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.

  • 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.