Brief Book Reviews (2022)

For the most part, this page will reflect what I post about my reading on Goodreads. Frankly, what I’m posting are really brief notes, not book reviews.

In any case: Books that I receive as complimentary review copies will be noted as such. The most recent reading is listed first.

  • The Very Best Sukkah: A Story from Uganda by Shoshana Nambi with illustrations by Moran Yogev (Kalaniot Books, 2022). A wonderful introduction to the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda (about which I know too little)—and a book about a Jewish holiday that isn’t Hanukkah!
  • Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew by Michael W. Twitty (Amistad, 2022).
  • Find my takes on all eight of the following books in this article for Hadassah magazine: Rosalind Looks Closer by Lisa Gerin with illustrations by Chiara Fedele (Beaming Books, 2022); The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs by Chana Stiefel with illustrations by Susan Gal (Scholastic, 2022); Sally Opened Doors: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso with illustrations by Margeaux Lucas (Apples & Honey Press, 2022); Fighting for YES! The Story of Disability Rights Activist Judith Heumann by Maryann Cocca-Leffler with illustrations by Vivien Mildenberger (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2022); Shoham’s Bangle by By Sarah Sassoon with illustrations by Noa Kelner (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2022); Maybe It Happened This Way by Leah Rachel Berkowitz and Erica Wovsaniker with illustrations by Katherine Messenger (Apples & Honey Press, 2022); Tizzy the Dizzy Dreidel by Allison Marks and Wayne Marks with illustrations by Francesca Assirelli (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2022); Best Kids’ Hanukkah Jokes Ever! by Highlights (Highlights Press, 2022).
  • To Build a Brave Space: The Making of a Spiritual First Responder by Matthew D. Gewirtz (Post Hill Press, 2022). An utterly generous book—equally a memoir and a reflection on coping with our changing times (and helping others cope). I suspect I’d have been riveted even if I weren’t fortunate enough to be the author’s congregant. (Complimentary review copy.)
  • One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World by Michael Frank with art by Maira Kalman (Avid Reader Press, 2022). I’ve been reading about the Holocaust for nearly as long as I’ve been reading. In this book, I learned about a survivor experience—coming from the Jewish community on the island of Rhodes—that even I knew very little about. A remarkable book that spotlights a remarkable person! (Complimentary review copy.)
  • Please Be Advised: A Novel in Memos by Christine Sneed (7.13 Books, 2022). Delightful. In all the best ways, reminded me of Julie Schumacher;s Dear Committee Members (but in a corporate setting)
  • The Hero of this Book by Elizabeth McCracken (Ecco Press, 2022). This book is a gift—to McCracken’s mother, to the reader, and, I hope, to McCracken herself.
  • My Hollywood and Other Poems by Boris Dralyuk (Paul Dry Books, 2022). Original poems and translations by the incredibly gifted Dralyuk.
  • Night of the Living Rez: Stories by Morgan Talty (Tin House, 2022). Hours after finishing this book, I’m still thinking about it–about its structure, for starters (or maybe sequencing is a more apt term). It’s the sort of book that makes me want to go read reviews and other discussions to help me continue to consider it.
  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, 2020). Difficult, but necessary reading.
  • Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation adapted by Ari Folman with illustrations by David Polonsky (Pantheon, 2018). This book has been in the news lately, so I figured it was long past time for me to take a look at it. The #NameTheTranslator impulse in me is distracted with an inability to locate any translation info (other than a credit to Doubleday for the translation of direct quotations from the diary)–can it be that the Israeli adapter did all his work in English?
  • Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza by Mosab Abu Toha (City Lights Books, 2022). It was not easy for me to read this book, but I borrowed it from the library because I thought it was important that I try. As fate—or the library’s reminder that the book was due back—would have it, I finished reading it just as the 50th anniversary commemorations of the attack on Israeli athletes in Munich were beginning. And thus my sadness increases. For as much as this book conveys the poet’s suffering, and his people’s, it operates under a binary division between “Us and Them” (in fact, the title of one of the poems). But it never once acknowledges any depth of suffering on the “other side” (if anything, it scorns that pain in the aforementioned poem). And its other omissions and selections suggest a desire to pin all of Palestinians’ wounds on a single cause: the Jewish state. Whether the poet’s choices stem from lack of awareness or lack of concern, the effect on this reader is sadly the same. It leaves me bleak and despairing for the future. Especially on this anniversary. Until both “us and them” can acknowledge each others’ suffering—and their own errors and transgressions—it’s hard to hope for a better future for all.
  • The Greatest Song of All: How Isaac Stern United the World to Save Carnegie Hall by Megan Hoyt with illustrations by Katie Hickey (Quill Tree Books, 2022). I’m no youngster, but violinist Isaac Stern’s 1960 campaign to save Carnegie Hall from demolition was before my time, and I didn’t know about it. This picture book tells the story of the site’s significance alongside an introduction to Stern’s life and career, converging at the point where the musician embarked on an (ultimately successful) campaign to preserve the building.
  • Fellowship Point by Alice Elliott Dark (Scribner/Marysue Rucci Books, 2022). A deeply-satisfying novel.
  • From Africa to Zion: The Shepherd Boy Who Became Israel’s First Ethiopian-born Journalist by Danny Adeno Abebe, trans. Eylon Levy (Yedioth Books, 2021). An essential read, if often a painful one. I am grateful that this memoir has been made available in English translation. We need more stories of and by Ethiopian Israelis.
  • Kids in America: A Gen X Reckoning by Liz Prato (Santa Fe Writer’s Project, 2022). A superb essay collection that I purchased (and devoured) after reading this excerpt.
  • The Poet’s House: A Novel by Jean Thompson (Algonquin, 2022). Loved it.
  • Delicious Foods: A Novel by James Hannaham (Little Brown, 2015). Brilliant—and brutal.
  • Lech: A Novel by Sara Lippmann (Tortoise Books, 2022). Fans of Sara Lippmann’s short stories will be especially happy to encounter the author’s debut novel, featuring an array of characters whose lives intersect one summer in the Catskills. I eagerly gobbled my complimentary review copy.
  • The Chocolate King by Michael Leventhal with illustrations by Laura Catalan (Apples & Honey, 2022). Appreciated the chance to spend time with this historical story about the popularization of chocolate. Complimentary review copy.
  • The Virginity of Famous Men by Christine Sneed (Bloomsbury, 2016). Such a pleasure to immerse myself in this book of finely-crafted short stories by Sneed, whom I have come to know via Twitter.
  • Klezmer! written and illustrated by Kyra Teis (Kar-Ben, 2021); Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem by Amanda Gorman with illustrations by Loren Long (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2021); Frank, Who Liked to Build: The Architecture of Frank Gehry by Deborah Blumenthal with illustrations by Maria Brzozowska; (Kar-Ben, 2022); The Desert Unicorn by Bonnie Grubman and Kerry Olitzsky with illustrations by Amerín Huq (Apples & Honey Press, 2022); Soosie: The Horse that Saved Shabbat by Tami Lehman-Wilzig with illustrations by Menahem Halberstadt (Kalaniot, 2021). Wrote about these (and other titles) in an article for Moment magazine. Several I obtained as complimentary review copies.
  • Thank You, Mr. Nixon: Stories by Gish Jen (Alfred A. Knopf, 2022). Connecting the (not-too-distant) past and present—the book ends with a story set during the COVID era—these stories and their often also-connected characters show a variety of Chinese and Chinese-American experiences. Five stars.
  • Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered by Ruth Kluger (Feminist Press, 2001). I wish I’d read this earlier. Now trying to figure out how to incorporate it into my teaching.
  • Thank You, Dr. Salk! The Scientist Who Beat Polio and Healed the World by Dean Robbins with pictures by Mike Dutton (Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2021). Picture-book biography (with beautiful illustrations that definitely place the book as an historical story). The story makes an explicit connection between Salk’s motivation to make a difference “from his Jewish religion. He dreamed of tikkun olam. Healing the world.”
  • Léa: A Novel by Ariela Freedman (Linda Leith Publishing, 2022). This historical/biographical novel grabbed me from the start and held my interest throughout. I knew nothing about the real-life Léa Roback when I began reading; the book offered a compelling way to learn about Roback and, through her, a great deal about Jewish Canadian and Communist history. Despite the book’s historical nature, I found myself thinking often about contemporary concerns (economic inequality, abortion, challenges to democracy, etc.). I did experience what I would call a few “hiccups” in my reading—moments when I wished a chapter hadn’t ended quite so soon or abruptly, and even a few moments when I felt a bit lost. Still, I found this to be overall a superbly engaging story.
  • Nobody Gets Out Alive: Stories by Leigh Newman (Scribner, 2022). Newman’s memoir Still Points North introduced me to her native Alaska; this collection continues that education. Stunning, often brutal stories, exquisitely crafted.
  • The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil by Tina Brown (Crown, 2022). Need a diversion? This may be the thing—if you have a lot of time (500 pages!).
  • Mrs. Noah’s Doves by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Alida Massari (Kar-Ben, 2022). A reframing of the biblical story of Noah and the ark, for children, spotlighting “Mrs. Noah.” Complimentary review copy.
  • Rena Glickman, Queen of Judo by Eve Nadel Catarevas, illustrated by Martina Peluso (Kar-Ben, 2022). A picture-book biography of Rusty Kanokogi (née Rena Glickman), the first woman to become a seventh-degree black belt in judo and coach of the first United States Olympic Women’s Judo Team. Complimentary review copy.
  • I Hate Borsch! by Yevgenia Nayberg (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2022). A picture book both written and illustrated by the prodigiously talented Nayberg, rendered especially powerful as a tribute to a food disliked in the narrator’s Ukrainian childhood—and embraced as an adult in America.
  • True Biz: A Novel by Sara Nović (Random House, 2022). Nović’s first novel, Girl at War, bowled me over, so I suspected this one would be exceptionally good, too. I wasn’t disappointed.
  • Atomic Anna: A Novel by Rachel Barenbaum (Grand Central Publishing, 2022). A fascinating, layered, multigenerational story. The science was frankly beyond me (I barely passed a watered-down “physics for poets” class in college), but I trusted it. (It would be great to read a review by someone who really does understand the science, though.)
  • Big Dreams, Small Fish by Paula Cohen (Levine Querido, 2022). A sweet picture-book rendered poignant by the untimely passing of the author-illustrator just before publication.
  • Tía Fortuna’s New Home: A Jewish Cuban Journey by Ruth Behar, illustrated by Devon Holzwarth (Alfred A. Knopf, 2022). A beautifully written and illustrated book for children.
  • Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai by Matti Friedman (Spiegel and Grau, 2022). Matti Friedman writes beautifully. He researches deeply. Both of those qualities are on ample display in his latest book, a nonfiction account of what outside Israel is a little-known episode from Cohen’s life: the time that he spent in Israel after the country was attacked in October 1973
  • I’d Like to Say Sorry, but There’s No One to Say Sorry To: Stories by Mikolaj Grynberg, trans. Sean Gasper Bye (The New Press, 2022). A slender book packed with literally dozens of pieces that read in an as-told-to style, inviting the reader to wonder just how closely they may resemble some of the author’s work in oral histories. There is a curious cumulative effect—don’t many of these tales of Polish Jewish experience hit the same (or at least, extremely similar) notes? Perhaps—and yet, here, the repetition makes the message(s) all the more insistent.
  • It Could Happen Here: Why America Is Tipping from Hate to the Unthinkable—and How We Can Stop It by Jonathan Greenblatt (Mariner Books, 2022). Not a whole lot here that was new to me, since I follow Greenblatt (and the ADL, the organization he leads) fairly closely. But it’s all well-written; I bookmarked several pages to refer back to and quote when I will invariably need better words than my own.
  • Alone Together on Dan Street by Erica Lyons, illustrated by Jen Jamieson (Apples and Honey Press, 2022). An absolutely beautiful book set in Jerusalem over a Passover holiday when, “to stay safe from a bad virus, everyone stayed home.” Rightly listed as a 2022 “Holiday Highlight” by the Association of Jewish Libraries.
  • Jerks by Sara Lippmann (Mason Jar Press, 2022). Gritty, raw short stories, as only my friend Sara can write them. Can’t wait for Sara’s novel, coming in the fall.
  • A Visit to Moscow adapted by Anna Olswanger, based on an idea from Rabbi Rafael Grossman, and illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg (West Margin Press, 2022). As grateful as I am for the e-ARC I was granted access to, I will look forward to reading a “real” copy of this beautiful book—I am confident that it will be even more beautiful when it is published. It recounts a story that is both historical and, now, timely, about the experience of Jews in the Soviet Union, and the efforts of people like American rabbi Rafael Grossman to help them. And those already familiar with Yevgenia Nayberg’s gorgeous illustration work won’t be disappointed with her contributions here.
  • The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Eugene Yelchin (Candlewick Press, 2021). Marvelous middle-grade illustrated memoir about growing up Jewish in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg)—with special treats for those of us who, like Yelchin’s mother, adore Mikhail Baryshnikov.
  • Tunnels by Rutu Modan, trans. Ishai Mishory (Drawn & Quarterly, 2021). Modan’s graphic novels are always worth attention, but this one, alas, isn’t going to be one of my favorites. It’s a little more challenging than usual; I expect that those without basic familiarity with both the Ark of the Covenant and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may find it especially distancing.
  • Maybe It’s Me: On Being the Wrong Kind of Woman by Eileen Pollack (Delphinium, 2022). Terrific essay collection.
  • Returning to Carthage by Ben Sharafski (Lewis & Greene, 2021). For me, the standout piece in this slim short-story collection is the lengthy final story, “Waiting,” in which an Israeli-born son who lives with his wife and children in Australia returns to Israel as his mother’s death approaches.
  • The Jewish Quarterly (February 2022): A superb issue of a journal that I am so glad to subscribe to. I’ll admit that I was unsure how much more I could learn about the theme “In search of lost time: Europe before the Holocaust,” but Menachem Kaiser’s piece on the Vilna/Vilnius archive, and Rachel Kadish’s essay organized around her family’s lost hotel near Krakow, reminded me, again, that there is no end to the power of these stories. Also standouts for me in this issue: Benjamin Balint’s review of The Books of Jacob (which is probably the closest I will manage to get to that novel until the semester ends) and Benjamin Ramm’s short article on “The Jews of Provence,” with a focus on Carpentras area. The letters and response from Anshel Pfeffer about Pfeffer’s work in a previous issue, too, caught and sustained my attention. If you’re not already a subscriber to The Jewish Quarterly, do consider becoming one!
  • The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Evan Turk (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021). Winner of this year’s Sibert Medal for “the most distinguished informational book for children published in the United States in English,” this gorgeously illustrated picture book introduces readers to the life and work of Ben Shahn (1898-1969).
  • Hannah G. Solomon Dared to Make a Difference by Bonnie Lindauer, illustrated by Sofia Moore (Kar-Ben, 2021). Delighted with this giveaway copy of a picture-book biography that introduced me to the life of Solomon (1858-1942), whose many unusual-for-her-time achievements included the establishment of the National Council of Jewish Women.
  • My Monticello: Fiction by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson (Henry Holt, 2021). Five stories and a novella. The opening story, “Control Negro,” and the title novella that concludes the collection are unforgettable bookend pieces.
  • Jewish Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Ilan Stavans (Oxford University Press, 2021). I’ve assigned this book’s introduction (as reprinted on the Literary Hub website) in my current course, and I wanted to be sure to read the rest of the book, too. Stavans has taken on a daunting task here. A couple of disagreements notwithstanding (I have some different views on Elie Wiesel’s Night, for instance), I’m super-impressed. Chapter 6, which focuses on Israeli literature, is particularly well done, and I’m likely going to assign that as well.
  • The Souvenir Museum: Stories by Elizabeth McCracken (Ecco, 2021). Big McCracken fan here. I enjoyed all of these stories, but I am probably most fond of the several stories, threaded through the book, featuring the characters of Sadie and Jack. I could have read a whole book about them.
  • Aporia by Eric E. Hyett (Lily Poetry Review Press, 2022). Beautiful poems by a loving son, to/for his mother, also a poet, as together they confront her illness.
  • Brown Girls: A Novel by Daphne Palasi Andreades (Random House, 2022). A remarkable book, one that I need to mull over more. In the meantime, I’ll point you to the author’s conversation with Jenn Baker for the Minorities in Publishing podcast.
  • Wild Kingdom: Poems by Jehanne Dubrow (LSU Press, 2021). Beautiful work. A number of the poems depict academic life—not too favorably.
  • The Pessimists: A Novel by Bethany Ball (Grove Press, 2021). Bethany is a friend, so it was a special pleasure to devour this book this past weekend. I’ll point others to Ranen Omer-Sherman’s review of the novel for the Jewish Book Council, one of the few commentaries I’ve seen to date that remarks on the book’s treatment of antisemitism.
  • Meiselman: The Lean Years by Avner Landes (Tortoise Books, 2021). As the cover suggests, this is a book with a library connection: Protagonist Meiselman works as events and programs coordinator for a Chicago-area library. And there’s a major book-focused plotline, concerning a single author event, that runs through the novel. I’m always drawn to novels that are somehow embedded in a world of books, so I was happy to be offered a copy of this one. We spend the week-long narrative present of this novel (despite the book’s subtitle, only in flashback do we cover past “years”) lodged in the mind/perspective of the protagonist, and that can be an uncomfortable place to be. Certainly, Meiselman is not a happy guy. I imagine that he may evoke a range of responses in readers. He’s a flawed character, to be sure (my own reaction to him contains a large dose of pity). But one senses that the author understands this. I also sense that fans of the Chicago White Sox (and, um, Portnoy’s Complaint) may feel more immediately at home in Meiselman’s world than I did. I read in an interview that the author is currently at work on a novel set in Chicago, New York, and Israel. I will be eager to know when that one’s available.