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 as complimentary review copies will be noted as such. NB: In contrast with my approach in previous years, I will henceforth list titles with the most recent reading listed first.

  • Evening: A Novel by Nessa Rapoport (Counterpoint, 2020). I read my friend Nessa’s book in a day/evening—although I’m likely to go back to linger over some of the many simply gorgeous sentences.
  • Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by James Rey Sanchez (Creston Books, 2018). A lovely picture-book biography, which probably hits me in the heart even more powerfully right now, reading about Berlin’s America in my own.
  • The Unanswered Letter: One Holocaust Family’s Desperate Plea for Help by Faris Cassell (Regnery History, 2020). Register for this online book club to discuss this remarkable account with me on September 23. Complimentary copy.
  • The Teacher by Michal Ben-Naftali (trans. Daniella Zamir; Open Letter, 2020). A highly literary novel (winner of Israel’s Sapir Prize), in which we don’t learn much about the unnamed former student-turned-sleuth who narrates it. The book is essentially the narrator’s attempt to imagine Elsa Weiss (the teacher of the title)’s past. This includes a European childhood and early adulthood with the reader’s foreknowledge of the looming cataclysm; Weiss’s presence on the (in)famous Kastner train and detention in Bergen-Belsen; her initial recovery in Switzerland; and her postwar life in Israel, where she became a teacher—and remained haunted by her past, ultimately dying by suicide (not a spoiler). Complimentary copy.
  • Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu (Sterling Children’s Books, 2019). A beautifully presented picture-book biography—even if the science may *still* be beyond my grasp!
  • Itzhak, A Boy Who Loved the Violin: The Story of Young Itzhak Perlman by Tracy Newman, pictures by Abigail Halpin (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2020). My exploration of children’s picture-book biographies continues with this new one, which the childhood of violinist Itzhak Perlman, essentially up to his fateful November 2, 1958, appearance on the Ed Sullivan show (with a biographical postscript that provides a summary of Perlman’s decades since then). Vivid, colorful illustrations, too.
  • The In-Betweens by Davon Loeb (Everytime Press, 2018). The opening chapters of this memoir-in-essays by the son of a Black (not-Jewish) mother and a Jewish (not-Black) father immediately pulled me in. Check out a sample line that I selected for a #SundaySentence.
  • Never Say a Mean Word Again: A Tale from Medieval Spain by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Durga Yael Bernhard (Wisdom Tales, 2014). Inspired, as the author explains in a concluding note, by a medieval legend about the Jewish poet Samuel Ha-Nagid.
  • As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Raul Colón (Knopf, 2008). Moving and important premise. Love the epigraphs from the two men that open the book. Reading this made me realize that for all I’ve absorbed about Dr. King, I never learned much about his childhood, and thus I appreciated that this book opens with a very young MLK Jr.
  • The Key from Spain: Flory Jagoda and Her Music by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Sonja Wimmer (Kar-Ben, 2019). What a magnificent book, in both story and image. Debbie Levy (miraculously, in my aspiring-kidlit-author perspective) links the true-life story of Flory Jagoda with Flory’s ancestral roots in Al-Andalus, coursing through centuries to confront, carefully, both the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain and the Second World War (the word “Holocaust” is not used, but the loss of Flory’s extended family is made clear). But Flory’s story is one of family and tradition, language and music, and that sustains and uplifts even through the sorrow.
  • Velkom to Inklandt: Poems in My Grandmother’s Inklisch by Sophie Herxheimer (Short Books, 2017). A fascinating project. As the author explains in a note that appears at the end of the book: “These dramatic monologues form a Seekventz all in the same voice. I’ve written them in a Lenkvitch that my ear remembers as the way my paternal grandmother spoke.” This grandmother immigrated to England from Germany in 1938. It’s not fluid reading, and, as the author also suggests, reading the work aloud “is a good way in.” But especially if you, too, had a German-Jewish grandmother, I suspect that you’ll want to invest the effort.
  • The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Versify, 2019). An utterly magnificent children’s book about Black experience and history in America, with all of its associated “wonders and woes,” to borrow from Alexander’s afterword. Combines poem by Alexander with Nelson’s gorgeous illustrations.
  • Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication by Ann Whitford Paul (revised and expanded edition, Writer’s Digest Books, 2018). So many people have recommended this book to me, and the recommendation is justified.
  • A Big Cheese for the White House: The True Tale of a Tremendous Cheddar by Candace Fleming, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Square Fish/FSG, 1999). Recommended to me as an example of a picture book that tells an historical story.
  • The Yale Review (Summer 2020). Excellent issue. Glad that I’ve subscribed.
  • The Memory Monster by Yishai Sarid (trans. Yardenne Greenspan; Restless Books, 2020). I don’t read Hebrew, so I can’t offer any special insights into the translation. But I can tell you that the prose reads beautifully (which isn’t to say that there aren’t a number of uncomfortable moments here). And the first-person narration is seamless and immersive. Our narrator is a young Israeli historian, and the book unfolds as his report to a superior at Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust memorial center) about a work-related incident. And that’s all I’ll say for now. Complimentary copy.
  • Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester, illustrated by Karen Barbour (Amistad Press, 2005). Learned about this lovely picture book via Kveller’s “Iconic Black Jewish Writer Julius Lester Should Be on Every Parent’s Radar.” (Confession: I “read” it through the embedded YouTube video.)
  • Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, pictures by Melissa Sweet (Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins, 2013). Read this one, about Clara Lemlich, as part of my effort to study the craft and practice of picture-book writing, with an emphasis on historical/biographical picture books. It’s excellent.
  • A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day by Andrea Davis Pinkney, pictures by Lou Fancher & Steve Johnson (Viking, 2016). I can still see myself reading The Snowy Day back in kindergarten, and I recall my grown-up amazement when I learned more about Ezra Jack Keats and his life (largely through a museum exhibit). I appreciated this book and I’m glad that it’s here as a tribute to Keats. But for some reason I can’t explain or understand (perhaps the verse form?) I didn’t find it quite as enchanting as so many others evidently have.
  • How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (One World, 2019). The title led me to expect more of a practical/”how-to” angle that I found in this mix of memoir and history. The personal story is especially compelling toward the end–here’s wishing the author and his family much health and happiness.
  • Final Path: Poems by Ron Lands. (Finishing Line Press, 2020). A beautiful chapbook tracing the life (and illness and death) of the poet’s father.
  • Judah Touro Didn’t Want to Be Famous by Audrey Ades, illustrated by Vivien Mildenberger (Kar-Ben Publishers, 2020). I loved this book and plan to use it as a model for the kind of work I’m aspiring to do these days: teaching history via biography, and enhancing our collective awareness of the diversity of Jewish experience (in this case, through a story that begins in 1801 [instead of say, 1901] about an American Jew of Sephardic [instead of Ashkenazic] descent) and is set largely in New Orleans [instead of New York]). I’m well beyond the target demographic, but I learned a lot from this book. Judah Touro may not have wanted to be famous—but this book presents a portrait of a generous, principled man who certainly should be better known.
  • The First Zionist Congress: An Annotated Translation of the Proceedings by Michael J. Reimer (SUNY Press, 2019). Picked this one up for research purposes.
  • A Sweet Passover by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by David Slonim (Harry N. Abrams, 2012). I was introduced to this one when the author shared it in a superb presentation at the recent Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) virtual conference, and I had to check it out for myself. A very “sweet” book!
  • Her First American: A Novel by Lore Segal (Knopf, 1985). The descriptive copy on Goodreads indicates: “She’s Ilka Weissnix, a young Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Europe, newly arrived in the United States. He’s Carter Bayoux, her first American: a middle-aged, hard-drinking black intellectual. Lore Segal’s brilliant novel is the story of their love affair—one of the funniest and saddest in modern fiction.” I picked this one up for an online book club (which I neglected to register for, and now it’s sold out—likely at least in part because Segal herself is slated to participate!). But I’m so glad that I read it, and I’ll hope for a recording of the discussion that I’ll miss.
  • Ezra’s Big Shabbat Question by Aviva L. Brown, illustrated by Anastasia Kanavaliuk (SpringLight Publishing, 2019). A debut picture book that I’ve been hearing about as I immerse myself in Jewish kidlit circles. It’s self-published, which might put some people off—but shouldn’t. The author has done a beautiful job producing the book (I love the illustrations), and as I struggle to write my own manuscript(s), I’m impressed with how she has managed to distill some big, complicated issues into kid-sized nuggets.
  • Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story by Lesléa Newman, pictures by Amy June Bates (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019). Beautifully done.
  • The Words of My Father: Love & Pain in Palestine by Yousef Bashir (Harper, 2019). I read this memoir on the repeated recommendation of Yossi Klein Halevi. Not an easy read, and I might have appreciated a little more historical background/context. But here’s to the message of peace.
  • The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come by Sue Macy, illustrated by Stacy Innerst (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 2019). I’d been meaning to read this book as part of my continuing education in Jewish picture-book-writing, and was reminded of that fact when I attended a virtual event featuring the author and the illustrator (to be more specific: honoring their Sydney Taylor Book Award for this title). A wonderful story and gorgeous art.
  • So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (Seal Press, 2018). Another exceptionally timely read. As I read it, I often found myself thinking about parallels I discerned in the author’s arguments and my own perspectives on “talking about antisemitism.”
  • Magical Negro: Poems by Morgan Parker (Tin House Books, 2019). For me, this is the sort of book that compels further thought/reading. I want to look up reviews. I want to follow any discussion about the author’s choice to preface the book with an epigraph from Gertrude Stein. And after reading the review snippets concerning another of the author’s books (There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé), I want to read that one, too.
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama (Crown, 2018). Yet another book I should have read sooner; on the other hand, this may have been an especially good time (June 2020) to settle in with it.
  • The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride (10th anniversary edition, Riverhead Books, 2006). An outstanding family memoir. Currently (June 2020) appearing on several lists of recommended reading by Black Jewish authors; I moved it ahead on my tbr list when I saw that it would be the focus of an online book club.
  • Nemesis by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). I’ll borrow from Richard Brody’s recent piece on this novel: “Just as [The Plot Against America] has, in the time of Donald Trump’s Presidency, come to seem eerily prescient, it turns out that Roth’s description of the spread of polio, and the (fictitious) effect of the disease on his childhood community, similarly foretells, in many of its crucial practical details, the lines of stress that the coronavirus pandemic is revealing worldwide.”
  • Her Sister’s Tattoo: A Novel by Ellen Meeropol (Red Hen Press, 2020). Hurried up and read this one ahead of a joint appearance with the author. Writing these words on May 31, 2020, I am struck by the relevance of issues of justice, actions, and consequences as they’re treated in this novel with what’s happening literally today.
  • The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Karla Gudeon (Charlesbridge, 2017). Part of my nascent education as a would-be picture-book writer.
  • The Spiral Shell: A French Village Reveals Its Secrets of Jewish Resistance in World War II by Sandell Morse (Schaffner Press, 2020). Read this one ahead of an upcoming event in which both the author and I will be appearing. Looking forward to the opportunity to chat with her about it—in many ways, the book goes far beyond the suggested focus on a single French village its wartime history.
  • Don’t Touch the Bones by Julie Kolchinsky Dasbach (Lost Horse Press, 2020). The second stunning (and prize-winning) full-length poetry collection from this author, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine as a child. Opens with a superb foreword by Jehanne Dubrow that situates the work as “poetry—post Auschwitz, post-Adorno—that refuses to fetishize atrocity and that is profoundly Jewish in its examination of sustained, intergenerational grief.”
  • My Blue Piano by Else Lasker-Schüler (trans. Brooks Haxton; Syracuse University Press, 2015). Disclosure: I didn’t read the entire book. Once the collection was announced as the pick for the inaugural Leo Baeck Institute virtual book club, I accessed it via the NYPL—the platform required that I download each poem, so I limited my reading to the handful of poems that our group was advised to focus on. I also read the full introduction, by translator Brooks Haxton. I was fascinated to learn about the life and work of Else Lasker-Schüler (1969-1945).
  • Salaam of Birds: Poems by Rachel Neve-Midbar (Tebot Bach, 2020). Disclosure: Rachel is a friend. But even if I didn’t know her, I’d admire this collection—which won the Patricia Bibby First Book Award— for its artistry, and for its courage.
  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter (Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1939). The volume I read (an e-book) comprises the three short novels that were published as Pale Horse, Pale Rider in 1939: “Old Mortality,” “Noon Wine,” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” I picked up the book because a friend had recommended the title novel for pandemic-related reading (“Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” is set in 1918, during that era’s influenza pandemic). But as impatient as I was to reach that third segment, I’m glad to have had the chance to read the first two. It had been a long time since I’d read anything by Katherine Anne Porter. Too long.
  • The Drive by Yair Assulin (trans. Jessica Cohen; New Vessel Press, 2020). In the tradition of the short novel set within a brief time span—in this case, a drive to a psychiatric appointment and the visit that follows—we meet a young Israeli soldier who is seeking relief from the emotional suffering he’s experiencing in his post. I’m not certain that, by the end, the novel is quite as “anti-militarist” as the publisher makes it out to be, but that’s a more complicated topic that I can take on here. Interested readers will some helpful background provided in this Los Angeles Review of Books interview. Complimentary copy.
  • The Last Negroes at Harvard: The Class of 1963 and the 18 Young Men Who Changed Harvard Forever by Kent Garrett and Jeanne Ellsworth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020). It was at Harvard—in a first-semester graduate history seminar taught by Bernard Bailyn—that I learned the word prosopography. Since then, I’ve been attracted to group portraits, and this one—about Kent Garrett and his undergraduate classmates—fascinated me.
  • The Book of V.: A Novel by Anna Solomon (Henry Holt, 2020). Disclosure: I’ve been a fan of Anna Solomon’s work since I discovered that her first novel was scheduled for release, and she and I have developed a friendship over the years (enriched when we took a class together); I’m mentioned in the book’s acknowledgments. All of that aside, however, this is a beautiful, brilliant novel. And a very Jewish one. So glad that I snagged an early (complimentary) review copy!
  • 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. Complimentary review copy.
  • The Passover Haggadah: A Biography by Vanessa L. Ochs (Princeton University Press, 2020). Reviewed for Hadassah magazine. Complimentary copy.
  • 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 complimentary 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). An extremely good overview, lively and engaging. Will be most relevant for traditionally-published prose writers (like the author). Complimentary copy.
  • 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.”