Summertime is the perfect time to curl up with a good book. What to read? Here are some suggestions from people around the state.
Dr. Vera Schwartz
Director of the Freeman Center for East Asian Studies and chair of the East Asian Studies Program, Wesleyan University, Middletown
Right now I am reading:
Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a witty, thought-provoking novel about a brainy concierge in Paris and a suicidal teenager. How often can difficult philosophical ideas about the nature of knowledge and the ultimate purpose of life and education come so fully alive? Since I grew tired of academic epistemology, I am more appreciative of Barbery’s narrative craft.
Jordan Paper’s The Theology of the Chinese Jews. Well researched reflections about a group of Jews gaining more and more attention in the West: Our cousins from Kaifeng, now starting a trickle, of aliya to Israel. We know so little about what Chinese Jews believed and did religiously in the eight centuries before their encounter with outsiders (from 1000 to 1850). Now we are learning that they were/are closer to Jewish mainstream than previously believed. After teaching the first undergraduate seminar on the Jews of China last spring, I find this argument very suggestive.
Rabbi Andrea Cohen Kiener
Congregation P’nai Or, West Hartford
I am reading Jacob’s Return by a local writer (now in Israel) Andrew Tertes (the son of Elliot and Carolyn Tertes), about a Jewish man who is widowed of his Native American wife. It puts him on a journey. Good so far.
Director -BBYO, Connecticut Valley Region, Woodbridge
This summer I’ll be reading Oy Vey! Isn’t a Strategy by Deborah Gratson Riegel.
Communications Coordinator, University of Saint Joseph; former director of the Hartford Jewish Book Festival
Every summer, I make it a point to uncover one or two classics that I have always intended to read. It all started a few years ago, when I read for the very first time (at almost the age of 50 – shame on me) Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I couldn’t put it down and wished the story would never end! This summer, I’ve got a Midwestern theme going: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson and Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor. Each author has a unique literary style; while some may consider small town life ordinary, both books are masterfully written with great depth and understanding to elicit that which is universal and profound. I am also looking forward to reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken.
Dr. Arnold Dashefsky
Director, Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life; Director, Berman Institute-North American Jewish Data Bank, UConn, Storrs
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s new book Prague Winter, about her experiences as a young girl after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia — the country where she was born.
Chabad Jewish Center, Glastonbury
A few of my summer picks include: Toward a Meaningful Life by Rabbi Simon Jacobson. My women’s summer learning session in Starbucks will be featuring this wonderful book, so I will be re-reading this one soon. I really enjoy how the author highlights the Torah’s unique perspective on topics we all care about like marriage, love and pain and suffering. Another book I am looking forward to rereading is The Blessing of a Broken Heart by Sherri Mandell. She talks about her healing process after the horrific death of her young son. Sherri brings an incredible perspective that really touched me. One more book on my list is Around Sarah’s Table: Ten Hasidic Women Share Their Stories of Life, Faith, and Tradition by Rivka Zakutinsky and Yaffa Gottlieb. I have heard that the book offers amazing insight into these women’s lives.
Sales Associate, Connecticut Jewish Ledger, West Hartford
I have read The Physician and The Last Jew by Noah Gordon and plan to read his book, The Rabbi, next. Through these pieces of historical fiction you gain a vivid perspective of Jewish life in early European history. The character of each main protagonist is fully developed within the first few pages of reading, and you are readily drawn into that person’s life.
Currently our book club is reading Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult. However, it is a somewhat predictable story about a family brought together by a crisis. It is worth reading if you aren’t expecting too much. I haven’t read author Sophie Kinsella’s current novel, I’ve Got Your Number, but I like all of her books for light humor. On the serious side is the novel The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. Nearly 2000 years ago, 1,900 Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on a mountain in the Judean desert. Based on historical accounts, only two women and five children survived. The novel is a tale of four women who each came to the Masada by a different path.
Creative Director, Connecticut Jewish Ledger, Hartford
My step-daughter and good friend Nikki is batting 1000 in ‘my book’. These three recommendations were perfect scores. Each one expanded my universe – which is what I look for in a good book.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan — This 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction had all my spare time for a few days. Using a remarkably new structure, each chapter stands alone yet weaves a story. Time is not seen as linear in this tale and like one’s own life, before you know it, it has all passed by.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. A book about the coming-of-age of an American teen with Dominican roots. How far away from my reality could it get? It tells a history of a country I knew nothing about in a thoroughly engaging story. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction just one month after receiving the National Book Critics Circle Award for best novel of 2007. It raised my level of consciousness when I didn’t even realize there was a gaping hole.
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. Unless you are living it (which I pray you are not) you’ll never understand the cycle of poverty and how this sub-culture survives. It helped me understand the unexplainable. LeBlanc and Random Family garnered several awards and nominations. Her research methods earned her a spot among several other journalists and nonfiction writers in Robert Boynton’s book, The New New Journalism. In 2006, LeBlanc received a MacArthur Fellowship more popularly known as a “Genius Grant.”
Rabbi Shelley Kovar Becker
Gishrei Shalom Jewish Congregation, Southington
I enjoy historical fiction and historical non-fiction. I highly recommend the following: The Coffee Trader by David Liss; Sacred Treasure -The Cairo Genizah by Rabbi Mark Glickman; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot; People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks; The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester; Charlatan by Pope Brock; The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson; Mauve by Simon Garfield.
I expect to read: The Lost City of Z by David Grann; In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson; The Fall of the House of Worth by Geoffrey O’Brien. Something I read this summer just might end up in a High Holiday sermon!
Writer, West Hartford
On my summer reading list: Jerusalem, The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot and Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand.
I am prepping for teaching literature of the Holocaust again at Fairfield University, so I am reading MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman about the writing of Maus I and Maus II.
I am also reading The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi. For fun, I just read book one of the Hunger Games trilogy and plan to read the other two books soon.
On the plane out to California recently I was reading Honeymoon in Teheran by Azadeh Moaveni.
Dr. Lois Koteen
By chance, I picked up The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh and have recommended it to everyone (well, every woman) I know. It’s the story of a young woman who was abandoned by her mother and spent her youth in and out of foster homes. Unable to connect with people, she finds her way by learning the language of flowers, something popular during the Victorian era. It’s a beautifully written story of love and loss that will require a box of Kleenex nearby. I also recommend The Lost Wife (Jewish theme). Sad, sad book, but wonderfully written.
I recommend I Am The Clay by Chaim Potok. On the jacket of the book we are told that Chaim Potok served as an army chaplain in the Korean War for 18 months. The book begins with an old man and an old woman forced, along with many other refugees, to leave their home and walk south to try to get to safety in Seoul, South Korea. We are introduced at the end of the first paragraph to the old woman seeing a boy almost dead in a ditch. She picks him up and puts him in the cart that is carrying all of their possessions. The beauty of the story is the journey of these three.
Dr. Leon Chameides
There are three books I would recommend — two of which I read recently and one I am in the process of reading:
Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel. This is a beautifully written account of the life of Galileo based on the letters that his daughter wrote to him from a nunnery. This historical memoir reads like a novel and gives one a wonderful glimpse into the lives of this family and the century in which they lived. It explores the relationship he had with the Church and the strictures under which he lived.
Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder. This is a meticulous account of the murder of 14 million civilians by Stalin and Hitler during a 12-year period in Eastern Europe. There are many books on the Shoah, fewer on the crimes that Stalin committed, but this is the first to treat them together. It describes how the two dictators, despite being adversaries, aided and abetted each other in this murder. This is a very thoroughly researched and documented book that is surprisingly gripping despite its topic. Especially important is the description of the murder of millions of Ukrainians by deliberate starvation, Stalins’s Great Terror and the Gulag that trapped millions, and of course the Shoah. The book verifies many Jewish held views, but equally as important, dispels others. A must read for anyone who wants to understand Jewish history of the 20th century.
The Middle East by Bernard Lewis. An intelligent, sweeping history of the last 2,000 years of the Middle East. A good background for understanding the various streams within Islam. It tries to explain how we got into the mess we are in.