Brief Book Reviews (2020)

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. NB: In contrast with my approach in previous years, I will henceforth list titles with the most recent reading listed first.

  • The Assignment: A Novel by Liza Wiemer (Delacorte, 2020). A timely, important story, carefully told. I’m many years beyond the target readership (YA); as with other YA work, it’s difficult for me to assess the book as, say, a peer of the fictional Logan and Cade might do. But I’m very much hoping that the book will reach those readers.
  • The Passover Haggadah: A Biography by Vanessa L. Ochs (Princeton University Press, 2020). Reviewed for Hadassah magazine.
  • By Fire, By Water: A Novel by Mitchell James Kaplan (Other Press, 2010). I’ve owned a copy of this book for years; a forthcoming joint event with the author at last moved it ahead in the never-ending queue. I just wish that I’d managed to do so earlier. This is a fascinating novel inspired, as the author indicates in a note after the story’s end, by “the connections between four simultaneous, world-changing events: the establishment of the New Inquisition in Castile and Aragon, the reconquest of Granada, the expulsion of all Jews from Spain, and Cristóbal Colón’s so-called discovery of the Western Hemisphere.”
  • The Many Names for Mother: Poems by Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach (The Kent State University Press, 2019). This is a gorgeous book. I was perhaps especially drawn to it through my earlier acquaintance with the poet and some of the history that infuses this collection, as presented, for example, in this piece.
  • Mesmerizingly Sadly Beautiful by Matthew Lippman (Four Way Books, 2020). The latest poetry collection (his fifth, I believe) by my teacher Matthew Lippman.
  • Beyond the Ghetto Gates: A Novel by Michelle Cameron (She Writes Press, 2020). I’ve been waiting for this one since the author told me it was in the works, and I’m grateful for the advance review copy that came my way. My background in French history and literature aside, I don’t believe I’ve ever before encountered a novel set within Napoleon’s Italian campaign, much less one centered around Jewish characters. Fascinating glimpse into history, with a hefty dose of romance.
  • Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer (Random House, 2019). Elements of Style for our moment.
  • Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life in Judaism (after Finally Choosing to Look There) by Sarah Hurwitz (Spiegel & Grau, 2019). Terrific book.
  • Deaf Republic: Poems by Ilya Kaminsky (Graywolf Press, 2019). A fascinating project, complete with an introductory page of “Dramatis Personae” and illustrative sign language. I moved this one up in the tbr queue when I learned that it had won the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry. (Disclosure: My 2019 book was entered in that award competition, too.) I confess that as impressed as I am with this book, I don’t see anything specifically “Jewish” about it. This may be a case in which an author’s Jewishness is itself enough for their book to be considered the same. But I wonder.
  • Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman by Abby Chava Stein (Seal Press, 2019). I seem to be on something of a memoir kick. This is another one that I’d been hearing/reading about a lot: on lists, podcasts, etc., and it’s (surprise!) another one that makes me think about the motif of surviving/thriving. Near the end of the book, Stein writes that her story “is still happening”; the text’s final sentence is “To be continued!” I’ll look forward to reading the sequel.
  • How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir by Saeed Jones (Simon & Schuster, 2019). I’m still thinking about the experience of reading this memoir immediately after finishing Tara Westover’s. As the title suggests, this, too, is in many ways a tale of surviving/thriving, but it’s a different story. Also like Educated, it’s also steeped in a number of painful experiences very different from my own.
  • Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover (Random House, 2018). A few months ago, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, told an interviewer that it’s not enough to survive—one must thrive. Despite obvious differences in their situations, Tara Westover’s memoir made me think of the duchess’s words. That Westover survived her childhood and young adulthood, and has achieved so much at a (still-)young age, is astonishing. The book is beautifully written—but scenes of violence and/or injury may make some readers (like me) cringe, repeatedly.
  • Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book by Courtney Maum (Catapult, 2020; complimentary e-copy). An extremely good overview, lively and engaging. Will be most relevant for traditionally-published prose writers (like the author).
  • The New Order: Stories by Karen E. Bender (Counterpoint, 2018). I’m a longtime fan of Karen E. Bender’s short stories, and I’m annoyed with myself that it took me so long to read this collection (I’ve had a complimentary copy since publication in fall 2018; on the other hand, it may have been too overwhelming to read the opening story, “Where to Hide in a Synagogue,” at that time, coincident with the Pittsburgh attack). Not all of the book’s stories engage with explicitly Jewish concerns, but many do. I’m still thinking in particular of the story “This Is Who You Are,” in which the real-life 1974 terrorist attack on the Ma’alot school in Israel has repercussions for a young middle-schooler in California. Other political and social themes are woven through this and other stories, too. “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement,” for example, is, among other things, a “Me Too” story. The book’s closing story, “The Cell Phones,” loops back with some nice nods to “Where to Hide in a Synagogue.”