Ten Books to Read in 5774: Your Ultimate List for the High Holy Days

As tough as it is to narrow down a year full of literary greatness, Haaretz has selected a few of the better texts to hit the shelf over the last 12 months. Enjoy!

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A mountain of books to choose from.
A mountain of books to choose from.Credit: AP
David Green
David B. Green

You probably read through, or at least heard an audio version while running your daily half-marathon, all of the significant books of 5773. But then again, a long holiday weekend is before us, and between the full-marathon of meals and the occasional catnap, you’re likely to have some time on your hands.

With that in mind, we’ve put together a concise listing of some of the more notable books that have been reviewed in Haaretz English Edition over the Hebrew year just ended.

We wouldn’t presume to call it a “best-of” list, but each of these titles struck a chord with its reviewer, and could just do the same with you. And there’s always the chance, however unlikely, that you missed the review when it originally appeared online.

Here, then, is our completely subjective rundown of the Haaretz English Edition Recommended Books of 5773.

They appear in the order in which they – the reviews – were published. Shana tova, and kri’ah mehana (enjoyable reading)!

–David B. Green

1. "Telegraph Avenue," by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins)

A big, big book from the always entertaining Bard of Berkeley about the constant struggle of two friends and business partners, a black man and a white man, to make a living and remain true to their beliefs – in their case, that jazz is the purest artform, and it’s best listened to on vinyl – while every element in their surrounding culture is telling them to compromise.

Although our reviewer, Gerald Sorin, thought it was at times “overwritten” (Chabon’s passion for displaying the breadth and depth of his knowledge of detail” can be “the literary equivalent of a collector’s fetishism”), Chabon, he happily reported, “has the most mellifluous prose style among a growing group of talented Jewish-American writers.” And in its messy but lifelike conclusion, “Telegraph Avenue” satisfyingly offers a “remarkable synthesis of irresolution and tenuous but recognizable hope.”

2. "The Innocents," by Francesca Segal (Voice/Hyperion)

In her much-praised debut novel, the British-American Segal, daughter of the late Erich Segal, who brought us “Love Story,” no less, has written, says Ruth Margalit, a “smart, enjoyable” reworking of Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” transplanted from Gilded Age Manhattan to 21st-century, Jewish London. “It’s Wharton in the age of iPhone,” wrote Margalit approvingly, as 28-year-old Adam Newman, attending Kol Nidre services with his fiancée, is introduced to her visiting cousin Ellie, a 22-year-old model who’s wearing “a tuxedo jacket with nothing beneath it and black trousers − trousers!”

Adam is of course sent into a tailspin by Ellie, with her “limbs of satin,” “champagne blond hair” and “high, pointed breasts,” as Segal describes her. But desire runs up against guilt and a sense of responsibility, and he faces a serious dilemma. Fortunately, the entire Jewish community of Northwest London is there to help him confront it. It’s a milieu that Francesca Segal inhabits well, writes Margalit, and her novel benefits from “the highly favorable vantage point of both insider-y intimacy and critical remove.”

3. "Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame," edited by Franklin Foer and Mark Tracy (Twelve Books)

If you’re looking for a bar mitzvah gift, or, simply, short, punchy takes by an array of writing stars on a liberally defined collection of Jewish “athletes,” look no further. New Republic editor Foer and reporter Tracy have assembled a group of writers no less obsessed than they themselves are to contend with the subject of Jewish sports accomplishments, which turns out to be a far richer field than you may have been conditioned to imagine.

The book’s 50 brief essays include pieces by David Remnick, writing on Howard Cosell (did I mention that the definition of “jock” is a liberal one?); Jane Leavy on Sandy Koufax, about whom she has already written an acclaimed full-length biography; and historian Simon Schama, reminding readers about the startling career the 18th-century British pugilist Daniel Mendoza. Said our reviewer, Gerald Eskenazi, about the literary quality of the offerings: “I was expecting schmaltz, and what I got was sophistication.”

Musing, too, on whether there were any common denominators that united a highly diverse list of figures in their Jewishness, Eskenazi discerned a tendency among many of them to be “sensitive to abuses of the past, to slights, to unfairness, and thus an almost central theme of Jewishness: How can we make this better?”

4. "Jerusalem," by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ebury Press, UK, and Ten Speed Press, U.S.)

Was it just coincidence that our reviewer, Vivian Eden, read and tested some of the recipes from this book by the Jerusalemite chefs and restaurateurs Ottolenghi and Tamimi – a Jew and a Palestinian, respectively, both of them both living and prospering in London – during last November’s blip of a Hamas-Israeli stand-off in the south? Of course, it didn’t feel like a blip to the Israelis and Gazans who were on the ground when their side was hit by missiles and rockets from the other. In Eden’s case, she was sizzling a batch of cauliflower in hot oil, for the Cauliflower with Tahini recipe, when an air-raid siren went off in Jerusalem – to date, a very rare occurrence, even during wartime. She dutifully repaired to her building’s fortified stairwell until the danger had passed, but by then, the florets were already limp and greasy.

“The recipes themselves are like the city,” she wrote, with great enthusiasm about this cookbook, one of the year’s true blockbusters, “varied, vivid and with many layers, usually topped off with a finishing touch: a handful of this, a sprinkling of that or a curlicue of something else, adding an aesthetic flourish like fur on a black hat for the Sabbath or an arabesque on a floor tile.” Eden urged readers to buy many copies of “Jerusalem.”

5. "Life Goes On," by Hans Keilson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

The author died two years ago at the age of 101, and his three works of fiction were originally published in German in the middle decades of the previous century, but English-language audiences have gained access to them in translation over the past few years. “Life Goes On,” the first of the three to be written by Keilson, who grew up in Weimar Germany and survived the war years in hiding in the Netherlands before going on to a long career as a child psychoanalyst, is, wrote our reviewer, Benjamin Balint, “a fate-haunted masterpiece from 1933” that was banned by Nazis almost as soon as it was published. (It was the last title by a Jewish author brought out by Keilson’s publisher before the war.)

Taken together with Keilson’s other two books, “Comedy in a Minor Key” and “Death of an Adversary,” noted Balint, this short masterpiece brings us “a harrowing but humane depiction of the sad self-surrender that accompanied the calamitous collapse of the Weimar Republic and rise of the Third Reich from the perspective of before (the 1930s), during (the '40s) and after (the '50s).”

6. "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956," by Anne Appelbaum (Doubleday)

Appelbaum, an American journalist who has lived and reported from Europe for more than two decades, was sitting atop the Berlin Wall in November 1989 as it was being literally and symbolically brought down. Her latest book looks at the ways that the Communist regimes of Germany, Poland and Hungary controlled, physically redistributed and indoctrinated their respective populations during the first dark decade after the end of World War II, when, as Churchill noted in 1946, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain … descended across the Continent.”

Appelbaum was well-placed to cover her subject. The young man with whom she chiseled off pieces of the Wall in 1989, Radoslaw Sikorski, later became her husband – as well as the foreign minister of Poland. Speaking with Haaretz interviewer Inna Lazareva, she explained that it was while working on an earlier book about the Soviet gulags that she “began to think about why people went along with Soviet communism, what was the nature of Soviet ideology." She also took a special look at the place of the Jews in the states covered, who had emerged from the Holocaust to face a new and insidious “minefield” in postwar Eastern Europe, when Stalinism began to spread from its Russian cradle. Communism had its powerful attractions for many Jews, but it also is what finally drove so many hundreds of thousands of them to vote with their feet, and leave the graveyard of Europe behind.

7. "The People of Forever Are Not Afraid," by Shani Boianjiu (Hogarth Books)

Boianjiu is the 25-year-old Israel wunderkind who writes in English, and has seen her first book, a loosely linked set of dark, comic and surreal stories, translated into more than 20 languages. “The People of Forever,” about three young women friends before, during and in the years immediately following their army service, is semi-apocalyptic, wrote our reviewer, who also happens to be the author of these lines. And, he noted, “What gives Boianjiu’s work an extra jolt is that every so often, without warning, she crosses the line delimiting reality to present a surreal, often grotesque vision. We know that it can’t be real, but we aren’t sure just when the line was crossed. Suddenly, though, there’s a feeling of the oxygen having been sucked from the room.”

Boianjiu’s adults are too preoccupied with their own problems to be obvious or steady presences in the lives of their children, who are in any event taken from home at age 18, and “granted the right to kill or be killed.” And over and over, they “confront difficult moral choices and emotionally trying dilemmas that it’s not so nice to contend with on one’s own.”

Our reviewer also spoke with Boianjiu, and concluded that “her talent seems so intuitive, and her dark vision appears to have flown from her pen so naturally … my guess is she didn’t spend much time contemplating the implications of her work while she was immersed in the act of creation.” For him, however, this “powerful piece of writing … gives us a disturbing sense of what it’s like to come of age in the Jewish state of today. The People of Forever actually have very good reason to be afraid.”

8. "The Retrospective," by A.B. Yehoshua, translated by Stuart Schoffman (Halban Publishers, UK; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, U.S.)

Readers have come to expect a richly textured novel, usually with a conflicted and extremely human man at its center, every few years from A.B. Yehoshua. “The Retrospective,” called “Sephardi Charity” in its original Hebrew, is no exception to this role. A celebrated Israeli filmmaker, Yair Moses, presumably approaching the end of a lengthy and well-regarded career, arrives in Santiago de Compostela, in the Pyrenees, to be the guest of honor at a retrospective of his work. But the occasion serves to stir up uncomfortable memories of a once-happy collaboration with a writer-cinematographer that went sour over artistic differences.

For our reviewer, Akin Ajayi, “’The Retrospective’ is replete with the iconography of guilt and atonement. There are the beginnings of Moses’ epiphany, in a city famous as the end point for Christian pilgrimage and penitence; there is his impulsive decision to take part in the rite of confession in the famous cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, even though he makes it clear that he does not seek absolution. Even as he argues for the superiority of the realism and materialism in his films as against the ephemerality that obtains elsewhere, he finds himself drawn toward using the symbolism of his earlier work to unpick his relationship with the world.”

But in making Moses’ former artistic partner, Shaul Trigano, a Sephardi Jew, noted our reviewer, Yehoshua also “crafts a powerful and engaging allegory of modern Israeli Jewish identity. It might be a truism to observe baldly that Sephardic identity is an autonomous construct, not dependent on the munificence of Israel’s elite classes. But this is a point that eludes Moses, and Yehoshua, I think, worries that it might elude others too.”

9. "The First Muslim," by Lesley Hazleton (Riverhead)

A “humane, audacious biography of Muhammad,” wrote our reviewer, Stuart Schoffman, about this highly literary work by the Jewish, British-born Hazleton of the founding prophet of Islam. Hazleton has already offered similar treatments of Mary, mother of Jesus, and several other subjects in religious history, but whereas it’s hard not to imagine Mary with empathy and affection, writing the life story of “the fearsome godfather of jihad, as he is stereotyped by many Westerners,” so that he becomes “a fellow you can warm up to” is a special challenge.

Hazleton is up to the task. Her audacity includes offering a comparison between Muhammad’s early followers from Mecca who, in Schoffman’s words, built his “mud-brick compound in Medina to the young Jewish halutzim in Palestine a century ago,” and suggesting that these same early Muslims, as she writes, “[i]mbued with a vision of man and God in unison … threw themselves into what Kabbalists would later call tikkun olam, repairing the world.”

Our reviewer admired this work for its subtlety, its well-informed reading of all the requisite secondary sources – as well as five different translations of the Koran – and for the beauty of its prose.

10. "The Liars’ Gospel," by Naomi Alderman (Little, Brown)

Young British novelist Alderman also takes a look at the founder of a faith in this much-acclaimed work of fiction. Her prophet is Jesus, but she looks at him and his environment through the witnessing of four figures other than himself, much as the gospels of the New Testament do. In her case, the witnesses are Mary, Judas and Caiaphas, as well as a figure called Ben-Avo. The latter is Alderman’s own creation, a Jewish rebel, like Jesus, but in his case, one who is ready to use violence against Rome. She seems to be suggesting the possibility of an alternate history, which for our reviewer, Leah Falk, is the “freshest and most daring” element of this book.

The book is also a commentary on story-telling itself: Those who recount narratives, Alderman reminds us in the epilogue, "know that every story is at least partly a lie. … Every emphasis or omission is a kind of lie, shaping a moment to make a point."

For reviewer Falk, “Alderman plays a clever trick by telling the ‘liars’ gospels’ in third person – she, along with her characters, becomes all four storytellers, each one with a different urgency at stake in the story and each with a different ‘lie’ to shape the retelling. It’s a shape-shifting that adds a layer of existential complexity to this ambitious, large-hearted book.”