Authors Posts by Jeffrey Sanzel

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Ben Kingsley as Adolf Eichmann in a scene from ‘Operation Finale’. Photo courtesy of MGM Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

“Operation Finale” depicts the Israeli secret agents who extracted notorious S.S. Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann from Buenos Aires. Directed by Chris Weitz, with a screenplay by Matthew Orton, this is a taut historical thriller using Mossad agent Peter Malkin’s book, “Eichmann in My Hands,” for its source.

Eichmann was considered the architect of the Final Solution. It was he who masterminded the transportation logistics that brought millions of innocent Jews to their deaths in concentration camps across Europe. In writing of Eichmann, Hannah Arendt referred to “the banality of evil” — an “ordinary” man who expressed neither remorse nor responsibility for his hideous actions, the epitome of “just following orders.” He has been represented in books, plays and films throughout the latter half of the twentieth and well into the twenty-first century.

Mossad agent Isser Harel’s The House on Girabaldi Street(1975) was turned into a television movie in 1979.  The Man Who Captured Eichmann(also using Eichmann in My Hands) explores much of the same territory.  Robert Shaw’s playThe Man in the Glass Booth(and subsequent film) were inspired by Eichmann’s trial.  Eichmann has been portrayed by Robert Duvall, Stanley Tucci, Donald Pleasance, Maximillian Schell, Werner Klemperer, and Alfred Burke.

Ben Kingsley as Adolf Eichmann in a scene from ‘Operation Finale’. Photo courtesy of MGM Pictures

In “Operation Finale” the year is 1960 and the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, is given information that points to Eichmann having escaped to Buenos Aires where he now lives under the alias Ricardo Klement. The film follows the covert mission of a small band of agents as they confirm, capture and finally transport Eichmann to Jerusalem to stand trial.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (in a strong cameo by Simon Russel Beale) imparts the importance of the mission: “Our memory reaches back through recorded history. The book of memory still lies open. And you here now are the hand that holds the pen. If you succeed, for the first time in our history, we will judge our executioner. And we will warn off any who wishes to follow his example. If you fail, he escapes justice, perhaps forever. I beg you. Do not fail.”

It is a delicate balance to blend a Holocaust drama with a thriller. It is a fine and often dangerous line when representing anything that touches on this topic. While the movie does not take place during the Holocaust, it is clearly part of its aftermath and therefore must be approached as carefully and as honestly as possible. For the most part, the film succeeds, working best when the two leads engage.

Oscar Isaac plays Mossad agent Peter Malkin, while Ben Kingsley is Eichmann, his emotionally manipulative arch-nemesis. These are two masterful actors delivering powerful, understated performances. It is their scenes that resonate most strongly.

Isaac displays the conflict of the character’s desire for revenge (his sister and her children, murdered in Lublin, are represented in visions that haunt him throughout) weighed against the need to bring Eichmann to justice on the world stage. His struggle is both painful and vivid.  Kingsley — who has portrayed Holocaust survivors Itzhak Stern in “Schindler’s List” and Otto Frank in “Anne Frank: The Whole Story” — delivers a disturbingly subtle and emotionally complicated Eichmann in an unnervingly nuanced performance.

There are moments that are chilling in their simplicity: watching Eichmann counting train cars with his very young son as the agents spy on them; Malkin shaving Eichmann with a straight razor; Eichmann’s casual question, “Who did we take from you, Peter? Who did you lose?”; a sleeve revealing a blue tattoo.  

The tension and conflict among the captors themselves, who each bring varied points of view, highlights their humanity, and lends further texture to the film. In addition, this is a dangerous Argentina, with a harrowing scene depicting a gathering of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. There is a clear sense that the government is more than complicit in its protection of these murderers. These elements enrich the world in which it is set.

The film is brisk and focused and the performances are uniformly strong. In supporting roles, Nick Kroll, Michael Aronov and Mélanie Laurent (all part of the Mossad team) are particularly noteworthy. While occasionally exchanging depth for dramatic tension, overall, “Operation Finale” is an engaging and often disquieting account of a very important historical event.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Hi, it’s me – Shellbee!” Thus begins “Shellbee’s Story,” a tale of a dog (no pun intended) as told by the dog and “recorded” by her “Mommy,” Port Jefferson resident Jennifer Flynn-Campbell. “My story,” continues Shellbee in the first lines, “has been put into words so humans see the world through my eyes, hear the sounds of emotions, and come to understand the purpose behind the adventures of my life.”

Related in a series of almost three dozen letters, Shellbee tells her own story from pup to forever home and beyond. It is funny and touching, clever and honest. In this unusual journey, Flynn-Campbell has chosen to endow the black Lab with extraordinary insight; by the end, she has artfully convinced us that it is Shellbee relating her life’s story.

The author with her mom, Jennifer Flynn-Campbell

The book — a hybrid of memoir and fiction and something all its own — is not just for dog lovers but for anyone who has ever been touched by a pet (and, this would most likely encompass just about everyone). Shellbee makes us reflect on ourselves as keepers of these innocent souls — the pleasures and the joys of companionship but also the deeper responsibility. It is about unconditional love on both sides or, in Shellbee’s words, it is “the story of my heartfelt love festival on earth.”

From the get-go, the “Hi, it’s me — Shellbee” that opens each letter captures the voice we imagine our canine companions to have. It celebrates the “it’s-me-it’s-you-I’m-so-glad-your-here” enthusiasm that dogs project.

We are treated to her earliest memories and the routines that root her life. Everything — from parties to pools and canoeing on the lake to staying in hotels — is described in childlike wonderment and appreciation. Shellbee compares country life with city living and ponders with puzzlement her first snow. She vividly relates the terror of getting lost and the relief of being found. 

And, of course, at the heart of her thoughts is food, food and food. Food, needless to say, is the focus and center of Shellbee’s life, but it is presented in a manner both humorous and believable. (Even the success of a wedding is measured by how much food is dropped on the ground.)  

The Labrador retriever details her training (most notably under the person she refers to as “Dogman”). She does have concern that she wants to maintain her individuality and not become a “Stepford Dog” (which she most certainly does not). She frames the “training” as “companion connection” and “obedience” as “comfort connection.” Shellbee (Flynn-Campbell) has clear ideas about how dogs should live and be educated. She even does work as a therapy dog, here described from her appropriately simple perspective.

The cover of Shelbee’s book

Shellbee imparts her responses to all of the creatures she comes across — both human and animal, viewing them as one world — all her “littermates.” She even assigns humans to different dog breeds, categorizing them on looks and personality including a hilarious description of her first visit to Santa: “The first time I saw him I was creeped out: a big, fluffy, hairy-faced human yelping, ‘Ho Ho Ho!’” It is an accurate assessment from an outside point of view.  

Shellbee also likes galleries because she has “plenty of room to wag [her] tail while viewing the artwork.”  

Flynn-Campbell also introduces some interesting references to studies that have been done — most notably about “declarative memories” and how and why dogs remember the people with whom they’ve crossed paths. In addition, she writes about scientist Rupert Sheldrake’s work on “morphic resonance,” which explains how dogs are aware when their people are coming home. These small digressions further enhance an overall perspective on what it is to have these dogs so present in our lives.

The book deals with serious health issues — both of Shellbee’s as well as both of her human parents. How they support each other in these difficult times is related in tender and touching passages, showing the pain and emotional confusion, and the pure happiness of being reunited. Furthermore, the important topic of animal abuse and the responsibility we have to end it, is highlighted briefly but pointedly: “Humans put a lot of work into helping heal animals who have been hurt on earth.” It is a statement, but, more importantly, a reminder.  

There are many photos of Shellbee with her family in various places. They are not portraits but snapshots that capture her in all her day-to-day adventures. Credited to Ariana Boroumand, they make a welcome addition to the narrative.  

Shellbee continually comes back to the fact that love will conquer all. Ultimately, it comes down to family. “Knowing you can trust someone is a wonderful feeling.” The book builds to a powerful and inevitable conclusion. While you know it is coming, you cannot help but be moved. Shades of the Rainbow Bridge and spiritual connections are present but are neither saccharine nor maudlin: They are a celebration of all Shellbee was. The ending is one that transmutes grief to hope, loss to recovery.  

In the final letter, the sole written by the humans, there is genuine expression of complete appreciation: “Your presence in our lives enriched us in ways that only Shellbee Ann Campbell’s unique soul could. You found a way to break through the struggles we face as humans. Somehow, you always knew just the right thing to do to bring smiles and comfort to everyone you met. Your gift to make tears stop flowing and erase fears from hearts seemed to come naturally to you. You faced each day with effortless happiness, excited for any and all possibilities.”

“Shellbee’s Story” gives a true and poignant meaning to “a dog’s life.”

“Shellbee’s Story” has been featured in Modern Dog magazine as one of its picks for Best Reads and is available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Shellbee posthumously appears weekly in her own blog: www.doggyletters.com and has a popular Twitter account, Facebook page as well as an Instagram account.

Fred Rogers. Photo courtesy of Focus Features
Make the most of this beautiful film

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Morgan Neville’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a portrait of Fred Rogers, a man of deep faith and principles and unique in the pantheon of television personalities. His show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” is lovingly celebrated in this wholly engaging 93 minutes. It does not attempt to be a full-fledged biography but rather a picture of the man in the context of his work and his mission. There are insights into his personal life (interviews with wife and sons), but it is more the story of the evolution of his vocation and his influence on American culture.  

Fred Rogers with Mr. McFeely (David Newell) the delivery man in a scene from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood

The film opens with the iconic entrance of Rogers changing into his sweater while singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and we are immediately transported back to the world he created. With its modest production values and its messages of love and understanding, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” became an integral part of our collective experience.

 

The documentary is simple and delicate, mirroring the show and the show’s creator. There are no bells and whistles. We are treated to an assortment of interviews that give perspective on the span and impact of Rogers’ career. What is common to all is that he was exactly who he presented himself to be. An ordained minister, Fred Rogers deeply believed that “love is at the root of everything” — learning, relationships, understanding. He saw television as a wonderful way to connect with children; a tool to make them better and happier people.  

Fred Rogers poses with the puppet Daniel Striped Tiger. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

His wife (and much of the documentary) posits that, in essence, Rogers was Daniel Striped Tiger, the first of the many puppets he employed. The tamed feline represents Rogers’ doubts but also the ability to listen and learn. Daniel Striped Tiger is the bridge between the real and fantasy worlds that Rogers invented. As a child, he had been plagued by various illnesses and spent a great deal of time in bed; it was here that he began to realize the power of imagination and he used this to inform his work.  

The film also touches on his faith, suggesting that the show was his ministry and he wore a sweater in lieu of a collar. The heart of this ministry, of course, is the power of love — love for each other and love for ourselves. The belief is that everyone is special (incorrectly twisted by some as entitlement) and we all have inherent value. The embodiment of this is his song “It’s You I Like” — a reminder that we grow through acceptance.

Fred Rogers presented himself as the friend every adult should be. He made it clear that his journey was to take care of the myriad of children who watched him. Unlike his own unhappy youth in which he was not allowed to be a child or to show his feelings, he aspired to provide a safe space for all of the country’s children.  

Fred Rogers with King Friday XIII. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Over the years, Rogers tackled everything from racial discrimination to divorce to death (including an episode focusing on grief that dealt with the assassination of Robert Kennedy). After retirement, he returned to do a few short PSAs about 9/11 — the horror of which overwhelmed him. What we take away is that he was unflinching in his desire to be truly honest with children but to always let them be children.

There are a treasure trove of clips, dating back to his pre-Neighborhood television days through his series and later efforts. There is the often-seen but no less-effective testimony that saved funding for public television. Puppets (King Friday XIII, Henrietta Pussycat, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, Queen Sara Saturday, X the Owl) and regulars (Mr. McFeely, the delivery man; Lady Aberlin; Chef Brockett; Officer Clemmons), songs and guests … the trolley to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, Picture-Picture … they are all here. 

Throughout his work, there was always an emphasis on taking time and not allowing the world to speed up. He believed that “slow” space was not “wasted” space. That silence is a gift. The final moments of the picture are perhaps the most memorable.  He often invited people to take a minute to think of the those who have cared for them. One after another, the various people interviewed are shown to do just that. Like Fred Rogers and his work, it is at once so simple and honest and yet so powerful.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a film not just to be seen but to be shared. Find those people that mean the most to you and spend some time remembering the power of love.

Author Ruth Minsky Sender, center, with her brothers. File photo
‘Surviving one more day in the camps was spiritual resistance.’
Ruth Minsky Sender

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Ruth Minsky Sender’s three memoirs — “The Cage,” “To Life” and “The Holocaust Lady” — are must-reads. The books chronicle the author’s life in Europe, from before World War II, through her inhumane imprisonment in the Nazi concentration camp system, and beyond. Sender is a writer of exceptional ability: vivid, introspective and yet always accessible. I have seen her speak and she is every bit as strong and present in person as she is on the page.

Now, the East Setauket resident has a new and unusual offering, a book of poetry, with the majority of poems written while she was in the Mittelsteine Labor Camp (1944–1945). Translated from the Yiddish by Rebecca Wolpe, the poems are raw and disturbing — as they should be. But underneath many of them is her mother’s motto: “While there’s life … there is hope.”  

Miriam Trinh’s well-thought-out introduction shows the importance of “Jewish poetic creativity during the Holocaust as a reaction to Nazi oppression, persecution, and annihilation,” giving context to the writing as well as insight into Sender’s work. “This poetry,” writes Trinh, “was a direct reaction to her experiences during and after the Holocaust: the loss of her prewar identity, the realization that this loss was permanent and unrecoverable and the need to construct a new, postwar identity.”

In addition to the works written while she was in the camp, there are a handful of poems that were created in the 1950s and later. They are equally as important but are taken from a different perspective. All but two of the poems were written in Yiddish (those two in Polish), first on scraps of brown paper bags stolen from the garbage, later in notebooks.

She writes, “These poems were written in little notebooks while I was incarcerated in the Nazi slave labor camp in Mittelsteine, Germany, as prisoner #55082. I wrote them while hiding in my bunk. Every Sunday, I would read them aloud to the fifty other women living with me in the room. They were my critical and faithful audience. I endeavored both to depict scenes from our life and to give everyone a little courage and the will to continue. This was how we spent our Sundays, and anyone who had bit of talent did her best to bring a little happiness into our tragic lives.”

The notebook was given to her by the Nazi commandant after the girls were forced to perform at Christmas. They were told if they didn’t perform, all 400 Jewish girls would be punished. Sender read two of her poems (“My Work Place” and “A Message for Mama”) and somehow they touched the cold-hearted, pitiless Nazi commandant who presented her with the first book to record her verses.

Each poem is a delicate work of art. Some are a dozen lines, while others run to several pages. Given the cruel nature of the subject, it is difficult to comment. Needless to say, they are all vividly descriptive and fiercely honest.

“My Friend” explains the importance of writing. “Our Day” is a single day in the camp, from dreaming to sundown, and shows, even in the brutality, the glimmer of hope. “Greetings from Afar” addresses the day-to-day evil and sadism the prisoners relentlessly faced every moment. “Separation” expresses the pain of being split from her brothers. In “At Work,” the language depicts the harshness of the factory; in the clipped lines you can hear the merciless grinding of the machines.

“A Ray of Light” is just that: the courage to aspire to liberation in the midst of misery. “The Future,” one of the most complicated, looks at liberation from a different aspect: what will become of them and, even more so, where will their anger go upon being freed? It is a breath-taking piece. 

“We Need Not Their Tears” faces the issue of where to go when returning to your home is a deadly option. “Where Is Justice?” is offered in two versions: one composed in the camp and the other written many years after. Both are the horrific story of a prisoner forced to beat another prisoner, driving the girl mad. In a book of challenging pieces, it is one of the most unsettling and haunting.

A later poem (1955), “Teaching Children Yiddish” is a celebration of the language that still exists, a symbol of persistence, with education being at its heart.

“While There’s Life …” is a volume that should be read and re-read by people of all faiths. It is a portrait not just of survival but of how one woman transformed her pain in humanity’s darkest hour into art … into life.

To order your copy of ‘While There’s Life …’ visit www.yadvashem.org and choose the Shop icon.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“No matter what the story is, it’s all under the same sky.” 

Author Sarah Beth Durst

In her new young adult novel, “The Stone Girl’s Story,” Sarah Beth Durst has created a genuinely unique universe where those of flesh and blood (human and animal) coexist with animate stone creatures.  It is a fascinating conceit and she has populated a world where often the creatures of stone have more humanity and self-awareness than their living counterparts.

The book is an original take on the traditional Wizard of Oz-style journey. In this case, Mayka, a stone girl, leaves the mountain to rescue her stone companions. What has shifted in the secure retreat is that Father (the Stone Mason who carved them) has passed away and their markings have begun to fade. The markings are at the center of the story as they are at the heart of their stories: It is these designs that not only give them being but also individuality and purpose.

The carved designs define them. For instance, the cat, Kalgrey, is engraved with “This is Kalgrey the cat. Sharp of tongue and claws, nimble of paws and mind. She climbed the top of the chimney and scolded the sun and then slept when it hid, frightened behind a cloud.” But there is more to Kalgrey: as she “curl[s] up every night by the door to watch over [them] … and keep the rats out of the chicken feed.” Durst captures these simple yet complicated souls in an eloquently poetic prose.

The book opens with a touching scene where Mayka is visiting a stone turtle who is no longer aware, as its marks have faded. The poignant tableau casts the shadow of what is happening and possibly what is to come. Her feelings toward her comrade establish who she is and what she is willing to risk to help this intimate community. Even though she cannot smell the flowers or shed tears (though she ponders what both would be like), she has a heart that is full of truth, honesty and compassion.

The cover jacket of ‘The Stone Girl’s Story’

The stone Badger, now the oldest of the group, gives Mayka a blessing of sorts to send her on: “We are family. No blood binds us, for we have no blood, but we are bound by time and love. You will carry our love and hope with you to the valley, and it will strengthen you.” With this kind benediction, she leaves the protected Eden (where the stone animals feed and care for the real ones) and embarks on an odyssey down the mountain, into the valley, and finally to the town of Skye, where her goal is to find a stonemason to return with her and restore the patterns.  

She is accompanied by two stone birds:  the cautious Risa and the outgoing chatterbox Jacklo, who provides a wholly enjoyable mix of on-the-nose as well as deadpan humor. On their way, they are joined by a whimsical 2-foot-high stone dragon, Siannasi Yondolada Quilasa — called Si-Si—who deeply yearns to find her purpose — her “story.” 

“The Stone Girl’s Story” has a rich and accessible mythology, complete with the lore of how the first Stone Mason brought his work to life as well as a historical Stone War that devastated the society. It is this event that had far-reaching repercussions:  Stone Masons went from revered to feared to something in-between, now sequestered in the Stone Quarter. (The departed Father turns out to have had a very important connection to the war and all that ensued.) 

Mayka and her troupe become embroiled in the events surrounding the annual Stone Festival. It is here that they meet and join forces with a young man, Garit, who is apprenticed to Siorn, the stone mason. Siorn is a fully realized character, not merely an adversary and a villain; he is a dimensional human with his own deep-rooted beliefs (both dangerous and misguided).

Without revealing too much of the tightly woven and engaging plot, it is the challenges the quartet face and how they overcome them that encompasses the latter half of the adventure. Mayka and her mountain friends truly learn what it is to be “other” — both from humans and other stone creations.

While not illustrated, Durst paints in language so vivid that the tale leaps off the page. Her images are visceral. Prior to Mayka’s first experience in the city, her life has been pastoral. Now, she is overwhelmed by Skye’s tumult; the account leaves the reader in the midst of the chaos and is truly breathtaking: “Now that she was within the city, it seemed … too full, too much. This deep in the forest of people, she couldn’t see anything but more people.” Even gazing up, “the sky was only a thin streak of blue. But the roar of the city felt muffled, smothered by the walls.”

She takes in the surroundings and the inhabitants:

“They came in all shapes and sizes, wearing more colors than she knew existed: a boy in a more-orange-than-a-pumpkin hat, a woman wearing a dress of feathers, a man with a bare chest but a many-layered skirt with tassels dangling all around. Between them were stone creatures, plenty of them. Stone rats scurried through the street with rolls of paper strapped to their backs, carrying messages. A stone squirrel with a bucket around its neck was scrambling across the face of a building as it cleaned the windows. Other stone creatures — bears, wolves and bulls, some crudely carved and others exquisitely detailed — blocked the entrances to the fancier houses, acting as guards.”

Durst ponders what it is to be alive and the wonders of the natural universe (epitomized in a memorable depiction of butterfly migration). Time is relative and it is in how you use it, and she presents this in the contrast between mountain and valley worlds.

The book offers several important lessons without every overstating them or sacrificing the engaging narrative: That joy in living is freedom and we must be able to choose our own destinies … and that, ultimately, we have the ability not just to create but to change our own stories. Furthermore, it is not what we ask of others but of ourselves — and that our own untapped resources can be our deliverance. The powerful message is elegantly and honestly presented in a way that young people of all ages can comprehend the significance of this lesson. Like in “The Wizard of Oz,” the heroine seeks help but finally realizes she had the power within herself all along.

And, most of all, the book reminds us that “we make our stories our own.” It is that “everyone [has] a story that matter[s] most to them, that define[s] them.” “The Stone Girl’s Story” is that we are all need and hope — but, above all, we are potential. “I am the hero of my own story.” And that is a wonderful truth in a truly enchanting novel.

Sarah Beth Durst is the award-winning author of 15 fantasy books for kids, teens and adults. The master storyteller lives in Stony Brook with her husband, her children and her ill-mannered cat. Recommended for ages 10 to 12, “The Stone Girl’s Story,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Clarion Books, is available online at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. For more information, visit www.sarahbethdurst.com.

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Michael Di Leo’s debut novella is a powerful and engaging look at the days leading up to and just following the murder of John Lennon. Focusing on the separate and yet not completely disparate stories of several unrelated people, it creates a vivid chronicle of a time of great sadness and unrest.

Author Michael Di Leo

It is December 1980 and the country is in the advent days before Ronald Reagan is to take office. Three very different people are facing the frustrations of day-to-day life. The story follows this trio as they attempt to tackle a series of emotionally difficult challenges.

Sixteen-year-old Angela is obsessed with the Beatles. She is struggling with the things that are modern and yearns for the ’60s, a time she never experienced but has come to venerate, epitomized by the music of the Beatles. Her friends do not understand her — in particular an insensitive but realistically portrayed boyfriend who has only one desire in their dysfunctional relationship. Angela is reaching back to a past era to try to make sense of her own.

Thirteen-year-old John is inspired to look at the ’60s by former hippie Mr. Watkins, his easygoing and inspiring teacher, who assigns John an extra-credit project to research the period.John is caught between his hard-edged, conservative father and a mother whose heart is connected to the freer time that she never allowed herself to fully experience.

Finally, Tommy, in his 20s, going nowhere, lives in a cramped Manhattan apartment, working a dead-end job selling typewriters, and trying to parse his exact feelings for his girlfriend, Mary, who is pressuring him for both a ring and a change in who he is. Like Angela, he is fixated on the Beatles. Tommy is also haunted by the death of his brother in Vietnam, a milestone that caused the implosion of his family and created his own sense of detachment from the world.  

Tommy makes a point of his dis-ease in the universe. He feels that the ’80s have not yet started because there has been no defining moment to herald an age. He sites the assassination of JFK and the landing of the Beatles for the ’60s and Nixon’s resignation for the ’70s. He does not realize that his worst nightmare will be the signal of this new epoch.

Short, crisp chapters create small fragments that are windows into each of the character’s lives and thoughts. As it progresses, the picture, like a mosaic, becomes clearer.

The first half of this delicate, slender novella follows their day-to-day existences that are then shattered by John Lennon’s tragic murder. The latter part of the book then tracks the repercussions of this terrible event. Both Tommy and Angela are broken by Lennon’s death as is John’s mother. But it is through this loss that they find themselves and, in the grand scheme, are stronger for it.

It is the teacher, Mr. Watkins, who is able to best express this new time: “There were a lot of people in the sixties who influenced my generation. JFK, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King. And yet, John Lennon may have had more of an influence than any of them. And he survived it all and was in a position to possibly influence us again to make things better. Something he always tried to do. And they killed him, too. They’re all gone now.” It is the indicator of both an end and a beginning.

The cover of Michael Di Leo’s latest book

Tommy had lived in hope of a Beatles reunion. For him, “It wasn’t supposed to end this way.” The Sgt. Pepper album had gotten him through the loss of his brother, giving him solace in the worst of times. It is now, through the music and the memory, that he survives this next challenge. A particularly poignant description follows Tommy’s visit to his childhood home. He sees his parents, who have never recovered from the death of their oldest son, in a new light. The scene resonates on many levels. It is in this trip that Tommy realizes that he can make something of himself, and it is John Lennon’s example that inspires him to do so.

John’s mother opens up to her son with pieces of her life and heart that she had kept tamped down to please her husband and his expectations. Lennon’s death releases her true spirit. “You know, I always had a secret thing for the Beatles, and John, he was always my favorite. He was so smart and funny, and he always did or said what he wanted, whatever the consequences, and now after everything, he was back, and he was happy, and now he’s gone. It just doesn’t make any sense. I guess maybe I really was a hippie at heart.” She, like Tommy, eventually finds release in embracing her true feelings.

Di Leo’s compassion for his characters gracefully shows the initial shock turning to profound mourning and, ultimately, to redemption. It is a visceral portrayal. He manages, with great sensitivity, to give us a glimpse into the turmoil of these people’s souls. In addition, Di Leo is not seeking easy answers. Instead, he presents the phenomenon of our attachment to these icons. He sheds light on our personal connection to distant stars (literally and figuratively) and how we take their deaths in a personal way. It is a strange truth but we often suffer these losses deeper than we do of those who are truly close to us. He reveals this fact without judgment but instead with nonjudgmental insight.

A prescient touching upon the discussion of gun control that occurred in the wake of the shooting reminds us that though time has passed, many things have not changed.

A gathering in Central Park of thousands of fans serves as a gentle climax to the book where the characters intersect but don’t truly interact. Di Leo chooses not to give us facile coincidence but instead reflects life as it is. A beautiful and honest coda provides both closure and hope — that out of even the darkest times can come good, and, in this case, light.

Much like the “Imagine” mosaic created in memory of Lennon, “Images of Broken Light” gives us broken figures that create a powerful and memorable whole.

“Images of Broken Light” is available in paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com, and E-books are also available on Barnesandnoble.com, iBooks and Kobo. This is the Nesconset resident’s second book. The first, titled “The Spy Who Thrilled Us,” covers the first 19 films in the James Bond series. For more information, visit his website at www.michaeldileoauthor.com.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Cynthia Baxter, one of our most prolific and delightful cozy mystery writers, has outdone herself with her most recent offering, a delicious confection titled “Murder with a Cherry On Top.”

Cynthia Baxter

As a longtime fan of Baxter’s work, I have read many of her books, most notably ones in the Reigning Cats & Dogs series (“Dead Canaries Don’t Sing,” “Hare Today, Dead Tomorrow,” “Who’s Kitten Who?” and “Murder Had a Little Lamb”), Murder Packs a Suitcase series (“Murder Packs a Suitcase”), as well as “Temptation,” a fascinating and wicked stand-alone novel (written as Cynthia Blair). They are all truly entertaining works, with fun and engaging heroines who are smart, independent and wholly original.

In her latest outing, “Murder with a Cherry On Top,” the Three Village resident sets us down in the fictional Wolfert’s Roost, a small town nestled in the Hudson Valley. Here, the central character, 33-year-old Kate McCay, has come back to her hometown. Prior to this, Kate had been a public relations director at a large New York City firm. Returning to take care of her beloved grandmother, she has embarked on a new venture, namely being proprietress of the Lickety Splits Ice Cream Shoppe:

“After all, there are some things only ice cream can fix.”

Her love for the dessert is rooted in her childhood. She has memories of her father taking her for her third and fourth birthdays for ice cream. By her fifth, he had passed away. When she is 10, her mother dies, leaving Kate and her sisters to live with their loving grandmother:

“Then Mom passed away the summer I turned ten. Grams suddenly found herself playing the role of mother. She knew how devastated my sisters and I were, and to help us all cope with our confusion, our anger, and our intense feelings of loneliness, she did her best to keep our lives as much the same as they had been before. A big part of that was to keep our family ice cream addiction going, since it was one of the easiest and most obvious ways of linking us to the past and moving ahead with our lives.”

In Kate’s world, ice cream is deeply connected to love and caring and she brings this to her new found vocation. She delights in the work, creating the traditional flavors along with signature choices such as Peanut on the Playground (laced with jelly), Honey Lavender and Avocado and Carrot Cake. (The detours describing her frozen sweets add to the fun.)

After being open only a week, her childhood nemesis and unreformed mean girl, bakery owner Ashley Winthrop, announces that her store, Sweet Things, will begin carrying ice cream. As the bakery is directly across from the ice cream parlor, this drives Kate into a public confrontation with Ashley. Soon after, Ashley is discovered murdered and the police see Kate as a possible suspect.

Kate embarks on her own investigation, which has some wonderful twists and turns, building up to a genuinely surprising but nonetheless believable climax. At its height, the mystery becomes something deeper and eventually much more complex.

An element of the book that is particularly effective is that Kate actually uses her business to solve the crime. Unlike in many mysteries where the characters seem to have insights they couldn’t possibly have, here there is logic to her approach. She utilizes her occupation to provide her with insight as well as opportunity. She cleverly uses the collective love of ice cream as a means to certain ends. And, even as she is pursuing leads, she still is thinking about the growth of her new undertaking.

In a light-hearted way, Baxter addresses the issue of not just the difficulty in returning home but also the joys — rare in literature, which tends to fixate on dysfunction. Kate is genuinely glad to be back and wholly embraces the chapter ahead of her. She finds satisfaction in her work, a passion and a drive that help her reacclimate to Wolfert’s Roost.

The fact is Baxter is a strong writer. Throughout, she is able to articulate the modern struggle to communicate with wit and honesty:

“I wondered how any of us managed to not look bored or lonely or even uncomfortable in public places before we all had cell phones. Maybe that was why books had been invented.”

Baxter nimbly fleshes out characters who are (or at least initially seem to be) transitory. They are whole people, often created in a few crisp sentences. This is ideal in a mystery where there is the need for a parade of suspects and supporting characters.

We get to know Willow, her childhood friend, who works for her when she’s not teaching yoga. Emma, Kate’s in-search-of-herself 18-year-old niece, comes to live with her and assists in the investigation. Ashley’s sleazy ex-husband and her most recent amour, an egotistical chef, both get creative page time. Kate’s love interest, blue-eyed broad-shouldered Jake Pratt, has a past with Kate that becomes pivotal in the present — but the thorny history never bogs down the movement of the narrative. A visit to a harried mother of three is particularly vivid.

Baxter finds variety even in the rather reviled murder victim as certain pieces of her backstory are revealed, transitioning from the “she-had-it-coming” to something far more complicated. The fact that Ashley is running an illegal co-op becomes a fascinating detail in the tapestry of the crime.

All of these pieces, like the exotic sundaes Kate fashions, are rich in texture, color and invention and make for a wholly satisfying read.

Two nice little bonuses: Each chapter is headed with a “fun fact” from the history of ice cream, with sources ranging from Guinness to the International Dairy Foods Association. The appendix shares a few interesting recipes that are referenced in the book.

This first entry into The Lickety Splits Ice Cream Shoppe Mystery series is a great one. Grab yourself a bowl of ice cream, sit down and dig in.

Cynthia Baxter is the author of 54 novels. A Three Village resident for the past 25 years, “Murder with a Cherry On Top” is the first book in her new Lickety Splits Ice Cream Shoppe Mystery series with Kensington Publishing Corp. and is available online at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Meet Cynthia at the Emma S. Clark Library’s Author Event on May 6 from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. and visit her website at www.cynthiabaxter.com.

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Jeannie Moon’s latest romance novel, “Then Came You,” is a wonderful portrait of love in a small town and gets to the heart of what really makes a family.

The book is cleverly rooted in a legend connected to the history of the fictional town of Compass Cove, founded 1667. The prologue tells the story of a young widow, a compasssmith and a needle that pointed not north but to an individual’s true north (i.e., love). It is a sweet tale and one that sets just the hint of magical realism (and will surface later in the novel).

Above, author Jeannie Moon

At the center of Moon’s novel is 29-year-old Mia DeAngelis “who in another life … would have been a star. In this life, she was doing damage control. Again.” Mia is raising her orphaned nephew, Ben, after her sister’s suicide nine years earlier. Initially, Mia’s rather cold mother was raising Ben with Mia’s father. After the two were hit by a drunk driver, taking the father’s life and injuring Mia’s mother, it was decided that Mia should become guardian.

There is nothing of the Hallmark movie about Moon’s dealing with the dysfunctional pieces of the family; she has created real people in a complex situation. Mia’s desire to adopt Ben is very candid and the complications that ensue feel honest. Mia is faced with the double challenge of being a single mother who is not the biological mother. This desire to adopt Ben is the driving force in her life and in the story.

Ben is now an active 10-year-old boy who Mia has moved from Maryland to raise Ben in Compass Cove where she had summered as a girl. Her grandmother, a vital and free spirit, pitches in and Mia is finding a new life. There is nothing random about the relocation from a city to the Long Island suburb. Mia is doing everything she can to save Ben from himself and the latent anger that is brewing beneath the surface. Gradually, it is revealed that Mia lived in the shadow of her thinner, prettier sister — “the sainted Sara” — and is just now coming into her own. It is clear that the sister’s suicide had been a destructive force in all of the family members’ lives, and they are each dealing with it in a different way.

Mia has taken up the post of librarian at the local university, and it is there she begins to find romance. Prior to Compass Cove, she had been unlucky in dating, not having had a second date in five years or a real relationship in nine. Ben has become her whole life and she has accepted that this is her lot. At this point in her life, Mia has never been in love.

Her immediate chemistry with the college football coach Adam Miller is helped along by Adam’s kindness to Ben and his welcoming the boy to become a sort of mascot to the football team. Adam, a former pro-athlete and past “bad boy,” is smitten with Mia. Adam has a long history of risk-taking that ended his professional career but helped him find himself. A native of Compass Cove, he moved back home to find balance again. Their attraction is natural and believable and electric at the get-go.

The cover of Moon’s latest book

There are struggles from the beginning of their courtship (Mia’s mother, even at long distance, has a real canker about sports in general and athletes in particular) but their attraction is undeniable. The novel addresses real fight-or-flight issues in relationships and the challenges that force people to put up walls and barriers.

Moon shifts effortlessly between the voices of Mia and Adam, changing syntax and diction seamlessly, alternating between the articulate and educated Mia and the slightly rough-hewn Adam.

After Adam stands Mia up for a date, she becomes more involved with Noah, a self-important professor, who is “the right guy” and ticks all of the appropriate boxes — but who is clearly not the right choice. Mia begins seeing Noah seriously but is constantly drawn back to Adam.

It is in a crisis involving Ben that the two suitors true colors come out, and Moon deftly addresses the issue of what makes a hero and, ultimately, what makes a good man.

There is plenty of heat between Mia and Adam and their passion is vividly depicted. Their intense and breathless physical compatibility leads to deeper feelings and the examination of second chances and what defines “the love of your life.” One chapter ends with Adam’s plea to himself: “Love her back. Just love her back.” Likewise, when she looks into Adam’s eyes, she sees the future — their future. In “Then Came You,” passion and intimacy are about trust.

In the background of the burgeoning relationship is a cast of interesting and engaging characters, including both their grandmothers, whose families are longtime Compass Cove residents and are involved without the caricature of meddling.

One of the richest characters is Mia’s mother, Ellen, a distant woman of strong opinions and a judgmental streak who has become acerbated by her daughter’s and husband’s deaths. Living in Charleston, Ellen does not want to give up legal custody of Ben and yet she doesn’t want to take full-time responsibility as it would interfere with the new life she has set for herself. While she is mostly portrayed in phone calls, the depth of her control permeates Mia and Ben’s lives. Moon has well-crafted Ellen’s literal and figurative disconnects and becomes the threat to Mia’s adoption of Ben.

In addition, the surfacing at Thanksgiving of Adam’s ex — the rail-thin, acid-tongued model Pilar — brings up doubts but then strengthens Adam and Mia’s future. This forced confrontation with his past, helps Adam grow yet another step toward what he really wants in the world. There is a late-in-the-game plot twist that enforces Mia’s complicated family history. But rather than feeling contrived, it is brutally honest and raises the final stakes in Mia, creating the family she truly craves.

If anything, “Then Came You” is a tribute to the support of a small town. “Mia had only started to learn it was okay to lean on others since moving to Compass Cove.” She moves from a life of isolation and the illusion of independence to embracing extended family in the form of friends and neighbors.

For both Mia and Adam, making Compass Cove a home brings out the good and the better in them. “Then Came You” is an appealing novel that will delight fans of both the romance and literature genres.

Jeannie Moon is the author of 15 published novels. Born and raised in Huntington, Moon is currently a librarian in the Smithtown school district and the president of the Long Island Romance Writers. “Then Came You” is the first book in her new Compass Cove series, published by Tule Publishing Group, and is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Kobo and iBooks. Meet her at a romance author panel, The Power of Love, at Sachem Public Library in Holbrook on Saturday, Feb. 10 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Books will be available for purchasing and signing. For more information on the author, visit her website at www.jeanniemoon.com.

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By Jeffrey Sanzel

Public radio personality and prolific author David Bouchier has gathered 122 essays in his newest collection, the charming “Out of Thin Air.” Divided into seven loose themes covering such topics as technology, politics and travel, Bouchier covers many of the same ideas but always from a different angle. As they are based on his well-known radio commentaries, each essay is a clever gem, rarely more than two pages, and makes for insightful and entertaining reading.

Author David Bouchier

In the Preface, Bouchier defines an essay as “the writer talking to you, one on one, about something that he or she finds interesting, annoying, bewildering, or funny.” This definitive statement guides the entire work. As we wend our way through his experiences, it is as if he is sitting across from us over a lively coffee. He is articulate and witty and, even when he is at his most hyperbolic, there is a sincerity that comes through.

Bouchier’s first essay, “Waiting for the End” appropriately deals with just that — the end of the world. He clearly gives us a sense of his life’s view and what will come in the ensuing pages: “The future is virgin territory, and any pessimist can claim it.” When writing of a cinematic look at the apocalypse: “The movie was two hours and thirty-eight minutes long. The actual end of the world needs to be snappier than that, or we will lose interest (average adult attention span: twenty minutes).” We now know who Bouchier is and can proceed in the full knowledge that we will laugh and be inspired in turns or, just as often, simultaneously.

Much of the book is taken up with issues of modern technology and the disenfranchisement of people of an earlier generation. What separates Bouchier from the usual curmudgeonly wheezes is that he has — albeit sometimes reluctantly — embraced not just the power of these changes but their necessity. Not that he doesn’t take many pointed and highly amusing shots at our slavish addiction to all things computer centric; he rails against them but still sees their value. “We are never alone unless the battery runs out.” He is not so much technophobic but “techno-wary.” Of cellphones, “I talk, therefore I am” is followed by his taking it a step further that this form of communication brings us closer to each other and yet isolates us from the world.

In his longest essay, “The Ghost in the Machine,” Bouchier makes the valid point that computers have rid us of the need for memory. With instant access, we have disconnected from ourselves and no actually living is done. We have become a society that survives in a virtual existence. While he is going to the extreme to make his point, there is a reality in his argument that demands we look inward.

“From Hardware to Software” is a laugh-out-loud equation of old-fashioned hardware stores with the heroic doctors of television drama with the dramatic of-course-it-can-be-saved. It reflects on a time when problems had solutions and mourns the loss of these kinder bastions of help and support and knowledge. In the same vein, the author writes a paean to the joy of the manual typewriter, gone the same way is these shops.

What helps enrich the pieces is that Bouchier is incredibly well-read and knowledgeable in a wide range of topics — literature (novels in particular), art and science to name a few. He encourages the reader to embrace science — even if you don’t understand it. He praises continuing education but never laments that education is wasted on the young. It gives a vast scope for interpretation and reference that enriches the depth of his exploration.

As stated, many subjects overlap (notably cellphones, computers and other contemporary gadgetry), but he manages to mine a different perspective with each vignette: He finds a singular awareness to highlight.

The topics that are covered are plentiful. The author’s thoughts touch on ideas from “selective forgetting” (a wonderfully accurate concept) to the danger of the smiley face. He pursues the danger of teaching fake history and the repercussions on young (and older) minds. Here, like so many places in his writing, he shifts easily from his acerbic and pithy quips to important concepts such as learning from history, not just ingest it.

Bouchier’s take on the opposite of procrastination — “pre-crastination” — is amusing and not a little disturbing; he finds that people who rush into things are not giving the proper thought. This leads to a siting of truly dangerous things that should give people pause: “double bacon cheeseburgers with fries, international wars, and marriage.” Even when taking aim at easy targets, his perceptions are both fresh and refreshing. Ultimately, in “We’ll Do This Later,” somehow he makes a strong case for procrastination. He is also adept at looking at two sides of a situation.

In “The Way We Were,” the author starts out with a pointedly ambivalent view of reunions but then comes to a much more introspective conclusion, finding the worth in the event. It is not just that he finds the two views but he is able to perceive multiple awarenesses.

“Worth Preserving” is a timely solution for maintaining historical sites. What is fascinating is that at first it seems like he is being tongue-in-cheek — and he might possibly be — but the concepts of preservation and accessibility are sound. It is this blend of humor and understanding that fuel his writing.

And yet, Bouchier’s take on nostalgia comes at the discussion from a different standpoint: “Every nation has its own tales of a glorious past that never existed.” He gives Downton Abbey as a prime example that the truth is much darker below stairs. Basically, the good old days that are glorified by film, television and novels never existed.

He laments the bookless bookstores that have become clothing emporiums — most notably university bookstores where books are screens “to goggle or Google at.” Clever word play is powerful and his succinctness is an arrow to the center, his dissections as swift and accurate as a scalpel.

“Losing stuff, like losing weight, is a lost cause.” We have too many things — we are saturated as “willing prisoners” of our acquisitions. Again, he turns his accusations inward and finds the positive in what has become a negative cliché — he finds the value in “stuff” as a connection to who we are related to from where we’ve come.

The author’s thoughts about wedding extravagance are really an exploration of marriage in the short and long term, calling to task the reality that in the modern age being average and fitting in trumps being Mozart. In the age of driverless cars, perhaps it is not the vehicles that should be recalled but the drivers themselves. In a flip on red-light cameras, he makes the case to reward good drivers for correct behavior.

The selfie as “a sudden plague of pathological vanity” is extreme — but not inaccurate, flying in the face of the cliché of a picture being worth a thousand words. The “Look at me, I’m here, I exist” is no more than a “flicker across the consciousness leaving no trace. They’re not worth a thousand words, they replace a thousand words.”

There is a great deal of strong advice in Bouchier’s writings. In “A Good Long Read,” he meditates on the transition from reading long books to embracing a series of books. This is a healthy and helpful suggestion to readers of desire but limited time.

An extended section on politics in the book should be made required reading in every school (and home, for that matter). The author’s view on the American system can be summed up in his observation that we have hundreds of choices for cereal but only two for president. He writes about the true heroes of our times and times past as well as a fascinating connection between clowns, Halloween and Election Day.

A discussion of a universal draft — men, woman, all ages an socioeconomic backgrounds — ultimately hints at broader ideas. He does the same thing with a darkly comic advocation of making everyone in the world an American. In his section on travel, Bouchier opens up with “Escape Attempts,” which hints at deeper themes — going from trips to war to marriage and children. He makes profound statements about the power of inner life, of reading versus travel. He points out that “to” is often less important than “from.” Style of travel from point of view as well as the unnecessary obsession with souvenirs all encourage us to look not just in the mirror but within ourselves.

The essay “The Business of America” is the smartest and most accurate assessment of the lack of values in our constant pursuit of meetings. In the “Right to Arm Bears,” Bouchier proposes leveling the hunting playing field by providing animals with guns. “Philosophy in the Slow Lane” meditates on life in the Long Island Expressway traffic jams, comparing it to the classic audio novels (Twain, Melville) he listens to when caught in the given congestion of our daily lives. All pithy statements; all with great truths beneath.

The best summation of Bouchier’s work would be in his own words: “What makes us different from bees and lemmings is that we can and do break away from the herd, and think our separate thoughts. We are bees with a perspective on the hive, which allows us to evolve and to create. It also gives us a headache.”

Thank you, Mr. Bouchier for the reminder of all the former. And your tag to this thought reminds us never to take ourselves too seriously.

‘Out of Thin Air’ is available online at www.amazon.com. Meet author David Bouchier at the Third Friday event at the Reboli Center for Art and History, 64 Main St., Stony Brook on Friday, Dec. 15 at 6 p.m. Bouchier will discuss his 25 years on public radio. The event is free.

A cornucopia of crime and punishment

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Author Kerriann Flanagan Brosky

“Historic Crimes of Long Island” by Kerriann Flanagan Brosky is a highly readable journey through “Misdeeds from the 1600s to the 1950s.” The Huntington author has collected 20 tales of local mayhem, ranging from murder to kidnapping, crimes motivated by money, passion and, occasionally, insanity. Brosky’s tight, you-are-there prose propels the reader from one piece to another, covering a wide range of sinister and often heinous actions. As aptly stated in the Preface, the book includes “pirates, witches, jealousy, revenge, tar and feathering, beheadings, drownings, madmen eccentrics, axe murderers and more.”

Brosky never shies away from skin-crawling detail where appropriate; but what separates this work from many others like it is her compassion for the victims. More often than not, books that chronicle the darker side of history tend to celebrate the perpetrators. Brosky instead shows great sensitivity and understanding of the targets. She offers insight into the motivation of the offenders but never excuses or glamorizes their actions. She does not revel in evil but explores it from multiple angles. She is more interested in the “why.”

The book wisely eschews chronology but instead opts for contrast as the accounts venture back and forth throughout time, weaving a rich tapestry, no two stories identical. Incidents in Quogue, Huntington, Islip, Smithtown, Westhampton Beach and other well-known Long Island towns create an intense backdrop to the range of occurrences.

Brosky focuses on not just a variety of episodes but chooses to spotlight different aspects of the proceedings. The Corn Doctor Murder exams a tangled legal system whereas The Mad Killer of Suffolk County emphasizes a sociopathy that drives a man to thrill killing.

Kidnapping or Murder? The Alice Parsons Case shows the politics that can interfere with an investigation as the conflict between the FBI and local police left the case unsolved. The Murder of Captain James Craft stretches from Glen Cove to the Tenderloin and includes both deception and decapitation. The Samuel Jones Murder addresses capital punishment in light of a botched hanging in 1875. Buried treasure, a violated burial ground and obsessed gardener are examined in astute detail.

One of the most intriguing entries is East Hampton Witch Trial of 1658. Like all sagas of this era, it shows the power of a vindictive nature in a culture of suspicion. It clearly sites the hysteria and danger but what is unusual in this report is the surprising outcome.

Perhaps the strongest and certainly most heartbreaking is Starr Faithful: Drowning, Murder, or Suicide. Here is a devastating sketch of a tragically abused girl, ill-treated from a very young age. This is a detailed commentary, mired in deep unhappiness, promiscuity, alcoholism and blackmail. Above all, it is a dimensional portrait of the victim. (As an interesting side note, Starr Faithful was the inspiration for John O’Hara’s novel, “Butterfield 8,” and the Elizabeth Taylor movie that followed.)

The book is well illustrated with photos, period prints and newspaper clippings, supplemented by Penny Dreadful-style illustrations by author Joan Harrison (who also provided the Foreword). Some stories are solved; others are left open, haunted by doubts and conflicting evidence. A variety of characters sharply presented, flesh out this slender but consistently engaging composition, sure to please a wide range of readers this Halloween season.

“Historic Crimes of Long Island,” published by The History Press, is available online at www.amazon.com and local bookstores. Upcoming lectures and book signings in the area include Port Jefferson Free Library on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m., Northport Historical Society on Oct. 29 at 2 p.m, and Half Hollow Hills Community Library in Dix Hills on Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.kerriannflanaganbrosky.com.