Summer reads: Area book lovers are dipping into Westerns, biographies and stories by local authors

Summer reads: Area book lovers are dipping into Westerns, biographies and stories by local authors

Compiled by Geoffrey W. Melada

Interim Editor

>> David Ben-Gurion is one of the towering figures of the 20th century and I am abashed at how little I know about the man. Like many of us, I can readily recognize the cherubic face of the Old Man (that’s what Israel’s first prime minister was called in retirement). I know Ben-Gurion’s cloud-like-halo of white hair crowning his bronzed pate as well as I know Albert Einstein’s mischievous smile or Moshe Dayan’s eyepatch or Elie Wiesel’s dour mien. I hasten to note that what these four have in common is the fact that in the second half of the 20th century, these men’s faces — and they were all men, though, of course, we could add Golda Meir to this retinue — represented the visage of Jewish success. Success in these terms implied tenacity and smarts, fortitude and courage and a life built upon being a light unto the nations.

Well, a few years ago I read Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography of Albert Einstein and gained a much deeper appreciation for the man within the genius. And I continue to read Elie Wiesel and to be challenged by how much of his story he shares as a means of making us see connections between all people … but of Israel’s founding fathers (and mothers)? Up until now, not so much.

So where to begin? The obvious answer is David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion’s public persona has attracted many authors, books and articles; his political and military accomplishments are well-researched and widely written about. But, of course, there is historical biography, and there is historical biography. To make it onto a summer reading list, a book must have a certain pizzazz. Fortunately, then, we have Anita Shapira’s “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel,” wherein we are introduced to David Ben-Gurion’s “private persona, as well as the long process of his development into a national leader and one of the most significant figures of the 20th century.”

And as for pizzazz? Of the writing, no less a scribe than Israeli novelist Amos Oz called the book an “intellectual and emotional thrill,” while another reviewer pronounced it a “tour de force and a must read.” And did I mention it’s only 250 pages?

— Rabbi Aaron Bisno is the Frances F. & David R. Levin senior rabbinic pulpit rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation.

>> First up on my summer’s reading list is The New York Times best-selling novel “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” by Pittsburgh native Jesse Andrews. I recently had the honor of presenting Jesse with a city proclamation for adapting his novel into a screenplay that he purposely set and shot right here in Pittsburgh — in the former Schenley High School building in North Oakland and his childhood home in Point Breeze. Jesse has been a huge asset to this region [and] the continuously burgeoning film industry, and the movie adaptation is fantastic. I’m excited to read the book and continue to spread the word about the talent that comes out of our city and our region.

— Dan Gilman is a Pittsburgh city councilman, representing District 8.

>> I think of summer reading as something people do by the pool or at the beach, two places I rarely visit. But if I do pick up a book for a satisfying read this summer, it will be “Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History.” (With a title like that, how could I not?)

Published last year in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing, this book has become the definitive biography of the Rebbe and the Chabad movement. I’ve already read several parts and look forward to reading more, or even rereading.

“Rebbe” is comprehensive enough to be used as a reference book, yet Joseph Telushkin’s writing — crisp, clear and full of warmth — makes it enjoyable enough to be read for pleasure, during the summertime or anytime.

— Lieba Rudolph writes a weekly blog about Jewish spirituality for The Chronicle’s website.

I just finished “My Promised Land,” journalist Ari Shavit’s intimate reckoning with the triumph and tragedy of Israel. I’ve also been squeezing in chapters of “Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History” by Joseph Telushkin, an enlightening biography gifted to me as an attendee of this year’s North American Jewish Day School Conference. I try to use the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Literary Evenings’ author lineup as a guide for my reading. Next from that list on my Kindle are Héctor Tobar’s “Deep Down Dark” about the Chilean mine rescue; Sherri Fink’s “Five Days at Memorial” about life and death at a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina; and Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” about the impacts of climate change. It’s all heavy stuff. I am hoping for some reprieve from the novel “Etta and Otto and Russell and James” by Canadian author Emma Hooper — it’s our all-women, “no pressure” family book club pick of the summer. And at bedtime, my older daughter and I are loving the children’s frontier classic “Caddie Woodlawn” by Carol Ryrie Brink while also embarking on our journey together through the magic of the Harry Potter series.

— Jennifer Bails is director of marketing & public relations at Community Day School.

>> When I was asked to contribute to this section, I immediately knew which two books I would write about.  The first is “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, and the second is “Being Mortal,” by Atul Gawande.  


“All the Light We Cannot See” is a beautifully written novel about how the lives of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy intersect during World War II.  Although this is a work of fiction, it opened my eyes to the experiences of non-Jewish children during the war.  During a seder that I attended a couple of weeks after reading this book, I commented that one of the main lessons that I drew from it was that there were no winners during the war. This sparked a thoughtful and lively conversation around the table.  Three weeks after the seder, this jewel of a book won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  


My second recommendation, “Being Mortal,” is a book about what it means to live a good life as our capacities diminish with age or illness.  The author speaks humbly from his own experiences both as a practicing surgeon and as a member of a family.  He argues that both health professionals and family typically prioritize safety over autonomy and longevity over quality of life.  His position is that a life that is based on safety quickly becomes empty of anything we truly care about and that focusing on longevity often leads to prolonged suffering. He suggests ways of rethinking these long-held values and provides inspiring examples of alternative approaches.  We could all benefit from learning the lessons provided by this fine writer and thinker.

— Janice Gordon teaches statistics at the University of Pittsburgh.

>> This July I’m studying for three weeks at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. Hillel JUC Senior Jewish Educator Danielle Kranjec organized a staff book club, so we’re all reading “A Short History of the Jewish People” over the summer. The book is a crash course in Jewish history and pairs nicely with my text study at Pardes. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Where did we come from and how did we get here?” this is a book for you. While it’s not what I’d call light summer reading, it’s a highly informative, rewarding read.

I also have a lot of Raymond Carver on my list. I got an apartment through Airbnb for my stay in Israel, and found I have similar artistic tastes with the person I’m renting from. I’m enjoying his library of books while I’m here, starting with Carver, his favorite author. So far I’ve read three of Carver’s collections, including “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” a must read if you liked the Oscar winner “Birdman,” “Cathedral” and “Shortcuts.” I’ve always loved short stories, but when I think of a beach read, there’s nothing better than a collection of shorts. They pack a burst of feelings and things to ponder into a quick read, perfect to enjoy between dips in the pool and sandy walks.

— Courtney Strauss works as the director of engagement at the Hillel Jewish University Center.

>> With the advent of digital downloads and iPhones, I don’t just read books.  I listen to them.  My earbuds enable me to surreptitiously access some of the dozens of books downloaded to my phone, shift from one to the other and control the speed, all while waiting in the checkout line at Giant Eagle.  At this moment I’m slogging through “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” (57 hours); “Lonesome Dove,” a classic Western (36 hours); “The Prime Ministers,” which I also have in hardback and hope to finish this Shabbat (24 hours); and “Paranoia” by Joseph Finder, whose brother is a doctor at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC (13 hours).

— Dan Butler is principal of, a divorce-resolution service, and a former Pittsburgh magistrate judge.