Robert Bank’s must-reads for the summer

This summer reading list features recommendations from the AJWS community. Though the storylines span different eras and regions of the world, each title is engaging, eye-opening, and most of all, deeply inspiring.

I know you’ve grown accustomed to me sharing my must-reads for the summer. This time, however, I thought it would be fun to share titles that you have recommended to me. With many options to consider, I managed to whittle the list down to a few (no easy feat!) that I found engaging, eye-opening, and inspiring. I hope you will agree.

The first recommendation comes from one of our long-serving board members and it is a real page turner. All the Broken Places by John Boyne picks up where his acclaimed novel “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” leaves off. It follows the life of Gretel (The Boy’s sister) who escaped Nazi Germany as a preteen but remains haunted by her past. In London, decades later, she befriends the young son of her new neighbors and that family’s troubled dynamic dredges up old feelings of guilt and complicity. The novel comes to a dramatic finish and leaves you pondering one big question: “How much responsibility do we bear for the heinous acts of our loved ones?” It’s a moral conundrum that will stay with you long after the book ends.

Licínio de Azevedo’s The Train of Salt & Sugar chronicles a rail journey during Mozambique’s civil war (1977-1992). This recommendation comes from a longtime AJWS friend who gifted me the book on my recent visit to Senegal. The novel immerses readers in the lives of several passengers, including one woman traveling to trade salt for sugar, two rare commodities in wartime. It was an insightful read that opened my eyes to the story of the Nacala Corridor (a multinational system of train lines, highways, and ports) and the role a railway can play in shaping one’s destiny. One reviewer captured the book perfectly by saying “…it’s a story of blood and tears but it’s also a story of courage, love and indestructible will to survive.” I hope you enjoy Azevedo’s rich storytelling as much as I did.

As a classical pianist myself, Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons by Jeremy Denk, struck a heartwarming chord (pun intended!). This charming memoir, recommended by another longtime AJWS friend, takes us step by step through how one of the greatest pianists in the United States built his career. I loved that Denk calls it a “love story” and brings you along on the journey as he falls in love with music. There is a beautiful thread connecting the author, the teachers who inspired him, the genius of the music he plays, and you, the reader. I was enchanted by this book, and I think you will be too.

Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace is a riveting family memoir by Jewish Russian-American writer and activist Masha Gessen. Recommended by a dear AJWS friend, it tells the story of the author’s grandmothers and how they navigated decades of war and persecution. This was a fascinating read about holding on to one’s integrity in a time of persecution and corruption. While I’ve read a lot about Jews during World War II, I’m less familiar with the stories of Soviet-era Jews. And reading Gessen’s emotional tribute to her grandmothers at a time when Russia’s aggression is in the news made this even more compelling. I recommend diving into their intriguing family history.

Switching genres for a moment, the television series When the Dust Settles was among the best shows I’ve seen this year. I have my brother and sister-in-law to thank for this recommendation. This 10-part drama tells the stories of eight characters whose lives are upended by a terrorist attack at a Copenhagen restaurant. But one of the directors Milad Alami said it is not a show about terrorism. Rather, it is “…about people from different races, classes, sexes and how their lives are woven together.” It’s raw and emotional — and bingeworthy. Put this one at the top of your must-watch list.

Back to the written word! I can’t resist ending with two recommendations of my own.

The Door of No Return is a gem that I recommend to everyone. Written much like a fable, Kwame Alexander tells the story of a Ghanaian boy who is kidnapped and sold into the Atlantic slave trade by Asante villagers avenging the death of one of their own. The author was criticized for his depictions of African complicity in slavery. For me, though, this novel is less about the slave trade and more about how our inhumanity toward one another can ruin destiny, lead to heartache, and invite tragedy. It may not be an uplifting novel but there is something mesmerizing about the author’s storytelling. It is the first installment of a trilogy, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Friends, I am ending with a first. I haven’t finished reading A History of Burning yet but I am loving this book so much that I had to include it. It is a sweeping saga by debut novelist Janika Oza that follows an Indian family over a century from India to Uganda to Canada. It is a beautifully written story of survival in the face of political turmoil and discrimination and the choices and sacrifices of different family members. I am about halfway through, and I don’t know what will happen next. I do know though that if you come along this journey with me, there is a good chance you will find “A History of Burning” as captivating as I do.

While these titles span different eras and regions of the world, they all share a common theme of resilience in the face of challenges and love as the antidote to the inevitability of human suffering. Even though some of the storylines are weighty, I was buoyed by the characters’ unwavering determination. Many of them certainly inspired me. I am eager to hear whether they moved you, too.

Robert BankRobert Bank is President and CEO of American Jewish World Service, the leading Jewish organization working to promote human rights in the developing world. Robert has spent his career championing human rights as an attorney, activist and leader. He joined AJWS as Executive Vice President in 2009 and previously served in New York’s municipal government and in the leadership of GMHC—one of the world’s leading organizations combatting HIV/AIDS. Robert has been honored with GMHC’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Partners in Justice Award from AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.