Brief Book Reviews (2021)

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 Am Hava: A Song’s Story of Love, Hope, and Joy by Freda Lewkowicz, illustrated by Siona Benjamin (Intergalactic Afikoman, 2021). Requested and received a complimentary e-copy of this one. Beautiful art and a creative introduction to the history of the “Hava Nagilah” song—I would have loved even more info in the back matter, but evidently there will be a timeline (and more) posted on the publisher’s site, presumably closer to the publication date.
  • Sunday with Savta by Wiley Blevins, illustrated by Eliahou Eric Bokobza (Reycraft, 2021). The art throughout this picture book is simply gorgeous—it’s also my introduction to Bokobza’s work. The art accompanies a sweet story about an American boy whose Israeli grandmother (Savta) comes to visit him in New York and a memorable day they spend together. (No spoilers, but I teared up at the end.) One discordant note: At one point, Savta mentions that unlike the child’s great-aunt (presumably Savta’s sister), who opted to move to America she, Savta, moved to Israel. Later, there’s a fairly important mention of Savta’s parents taking her, as a child, to plant a tree in Jerusalem. So I was confused about when, exactly, Savta’s life in Israel began. Also: Much as I appreciated all of the information provided about Jewish holidays and rituals, particularly in the back matter, it’s not true for ALL Jewish girls that Bat Mitzvah “occurs on the girl’s 12th birthday.” In some denominations, girls, too, reach that milestone at 13. (I’m one such girl!)
  • Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket: Stories by Hilma Wolitzer (Bloomsbury, 2021). A chance to revisit some of Wolitzer’s past work—with a devastating new story at the end.
  • Beni’s War by Tammar Stein (Kar-Ben, 2020). YA novel set in Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Extremely well done.
  • My Israel and Me by Alice Blumenthal McGinty, illustrated by Rotem Teplow (Kalaniot Books, 2021). Grateful for the access to an electronic review copy. There don’t seem to be very many children’s books about Israel, and for that reason alone, this book seems important. I’m intrigued by the mix of verse juxtaposed with blocks of supplementary nonfiction text, and I love the bright illustrations. I haven’t found many pre-publication reviews yet; it’s hard to know how the book—what it includes, and what it doesn’t—will be received. Kudos to the author, illustrator, and publisher for daring to create and share this.
  • Here Is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Susan Gal (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021). This is a lovely book, narrated in rhyme, with beautiful illustrations. I had hoped that the use of “Here Is the World” might signal attention to the ways Jewish holidays are celebrated around the world, but that’s not what the book is about. Instead, it presents a year-in-holidays (and seasons, in the mold of the northern parts of North America) to a new baby.
  • Fault Lines: Exploring the Complicated Place of Progressive American Jewish Zionism edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor and Amanda Berman (2021). I’d encountered a number of the essays reprinted here when they first appeared. It was heartening to see them again, and together in this volume.
  • People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn (W.W. Norton, 2021). My thanks to Moment magazine for inviting me to write about this one.
  • Blind Man’s Bluff: A Memoir by James Tate Hill (W.W. Norton, 2021). As Dwight Garner suggested in his review, you finish reading this book impressed by how “amiable,” and “thoroughly normal” the author is. “I’d buy him a beer anytime,” Garner writes. I’d love to join them (and I don’t even drink beer!).
  • Jerusalem Beach: Stories by Iddo Gefen, trans. Daniella Zamir (Astra House, 2021). Extraordinarily inventive stories in this exceedingly impressive debut collection. Some of the stories are far more speculative than I usually enjoy (I’m not usually engaged by stories set in outer-space, for instance). Here, though, the specifically Israeli connections kept me continually immersed. I’ve noted that there’s a novel coming—I’ll be waiting for it!
  • How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith (Little, Brown, 2021). Difficult, but essential reading.
  • A Queen to the Rescue: The Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg (Creston Books, 2021). Another new picture-book biography from Nancy Churnin (and another one I was lucky to be given access to preview ahead of publication), and it’s also stellar.
  • Dear Mr. Dickens by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe (Albert Whitman, 2021). Even without the full effect (as happy as I was to be granted access to a digital ARC, that really isn’t the best format for experiencing the pleasures of reading a picture book), I loved this book. I am lucky enough to be in a critique group with the author, so I’m already well-acquainted with her narrative gifts. But this is story is not just terrifically told—it is truly so timely and conveys such important messages about speaking up and speaking out. I hope that it reaches a wide, wide audience.
  • The Slaughterman’s Daughter: A Novel by Yaniv Iczkovits, trans. Orr Scharf (Schocken, 2020). I’d heard a lot of enthusiasm for this one, and there’s definitely something special brewing—think along the lines of a classic Russian novel—but it’s a demanding read, too (I’m not sure how it would go over with a book club, for instance).
  • The Singer and the Scientist by Lisa Rose, illustrated by Isabel Muñoz (Kar-Ben, 2021). Back to picture books I go. This one offers a beautiful rendering of the evidently true story of the friendship between Marian Anderson and Albert Einstein. (And an important—if painful—reminder that even in the 20th century, segregation was not limited to the southern states.)
  • The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw (West Virginia University Press, 2020). In fewer than 200 pages, Philyaw’s superb collection of nine stories introduces us to a range of characters and situations, exploring, as the cover description notes, “the raw and tender places where Black women and girls dare to follow their desires and pursue a momentary reprieve from being good.” The stories also take on various forms: One unfolds as a letter, another as a mini-guidebook of sorts.
  • The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family by Joshua Cohen (New York Review Books, 2021). I have a weakness for campus novels, and an interest in Jewish history and literature; this novel packs a powerful combination.
  • Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir by Tyler Feder (Dial, 2020). Picked this one up after catching the author’s presentation at the most recent Association of Jewish Libraries conference. I’ll quote here from the press release announcing the book’s selection as winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Young Adult category: “This debut memoir in graphic form is a funny, sad, confidently illustrated meditation on grief. It’s both a tribute to Tyler’s wonderful mom, who died of breast cancer at the age of 47, and a guide to Jewish mourning practices. A singular achievement.”
  • We Wish You Luck: A Novel by Caroline Zancan (Riverhead, 2021). This one pulled me in (and kept me reading) largely for its setting within a low-residency MFA program. I can’t help wondering, though, if its readership is very, very “niche.”
  • Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong (One World, 2020). What will likely remain with me longest are the history lessons I’ve absorbed here. It’s stunning for me to realize how much of the history I did not know (including, for example, the 1965 Hart-Celler Act).
  • Wolf Lamb Bomb: Poems by Aviya Kushner (Orison Books, 2021). Gorgeous poems that are sending me to the book of Isaiah to appreciate further (but you don’t need to be an Isaiah expert to fall in love with them!).
  • The Jewish Quarterly (May 2021). The revived periodical meets its readers with an issue themed “The Return of History: New Populism, Old Hatreds.” I took up a subscription to this revamped publication as soon as I could, and I’m so glad that I did. Every piece in this issue is worth reading.
  • Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Carolrhoda Books, 2021). Inspired by Carole Boston Weatherford’s belief (as expressed in a conference presentation) and record of work in presenting difficult topics to children via picture-books, I knew that I had to read this one. Unsurprisingly, it’s superbly done.
  • The Age of Phillis by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (Wesleyan University Press, 2020). Deeply researched, deeply imagined retelling, in poetry, of the life of poet Phillis Wheatley Peters.
  • The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright (Library of America, 2021). Absolutely gutting novel.
  • 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium edited by Matthew E. Silverman and Nancy Naomi Carlson (Ashland Poetry Press, 2021). Appreciated the chance to read through this volume, which includes one of my poems.
  • Always an Olivia: A Remarkable Family History by Carolivia Herron, illustrated by Jeremy Tugeau (Kar-Ben, 2007). The jacket copy describes this as an “historical fiction picture book” telling the author’s remarkable family story.” The story is framed as a grandmother telling her young granddaughter about their family history, stretching back to Jews’ expulsion from Spain. 
  • Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt (Schocken Books, 2019). Solid, accessible treatment of a difficult subject.
  • Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth by Noa Tishby (Free Press, 2021). I wish that everyone would read this book.
  • How to Make a Slave and Other Essays by Jerald Walker (Mad Creek Books, 2020). Since I heard him read at a conference more than a decade ago, I always pay attention when I see Jerald Walker’s name. Appreciated this new collection.
  • Obit: Poems by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). I don’t remember when I first caught some of the poems from this collection, or in which journal they appeared. I just remember that I was overwhelmed by them. A beautiful, painful book.
  • Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping by Matthew Salesses (Catapult Books, 2021). It’s been a long time since I’ve been part of a fiction workshop, as student or teacher. If I should ever return to that setting, I’ll be glad to have read this book—and I’ll consult it again for some sample language and strategies.
  • Paris in the Present Tense: A Novel by Mark Helprin (Harry N. Abrams, 2017). Very engaging novel given to me as a gift by another Francophile who knew that I’d appreciate it.
  • A Scrap of Time and Other Stories by Ida Fink (trans. Madeline Levine and Francine Prose; Northwestern University Press, 1983). I wish that I’d encountered this book earlier and am grateful to Sara R. Horowitz’s overview of Fink and her work over on the website of the Jewish Women’s Archive.
  • Osnat and Her Dove: The True Story of the World’s First Female Rabbi by Sigal Samuel, illustrated by Vali Mintzi (Levine Querido, 2021). An utterly beautiful book. Literally beautiful–the art is stunning. But the story also shines so brightly because it’s so untold. After catching one of the author’s online appearances, I have much that I’d love to discuss with her: writing picture-books after publishing for grown-ups; #kidlit genre conventions; telling “untold” (or less-frequently-told) stories; the challenges of writing about a true-life character who may have left little/no recorded dialogue. (I’d also like to talk with her more about mentor texts, a topic that came up in Q&A this evening.) But for now, I just wish her hearty congratulations on this achievement. I foresee many awards for this book!
  • City of A Thousand Gates: A Novel by Rebecca Sacks (HarperCollins, 2021). A complicated book (not least because of the multiplicity of characters and plotlines). I’m looking forward to a book club discussion to help me clarify my own reactions to it.
  • Black Buck: A Novel by Mateo Askanpour (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021). Social critique, sales manual, and more. A couple of big surprises as the plot unfolds—and some developments that I saw telegraphed way ahead. Could easily visualize this adapted for a TV series (à la Younger), and, indeed, there’s a shoutout to the author’s (and the novel’s) film/TV agent in the acknowledgments. This is one adaptation that I’ll be looking for.
  • Walking with Ghosts: A Memoir by Gabriel Byrne (Grove, 2021). I’m not quite sure what I expected from this memoir. Within it I found some beautiful writing, several behind-the-scenes movie-industry anecdotes, and even a bit about Byrne’s experience shooting IN TREATMENT, which I finished watching during this pandemic time. What I definitely didn’t expect (and, frankly, am still puzzling over)—a sentence, early on, in connection with Byrne’s childhood recollection of going to a nearby farm for fresh milk: “Jews came too for their milk, carrying silver cans, speaking their own strange language.” I just haven’t figured out what to make of that sentence yet.
  • The Blessing & the Curse: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century by Adam Kirsch (Norton, 2020). I haven’t read every page (yet)—I’m dipping in and out of the collection of sage commentaries, with a focus at the moment (for teaching purposes) on the first section emphasizing European Jewish writers.
  • Such a Fun Age: A Novel by Kiley Reid (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019). Another novel with a lot of buzz that, in this case, it truly deserves. Kept me up reading to the end long past my bedtime!
  • Writers & Lovers: A Novel by Lily King (Grove Press, 2020). My kind of novel: writing-related and Boston/Cambridge/Harvard-related! Lots of fun recalling both actual and renamed locations and some Harvard institutions as well. Plus: a happy ending! I was pulled out of the “fictive dream” with a factual error that should have been caught (the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana took place in July, not June, 1981) and what I’m thinking should have been “Lenox” but appeared as “Lennox,” but my reading stumbles there just prove how immersed I was along the way.
  • Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (volumes I and II) by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon, 1986 and 1991). I read both of these ground-breaking volumes back when they were much “newer,” but I reread them in January 2021 ahead of spring-semester teaching.
  • The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry by Peter Sís (Frances Foster Books/FSG, 2014). Gorgeous illustrations. Almost seems a bit more geared toward adult readers, with extensive “back matter” information moved up to the main pages (albeit in tiny print) alongside the text. Read this one as part of my ongoing education in picture-book bios (and because j’adore Le petit prince).
  • Survival in Auschwitz: A Memoir by Primo Levi, translated by Stuart Woolf from the 1958 Italian edition (Touchstone, 1996). Although I’d read excerpts, I hadn’t yet read the full memoir.
  • The Man Who Loved His Wife by Jennifer Anne Moses (Mayapple Press, 2021). An excellent book of short stories. Complimentary review copy.