The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader

I loved this delightful short comedy about the Queen, who in Bennett’s fertile imagination becomes an avid, even obsessive, reader following a chance encounter with a mobile library.  The Queen’s discovery of the pleasures of reading annoys the Duke of Edinburgh, terrifies her equerries, and begins to impact on her willingness to perform her public duties.  It’s light and seasonal – I read it over the Jubilee celebration, but underlying the farce are some serious issues – how in reading the Queen finds an outlet for her craving for ‘normalcy’, the tools through which to critique her own life and new ways to relate to her subjects.  I plan to read it again soon.

Joshua: A Brookyln Tale

Andrew Kane, Joshua: A Brooklyn Tale

Thank you to the author, who supplied me with a review copy of his book.

This unusual historical novel is set, as its name suggests, in Brooklyn, and describes the intertwined lives of Jews and blacks during times of racial tensions.  The main characters are a Jewish woman struggling with remaining within the religious fold, a black man who overcomes his disadvantaged background to become a successful lawyer and a complex baal teshuvah from a wealthy background.  Kane tells an engaging story – the book flows easily and hold the reader’s interest, and explores some important topics through its narrative, yet the story is fantastic, the characters are rather superficial and surprisingly, there are a number of technical inaccuracies.  And while a worthy attempt at a new genre of historical fiction, the work is too ambitious – the author tries to address not just inter-racial violence, movement in and out of faith communities, but also poverty, drug-abuse, marital discord, infidelity, infertility, religious extremism and bigotry.

Jewish Review of Books

Jewish Review of Books, Vol. 2 No.4

This is not a book review, but a review of reviews.  I’ve been looking at the Jewish Review of Books from the sidelines for a while, but on a recent visit to Yeshiva University, I bumped into a former student of mine, Phil Getz, now associate editor, who arranged for me to receive his publication.  I haven’t yet seen the Pesach edition (!), but I loved the previous number, marked ‘Winter 2012’.  It is large-format, attractively presented and filled with really interesting articles and reviews.  The reviews are serious, well-written and the entire publication has a strong sense of Jewish purpose – one of its reviewers attacks a book on Jewish identity as ‘bloodless and noncommittal’.  Yet it retains an excellent balance, and includes an array of reviews covering a whole range of works – academic, religious, historical and political.  A real landscape-changer for serious lovers of books with a Jewish theme.

Samuel Pepys

Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

I bought this book because I was so enamoured of Tomalin’s more-recent biography of Charles Dickens – short review here.

I enjoyed this one almost as much, although inevitably, since Pepys lived longer ago than Dickens, more speculation is needed to fill the lacunae.  I find Tomalin’s style easy to read yet packed with information – more like an engaging novel than the large-tome biography that it is.  Drawing extensively on Pepys’ diary and other contemporary documents, she provides a fascinating insight into her subject’s life, his troubled marriage, serial philandering and his professional accomplishments, and also delivers an important snapshot of mid-17th-century London, especially during the tumultuous years of the plague and great fire.  I hadn’t realised that Pepys’ diary covers only about 10 years of his life, but Tomalin does an excellent job in seamlessly piecing together the remaining years.  The record of Pepys’ suffering from ‘the stone’ and the eye-watering account of his pre-anaesthetic, pre-sterilisation surgery to rectify it is especially memorable.

The Suitcase

Sergei Dovlatov, The Suitcase

This short novel is a bitingly satirical look at life in Soviet Russia through an unusual lens.  A few years after emigrating from the USSR, the narrator discovers an old suitcase at the back of a cupboard; it contains the only clothes with which he had been allowed to leave the country.  Each chapter of the book is devoted to the circumstances in which he obtained one of the items in his suitcase, and offers an insight into the quirks of Soviet life, a long-forgotten relationship or a formative personal experience.  The stories are funny, irreverent and offer an insight into the life of a man who tries to play a corrupt system at its own game.

Beatrice and Virgil

Yan Martel, Beatrice and Virgil

This slim novel is a highly-unusual contribution to Holocaust literature.  It is a fictional biography of Henry, a once-successful author who becomes fascinated with a taxidermist and his shop packed with expertly mounted animals.  The Holocaust theme is initially explored through a dialogue between two stuffed animals – a donkey called Beatrice and a monkey called Virgil, who represent the lives and suffering of victims.  To say too much more might risk spoiling a gripping read: it’s a novel, but one that offers a controversial and disturbing new approach to an overwhelmingly painful real subject and its aftermath.

Persecution and the Art of Writing

Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing

Recommended by Simi Peters

This book, by the German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss, was recommended to me for the essay on the literary character of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed.  It is a fascinating assertion of the use of secret ideas and hidden agendas in the Guide.  He asserts that the real goal of the work is to reveal the beliefs and opinions of the Torah, something that the author can only do in a covert way.  This fits well with the rest of Strauss’ book, in which he considers the aims and ideas in Yehudah ha-Levy’s Kuzari and Spinoza’s Treatise.  The central idea, persuasively laid out in the title-essay, is that persecution produces a unique form of clandestine writing, which manages to convey its message between the lines of its own text, sometimes against its explicit meaning.  The ramifications of this notion reverberate through the rest of the book.  A tough read, but well worth it  and one I plan to read again.

Charles Dickens: A Life

Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life

Thanks to Geoffrey and Rachel Paul

There is a great deal of interest in Charles Dickens this year, the bicentenary of his birth.  Claire Tomalin’s biography is a remarkable contribution to this, combining academic rigour, engaging narrative and penetrating analysis.  It is extraordinary in its scope, leaving the reader with a holistic picture of the great, albeit flawed, author.  Tomalin manages to make a long, detailed work absorbing – it actually reads like a novel and certainly moves at a faster pace than an average Dickens.  I found her portrayal of Dickens’s memory and attention to detail especially interesting – she gives the impression that apart from his obvious literary capabilities, he often wrote about small but endearing quirks in people he had once come across.  A really memorable work, one I intend to reread.

Hold Me Tight

Sue Johnson, Hold Me Tight: Your Guide to the Most Successful Approach to Building Loving Relationships

Recommended by Shelley Whitehead

This remarkable book offers a window into the mode of marriage counselling developed, taught and practiced by Dr Sue Johnson, a therapist working in Canada.  She considers a range of poor relationships, largely by analysing the dialogue between couples that occur within therapy sessions.  In brief, her central thesis is that many failing partnerships can be saved and renewed through what she calls EFT – emotionally focused couple therapy.  This a process that enables each partner in a marriage to recognise their deep emotional attachment to his or her spouse.  Accordingly, conflicts are an unacknowledged articulation of vulnerability and the need to create and develop emotional bonds.  This is achieved by identifying aspects of negative communication between partners that are potentially transformational in cultivating a loving adult relationship.  The book consists of an introductory section, which I found a little slow, followed by seven representative dialogues and Dr. Johnson’s analysis of them, which were fascinating.  A valuable book for anyone in a relationship and especially for those working in a therapeutic role.