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Book Bag


By Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkin

Basic Books


Writer and literary critic Ilan Stavans is a fan of many kinds of writing, including graphic novels. Now Stavans, professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College, has penned a new graphic novel of his own to examine a mystery of the American Southwest: the story of “crypto-Jews,” Jews who were forced by the Spanish Inquisition to convert publicly to Christianity but secretly practiced aspects of Judaism at home.

In “El Iluminado,” Stavans has teamed up with graphic artist Steve Sheinkin to tell an entertaining whodunit in which Stavans plays himself, a professor from Amherst who comes to Santa Fe, N.M., to give a lecture on the area’s secret religious history. As he tells the audience, many Spanish Jews left for colonial Mexico to practice their faith in secret, leading some Catholics in the region today to wonder if their ancestors were Jewish.

Along the way, Stavans is drawn into an investigation of a young Santa Fe man, Rolando Pérez, who has recently fallen to his death from a cliff — or was he killed? And what were the documents he had that others were seeking? The police are soon asking Stavans what he knows about the situation, and the Amherst academic becomes caught up in a search for the documents himself.

One key might be in the story of Luis de Carvajal, the El Iluminado of the title, a 16th-century dissenter who discovered his Jewish roots by recalling family rituals, such as the lighting of candles on Friday nights, as a child. In colonial Mexico, de Carvajal became a messianic figure who openly declared his Jewish heritage — only to be burned at the stake by Spanish authorities.

The Los Angeles Times says the book “reads a bit like a crypto-Jewish ‘DaVinci Code.’ ... A reminder of the human longing that often drives those who search for their ‘true’ religion and cultural identities.”


By Thomas D. Osborn

Levellers Press


When Thomas Osborn of Northampton was discharged from the Army in 1966, following eight years of service and three tours of duty in Vietnam, he was deeply troubled. “I posed as a confident, capable warrior glad to be back to my normal life,” he writes in his new book about post-traumatic stress disorder. But inside, Osborn notes, he was roiled with anger, shame, depression and despair — all the classic signs of PTSD.

Osborn, a black belt in karate at the time, took up aikido, a defensive martial art, to try to improve his mental state. Now, after 40 years of the practice, he’s written a book for Levellers Press of Amherst on how aikido can benefit others — including veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — struggling with PTSD.

A retired business owner and educator who worked with at-risk and disabled youth, Osborn has also worked with vets grappling with PTSD. His book includes stories from his past and those of other vets and aikido practitioners, as well as an analysis of aikido and its therapeutic uses — particularly its ability in “blending mind, body and spirit.”

As he writes, “Based on my personal experiences ... aikido can be an effective part of treatment on several different levels, the end result providing a more holistic approach to a casually differentiated disability.”


By Richard Brunswick, M.D.

Amblyope Press

Northampton physician Richard Brunswick became a family doctor in 1984, and since then has helped many people quit smoking. Yet Brunswick adds that he knows how difficult the process is, so he’s written a quick guidebook that offers basic steps on how to kick the nicotine habit.

“Can’t Quit? Bullsh*t!” uses case studies of patients (not their real names) and their efforts to quit smoking, whether through a “cold turkey” approach or gradually scaling down their habit. Brunswick notes the links between smoking and behavior and suggests people need to identify and change the triggers that prompt them to reach for a cigarette — like going to a bar with friends who smoke.

Brunswick also examines the alternatives to quitting smoking but still using nicotine, like nicotine patches or electronic cigarettes. Exercise, developing new hobbies and sharing your quit-smoking efforts with friends and co-workers are also important, he says, as is a metaphorical pat on the back: “Give yourself credit for your hard work and keep at it.”

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