Happy August and greetings from the lowest place on earth (also the hottest place in Israel)! I’m here at the Dead Sea, taking a break from the news for a day and a half because my son has finished basic training and we’ve come for a mini vacation during his week off. I hope you are keeping cool in this hot, hot summer! Scroll down for book recommendations, a new Literary Modi’in event, stories of the month, a recipe and more.
I’ll start with the good news on the personal front: I accepted an offer for a new day job as senior director of product marketing for an exciting startup — hooray! I’ll be starting in early September, four days a week in the office (in Ramat Gan), one day a week a home, back to pre-Covid times. Looking forward to using my train time to write, of course….
Brief writing update: The same week I received the offer, I finished the first draft of my new Jeremiah story related to the Civil War, story #10 for my new novel-in-stories. I have some ideas percolating for an 11th story, but I’ve decided to take the gift of these weeks before I begin my new job to revisit, review and revise the first 10 stories. I’ve gone through five thus far, and I’m pretty happy with them, so that’s good news. I’ve been thinking about order, narrative arc, and I feel the puzzle pieces coming together.
I’m up to 56 books for the year! I read a lot of great books this month, and here are my top recommendations:
The Postcard by Anne Berest: From the moment I read the NYT review of Anne Berest’s award-winning book, newly translated into English, I knew this book was for me. In 2003, the author’s mother received an anonymous postcard — on the front, a photo of the Opéra Garnier in Paris (the first place Hitler visited in Paris, the place he wanted to his chief architect to emulate). On the back of the postcard, someone had written the names of Anne Berest’s maternal great-grandparents, Ephraïm and Emma, and their children, Noémie and Jacques—all killed at Auschwitz. Fifteen years later, Anne sets out to uncover her family’s wartime history while navigating the dangers of the present, knowing little about her Jewish heritage beyond the fact that it made her and her daughter a target. (To give you some idea, she’d never attended a Passover seder until she was in her late 30s and had never stepped foot inside a synagogue, etc.). The Postcard is billed as a novel, because interspersed with the author’s quest to uncover who’d sent the postcard, she imagines and breathes life into Ephraïm, Emma, Noémie, Jacques, and their daughter/sister Miryam, Anne’s grandmother, who refused to speak of her wartime experiences. Anne is aided by her wise, chain-smoking mother who says things like: “Indifference is universal. Who are you indifferent toward today, right now? Ask yourself that. Which victims living in tents, or under overpasses, or in camps way outside the cities are your ‘invisible ones’? The Vichy regime set out to remove the Jews from French society. And they succeeded.” I especially liked this blurb by Lauren Elkin in The Washington Post: "The Postcard is...a powerful exploration of family trauma...transmitted in the womb or down the generations; a longing for what we don't know and can never know of the people whose lives are responsible for our own existence, and an internalization of the very worst that humans can do to one another, visited on one's own family." (BTW I’d love to invite Anne to participate in Literary Modiin, so if any of you have contact info for her or for her agent/publicist, please let me know!)
Take What You Need by Idra Novey: Set in the Allegheny Mountains of Appalachia, Idra Novey’s latest novel traces the lives of Jean and her beloved but estranged stepdaughter, Leah, who’s sought a clean break from her rural childhood. When Jean dies, she leaves the giant sculptures she’s created in her house to Leah, who must now sort through the past and try to make sense of their relationship. I especially loved the character of Jean - feisty, self-reliant and self-assured, painfully aware of when she’s making mistakes, whether with Leah or with the young man who’s moved in next door. I especially liked this blurb by Alice Elliott Dark: "In crystalline sentences, Idra Novey has created a suspenseful work of deep moral imagination. The relationship between step-daughter and mother has the explosive power of fairy tales, myths, and ancient texts."
Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell. I picked up this earlier Maggie O’Farrell novel from my local library, and I’m glad I did. In the thick of the record-breaking London heatwave of 1976, Gretta Riordan’s newly retired husband has cleaned out his bank account and vanished. For the first time in years, Gretta calls her children home: Michael Francis, a history teacher whose marriage is failing; Monica, whose blighted past has driven a wedge between her and her younger sister; and Aoife, the youngest, whose new life in Manhattan is arranged to conceal a devastating secret. As with all Maggie O’Farrell’s work, her sentences are beautiful, and the story is propulsive.
My Last Innocent Year by Daisy Alpert Florin: This incisive, coming-of-age novel begins with a nonconsensual sexual encounter between two Jewish students at an elite New England college. A perennial outsider, Isabel Rosen, in her final semester of college, is conflicted about what happened between her and the Israeli student she’d previously thought of as a friend. Isabel allows her roommate to pull her towards one version of the event, but the truth is much more subtle and nuanced. A consensual affair between Isabel and her writing professor forces her to make choices and move towards independence. My Last Innocent Year is an impressive debut, and as Kirkus puts it, the novel “succeeds where many stories of dubious sexual consent fail: She avoids heavy-handed moralizing in favor of ambiguity, however uncomfortable.” This would make a good choice for a book club discussion. Listen to Daisy discuss My Last Innocent Year at last month’s Literary Modiin.
Our next Literary Modiin event will be on Sunday, August 27, at 20:00 Israel time / 1 pm Eastern! Join me to hear from Daphne Kalotay (THE ARCHIVISTS), Yoni Hammer-Kossoy (THE BOOK OF NOAH), and Michael Golding (QUICK BRIGHT THINGS). Register here.
Missed any of our Literary Modiin events? Catch the recordings here.
Story & Essay of the Month
Across Dark Waters by Charlotte Stevenson (Chestnut Review): This is an impressive braided essay about a killer whale’s stillborn and the author’s own experience with her stillborn son and the ensuing grief. Really well done.
Recipe of the Month: Cauliflower, feta and almonds
Another winning recipe from NYT Cooking, slightly modified by me. An easy side dish for a dairy meal, or even a simple meal for two.
1 medium head of cauliflower, cut into florets
3 TBSP olive oil
Kosher salt and black pepper
1/4 cup roughly chopped almonds
1/2 heaping cup crumbled feta
1/2 lemon, to taste
Drizzle olive oil onto the cauliflower and sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper. Roast at 200 C / 375 F for about 20-30 minutes, until the cauliflower begins to brown. In the meantime, brown the almonds in a skillet or small frying pan. Once the cauliflower is soft and has browned a bit on top, remove from the over. Squeeze the juice from the lemon over the cauliflower, add the feta and almonds and serve. Yum!
I’ll leave you with a picture from this morning: sunrise at the Dead Sea!
See you next month, with book recs, writing notes, recipes & more. Stay cool and happy reading!