- The Importance of Being Seven – Alexander McCall Smith
- The Dog Who Came in From the Cold – Alexander McCall Smith
- Body of Lies – David Ignatius
- תיק מצדה – יובל אלבשן
- The Gun Seller – Hugh Laurie
- Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
- תיק מצדה – יובל אלבשן
- קיצור תולדות האנושות – יובל נח הררי
- Body of Lies – David Ignatius
- The Gun Seller – Hugh Laurie
Keeping up with Alexander McCall Smith is not an easy task. Years ago, when my wife and I started reading the "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency”, the series that was at the time McCall Smith’s main claim to fame, we used to wait impatiently for the next book to be published. To make the wait more bearable, I made the mistake of reading books from his other series (“44 Scotland Street”, “Sunday Philosophy Club”, etc.). It was a mistake not because the books aren’t good; quite the contrary. It was a mistake because McCall Smith must be in the top ten prolific writers list of all times. I believe the count is almost 40 books, not counting 20 books for children and his academic writings. Keeping up with his new books is a challenge I’ve long given up on, and I now have a new strategy: when I have a few minutes to spare before a flight, I check the airport bookstore for any new McCall Smith novels in paperback and buy them. The two books I bought this month fall into this buying category.
OK. Having vented my frustrations with the Sisyphean task of keeping up with good new books, on to the books I actually managed to read this month.
“Body of Lies” is the second book by David Ignatius that I’ve read (last month I read “Agents of Innocence”). Ignatius is an American journalist/novelist whom I never heard of until the infamous 2009 “Davos Incident”. Ignatius discovered – I’m sure to his amazement – how mad you can make a Turkish politician when you dare interrupt his ranting by putting a hand on his shoulder. No doubt Ignatius has been keeping his hands to himself since.
Anyway, some time ago The Economist recommended the new Ignatius novel “Bloodmoney”, and since I have this medical condition which impels me to make an effort to read books by the same author more or less in the chronological order they were published, I started with “Agents” and only then moved on to “Body of Lies”.
I didn’t like “Agents of Innocence” even though it was set in Lebanon and dealt with events surrounding the Palestinian encroaching takeover of that country in the 1970s, a topic I once used to be very interested in. I found the book to be lacking in depth and the characters to be too underdeveloped to be meaningful. I also found a factual mistake, which is always a real put off in books (Ignatius refers to the Israel currency, the Shekel, at a time when the currency was still the Lira). I had greater hopes for “Body of Lies” especially as I was vaguely aware there was a Leonardo DiCaprio character somewhere in there…
And I was not too disappointed. “Body of Lies” is a much more mature book than “Agents” and, if anything, moves at a much faster pace. Roger Ferris, a CIA agent stationed in Amman, Jordan, devises a scheme to set a trap for Al-Saleem, a terrorist responsible for multiple car bombings in Europe. He creates a fictional terrorist to “compete” with Al-Saleem (by setting off his own bomb), thus hoping to lure the terrorist out of hiding. His fatal mistake is not involving Hani Salaam, the elegantly dressed head of Jordanian Intelligence, in all the details. The two weave a “body of lies” around each other which eventually ends up in a shootout in Syria where Ferris almost dies but is saved at the last minute by Salaam. As is almost obligatory in these novels, Ferris is unhappily married and meets a beautiful woman, a nurse by the name of Aisha, with whom he falls hopelessly in love with, etc.
Right after finishing the book I watched the movie. That’s when I understood why I thought of DiCaprio; he plays the Ferris character. I liked the movie and thought it was perhaps even more enjoyable than the book, which I’m afraid doesn’t say much for David Ignatius’ writing. After all, a movie starring DiCaprio being better than something surely isn’t a good sign for that something…
I picked up “תיק מצדה” (“Massada File”) while buying some books for my daughter. I know Yuval Elbashan from way back (we haven’t been in touch for years). I really liked his previous novel “תמיד פלורה” (“Forever Flora”), which I reviewed here, as well as his very moving children book “סיפו” (a story about two children – an Israeli and a German – who manage to unite their granfathers, two brothers who lost each other during the Holocaust). But “Massada File” was an entirely different experience. Elbashan dabs here in the spy novel genre, which seems to have become rather popular in Israel recently.
The plot in brief: an Israeli officer, a war hero, is taken hostage by a terrorist organisation and, after the talks between the sides break down, disappears without a trace (echoes of Ron Arad, the Israeli navigator POW). A young intelligence officer devises a plot to shake things up by inventing an imaginary hostage and “freeing him” publicly in order to make the real captors come to the surface. Only the Prime Minister and a handful of others are in the loop, to avoid leaking of the scheme. When things turn bad, the Prime Minister resorts to extreme measures, invoking Massada, a source that was supposed to be kept only for truly apocalyptic, Armageddon-type, situations. This use of Massada and the general cover-up expose the hate-love relationship between the PM and the head of the Mossad. There is also a secondary story, about the missing officer’s wife and the domestic secrets she hides, which eventually turn out to determine the fate of the POW. But I won’t divulge too much of the plot here.
Frankly, Elbashan’s first experiment with a spy novel is not very successful. The book is dynamic and fast-paced (it’s what I call a “shabbat book”: a book you can start and finish in one shabbat), but the story is not that compelling. The blurb on the back of the book promises a book that will reveal the intricate relationship between the PM and his underlings, but it’s all too obvious, too stereotypical. The book doesn’t even live up to its title, as the mysterious Massada source story doesn’t mature into anything of significance. It seems Elbashan’s forte lies not in spy novels.
“קיצור תולדות האנושות” (“A Brief History of Humanity”) is a brave attempt by Yuval Noah Harari, a young history professor from Jerusalem, to paint the history of mankind on this planet in broad brush strokes – all the way from Darwinistic evolution to predictions about the future of homo sapiens (or rather, what homo sapiens will evolve to). The book attempts to deal with many big issues: historic determinism, feminism, capitalism, etc. and is filled with factoids and anecdotes, such as why money was invented, how the dog became man’s best friend and what do those cave paintings really mean. The book is easy to read – this is popular history after all – and Harari has strong opinions about almost everything. But if I were to recommend a book about the history of everything it would be the eponymous book by Bill Bryson and not this book.
Finding out about the existence of a Hugh Laurie novel 15 years after the book was first published is something I am not proud of. As a fan of “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” and “Blackadder”, I have no idea why I didn’t check earlier if Laurie ever wrote a book! I did check Stephen Fry and read “The Book of General Ignorance”, so why not Laurie? I bow my head in shame for overlooking this book for so long.
Anyway, needless to say, I enjoyed “The Gun Seller” very much. It made me laugh out loud several times, not an easy feat for a book. The basic plot is about this retired army officer, Thomas Lang, who is hired to kill someone but decides to warn the victim instead of killing him. This ends him up mixed up in a CIA-led conspiracy to protect the development and marketing of a next-gen attack helicopter. There are the usual action-packed passages and international conspiracy intrigues, but this is hardly your run-of-the-mill suspense novel. You can tell Laurie uses the genre merely as an excuse to play around with English witticisms and delight the reader.
Here are a few quotes I highlighted during my reading; admittedly, some of them might be funnier only when read in context:
About London cabbies: The meter said six pounds, so I passed a ten pound note through the window and watched a fifteen-second production of ‘I’m Not Sure I’ve Got Change For That’, starring licensed cab driver 99102, before getting out and heading back down the street (Kindle location 1076)
About Americans’ use of the word “period”: Saying period at the end of something doesn’t make it incontrovertible (Kindle location 1391)
About Germans in Prague: But then of course, for most Germans, Prague is only a few hours away by fast tank, so it’s hardly surprising that they treat the place like the end of their garden (Kindle location 3412)
About journalists: The few journalists I’ve spoken to in my life all seemed to have this in common: an attitude of perpetual exhaustion, brought on by dealing with people who just aren’t quite as fantastic as they are (Kindle 4356)
All in all, it was a good month of reading – some history, a couple of spy novels and a funny book. I wish I had read more in March, but then again, isn’t that always the case? I’m now in the middle of tackling a Dickens novel, so if I survive that I’ll be sure to tell you all about it next month.