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.

A Jewish Mother in Shangri-la

Rosie Rosenzweig, A Jewish Mother in Shangri-la

Echoing ‘The Jew in the Lotus’, Rosie Rosenzweig’s book describes a personal journey of Jewish identity and Buddhism.  Starting with the ‘come home Sheldon’ joke about the Jewish mother whose son becomes the leader of an eastern religion, Rosenzweig explains that this really happened to her: her son Ben became a Buddhist.  Through a journey with him through Europe to Nepal, she demonstrates how she came to terms with her reservations about his beliefs and her fear for his soul, which is seen against the backdrop of her growing Jewish commitment and deepening halachic observance.  The book is entertaining, well-written and highly unusual, written by a woman who seems to be simultaneously a stereotypical Jewish mother and an open-minded, thinking poet and practitioner of meditation.  I found some of her views on Judaism simplistic, and her approach to Buddhism somewhat naive, yet none of this detracted from a worthwhile read.

The Balfour Declaration

Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Jonathan Schneer has produced an extremely detailed study of the events leading up to the 1917 Balfour Declaration.  It is packed with fascinating material surrounding one of the most turbulent yet formative moments in modern Jewish history.  Schneer’s thesis is that the root cause of the current Arab-Israeli conflict is that the British government promised Palestine to both the Jews and the Arabs.  The book is unecessarily complicated, and is poorly written and oddly edited in places (there are some irritating and amusing infelicities in the English), and I found some sections hard to follow; it is overly long and jerky in its narrative direction.  Yet I learned a great deal from the book, enjoyed it and feel that its thesis is cogent and important.

John Lennon and the Jews

Ze’ev Maghen, John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage

Recommended by Melanie Phillips

In this unusual book, Maghen first identifies, through the eyes of Jewish members of Hara Krishna to whom he got chatting at an airport, three key reasons why young people say they can’t identify with Judaism, and then addresses them.  The curious reference in the title is to Lennon’s famous ballad ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’ (my version of the book also features a cover-photo of Lennon wearing a suspiciously-Chassidic-looking outfit).  A central objective of Maghen’s work is to roundly refute Lennon’s anti-religious, anarchic ideas with rationalist philosophy.  While I imagine that Maghen usually writes in a more serious style (he is a professor of Arabic Literature at Bar Ilan University) – I found his ‘in-your-face’ jocularity quite irritating – he succeeds to a remarkable degree in offering thought-provoking and rational answers in what is indeed an impressive and engaging ‘philosophical rampage’.  A great success – at once gripping, thought-provoking and humorous, providing intelligent answers to some tough questions.

In Ishmael's House

Martin Gilbert, In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands

Thanks to Rabbi N.S. Liss, Highgate Synagogue

Celebrated author and historian Sir Martin Gilbert’s latest book is an interesting and enlightening read.  Adorned with photos, maps and appendices, the book is essentially divided into two – the first half deals with pre-19th century history (i.e. pre-Zionism and Jewish aspirations to return to the Land of Israel), the second from the late 19th century to today.  It covers every facet of Muslim-Jewish interactions from the inception of Islam and the dhimma to the fate of Jews in Arab lands post 1948.  While Gilbert certainly includes accounts of awful persecution and intolerance towards Jews, he also refers to touching episodes of mutual co-operation and friendship between Jews and their Muslim hosts.  As with the other Gilbert books I’ve read, he packs lots of information into a readable and accessible text.  Recommended, particularly for those Ashkenazim like me whose knowledge of pre-State Muslim-Jewish relations is rather fuzzy.

The Ten Commandments

David Hazony, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Text Can Renew Modern Life

Recommended by Clare Goldwater, Washington

David Hazony’s idea is very simple: take the 10 Commandments one by one and show how they can inform the values of a modern, spiritually healthy and ethical society.  Hazony weaves together traditional and modern sources into an engaging read that will appeal to beginners and scholars alike.  His contention is that taken in an almost chronological way, the 10 Commandments can form the basis for a better world.  I was particularly taken by Chapter 2, in which Hazony addresses idolatry through the lens of ‘Morality and Loneliness’, making a cogent case against the allure of our own creativity to explain a modern manifestation of an ancient prohibition.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and plan to read it again.