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Books I enjoyed this year

Everyone else has picked their top books, but since I read up until December 31st I don’t like to make my list too early. As before, these are the books I read and enjoyed this year regardless of publication date. Fiction first, then nonfiction, not in rank order.


Urza, Gabriel. All That Followed. Holt,  2015. 
An engrossing political novel, set in Spain, told from multiple points of view.  Did you read The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett? Another great political novel.

Gornick, Lisa. Louisa Meets Bear: Linked Stories. Sarah Crichton Books, 2015.
A college romance echoes through the lives of Louisa and Bear, their families, and friends. Poignant and insightful. I love linked stories–previous favorites: In Case We’re Separated by Alice Mattison, A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert. (No need to mention Olive Kitteredge.)

Clark, Claire. We That Are Left. Houghton Mifflin. 2015.
An absorbing story set in England before and during WWI about the devastation wreaked by the war on a wealthy family. Great character development. Did you enjoy the TV mini-series The Cazalets? This is for you. For fans of Downton Abbey too, but not as soapy.

Marra, Anthony. The Tsar of Love and Techno. Hogarth. 2015.
Marra is an astounding writer–A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is one of those books that I want to read again for the first time. This new one is linked stories set in Chechnya; sad, violent, haunting, and totally human.

Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. Leaving Brooklyn. Houghton Mifflin. 1989.
Not sure how I missed this, since I’ve read and enjoyed many of Schwartz’s novels. It’s a brilliant coming of age story, with lots of 1950s New York atmosphere and piercing insight into a teenage girl’s thoughts. Read this with Schwartz’s memoir Ruined by Reading. Two gems.

Foulds, Adam. In the Wolf’s Mouth. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2015.
A political/war novel set in Italy during WWII. An American infantryman and a British field security officer try to deal with the politics (and Mafia) of an Italian village. They haven’t got a clue. Beautifully written, a classic war novel.

Price, Richard. The Whites. Holt. 2015.
A good police procedural is so entertaining, and this is a great one. “Whites” refers to the unsolved cases that haunt a group of police detectives who work the Manhattan Night Watch. You may not remember the plot after a month, but you’ll have a great time while you’re reading it.

Evans, Lissa. Crooked Heart. HarperCollins. 2015.
Noel Bostock is a great creation–an orphan who’s wise beyond his years but still very much a child. Evacuated from London in WWII, Noel ends up living with Vera, who just wants Noel as an accomplice in her con games, but she gets more than she bargained for. Delightful and memorable.

Pierpont, Julia. Among the Ten Thousand Things. Random. 2015.
An adulterous relationship has serious consequences in this novel that’s so beautifully written it’s hard to remember it’s a debut by someone under 30. I can only compare it to Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, another tour de force about how people mess up their lives. Waiting for her next novel…

Hallberg, Garth Risk. City on Fire. Knopf. 2015.
Well, I read the whole 900+ pages and enjoyed every minute of it, but I’m not sure that it’s more than the sum of its parts when all is said and done. There are some great set pieces and Hallberg has done a great job of recreating NY in 1977, a terrible time.

Taseer, Aatish. The Way Things Were. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2015.
This is probably, no absolutely, the best novel set in India that I’ve read in a long, long time, maybe since A Suitable Boy. It’s a very literary piece, about the role of language and history in shaping personal relationships. It’s not for everyone, but if it’s for you, you’ll be blissful. Maybe J.M. Coetzee is a readalike?

Weisman, Jonathan. No. 4 Imperial Lane. Twelve/Hachette. 2015. 
Another political novel that I loved this year, about David, an American student, who extends his year abroad in England by taking a job caring for the aging, paralyzed Hans Bromwell, who lives with his sister and her daughter. The politics comes from the family’s entanglement with Portuguese colonial Africa in the era of rebellion and independence. A life-changing experience for David and maybe for the reader, too.

…and I’m currently reading (and enjoying) Henry Green’s novel Loving, first published in England in 1945. Green’s a great prose stylist, works the language in wonderful ways. Years ago I read his memoir, Pack My Bag, always meant to read the novels…


Shapiro, James. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Simon & Schuster. 2015.
What was going on in Shakespeare’s world in the year he wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra? Shapiro elucidates the political, social, and religious concerns that influenced his plots and characters.

Russakoff, Dale. The Prize: the High-Stakes, Big-Money Race to Save Our Failing Schools. Houghton Mifflin. 2014.
This is the heartbreaking story of how billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg couldn’t rescue the public schools in Newark; of good intentions gone bad; of politics as usual; of children deprived of a good education. If you read this, you’ll have to stop periodically to let the steam out of your ears.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau. 2015.
Coates writes this as a letter to his son, about the issue of race in the U.S., for African-American young men in particular. Powerful, sad, and important.

Kim, Suki. Without You There is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Crown. 2014.
Kim spent 6 months teaching English to bright young North Korean teens, astonished at their isolation from the outside world and their acquiescence in the system that perpetuates their ignorance. Riveting stuff.

Lightman, Alan. Screening Room: Family Pictures. Pantheon. 2015.
A lovely lyrical and impressionistic memoir of the author’s Memphis family from the 1930s to the 1960s. Lightman’s grandfather was a movie theater impresario, a larger-than-life figure whose influence is still strong, years after his death.

Sacks, Oliver. On the Move: A Life. Knopf. 2015.
I’ve read Sacks’s books for years but had no idea that he rode motorcycles, was a serious weight lifter, and a sometime drug addict. This is a very personal glimpse into his life, and worth every page. Humorous and touching, especially in light of his awareness of his imminent death.

Deen, Shulem. All Who Go Do Not Return. Graywolf, 2015.
Deen bares his soul in this memoir of his childhood and young adulthood in a strict Hasidic community and his growing realization that he had to leave. A fascinating insider’s look at an unusual way of life. Over the years I’ve read a number of memoirs on this subject; this is by far the best.

Macdonald, Helen. H is for Hawk. Grove/Atlantic. 2015.
When Macdonald’s father died, she was particularly bereft and decided to tame a goshawk, the wildest of the falcons, in an effort to tame her own grief. More than a bereavement memoir, this is nature writing at its best.

Fuller, Alexandra. Leaving Before the Rains Come. Penguin. 2015. 
I’ve read all of Fuller’s memoirs, starting with the hilarious and touching Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight; this latest one may be the best. It traces the rise and fall of her marriage to an American and the ways that her unorthodox childhood in Africa affect her relationship with her husband and her own efforts to find contentment.

Gornick, Vivian. Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life. Yale Univ. Pr., 2011.
Gornick applies her own brand of insight and investigation into the life and motives of Red Emma, the complex and contradictory anarchist.

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate. Simon & Schuster. 2014.
Klein gives us the bad news: the global free market economy is killing our planet and international trade agreements now take precedence over national laws. Important reading, not for the gloom-and-doom, but for her ideas about how we can make changes.

O’Neill, Joseph. Blood-Dark Track: A Family History. Knopf/Doubleday. 2011.
O’Neill probes his Turkish and Irish ancestry, giving us not just the unusual, colorful personalities, but the social and political history that influenced–and upended–their lives. If you enjoyed Out of Egypt by Andre Aciman or She Left Me the Gun, by Emma Brockes, you’ll find this irresistible.

…and I’ve been listening to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Simon & Schuster, 2013. What a great story Goodwin tells and there’s so much relevance for the issues we struggle with today in politics and journalism. Her writing keeps it all lively and engrossing and the reader, Edward Herrmann does a great job of varying his voice and emphasis to keep the sentences interesting.




The Crotchety Reader

We all have things that we love and things that we hate in novels. I really really dislike bad grammar and words used  incorrectly.   I’m not talking about books published by small presses–this happens in books published by the big trade houses. If a novelist can’t use the language correctly why should I read the book? One of the reasons I read is to enjoy the use of language to create meaning and emotion. It’s like art or music, isn’t it? Artist needs to know their craft.

Two examples of what I’m talking about, just from books I’ve tried to read this week. I won’t name them. In the first, the author writes about a couple whose car breaks down. They abandon it and a day or two later they go back to “recuperate” it. This was not written in jest.  In the other example, from a historical novel, two sisters are in a palace and they are given a room “donning the garden.” Neither of these books is a first novel; both were published by big trade houses. In both cases I stopped reading the books.

I know agents who do line edits of manuscripts. Authors’ acknowledgements are filled with thanks to editors who did such a great job. I feel like I’m missing something–why did those mistakes not trigger a correction?

I’ve learned to skip over incorrect uses of some words, like “enormity” and “fulsome;” I’ve turned a blind eye to “graduated college.” These misuses signal a change in the way the language is used, even if I’d prefer not to embrace those changes. But the two examples I’ve given, above, of words used incorrectly are not in that category.  They’re wrong! Enough carping. Next novel, please…

Other books I’ve been reading…

I intend to blog about every book I read, but writing about reading is very different than thinking about what you’ve read. The woolly thoughts in my head often don’t translate easily to words that work on paper. But that is, after all, what  writing is all about and it’s the practice that makes it happen.  I recently spent the afternoon with a writer friend from Israel, Pnina Moed-Kass. Pnina goes to the gym at 6:30am every morning, returns home to eat a big breakfast, and then sits down to write until 3pm. Of course, that doesn’t happen every single day, but it’s Pnina’s goal and she has some great children’s and YA books to show for it.

Even after  a fit of self-disciplinary angst after seeing Pnina, I knew I would not write individual blog posts about the books I’ve been reading. I decided that in order to get back on track, I’d write in one omnibus post about a few of the books I’ve read recently. Here they are, with comments  long and short.

leaving before the rainsLeaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller (Penguin, 2015)
I’ve read and loved all of Fuller’s memoirs: Don’t Let’s Go To the Dogs Tonight, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and Scribbling the Cat. “Love” is an awkward word to use with Fuller’s books since they contain so much pain, but it’s her ability to depict emotional states that makes her books so engrossing. This latest memoir may just be her best. Fuller’s childhood in Africa, living in countries that shucked off the British colonial yoke, was full of violence, but her parents stayed and moved from one not-quite-safe place to another. Their commitment to living on the edge became the way that Alexandra saw her own life: always at risk, fueled with adrenaline, and supported by her father’s pragmatic and fatalistic attitude. Her marriage to an American and move to Wyoming took her to a different place, physically and mentally, and ultimately she couldn’t make it work. Fuller, in addition to her talents in describing messy emotional states, is a great nature writer, and with Africa and Wyoming she has two of the most dramatic places to write about, and she does it very well.

leaving berlinLeaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon (Atria, 2015)
Kanon’s thrillers are mostly set just after World War II, in that messy period of anarchy and revenge. This one is set a little later, 1948, and concerns  Alex Meier, who is caught up in the Communist witch-hunts that were starting to upend people’s lives. He makes a deal with the CIA to work for them in East Germany; in exchange, he’ll return to his family with a clean slate. Alex thinks it will all be quite simple, after all, he’s not a trained spy, but almost immediately he’s caught up in a kidnapping and murder. East Berlin is still in post-War turmoil, with sspy agencies from several countries spying on each other. The double dealing makes Alex’s head spin and he works hard to find his footing. Filled with real characters, like Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Zweig, the twists and turns are fun to follow (or not!). I’ve read others by Kanon and always enjoy his atmospheric tales.

fighting chanceA Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren (Picador, 2015)
I listened to this and hearing Warren read it herself was a treat. She tells a great story about her fight for better bankruptcy laws and her Senate race in Massachusetts. From a career teaching law, she’s drawn into legislative battles over bankruptcy and other issues, especially when she joins the Congressional TARP oversight committee. She ends with the story of her bruising but successful campaign for Massachusetts Senator. I don’t want to get into politics here, but will just say that she’s a compelling politician who speaks up for working families with an uncommon blend of common sense, intelligence, and charisma.

buried giantThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf/Doubleday, 2015)
Not sure about this one. I kept hoping that it would get better, clearer, more compelling. Ishiguro’s story, set in the post-Arthurian Britain, about an elderly couple–Axl and Beatrice–who go in search of their son, encountering treachery and danger along the way. A mysterious fog has settled over the country clouding the landscape and clouding memory as well. As Axl and Beatrice travel some of the fog lifts and the many of the memories are painful. There is food for thought about the role of memory in our lives, but for me there were ultimately too many labored passages.

Chaucer 1386Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury by Paul Strohm (Penguin, 2014)
I never thought much about the kind of life that Chaucer lived, so this book was a revelation. A little dry, but very interesting. Chaucer married into a prominent family–his brother-in-law was the powerful and testy John of Gaunt–but he and his wife rarely lived together and he was estranged from his children. For a number of years, Chaucer had a position (gained through patronage) as the controller of customs at the Wool Wharf. The description of his dreadful accommodations, over one of the London gates, is sobering. In 1386,  the year that Strohm focuses on, Chaucer lost his patronage job and with it his housing. Without a job or a place to live he is forced to leave London and the intellectual and social milieu that nourished him, however, it did give him the space to write his masterpiece, Canterbury Tales. Strohm has an interesting section on the nature of audience in the 14th century that’s very much worth reading.

The Books I Loved in 2012–Fiction

It’s always a good feeling to look back over the books I’ve read or listened to and see how varied they were. I also often remember the season when I read a book–whether it was hot or cold and if I read a book on vacation, it often recalls the place. I used to listen to Terri Gross on NPR every afternoon when I was commuting a long distance in the late 1990s. There are still places on the Garden State Parkway where I can recall the details of an interview, hear Terri’s voice and the voice of her interviewee. Funny how the mind makes those connections permanent.

So here goes my list from 2012–fiction first, nonfiction in the next post. I read a mix of new books, so not everything is from 2012. They’re not arranged in any order. I read more fiction than nonfiction this year; I’m hoping to change that in 2013. You can see all the books I read this year on Goodreads. (link)  Comments always welcome!

Some day I’ll do the other list we all have–what I wanted to read but didn’t get to.

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker. 2012. Barker’s a great writer and this is one of her best. It follows the same cast of characters as her previous novel, Life Class, and coves some of the same time period; we learn more about the characters and subjects that were only touched upon are expanded. No one writes about World War I the way Barker does–the anguish of the soldiers, the trauma that follows them home, the anger, and the pointlessness of it all. Most of the characters are the artists we met in Life Class, and Barker combines art and war in the most startling and dramatic ways. There are some very powerful scenes in the novel–they’re almost painted on the page in some of the most vivid prose I’ve encountered. If you’ve read her Regeneration trilogy, you’ll know what I mean. Some of the characters and scenes from those books still haunt me.

The Risk Pool by Richard Russo. 1988. At a talk I gave a few years ago, a guy in the audience raved on and on about this book and since I’ve enjoyed Russo before, I picked up a copy. It’s wonderful, so sorry it took me so long to get to it. It’s filled with terrific one-liners that ring so true you wonder why you didn’t think them up yourself. Well, there’s a reason. It’s a coming of age story with no plot, but who needs a plot with characters like these? There’s more about the novel in this post.

Fobbit by David Abrams. 2012. Reviewers were calling this a Catch-22 for the Iraq War; it’s in that vein, but on a smaller canvas. Very good. Publishers always like to provide a “hook” for readers, a readalike, particularly to a well-known author or book. That’s  what the marketing folks love to do, but this book stands on its own very nicely. I’m sure that this novel, and the one below, will be among the iconic books about the Iraq War.

Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. 2012. This is the other kind of war novel– also about the Iraq War–the kind that’s painful but necessary. Beautifully written, not a word out of place; haunting. Two young soldiers, the older one promises to protect the younger. You know you’re in the presence of a remarkable writer from the opening, much quoted sentence: “The war tried to kill us in the spring.”

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. 2012. There’s been a vogue lately for setting novels in several time periods and places, then tying it all up. For me, it doesn’t often work. It works here! In the hands of a lesser author, this story would be a frilly thing, hardly worth bothering about: starlets and superstars, romantic Italians, Hollywood sleaze–what, I’m reading this? It works and works wonderfully because Walter creates real people who have desires, suffer, remember, and love intensely. I want to read it again for the first time.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. 2009. I’ve had a signed copy of this on my nightstand since it was published and despite my love of Verghese’s memoirs, I didn’t get around to reading it until this year, well, actually I listened to it. I guess I was afraid it couldn’t match My Own Country. It is wonderful; Verghese creates fabulous characters that will break your heart and an expansive, almost mythical story to match. It’s set in Ethiopia and New York. Some people I spoke to about the book felt that it lost steam in the NY portions–not so! I loved it from first page to last.  The audio version was marvelous; the reader created separate voices and personalities for each character. A treat.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. 2012. If I tell you what this is about, you won’t read it, so just read it. It’s the book you need to read to make you a better person. I’ve been lending my copy to anyone who’s breathing.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. 2012. For a classics junkie like me, reading this book was like eating candy.  Miller retells the story of the Iliad from the point of view of Patroclus. There’s more about it here in my earlier post.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. 2011. So much better than Beasts of the Southern Wild. Sorry to all you fans, but I found the movie horrifying–for me it was an hour and a half about child abuse. I couldn’t see beyond that. Salvage the Bones is also about trauma, but so beautifully written, a powerful story with a brilliantly-written character at its center. National Book Award Winner, 2011.

A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash. 2012. Southern gothic at its best, about a snake-handling preacher and the family he ruins. Structurally, almost a perfect novel, it’s told in several voices, each one necessary and distinct.

How it All Began by Penelope Lively. 2012. I’m a big fan of Lively’s novels and have read most of them. I love the way she takes an event and shows how the results form a widening pool of consequences, based on her characters’ personalities and proclivities. In fact, one of her novels is titled Consquences–a favorite of mine. This one follows the consequences of a mugging and how it affects the victim, her family, and the people she knows. Lively is a master at creating compelling, empathetic, unusual characters and setting them loose on the page. Here’s a link to my post on the book

A Different Sky by Meira Chand. 2011. A great, sweeping historical novel about Singapore in the twentieth century. I love historical novels where you learn history effortlessly, caught up in how the characters are tossed about by impersonal historical, political, and social forces. I’m surprised that this novel didn’t get more attention; Chand provides all of that and more. I visited Singapore and now when I think back to that visit, I see a slightly different city because of this novel. Here’s a link to my post on the novel.

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. 2011. An unusual, haunting coming of age novel that must be close to memoir, it’s so vivid. I wrote more about it in this post.

Storm Reading, Part 2–the second storm, with snow!

This is the cruelest storm of all, following on the heels of Sandy, when so many people have yet to get power back and so many others have lost their homes. I worry about the residents of those barrier beach communities, in New Jersey and in Queens and Long Island that have been so devastated by Sandy, and now we’ll have 2 more days with the threat of power outages from wind, rain, and snow. My lights were flickering in the early afternoon, not a good sign and it’s been snowing steadily here since noon. The lights just flickered again!

I started reading an older Richard Russo novel, The Risk Pool, and I think it’s one of his best, if you don’t mind coming of age stories without plots. I’m about half way through it now and enjoying Russo’s language immensely. He’s done the hard thing: created characters that are dishonest, irresponsible, and unethical but you’re eager to spend time with them, can’t wait to see what they’ve done now.

The main character is Ned Hall, son of a charismatic, petty crook of a father and a mother who can’t cope. We follow Ned from about 9 years of age through college. Like most of Russo’s novels, it takes place in upstate New York, in the small town of Mohawk, where the denizens of the bars, pool halls, and greasy spoon diners provide the Greek chorus for Ned and Sam’s life. What a great cast of lowlifes, amiable and not-so-amiable drunks, misfits, and cardsharps Russo has created! Many of the characters have great nicknames, bestowed by Ned’s father, who is never at a loss for an insult or an excuse.

Ned’s growing up takes place among these folks and he learns lessons about human nature that are hardly to be found elsewhere. The novel reminds me of Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life for its insight into the way children make use of the situations they’re put in. It also reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel Little Bird of Heaven, although Oates’s novel is the dark side of the story, the one Russo chose not to tell. The Risk Pool is very funny; we laugh because we want to assure ourselves that it can’t be true.

Storm reading, part 1–the first storm, Sandy

Fortunately, we only lost power for a day and a half, although some of my friends still don’t have power after a week. I’ve been checking in with family and friends who live elsewhere and some have flooded basements, trees that came down on their roofs, and no water to go along with lack of electricity. We were very lucky. With a gas stove, I was always able to make a pot of tea and keep it hot with an old quilted tea cozy. With no phone service of any kind for 4 days–landline or cell–it was a good time to read.

I tackled the next book for my book group–Madeleine Albright’s memoir Madame Secretary–a daunting book for its length, made even more so by the fact that the only copy I could get from the library was large print. Easy to read but literally heavy. In light of the upcoming elections, it was a timely book to read.

Albright spent the first Clinton administration as our ambassador to the UN; the second as Secretary of State. If you think back to the 90s, the issues were myriad, diverse, and extremely urgent. Albright separates them in her book, dealing with Iran, the former Yugoslavia, North Korea, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among others, in individual chapters. It takes a while before you realize that she’s dealing with them all simultaneously, expected to be on the mark at every minute to respond to each. One of her appendices is a schedule of her overseas trips as Secretary of State–quite daunting. She writes about how she occasionally saved time on flights by mid-air refueling. It’s an accessible, engaging story and a good reminder of some of the recent background to issues we’re still dealing with.

I also read The Orphan Master’s Son this past week, by Adam Johnson, a very dark, satirical novel about life in North Korea under Kim Jong Il. It’s hard to know where to begin to describe this tale. In some ways it’s Dickensian, in others it’s like 1984 or the movie Brazil. If I had known about some of the scenes of graphic violence I might not have read it, but I’m not sorry I did. It follows Pak Jun Do, the motherless son of the director of an orphanage. Pak’s adventures in the criminal underside of North Korean life bring him into conflict with the highest levels of government, and ultimately the Dear Leader himself. The first section of the book is a little slow but the rest is quite remarkable. Johnson depicts the way life in North Korea requires the suspension of disbelief and the suspension of rational thought.

Then I read My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, a tour de force about the friendship between two girls in a town just outside of Naples in the 1950s. It’s the first in a projected trilogy. Beautifully translated, it evokes the particular place and post-war time, the changing mores, and the finely calibrated relationships among the neighboring families. The first-person narrator, Elena, is drawn to the wild and moody Lila, whose charismatic personality makes her a magnet for trouble as the girls mature. The title poses the question of which of the girls is the brilliant one and what that brilliance will mean for them as they grow up.

I also read two ho-hum thrillers, which have been getting, or will get, lots of publicity: Ghostman by Roger Hobbs and The Intercept by Dick Wolf. Daniel Silva’s espionage thrillers about the art restorer/Mossad agent Gabriel Allon are my standard for thrillers; neither of these two books measured up in terms of suspense, believability, or character development. Oh well, we’ll probably see one or both of them on the big screen anyway.

Great bad prose–the Bulwer-Lytton winners for 2012

It’s easy to write badly but hard to write this deliberately awful and hilarious stuff that wins the Bulwer-Lytton contest. If you been asleep and don’t know what this is, here’s the link to the website page with this year’s winners, recently announced:

My favorite this year–the one that made me laugh out loud–is the runner-up for Purple Prose: “Corinne considered the colors (palest green, gray and lavender) and texture (downy as the finest velvet) and wondered, “How long have these cold cuts been in my refrigerator?” submitted by Linda Boatright of Omaha NE.

Thanks go to my Israeli writer friend Pnina Moed Kass who sent me the link.