Seriously funny, humorously serious, scholarly, witty and wise.



A survey and analysis of Jewish humor, from the Bible to Larry David and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Wisse (Yiddish Literature and Comparative Literature/Harvard Univ.; Jews and Power, 2007, etc.) has chosen an engaging style: sturdy, eclectic scholarship leavened with personal asides (she talks about a book-closing fit of laughter), informal diction (“One update, and I am done,” she writes near the end), good jokes and continual references to popular culture—from Saturday Night Live to Henny Youngman to Jerry Seinfeld. But all is in service of her serious agenda. She begins with an uncomfortable moment—a Gentile woman upset about a Jewish joke—then off she departs for a tour of the genre. She examines the history, the low and high humor, the literary and dramatic practitioners, Sigmund Freud on humor and much more. Along the way are names familiar to general readers—Franz Kafka, Sholem Aleichem, Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and many others—but she also introduces writers and humorists known principally to the cognoscenti—among them, Joseph Perl, the “master storyteller” Rebbe Nachman and a number of Yiddish comic writers (Moshe Nadir, Itzik Manger). Wisse also briefly examines the efflorescence of American Jewish novelists in the 1960s (Bellow, Heller, Friedman), then takes us to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, where she shows us how humor thrived even in the shadows of Auschwitz and the Gulag. She reminds us that the Soviets executed both Moyshe Kulbak and Isaac Babel for being humorous in the “wrong” way. She then turns to the notion that Israel, at least at its inception, had no sense of humor—a notion she dispels. At the end, she takes some swipes at political correctness and invites us to lighten up.

Seriously funny, humorously serious, scholarly, witty and wise.

Pub Date: June 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-691-14946-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: March 30, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2013

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.


“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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