Naomi Firestone-Teeter has been named the new executive director of the Jewish Book Council, succeeding Carolyn Starman Hessel, who helmed the organization for 20 years. We caught up with Firestone-Teeter to get her five recommendations for new Jewish books out this spring. Ever the literary champion, she gave us six.
1. Daniel Torday, The Last Flight of Poxl West
This debut novel about the truth behind the legend of a Jewish World War II hero is a fitting beginning for Torday, who has written for Tablet about examining his own family’s narrative.
“Fact and fiction become kind of blurry,” explained Firestone-Teeter, and the book asks the question, “If someone feels it, is it real?”
She said The Last Flight of Poxl West reminded her of Boris Fishman’s recent novel A Replacement Life, and the nagging survivor question, “Did I suffer enough?”
2. Shulem Deen, All Who Go Do Not Return
The only memoir on this list, Deen’s eagerly anticipated new book, out today, is another entry in the growing “Off-the-Derech” genre, but Firestone-Teeter thinks this one stands out.
“A lot of the off-the-derech books have been from the female perspective,” she said. “For us to be able to hear it from a different perspective gender-wise, he’s going to deal with similar, but also very different, conflicts in the community.”
Firestone-Teeter also noted that Deen’s online writing, how he first made a name for himself, is excellent. He wrote for Tablet last year about the phenomenon of blogs addressing Jewish law and rabbinic authority in unprecedented ways.
3. Elisa Albert, After Birth
In her review for Tablet, Marjorie Ingall called this novel “true and brave’” if “not a lot of fun to read.”
Firestone-Teeter’s enthusiasm is less mixed. “Her voice really resonates,” she said of Albert. “She’s very frank and refreshing, and she says the things that other people are uncomfortable saying.”
Albert will be speaking tonight at the Jewish Museum in New York City as part of the Jewish Book Council’s second Unpacking the Book, series. Tonight’s event addresses Jewish women in literature.
4. Alejandro Jodorowsky, Where the Bird Sings Best
Alejandro Jodorowsky is known for many things: film, his obsession with Dune, and his connection with Jewish Latin-American history, to name a few. This new English translation is part-memoir and part fantasy, and it completely captures Firestone-Teeter’s attention.
“I love weird, strange kind of experimental fiction. That’s just something I’ve always been drawn towards,” she said, adding that the novel “plays a lot with magical realism, and it’s very epic. It spans many generations.”
5. Alexis Landau, Empire of the Senses
In his review for Tablet, Adam Kirsch called this novel about German Jews of the 1920s living in blissful ignorance an “extended séance.”
While Firestone-Teeter said it’s useful to see the perspective of the decades leading up to tragedy, she added that she can’t help but note familiarity with the period depicted. “Certainly, there are things that are mirroring what were seeing again today. Just look at France. A population feels that they’re embedded in society, but then something happens.”
6. Jonathan Sarna and Benjamin Shapell, Lincoln and the Jews
The last book on this list is also the only work of historical non-fiction. Firestone-Teeter said she will read anything Sarna writes (he’s already covered General Grant and the Jews, published by Nextbook Press), and this was no exception.
“For him as a president at that time period to be surrounding himself with Jews” Firestone-Teeter said, “It was unprecedented. He was willing to make this very bold move that had never been seen before. It adds one more layer to the complexity and the magnitude of him as an individual.”
Firestone-Teeter is thrilled with the new offering of Jewish books this year, and is already working on her summer book list.
“It’s a plethora of riches,” she said. “Listen, we can’t complain.”
Gabriela Geselowitz is a writer and the former editor of Jewcy.com.