Last Shabbat evening was its usual star-studded affair when the annual “Avi Awards” were given out. In case you were unable to attend, here in descending order are my 10 ten most significant books I’ve read in the past year:
10. My Two Italies by Joseph Luzzi. If you are planning a trip to Italy, this is the book to read. It’s not a guidebook but instead a view of what it means to be Italian written by an Italian American professor. It is at times humorous and quite often insightful.
9. A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman. Written by one of Israel’s most important authors, the book came highly praised. It even recently received the Man Booker Prize, which is even more important than the Avi Awards if you can believe that. However, I found the story excruciating. It was like being forced to watch a horrific night of stand-up comedy, which is actually the premise of the book.
8. To Stand Aside or Stand Alone by P. Allen Krause. While still a rabbinic student, the former rabbi of Temple Beth Torah interviewed Southern Reform Rabbis during the time of the civil rights movement. Some of the interviews give penetrating depictions of the challenges and occasional hard fought victories rabbis won through leadership and conviction.
7. Teeth by Mary Otto. I read this book after reading Hillbilly Elegy (see below). I had no idea of the widespread lack of dental care for millions of Americans and the devastating impact of this neglect, especially for children. This book convinces me that dental care is an essential right.
6. Old Jews Telling Jokes by Sam Hoffman. This book contains just the kind of jokes my dad would tell – and he was a masterful joke teller. I just flip to a page and start laughing. (By the way, some might find some of the jokes ‘risqué.’ Vot, you don’t tink Jews tell dirty jokes?)
5. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. When I was young, I devoured all kinds of books of mythology. But it was Odin, Thor, and Loki who captured my imagination far more than any others. Perhaps it was because they were so fallible. Or maybe I was moved because in the end of days, these gods die. Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse pantheon reconnected me to my childhood and my first acquaintance with death.
4. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen. Yes, the Boss has written a great autobiography. I’ve been a fan of his for oh, forty years. Bruce tells his life story with energy, humor, and candor. It’s a swaggering tale but time flew by as I read the 500+ pages.
3. Moonglow by Michael Chabon. Chabon is my favorite contemporary writer of fiction. Some of his books are masterpieces of imagination and description. Occasionally, as with Telegraph Avenue, he fails. Moonglow succeeds as a vivid, at times astonishing, panorama of Chabon’s grandfather’s life. Is the book truly fictional or not? It doesn’t matter. Just read it.
2. Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself by Rabbi Donniel Hartman. Every religion, including Judaism, has fanatics who are willing to murder, oppress non-believers, and commit other heinous deeds while believing themselves to be doing God’s will. Hartman presents a compelling thesis of how extremism is part of monotheistic religions’ DNA and what can be done to combat our own worst tendencies.
1. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance. For four years, I lived no more than 30 miles from Middletown, Ohio, the city where the author spent his teenage years. Yet, I was totally unaware of the perils working class whites faced in this town. For many of us born into privilege, this book provides consciousness raising and insight into a side of America about which many of us know little. The author is only in his early 30’s. He’s an important voice I expect we will hear more from in the future.