What I’ve Read This Month – June 2012

Books Bought:

  • The Leopard – Jo Nesbo
  • The Gospel of Damascus – Omar Imady
  • Jerusalem: The Biography – Simon Sebag Montefiore (Kindle)
  • חמש דרשות: על ארץ ישראל ועם ישראל – יוסף דב סולובייצ’יק
  • תעלומת הכתר: המצוד אחר כתב היד החשוב ביותר של התנ”ך – מתי פרידמן
  • תחנה סופית אלג’יר – מישקה בן דוד
  • מאה שנים של בדידות – גבריאל גרסיה מרקס
  • השפעה בלתי הוגנת: רומן במכתבים – רונית מטלון, אריאל הירשפלד

Books Read:

  • Agent 6 – Tom Rob Smith (Kindle)
  • ביקור אחרון במוסקבה – מישקה בן דוד
  • נס קיבוץ גלויות – יואל בן נון
  • האדם מחפש משמעות – ויקטור פרנקל
  • The Gospel of Damascus – Omar Imady
  • חסד ספרדי – א.ב. יהושע

 

A national sport in Israel is buying something in a “deal”, meaning buying it for cheap. More accurately: buying it for cheaper than it’s supposed real price, and then rushing to tell the whole world about the fantastic “deal” you made. It’s all part of the “not being a sucker” ideology (in Hebrew: לא לצאת פרייאר), an ideology that leading sociologists believe is the main driving force of this country.

In recent years buying books in Israel has become a branch of this national sport. There used to be one major bookstore chain – Steimazky – and a bunch of smaller local bookstores. Steimazky used to determine the price of books and discounts were rare. Some years back a second chain came along – Tsomet Sefarim – and the competition really got going. This duopoly practically wiped out almost all small bookstores, so buying a book today in Israel means buying whatever one of these two giants decides is a “deal”.

Walk into any of their stores, and the inventory on display is almost identical: stacks of books (mostly contemporary fiction) with stickers on them: “one plus one free”, or “one plus two free”, or “three for 100”, or “four for 100”. You get the picture. Standing near the cashier is almost always an excruciatingly annoying experience, as both seller and buyer try to figure out which book belongs to which “deal” and whether the price would drop further if one were to swap this book for that book, etc. It is very rare to see someone coming into a bookstore today just to buy the one book he or she was looking for.

The purpose of this lengthy preamble is to explain why you see so many Hebrew books bought this month. I wanted to buy my daughter a couple of books she asked for (not listed here), so I went online to Steimazky’s website. Needless to say, the books were marked as part of a “deal”, so I kept browsing and adding books to qualify for the “four for 100”. I ended up buying eight books and beating the system! More likely, the system beat me by making me buy books I did not intend to buy right now.

Anyway, on to this month’s reviews, a good mix of fiction and non-fiction:

“Agent 6” is the third and final book in the Leo Demidov trilogy by Tom Rob Smith (I reviewed the first two books last month). Whereas the first book concentrated on the post-Stalin era and the second book on the Khrushchev era – both books painting a painfully vivid image of life under the oppressively totalitarian Soviet regime – this book is set mostly in the United States and Afghanistan. The two main backdrops to the story are American communism (and Cold War propaganda), and the botched Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Leo Demidov’s wife Raisa and two adopted daughters are sent to the US for a “peace” concert at the United Nations. A KGB propaganda plot involving his youngest daughter goes wrong, and Raisa is killed. For years Leo is lost in pain. He ends up in Afghanistan as an advisor to the government, witnessing the horrors of the war and finding restless solace in the arms of opium. But he has a mission: to find out who killed his wife. Aided by a local Afghani woman working for the local secret police, Leo eventually tracks down the FBI agent (“Agent 6”) who was involved in Raisa’s death and extracts the real story from him.

The story is good and the ending has a surprising twist to it. Smith’s writing is its usual brisk and descriptive self. Yet I found this book less gripping that the first two. Maybe it is due to the fact that the backdrop of daily life in the Soviet Union was more interesting to me than American communism or the war in Afghanistan. Or maybe I just shouldn’t have read all three books in a row, causing a slight “Leo Demidov overdose” effect. But that’s the extent of my “bad” criticism of this trilogy. All in all, it is a superb series well worth reading.

Mishka Ben-David has a PhD in Hebrew literature PhD. He was a school headmaster. He was also the director of a community centre. Oh, I almost forgot: for 12 years of his life he was a Mossad agent. Combining his various talents Ben David has written a few spy novels involving Mossad agents. Each novel is set in a particular city – Berlin, Beirut, Moscow, St. Petersburg and, most recently, Algiers.

Whereas most books in the series lean towards the genre of action-filled spy novels (I read all of them bar the new one, bought last month – see above), “Last Visit in Moscow” (“ביקור אחרון במוסקבה”) is a little different.

Dani Shlein is a Mossad agent operating in the Soviet Union under the cover of an American businessman. Overcome by his desire to visit the remote village where his mother was born, he breaks with protocol and takes a drive to the countryside. Asking too many questions he is quickly picked up by the KGB and finds himself in Lubyanka, the dreaded KGB headquarters and prison in the heart of Moscow. There he faces a retired general, brought in especially to interrogate him. The book is basically a description of the weeks-long face-off between the interrogator and the Israeli spy.

The interrogation evolves in unexpected directions. At times it becomes an almost intimate dialogue between the two men. The general forces Dani to unfold his life piece by piece, thus enabling the reader to get the full life story of the Mossad agent. To keep his story straight, Dani sticks to his real life story but alters the facts so as to match his cover story. His childhood, his adolescence, how he met his wife, how he fell in love with her, why they broke apart – everything is transported from Israel to New York. Even when the general manages to poke holes in the cover story, Dani does not give up. He has no choice if he wishes to survive.

What Dani doesn’t understand is why the retired general was brought in for this interrogation. Finding out the reason is the surprise Ben-David has in store for us. The last few pages of the book tie up the loose ends and provide Dani with information about his mother’s past before she left the Soviet Union for Israel.

“Last Visit in Moscow” is perhaps Ben-David’s best book. While I enjoyed his other novels for the action and “light reading” experience, this book demands more involvement and more attention. Ultimately, one is rewarded with a moving, well-rounded story.

Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun needs no introductions in Israel. He is well-known both in religious and secular sectors. He was considered one of the leading rabbis in the national-religious sector, but his liberal and moderate ideas have relegated him to a backseat position. Especially so after his outspoken criticism of fellow rabbis after the murder of prime minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995.

This book, “The Miracle of the Gathering of the Exiles” (“נס קיבוץ גלויות”) is a collection of essays, coupled with extracts of texts from Jewish thinkers throughout the ages, about the foundation of the State of Israel and the return of millions of Jews to their homeland. It is intended to serve a double purpose: a solid theological framework for dealing with the greatest miracle in Jewish history since the destruction of the Temple (perhaps since Mount Sinai), and a reader for Independence Day and other national holidays. Bin-Nun attempts to create a new “haggadah” for those who wish to infuse these secular holidays with a religious meaning.

Another writer who needs no introduction is Viktor Frankl. I first read “Man’s Search for Meaning” (“האדם מחפש משמעות”) during my military service and I recall it making a great impression on me. Reading it now, more than twenty years later, it is still a remarkably moving and impressive book (especially given how short it is).

In concise and somewhat dry prose, without resorting to over dramatisation, Frankl describes his personal experiences as a Holocaust survivor. He asks a basic question: how can the concentration camp experience help explain why people hang on to life. Frankl uses the experiences from the concentration camps, perhaps the worst possible place for a human being to believe and hang on to life, in order to formulate a psychotherapeutic method in finding a reason to live (Logotherapy). He describes the three stages a typical concentration camp prisoner goes through – shock, apathy and disillusionment – and concludes that regardless of the hardships every person finds a reason to live. For one person it might be God or religion; for another it might be a beloved one waiting for him on the outside; for yet another it might be some personal goal that still needs to be accomplished. Whatever the reason, humans find a way to hang on to life in the worst possible circumstances.

Frankl’s basic conclusion is that basic tenement of Jewish faith: freedom of choice (although Frankl did not frame his theory in any religious terms). Ultimately, regardless of the conditions of life, freedom of choice remains the one determining factor of how a person will live. And Frankl says that the right choice to make in order to have a meaningful life is to help others find their meaning of life, to be a decent person, a mentsch. His examples of decent “good” Nazis and indecent “bad” prisoners illustrate how this personal choice can make all the difference.

It is no wonder “Man’s Search for Meaning” is considered one of the most influential books on the 20th century.

A new novel by A. B. Yehoshua is more than just a new book on the shelf. It is a literary event. After all, Yehoshua is one of the leading writers in Israel, often mentioned as one of “three tenors”, along with Amos Oz and David Grossman.

“חסד ספרדי” (“Spanish Kindness”) is the story of Yair Mozes, a veteran film director who is invited to a retrospective of his movies in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. He travels there with Ruth, his companion and the lead actress in many of his movies.

In their hotel room hangs a painting of a bare-chested man, with his hands tied behind his back, sucking from a woman’s breast. Mozes is unaware of the Caritas Romana tradition: the story of the daughter who secretly breastfed her incarcerated father to save him from starvation. He is intrigued by the painting because it reminds him of a scene that his one-time screenwriter, Trigano, wanted to shoot in one of their earlier movies. That scene was never shot as Ruth shied away from it at the last moment. That episode caused a break between Mozes and Trigano, who have not spoken to each other in decades.

The scene depicted in the painting continues to haunt Mozes upon his return to Israel, and he seeks to reconcile with Trigano after all these years. This attempt at reconciliation is initially rejected by Trigano but the rapprochement between the two is inevitable. The Caritas Romana plays a role in this process and turns into a “Spanish kindness”, with the two travelling back to Spain to reconstruct the scene in the painting.

In this novel Yehoshua proves that his imaginative writing power has not deserted him in old age (unlike Mozes, who tries but is incapable of shooting new movies). This novel is a enjoyable treat.

Finally, a book I received from the “early reviewers” group at LibraryThing: “The Gospel of Damascus” by Omar Imady. You can find my review of this book here.

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2 thoughts on “What I’ve Read This Month – June 2012

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

  2. Pingback: Reading List « Nafka Mina

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