Israeli Critics' Choice

The Five Books You Have to Read This Summer

To mark national Hebrew Book Week, reviewers from Haaretz and other Israeli media outlets make some recommendations for good reading this summer

A tourist sits and reads at the seaside on Table Bay beach with a view of Table Mountain, center, in Cape Town, South Africa.
Bloomberg

What books interest literary critics the most? What is it in a particular book that attracts and interests them? What books will they buy and read just for pleasure, without any connection to their work as reviewers? What is their taste in translated works? Five critics answer these questions.

Raw materials of life

Yuval Avivi, literary critic for the Haaretz Books supplement, on “Nobody Move” by Denis Johnson

In principal, a liberal man like myself is supposed to turn up his nose at Playboy magazine, which objectifies women, and at anyone who cooperates with a magazine of this kind. Nevertheless, it’s logical and understandable that the book “Nobody Move” by Denis Johnson was published in installments in this conservative, old-fashioned and irrelevant men’s magazine before being published as a book in 2009.

The men in the book are Playboy men – a kind of caricature of males who drink whiskey and wear boots, the kind who manage to be violent and get beaten up at one and the same time. They are both sexual harassers and weak. In a sense, the decision to publish a book of this nature in installments in a magazine of this kind is in itself a criticism of Playboy readers, and it is thrown in their faces without mincing words.

According to the promise in the book’s promotional material, “Nobody Move” is a “renewal of the noir tradition” – fertile ground for a particularly insulting analysis of the male sex in its most clichéd version. To judge by another collection of stories by Johnson, “Jesus’ Son,” this noir will be extreme, surrealistic and bizarre, and really, what more can one ask? A few beatings, pistols flying around, scathing failures and existential despair. The materials from which life is made.

Vacation at a bargain price

Arik Glasner, literary critic for Yedioth Ahronoth, on “The Pickwick Papers” by Charles Dickens

This is a long book, and that’s a good thing. When the book is good, of course. You purchase a vacation of several dozen hours at a discount price. A vacation from life. A classic vacation. An entertaining vacation. A vacation that doesn’t cut you off from your sense of morality. Not a guilty pleasure.

This is Charles Dickens at age 24 in a wonderful comic debut novel. Keep an eye on this boy, he’ll go far. For Hebrew speakers, the Hebrew is flexible and natural in the new and excellent translation by Dafna Rosenblit, and the entertaining adventures of Mr. Pickwick, his honorable colleagues and his witty Sancho Panza, Sam Weller, all living in early 19th-century England, are recounted here without any hint of anachronism.

Battling the forces of darkness

Hagar Yanai, author and literary critic on IDF Radio, on “Frankenstein in Baghdad” by Ahmed Saadawi

The book that has aroused my curiosity recently is “Frankenstein in Baghdad” by Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi. It’s an original, unusual and maybe even revolutionary combination: a fantasy inspired by Western classics, which comes from the depths of the Arab world and, using irony, examines contemporary political reality.

It is set in 2005 in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Baghdad is a bleeding city, in which acts of murder and kidnapping are a part of everyday life. Hadi, a seller of old furniture, wants to pay his last respects to those killed in the attacks, and assembles a corpse from body parts. But the creation comes to life and sets out to take revenge against those responsible for the deaths of the victims that provided its various components.

You don’t have to be an expert on fiction genres to identify overt references in this summary to the original Frankenstein story by Mary Shelley, and to the legend of the Golem from Prague. These are formative tales, and when they are echoed in a culture that is sometimes seen as hostile, I find it a sign of hope.

For me, as a lover of fiction, this book is required reading, if only because it illustrates the power of the fantasy genre at its best, and gives us the ability to observe the reality surrounding us from a mythological and archetypical perspective. In that sense, “Frankenstein in Baghdad” can be compared to Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which was written against the backdrop of World War II and dealt with the battle against the powers of darkness in legendary terms.

Relations with flesh and with blood

Maya Sela, literary critic for the Haaretz Books supplement, on “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang

This book has already been honored with the Man Booker International Prize for 2016. I see in the ads that it’s not a big book, only 169 pages. I expect it to be somewhat strange. It centers around an ordinary couple, he a mediocre salesman and she his devoted wife. Their peaceful life goes awry when she begins to have violent dreams that make her decide to become a vegetarian.

It turns out that in the conservative South Korean culture, vegetarianism is an incomprehensible phenomenon, a subversive act that arouses violent reactions. The main protagonist is seeking a plantlike existence of her own; she wants to abandon her corporeal body and turn into a tree. I need to understand this strange situation created by Han Kang, a South Korean writer and poet. This seems to be an interesting work about our relationships with others and with our bodies, with flesh and with blood.

The banal tragedy of this era

Ofra Rudner, literary critic for the Haaretz Books supplement, on “The Willoughbys,” by Lois Lowry

The Willoughbys describe themselves as an old-fashioned family, and its four children do what children do in very old-fashioned stories. But “The Willoughbys” is not at all old-fashioned – not because of its plot, but because of the well-developed awareness of the protagonists, who suffer from an obsession for what is ostensibly old-fashioned, and from exaggerated self-awareness.

The Willoughby children are trapped in a whirlwind of quotations, icons and narratives. They seem to understand that they are literary figures; the book is full of literary references, and the writer comments on them in the appendix. If comedy is sped-up tragedy, Lowry tells the banal tragedy of this era at a dizzying speed: The Willoughby parents decide to escape from their children, who in turn decide to get rid of their parents.

And then comes the nanny, who is everything the modern world wants to forget – the mother who does the dirty work, an impoverished woman who has been pushed into unprofitable jobs and financial dependence. Even when she becomes the children’s legal mother, she will remain the nanny, because if there’s anything Lowry doesn’t joke about, it’s the idea that raising children is work.

Therefore, this book is not only a wild, brilliant and dramatic social satire, it is also a feminist text without bullshit. Not only for girls.