Happy October! And to those celebrating Sukkot, chag sameach חג שמח (happy holiday)! Sukkot is also known as זמן שמחתינו, the time of our happiness, and I hope that’s what this month will bring for you. Scroll down for book reviews, a story of the month, two upcoming Literary Modiin events, a craft post, a recipe and more.
Brief writing update: I’m now reasonably satisfied with the story that was giving me trouble last month, and have started writing a new one, probably the last to be written (but the first, chronologically-speaking) for the new book. I know the approximate date and setting of the story (July 1939, Bridgeport, CT) and the characters, but I’m not certain yet of all of the plot points. I’ve written over 6,000 words - a few scenes and lots of snippets to help me expose different directions I might want to take (thanks again to Emily Stoddard’s Write Like a Hummingbird prompts). It’s highly likely that thousands of those words will end up “on the cutting room floor,” but it is all part of the process and a great deal of fun.
On the personal front: My new day job is going well: Great people, lots to learn, and a huge amount to be done. I definitely prefer startups to larger companies. (On the off chance that you work for a hardware manufacturer interested in cloudifying your devices and getting into the as-a-Service business, drop me a line).
Mazal tov: Happiest 80th birthday tomorrow to my wonderful mother, Debby Zuckerman, from whom I inherited a love of reading (among many other things). My mom was my first editor, reviewing my high school essays, and she remains my first reader and biggest cheerleader to this day. Also, she consistently beats me in the number of books read per year. As we say in Hebrew: עד מאה ועשרים. May she live and be well until 120!
Trying something new: I’m committed to keeping this newsletter and the Literary Modiin events free for all, but if would like to support my work in a small, tangible way, I’d love it if you bought me a coffee. (Scroll down to the bottom for the full explanation!)
I’m up to 71 books for the year, so there’s a good chance I’ll make my self-imposed Goodreads goal of 85 for the year! Here are this month’s recommendations:
The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese: The new, wonderful, multi-generational epic by the author of Cutting for Stone is well worth your time. Set in Kerala, along the southwest coast of India, the 736-page novel follows several story lines that are eventually woven into one. The novel begins in 1900 with a 12-year-old bride whose new family comes with a curse: in every generation, a member of the family drowns. Big Ammachi, as the bride comes to be known, is not a tragic figure but a matriarch, the glue that binds her family together, maintaining a steadfast dedication to family, love and education, even when grief takes its toll. The sweeping novel tackles wide-ranging subjects including the caste system; British imperialism; Indian history, geography, art, and politics; illness, disability, and compassion; and more. I liked this blurb from the Washington Post: “A lavish smorgasbord of genealogy, medicine and love affairs, tracing a family’s evolution from 1900 through the 1970s, in pointillist detail . . .vibrant characters, sensuous detail and an intimate tour of cultures, landscapes and mores.” Highly recommended!
Bessie by Linda Kass: I really enjoyed this historical novel, a fictional portrait of Bess Myerson, the first (and so far, only) Jewish woman crowned Miss America in 1945. We meet Bess as a young girl, somewhat embarrassed by her height, an aspiring pianist/composer and the middle daughter of Jewish immigrants living in the Bronx. Though her mother is demanding and shows little love, she ensures that Bess’s music is always a priority. Bess’s teenage and college years are marked by rising antisemitism, and later, the war and Holocaust in Europe. She enters the Miss America contest because the $5000 prize will help her further her education, and it is here that she first experiences antisemitism at home. I hadn’t heard of Bess Myerson previously, and I appreciated this well-researched, coming-of-age tale of one of the most famous Jewish women of her time, who then used her new celebrity status to fight for equality. (An aside: Bess makes me think of Press 53, my publisher, and the way in which the press makes a big deal of publishing #kickasswomenwriters…I am proud to be listed as one of them, and yes, I have the t-shirt…if some other organization, say, the Jewish Women’s Archive, were to make a page with #kickassJewishwomen, Bess Myerson would surely be on there). I especially like this blurb from Jennifer Chiaverini: “Abundant in graceful storytelling and vivid historical detail, Bessie is a fascinating portrait of a woman who was so much more than a beauty queen.” Join Literary Modiin’s October event on Oct 15 to hear Linda speak about her book!
On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg: Jewish theology is not my usual reading fare, but Rabbi Ruttenberg’s book was the perfect reading for Yom Kippur, and the points she makes are relevant for people of any faith, year-round. She takes a fresh look at attempts to make amends on the individual, institutional, and national levels, and gives a thorough analysis of why these attempts often fall short. At one point or another, each of us have been hurt by others, the one causing hurt, and the one who stands by and does nothing in the face of someone else’s hurt. Using Maimonides’ five steps of teshuva (repentance), she argues, can serve as model for healing, as the approach puts the victim at the center. This is true for dysfunctional families and interpersonal relations, for organizations trying to make amends, and for nations seeking a way forward from legacies of enslavement, apartheid, land confiscation, and even genocide. A very interesting and thought-provoking read!
The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty: I picked up this winner of the National Book Award as I wandered around Three Lives & Company, an independent bookstore in Greenwich Village. The book is filled with quirky characters (think: Kevin Wilson) who are all residents of the same apartment complex in a failing midwestern town. At the novel’s center is Blandine, an 18-year-old young woman whom we know from the outset will “exit” her body. Throughout, the author keeps us in suspense, weaving in the neighbors’ (sad) stories with a good deal of wit. I liked this review from The Irish Times: “Original and incisive . . . This is an important American novel, a portrait of a dying city and, by extension, a dying system. Its propulsive power is not only in its insight and wit, but in the story of this ethereal girl.”
After a hiatus in September, I’m excited to get back to Literary Modiin events!
Our October Literary Modiin event promises to be great: Sunday, October 15, at 20:00 Israel time / 1 pm Eastern / 12 pm Central, we’ll hear from Linda Kass (BESSIE), Daniel Victor (THE EVIL INCLINATION), and Tara Ison (AT THE HOUR BETWEEN DOG AND WOLF). Register here.
Our November Literary Modiin event will be in-person and on Zoom! Sunday, November 5 in Modiin. Doors open at 19:30 Israel time, Zoom beginning at 20:00 / 1 pm Eastern / 12 pm Central. We’ll hear from Janice Weizman (OUR LITTLE HISTORIES), Jennifer Lang (PLACES WE LEFT BEHIND) and Ruth Marks Eglash (PARALLEL LINES). If you’re in driving distance of Modiin, I’d love to see/meet you in person! Register here. Also: I recently wrote a reviewe of Jennifer Lang’s PLACES WE LEFT BEHIND in the Atticus Review - please check it out!
Story of the Month: Winners
Winners by Merritt Tierce (The Yale Review): This excellent, startling short story follows a woman who finds herself miscarrying in Texas, where offering basic medical care for pregnant people can be a politically charged act.
New Section: Resource of the Month
I subscribe to many, many newsletters on Substack (over 45 at last count), and I do read most of them. Here’s a craft post my fellow writers and readers might appreciate from master storyteller George Saunders. “When is a story a story?” one of his readers asked. His conclusion: when it’s “earned its keep with that little dollop of delight.” That’s going to be my new aspirational mantra from now on.
Recipe of the Month: Pomegranate Sumac Margaritas
Another Substack I follow and highly recommend is the one by my friend Jessica Steinberg. She meets the coolest people and has great recommendations for things going on around in Israel. In one of her recent posts, she offered a recipe for pomegranate sumac margaritas from Adeena Sussman’s new cookbook, SHABBAT. I don’t have the cookbook yet (though I’ve asked my local Steimatzky to order it), but I did run out and buy a juicer and all of the ingredients as soon as I saw the recipe. I’ve made this cocktail three times in the last two weeks, so that should tell you something: it’s a big hit!
6 small limes plus lime wheels for garnish 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar 1/2 cup water 4 tablespoons ground sumac 1 tablespoon plus a pinch of kosher salt 8 ounces tequila 8 ounces pomegranate juice (~2-3 pomegranates) Ice cubes
1. Finely zest two of the limes (you should have two teaspoons zest). Peel wide strips of zest from a third lime. Juice all six limes to get about 3/4 cup [6 ounces] juice).
2. Bring the 1/2 cup sugar, the water, and the wide lime zest strips to a simmer over medium-low heat in a small saucepan, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Simmer for two minutes, remove from the heat, then stir in three tablespoons of the sumac and a pinch of the salt; let steep one hour. Press the syrup through a fine-mesh sieve; discard the solids (you should have 1/2 cup syrup).
3. To make two drinks, combine four ounces each of the tequila and pomegranate juice, three ounces of the lime juice, and two tablespoons of the sumac syrup in a large cocktail shaker.
4. Combine the remaining two tablespoons sugar and one tablespoon each kosher salt and sumac with the finely grated lime zest on a small plate. Place one tablespoon of the syrup on another small plate and dip the rim of the glasses in the syrup, then in the sumac-salt mixture. Add 1/2 cup ice cubes to the shaker and shake vigorously. Fill the rimmed glasses with ice, then divide the cocktail among the glasses. Repeat with the remaining ingredients to make the two additional cocktails.
(From SHABBAT by Adeena Sussman, published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright @ 2023 by Adeena Sussman)
I’ll leave you with scenes from my recent bike ride. See you next month, with book recs, writing notes, recipes & more. Stay cool and happy reading!
We had a foraging fiesta on our bike ride last week, picking figs, dates and pomegranates. We also stopped by our favorite four species orchard, where one can find all of the elements needed for Sukkot: the etrog, lulav (frond of date palm) hadass (myrtle bough) and aravah (willow branch).
A small way to support my work: Since June 2019, I’ve hosted the monthly Literary Modiin author series, and since April 2020, I’ve been putting out this monthly newsletter. Both represent a significant amount of effort for me, but I love talking about books and promoting other authors, and I’m committed to keeping both of these things FREE for all. I do incur some expenses to keep these up, however, so if you have enjoyed the Literary Modiin events and/or if you enjoy the newsletter or both, and you’d like to support my work in some small, tangible way, I’d be grateful if you’d click on the “Buy Me a Coffee” link below. (If you can’t, that’s fine too)! I appreciate your continued support for these events, book recommendations and my literary musings.