Ariel Sabar’s lovely little book, My Father’s Paradise (Algonquin, $25.95), is at once a history of the Kurdish Jews and a family memoir. Ariel’s father, Yona, the last child Bar Mitzvahed in Zakho in northern Iraq, grew up speaking Aramaic, the language that dominated the Middle East at the time of Jesus. After Israel was founded, the Iraqi Jews were forced to immigrate there. Israel was not prepared for the enormous influx of very poor, unskilled and in some cases illiterate Jews from Arab countries, and Ariel’s grandparents, Rahamim and Miryam, who had been respected citizens in Zakho, were subject to bruising discrimination. Nevertheless, Yona went to university in Israel and graduate school at Yale and now is a professor at UCLA. His story is the remarkable leap from a primitive village to the most sophisticated Western life. Ariel Sabar, a journalist, wrote this book as an act of repentance for his teenage defiance and embarrassment of his hopelessly unhip father.
What On Earth Happened? (Bloomsbury, $45) is a marvelous family present—adults will love it and they can read it with their older children. Christopher Lloyd, a science writer, has fashioned a highly readable history of Earth by time periods, employing scientific discoveries, history, religious and technological developments. The book is illustrated with maps, photos, and gorgeous reproductions of art masterpieces. Humility is called for: scientists estimate that animals emerged onto land 400 million years ago, modern humans evolved in Africa only 130,000 years ago and spread to other continents around 50,000 years ago—and the first powered flight took place merely 100 years ago.
This winter, while you’re dreaming of going to England in the spring, Peter Ackroyd, following his successful London, has brought us Thames: The Biography (Nan A. Talese, $40), an entertaining and widely informative book all about the great river Thames. There are fifteen chapters, filled with history, mythology, commerce, art, literature, and nature study. Maps and illustrations are plentiful, and dipping in and out of Thames is like learning at every turn something delightful and surprising from an old friend who has seen and done it all.