The literary year in our own words

Auslander ’s bitterly funny memoir, ‘Sam Bourne’s’ thriller, Lord Levy’s bean-spiller — it has been a year of lively and provocative books. Howard Jacobson wanted more laughter. Clive Sinclair wanted to go to bed (vicariously) with John Wayne. Read what the JC writers said about it all


December 11, 2008
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Booker nominee Steve Toltz

Booker nominee Steve Toltz

January 4

It is worth reflecting that the country that gave us President Ahmadinejad has also produced a popular TV drama based on the true story of Iranian diplomats in Paris during the Nazi occupation who forged passports to help French Jews flee. It is a fair bet that this programme, in which the Holocaust is a fact, would not have been made elsewhere in the Muslim Middle East.

Ali Ansari on The Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US, by Trita Parsi

The sex is graphic, sometimes pornographic, and the sex scenes involving SS brothels and Nazi officers are of dubious taste. It seems that, for 30 years, writers and film-makers have felt compelled to exploit the pornographic potential of Nazism. Few artistic trends are as unsavoury as this. The physical violence is just as explicit and there’s a lot of it.

David Herman on Omega Minor, by Paul Verhaeghen

January 18

Annabella’s father…says of a cook: “She let the fish alone, thank God, she did not worry it with too much sauce.” Markovits, however, does not always let the fish alone. At times, he pours the sauce on in buckets.

David Herman on A Quiet Adjustment, by Benjamin Markovits

February 1

This is an unashamedly girlie read and is rather like sitting down with a large box of chocolates in front of your favourite film. But we are talking Milk Tray here, not Godiva.

Joy Sable on Second Chance, by Jane Green

February 8

Perhaps Groucho Marx had the last word on Cecil’s Old Testament, commenting on Samson and Delilah, which starred Victor Mature, that he did not want to see a movie where “the hero’s tits are bigger than the heroine’s”.

Simon Louvish writing about his book, Cecil B. DeMille and the Golden Calf

February 8

Great suffering rarely leads to altruism and enlightenment but rather, if you have the strength, builds a will to survive at all costs.

Linda Grant, explaining how Peter Rachman, Holocaust survivor and infamous slum landlord, became the inspiration for her novel The Clothes on their Backs

February 22

You half expect Foreskin’s Lament to combust spontaneously on the bedside table. It is that angry.

Madeleine Kingsley on Shalom Auslander

February 29

Far from being proud of leading the development of the atom bomb at Los Alamos in 1945, he felt guilty from the moment of using it on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 “against an essentially defeated enemy”.

Brenda Maddox on American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird & Martin J Sherwin

March 7

The eventual image of God that one gleans from this turgid volume is something akin to Mailer’s view of himself.

Julia Neuberger reviewing On God, by Norman Mailer and Michael Lennon

March 21

“I think the Palestinians are yearning for Israel simply to acknowledge what happened. So I’m now part of a group of people who say this story should be told.”

Israeli novelist Eshkol Nevo on the “Nakba” (catastrophe) of 1948, interviewed by Francesca Segal

March 28

I have my moments of feeling the underloved child again, and of sibling rivalry, when I wonder why I can’t be universally loved like [fellow detective writer] Sue Grafton.

Sara Paretsky tells Madeleine Kingsley how she reacts to criticism

April 4

She reveals a man who was both madcap maverick — someone almost too improbably eccentric for non-fiction: a wealthy monomaniac possessed of a “crippling” speech impediment who “swallowed poached eggs whole like oysters” and “drank a cup of tea in a single gulp” — as well as being a vital ecological pioneer.

Annie Dare on Miriam Rothschild’s book about her Uncle Walter

April 11

“I’m just a little Jewish housewife, really”

Amy Winehouse, quoted in Paul Lester’s review of Amy Winehouse: The Biography, by Chas Newkey-Burden

April 18

“Sometimes, by default, one feels very Jewish. Yet when I’m in a very Jewish situation, I feel decidedly un-Jewish.”

Mike Leigh quoted by John Nathan in his review of Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, edited by Amy Raphael

May 9

Simone de Beauvoir, a teacher, liked to break in her pupils through lesbian seduction before procuring them for Jean-Paul Sartre, believing this would bind him more strongly to her, the older woman. According to Jewish schoolgirl Bianca Bienenfeld, about whom Beauvoir was passionate but whom she abandoned during the Nazi occupation of Paris: “She liked new adventures. Homosexuality was part of her bourgeois rebellion.”

Anne Sebba on A Dangerous Liaison by Carole Seymour-Jones

May 16

I have to declare an interest: in the first review reprinted here he judges me harshly for being censorious about Arthur Koestler. Space does not allow me to refute his suggestion that Koestler should not be assessed too harshly because, after all, he only perpetrated one rape.

David Cesarani on Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century

May 23

Lord Levy did a lot for Labour. But Labour also did a lot for him, giving him a peerage and a public profile. It is a pity he has chosen to disfigure his essay in vindication with spiteful allegations against its current leader, allegations that are bound to damage the party he claims to love.

Vernon Bogdanor on A Question of Honour by Lord Michael Levy

May 30

What do we want from a familiar weekly column? We don’t need to be told we’re wonderful; we don’t want to be shouted at. We want an issue defined, an argument started, a meeting of minds. Let the writer puncture pomposity, expose arrogance, execrate evil. And please may he make us laugh? Chaim Bermant, week after week, did all of that.

Jeremy Isaacs reviewing On the Other Hand, a selection of Bermant’s JC columns

June 13

We get — a real rarity in English-language fiction — a fascinating insight into Palestinian life, its plots, conspiracies, and near-relentless misery.

Jenni Frazer on The Saladin Murders by Matt Rees

June 20

After a while, you don’t even care about the ugly sentiments behind the jokes — you just wish they were funnier.

Booker nominee Steve Toltz (below) tells Francesca Segal about antisemitic taunts he endured as a schoolboy in Australia

June 20

In the 1941 Farhud (pogrom), my husband’s mother lost a relative. Ten years later, along with most of the Iraqi Jewish community, the entire family left for Israel (300 of them filled a plane). As they locked the door of their house, Muslim neighbours stood in the street crying and begging them to stay. This is a complex story, very different to the Ashkenazi Jewish experience.”

Miriam Halahmy reviewing three books about Iraqi Jews

June 27

I went to an undertaker and asked not only if they would put me in a coffin, but if they would screw the lid down and leave me there for half-an-hour. And I was going bonkers. I kept thinking: What if the undertaker drops dead? No one would know I was in here.

Crime Writer Peter James (right) reveals the thoroughness of his research to Jenni Frazer

July 4

We Jews have a tendency to deny that we are dying but, with modern chronic conditions, we may be doing ourselves, and our children, no favours. Ultimately, we have to accept our impending death, whenever it comes, organise ourselves for it, put our emotional and practical affairs in order, and say our goodbyes.

Julia Neuberger on Swimming in a Sea of Death, David Rieff’s memoir about his mother Susan Sontag

July 11

Distinguished and distinctive as a biographer, poet, critic, translator and novelist, Feinstein obliterates traditional boundaries and enters a new and fertile land where, I trust, she will labour for years as the Grand Duchess of Anglo-Jewish letters, a woman who, had the cards fallen differently, could have been drinking lemon tea in Odessa with her beloved Zaida — a lump of sugar held between what remained of his teeth — rather than in Leicester, the safe haven of her childhood.

Anthony Rudolf on The Russian Jerusalem, by Elaine Feinstein

July 25

“The real reason I’m with Haidee,” he says with a confidential smile, “is that she met John Wayne when she was a kid. Being with her is the nearest I’ll ever get to going to bed with John Wayne.”

Clive Sinclair tells Ben Silverstone about his relationship with the painter Haidee Becker

August 1

[My agent Jonny Geller] is a genius of the publishing business, and when he pitched my first thriller, The Righteous Men, he said we should not pitch it under my name. I think he thought they might be put off by my job, which he desribed as “a pointy-headed columnist for a pointy-headed publication”.

Jonathan Freedland tells Simon Round why he adopted the nom-de-plume, Sam Bourne

August 8

I adore Julie Burchill. She’s fearless, feminist, razor-sharp, frequently makes me laugh in the best way possible: while making a damn good point. I could kiss her feet with thanks for being a lone, brave, sane voice supporting the Middle East’s only true democracy in the face of an epidemic of impossibly trendy, uber-left anti-Israel bile-spitting. If Julie Burchill published her shopping list, I’d buy it.

Francesca Segal on Not In My Name: A Compendium of Modern Hypocrisy, by Julie Burchill and Chas Newkey-Burden

September 5

Philip Roth is perfectly within his rights to have stopped being funny, but I feel: “Now, more than ever, I want you to be funny... now that you are in the toils and at any moment you’re going to die, and you are fed up with everything and everybody.”

Howard Jacobson interviewed by Gerald Jacobs

September 5

To be a lover of libraries you have to love the physical aspect of books, regardless of what is inside them, and you have to be a “wild” reader rather than a scholar, someone who dips and skips according to his whim.

Gabriel Josipovici on The Library At Night by Alberto Manguel

October 17

Keneally argues that the Jews and the Irish share “the feeling of being both chosen and despised, the knowledge that the world could be a valley of tears, and the intensity of clan loyalty and family life”.

Brenda Maddox speaks to the author of Schindler’s List

November 14

Reading Dershowitz, it is easy to summon to mind the hero-knights of legend defending the drawbridge against an attacking mob of sword-waving and axe-wielding assailants.

Geoffrey Paul on The Case Against Israel’s Enemies by Alan Dershowitz

November 28

You’ve got to admire Emma Gilbey Keller’s chutzpah. Here we are on the cliff-edge of a major recession with job security eroding faster than the Norfolk coastline and out she comes, enjoining the sisterhood not to abandon their professional ambitions.

Rebecca Abrams on The Comeback: Seven Stories of Women Who Went from Career to Family and Back Again by Emma Gilbey Keller

    Last updated: 3:24pm, December 11 2008