Brief Book Reviews (2024)

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.

The most recent reading is listed first.

  • Saying No to Hate: Overcoming Antisemitism in America by Norman H. Finkelstein (The Jewish Publication Society, 2024). A solid overview—published not long after the passing of author Norman H. Finkelstein—of the history of antisemitism in the United States (including a number of episodes I hadn’t known about). All too timely. Carefully documented (yes, there are footnotes), but aimed toward a general readership.
  • Israel Through the Jewish-American Imagination: A Survey of Jewish-American Literature on Israel 1928-1995 by Andrew Furman (SUNY Press, 1997). I’ve read several of my friend Andy Furman’s books, but this one—his first—I hadn’t yet picked up. It is a fascinating work of scholarship and makes me wonder 1) what Andy might think of his own predictions 25 years or so after publication and 2) which writers/books he might focus on in a “sequel” along the same lines.
  • Departure Stories: Betty Crocker Made Matzoh Balls (and Other Lies) by Elisa Bernick (Indiana University Press, 2022). The jacket copy sums this up well: “Elisa Bernick grew up ‘different’ (i.e., Jewish) in the white, Christian suburb of New Hope, Minnesota during the 1960s and early 1970s. At the center of her world was her mother, Arlene, who was a foul-mouthed, red-headed, suburban Samson who ultimately shook the walls of their family until it collapsed. Poignant and provocative, Departure Stories peers through the broader lens of Minnesota’s recent history to reveal an intergenerational journey through trauma that unraveled the Bernick family and many others.” An extremely interesting and well-written work of nonfiction and history—personal, familial, and other.
  • Waiting to Be Arrested at Night: A Uyghur Poet’s Memoir of China’s Genocide by Tahir Hamut Izgil (trans. and with an introduction by Joshua L. Freeman; Penguin 2023). Not enough attention is going to the experiences of Uyghurs in China. This memoir helps remedy that while also telling what is ultimately a new immigration story.
  • Bylines and Blessings: Overcoming Obstacles, Striving for Excellence, and Redefining Success by Judy Gruen (Köehlerbooks, 2024). As the jacket copy posits: “What happens when career ambition begins to clash with a commitment to religious and personal values? In Bylines and Blessings, award-winning author Judy Gruen shares how she resolved these two seemingly conflicting drives.” The memoir capably traces Gruen’s evolution as both a journalist/essayist/author and as a ba’alat teshuva (someone who finds her way to traditional/Orthodox Jewish practice from a previously secular background). While the jacket copy’s promise that “this book will feel like having a heart-to-heart talk with an old friend” is largely true, readers should be prepared (as can happen in conversations with friends) for frank commentary that, depending on one’s own perspectives, some may find to be on the judgmental side. Complimentary gift copy.
  • The Hebrew Teacher: Three Novellas by Maya Arad (trans. Jessica Cohen; New Vessel Press, 2024). Gobbled this one up. Would have given five stars to the first (title) story/novella alone. I could not put that one down. Absolute spot-on depiction of what I’ve witnessed in literature/academia (I couldn’t help wondering if any of the people I’ve had the displeasure of encountering might have served as a real-life inspiration). The two other pieces, more deeply situated within familial settings, simply didn’t captivate me as much–but I can imagine others having different responses. More of Maya Arad’s work in English, please! Complimentary review copy.
  • Displaced Persons: Stories by Joan Leegant (New American Press, 2024). A superb short-story collection, published as a winning manuscript in the New American Fiction Prize series. The book is divided between stories set in the “East” (Israel) and the “West” (the United States). I’ll admit that I was especially drawn to the former. Complimentary review copy.
  • Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer (OneWorld, 2020). I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this. Riva Lehrer weaves together her (extraordinary) life story with samples of her (also extraordinary) visual art. And if intersectionality is something you look for in your reading, this book meets that criterion; as the bio note on the jacket notes: “Riva Lehrer is an artist, writer, and curator whose work focuses on issues of physical identity and the socially challenged body. She is best known for representations of people with impairments, and those whose sexuality or gender identity have long been stigmatized.” And as the title suggests, that Lehrer was born into a Jewish family is a not-incidental fact that is integrated into the memoir as well.
  • Only Kidding! My First Book of Jewish Jokes by Sari Kopitnikoff (Ideastrator Press, 2022). The author gifted me with a copy of this book, and I am so glad that she did. A “first book of Jewish jokes” might be ostensibly aimed for younger readers, but this is bound to please the grown-ups, too.
  • Eve and Adam and Their Very First Day by Leslie Kimmelman with illustrations by Irina Avgustinovich (Apples & Honey Press, 2023). A lovely retelling of, well, “Eve and Adam and Their Very First Day.” Since I frequently teach Michal Lemberger’s short story “After Abel” to my undergraduates, I can’t help thinking of this book and that story as a terrific kidlit/adult reading pair that refocuses the story on Eve. The illustrations are gorgeous.
  • As Figs in Autumn: One Year in a Forever War by Ben Bastomski (Delphinium Books, 2023). I was gifted a copy of this memoir by a former “lone soldier,” as Diaspora residents who volunteer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces are called; such soldiers don’t have their nuclear families nearby (they are “lone”). Normally, I might have become impatient with the book’s highly lyrical style—my taste runs to plainer language and more linear narratives. And I might have wished for more historical/geographical background to have been included to help contextualize the “forever war” (less for my own needs than for some other readers I envisioned reading it). But reading this book after October 7, 2023, meant that as soon as I learned that this lone soldier had been “matched” with a family living on Kibbutz Be’eri—spending his frequent Sabbath leaves with them, calling the parents his parents and the children his siblings—I was riveted. And dreading what might have happened to this family that horrible day when Hamas terrorists came to their community. (The book, of course, ends long before that day; this post on the Jewish Book Council site will fill you in.) In short, it’s difficult to imagine many more timely books–or better literary glimpses into life on Kibbutz Be’eri, before.
  • Am Yisrael Chai: Essays, Poems, and Prayers for Israel edited by Menachem Creditor (2023). As summarized by Hadassah magazine: “For Jewish people everywhere, October 7 will forever be synonymous with the brutal terror attacks committed against Israel by Hamas. Shock, anger, grief and fear immediately took hold and nearly consumed each of us. Yet a mere five days after the attacks, writer and activist Rabbi Menachem Creditor, the Pearl and Ira Meyer scholar-in-residence at UJA-Federation New York, put out a call for contributions in reaction to Hamas’s carnage. Writers had exactly four days to send submissions to Creditor. The result is Am Yisrael Chai: Essays, Poems, and Prayers, a collection of writing in support of Israel edited by Creditor, with all proceeds benefiting UJA-Federation of New York’s Israel Emergency Fund.” I’m proud to have contributed three poems for reprint in this anthology.