Eclectic array of books a holiday gift for readers


The good news in the publishing industry is that books, whether the old-fashioned or the new-fangled kind, are continuing to attract the attention of readers, which explains why there are always so many gift-giving opportunities for the holidays. As Chanukah approaches, here is a book for every taste:

Michael Chabon, a New York Times best-selling author with a Pulitzer Prize, has just published his latest novel, “Moonglow” (Harper), a family chronicle set amid the tensions and turmoil of America in the 1950s. Styled as the deathbed confession of a grandfather to his grandson, Chabon tantalizes the reader with the assertion that he has “stuck to the facts except when facts refused to confirm with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” To put it another way, the author relies on poetic license, and his own powerful imagination, to conjure a surprising life — a “patrimony of secrets,” as the author puts it — for a man who grew up in a poor Jewish neighborhood of South Philly, played a stealthy role in the invasion of Nazi Germany and lands in prison, among other unlikely adventures. 

Above all, the book reminds us of the unique role of rocketry in the American imagination, ranging from model-makers to the greatest exertions of the United States space program. “Moonglow” is another literary tour de force by one of America’s great writers, extraordinarily rich and poignant.

Another one of our leading novelists, Jonathan Safran Foer, has reappeared after a long interval with “Here I Am” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Like his earlier novels, “Here I Am” is funny, highly literate and intentionally shocking, even if the plot focuses on a marriage that is slumping toward failure. At the same time, Foer invents a natural disaster with geopolitical repercussions — a mega-quake whose epicenter is under the Dead Sea. The cataclysm promises to draw Arab refugees into Israel in search of food, shelter and medical treatment, and a regional war yet again threatens Israel’s survival.
The marital crisis in the Bloch family and
the existential threat to the Jewish state collide in “Here I Am,” and the Blochs are compelled to choose between their private lives and their place in history, a choice that
was denied to so many Jews in previous
generations. 

That’s what “Here I Am” is really all about. Indeed, the story that Foer tells reaches a moment of stirring moral grandeur, but it ends on a sorrowful and deeply poignant scene. Still, the moments of pain and loss do not diminish the vital spirit, so authentically Jewish, that is the real glory of “Here I Am.” “Life is precious,” goes the mantra of principal character Jacob Bloch, “and I live in the world.” 

The real heroes in the war against terrorism often go unnoticed and unpraised, but their story is revealed in Samuel M. Katz’s “The Ghost Warriors: Inside Israel’s Undercover War Against Suicide Terrorism” (Berkley Caliber), a work of investigative reporting that often reads like an international thriller. Katz introduces us to the “alpha-type” men of the Ya’mas, an undercover unit of the Israeli border guard that consists of
Arab-speaking Jewish, Druze and Bedouin citizens who seek to prevent or punish acts of terrorism. 

These courageous officers go where no other Israeli fighters are willing or able to go: “Breaking up violent riots by infiltrating the demonstration was … the classic mission of the undercover units,” Katz explains. “Ya’mas operatives injected themselves deep inside the rage-filled cauldron to apprehend the ringleaders who were directing the violence.” And Katz credits the exploits of these secret soldiers with results that exceed their small numbers: “[T]here are never any “happily-ever-after endings in the Middle East,” he writes. “For Israel, there are only prolonged periods of cherished quiet that are secured by those who operate in the darkness, strike from the shadows, and rush inside
the danger.”

Fans of novelist Maggie Anton, author of the “Rashi’s Daughters” and “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” series, will find something different in “Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say About You-Know-What” (Banot Press). Drawing on her own deep knowledge of Jewish history and literature, as well as a sly sense of humor, Anton invites us to study “texts that sound more like they belong in a locker room than in a seminary.” 

The irony that suffuses her book is spoken aloud: “[A]ccording to the Torah … a Jewish man is both obligated to have sex, under certain circumstances, and forbidden to have sex, under other circumstances,” she explains. “This means the Talmudic rabbis had to use their prodigious intellects to determine those precise circumstances — how, when, where, with whom?” 

True to her mission as a historical novelist, Anton offers a woman’s take on what has been a mostly male enterprise. And Anton’s high-spirited text is ornamented with lovely line drawings by Richard Sheppard that manage to remain mostly, if not wholly, chaste while, at the same time, delivering a ribald message. 

The single most sumptuous book available for gift giving is “The Desert and the Cities Sing: Discovering Today’s Israel” (Chronicle Books). It consists of a “treasure box” that contains four books, four DVDs, a portfolio of photographs, a map, a flash drive encased in a beautifully carved wooden case that contains animated vignettes, and even a limited-edition scarf from Frau Blau in
Tel Aviv. 

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