Writer. Poet. Publicist. Resource Maven.

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 Susana 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.
  38. HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL: ESSAYS by Alexander Chee (Mariner Books). Not every essay in this collection is explicitly “about” writing, but those that are are the ones that I fell into most gracefully. (I have killed every plant I’ve ever tried to raise, so maybe I just bear too great a sense of guilt to embrace “The Rosary,” for example, as beautiful as the writing is. And it is.) In any case, the essays I’m most likely to recommend *to other writers most interested in essays on writing* include “The Writing Life,” replete with scenes from undergraduate workshop taught by Annie Dillard; “My Parade,” which follows the author’s MFA experience; “100 Things About Writing a Novel” (which, as the title suggests, is an essay in list form); “The Autobiography of My Novel”; and “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” which I suspect will resonate even more powerfully for those who have read Chee’s EDINBURGH. Still, reading the entire book is a memorable and most worthwhile experience.
  39. THE ARCHIVE THIEF: THE MAN WHO SALVAGED FRENCH JEWISH HISTORY IN THE WAKE OF THE HOLOCAUST by Lisa Moses Leff (Oxford University Press). I’d heard the author talk about this book (twice!), and was fascinated by what she said about it, before I managed to pick up a copy. I was drawn into the story immediately (although I’ll confess that as the book went on, there were moments when I lost a bit of that focus). Throughout, however, I never stopped marveling over the personage of Zosa Szajkowski, the central actor in this account. What a life. And what a tragic end.
  40. PAPER IS WHITE by Hilary Zaid (Bywater Books). I’d been looking forward to reading this novel for months, and I wasn’t at all disappointed when I finally got to spend time with the copy I purchased at a reading the author recently gave in New York. This is a debut novel embedded in recent history: 1990s dot-com-era San Francisco. It features a protagonist whose professional life is devoted to recording the testimony of Holocaust survivors and whose personal life includes, with her girlfriend, an early path toward marriage equality. Resonant even (perhaps especially?) now, 20 years past the events depicted within.
  41. THE POETRY OF YEHUDA AMICHAI edited by Robert Alter (multiple translators; Farrar, Straus, & Giroux). It took me a couple of weeks to finish this book, but then again, one can’t (or shouldn’t) rush through a hefty collection of the work of a canonical author.
  42. POETRY MAGAZINE (September 2018): Brightly-designed cover notwithstanding, I couldn’t help but sense a recurrent theme of grief/mourning/loss/damage throughout this issue.
  43. BARBIE CHANG: POEMS by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press). I can’t say that I’m confident that I “understood” each and every page in this book. But I admired them all. Yes, I’m left with questions: Who is Mr. Darcy? Who is “P”? Why does the poet forego punctuation? But, in contrast to other reading experiences, when the questions produce frustration, here, I am left simply wondering—and more than a bit in awe.
  44. THE SHAKESPEARE REQUIREMENT: A NOVEL by Julie Schumacher (Doubleday). Some of this university-set novel may have hit a little (too) close to home. But it offered a number of laugh-out-loud passages and, toward the end, one of the more affecting and effective novelistic death scenes that I’ve encountered.
  45. CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN: A NOVEL by Sayaka Murata (trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori; Grove Press). I’ve never been to Japan, but I sense now that I would find myself quite familiar in a Japanese convenience store. That’s because Keiko, the protagonist of this novel, is so utterly devoted to her work in one. Perhaps one of the best short summaries I’ve seen of this novel is from a blurb by Elif Batuman: “A haunting, dark, and often hilarious take on society’s expectations of the single woman.”
  46. THE PARIS REVIEW (Number 226). Highlights in this issue: An “Art of Fiction” interview with Penelope Lively (conducted by Lucy Scholes). A short story by Nell Freudenberger that I knew would be creepily unforgettable as soon as I read the epigraph (from Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”). And an introduction to the poetry of Max Jacob, as translated by Elizabeth Bishop, with a preliminary essay by Rosanna Warren.
  47. 99 GLIMPSES OF PRINCESS MARGARET by Craig Brown (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). I’m not certain that all 99 glimpses were necessary, but this is a highly readable book about the life of Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister that I’d recommend to anyone with the remotest interest in the British royal family.
  48. MOURNING by Eduardo Halfon (trans. Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn; Bellevue Literary Press). I am a big fan of Eduardo Halfon’s work, much of which is embedded in his family history, which includes a maternal grandfather who survived Auschwitz. In fact, I’d read two thirds of this book—the sections titled “Signor Hoffmann” and “Oh Ghetto Mon Amour” back in their 2015 French edition. So the only chunk of this book that was new to me was the one that bears the volume’s name. In any case, I’m glad to have been prompted to pick up this volume/version by the happy news that the book is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize, and I hope that it will bring the author many more readers.
  49. BLOODSHED by Cynthia Ozick (Secker and Warburg). After reading Josh Lambert’s Lit Hub piece I knew that I had to read Cynthia Ozick’s “Usurpation,” which I was able to locate in this British edition of the 1976 collection. “Usurpation” was definitely worth tracking down—as are the preface and “Bloodshed” and “An Education” in the same volume. “A Mercenary,” however, put me off within the first few pages, and I confess that that one, I did not finish.
  50. POETRY MAGAZINE (October 2018). There’s no introductory section indicating that this issue will feature ekphrastic poems, but surely the presence of so many such poems cannot be a coincidence? Also capturing my attention: a French thread running through several pieces. And, in the “View from Here” section, some superb writing about teens and poetry.
  51. THE DARK YOUNG MAN by Jacob Dinezon (trans. Tina Lunson; ed. Scott H. Davis; Jewish Storyteller Press). I am delighted to be working with Jewish Storyteller Press on this title. In the process, I’ve learned so much about Jacob Dinezon, a truly unsung hero of the Jewish literary canon. Do visit the publisher’s website (https://www.jewishstorytellerpress.com/) AND a superb complementary site on Dinezon himself (https://www.jacobdinezon.com/) to learn more. And do put the book on your tbr list!
  52. NOT THAT BAD: DISPATCHES FROM RAPE CULTURE edited by Roxane Gay (Harper Perennial). I did not want to read this book. Although I’ve read so much of Roxane Gay’s work, and I know a number of the contributors to this volume, I did not want to read it. But when I went to one of Roxane’s events shortly after the Kavanaugh hearings, and this was among the books for sale, I had to buy it. I began reading it in the moments before the event began that evening a week ago, and I read as much as I could handle at any one time, every day since. As others have noted, it’s not easy reading. But it’s necessary. Especially now.
  53. FIRE AND FORGET: SHORT STORIES FROM THE LONG WAR edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher (Da Capo Press). If you’re looking for something to read over the upcoming Veterans Day holiday, you might consider this anthology. The preface alone—co-authored by the book’s editor-contributors—is well worth your time and attention.
  54. POETRY MAGAZINE (November 2018). Opens with a gorgeous piece (on the inside cover) by Robley Wilson (1930-2018). The first two poems in the issue proper, Lucia Perillo’s “Say This” and Tiana Clark’s “My Therapist Wants to Know About My Relationship to Work,” are also especially memorable.
  55. HO CHI MINH: A SPECULATIVE LIFE IN VERSE AND OTHER POEMS by Benjamin Goluboff (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2017). I picked this one up because I’m looking for potential homes for my own poetry manuscript, and I wanted to see an example of Urban Farmhouse’s books. There are three sections to this collection: the Ho Chi Minh poems (which drew me in immediately and remain my favorites); poems grouped as “Pictures of Ginsberg,” about Allen Ginsberg; and an assortment titled “Photographs, Chicagoland, Others.” Overall, impressive and engaging work—and a highly favorable introduction to the press.
  56. POETRY MAGAZINE (December 2018). Another stunner of an opening poem on the inside cover. This time, it’s by Tony Hoagland (1953-2018). Poetry doesn’t seem to include the titles of these poems by recently deceased poets, but once again I took a moment to look up the piece in the archive, and so I can tell you that the poem was previously published as “Barton Springs” in the July/August 2007 issue. This issue also features work by the latest Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellows, giving a glimpse into the poetic future.
  57. CHANUKAH TALES FROM OYKVETCHNIK by Scott Hilton Davis (Jewish Storyteller Press, 2017). I received this one as a gift/complimentary copy from the author, with whom I’m working on publicizing another title from Jewish Storyteller Press. This is a charming, quick read of eight tales sharing a Chanukah theme. As Davis explains in a brief preface, all of the stories are set in the fictional town of Oykvetchnik. “Oykvetchnik? Yes, Oykvetchnik—a place where people complain a lot. (Although at Chanukah time, the citizens of Oykvetchnik seem to be a little more charitable.) Similar to Sholem Aleichem’s little villages of Kasrilevke and Anatevka, Oykvetchnik is filled with a variety of characters from the richest philanthropist to the lowliest beggar, all celebrating Chanukah in their own special way.
  58. OPEN YOUR HAND: TEACHING AS A JEW, TEACHING AS AN AMERICAN by Ilana M. Blumberg (Rutgers University Press, 2018). I’ll admit that the subtitle is what drew me to this one initially. But perhaps the subtitle should be amended to simply “teaching”—because at its heart, that’s what this extraordinary memoir of Ilana M. Blumberg’s experiences in a variety of settings, with a variety of students (early-elementary-age, middle-school, undergraduate, and graduate-level) has made me think about most. I have already learned so much from this book, and I’ll be sure to return to it for a closer consideration of its lessons before I return to a teaching position myself. I’m immensely grateful to the author for teaching me so much with this book (and grateful to her press for the complimentary copy).
  59. DREAMS DEFERRED: A CONCISE GUIDE TO THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT AND THE MOVEMENT TO BOYCOTT ISRAEL edited by Cary Nelson (MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights/Indiana University Press, 2016). If you could see how many pages I’ve dog-eared (hint: too many to count at the moment), you’d perhaps glean a sense of how valuable I think this book is. “Concise” may be a relative term—this book still clocks in at 300+ pages before source citations and other back matter. But it truly is a guide to the conflict and the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel. And it’s a clear and well-researched one, too. To quote the back-cover endorsement of Eric Alterman, it’s “a rare blast of cogent analysis, reliable information, and just good sense about an issue desperately in need of all three.” I am grateful that I was able to pick up a free copy at a recent conference.
Share