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Brief Book Reviews (2019)

Now that I’ve eased away from an official book-reviewing practice, I’m using this space to share brief remarks on my reading. For the most part, this page will reflect what I post about my reading on Goodreads. Books that I receive directly from authors/publishers will be noted as complimentary review copies.

1. The Great Believers: A Novel by Rebecca Makkai (Viking). I should have read it when it was published last June. I should have read it before the end of the 2018, when it appeared on countless “best-of” book lists. At least I made it my first novel for 2019. This book is, simply, a masterpiece. The two narrative threads—one set amid the AIDS epidemic in Chicago in the 1980s and the second thirty years later in Paris—weave together in a way unlike anything I’ve read before. The characters begin to seem like one’s own friends/family. It’s rare that a book brings me to tears. This one did.

2. The Illusion of Return by Samir El Youssef (Melville House). Since the death of Israeli author Amos Oz at the end of December 2018, I’ve spent a lot of time reading tributes and returning to Oz’s interviews. His remarkable spirit made me wonder, “Who is the Palestinian Amos Oz?” Who is a writer/activist both idealistic and realistic, concerned for both his “own” people’s well-being and the welfare of “the other side”? Who might make as great an impact on Palestinian readers as Oz has among Israeli Jews (and other Jews)? I asked around a bit (quietly). A friend recommended this author/novel (officially, a novella). And I’m grateful.

3. We Begin In Gladness: How Poets Progress (Essays) by Craig Morgan Teicher (Graywolf Press). I feel as though I should be focusing on the smart analyses of the work of so many major poets (Plath, Merwin, etc.) that form the bulk of this book. But I confess that I am even more captivated by the author’s writing about poetry itself–what poetry means to those of us who write it (or try to). Take, for instance: “A poem is something that can’t otherwise be said addressed to someone who can’t otherwise hear it.” (I think that I’ve already found my next “Sunday Sentence.”)

4. Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi: A Novel by MaNishtana (Multikosheral Press). This book, which marketing copy describes as an “imaginative, semi-autobiographical novel…the most dazzling debut of an Orthodox black Jew born on a Sunday at 2:24AM in a Brooklyn hospital in 1982 that you will ever have the privilege of reading,” has been waiting for me on my Kindle for months. Its recent finalist honor for a National Jewish Book Award made me move it ahead in the queue, and I’m so glad that I did. Anyone who’s ever sought a “new” voice or story in Jewish literature will find it here. Yes, there are moments that may make many readers uncomfortable (it’s not always pleasant to look in the communal mirror). But throughout, there is so much that is instructive—I’m having a chat with some friends in a private group about one theological point in this novel that I knew nothing about prior to reading—and so much that is entertaining. My only significant “gripe” is that I found myself distracted by some of the narrative choices and stylistic techniques here—especially the intermittent use of a first-person narrator. Still, the story transcends such frustrations. I look forward to the author’s next book.

5. What the Light Reveals by Rachel Heimowitz [Rachel Neve Midbar] (Tebot Bach). A simply beautiful poetry chapbook that the poet, a friend, sent me as a gift. And what a gift. These 19 poems, most of which appear to draw inspiration from the years that poet has spent living in Israel, will, I suspect, draw me back again and again.

6. Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro (Alfred A. Knopf). Gorgeous writing. Stunning story. Read it in a day (late into the evening—I even skipped a favorite TV program to keep reading!).

7. Poetry Magazine (February 2019). Not to armchair self-analyze, but I note that once again, I’ve found the very first poem in the issue—on the inside cover—to be an arresting one, and the one that lingers with me longest after turning the final page. This month, it’s a poem by Mark Halperin (1940-2018) that originally appeared in the magazine in 1979. Interestingly—as is the case with similar poems—the title is omitted in the “in memory” version. So it wasn’t until I returned to the poet’s birth and death year that I realized that the presidential death it describes was FDR’s, not JFK’s. Read what was first titled “April 1945” for yourself.

8. Paper Brigade (2019). The latest edition of the annual literary publication from the Jewish Book Council. An outstanding compilation of prose and poetry, interviews and profiles, excerpts, art, and more. Named, as indicated within for “the original ‘paper brigade,’ a group of writers and intellectuals in the Vilna Ghetto, [who] risked their lives to rescue thousands of books and documents from Nazi hands.”

9. The Way to Write for Children by Joan Aiken (St. Martin’s Press, 1982). Some time back a writer friend needed to unload a library’s-worth of books. I was among those invited to browse his collection and pick up anything that tickled my fancy. Since I’ve been harboring thoughts/dreams of writing children’s books for quite some time, this book was among the volumes that caught my attention. I’m glad to have read it, even if one of the kinds of writing that most interests me—nonfiction for readers beyond picture-book age—isn’t really addressed. A good introductory volume for me.

10. We Have Been Lucky in the Midst of Misfortune: Poems by Sarah Stern (Kelsay Books, 2018). Here’s some solid advice: Before you invest in submitting your manuscript to a press that charges a reading fee, be sure that you get to know the work of that press. (Yes, this may involve actually purchasing one of its books.) Since I’m considering submitting my own poetry manuscript to Kelsay Books’s Aldrich Press imprint, I went ahead and ordered this poetry collection. Whether I end up sending my work to Kelsay or not, I am so pleased that learning about Kelsay brought me to this book. It is lovely (the poetry is lovely, and the cover and other production elements are also beautifully done). So many of the poems here resonated with me, particularly the ones connected with the poet’s German-Jewish lineage, and those that seem, to me, embedded in experience of a psychoanalytic/psycho-therapeutic dyad. A keeper volume, for sure.

11. The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers by Bridgett M. Davis (Little, Brown and Company, 2019). A moving (and historically informative) book, set largely in the 1960s and 1970s of the author’s upbringing. In an author’s note provided at the outset, Davis helps frame some of the discoveries/sources to come: “Because of the many years that have passed, and the ephemeral nature of the Numbers themselves, the physical record that remains of my mother’s business is scant. But my memory of her work is not; it is vivid. To edify and enhance my own memory, I’ve also relied on the recollections and knowledge of my mother’s sister and brother, my nephew and cousins, and childhood friends. I’ve joined these interviews with extensive research, my own earlier writings and diary entries, as well as family documents and personal papers kept in my mother’s brass trunk—to reconstruct the world of my childhood and young adulthood as the youngest daughter of my mother, Fannie Drumwright Davis Robinson, who ran numbers in Detroit. This is her story. And mine.”

12. Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019). Was drawn to read this one—a collection—via a brief preview in Harper’s magazine. Appreciate having spent the past several days with it (although near the end, I found myself wishing that there’d been a family tree included in front matter).

13. Poetry Magazine (March 2019). Unthemed issue. Poignantly includes work by Mary Oliver and Meena Alexander, both of whom died recently.

14. It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman. Foreword by Mayim Bialik (Knopf, 2019). I’ve been eager to read this anthology of short stories aimed for YA readers since I discovered that it was in the works, and I quickly snagged a copy when given the opportunity at a recent “galley grab.” Mayim Bialik’s foreword situates the book beautifully. I’m far beyond the target audience age for this book, and I can’t say that I didn’t feel my age at times when reading it. I will be most eager to learn what the teen readers for whom it’s intended take away from their reading experiences. In the meantime, I’m simply grateful that this book exists.

15. In the Spirit of the Holidays: Readings to Enrich Every Jewish Holiday by Janet Ruth Falon (Sticky Earth Books, 2018). I was provided a copy of this book by the author, who came to me for a publicity consultation. It truly was a pleasure for me to read this book, which takes the reader through the Jewish holiday calendar via direct, meaningful poems pegged to each occasion. Helpful context and translations/definitions are provided to orient readers new to the subjects treated. I have not read another of the author’s books, The Jewish Journaling Book: How to Use Jewish Tradition to Write Your Life & Explore Your Soul, but I suspect that the pair of titles would be quite complementary and of particular interest to Jewish educators and event organizers (for schools, libraries, congregations, JCCs, etc.).

16. We Love Anderson Cooper: Short Stories by R.L. Maizes (Celadon, 2019). I placed this book on my “Jewish Lit” shelf on Goodreads although not all of the 11 stories fit that label. (This book has many strengths, and the diversity—religious and other—of its characters is one of them.) I can’t claim to be completely unbiased, since the author is a friend (thus, my access to a pre-publication copy—the collection will be out in July). But on its own terms, the book offers a varied set of situations and stories, all infused with lively intelligence and crafted expertly. I am eager for others to have the opportunity to read it.

17. Homegoing: A Novel by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf, 2016). A stunning book that reads in many ways like a linked-story collection, with each chapter telling the story of one descendant of Maame, their common matriarch. One of Maame’s daughters remains in her native Africa; the other is enslaved and anchors a family line in the United States. Painful, important, memorable reading.

18. Sadness Is a White Bird: A Novel
by Moriel Rothman-Zecher (Atria, 2018). I’ll admit it: I stayed away from this one based on some of what I’d heard/read about it. (Life is short, and there’s already more than enough to upset me on a day-to-day basis.) But people whose views I value encouraged me to give it a try. I’m glad that I did, even if I may still have reservations about the way the book and author have been/continue to be presented.

19. America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today by Pamela S. Nadell (W.W. Norton, 2019). Nice addition for my continuing education/self-study program in Jewish studies. (My thanks to Norton for the complimentary copy.)

20. Poetry Magazine (April 2019). Sometime between this issue’s arrival in my mailbox and today it has “gone missing,” which is unfortunate, as I always prefer to read the physical copy (I’m grateful that the Poetry Foundation makes so much of the magazine’s content available online, but somehow, I don’t get the same immersive reading experience). This is an issue with a special section evidently gleaned from The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 3: Halal If You Hear Me, edited by Safia Elhillo and Fatimah Asghar, a forthcoming anthology featuring what Elhillo describes as “the Muslim community I didn’t know I was allowed to dream of. This is the Muslim community my child-self could have blossomed in—proof of the fact that there are as many ways to be Muslim as there are Muslims; that my way was one of those ways, was a way of being Muslim that counted.” Also notable in this issue: a review of Leonard Cohen’s final book.

21. There There: A Novel by Tommy Orange (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018). As a reader and as a writer, it’s intriguing to me to have read this novel just a few weeks after reading Homegoing, with which it shares a major structural similarity: discrete chapters focusing on individual characters who are ultimately connected. (Another similarity: depicting stories less-told to date, in this case, stories of urban Native Americans.) In this case, however, I found it a little more challenging to track the various narrative lines and characters. One memorable line that I’ll share here because I expect not to post the usual Sunday Sentence this week: “She was sober again, and ten days is the same as a year when you want to drink all the time.”

22. The Siege of Tel Aviv by Hesh Kestin (2019). There’s a lot to say about this novel. Pending any write-up of my own, I’ll point you to some thoughts from Mark Horowitz.

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