As far as I am concerned, there is nothing better than sitting in the shade on a hot summer day, sipping iced tea and reading a good book.
Lately, I have been on a Chris Bohjalian kick. I read his The Sandcastle Girls — which is about the Armenian genocide — a few months ago and thought it was amazing. I have recommended it to everyone. I just read his books The Night Strangers and The Light in the Ruins. I hope to read his book The Guest Room soon. I am about the delve into Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman, another favorite author of mine. After that, I want to read Notorious RBG about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
My friends and I constantly pass along suggestions for new things to read – some of us on a Nook or Kindle, and others – like me – who still enjoy turning the pages of a really great read.
For the Jewish Ledger’s annual “Summer Reading” feature, we have asked members of the Jewish community for their suggestions: what they are reading now, what they have read in the past and highly recommend to others and what they hope to read during these long, hot, lazy summer days.
– Stacey Dresner
I plan to dip into the latest book by the UK’s Tilly Tennant. I’ve heard only good things about The Little Village Bakery, a novel set in one of those English villages that spurs one to research the logistics of relocating to the UK. The protagonist, Millie, decides to restore a run-down bakery with the help of a wonderful cast of quirky locals including, of course, a dreamy love interest. This looks to be an upbeat, heartwarming read.
I’m enjoying Helen Pollard’s The Little French Guesthouse, a novel about an Englishwoman unexpectedly pressed into service to help out the owner of a B&B. It provides a funny and wonderful slice of French village life and is a great beach book.
Finally, I’m reading the latest from Tracy Rees, writer of Amy Snow, a novel published to much acclaim in the UK. Like Amy Snow, Tracy’s Florence Grace is an historical novel. It tells the story of an orphan growing up in Victorian Cornwall; the characters are well-drawn and the seaside descriptions breathtaking. This isn’t really a light beach book; it’s more appropriate for quiet summer evenings when the house is quiet, fireflies decorate the garden, and there’s a glass of wine at hand.
Ariella Cohen, author of Sweet Breath of Memory
Fates & Furies — Lauren Groff
The Submission — Amy Waldman
Lawrence in Arabia — Scott Anderson
Circle the Sun — Paula McLain
The Lifeboat — Charlotte Rogan
The Best Place on Earth — Ayelet Tsabari
The Marriage of Opposites — or anything else by Alice Hoffman
The Betrayers — David Bezmozgis
And maybe Henna House — Nomi Eve
Sue Polansky, Longmeadow
This summer I am on a mission to read book written by friends and acquaintances:
Nurture The Wow by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a fellow strong Rabbi mama, who wrote a beautiful and easy to read book about finding spirituality in the tasks of parenting; The Lost Book of Moses by Chanan Tigay. We grew up in the same shul and community although he and his three brothers were all older; and Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel. We belonged to the same independent minyan in Manhattan about a decade ago.
Rabbi Aviva Fellman, Worcester
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories by Sholem Aleichem
Pit Bull: An American Icon by Bronwen Dickey
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
The brand-new Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary co-edited by my cousin Paul Glasser
My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Seth Rogovoy, author, Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet; artistic director, YIDSTOCK: Festival of New Yiddish Music at Yiddish Book Center
Old but great: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman. A sensitively crafted history of a clash between the medical community of Merced County CA and a Hmong family whose infant daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy. The title of the book is the Hmong word for epilepsy, an indicator of the cultural gap which was never bridged, with tragic results.
New: Talking to Crazy by Mark Goulston. This amusingly titled book is clippy and practical, written by a psychiatrist who is working now as a corporate consultant. He offers a simple set of steps for using conflictual and difficult relationships to actually deepen authentic communication.
Highly recommended: A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell. Delightful, funny and insightful fictionalized history. The protagonist is a Galicianer youth who has to get away from home; he is 12 years old and his family is trying to marry him off. (His father will only speak to him in biblical quotes. Try to imagine how the sex talk goes!) We follow him through a series of mentorship relationships with historical figures, starting with Dr. Freud and ending with a rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto, Kalanymous Kalman Shapira. Great reading group book.
Rabbi Andrea Cohen Kiener
Temple Israel of Greenfield
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics – shows the power of team, coaching, and personal grit with emotional sensitivity.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander – a real eye-opener to understanding current racial issues.
Judi Wisch, Northampton
Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman (great)
The Muralist by BA Shapiro
When the Cypress Whispers by Yvette Manessis Corporon
Rent Collector by Camron Wright
Liz Baker, Worcester
There are two books I can recommend.
Now Everyone Will Know: The Perfect Husband, His Shattering Secret, My Rediscovered Life by Maggie Kneip. It is a gripping narrative of how a nice Jewish girl from Philadelphia finds a love that forces her to confront a set of lethal dangers she never imagined could shape rather than destroy her life. Maggie is a gifted writer and has an important story to tell.
As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner. This is a story about Connecticut, about Jews, and about Judaism.
Dr. Donna Robinson Divine
Morningstar Professor of Government/Director of Middle East Studies,
Eavesdropping in Oberammergau by Hillary Salk. I grew up in Germany and spent time in Oberammergau. So for me, this fictional story of a child growing up in there is especially powerful. It gives you some insight into one of the great German cultural experiences, the Passion Play.
Sweet Breath of Memory, a first novel from Ariella Cohen, a Western Mass. author, this book tells the story of a woman who is grieving the loss of her husband in the Iraq war with a Holocaust survivor and other women who lost loved ones during World War II. It is a powerful story about the connection of these women from different generations who are experiencing similar emotional journeys.
Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life, a new book by Rabbi Harold Kushner, is part memoir of the evolution of a young congregational rabbi and parent and part discussion of the changing nature and role of organized religion. He is such a skilled author and teacher – I would read anything from him!
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery. I am new to Western Mass. and my daughter and I have a date to hike the Massachusetts section of the Appalachian Trail this summer…It is the story of a grandmother who was the first woman to hike the AT on her own.
Rabbi James Greene
Assistant Executive Director
Springfield Jewish Community Center
Facing History and Ourselves, based in Brookline, combats racism and anti-Semitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe. Their director of library services recommends the following five books that I will read over the course of the coming year. They speak to issues of immigration, restorative justice, upstanders and race:
The Book of Aron – Jim Shephard
Crossing the BLVD – edited by Warren Leher, Judith Sloan
Larose – Louise Erdrich
Men We Reaped – A Memoir by Jesmin Ward
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh
Alison Morse, M.Ed.
Director, Circles for Jewish Living
I gravitate towards any novel about London, the world wars or the late nineteenth century. Lately, I’ve been reading Elizabeth George, working my way through her sharp, well-written mysteries featuring New Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Thomas Linley and his partner, Sergeant Barbara Havers. But I’m afraid I’ll run out before she writes another one, so I’ll take a break this summer. My list includes: The Girls by Emma Cline, a novel based on the Manson family; Bad Feminist, essays by Roxane Gay; and Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, about family and freedom in Nigeria. Right now I’m finishing The Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally, who wrote Schindler’s List. This novel is about two Australian sisters serving as nurses during World War I.
Massachusetts Jewish Ledger Writer, Worcester
First on my list for inspiration and insight this summer will be A. J. Heschel’s The Earth is the Lord’s: The Inner World of the Jew in East Europe, to be transported to a time and place of deep trust, gratitude and humility.
Reading any short story by S. Y. Agnon will be a spiritual mystery to unravel. A Book That Was Lost which includes The Tale of the Scribe will be on my list. A story of overwhelming piety.
Sasha Abramsky’s homage to his bibliophilic grandfather Chimen: The House of Twenty Thousand Books will be a window into the intellectual ferment of the twentieth century. A must read for the sweeping portrait of a collector and his generation.
Roger Cohen’s haunting work The Girl from Human Street concerns memories of the Shoah and the journeys from Lithuania to South Africa and to England. Of course if time permits the new novel by Alan Furst’s A Hero of France.
And with our grandson we’ll read The Once and Future King and some Asimov.
Founder and owner of Schoen Books
Lost Comforts by Ellen Rand. A new book, highly-readable, that brings together the inspiring and also the practical considerations when one is presented with end-of-life situations. Rand is a hospice volunteer and journalist.
Andree Aelion Brooks, author & journalist
Member of the CT Jewish Ledger Editorial Advisory Board
This year I read:
Lincoln and the Jews by Jonathan Sarna and Benjamin Shapell. An excellent book about America’s 16th president and his relationship with American Jews, who viewed him as an advocate and a friend.
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks. Although this wasn’t my favorite book by the author of the wonderful People of the Book, her retelling of the life of King David, narrated by the prophet Natan, was interesting.
The Late Starters Orchestra by Ari Goldman. This slight, entertaining read by Hartford native Ari Goldman will make you want to dust off the old instrument you once played and give it a go again.
Disrupted, My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons. The former magazine writer has written a funny and true story about his foray into the high-tech world, where he is out of his element and everyone is trying to hang on long enough to reach an IPO and cash out. You’ll laugh, but you’ll also learn quite a bit about the start-up universe.
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman. I very much enjoyed this book set in St. Thomas about a strong-willed Jewish woman who gives birth to a son who will become the famous Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. The novel takes place during World War II and is a harrowing tale of two non-Jewish sisters and what they each endure in order to survive in Nazi-occupied France.
Two books in the same genre that I enjoyed are Henna House by Nomi Eve, which is set in 1920s Yemen, and The Girl from the Garden by Parnaz Foroutan, which takes place in early 20th-century Iran. Both books shed light on Yemenite and Persian Jewish traditions and culture.
Sailor and Fiddler by Herman Wouk. The famous author, now age 100, has written a memoir, which was enjoyable and a quick read, but he remains a private person.
North American web content editor, worldjewishdaily.com
West Hartford, Conn.
Jewish author’s ‘messy’ draft transforms into rock star novel on Amazon
By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org
“Writing is a messy process,” says author Elizabeth Poliner. “People who don’t write fiction would be surprised to see what early drafts could look like.”
But readers wouldn’t know “what a mess it was for the longest time,” as the Jewish author puts it, when reading Poliner’s critically acclaimed latest book, As Close to Us as Breathing. The volume garnered Amazon’s “Best Book” designation in March 2016 as well as rave reviews from New York Times, W Magazine, NPR, People, Good Housekeeping, and Washingtonian.
Poliner, who thought of her book idea more than 10 years before she started writing it and then took six years to pen the novel, says that she held the idea at bay because of the number of characters involved.
“It was a difficult writing process because there were so many characters to develop and they had to wind their way through the story,” Poliner tells JNS.org.
As Close to Us as Breathing begins in 1948 and centers on three sisters—Ada, Vivie, and Bec—who come together each summer at “Bagel Beach,” a small stretch of the Woodmont, Conn., shoreline where at the time Jews flocked for their summer vacations. They stay at a beach house that was purchased by their parents and was left to the sisters as part of their inheritance. There, they experience a freedom they cannot enjoy in their daily lives back home.
Ada is the beautiful but somehow sinister sister, who stole Vivie’s boyfriend years prior, married him, bore three children, and is now trapped in a loveless marriage. Vivie, now the family diplomat, has essentially married herself—a man who is sickly but smart and loving. They have one daughter. And Bec is unmarried, battling between the life and values with which she was raised and her passionate, adulteress love affair with her boss.
The summers are full of hope and happiness for the sisters—until tragedy strikes. When Vivie’s youngest son is hit by an ice cream truck and dies, this alters the family dynamics forever, the summer of love and self-discovery transforms into a lifetime of repentance and regret for the members of this close-knit, intertwined family.
The book is told through the eyes of Ada’s 12-year-old daughter, Molly, at the time of the tragic accident. Molly serves as both the narrator and her own, complicated character that is battling the balance between “them and I” as she emerges from adolescence to adulthood.
“When I conceived of Molly, I didn’t know the role she would play in narrating everything,” Poliner says. “But as I was thinking about the story and was beginning to understand what happened that summer, I saw Molly as witness to everything. She is witness-at-large.”
But Poliner explains that while she is witness, she is also going through her own process of self-discovery, wondering who is she is and how she, as an individual, is connected to her web of family and extended family.
“This is a tension captured in the whole story,” says Poliner. “As she is narrating, she is herself and all of them at the same time.”
Poliner argues that this tension makes As Close to Us as Breathing a very Jewish story with a universal Jewish message that continues to resonate in 2016. Another theme of the book is the importance of passing on and adopting Jewish traditions, even as the world evolves around you.
Vivie’s son Howard is the first in the family to date outside the faith. He hides his relationship with Megan O’Donnell from his parents for a long time. But when it is discovered—the day of his younger brother’s accident—Howard holds with him guilt that perhaps, if he had not broken the Jewish tradition and laws so important to his parents, the accident never would have happened. He breaks from Megan immediately, but is changed for life.
“He dropped her as soon as Davy died,” Poliner writes in the book. “Howard’s connection to Megan was drawing forth qualities from within him he didn’t know he had: a will of his own, greater sensitivity.”
But when they saw each other one last time after the accident, he could no longer face her.
“If he could have he would have said to her, ‘That was self-indulgent, wasn’t it?’ speaking of their time together, the walks, the talking, the many kisses.” ‘I was a stupid jerk,’ he would have said, not meaning to hurt her, but rather to inform her of what had become of him,” writes Poliner.
Vivie’s husband, Mort, also struggles in the context of Jewish tradition—with whether or not he is effectively fulfilling the role his father bequeathed him to keep the faith and pass it onto his children.
“Standing there, hand clenched on the metal handle [of the synagogue door], one foot on the sidewalk outside the building, the other foot a step inside, he could almost taste it, the sweetness of entering the shul, the satisfaction he’d feel just a moment later, after closing the doors behind him to that whirlwind of American society, that melting pot of everyone from everywhere,” Poliner writes. “For a few minutes each day, behind the synagogue’s shut door, my father could pretend it was just them: the Jews. They were in a little shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe, doing what Jews always did; they weren’t getting blown to pieces. Or, he sometimes imagined of late, they were in Israel, the Israel that could be once the current truce matured into a lasting peace.”
“I go to a Reform synagogue in Washington, DC now,” Poliner tells JNS.org. “The rabbi is concerned about whether people will find meaning in their Judaism. There is a sense of loss that kids today don’t even know some of the basic things we knew—just even cultural things, traditional foods. They are not even as familiar as we would have been.”
Yet the characters are not “just Jewish,” says the author. They are multi-dimensional—so much so that they feel alive. They have good and bad sides, strengths and weakness, hopes and fears. Poliner says they don’t represent anyone particular in her life, but that they are simply themselves.
“We are all living in a culture of one kind or another and in cultures there are expectations, there are rules, there are things that we push up against,” Poliner says. “The characters’ central struggle is to be their full selves in a culture that may or may not support that. I think this is a story, then, that a lot of people can identify with—whether they are Jewish or not.”