I hope you’ve had a wonderful April. Mine was filled with holidays, biking, job hunting, writing, and lots of good books. I’m preparing this newsletter several days ahead of time, and scheduling it to be sent while I’m away in France, off to meet my recently discovered cousins. (If you’re new to this newsletter, or missed it last year, see my essay, Czarna, Reimagined, in which I tell the whole story of a 90-year-old family secret). Scroll down for several book recs, a new Literary Modiin event, two essays of the month, a recipe and more.
Brief writing update: I’ve started a new Jeremiah story which takes place during the 1950s and has sent me down a few research rabbit holes, most notably a deep dive into the U.S. Civil War. I’m proud to say that after a bit of reading, I can now get a perfect score on online quizzes like: “How Well Do Know the Battle of Antietam?” How will all of this make it into my story, and what does this have to do with my 1950s characters? Time will tell how it all comes together.
PS: This week, my novel-in-stories The Book of Jeremiah turns 4! Thanks for your support! If you haven’t read the book yet, I’d love for you to check it out (paperback or Kindle). As always, I’m happy to meet with book clubs over Zoom at no charge.
I’m up to 29 books for the year, and I read so many great ones this month it was difficult to narrow down my recommendations. One Shabbat morning, after finishing one great book the night before and starting a new one that morning, I stopped reading for a few moments, overwhelmed by the feeling of gratitude to these authors for giving us their beautiful words.
Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano: This is the third novel I’ve read by Ann Napolitano (A Good Hard Look and Dear Edward), and they’ve all been terrific. Hello Beautiful is one of those large-hearted books in which you care deeply about all of the characters and will find yourself wanting to be part of their orbit (from the book’s description: “an exquisite homage to Louisa May Alcott’s timeless classic, Little Women”). The novel follows the lives of the four Padavano sisters from Chicago and a basketball player named William Waters. Julia, the oldest, is spirited and fiercely ambitious, Sylvie is a dreamer and a librarian, Cecelia is a free-spirited artist and Emeline is a wonder with children. William is thrilled to be in their orbit, but then darkness from his past surfaces and threatens the sisters’ devotion to each other. I think this would be a great choice for book clubs, as there is much to discuss. (I had the honor of meeting the author at the One Story summer conference in 2018, and she had terrific advice for aspiring writers, which I repeat all the time: pay attention to your personal magnet board, i.e. which topics/news items/interests/objects do you obsess about? And write about those…). In short, read this book!
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende: Isabel Allende is a beautiful writer, and within a few short paragraphs you know you’re in the hands of a master. I was immediately transported to the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, following the story of Victor Dalmau, a med student assisting army doctors, and Roser Bruguera, the pregnant girlfriend of Victor’s brother. As Franco and his Fascists drive out hundreds of thousands of Republicans, Victor and Roser are forced to flee across the mountains to France, and later, through the help of the poet Pablo Neruda, are given refuge in Chile (“the long petal of the sea and wine and snow.”). On the one hand, it is a universal story: refugees starting over, facing challenges in a new land; on the other hand, it is particular to Spain and Chile. I especially liked this blurb from Colum McCann: “This is a novel not just for those of us who have been Allende fans for decades, but also for those who are brand-new to her work: What a joy it must be to come upon Allende for the first time.”
I Have Some Questions For You by Rebecca Makkai: I’ve long been a fan of Rebecca Makkai and her latest book is a propulsive read, a campus coming-of-age story combined with a who-done-it mystery. Bodie Kane is a successful film professor and podcaster when she’s invited back to her New Hampshire boarding school to teach a mini-session in podcasting. But she’s become increasingly haunted by the murder of her former roommate, and a sense that the wrong person is behind bars for the crime. This will be familiar territory for fans of the Serial podcast (particularly the first season), but it differs in the mechanism, and that Bodie is part of the story. I liked this blurb from the LA Times: “I Have Some Questions for You asks us to examine many things: high school, the ’90s, privilege, justice, sexual harassment, what we owe the dead. Like the true crime podcasts it’s modeled on, it’s addictive, well told and a little bit unsettling.”
Hotel Cuba by Aaron Hamburger: I was lucky enough to receive an advance readers’ copy of Aaron’s book, which is coming out tomorrow, May 2. Mazal tov, Aaron! Hotel Cuba follows two Jewish sisters, Pearl and Frieda, as they set off for America post World War I. When the U.S. changes its immigration laws, the sisters must take passage to Cuba instead of the States. Pearl is a practical, competent and hardworking dressmaker whereas Frieda is a dreamer and romantic, and they are often at odds with each other. Life in Havana is colorful and loud, and the sisters meet a range of characters they couldn’t have imagined back home. And while Cuba gives them a sense of freedom, Pearl and Frieda are still determined to get to America. I thoroughly enjoyed this compelling novel, which deals with family obligations, hope, place, dislocation and ultimately, the ability to live life on one’s own terms. I especially liked this blurb by Kristopher Jansma: “Carrying little but their own unstoppable vitality, [Pearl and Frieda’s] discoveries in this strange land will dazzle readers on every page. Thrilling and magisterial, the twists and turns of their story will break your heart and fill it up again with light.” Join me to hear Aaron speak about his beautiful book at Literary Modiin’s author event on May 21st.
Two literary events I’m very excited for in May:
The Jerusalem Writers Festival, May 8 - 11, is an event I look forward to all year! Most sessions are in person but there are a few virtual sessions with Margaret Atwood and Taffy Brodesser-Akner, so even if you’re abroad you might want to check these out. I’ll be attending the (in-person) session with Jennifer Egan (!), the Chilling Confessions of Booksellers session with Yosef Halper and others, plus the foundation conference of the aspiring PEN center in Israel …would love to see some of you there!
Our next Literary Modiin event on Sunday, May 21, at 20:00 Israel time / 1 pm Eastern! Join me to hear from Aaron Hamburger (Hotel Cuba - see above), Judy Labensohn (Our Names Do Not Appear), and Jonathan Papernick (Gallery of the Disappeared Men)! Register here.
Missed any of our Literary Modiin events? Catch the recordings here.
Essays of the Month
Both of these pieces spoke to me this month (and both came to me via a Grub Street email):
The First Music I Ever Heard Was the Music of My Mother’s Voice by Caroline Wampole (Smokelong Quarterly): I enjoyed this loving tribute to the author’s mother, as she imagines her mother gathering strength and fuel to take her baby daughters and break into the life she wants.
What Holocaust Storytellers Like Me Know About ‘Secondhand Smoke’ by Daphne Kalotay (The New York Times): As the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, the task of telling the stories is falling on second and third generations and those who aren’t direct descendants. This essay spoke to me because occasionally I am one of these storytellers (see For Czarna, the precursor to Czarna, Reimagined, above), and have wondered if it is my story to tell. But as we move farther from the event, Kalotay concludes, the images of the collective symbols (heaps of shoes, starved bodies) dehumanize, whereas “A single person’s or family’s story rehumanizes and reinvigorates generalized history.”
Recipe of the Month: Celery-Leek Soup
Welcome to the end of the newsletter, where you’re rewarded with a yummy recipe. This celery and leek soup is much lighter than it’s cousin, the potato-leek soup. I found it via the New York Times cooking section, and - as I learned when my plata (hot plate) didn’t heat the soup up enough - it can be served hot or cold. Dairy or pareve, ergo, an excellent, versatile soup for the spring.
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 large leeks, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced crosswise and cleaned (about 3 cups)
3 garlic cloves, sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large bunch of celery, leaves reserved, stalks trimmed, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large potato, roughly chopped
3 fresh bay leaves
1½teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
¼ cup dry white wine
7 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves, plus more for garnish
heavy cream for drizzling on each bowl (optional)
Sautee the leeks and garlic in olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, for about 5-7 minutes. Add the celery, potato, bay leaves, and thyme, and cook for another five minutes. Add the wine and stir frequently for another couple minutes. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Once the vegetables are soft, remove the bay leaves and puree the soup with a blender. Enjoy!
I’ll leave you with a few pictures from my month:
In the beginning of the month, there were still some rakefot (cyclamen) and poppies (bottom right), but now those have gone. These days I’m mostly seeing Judean Bugloss Viper (top row), plus the beautiful beach at Palmachim.
See you next month, with book recs, writing notes, recipes & more. In the meantime, happy reading!