Some truly wonderful books have come our way this year, any one of which would make a welcome Chanukah gift or you might just decide to hoard them for yourself.
The most beautiful book we’ve seen, by far, is artist Sam Fink’s paean in paint to "The Book of Exodus" (Welcome Books, $40). Newsprint and cramped newspaper columns cannot begin to do justice to the vibrant colors of the book’s breathtaking 45 water-colors; sky-scapes, they serve as canvases, so to speak, for the hand-lettered Hebrew text. Each full-page painting faces the Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 translation and, after you’re done marveling over it on your coffee table, is suitable for framing.
Beautiful in a different way is "When A Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa," by Peter Godwin (Little Brown, $’4.99).
Godwin, a writer for National Geographic, has a sharp eye and ear (and mind), and uses language like the master he is. He makes us see Zimbabwe, where he grew up, both its natural beauty and its vicious and chaotic politics. He also shares with us his family’s secret, hidden even from him until recently: His father, George Godwin, born Kazimierz Jerzy Goldfarb in Warsaw, was stranded in England as a schoolboy as the war began. The elder Godwin’s mother and sister "were picked up by a Nazi patrol and never seen again," and his father spent two years in hiding. Eventually becoming an engineer, George Godwin was sent to Africa. In a photo, writes his son, "[h]is legs are planted apart, his fists are on his hips, and he is grinning at the newness of it all, grinning at this place that seems to have no history, a greenfield site for Europeans of energy and aptitude. You can almost see him deciding that he wants to stay.
"For him, Africa is clearly the antidote to Europe’s great burden of history, the destruction, the prejudices and the pogroms and the Holocaust. It is a place where he can wipe his memory of past hurt and start again."
But as George and his wife, Helen, age and grow ill, their beloved adopted country turns toxic under the brutal dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. A consummate journalist, Peter Godwin feels and sees and shows the small, wrenching, intimate details of his family’s story against the vast, complex backdrop of a deteriorating nation.
Books about Yiddish are fun to give and get. They have a Yiddishe tam, you could say, and they teach, as well. If you loved Michael Wex’s "Kvetch," you’re bound to enjoy his "Just Say Nu: Yiddish for Every Occasion (When English Just Won’t Do)" (St. Martin’s Press, $’3.95). The title says it all. It’s also available in a set of six CDs, read in the author’s inimitable whine ($’9.95).
"Let’s Schmooze," by Julian Sinclair (Continuum Books, $18.95), who is British, covers a lot of the same territory but includes Hebrew expressions and ranges through the Jewish year. It also has a panoply of words related to observance. Thus there are entries on such words as daven, Torah, and Tanakh, as well as on such British-Jewish insults as "lobbes." What? You never heard of lobbes? American Jews would use the word "shlub."
Meanwhile, either or both of these books will make the reader a maven.