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June 2023: Writing advice, a reading & recommendations record, and the magical mulberry tree of Macc

Dear friends,

I hope you’ve had a grand month. Mine started with a special trip to France to meet my newfound cousin (see Czarna, Reimagined for the background), and continued with the usual: writing, biking, job hunting (sigh), and lots of good books. Scroll down for several book recs, two new events in June, two essays of the month, insights from Jennifer Egan, a recipe and more.

Brief writing update: I’m well into the third draft of my current story-in-progress, researching things like wrought iron fence design, the types of cannons used at the Battle of Antietam, where a Jewish couple might have lived in DC in 1957, and dozens of other esoteric details. This draft contains some significant plot and character changes, so I am rewriting every scene, trying to keep in mind the excellent advice from Janet Fitch’s 10 Writing Tips That Can Help Almost Anyone, which has been taped to my wall for as long as I can remember. (Specifically, I’m talking about tip #9: write in scenes…make something happen).

Speaking of writing advice, I came home so excited and inspired after hearing Jennifer Egan speak at the Jerusalem Writers' Festival on May 9th that I wrote up everything I could remember and posted it on my blog. Pure gold for creative writers!

Recommended Reading

I’m up to 40 books for the year, which means I finished a whopping 11 books in May, possibly a new record. Here are this month’s recommendations:

Harry’s Trees by Jon Cohen: I hadn’t heard of this novel until Audible’s algorithms started recommending it to me. Well, kudos to the algorithm for getting it right. I loved this book! Harry’s Trees is more than a heartwarming story about a grieving young widower and a determined girl, it contains nature, trees, birds, gold, a library that is so run down it is literally falling to pieces, and a cast of colorful, quirky characters. It’s a take on fairy tales, and as one reviewer put it: “Cohen tells this story with heart, wit, wisdom, and a wonderful eye for human imperfection and potential. It is a delight and it is magic.” Narrator Josh Bloomberg delivered a perfect performance for the audiobook, so if you’re an audiobook listener, definitely get the audio version of this one!

Our Names Do Not Appear by Judy (Labensohn) Lev: Our Names Do Not Appear is a beautiful, moving memoir that explores the author’s life-long journey to understand her grief at the loss of her baby brother. In the world of 1950s Shaker Heights, Ohio, there was no acknowledgement or room for Judy (age 5) and her sister to mourn their brother Joey’s short life. As an adult, Judy sets out to learn both the facts and the emotional truths surrounding his death. Through essays that are part investigative, part imaginative memoir, Judy chronicles her quest for answers with great compassion for her family, particularly for her parents. “I wrote the story I needed,” she said in our May Literary Modiin event. I suspect that a great many people have dealt with the consequences of a trauma that has been ignored; Judy’s story is thus one we all need.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver: Winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize - well-deserved! This is a coming-of-age story set in Appalachia, starring Demon, starting with his birth on the kitchen floor of a trailer. Demon survives everything thrown at him: his addict single-mom, his stepfather, and later foster care, child labor, injury, more addiction, and disastrous relationships. What I loved most about this book was the author’s ability to perfectly channel the voice of this hardscrabble, resilient kid. I especially liked this blurb: “Demon is a voice for the ages—akin to Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield.” It’s 560 pages but a quick read that you won’t want to put down.

Horse by Geraldine Brooks: Several plotlines and timelines come together in Geraldine Brooks’ latest novel: 1) in 1850s Kentucky, an enslaved horse groom named Jarret and the horse he turns into a champion; 2) in modern-day Washington DC, a Nigerian-American art historian researching an equestrian painting and a Smithsonian scientist from Australia piecing together the bones of a racehorse. From the book’s description: “Based on the remarkable true story of the record-breaking thoroughbred Lexington, Horse is a novel of art and science, love and obsession, and our unfinished reckoning with racism.” It was fascinating to learn about equestrian art, horseracing, and the history of enslaved groomsmen. As Good Housekeeping put it: “This is historical fiction at its finest, connecting threads of the past with the present.”

Signal Fires by Dani Shapiro: This was my first Dani Shapiro novel, and I was very impressed. Not only by the writing, which is propulsive, and the characters, who feel very real, like people we might know, but by the moral dilemmas with which the characters must grapple. What does it do to a family when its teenage children, who are generally “good kids,” make one mistake that has huge ramifications? The novel jumps back and forth in time, following the Wilf family — parents Ben and Mimi, kids Sarah and Theo — from the night their lives are changed forever, and their neighbors the Shenkmans, who, years later, live across the street, struggling to parent a unique child. I liked this blurb from People: “In this meditative portrait of tragedy’s long-lasting effects, Shapiro…peers into the decades that follow to find the passages, ideas and unexpected connections that gradually, somehow, heal.” I think this would make an excellent choice for a book club.

More: I enjoyed many other books this month, but in the interest of newsletter length, I don’t have space to writer fuller reviews. Here are several more that are worth your time: The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land by Omer Friedland (a terrific story collection from a rising talent; watch the Literary Modiin event with Omer); Thank You For Listening by Julia Whelan (fun listen, especially for audiobook lovers); Foster by Claire Keegan (“a master class in child narration” - NYT); and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (a worthy - but dark - classic!).

Speaking of books…Father’s Day is on the horizon. Celebrate your dad by getting him a book! If he hasn’t read it yet, might I suggest The Book of Jeremiah (paperback, Kindle)? :-)

Events & Classes

Two literary events and one class I’m very excited for in June:

  • Sunday, June 11 at 20:00 Israel time / 1 pm Eastern: Literary Modiin’s June event, featuring Meryl Ain (Shadows We Carry), Seth Rogoff (The Kirschbaum Lectures), and Kim Salzman (Straddling Black and White). Register here!

  • Sunday, June 25 at 20:00 Israel time / 1 pm Eastern: Bold Stories & Unexpected Connections. In partnership with Press 53 and Melville House, I’ll be hosting an event with the authors of two new outstanding story collections, Jolene McIlwain (Sidle Creek) and Shena McAuliffe (We Are a Teeming Wilderness). Similar format to the Literary Modiin events, with a few modifications. :-) Register here!

  • Also this month: I’m looking forward to taking an online class, Shaping Stories, with master teacher and writer Ilana Blumberg this Sunday, June 4, at 7:00 PM – 9:45 PM (Israel time) over Zoom. I especially appreciate the way Ilana helps us examine literary texts and apply them to the practice of writing. I think there is still room if you want to join me!

Essays of the Month

Two essays that spoke to me this month:

  • Poems offered me an anchor as I lost my son, so I shared them by Josie Glausiusz-Kluger (Washington Post). In this piece, Josie writes beautifully about the power of poetry to comfort. Her son Aryeh z”l was a very special kid, an avid reader among other things; my neighborhood and community continue to mourn his loss.

  • The Cost by Jeannine Ouellette (Ilanot Review). A powerful essay about the cost of telling about sexual abuse.

Recipe of the Month: Mushroom Parmesan

Welcome to the end of the newsletter, when you’re rewarded with a yummy recipe. This one is super-easy, too, especially for those weeknights when you want to throw something together quickly. Thank you, New York Times Cooking.


  • 10 ounces cherry or grape tomatoes, halved (1 pint)

  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

  • Extra-virgin olive oil

  • Kosher salt and black pepper

  • 8 portobello mushrooms (or as many as you can fit), stems removed

  • 1 cup marinara sauce

  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella or other yellow cheese

  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs

  • handful of basil leaves, finely chopped, plus more leaves for topping

Arrange cherry tomatoes on sheet pan, along with the garlic. Drizzle with olive oil and season with kosher salt and black pepper, coating the tomatoes. Add the mushroom caps in between the tomatoes and drizzle with olive oil. Spoon a bit of marinara sauce in each mushroom cap and top with cheese. I bet these would be even yummier with a mixture of cheeses…maybe some feta in addition to the mozzarella. Bake at 425 F / 220 C for 20 minutes. Separately, heat breadcrumbs, olive oil, finely chopped basil, and 1/2 tsp salt in a skillet. Top each mushroom with the basil breadcrumbs and serve!

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

Top row: Hiking in the footsteps of Van Gogh. Magical to see the exact spots where he painted the Church at Auvers, Wheat Field with Crows, and others. He painted 80 pictures during his last 70 days, pretty amazing! Middle row: meeting Babeth in Bourges, together with my cousin Wendy and daughter Rakia; Bottom row: At home, I'm busy foraging for mulberries. I call this the magical mulberry tree of Maccabim. I'm there at least 2-3 times weekly to fill up my container and there are still thousands of berries left on the tree. Bit messy though! Lastly: my beautiful zucchini flowers!

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


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