Friday, June 29, 2007

Recommend a Book, please

Well, the Wolf is in search of new reading material, and I figured that perhaps my loyal reading audience can recommend some good books for me to read.

While I would prefer books on a Judaic theme, I'm not going to limit the topic to that. Feel free to recommend any book that meets the following guidelines:

1. Written in English (preferably) or easy-to-understand Hebrew. Translations of other languages into English are acceptable too.
2. Less than a gazillion pages. Seriously, I do a lot of reading on the subway, which means the book has to be easy to carry on the train. Nothing the size of Shakespeare's complete works.
3. Small enough to fit into my laptop bag comfortably. No coffee-table sized books, please.
4. Nothing X-rated, please (although, for a fictional work, it doesn't have to be devoid of sex either... use your judgment).
5. Please, only recommend a book that you, yourself have read and enjoyed and give me a brief sentence or two as to why you liked it (or even the major point of the book).
6. Please, please, please, make sure to include the author's name. :)

That's pretty much it. Hopefully when I'm done, I'll post my own review/discussion of the books you recommend.

Thanking you in advance,

The Wolf


Anonymous said...

For a piece of historical fiction, try Milton Steinberg's "As a Driven Leaf", which is a somewhat sympathetic look at Rabbi Elisha, and a look at the difficulties of reconciling Jewishvalues with the secular values of the outside world.

Anonymous said...

I just finished "What is the What" by Dave Eggers. It was a really great book because I loved the stream of consciousness style of writing, and it told a really amazing story.

Check it out. Then check out Dave Eggers previous book too. Also really good.

BrooklynWolf said...

Just Me,

I'll give that a try. I like historical fiction.

Last year, someone recommended James Michner's The Source to me, which I finished and liked very much.


What genre is that?

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

"What is the What" is kind of historical fiction also I think. It's based on the story of a Sudanese refugee, but Dave Eggers took it and wrote a novel about it. Go to a bookstore and read the first couple of pages. You'll be hooked.

Check it out here

Anonymous said...

Vanity Fair. Excellent mid-19th century English classic by Thackery.
Just read it this year and was very interested in his the infiltration of the book's poor heroin into British high-culture.

Another would be Our Mutual Friend, by Dickens. It has a pro-Jewish character representation to make up for the anti-Jewish Oliver Twist.

Live and Death in Shanghai by N'ang Chung (I think) about China under Mao, particularly tracing events of the cultural revolution (1960's) through the eyes of a female observer persecuted and imprisoned for 5 years.

Anonymous said...

Have you read the David Liss books - The Coffee Trader, Conspiracy of Paper. They are historically accurate and excellent reads.

BrooklynWolf said...

Thank you all for your recommendations, please keep them coming.

Just as a note... I'm also interested in non-fiction too (in fact, I really had non-fiction in mind when I wrote the post... although I welcome all fiction recommendations too!)

The Wolf

Alan said...

An interesting, but often upsetting book is Jew vs. Jew by Samuel Freedman. It was written about 5 years ago, I think. The book gives 5 examples of interJewish fighting (Between denominations, within denominations, relating to Israel...) I think its really interesting, and Freedman does a good job attempting to help the reader see the issue from both sides, even though you probably will have a strong opinion on the issues...

If you want a fiction book, there's always the Harry Potter series (J.K.Rowling)

BrooklynWolf said...

Thank you everyone... keep 'em coming.

I've never read Vanity Fair (Eeees hated that book), nor have I ever read anything by Dickens other than A Tale of Two Cities.

The Live and Death in Shanghai seems interesting.

Never read anything by David Liss. I'll have to give it a go.

I *did* read Jew vs. Jew a few years ago and found it quite interesting. And while I'm not a huge Harry Potter fan (I didn't end up reading book 4 until well after book 6 was already out), I have read all six books in the series. I'll probably get to book seven after all the hype dies down.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

"The Jews in Their Land in the Talmudic Age" by Gedaliah Alon is a good look at Ancient Jewish history post-churban. It is a little oudated, but it is nice in that it is academic, but still takes traditional talmudic literature seriously enough to try to reconcile its version of the history of that period with "outside" sources.

Anonymous said...

The Island at the Center of the Universe. (A history of New Amsterdam) by Russel Shorto, I believe.)
It's a great book written from the Dutch perspective.

Wall St. is named after a wall, that we know, but it wasn't to keep the Indians out, it was to keep the British out.

Also, American Judaism by Jonathan Sarna.

Anonymous said...

How to Read the Bible by Marc Z. Brettler

It's Judaica, English, not too long (should be longer!), and clean. I've read it and it's an excellent Jewish introduction to reading Tanakh in a historical-criticial manner. Well written, full of info, and not too heavy on the shoulder or the brain.

DAG said...

McCollough "1776"....Best History book I have EVER read (I majored in history)

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

"Guns Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond, about how societies develop and why eurasia took over the rest of the world and not the other way around.

Any of David Brin's science fiction novels, especially "Earth", "the Postman", or the Uplift books (the best is generally held to be "Startide Rising"). "Kiln People" is about a society that includes mass-produced golems and has a number of Jewish in-jokes.

if you like historical fiction, you might like the pseudo-historical fiction of Guy Gavriel Kay, who takes periods of real history and transposes them into a fictional semi-parallel world, sometimes with fantasy elements. the one i've read is "The Lions of Al-Rassan", based on the life of El Cid, the fall of Al-Andalus and the Spanish Reconquista.

Anonymous said...

Fantasy: anything by Terry Pratchett.

Non-fiction: I second the Guns Germs & Steel book. A very important read.

I don't buy all of it, but a great read on the relationship of mythology to actual historical events (may need more than one time through): When they When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth (Barber & Barber)

Misquoting Jesus (Bart Ehrman) - how the NT developed. Even a frum yid can read this one (though you may get some stares.)

The Miracles of Exodus (Colin Humphreys). A (Christian) Scientist's Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories. Only kefirah if you want it to be!

Oh, guess I should put in a plug for a Jewish-themed book: The Juggler and the King (Rabbi Aharon Feldman). Insight into midrash according to the Vilna Gaon.

mother in israel said...

Conspiracy of Paper was good, if a little stiff. The sequel, Spectacle of Corruption, was unreadable. This assessment was shared by my book club. Didn't read the Coffee Trader.

Try The Orientalist, by Tom Reiss. A biography of a Jew from Azerbaijan who "converts" to Islam while in Germany in the 20s and becomes a famous author. Serious work of scholarship that reads like fiction. Gives a synopsis of the history of every country the subject visited, and a bit about its Jewish community as well.

Just finished "The Brooklyn Follies" by Paul Auster. An excellent story by a serious writer of fiction.

Anonymous said...

The Collected Writings of Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein On the Weekly Torah Reading
Available at

Chana said...

I have the perfect book for you!

Sarah by Orson Scott Card.

Now, I bet you thought Orson Scott Card only wrote science fiction (Ender's Game, etc) but you'd be wrong! His historical fiction on Sarah was excellent- well-written, incorporates Midrash, a thousand times better than books with screwy facts like The Red Tent and highly enjoyable.

I'd like to finish his entire series on the Matriarchs, actually.

Anonymous said...

1) Artscroll has a great new book out on "Tefilos HaDerech". Instead of an Overview I understand they have an Underpass.

2) "A Chumra A Day" (Rabbi Yankel Mochelzein, Lakewood Press, 345 pages, but large print) has also hit the local bookstores. It includes putting mezuzahs on SUV's, kosher le'pesach toothpicks and separate garbage cans for milchig and fleishig.

Anonymous said...

If you like math, I recommend "A Mathematical Tourist"

I also liked "Germs, Guns, and Steel"

In the way of Torah, there have been a number of collections of the Torah of the Rav in English published by the "Torat HaRav" foundation that are worth reading.

"Freakonomics" was worth reading too.

Larry Lennhoff said...

Wandering Stars a collection of Jewish Science Fiction short stories. Tales Halachic (On Venus have we got a rabbi), Secular Yiddish (Unto the 4th generation), Zionist (Paradise Last), and Kabbalistic (The Dybbuk of Mazal Tov IV). Skip the sequel, more wandering stars.

Anonymous said...

Chana: Sadly, Card's last book in the Matriarch series doesn't seem like it's going to be published any time soon.

I'd recommend Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

BrooklynWolf said...

Wow! This is all great stuff.

I'll comment on each of your suggestions later today. In the meantime, please keep them coming.


The Wolf

Anonymous said...

Don't let your teenage impressions of Dickens or Thackery discourage you. They are classics for a reason and really good if you read them with an adult perspective (and patience). The best thing is the books are dirt cheap and easy to obtain.

Anonymous said...

how about _In Potiphar's House_, by James Kugel, tracing the (historical and literary)development of various midrashic themes and motifs surrounding, well, the Joseph/Potiphar/Mrs. P story.

BrooklynWolf said...


We must have similar tastes. I've read Guns, Germs & Steel (along with Collapse and The Third Chimpanzee). I also read Earth by Brin, but wasn't terribly impressed. If you tell me his other stuff is better, though, I'll definitely give him another try. I also have "The Lions of Al-Rassan" in my basement. I tried it and gave it up with the intention of returning to it in a few months.

"The Jews In Their Land in the Talmudic Age" looks like an interesting book and will certainly go on my list.

"The Island At the Center of the Universe" looks like my type of book. As a lifelong New Yorker, I've always been interested in the history of the city.

"How to Read the Bible" looks verrrry interesting.

In Potiphar's House looks promising as well.


"1776" is one of those books that I see on every trip to Barnes & Noble (which is quite often) and almost pick up, but put aside in favor of something else. It's a book I keep meaning to get to, but never quite make it. I think I'll have to bump up it's priority.


I haven't read Pratchett in many a year. Maybe it's time to put him off the shelf again.

Misquoting Jesus and The Miracles of Exodus look quite good as well.

The Juggler and the King is on my bookshelf. I've been through it twice.

Mother In Israel,

The Orientalist seems like a great book. I'd definitely be interested in reading about the variations in different Jewish communities.

What is "The Brooklyn Follies" about?


The only books I've read by Card are the first four Ender books. I'd often seen Card's Matriarch series and, like, 1776, was something that I'd always meant to get to but never quite got to.

Mike S.,

"A Mathematical Tourist" seems cool. I have often like "pop math" books, having read a few.

"Freakonomics" was a book I finished a while ago.


Wandering Stars seems like a great read. It reminds me of a Harry Turtledove story I saw about a future where they genetically create a pig that was a ruminant. The rabbi in the story was trying to decide if the pig was now kosher.


Eeees tells me that Invisible Man was a great book.


I never read Thackery (Eeees didn't like it) and I'd certainly be willing to give it a try. A Tale of Two Cities wasn't a bad book, but I'd certainly be willing to read more of Dickens.

Thank you everyone. Keep the suggestions coming.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

One more, non-fiction book, this time. You might want to check out Dr. Shaye Cohen's "The Beginnings of Jewishness" He looks at how Judaism was conceived in Hellenistic society; in other words, how would people answer you if you stood up at the time of the Maccabees, or the time of Julius Caesar, and asked "Who is a Jew?".

He looks at the ways that Jews of the time defined themselves, and also the way that Gentiles defined them; was Judaism a religion, was it an ethnic group, was it a nation? These are questions that divide Jews nowadays, and they're questions that did back then too. It's worth reading.

smoo said...

Also almost any book by Richard Elliot Friedman like Who Wrote the Bible or The Hidden Face of God.

For Mythology's relevance to us, read the Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell (especially good on video).

Naomi H. Rosenblatt is the author of Wrestling with Angels, which is a psychotherapist’s take on the lessons on Genesis.

Natan Slifkin's Challenge of Creation (I didn't like his other works at all).

If you like archaelogoy and ancient Israel see Who Were The Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From by William Dever (just skip the polemic parts)
Also David and Solomon by Israel Finkelstein.

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins clearly spells out how evolution is plausible (you can choose to ignore any faith based references but the science is fascinating).

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer who showed how our minds have evolved in such a way that concepts of gods and religion are credible by-products.

Jared Diamond gives you the gestalt of things. But his books are up to 500 pages. It was easier to listen to 8 CD's (or watch the video of Guns, Germs and Steel) available throught the library. Another great book of his is Collapse (how societies fall apart).

And as I complete this list I see I could have just refered you to my book tag post at

mother in israel said...

The political situation in each country, and its impact on the subject's life, are the main focus of the Orientalist. The Jewish communities are secondary, But it's still fascinating.

BF is about an old man estranged from his family, and how he reconnects with his nephew, niece, and daughter. The plot moves quickly, never a dull moment. In one scene a little girl pours twenty cans of coke into the gas tank of a car, to prevent being left with a certain relative. The book is just so well done; I can't do it justice in a few words.

Anonymous said...

I almost forgot a small, easy read:
"Threads Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Laying of the Transatlantic Cable" I forgot the author, but it really is an interesting and easy read, and it's under 200 pages.

Michael Koplow said...

Fiction: *The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay* by Michael Chabon (the main characters are Jews)

Pop math: *Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea* by Charles Seife (the appendix includes a proof that Winston Churchill is a carrot, which becomes easy once you divide by zero)

Frum-friendly nonfiction: *Surviving Lamentations* by Tod Linafelt (about Eichah, by an amazing Christian scholar of Jewish texts; don't worry, the book is more likely to be mekarev people to Judaism to Christianity; full disclosure, I had a minor role in preparing the book for publication, but I have no financial interest in it)

Michael Koplow said...

Sorry: I meant "more likely to be mekarev people to Judaism than to Christianity."

eglantine said...

if you want to read something that leads you into a world that you will probably never be a part of ( as is the case with me, but that is fascinating and populated with interesting characters, then i recommend shadow divers by robert kurson. it is true adventure book of deep sea divers and their search for a submarine. it gives a look into the unique culture of deep sea divers and their dangerous passion. i love such books because they let me be a part of the multitudes of human passions,stories, and the search for meaning.

Anonymous said...

Have to disagree with the Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Thought it was whiny.
Didn't like it at all.

For light reading try any of David Halberstam's baseball books-- Teammates, October 1956, The Summer of 1949. They're interesting character studies. (An observation he made that caught my attention was that the real John Wayne wasn't John Wayne, it was Ted Williams.) Your son might also like them.
Also try Michael Lewis's Moneyball and The Weak Side (I think that's the name of it. If it isn't the right name, I mean his newest one)

For history/Autobiography try Witness by Wittaker Chambers. It has its flaws, but overall it was literally awe inspiring. When I finished it, it was like I'd had a religious experience.

Classic literature: Try Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, House of the Dead by Dostoyevsky, Confessions of a Justified Sinner by J.Hogg. I like some, but not all, of Wodehouse's works (Wodehouse might be the best writer I've ever read in terms of using exactly the right word to convey the nuance he means.)

For something offbeat try Jim Corbett's writings about his experiences hunting maneaters in India. (I read two or three of them many years ago and was fascinated.)

Ichabod Chrain

Michael Koplow said...

I chortle whenever I see Ichabod Chrain's pseudonym. Yasher koach.

(What? It isn't a pseudonym?)

smoo said...

Hey Ursula,
Shadow divers was great.

As a diver, I found it quite thrilling.
Even so, it does make you consider how we consider those called "enemy" in this case dead nazis. Although this was very peripheral to the story, it did make me consider the human side of any lose of life and those families left with their loss.

Anonymous said...

Just tried to post something but it didn't go through, so I'll try again. Sorry if this turns out to be a double post.


Thanks. It's a pseudonym. I used to comment on Jblogs as Another Anon, but one of the bloggers suggested I use a different name. Thought of using Cole Nidray, but someone else beat me to it.


I misled you on the titles of the books. The second one by Lewis is The Blind Side. The book I listed as The Summer of 1956 is actually The Summer of 1964.

A few others I thought of include: Nonfiction-- The New Rabbi by Stephen Fried. It describes what happens at a Conservative shul when their rabbi decides to retire and they have to find a new one, but they start looking too early.

Patrimony by Phillip Roth. Roth is usually a little too self absorbed for me, but this one breaks the mold. It's about his father's last years.

If you like non-fiction medical stories try any of the books by Harold Klawans. I think he's better than Oliver Sachs and Sherwin Nuland.

A few more are: Classic Fiction--the Life and Times of Augustus G. Carp by Himself (a mock epic), A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley (won the National Book Award)

Jewish Protagonist Fiction--Try Fabulous Small Jews and The Goldin Boys by Joseph Epstein. Barney's Version by Mordechai Richler.

Ichabod Chrain

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled upon this blog, and I don't know whether you're only looking for recommendations from regular readers. I'll tap into my favorites list on my blog, and give you a brief description, and sometimes a link to a blog entry where I discuss the book. My tastes might seem strange, ranging from fiction to nonfiction, from the heard-of to the unheard-of. I'll focus on the lesser known books first.

1. Parallelities, by Alan Dean Foster. Darkly comical "Twilight Zone"-esque science fiction book about a tabloid reporter who keeps encountering alternate realities subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly different from his own and can't get back to his original world. Nobody's ever heard of the book (though you may have heard of the author), and I love it to death. I wrote an essay about the book here.

2. What Dreams May Come, by Richard Matheson. Astounding "new age" update of Dante. I didn't like the movie, by the way. Here are my thoughts on the book.

3. Prehistory of the Far Side, by Gary Larson. A behind-the-scenes look at the famous comic. He talks about how he got into the business and the creative process he goes through. Among other things, he shows the original sketches alongside the final published version of certain cartoons. He also has a section devoted to his more controversial cartoons, as well as a section of ones even his editors refused to publish.

4. The Way We Talk Now, by Geoffrey Nunberg. Popular-level essays by a prominent linguist discussing the connection between the words we use and modern culture.

5. How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card. Not only a good writing manual, but contains interesting discussions about the science fiction genre, by a talented practitioner in the field. I credit this book as having gotten me not only into Card himself, but also Octavia Butler.

6. Word on the Street, by John McWhorter. This book by linguist McWhorter may be a bit heavy for some, not because it's hard to follow (he does a good job of popularization), but because his point of view is one that most of the populace still doesn't "get." The second half of the book is devoted to the Ebonics controversy, which may or may not interest you, but the general thesis is a very powerful argument about the way language changes over time, how this process is inevitable, and how a lot of what people consider "correct grammar" is rooted in folklore rather than a good understanding of language.

7. Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson. Let me put it this way. If the history of the English language could possibly be made entertaining, Bryson does it. The book has a reputation for containing many factual errors, but it's a good overview and even manages to debunk some myths along the way.

8. Chutzpah, by Alan Dershowitz. A must-read for any Jew. Contains some autobiographical material, but he manages to generalize his experiences to make powerful points about anti-Semitism and the role of Jews in society. The way he lays down his thesis (that Jews should assert themselves more, and stop worrying about awaking the sleeping giant of anti-Semitism) is extraordinary and compelling.

9. Type Talk, by Otto Kroeger & Janet M. Thuesen. The best book I have read on the Myers-Briggs personality test, which is to say, nicely free of BS which infects many of the other books on this subject.

10. Darwin on Trial, by Phillip E. Johnson. This is a must-read if you want an introduction to the intelligent design movement. Very nontechnical but extremely clear and summarizes the basic arguments very well.

The remaining three books on my list are more well-known: Douglas Adams's Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, and the Harry Potter books, which I've written about here.

Izgad said...

On the fantasy from I would recomend Neil Gaiman's books. The Sandman series, Stardust (they are making a movie out of it I hope they do not ruin it) and American Gods.

Miriam said...

here goes (hope its not too late)
(1) Writings -from Tannakh
(2) Off the Derekh by F. Margolese. its about why people go off the derekh and possible solutions.
(3) Saving the lost Tribe by Asher Naim. its about operation Moses and Solomon from the eyes of Asher Naim, the ambassador there. Its light and fun
(4)Coming Back to Earth by Gil Locks. Its a baal teshuva's story. This guy used to be an indian? guru then came to Judaism

I hope they are the right size for you.

Anonymous said...

Wolf, Lot's of additions since you last responded. What do you think of the list?

Ichabod Chrain

Anonymous said...

Read "The Forgotten Man", a new take on the Depression era.