February 26, 2020

A gift for every reader

From novels to memoirs to movie reviews, and much in between, here are a few standout books for Chanukah gift giving.

“I Lost it at the Movies,” as Pauline Kael provocatively titled her 1965 collection of movie reviews, helped to establish the film critic as a kind of superstar in her own right. And now, with the publication of “The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael,” edited by Sanford Schwartz (Library of America: $40), we can once again see some of our favorite flicks through the eyes of a woman who influenced a whole generation of directors, screenwriters and actors. “A romantic and visionary, she believed that movies could feed our imaginations in intimate and immediate — and liberating, even subversive — ways that literature and plays and other arts could not,” Schwartz explains.  Not unlike a revival house, “The Age of Movies” reminds of the glories of an earlier era in the movie industry, but Kael also shows us how pleasurable and satisfying a work of criticism can be when offered by someone who cares too much about art to go easy on those who make it.

Simon Sebag Montefiore is best known for his biographies of Stalin and Potemkin, but now he has written one about a city: “Jerusalem: The Biography” (Knopf: $35) is a lush and leisurely amble through 3,000 years of history, starting with “an often penurious provincial town amid the Judean hills” and ending with “the illuminated stage for the cameras of the world in the age of twenty-four hour news.” Lavishly illustrated and highly decorated with literary allusions and colorful anecdotes, Montefiore’s book is a deeply pleasurable reading experience that proves Jerusalem to be an inexhaustible well for the historian; after all, his book comes only months after the publication of “Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World” by James Carroll (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: $28). Jerusalem, as Montefiore puts it, is “a den of superstition, charlatanism and bigotry; the desire and prize of empires, yet of no strategic value; the cosmopolitan home of many sects, each of which believes the city belongs to them alone… [and] the object of giddy conspiracism and internet myth-making.”

The subject is grim, of course, but “MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus” by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon: $35) is a rich, provocative and visually intriguing work of art, memoir and literary history. Spiegelman won a Pulitzer for his ground-breaking account of the Holocaust in the form of graphic novel, and now he has produced an eye-catching and highly kinetic book-and-DVD package of art and text, conversation and reminiscence, photos, drawings and audio clips about the making of “Maus.” Drawing on what he calls “my rat’s nest of files, archives, artwork, notebooks, journals, books and dirty laundry,” and extensive transcripts from interviews by Hillary Chute, an English professor at the University of Chicago, “MetaMaus” is a rare opportunity to witness for ourselves how a masterpiece is conceived and comes into existence.

“In Treatment” and “Homeland” are examples of how American television has started borrowing from the work of the Israeli entertainment industry. With “Eden” by Yael Hedaya (Picador: $20), the head writer for the original Israeli version of “In Treatment,” we can read for ourselves the work of a gifted novelist whose focus is the lives of men and women in contemporary Israel.  It’s the story of a suburban development where families seeking to escape the pressures of Tel Aviv discover that they cannot run away from themselves. “ ‘Peyton Place’ with Uzis” is how one reviewer summed up “Eden,” but Hedaya’s haunting tale is something much more delicate and affecting — a glimpse of how life goes on, with all of its longings and conflicts, even amid the headline-grabbing tensions of daily life in Israel.

With the publication of “Philip Roth: The American Trilogy: 1997-2000” (Library of America: $40), edited by Ross Miller, the Library of America offers a literary treasure on a grand scale. It’s the seventh volume in the series of Roth’s collected stories and novels, each one published in a compact but durable hardcover format. The newest title includes three complete novels, each one an example Roth’s work in his full maturity: “American Pastoral,” “I Married a Communist,” and “The Human Stain.” For gift-giving, all seven volumes — starting with Roth’s break-out novella, “Goodbye, Columbus” and including the career-making “Portnoy’s Complaint,” with each of the previous six volumes priced at $35 — will impress any serious reader and fill in the gaps in the library of even the most ardent Roth fan. But you’ll have to wait until 2013 for the last volume in the collection.

A familiar figure comes fully alive in Laurence Bergreen’s “Columbus: The Four Voyages” (Viking: $35), a biographer whose previous work focused on such world-changing explorers as Marco Polo and Magellan. Drawing on the account that Columbus himself left behind, the author allows us to understand the real measure of his courage, vision and achievement — it’s an adventure story that shows how a single man is capable of changing the world. At the same time, he reveals that Columbus was hardly a heroic figure, and he was capable of violence and vanity. The irony is that Columbus never knew what he had done: “To the end of his days,” Bergreen observes, “Columbus remained convinced that he sailed for, and eventually arrived at, the outskirts of Asia.”

Steven Pinker is a Harvard psychologist who has achieved remarkable success in explaining to his readers why they are the way they are. His latest effort is “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (Viking: $40), a controversial but illuminating study of how human nature has been shaped by the process of evolution and why, against all apparent evidence, our species is actually less violent than it used to be. His argument that we are safer on the streets than our ancestors were in the Middle Ages does not negate the fact that violence and even genocide are facts of life in the 21st century, but his provocative book gives us much to think — and fight — about.