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Saturday, August 8, 2020

Seven Books to Keep on Your Summer Reading Radar

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Still working on your summer-reading list? Here are just a few forthcoming books of Jewish interest that you may want to look out for.

“Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein”
by Jamie Bernstein (Harper)

In this centennial year of Leonard Bernstein’s birth — and a year in which Jewish American Heritage Month (May) has spotlighted Jewish contributions to American music — this memoir by the eminent composer/conductor’s eldest daughter is likely to hold wide appeal. (Consider reading it before Aug. 25, when Lenny would have celebrated his 100th birthday.)

“Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah”
by David Biale (Yale University Press)

I’m a fan of the “Jewish Lives” biography series, so this new entry caught my attention. Biale’s book will acquaint readers with Scholem (1897-1982), whom the Press describes as “the seminal twentieth-century historian and thinker who pioneered the study of Jewish mysticism and profoundly influenced the Zionist movement.”

“The Lost Family”
by Jenna Blum (Harper)

The Holocaust suffused Blum’s first novel — the best-selling book-club favorite “Those Who Save Us”; the cataclysm’s lasting effects hover over this one, too. Here, readers will encounter a New York chef who also happens to be an Auschwitz survivor. And they’ll meet the family he builds in New York while he continues to grieve those whom he lost in Europe.

“A Terrible Country”
by Keith Gessen (Viking)

Perhaps your interest in this novel, like mine, has been piqued already by a recent excerpt in The New Yorker. Perhaps you have yet to learn anything about protagonist Andrei Kaplan — a Jewish, Moscow-born American 30-something (who shares certain biographical similarities with author Gessen). Regardless, the tale of family and politics that unfolds as Andrei returns to his native Russia — now Putin’s Russia — to care for his ailing grandmother, may well be one you’ll want to spend some quality summertime with.

“The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies”
by Dawn Raffel (Blue Rider)

Born in 1869 as Michael Cohn in Krotoschin, Prussia (now Poland), “Dr. Martin Arthur Couney” saved thousands of premature American infants by placing them in incubators in sideshows and hiring skilled nurses to care for them (he funded treatment by charging the public admission). By 1937, he was also signing affidavits to help rescue Jews from Europe. Significantly, his hometown was known as the site of a famous publisher of the Jerusalem Talmud. Through Raffel’s account, readers may well come to see his story as an atypical but worthy embodiment of Sanhedrin 4:5: If one saves a single life, it is as if one has saved the whole world.

“Historical Atlas of Hasidism”
by Marcin Wodzinski (Princeton University Press)

Want to brush up on your knowledge of Chasidism? Definitely not a beach read, this one is being billed as “the very first cartographic reference book on one of the modern era’s most vibrant and important mystical movements. Featuring 74 large format maps and a wealth of illustrations, charts and tables, this one-of-a-kind atlas charts Chasidism’s emergence and expansion; its dynasties, courts and prayer houses; its spread to the New World; the crisis of the two world wars and the Holocaust; and Chasidism’s remarkable postwar rebirth.” Cartography by Waldemar Spallek

“For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors”
by Laura Esther Wolfson (University of Iowa Press)

If essays are your reading jam — and they’re often mine — you should check out this collection, which was selected by Meghan Daum for the Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction. Within its pages, the publisher promises, you’ll read about the author’s “years of immersion in the Russian and French languages; her struggles to gain a basic understanding of Judaism, its history, and her place in it; and her search for a form to hold the stories that emerge from what she has lived, observed, overheard, and misremembered.”


Erika Dreifus is a New York-based writer and book publicist (although she is not representing any of the books/authors cited here). Visit her online at www.ErikaDreifus.com and follow her on Twitter at @ErikaDreifus, where she tweets “on matters bookish and/or Jewish.”

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