Navigate to News section

Five Books to Read on Adam Kirsch’s Birthday

How better to celebrate Tablet’s literary critic?

Stephanie Butnick
February 07, 2014

Today is Tablet contributing editor and literary critic Adam Kirsch’s birthday. To celebrate, you can try to find out where he and his family are having dinner, and see if you can join them for dessert. You can also catch up on eight months of Talmud with his weekly Daf Yomi column. Or you can take a page from Kirsch, and just read a book.

Here are five books Kirsch has reviewed recently for Tablet. You better get started if you want to make it to dinner before they sing “Happy Birthday.”

1. The Book of Jonah, by Joshua Max Feldman

Kirsch writes: Joshua Max Feldman, whose debut novel is titled The Book of Jonah, has caught these comic hints from the Bible and run with them. His novel, like its inspiration, is halfway between satire and religious epiphany—a delicate balance, which Feldman manages to maintain for most of the novel, if not quite all of it. What kind of person, Feldman asks, is the equivalent of Jonah today—a worldly man, an unwilling prophet, someone who likes his life so much that he would run away from God?

2. My Age of Anxiety, by Scott Stossel

Kirsch writes: The secret of his success, and the book’s, is that he has written something bigger and more helpful than a memoir. Rather, Stossel sets out to do for anxiety what Andrew Solomon did for depression in The Noonday Demon. He offers a comprehensive study of the condition—how people saw anxiety in the past, how scientists and psychologists understand it today, and what if anything can be done to cure it. It is the braiding together of autobiography with science and history that gives My Age of Anxiety its particular power. After getting to know Stossel so well, in these pages, we come to share the existential urgency behind his research. Understanding anxiety is not just another journalistic assignment for him, but a struggle to survive.

3. Stranger in My Own Country, by Yascha Mounk

Kirsch writes: But what is it like to be a Jew in Germany in the postwar era? What would lead even a handful of Jews to choose to make their lives in the country that was responsible for the Holocaust? And how did the descendants of the perpetrators treat the descendants of the victims? These are the questions at the heart of Mounk’s book, which starts out as a memoir but evolves into something more like a history and a polemic. Accessibly written and full of humor—one chapter is titled “A Boy Named Jew,” after the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue”—Stranger in My Own Country uses Mounk’s own experiences to shed light on postwar German history and current German politics.

4. The Remains of Love, by Zeruya Shalev

Kirsch writes: The Remains of Love may be the novel that finally brings Shalev’s name to a wider American audience. Certainly it deserves to be: This is a powerful story, told with Shalev’s trademark emotional intensity, about that most universal of subjects, the relationship between parents and children. Like Philip Larkin, who observed that the family was a transmission belt for unhappiness—“Man hands on misery to man,/ It deepens like a coastal shelf”—Shalev is a kind of poet of familial dysfunction. She is fascinated by the way parents burden their children with too much love or too little, the way children can be maimed by their parents’ expectations and evasions. These are subjects that have been treated by countless writers, and they are highly exposed to the perils of cliché and sentimentality. But in Shalev’s fearless writing, the emotional temperature is raised so high that such dangers are burned away, leaving behind something elemental and irresistible.

5. The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone

Kirsch writes: But everybody knew Leonard Bernstein. Nigel Simeone, the editor of the Letters, made the good decision to include not just letters Bernstein wrote, but those he received, and it is often the latter that make the most exciting reading. Name a celebrity in any field from the 1940s to the 1970s, and there’s a good chance that he or she will be found in The Leonard Bernstein Letters, showering the maestro with praise. Frank Sinatra is here, asking Bernstein to participate in JFK’s inaugural concert; eight years later, Jacqueline Onassis thanks him for arranging the music for Bobby Kennedy’s funeral. Bette Davis writes him fan letters: “there is probably nothing in the world so encouraging for the future of the world as a super talent in someone—it is the only true inspiration and help in believing the world is really worthwhile.” So does Richard Avedon: “You stand alone. Terrifying, but true.” So does Yevgeny Yevtushenko, in broken English: “probably, only composer who could create music for such kind of theme are you.”

Happy birthday Adam, from all of us at Tablet.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.