Short and sometimes sweet

As 2011 draws to a close, we look back over a year of books and offer a selection of bite-sized observations from the JC critics.


December 29, 2011
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Nicole Krauss

Nicole Krauss

Historians and academics still dispute the origins of the ancient game of chess. But perhaps the real reason chess was invented was to boost Jewish self-esteem.
David Edmonds on 'Endgame', a biography of Bobby Fischer, by Frank Brady

I find it curiously refreshing, in an age where poetry is dominated by liberty and subjectivity, to turn to these poems that evince the values of a bygone age: discipline, learning, sonority. There is no trace of modernism or post-modernism here, but that is not to say the poems lack allusiveness, playfulness or spontaneity. Many have a profoundly personal tone.
Nicholas De Lange on 'Hebrew Poems and Translations' by Raphael Loewe.

Amy was not ugly, yet she disliked her own appearance. She wrote from Dresden to her anxious mother: "There won't be any impropriety in my teaching any number of young men… I have never excited in anyone a desire to forget themselves."
Elaine Feinstein on 'The Woman Who Dared: A Biography of Amy Levy' by Christine Pullen

The extent of Soros's philanthropy is inversely related to the amount of intelligence invested in his political ideas.
Oliver Kamm on 'The Philanthropy of George Soros' by George Soros and others

The sheer scale of the horrors so often visited on the place and its people is appalling: you turn the pages and wonder that your hands aren't stained with blood. Robert Low on
'Jerusalem: the Biography' by Simon Sebag Montefiore

It is hard to imagine a better book of fiction being published this year. The climax alone shows Nicole Krauss to be one of the finest writers of our time.
David Herman on 'Great House' by Nicole Krauss

This version of history is what many Americans grow up on: The Education of Henry Adams laced with southern nostalgia or Yankee moralism, according to taste.
Stoddard Martin on 'A World on Fire' by Amanda Foreman

Baddiel's previous novel was about a German-Jewish refugee. This one is about a Jewish-American writer in New York. Where are the British stories for Jewish writers today?
David Herman on 'The Death of Eli Gold' by David Baddiel

A picture emerges of a man with a brute determination to project his version of the narrative at any given moment. This is what makes his storytelling so compelling.
Martin Bright on 'The Third Man' by Peter Mandelson

She displays an outstanding gift for excavating a great swathe of social history to reveal the delicate, deliberate human detail at its beating heart.
Natasha Lehrer on 'We Had It So Good' by Linda Grant

Berger believes that the power of good fiction will continue to be felt after it has been read: "something of its way of giving attention… will remain with us and become our own. We will then apply it to the chaos of ongoing life, in which multitudes of stories are hidden."
Jonathan Beckman on 'Bento's Sketchbook' by John Berger

"If the foundations for a stable society are not in place," he contends, "extremist groups will capitalise on popular frustrations to seize power."
Gilead Sher on 'Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril' by King Abdullah II of Jordan

What is an "ordinary" Jew? Reading the essays in this volume, one soon realises that there is no such entity.
Geoffrey Alderman on 'Broadening Jewish History' by Todd Endelman

His heart-rending book has the power to change the Middle East with its love, humility, wisdom and extraordinary strength of character.
Jonathan Wittenberg on 'I Shall Not Hate' by Izzeldin Abuelaish

As you ride through Dylan's decades of changes, lovers and bands, a satisfyingly clear portrait emerges from the shadows, ever sharpening the focus on the most cleverly elusive artist in the age of media saturation.
John Belknap on 'The Ballad of Bob Dylan' by Daniel Epstein

His willingness to engage with arguments from all sides, to try to think them through openly and often to leave them unresolved, is not a product of appeasing indecisiveness but rather of a principled adherence to what he sees as - and convincingly argues to be - the tradition that Jewish thought should be constantly striving and critical.
Stephen Frosh on 'The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning' by Jonathan Sacks

Unlike so many modern writers, he is not frightened of profundity. He says he wants "to take comedy into the very heart of desolation, to affirm life when it is most threatened". That unembarrassed and ambitious statement of intent explains his ability to make you explode with laughter and then sigh with agreement in the space of paragraph.
Nick Cohen on 'Whatever It Is, I Don't Like It' by Howard Jacobson

He certainly has little faith in Prime Minister Netanyahu's peace-making (or any other) ability and even less in that of his coalition Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, the former Labour leader.
Geoffrey Paul on 'The Anatomy of Israel's Survival' by Hirsh Goodman

Gopnik is prodigiously well-read. He admires Brillat-Savarin for literary brilliance, Ian Fleming for outright gluttony and Keith Richards for home-cooked shepherd's pie.
Elisabeth Luard on 'The Table Comes First' by Adam Gopnik

She is frank about her personal failings that so annoyed her dad: her slow learning start in school, her sullen teenage grumps throughout a European summer trip. But nothing justifies Heller penning a novel - Something Happened - that includes a cutting, scarcely disguised account of Erica's youth. Asked how he could do this, Joe dissembled: "What makes you think you're interesting enough to write about?"
Madeleine Kingsley on 'Yossarian Slept Here' by Erica Heller [daughter of Joseph Heller]

After attending a student film festival where Justin's first short film played, his dad tells him: "that festival was like sitting through a three-hour prostate exam".
David Herman on 'Sh*t My Dad Says' by Justin Halpern

[Einstein's] commitment to Zionism was always lukewarm. He carefully chose the projects he was willing to embrace. He accused Zionists of being "shameless and importunate" and squirmed at some of the views of the politically hardline. Even his involvement in the Hebrew University virtually dried up after he fell out with the authorities there.
David Edmonds on 'Einstein Before Israel' by Ze'ev Rosenkranz

To really enjoy it, you should ideally have a university degree in modern European history, be soaked in French 19th-century literature and have a strangely informed interest in Freud and late 19th-century psychiatry.
David Herman on 'The Prague Cemetery' by Umberto Eco

    Last updated: 11:26am, December 29 2011