Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Best Jewish Non-Fiction of 2011 (A Little Late...)

As the genre of non-fiction proliferates it becomes increasingly hard to create any sort of coherent “Best Of” list. While not much unites this list, all entries evince the essential traits of great non-fiction authors: deep curiosity, powerful insight, lucid prose, and a desire to see past the obvious or the dogmatic. This year offered us a great smorgasbord of non-fiction ranging from a genre-busting biography to innovative psychology. Besides for Deborah Baker’s book, The Convert, which deserves the title of best non-fiction book of the year, the rest of the list does not correlate to any ranking.

1. The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism - Deborah Baker - Baker wrote a stunningly brilliant biography of Maryam Jameelah, previously known as Miriam Marcus, a secular Jew who converted to Islam and became a famous writer of Anti-American books in Pakistan. Baker weaves Jameelah’s story from her letters to her parents and others, but eventually Baker widens the book’s scope to investigate the charismatic leader that guided Jameelah’s transition, Mawlana Mawdudi, the divide between Islam and the West, and ultimately, an exploration of Baker herself: her assumptions about life, about civilization, and the limits of knowledge, all while pushing the boundaries of a biography considerably past what we expect from the genre.

2. The Swerve: How The World Became Modern- Stephen Greenblatt -  Winner of the National Book Award 2011 - Greenblatt, a Harvard Professor, is famous for his work on Shakespeare and his uncanny ability to teach dense ideas in a clear manner. Recently, Greenblatt wrote this fascinating, strangely suspenseful and intelligent book on something so minute as the saving of a poem: On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, a poem, he contends, convincingly, changed the world forever.

3. Thinking, Fast, and Slow - Daniel Kahneman - For decades Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman has made it his life’s goal to shatter our conceptions of humans as rational beings. His research into the cognitive mistakes we systematically make helped give birth to the new field of behavioral economics, and pioneered many parts of cognitive psychology. Besides these monumental accomplishments, the basic gift captured in this book, which puts together a lifetime of research, lies in the humbling experience of a documentation and explication of the mistakes we as humans consistently make, despite our pretensions to rationality.

4. J.D. Salinger: A Life - Kenneth Slawenski - I don’t envy the job of a biographer faced with the task of writing the life story of one of the most reclusive authors in history. Yet, somehow, Slawenski provides the reader exciting details of this beloved author’s life: his loves, his traumas, and his idiosyncrasies. However, even when Slawnenski lacks access to facts that many of us desire, he turns to his fan-like obsession with Salinger’s writing, providing insightful keys and analyses of Salinger challenging repertoire.

5. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything - Joshua Foer - In a time when every non-fiction writer looks for an experience to capitalize on, with mixed results, (A.J. Jacobs acting as a sort of pioneer in this regard) Foer writes a deliciously playful book about his insinuation into a strange world of memory competitions, while concurrently, exploring the nature and importance of memory itself.

6. The Eichmann Trial - Deborah Lipstadt - How do you write about the Eichmann trial without running into the cement wall of Hannah Arendt and the academic proliferation surrounding this momentous case? Well, if you’re Lipstadt, a consistently brilliant history scholar, you do so with intense research and scientific rigor to create a proper political, legal, social, and historical context for the case and its universal implications. What emerges is a book that frees the trial from the towering presence of Arendt and explores the larger impact of the proceedings on the Zionist image, and the trial’s ability to propel the Holocaust into the global consciousness.

7. In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief - James Kugel - Kugel, a distinguished Bible critic, would have made this list three years ago for his honest and brilliantly clear introduction into the world of Biblical criticism, How to Read the Bible. This year, he makes it on the merit of this drastically different book in which he explores his beliefs through his experience with cancer. Kugel, never one to shy away from the struggles of contemporary Judaism, seeks, with the mind of an academic and the heart of poet, to find “the starting point of religious consciousness,” and takes the reader on a journey into the depths of religious experience.

8. The Universal Jew: Masculinity, Modernity, and the Zionist Moment - Mikhal Dekel - Dekel, a Professor of English Literature at City College, wrote this timely book that explores the literary roots of the Modern Israeli Identity. This book investigates, through a vast array of literature ( including Pinsker, Herzl, Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Nietzsche etc.) the complex foundations of Israeli identity with roots in the emerging issues of gender, nationalism, and universality,  all in a pellucid prose that belies her academic proclivities.

9. Among Righteous Men: A Tale of Vigilantes and Vindication in Hasidic Crown Heights - Matt Shaer - Who knew a story about two rival vigilante groups in Crown Heights could be this interesting? Matt Shaer did, apparently. Shaer, a journalist for Harper’s and New York Magazine, wrote a journalistic novel/novelistic long piece of journalism that explores the innards of a Crown Heights Lubavitch society torn apart by the Messianist debate. He does this through the lens of a fight between two different vigilante groups, or what appears as a game of cops and robbers that spiraled out of control. The book signifies the announcement of a considerable talent who can write eloquent, insightful prose with the eye of a journalist, and the pen and empathy of a novelist.

10. The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael - Pauline Kael, the deceased eminent movie critic from the New Yorker almost single-handedly created the genre of movie reviews we recognize today. Kael’s style of brazen, incisive, highly opinionated, and intelligent reviews set the stage for trenchant analysis of all types of movies as well as the proliferation and veneration of the movie critic. This book introduces a new generation to one of the voices that started it all, a voice that famously, feared no one. Famously, Kael criticized Landzman’s seminal movie the Shoah, and called the the message of the Sound of Music "a sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat”. Kael transformed the movie review into a form of art and social critique. This tome of a book offers an easy door into the world of Kael and her development as a writer.

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