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The Telling:
How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life

by mark gerson
st. martin’s essentials,
352 pages, $29.99

Seder Night, the lengthy ­ritualistic meal of the first night of Passover, is considered one of the most important events in the Jewish calendar. Mark Gerson’s new work underscores—with great panache and enthusiasm—perhaps the most underappreciated facet of the ­evening: the emotional and intellectual processes submerged within the text of the Haggadah.

Gerson analyzes the text through a constellation of short, punchy, free-ranging essays, each based on one specific line in the Haggadah. The writing is engaging and amusing, and the essays are both short enough to be memorable and substantial enough to convey genuine ideas. It is clear that the author loves the Seder and believes it to be an evening packed with great ideas, in addition to the sentimental songs and baffling rituals. It is ­equally clear that he is deeply intrigued by a range of religious, ethical, historical, philosophical, and psychological ­insights, which he classifies under the rubric of “Jewish Thought.” Finally, he is clearly convinced that these ­insights, these “Greatest Hits of Jewish Thought,” may be read into the Haggadah’s text at the Seder.

This final point exposes the book’s central weakness. Gerson’s ideas, engaging as they are, don’t quite fit into the text upon which he comments. It is a work of eisegesis, a collection of ideas that are shoehorned—with varying degrees of plausibility and success—into a distinctly unruly text.

Thus, as a collection of concise, interdisciplinary discussions of profound Jewish themes, this book is a resounding success. For those in search of a faithful ­commentary on the Haggadah, however, I would point them in the direction of ­superior ­alternatives.

J. J. Kimche

Jane Austen:
Writing, Society, Politics

by tom keymer
oxford, 192 pages, $18.95

Our beloved, virtuous, refined Jane Austen was comically cruel and violent—at least in her youthful, unpublished work. In his breezy Jane Austen: Writing, Society, Politics, Tom Keymer ­offers a brief but surprisingly fulsome introduction to the famous novelist. He devotes his first chapter to her juvenilia, six chapters to the six ­canonical novels, and concludes with an afterword on the unfinished novel Sanditon.

The chapter on her juvenilia is a refreshing antidote to sober presentations of Austen’s commitment to Aristotelian and Christian virtue. Through judicious quotations from her youthful literary experiments, Keymer gleefully shows her “unconstrained ridicule or comic violence” and her “obscene periphrasis.” We meet an “uninhibited” Austen whose heroines steal banknotes, are poisoned by jealous rivals, and abruptly drown themselves. For Keymer, ­Austen is neither staid conservative nor flaming radical, but an author of keen penetration who, while more novelist than polemicist, levels serious critiques against ­society and whose youthful exuberance still sporadically shines forth in her ­mature works.

The chapters devoted to those works concisely introduce the reader to a major theme in Austen criticism: politics and society in Northanger Abbey, Enlightenment feminism in Sense and Sensibility, narrative technique in Pride and Prejudice, national identity in Emma, slavery and empire in Mansfield Park, and psychology and the passions in Persuasion. The book also includes intimate and poignant images: Austen’s writing table, manuscript pages from her “History of England” and Sanditon, and ­Cassandra Austen’s 1804 watercolor sketch of her sister. This slim volume manages to take the reader on an engaging, comprehensive journey, even imagining the Austen that could have been had she lived past forty-one. Keymer leaves the reader astounded by the audacity and excellence of this country girl from a middle-class family whose novels are treasures of world literature.

Tiffany Schubert