleans one’s digestive system.

Friday, November 9, 2018

November Sale: The Burgas Affair on Sale at $0.99

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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Review of The Astronaut’s Son by Tom Seigel

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, a historic event that I remember watching on television as a boy. Eleven other astronauts would follow in Armstrong’s footsteps until the Apollo program was abandoned at the end of 1972. We have not returned to the moon since.

In the novel The Astronaut's Son by Tom Seigel (Woodhall Press LLP, September 2018), Israeli astronaut Avi Stein was scheduled to fly on a later Apollo mission but died of a heart attack shortly before liftoff. “His dream of going to the moon lives on in all of us,” his son, Jonathan, says in tribute.

Speaking to an audience of his employees and members of the media, Jonathan—a multi-millionaire engineering and computer genius—announces his company’s private lunar venture. “We have been away far too many years,” he says. “From the surface of the Moon, we will take a giant leap forward into outer space for the benefit of ourselves and our posterity.” Jonathan is to be the mission’s commander.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Traveling in Southern Bulgaria: Rhodope Mountains

The Rhodopes are known for their unique geological formations. The mountains are set apart by river gorges; there are many deep caves cut into the karst landscape. In the winter months, the snow-covered peaks are perfect for skiing – Pamporovo is one of Bulgaria's most popular ski resorts. In the summer, the hillsides are painted bright green and covered with wild flowers. With snow seen on the surrounding mountain tops, one has a feeling of visiting a "Sound of Music" movie set.

There are many small, picturesque villages perched on the hillsides and in the valleys below. It is said that the region has the highest number of centenarians in the country. This is because the villagers lead simple, stress-free lives; eat homemade yogurt; enjoy healthy vegetables grown in the small plot outside their homes; and, of course, breathe the crisp mountain air.

Bulgarians as a whole are very hospitable, but residents of the Rhodopes are particularly friendly to visitors, especially to travelers from overseas. It’s a bit difficult to communicate with the older generation, but young Bulgarians are fluent in English as well as many other European languages.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Traveling in Southern Bulgaria: Bachkovo Monastery

The first thing one notices when walking into the Bachkovo Monastery – the second largest in Bulgaria – is a plaque posted in Bulgarian, English, and Hebrew.

"In this holy monastery lie Patriarch Kiril and Exarch Stefan who in a selfless display of courage and humanity played a decisive role in preventing the deportation of Bulgaria Jewry to the Nazi extermination camps in 1943."
"Were the world blessed with more individuals of such valor and nobility as that shown by Patriarch Kiril and Exarch Stefan, surely more Jews would have been spared their tragic end."

Here in the entranceway of one of the largest and oldest Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Europe is a sign of how the Bulgarian Orthodox Church – along with brave politicians and ordinary citizens – went out of its way to protect and save Bulgarian Jewry during World War 2. The country's Jewish population before the war was approximately 48,000. Not a single Jewish citizen was sent to the camps. Unfortunately this amazing story also has a tragic side. More than 11,000 Jewish residents of Macedonia, Serbia, and Thrace – areas under Bulgarian rule during the war years – were deported and died in the camps.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Review of The Parting Gift by Evan Fallenberg

There’s a lot of sex in The Parting Gift by Evan Fallenberg (Other Press, September 4, 2018). Let’s start with that. Excessive, graphic, homoerotic sex which may turn off many readers. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let us consider where this vividly described sexuality leads its narrator-protagonist—an unnamed Jewish American currently camped on his friend Adam’s couch after returning from an extended stay in Israel.

In a book-length letter to Adam, the narrator offers a “long-overdue explanation of my mysterious appearance at your door these four months ago.”

The story the narrator tells starts at a Tel Aviv absorption center but veers in an unexpected direction after a visit to a nursery housing Israel’s most extensive collection of herbs and spices. There he meets Uzi, the spice guy.

“He was going about his business with no mind to me, while I was going about his business with no mind to myself,” the narrator explains. It is a case of lust at first sight. For the narrator, same-sex relations are nothing new but for Uzi, apparently, this greenhouse encounter is a first-time experience.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

A Visit to the Oldest Surviving Jewish Synagogue Building in Greece

On a narrow alleyway off the main pedestrian thoroughfare in the Old Town of Rhodes, a set of steps leads up to an unpretentious doorway opening to a historic building and a small shaded courtyard. This is Kahal Shalom, the sole remaining synagogue on a Greek island which was once home to 4,000 Jews. Now serving as a museum, and only very occasionally for services, Kahal Shalom offers a welcome respite from the touristy hustle and bustle in the nearby streets, as well as a fascinating immersion into the story of one Greek Jewish community, its history and culture.

My wife and I visited Kahal Shalom on our recent visit to Rhodes, a family trip which offered something suitable for all generations: beaches, a waterpark, shopping, a boat ride, an exploration of picturesque villages, good dining, nightclubs, and a fair amount of ouzo. On one day though, we left the children and grandchildren at the hotel pool and made an additional trip to the Old Town, with Kahal Shalom as the focus of our visit.