Ever since Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” won a Pulitzer Prize, no apologies need to be made for the aspirations of comic book artists to enter the realm of literature. R. Crumb, for example, recently rendered nothing less exalted than the Book of Genesis as a graphic novel. And Marjane Satrapi applied the same techniques to a best-selling work of memoir in “Persepolis.”
No book review I’ve written for The Jewish Journal has prompted as much feedback as the one I wrote about “A New Voice for Israel” by Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of J Street. His argument that Israel must make uncomfortable compromises and take dire risks in order to secure peace with the Palestinian Arabs is clearly unsettling to a great many Jews, both in Israel and America.
My first encounter with Jewish genealogy came when I was invited to give a talk at the annual meeting of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies on the question of whether any living Jew can plausibly claim to have descended from King David.
Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t a variant of Gresham’s law at work in the arts and letters of the digital age: Is bad writing driving out good? The sheer volume and velocity of the blogosphere, for example, seems to hide the moments of discernment and reflection.
Erik Larson attracted a loyal and appreciative readership — and that includes me — with his potent blend of social history and serial murder in the best-selling “The Devil in the White City,” a work of meticulous research that reads like a thriller. Now he puts the same skills to work in “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” (Crown: $26), an account of the early years of Nazi Germany as experienced by William E. Dodd, who served as U.S. ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937.
From the opening passage of “The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World” by Joseph Braude (Spiegel & Grau: $26), we suddenly find ourselves in an atmospheric scene right out of “Casablanca” — an empty alleyway in the storied Moroccan city, a morning mist, a warehouse where the deep silence is suddenly broken by a squad of soldiers and detectives, and the sight of a mutilated corpse.
Memoir has come to be regarded nowadays as a highly corrupted literary form, but we are reminded of how rich and meaningful a memoir can be in “The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance” by Edmund de Waal (Picador, $16.00). First published in 2010 to great critical acclaim, the book is now available in a handsome paperback edition, and it’s nothing less than a treasure trove between covers.
California is defined, both geographically and psychologically, by the fact that the state sits on the ragged edge of the continent — “an ambiguous portion of the whole state,” as Philip L. Fradkin puts it in “The Left Coast: California on the Edge” (University of California Press: $29.95), a superb work of art and text that seeks to understand what we really mean when we casually refer to “the Coast.”
Perhaps the single biggest surprise in “The Synagogue in America: A Short History,” by Marc Lee Raphael (New York University Press: $30), is its sheer entertainment value. Raphael, who holds the Nathan Gumenick chair of Judaic studies at the College of William and Mary, has produced a short, highly readable and wholly illuminating study that will delight anyone who has ever sat in shul and told himself the beloved old Jewish joke that ends with the punch line: “To that one, I never go.”
Some beloved and celebrated authors will hit the road in support of their latest books as this summer begins. Here are a few of the most intriguing titles and some of the places where their authors will be reading and signing their books in Southern California:
Based on firsthand experience, I can say that if you find yourself in a room with Michael Shermer, he’s likely to be the smartest guy present, and I do not mean in the Enron sense. Shermer, author of “Why People Believe Weird Things” and “The Science of Good and Evil,” among other books, is the founder of Skeptic magazine, and a fearless and tireless advocate of rationalism in the face of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. And he brings a scalpel-sharp and laser-focused intelligence to his work as America’s arch-skeptic.
The headliners at the 2011 edition of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books range from literary luminaries like Carolyn See, Dave Eggers, T.C. Boyle and Jennifer Egan, to fitness icon Jillian Michaels and master prestidigitator Ricky Jay, but the biggest news is the change of venue. After a 15-year run at the UCLA campus, the event has moved to the lively and welcoming campus of the University of Southern California in downtown Los Angeles.
Blood has been spilled yet again in the streets of Jerusalem in recent days, and so there is a certain urgency that inevitably attaches itself to “Jerusalem, Jerusalem:
"Writers don't die of typhus," goes one of my favorite quotations from the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer. "They die of typos."
To sum up the exotic history of the Black Sea port of Odessa, Charles King, in “Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams” (Norton: $27.95), describes “a city that had been scouted by a Neapolitan mercenary, named by a Russian empress, governed by her one-eyed secret husband, built by two exiled French noblemen, modernized by a Cambridge-educated count, and celebrated by his wife’s Russian lover.” The Yiddish phrase Lebn vi Got in Odes! (“Live like God in Odessa!”), according to King, “could be a blessing, a curse, or a jab at the puffed-up pretensions of city folk.”
Contemporary Bible scholars tend to look at religion as the object of study rather than the source of inspiration, or so we might conclude from their writings. But something quite different can happen when they are confronted with the kind of life experiences for which religion has always served as a balm.
Starting with its beguiling title, “Journal of a UFO Investigator” by David Halperin (Viking, $25.95) is an enchantment from beginning to end, a coming-of-age story that is also a kind of whodunit and, above all, an eerie adventure tale set in the subculture of flying saucers and space creatures.
I first encountered the work of Erika Dreifus at her literary blog, “My Machberet,” which I quickly bookmarked as a must-read site (erikadreifus.com), and I was so impressed by her acuity, discernment and style that I invited her to contribute book reviews to The Jewish Journal. Now I have the opportunity to call attention to her debut work of fiction, “Quiet Americans” (Last Light Studio, $13.95), a deeply affecting collection of short stories that displays all of the qualities that I admire in her literary journalism.
Adolf Hitler may have been bloody in tooth and claw, but he was enough of an aesthete to understand that Paris was the center of gravity for European culture. On the only visit he made to the city during World War II, he went sight-seeing like any other tourist, then or now. Still, the open-mindedness that made Paris so appealing to artists, writers and intellectuals from around the world inspired only contempt in the Fuehrer.