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July 2023: short story collections, village visits, and a day of learning and celebration

Dear friends,

Happy July a few days late, and happy 4th of July to those celebrating (a day early)! I hope you had an excellent month, as I did. I’ve just returned from a great trip to the States - more on that below. Scroll down for book recommendations, a new Literary Modi’in event, stories of the month, a recipe and more. Brief writing update: I’m almost done with the first draft of my current story-in-progress. I’ve added a couple new scenes and it is getting a bit unwieldy at over 10,000 words, so I know eventually I’ll have to pare it down. Anyhow, this is story number 10 in the new collection, and my word count is over 85,000! Haven’t decided yet if there will be more…I tend to do better writing when I’m at a coffee shop, and often while there, I’ll research a detail that sends me down the rabbit hole. I’m pretty confident no one else in any other Aroma in the country is reading up on the Battle of Antietam or 1950s casual footwear. Maybe it’s just me, but I find this amusing. On the personal front, lots of nice news:

  • I flew to the States because my husband was getting s’micha (rabbinic ordination) after a rigorous four years of study through the Hadar Institute. (For those not familiar, Hadar is dedicated to building vibrant egalitarian communities rooted in nuanced Torah study, gender equality, meaningful Jewish practice, and the values of kindness and compassion). It was a wonderful day of learning and celebration. Mazal tov to Josh and his fellow new rabbis in Hadar’s Advanced Kollel. (See pictures and my full post about it on FB here).

  • Other highlights of my trip: seeing friends and nearly everyone in our families, a walking tour of Rockefeller Center, and getting to see Parade on Broadway, featuring Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond. If you can, I highly recommend seeing this play before it closes in August, though the story of Leo Frank is a chilling one. I’ll be thinking about this story and play for a long time. (Read Micaela Diamond’s powerful essay - Night After Night, I Perform on Broadway and Tell a Devastating Story - in the NYT).


Recommended Reading

I’m up to 49 books for the year! Here are this month’s recommendations:


In late June, I hosted a talk with Jolene McIlwain and Shena McAuliffe, authors of the first two book recommended below - Sidle Creek and We Are a Teeming Wilderness, respectively - and I immediately wanted to run out and buy copies of their collections for all my friends who teach fiction and for anyone who loves short stories. (Catch a recording of the talk here). Even among avid fiction readers, story collections often get short shrift. If you’re one of those people, I’m here to tell you to give short stories a chance! These two collections are wonderful, as equally satisfying as any novel!


Sidle Creek by Jolene McIlwain: Full disclosure - Jolene and I have been in several writing classes/groups together, so I’d read several of the stories in her wonderful collection previously, but reading them again along with the stories I hadn’t read, I was filled with awe. How did she create these perfect stories? The throughline in the book is the bruised landscape of Appalachia in western Pennsylvania, with stories featuring fishermen, hunters, loggers, men who spend their time in dive bars and hunting camps, men who are “busy all the time with hammering and sawing, soldering and drilling, patching and painting.” What shined through these stories for me was the unexpected tenderness. Characters struggling for survival, and yet they take care of one another, never forgetting their duties and sense of community, whether it is four girls banding together to help a neighbor during a high-risk pregnancy or ensuring that city folk coming to the area to hunt are taught a crucial lesson. I especially liked Lee Martin’s blurb: “…Sidle Creek shimmers with the plain-spoken, and yet luminous, portrayals of its rural characters whose lives are made up of moments of grit and grace. How does she do it? How does she turn the ordinary into something magical, universal, and eternal? These are stories to savor for all they have to tell us about being alive.” Highly recommend!


We Are a Teeming Wilderness by Shena McAuliffe: It’s clear why this collection was the winner of the 2022 Press 53 Short Fiction Award. The “place” in this collection is the human body — a prison matron who thinks she can understand the women in her care by the shapes of their skulls, an eye doctor certain he can diagnose his patients’ (non-ophthalmological) ailments in their irises, graduate students who steal dentures and other dental material from nursing home residents for the sake of art. Often the point of departure for these inventive stories was a news item, historical image, pamphlet or other ephemera — a handbook for a hosiery salesman, circa 1923, an image from a French engraver from 1529, and so on. As Shena put it in our talk, she’s interested in this setting because “the body [is] a landscape that is always changing…full of mysteries.” The characters are “bizarre, familiar, pathological, comic, sympathetic, foolish, and wise, sometimes all at once.” These captivating stories are well worth your time!


The Maid by Nita Prose: This was a delightful audiobook, featuring a protagonist with a unique worldview — Molly is a maid at an upscale New York hotel, an exemplary employee. She can’t read social cues (though never stated explicitly, the reader understands Molly to be on the spectrum), and has been navigating life on her own for the last several months since her beloved Gran died. Her orderly life is upended when she finds a wealthy hotel guest dead in his bed, and she quickly becomes a key figure in the investigation. I won’t say more, but this is a fun listen, a “cozy mystery” with great narration. As NPR puts it: “…The Maid, satisfies on every level--from place to plot to protagonist. . . . The delight of reading The Maid lies partly in watching a hectic cast of characters unravel . . . What begins as a sprightly murder mystery turns into a meaningful, and at times even delicate, portrait of growth."


Trust by Hernan Diaz: I really enjoyed this compelling novel, which won this year’s Pulitzer (together with Demon Copperhead). The novel, set in New York in the roaring 20s and the aftermath of the Great Depression, focuses on the rise of a Wall Street tycoon and his wife. The inventive structure features a novel, an unfinished memoir, a memoir that takes place partially in the present day, and a journal, each narrative revealing another point of view, another clue into the questions swirling around the tycoon and his wife — at what cost has their great fortune been amassed? This book was full of twists I didn’t see coming, and would make a good choice for a book club discussion. I liked this blurb from Sigrid Nunez: “Money, power, class, marital and filial relations, the roles played by trust and betrayal in human affairs—Diaz’s development of his chosen themes is deeply insightful. Cleverly constructed and rich in surprises, this splendid novel offers serious ideas and serious pleasures on every beautifully composed page.”


I might have gone a little crazy with my book haul this trip. But I only brought a few clothes, so I had to fill up my suitcase somehow. :-)



Events & Classes

Our next Literary Modiin event will be on Sunday, July 23, at 20:00 Israel time / 1 pm Eastern! Join me to hear from Daisy Alpert Florin (My Last Innocent Year), Haviva Ner David (To Die in Secret) and Maxim D. Shrayer (Immigrant Baggage). Register here.



Missed any of our Literary Modiin events? Catch the recordings here.


I signed up for a class called “Jerusalem of Agnon,” a three-part series in English with Rabbi Jeffrey Saks, Director of Research at Agnon House, coinciding with the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av. I’m looking forward to this class, in which we’ll read S.Y. Agnon’s stories of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, and explore themes of Tisha B’Av in his Nobel-Prize winning writing. Wednesday evenings in Jerusalem - July 5, 11 and 19. If you’re local - join me!


Stories of the Month

Two powerful stories I enjoyed online this month, both about visits to small villages.

  • A Bed for Kavita by Anu Kandikuppa (New England Review): A father in India prepares for his daughter’s visit after nine years away.

  • Forgiveness by Ellis Shuman (The Writing Disorder): A man’s visit to his grandfather’s childhood friend in Bulgaria sheds light on the fate of his family and nature of Bulgarian-Jewish relations during the Holocaust.


Recipe of the Month: Baked Brie


Welcome to the end of the newsletter, where you’re rewarded with a yummy recipe. This was a really quick and delicious appetizer that I found somewhere online.


Ingredients:

1 round wheel of brie

2 TBSP butter

2 apples, diced

1 TBSP cinnamon

1/2 c. chopped pecans

1 TBSP brown sugar


Place the brie in a baking dish in an oven preheated to 350 F / 175 C for 15 minutes. While the cheese is warming in the oven, melt the butter in a saucepan and add the rest of the ingredients. Stir until the apples have softened a bit, about 10-15 minutes. Scoop the apple-pecan mixture over the warm brie and serve, perhaps with baguette slices. Enjoy!



I’ll leave you with a few pictures from my month:



Left side: scenes from Israel…flax and caper flowers spotted on bike rides & the cherry tomatoes growing on my balcony. Right side: scenes from New York…Josh receiving s’micha, sculpture of Atlas at Rockefeller Center facing St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Playbill from Parade.


See you next month, with book recs, writing notes, recipes & more. In the meantime, happy reading!


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