- Die Trying – Lee Child
- חכמים ד’: ממשנה לתלמוד – בני לאו
- תחנה סופית אלג’יר – מישקה בן דוד
- Portrait of a Spy – Daniel Silva
- Jerusalem: The Biography – Simon Sebag Montefiore (Kindle)
It’s hot in Israel right now. Every year we complain about the heat and every year we are 100% sure it’s never been as hot as it is right now. A short walk for lunch around the block becomes an excruciating experience. So much so that on most days I resort to ordering in rather than having to face the heat outside.
To compensate for this sordid state of affairs, the summer is typically a slow news period. The so-called “cucumber season” in Hebrew (known as the silly season in English I believe). Who can take serious news in this heat? Unfortunately this year seems to be an exception. Iran, Syria, Bulgaria, economic measures… this summer offers no respite on the news front. As if our brains are not already occupied enough in figuring out the shortest route from one air-conditioned space to the next.
It is no wonder then that I have not bought any books last month. The thought of browsing through books is beyond my energies at the moment. So perhaps there is a good side to this summer after all – less money spent, less aggravation at home about adding clutter.
This month I will review five books. On the light side – a couple of spy thrillers and one action thriller. On the heavier side – a book on Jewish sages and a history of Jerusalem.
“Die Trying” is Lee Child’s second novel in the Jack Reacher series, after “Killing Floor”. Whilst I enjoyed the first book, I found “Die Trying” much less enjoyable.
This time Jack Reacher finds himself involuntarily involved in a battle between the FBI and a Montana-based militia. He helps a woman struggling with her crutches outside a laundry shop and the next thing he knows he’s being kidnapped together with the woman, ending up in a white truck that drives for days into the militia’s hideout in the mountains. The woman, Holly Johnson, is an FBI agent who also happens to be the daughter of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the god-daughter of the President of the United States. She is kidnapped because of her PR value to the militia. Jack is kidnapped because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The FBI and Holly’s father mount a semi-private rescue operation, as the White House prefers not to get involved. Needless to say, Jack is trying his best from the inside to get himself and Holly out. His shooting marksmanship enables him to create enough havoc inside the compound until him and Holly are rescued. He also manages to foil the bigger plan of the militia’s leader involving a bomb and many innocent civilians.
This is a classic Child novel, fast and with no unnecessary complications. An enjoyable read for a day at the beach or a long flight.
Rabbi Benny Lau is a rising star in the rabbinic landscape of Israel. Rabbi Lau, 50, is the nephew of ex Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, and wrote his PhD thesis about another ex Chief Rabbi: Ovadia Yossef. Today he heads a community in Jerusalem and is often asked to offer his opinion in the media.
In the set of books called “חכמים” (“The Sages”) Lau popularised (and I don’t use this term disparagingly) the lives and times of the Jewish Sages. The first book in the series dealt with the Second Temple period. The second with the period of Yavneh and Bar Kokhva. The third with the Galilean period. The current, and fourth volume, deals with the move from the Mishna days to the Talmud days, or as they are known, from the Tanaim to the Amoraim.
The book is in the same format as the previous ones. For each period, Lau provides a short historical background and then devotes a chapter to each of the leading Sages of the period. But unlike the previous volumes I found this one to be more disjointed and less easy to follow. There was less of a coherent picture of the life and thought of most of the Sages covered in the book. Perhaps it’s simply due to the “natural confusion” of the period covered, with the splitting of the Torah world between Israel and Babylon.
Despite this, The Sages: Volume 4 is yet another successful milestone in the journey rabbi Lau embarked on, a journey that opened up the world of our Sages to people who have not had the chance to encounter them through Talmudic study. For this reason alone, rabbi Lau should be praised.
Last month I wrote about Mishka ben David’s book “Last Visit in Moscow”. This month I read ben David’s latest offering: “Last Stop Algiers” (“תחנה סופית אלג’יר”). As usual, ben David offers an enjoyable few hours of reading about the Mossad spies doing their job around the world.
The book starts off in Tokyo, where our hero Miki Simchoni meets a beautiful Canadian-Japanese woman, Niki, whom he falls immediately in love with. She works as a “hostess” in one of the foreigner-friendly night clubs in Tokyo, but when Miki tries to get to close to her, the Yakuza patrons of the club throw him out and whisk her away to another city. Miki returns to Israel heartbroken, thinking Miki-Niki was never meant to be.
Miki, a painter, decides to join the Mossad after a terrorist attack that takes place on the day his paintings go on display in a Tel Aviv gallery. The passport of a young Canadian gone missing in the Sinai ends up in the hands of the Mossad, and it turns out Miki has a striking resemblance to the missing Canadian; a perfect set up for a cover story. Miki starts touring the world on various missions, centered mostly on Palestinian targets and foiling the nuclear ambitions of Iran.
How Miki and Niki end up with each other again (it’s obvious they do, no?) and what Miki finds out about the “missing Canadian” are the underlying plots of this book. The end ties up all the loose ends and ben David shows again he can write a full length novel while keeping the surprise almost to the very end. The story itself if fast-paced and action-packed, a much faster read than other novels of ben David.
Another fast-paced spy novel is “Portrait of a Spy” by Daniel Silva. This book was given to me by my boss, who recommended it for being “very up to date”. He was right.
It’s the Mossad again… (what’s with the plethora of books about the Israeli Secret Service?). Gabriel Allon, a veteran spy of the Mossad, lives with his Italian wife Chiara in Cornwall, spending his life restoring famous paintings (another painter-spy!). While in London he spots a suspicious man walking in Covent Garden and realizes – based on his experience in such matters – that the man is a suicide bomber. Just when he’s about to take the terrorist out two British agents pin him down for drawing his gun. The bomb goes off and many die. Shaken by the experience, Allon agrees to come back from retirement and work on behalf of the CIA, who have decided to go after the “head of the snake” responsible for the recent terrorist atrocities across Europe.
Allon assembles his old team from the Mossad days and they come up with an intricate plot to fund the terrorists and follow the money trail in order to track them down. For this Allon needs to lure in Nadia, a wealthy young Saudi woman, heir to a multi-billion dollar empire built by her father, who was a major financier of terrorist and was killed by no other than Allon himself (with Nadia looking on). Intent on mending the ways of her father, Nadia gets over the fact she’s working with the enemy who killed her father and agrees to cooperate. The special relationship she develops with Allon lead him to come after her when she’s captured by the terrorists, risking his life and the entire mission to fulfill his promise to look after her.
The book is entertaining and easy to read. What is remarkable about it is indeed how much up to date it is. The denouement takes place in Dubai, where the Mossad team sets up to take out the Palestinian terrorist. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Silva incorporates many of the real life details into the book, making it a very plausible spy novel. He does map the Mossad HQ in the wrong place (as they have long moved away from Saul Boulevard in Tel Aviv) but one little mistake can be overlooked. I look forward to reading more of Silva in the future.
Several years ago I took a course at the Open University on Jerusalem through the ages. The course covered Jerusalem from the perspective of the three monotheistic religions, from biblical times to present-day Israel. It was a most interesting course that understandably required a lot of reading. “Jerusalem: The Biography”, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, is basically a summary of that course. I could have saved so much time…
Montefiore traces the history of the holy city through 3,000 years: from King David (about 1000 BCE) all the way to the Six Day War (1967 CE). The book covers Judaism, Paganism, Christianity, Islam, The Crusades, Mamluk and Ottoman rule, European rule and Zionism. That is no mean task given that it’s not that big of a book, only a few hundred pages long.
I found the book to be interesting not because of the historical chronicle. Sebag’s work is at it’s best when demystifying some of the common misperceptions about Jerusalem. These can be geographical – the “Tower of David” has nothing to do with the Israelite king, or cultural – the “Holy Fire” hoax of the Easter celebration in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or even biographical – what was Lawrence of Arabia really doing in Palestine during the English invasion. The book is full of entertaining anecdotes that spice up this historical biography.
I found the last part of the book, dealing with 19th and 20th century events, to be too detailed. It may be inevitable that writing on current events is easier due to the availability of sources (there are no newspapers from King David’s day), but it leaves a somewhat unbalanced feeling about the narrative. Many of the details could have been left out without impacting too much the overall picture of how the city’s history evolved over the ages.
Jerusalem is unique. It’s history is even more unique. Sadly, most of that history has been written in blood and reading about so much pain and misery in one condensed volume is not very pleasant. One needs to visit modern-day Jerusalem to soak up its history and its significance directly from the stones and ruins and feel for oneself what this city has to offer. Just don’t go there in July and August when it’s too hot to soak up anything but your own sweat…