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Brief Book Reviews (2018)

Now that I’m easing 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 KITES by Romain Gary (trans. Miranda Richmond Mouillot; New Directions). In two words: C’est magnifique.
  2. GARDENING IN THE TROPICS by Olive Senior (Insomniac Press). I received this poetry collection from a “Secret Santa” (who’s not so secret—I know that she lives in Jamaica). The images from Caribbean life gave me a Sunday Sentence the week I read this book. Poet Olive Senior was new to me, and I’m most grateful for the introduction.
  3. THE SCOTTISH CAFE by Susanna H. Case (Slapering Hol Press). Per the author’s notes at the chapbook’s end: “This series of poems is loosely based upon the experiences of the mathematicians of the Scottish Café, who lived and worked in Lvov, Poland (now L’viv, Ukraine, a center of Eastern European intellectual life before World War II, close to the area from which my own ancestors emigrated to the United States. A book, known as the ‘Scottish Book,’ was kept in the Café and used to write down some of their problems and solutions. Whoever offered a proof was often awarded a prize.” Case adds that she began to work on these poems after 9/11. My thanks to the team from Slapering Hol Press who brought this chapbook along to the New York Society Library so I could purchase it at a Library event.
  4. POETRY MAGAZINE (January 2018). Not a standout issue, imho.
  5. THE WEIGHT OF INK by Rachel Kadish (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Reminiscent of Possession, with a contemporary academic/scholarship narrative running alongside an historical one. Has given me a sense of seventeenth-century Jewish experience in London, and to a lesser extent, in Amsterdam, that I did not have before.
  6. POETRY MAGAZINE (February 2018). Interesting issue featuring New Zealand poets/poetry.
  7. THE STOWAWAY by Laurie Gwen Shapiro (Simon and Schuster). I’m not likely to travel to Antarctica anytime soon, but thanks to this book I feel as though I, too, “stowed away” on a late 1920s expedition there. (Complimentary review copy.)
  8. THE SALT BEFORE IT SHAKES by Yvonne Stephens (Hidden Timber Press). Received this poetry collection as a gift and enjoyed it. Read more about it here.
  9. THE CHÂTEAU by Paul Goldberg (Picador). I’m still feeling a bit guilty that I haven’t read Goldberg’s previous novel (THE YID), but that didn’t impinge on my enjoyment of this one, which made me laugh—in one case, nearly uncontrollably—more than any book I’ve read lately. Come for the humor, stay for the dual Russian/English dialogue and, um, poetry. (Complimentary review copy.)
  10. SHIVA MOON: POEMS by Maxine Silverman (Ben Yehuda Press). Some months ago, I backed a crowd-funding campaign from Ben Yehuda Press. In return, I received several poetry books from their catalog (more are coming). This is the first one that I’ve read. And I’m not at all sorry to have backed the campaign.
  11. THE BUSINESS OF BEING A WRITER by Jane Friedman (The University of Chicago Press). Superb overview. Keep an eye out for the supplemental resources that will be added around publication to the companion website. (Complimentary review copy.)
  12. FROM A SEALED ROOM by Rachel Kadish (Houghton Mifflin/Mariner). Had this novel only provided this magnificent sentence, well, “dayenu,” as our people say. But it offers so much more. I’m glad to have read it, albeit belatedly (it’s Kadish’s debut novel; she has since published two others).
  13. JERUSALEM, DRAWN AND QUARTERED by Sarah Tuttle-Singer (Skyhorse Publishing). The subtitle—”A Year Spent Living in the Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish Quarters of Old Jerusalem”—gives you the general structure of this beautifully-written memoir. And here’s a sample sentence. (This one also came to me as a complimentary [advance] copy.)
  14. POETRY MAGAZINE (March 2018). Maybe I was tired when I began paging through this issue. Maybe the gray cover infused my reading too much. Whatever the reason, I just didn’t seem to get much from this issue. Hoping for more connection in April.
  15. DECENCY: POEMS by Marcela Sulak (Black Lawrence Press). I became acquainted with Marcela through her work as a translator (and podcaster), but I was not familiar with her original poetry. When a friend recommended one of Marcela’s poems to me, I found it, admired it, and wanted to read more. And I’m glad that I have!
  16. FLUNK. START. RECLAIMING MY DECADE LOST IN SCIENTOLOGY by Sands Hall (Counterpoint ). It wasn’t always easy to read this book, because I know and care about the author (although I knew nothing about this part of her life until she began sharing information about the book). But you needn’t be a Sands fan to read it. An interest in learning about Scientology—and about what can cause any of us to make questionable choices—will suffice.
  17. THE PARIS REVIEW (NUMBER 224). Lots of good stuff here, but if I had to select an issue highlight, it would likely be Cary Goldstein’s “Art of Fiction” interview with Charles Johnson.
  18. POETRY MAGAZINE (April 2018). Engaging approach in this issue, which, as an introductory editor’s note explains, “presents work from three of many…active communities: Split This Rock, a gathering of those who work for social justice; Black Girl Magic—the name is self-explanatory, but these are poets connected to the BreakBeat poets featured in our April 2015 issue; and Snow City Arts, an organization that provides instruction…to children in hospitals. In juxtaposing work from each of these vibrant groups, we hope readers will get a sense of the vivacious energy and talent nourished wherever poets and their readers gather.” Mission accomplished. (More, please!)
  19. LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press). Terrific read that meets the high expectations set for those of us who so admired the author’s previous novel, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU (about which you can read more here).
  20. IT JUST SO HAPPENS: POEMS TO READ ALOUD by Greer Gurland (Finishing Line Press). So, I admit that I have not yet read these poems—written by a college classmate—aloud. BUT I have read them, and admired them. Gurland’s work, the cover copy says, “has been described as unusually accessible while offering complexity and a depth that resonates with the reader.” An apt description.
  21. PANGYRUS (issue four): Discovered this journal at the latest Grub Street “The Muse and the Marketplace” conference, and promptly purchased this issue to explore it further.
  22. LOVE’S LONG LINE by Sophfronia Scott (Mad Creek Books). My soul feels enriched by the time I’ve spent with Sophfronia Scott’s beautiful writing—and the equally beautiful spirit that infuses it. I highly recommend this essay collection.
  23. EVERYDAY PEOPLE: THE COLOR OF LIFE edited by Jennifer Baker (Atria). Appreciated the opportunity to read this short-fiction anthology ahead of publication. Stay tuned for a Q&A with Baker.
  24. LETTERS TO MY PALESTINIAN NEIGHBOR by Yossi Klein Halevi (HarperCollins). I wish that everyone would read this book. For a fuller review, please see this post.
  25. POETRY MAGAZINE (May 2018). This one didn’t leave much of an impression on me, alas.
  26. ALL THE COLORS WE WILL SEE: REFLECTIONS ON BARRIERS, BROKENNESS, AND FINDING OUR WAY by Patrice Gopo (Thomas Nelson). An essay collection that functions as autobiography. Beautifully written descriptions of life experiences in a range of settings. Highly recommended. (Complimentary review copy; book will be out in August 2018.)
  27. WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE: THE FIFTY-DAY JOURNEY FROM EGYPT TO SINAI by Senator Joe Lieberman (with Rabbi Ari D. Kahn; Maggid Books and OU Press). I picked this one up after hearing Senator Lieberman on an episode of the Unorthodox podcast. Perhaps so primed, my main interest rested in the fifth and final section, featuring mini-essays about the Shavuot holiday.
  28. POETRY MAGAZINE (June 2018). This issue, guest-edited by Heid E. Erdrich, is devoted to Native Poets. The piece that I’m still thinking about is one of the prose offerings, “Words as Seeds,” by Tanaya Winder (and you can find that online, too).
  29. BROWN: POEMS by Kevin Young (Alfred A. Knopf). It’s impossible to keep up with the prolific Kevin Young, but I can try to catch one of his books in a timely way every so often. What I’m most likely to remember from this collection: the poems depicting Young’s Kansas boyhood (especially/for example: “History,” about a high-school teacher).
  30. THE PARIS REVIEW (Number 225). Highlights: Stories by Shruti Swamy (“A House is a Body”) and Benjamin Nugent (“Safe Spaces”) and Lisa Cohen’s “The Art of the Essay” interview with Hilton Als.
  31. LESS by Andrew Sean Greer (Little, Brown). This one caught my attention through a New Yorker excerpt and moved up on my tbr list when it was named the June pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club, “Now Read This,” which accurately summarizes it as “a laugh-out-loud comedic novel about a failed writer named Arthur Less — referred to throughout the book only as ‘Less’— who sets out on a round-the-world trip to avoid attending his ex-boyfriend’s wedding. ‘Less’ won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year.” The book really is laugh-out-loud funny at times (for me, those times often involved literal English translations of Less’s German, which isn’t quite as good as he thinks it is). Also: The Pulitzer Prize itself makes an appearance; I can’t help wishing that I could have overheard this year’s real-life Pulitzer judges discussing that. I happen to enjoy novels—especially comic novels—about writers/writing, so LESS was likely to please me on that front, too. If there’s one thing that irked me while I read it was the occasional appearance of a narrator whose presence/identity isn’t explained until very late in the book—and even at that point, I wasn’t convinced that this technical choice had worked. (Now to visit the book-club group on Facebook to see if anyone else has had a similar reaction!)
  32. PR FOR POETS: A GUIDEBOOK TO PUBLICITY AND MARKETING by Jeannine Hall Gailey (Two Sylvias Press). Since so much of the PR/publicity that I’ve done—for myself and for other writers—has been prose-focused, I purchased this book to help sharpen my skills in the poetry realm. (No, I haven’t yet managed to find a home for my own poetry manuscript, but I am receiving queries from poets who are interested in working with me.) There’s certainly much here that’s specific to poetry—including advice from published poets and reality-checks in terms of sales numbers. But it’s also reassuring to me to see how much of the work is similar to what I’ve done for my own prose and others’. Bottom line: PR FOR POETS strikes me as a solid overview text for any new poet-author.
  33. POETRY MAGAZINE (July/August 2018). A couple of high-profile contributors to this (apparently non-themed) issue (Yoko Ono and Joyce Carol Oates). But theirs aren’t the pieces I’m still thinking about.
  34. LAST STORIES by William Trevor (Viking). I’ll admit that I had to steel myself to read this book of short stories. I’m still mourning Trevor’s 2016 death, in part because I’m still mourning the death, the previous year, of the mentor-friend with whom I most often discussed his stories. And the collection left me sad, too. I can’t be certain why. But I’m also not certain that my emotional baggage is the only reason why I wouldn’t recommend this volume as an introduction to Trevor’s magnificent work.
  35. AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE: A NOVEL by Tayari Jones (Algonquin). I was likely to put this one on my TBR list in any case—but Oprah’s endorsement didn’t hurt! I feel as though the time I spent with this novel and its characters was time really well-spent. I’m not sure that there’s much higher praise than that.
  36. GOLDENS ARE HERE: A NOVEL by Andrew Furman (Green Writers Press). I received this one as a complimentary review copy from the author, who is a friend. Andy has woven together so much here. As the jacket copy notes, “It’s 1961, and everything is changing in Florida. Jim Crow strains to maintain its hold, the Cold War escalates, the US space program hits its stride, and the Jewish Goldens—determined to begin a new pastoral life along Florida’s central east coast—are just trying to hold on to their small orange grove near the excitement of Cape Canaveral.” An historical novel, an environmental novel, and so much more. Bravo to my friend.
  37. MODERN GIRLS: A NOVEL by Jennifer S. Brown (New American Library). I have been meaning to read this one since it was published in 2016. It moved way up the TBR list when a book club I’m part of selected it for our July title. It’s an immensely readable historical novel about a 19-year-old woman and her 42-year-old mother who both find themselves unexpectedly pregnant in the summer of 1935. Told through their alternating voices, it also depicts a slice of 20th-century Jewish immigrant experience. Highly recommend.
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