What I’ve Read This Month – May 2012

Books Bought:

  • נר למאור: על פרשיות התורה – משה צבי נריה
  • קללת דרעי – מרדכי גילת
  • הכי רחוק שאפשר – אלון חילו
  • חכמים: כרך רביעי, ממשנה לתלמוד – בנימין לאו
  • Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith (Kindle)
  • The Secret Speech – Tom Rob Smith (Kindle)
  • Agent 6 – Tom Rob Smith (Kindle)

         

Books Read:

  • 1Q84 – Haruki Murakami (Kindle)
  • קללת דרעי – מרדכי גילת
  • The Seven Sins of Memory – Daniel L. Shachter
  • הכי רחוק שאפשר – אלון חילו
  • לעבדך באמת: לדמותו ולדרכו של הרב יהודה עמיטל
  • המוסד והמיתוס – גד שמרון
  • Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith (Kindle)
  • Faceless Killers – Henning Mankell
  • The Secret Speech – Tom Rob Smith (Kindle)

 

After a slow April, May was a good month in terms of books read – nine in total. So with no further ado, I’ll launch right into my reviews.

Haruki Murakami is Japan’s most known contemporary novelist. Outside Japan, that is. His books have been translated to many languages, and he is no stranger to bestseller lists in several countries. “1Q84” is his most recent novel, a book that is more a journey than a book. I’m glad I read it on Kindle, as I’m not sure I would have been able to carry it around with me without sustaining physical injuries; the hardcopy English version runs to 1,000 pages.

There are two main characters in the book, a woman – Aomame, and a man – Tengo. The book is set in the year 1984. Aomame, a fitness instructor who kills violent husbands for a hobby, is stuck in traffic on an elevated Tokyo highway. She takes the emergency staircase down to the street and finds herself in a parallel universe, in a year she calls 1Q84 (the letter Q is a play on the word Kyu in Japanese, which means 9). In parallel, Tengo, a math teacher and aspiring novelist, gets an offer from his editor to rewrite a book written by a reclusive 17-year-old girl. The book turns out to be a bestseller but the story it describes becomes reality for Tengo and Aomame.

1Q84 is a universe in which there are two moons, little people come out of the mouth of sleeping people to build an “air chrysallis”, women get pregnant immaculately, a cult leader hears voices from the great beyond, and so on and so forth. You get the picture. Murakami created a fantasy novel, except it is disguised (and marketed) as a regular novel. The narrative shifts back and forth between the two main characters, taking the reader into a journey that, well, doesn’t really end. I will not reveal the ending here, except to say that one should now expect some great denouement. This book is more about the pleasure of reading, if you like Murakami’s prose. As one reviewer wrote, these certainly are “1,000 uneventful pages”.

Anyone living in Israel through the 1990s is familiar with Aryeh Deri, the Moroccan-born politician and head of the Shas party, who became Director General of the Ministry of Interior at the tender age of 27. Two years later he was the Interior Minister, wielding immense power and control as a result of the warped coalition politics that give small parties the freedom to threaten the stability of the government.

In 1990 a couple of investigative reporters from the country’s leading newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, published details about alleged acts of corruption and bribery on the part of Deri. The senior of these reporters is Mordechai Gilat, author of “קללת דרעי” (“Deri’s Curse”). The book is the story of Deri’s fall from grace; he was convicted of bribery and other corruption charges and, after appeal, was given a three-year sentence (he served 22 months in prison).

There are no great revelations in the book, but in publishing all the findings in one central place, Gilat manages to shock even those who remember what happened. While reading, the phrase “power corrupts” ceases to be a mere phrase and becomes a monstrous reality. Gilat exposes the myriad of ways in which Deri and his supporters tried to derail the police investigation, including the harassing of his elderly mother-in-law in New York and trying to bring about the replacement of the Attorney General (the infamous “Bar-On Hebron” scandal).

The book is not very well written. Some journalists are less capable than others when crossing the line from newspaper articles to books. But despite of this literary shortcoming, this is an important book, one that every politician should read and remember.

Memory is a fickle thing, and Prof. Daniel Schacter, former head of Harvard University’s Psychology department, exposes how fickle it is in “The Seven Sins of Memory” (a take on the seven deadly sins in Christianity). He urges the reader to recognize and understand these sins, even when it is impossible to avoid them.

I usually steer clear of books about psychology, a discipline I feel is erroneously tagged as science. But this book was surprisingly good. Schacter backs his theory with well-documented research and examples, but more importantly maintains a sufficiently low-key tone, admitting that science’s understanding of the human brain in general, and of human memory in particular, is only making its first baby steps in scientific research.

The seven sins of memory are:

  • Transience – the deterioration of memory over time: we remember recent episodes better than older ones.
  • Absent-mindedness – lapses of attention, such as misplacing eyeglasses or keys.
  • Blocking – memories interfering with other memories, the classic example being the “tip of the tongue” experience.
  • Misattribution – remembering something correctly, but attributing it to the wrong source; as in: “the butler did it” when in fact it was someone else.
  • Suggestibility – recollection of a memory is affected by subtle emphasis placed on certain aspects of the memory. Personally, this was the most startling “sin” described in the book. Schacter shows how eyewitnesses to a crime “remember” different things based on how the questions are put to them by the police.
  • Bias – memories are recollected erroneously based on one’s biases; for example, most of us have fond memories of our childhood, even of events which at the time were distinctly unpleasant.
  • Persistence – the inability to avoid the recollection of unpleasant information or memories; post-traumatic stress disorder is the obvious example.

I meant to include other observations about the book in my review, but unfortunately I cannot remember what these observations were…

After a “serious” book that left me wondering if I can really trust my memories, Alon Hilu’s “הכי רחוק שאפשר” was like a breath of fresh wind.

This novel is an exchange of letters between an uncle and his nephew. Michael is a middle-aged lawyer who comes into some money and decides to take a break from life. He travels to remote places on the planet, dancing naked on the beach, falling prey to a fortune teller and other such adventures. The only thing he really misses back home is his cat.

Nadav, his nephew, has just joined the army and finds out just how irrational and capricious this organization can be. He gets sent to the remotest possible outpost, where he is in charge of “feeding” the generator that provides electricity to a single light bulb at the top of an antenna post. Facing more than two years of this riveting job, as well as an inconsiderate and obnoxious commander who has it in for him, Nadav contemplates defection and suicide but manages to hang on, partly because of the correspondence with his uncle.

The letters/emails Michael and Nadav write to each other unravel their respective journeys, which in many ways move in opposite directions. One decides to abandon monotonous normality to seek spirituality; the other falls from a happy existence as a intelligent and cultured teenager into the absurdity of military life. The book made me laugh a couple of times (always a good sign) but more importantly, it made me think about the journey life chooses for us. 

Rabbi Yehuda Amital z”l passed away a couple of years ago. This book is a collection of articles and eulogies that were given after his death and on various memorial events. The title of the book “לעבדך באמת” is taken from the prayer on shabbat, when we ask god to purify our heart in order to “worship him truthfully”. It has been adapted into a popular song which Rabbi Amital used to sing.

To those familiar with Rabbi Amital’s life and ideas, this book does not reveal much. Its strength is in the collection itself, bringing together family, friends, rabbis, students and others to form a complete picture of the great man he was. Over and over again we are told about his unique approach to education, his simple (but definitely not simplistic) approach to life, and his incredible achievements in Torah in the public arena.

The Talmudic saying “חבל על דאבדין ולא משתכחין” – the loss of great ones that cannot be replaced – is certainly appropriate in the case of Rabbi Amital.

The Israeli secret service – Mossad – needs no introduction, as its fame extends well beyond Israel’s borders. Many have written about the Mossad, most recently a couple of Israel journalists who published a bestseller about the Mossad’s “greatest hits”. But Gad Shimron, also a journalist, wrote a different kind of book.

Shimron is not only a journalist. He was employed by the Mossad for years. In “המוסד והמיתוס” (“The Mossad and the Myth”), he abandons the pathetic pathos which characterizes this genre and gives a first hand account of the Mossad’s “greatest hits” but also of some other, less known, episodes in the history of the organization. It is the small details that make this book interesting. Shimron’s descriptions do not skip over the Mossad’s great achievements, but he doesn’t neglect to describe how most operations are “routine” and require meticulous and unglamorous preparations. He also lists many of the failures of the Mossad, all in a balanced and understating tone.

“Child 44” is the first book in the Leo Demidov trilogy by Tom Rob Smith. Leo is an MGB (later KGB) agent who is in love with the Soviet Union and hunts down fellow citizens who might pose a political risk to the wellbeing of the system. In line with Soviet propaganda, the communist society is “crime free”, as the happy proletariat is incapable of committing acts such as murder. So when one of Leo’s colleagues loses his son in what appears to be a gruesome murder, Leo convinces the family to concede that the boy died in a train accident. But dead boys and girls keep popping up across the Ukraine, all killed in the same manner. Leo can no longer ignore the murders and embarks on a rogue investigation, risking his career and his life. He is accompanied in his quest by his wife Raisa, who becomes his moral compass.

The book is based on the true story of serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, a.k.a. the Rostov Ripper. Smith does a fantastic job of describing life of ordinary citizens in the Soviet Union created by Joseph Stalin: the constant fear of being arrested for saying (or thinking) out of party line, the monolithic education system (Raisa is a teacher of politics), the dreaded security police, the forced hospitalization in mental hospitals, the squalid living conditions, the empty shops, and much more.

This is not an easy book to read, and it is definitely not your run-of-the-mill crime thriller. Leo is a real anti-hero, a person who did terrible things and is now full of remorse. Yes Smith managed to create a real character, a person the reader can identify with, and not one of those plastic-type detectives that are unfortunately so common in this genre.

This is my first Henning Mankell book. When I picked it up I didn’t realize he was a Swedish writer. But a few pages into the book, when the word “coffee” had already appeared about 300 times, I thought to myself: “this MUST be a Swedish book”. Can someone explain to me why coffee so so prevalent in Swedish fiction?

“Faceless Killers” is an entertaining crime detective story. An elderly couple is murdered in gruesome fashion in their farm. Inspector Kurt Wallander investigates the case. The wife survives long enough in hospital to mumble the word “foreign” before she dies. This fact is leaked to the press and several racially motivated attacks against immigrants take place. The police is struggling to contain this spate of attacks while trying to solve the murders as soon as possible.

Mankell uses the public debate in Sweden about immigration policy as a backdrop to the story. His writing is fluent and easy to follow, despite the multiple references to coffee… This is a book that can fill a few enjoyable hours on a lazy afternoon. Nothing more.

“The Secret Speech” is the second book in the Leo Demidov trilogy. The story takes place in the mid 1950s, with the publishing of Nikita Khrushchev’s address to Communist Party congress, in which he denounced the crimes perpetrated by Stalin. The book describes the earth-shattering effect of this speech on the state apparatus created by Stalin, specifically on the secret police and the gulag system.

This time Leo is caught up in a personal battle. Raisa and him adopt two sisters whose parents were killed as a result of Leo’s activities as an MGB officer. One of the girls is kidnapped by the wife of a political prisoner Leo sent to the gulag many years ago, and for her release Leo needs to sneak into the gulag as a prisoner and break the prisoner free. The story takes a twist after Leo succeeds in his mission, as his adopted daughter decides to join the rebels. The story moves to Hungary and reaches its climax during the failed 1956 uprising.

This book is much more fast-paced than “Child 44” with many action-packed scenes. But as in the previous book in the series, Smith’s real strength is in the detailed and vivid description of the Soviet Union. At times it is almost impossible to imagine the hardships that political prisoners went through and the twisted national psyche of an entire nation.

I’m now reading the third and final Leo Demidov book, “Agent 6”, but this post is long enough as it is, so I’ll wait till next month to write about it.

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3 thoughts on “What I’ve Read This Month – May 2012

  1. Pingback: What I’ve Read This Month – June 2012 « Nafka Mina

  2. Pingback: What I’ve Read This Month – Links « Nafka Mina

  3. Pingback: Reading List « Nafka Mina

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