The book reviews review 2015

Critical mass: another year of rich and varied literary pickings reveals a range of responses from JC reviewers from (frequently) delight to (occasionally) disappointment, but always constructive


Despite Jung's antisemitism - or perhaps because of it? - he was attracted sexually to Jewish women such as Sabina Speilrein and he chose Jewish men as father figures with whom he could fall out bitterly, as he quickly did with Freud. So says Irma Kurtz in her review of 'Sex Versus Survival' by John Launer, which was published on January 9. Here is a pick of the best of the others.

There are few modern writers as pleasurable or interesting to read.

David Herman on 'Suspended Sentences' by Patrick Modiano
(January 9)

Stangneth has performed a great service by analysing the 25 hours of audio tape [recorded by Adolf Eichmann] and wading through 1,300 pages of transcripts, including Eichmann's handwritten reminiscences. Contrary to the pose he adopted in Jerusalem, which fooled [Hannah] Arendt, they expose him as "cynical, pitiless, misanthropic, morally corrupt."

David Cesarani on 'Eichmann Before Jerusalem' by Bettina Stangneth (January 23)

Rival Elizabeth Arden was an elitist WASP who cultivated a tight circle including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor… Helena defied them. Her products were for all skins and types. When she found she was barred from taking an apartment in Park Avenue because she was Jewish, she bought the building.

Anne Garvey on 'Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power' by Mason Klein (February 6)

Read this book. Be appalled. Be moved. And be angry that so little action was taken to help, or to remember, until it was nearly too late. Read it, and weep.

Julia Neuberger on Sarah Helms book about RavensBruck, 'If This Is A Woman' (February 13)

There is something very simple, almost biblical, about the storytelling and the tragic choices the central characters face… This is a promising debut by a very talented young Israeli writer.

David Herman on 'One Night, Markovitch' by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (February 27)

Barasch-Rubinstein absolutely nails that youthful vexation of young people told how they ought to be and behave.

Madeleine Kingsley on 'Five Selves' by Emanuela Barasch-Rubinstein (February 27)

Bialosky dismisses theories that suicide is fuelled by depression (the majority of depressed people don't kill themselves) or caused by genes (no gene has been found). Looking for what it is that separates those who kill themselves from the rest of us, she deals in phantoms, plumbs depths of mystery, always hoping for redemption for herself and her sister.

Hester Abrams on 'History of a Suicide' by Jill Bialosky (March 13)

They merged "classical" music with the energy and syncopations of jazz, while simultaneously drawing speech, song and dance together into the service of new, multi-national America.

Daniel Snowman on 'We'll Have Manhattan: The Early Work of Rodgers and Hart' by Dominic Symonds (March 27)

Judith Claire Mitch-ell's second novel takes the form of a 370-page suicide note. Make that a triple suicide note. It's also one of the sharpest, tartest, flat-out funniest books you're likely to read any time soon.

Hephzibah Anderson on 'A Reunion of Ghosts' by Judith Claire Mitchell (April 17)

In episode after episode, with extraordinary, spirited defiance, and often almost foolhardy bravery, she outwits policemen, Gestapo officers and informers.

Natasha Lehrer on 'Gone to Ground' by Marie Jalowitz Simon (April 24)

Leader doesn't just tell us that Bellow's father was violent; he tells us about all the violent fathers in Bellow's novels. We don't just hear about Bellow's big brothers, Maury and Sam, who both started out as hustlers and became self-made millionaires. We are told all we need to know about all the tough-guy big brothers in Bellow's fiction.

David Herman on 'The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964' by Zachary Leader (May 1)

KL is not for the faint-hearted but every page is suffused with humanity and anyone who wants to understand the Nazis should read it.

David Cesarani on 'KL: A History of the Concentration Camps' by Nicholas Wachsmann (May 15)

Confronting this huge volume... I found it hard to believe that this much new information could have been uncovered about Goebbels. It seems like scholarship to be weighed by the kilo rather than by the insight.

Ben Barkow on 'Goebbels' by Peter Longerich (June 5)

We tend to be altruistic to members of our own group but violent towards those outside our group. Denying the identity provided by groups as a response to the violence is hopeless; it was the hope of the liberal enlightenment with its emerging free-market economy and stress on the rights of the individual. The hopelessness of that response can be seen, as Sacks points out, in the end-point of that attempt, the concentration camps and the gulags.

David-Hillel Ruben on 'Not In God's Name' by Jonathan Sacks (June 19)

His many books (not to mention the film Awakenings, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro) have brought his valuable work to public as well as professional attention. No longer do we laugh at the man who mistook his wife for a hat.

Daniel Snowman on 'On The Move' by Oliver Sacks (June 19)

The climax of the rescue itself is brilliantly told; nearly 40 years on, you still heave a sigh of relief when the last Hercules lifts off from the Entebbe runway and lumbers off into the night and a new dawn for the hostages - and for Israel.

Robert Low on 'Operation Thunderbolt' by Saul David (June 26)

It's hard to tell how much the narrator is the writer himself and how much he is a construct, a sort of Tevye for our times, neurotic, overweight, unfit, put-upon by his wife, herself a great comic creation… Keret is one of the outstanding writers of his generation.

David Herman on 'The Seven Good Years' by Etgar Keret (July 10)

Tatiana Salem Levy's first novel… is an extraordinary book of sorrows, plucking, as if from the literary air, brave new words to weigh ancestral Jewish pain, our longing for other homelands, for irreplaceable loves and places that our emigrant forebears left behind.

Madeleine Kingsley on 'The House in Smyrna' by Tatiana Salem Levy (July 3)

Taylor tells Proust's life story briefly and well. He writes about Proust's love of music and art, his career as a critic and essayist, and the world of literary salons... The problem with his book is his failure to do justice to what his subject is famous for: he never brings the writing to life.

David Herman on 'Proust: the Search' by Benjamin Taylor (December 11)

It is the detail about conversion that fascinates; having never needed to want to be Jewish, for me it's eye-opening to read the thoughts of someone who so desperately does. An honest book that ought to start a conversation.

Jennifer Lipman on 'Between Gods' by Alison Pick (July 17)

She and I have a good deal in common: both married to professors (now retired), both crime novelists, both non-practising Jews… But our memories are very different. I am the product of a happy home and a London day school with 10 per cent Jewish pupils. Sara's childhood was miserable, her parents unkind and unaffectionate, her father a bully and her mother a frustrated, clever woman who took to drink.

Jessica Mann interviews her fellow crime writer Sara Paretsky on the occasion of the publication of Paretsky's 17th V. I. Warshawski novel, 'Brush Back' (July 31)

Wonderful generosity and nobility of spirit… thoroughly commended as a most exhilarating and uplifting read.
David Conway on 'The Hidden Pleasures of Life' by Theodore Zeldin (August 14)

As for his own work, here too he is a shrewd, almost merciless observer, acknowledging that, for all his "lust to be eligible for print", much of his early writing proved "jejune" and his first novel a "nugatory squib".

Daniel Snowman on 'Going Up' by Frederic Raphael (August 21)

Anti-Judaism is not about Jews, or Judaism. Nor is it a history of anti-Jewish prejudice. Its subject matter is the use that Christians (or, more accurately, non-Jews) have made of certain conceptions - or fantasises - of Judaism in order to shape their own world view.

Geoffrey Alderman on Anti-Judaism by David Nirenberg (August 28)

In an ill-considered conclusion, presumably the "warning" of the book's subtitle, Snyder launches into reflections on everything from the invasion of Iraq to climate change, which, he opines, "as a global crisis might generate the demand for global victims." Always readable, highly sophisticated and strikingly original, Black Earth is only intermittently persuasive.

Bernard Wasserstein on 'Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning' by Timothy Snyder (September 4

This is a part of [Queen] Anne's life that calls for a sensitive female novelist, because only a woman can fully imagine the nightmare of 17 pregnancies. And only one child survived beyond infancy. This book is awash with dead babies.

Kate Saunders on 'A Want of Kindness' by Joanne Limburg (September 11)

The last 50 pages are by far the best as the plot tightens and all kinds of mysteries thicken. Sadly, 300 pages could have been cut.

David Herman on 'Forbidden Love in St Petersburg' by Mishka Ben-David (Sept 11)

He locates social parables in a blond, black French soldier, or a secretary fallen into morphine-induced street-walking. The bourgeois angst of Zweig's carpet-slippered milieu interests him little. Disturbing expressionisms of the dispossessed are his patch.

Stoddard Martin on 'The Hotel Years' by Joseph Roth (September 18)

Ultimately, the subject of this interesting but tantalising biography remains an enigma, just as his haunting, abstract paintings elude rational analysis - which is, I suspect, exactly what Rothko himself would have wanted.

Monica Bohm-Duchen on 'Mark Rothko: Towards the Light in the Chapel' by Annie Cohen-Solal (April 3)

Rather like having the script for the first 50 episodes of Friends dropped into your lap, the humour is presented so relentlessly that what could be funny is overwhelming.

Anne Garvey on 'Bream Gives Me Hiccups' by Jesse Eisenberg (September 25)

It would be hard to write an original and moving account of the tortured 20th-century history of Germany. But Thomas Harding succeeds remarkably.

Oliver Kamm on 'The House By The Lake' by Thomas Harding (October 2)

There are glimpses of horrifying humour - as they took the air, Gornik's mother, Bess, would sometimes accost complete strangers in the street to announce: "This is my daughter. She hates me."

Madeleine Kingsley on 'Fierce Attachments' by Vivian Gornik (October 9)

The small town of Jedwabne, in north-east Poland, witnessed its share of atrocity. One hot day in July, the town's Jews were rounded up in the market square… an estimated 340 Jews of all ages were locked inside a barn and burned alive. [Bikont's] harrowing work of investigation and documentation deservedly won the European Book Prize.

Ian Thomson on 'The Crime and the Silence: Confronting a Massacre' by Anna Bikont (November 6)

This illuminating book makes it all too clear why Nietszche is so venerated today… it is precisely his vehement detestation of the Judeo-Christian tradition that so appeals to the bien pensants who determine and reinforce today's decadent, secular, deracinated culture.

David Conway on 'Nietzche's Jewish Problem' by Robert C. Holub (Nov 20)

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