• The Plot Against America by Philip Roth *** (of 4)

    No writer captures anxiety, apprehension, fear, and hopelessness better than Roth. I cannot think of a happy or fulfilled character in a single one of his books so to read Roth is to experience a descent into discomfort. His characters are so believable, however, and his writing so captivating there is no turning away once you begin. Plot Against America is a perfect vehicle, a midrash, on what might have happened in the U.S. if American patriotic hero, vocal anti-Semite, and Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh had defeated Franklin Roosevelt at the outset of Germany’s European conquest. October 2009.

  • People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks **** (of 4)

    An extensively researched fictional account of the survival of the Sarajevo Haggadah, the luminescently illustrated (that alone is unusual for a Jewish book) account of the Jewish escape from Egyptian bondage read at the Passover Seder. First printed in the1480s the book survives the Inquisition, 400 years of European travel, World War I, an attempt by the Nazis to steal it from the Sarajevo library in World War II, and the seige of Sarajevo. The story of the book conservator created by Geraldine Brooks to provide the clues to the Haggadah’s history is a little too modern, but it is forgiveable because the historical accounting is simultaneously so well researched and richly portrayed. February 2008.

  • Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky *** (of 4)

    As a Hampshire College student in the late 70s, Lansky decides to learn Yiddish. At that time Yiddish, having barely survived the murderous rampage of the Holocaust, was being finished off by assimilating Jews anxious to distance themselves from their ghettoized past. Lansky found himself a teacher, an old textbook, and I.B. Singer’s Satan in Goray. Then he could not find any other Yiddish book in print. He puts an ad in the paper searching for extant Yiddish books and starts collecting. Outwitting History is the story of how he saves more than a million Yiddish books and in so doing probably also saves a language and a culture from extinction. He does it, too, with enormous modesty. July 2008

  • The Lost: A search for six of six million, by Daniel Mendelsohn **** (of 4)

    Nearly sixty years after the author’s great-uncle, wife, and four daughters disappeared in the Holocaust, the author searches for their memories. Beginning with his grandfather’s (his great-uncle’s brother) stories, some letters and finally to several of the 48 survivors of the 6,000 Jews of his great-uncle’s Ukrainian-Polish town, Daniel Mendolsohn exquisitely crafts one of the most memorable, humanizing, personal and universal searches for his roots. In so doing he asks all of us to pause and consider the memories and lives of senior generations who have led us to who we are today. One of the most expertly constructed and readable books I’ve read. July 2009.

  • Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction by Martin Gilbert *** (of 4)

    A fluky book by on the of the world’s greatest Holocaust historians. Gilbert gathers dozens of newly uncovered personal histories of November 10, 1938 when more than a thousand German and Austrian synagogues were attacked and burned. The accounts of burned synagogues seem trivial compared to what we know follows. Moreover, the personal histories are all from survivors so their cumulative impact is to make it seem like escaping the Holocaust was not so hard. At first the personal stories seem randomly distributed through the text, but as the stories intermingle with the sound of country doors slamming shut to Jews trying to escape Germany and the war and extermination machines power up to full throttle this highly readable, short book with a British perspective turns terrific. August 2006.