What I’ve Read This Month – August 2012

Books Bought:

  • None!

Books Read:

  • Tripwire – Lee Child
  • Son of Hamas – Mosab Hassan Yusef
  • Il Ladro di Merendine – Andrea Camilleri
  • תעלומת הכתר – מתי פרידמן
  • Night Soldiers – Alan Furst

 

A motley collection this month. A thriller from Lee Child. An autobiography of sorst from a Palestinian turned Israeli spy. Another episode in the Montalbano series form Andrea Camilleri. The amazing true story of an ancient medieval document. And a WW2 espionage novel. Enjoy.

“Tripwire” is Lee Child’s third novel in the Jack Reacher series, after “Killing Floor” and “Die Trying”. It is a worthy companion to the first two books in the series.

This time we find Reacher in the Florida Keys, digging pools by hand during the day and working as a bouncer in a strip club at night. One day a private eye walks into the bar looking for him; a few hours later he finds the guy dead in the street. So he goes to New York to find out why this guy was looking for him. The trail leads him to the house of his former commander and mentor in the military, Leon Garber, where he walks in on Garber’s funeral. He meets the daughter, Jodie, a Wall Street lawyer whom he remembers from when she was a teenager. (Jodie, needless to say, is blond and fit – a recurring theme in Child’s novels). Reacher and Jodie embark on a journey to find out why Leon was looking for Reacher.

Jodie and Reacher find out that Leon was trying to help a couple who were looking for their son, missing in action during the Vietnam war. From here the story moves into high gear. On the 88th floor of the World Trade Center (this novel was written before 9/11) sits a guy called Hook Hobie, apparently the long-lost son. Half of his face is burnt into a grotesque image and one of his hands is a hook. Hobie is weaving an intricate plot to get control of some real estate, but his time is running out. Things are in motion in Hawaii and in Vietnam, and Hobie cannot afford for this things to unravel before making his exit.

Who exactly is Hobie and how he’s connected to the elderly couple gets revealed only towards the end of this gripping thriller. Child proves again that he is a master in creating a complex plot that keeps the reader guessing almost until the end.

Mosab Hassan Yousef is the “Son of Hamas”. His father was one of the founders of this Palestinian terrorist group and Yousef grew up in the West Bank as a “prince”, belonging to the elite leadership of the Islamist organization. When Hamas starts blowing up innocent Israelis in the late 1990s, Yousef becomes disenchanted with his father’s ideology and becomes a secret agent for the Israeli Internal Security Service (Shin Bet). He works undercover for them for a period of ten years (1997-2007), exposing many of Hamas’ plans, thus foiling countless acts of terror. During this process he becomes infatuated with the Bible and begins his long process of leaving Islam and converting to Christianity.

The story is incredible. It reads like a spy thriller except it’s a true story. Yousef does a good job of describing the hard personal choices he had to make to become friends with the enemy, and the reader can empathize with his feelings of having to betray family, friends and religion in the process. Yousef underwent real hardships, with several stints in Israeli prison, mostly to protect his undercover story. He reveals some of the actions he took to expose leading Hamas terrorists, sometimes risking his own life in the process. This is a fascinating account.

Yousef was granted political asylum in the United States, where he published this book in 2010. He is now in the process of applying for US citizenship. The man will never be able to travel anywhere in the world without looking behind his back. He was disowned by his family, and Hamas is livid about his betrayal, both of the organization and of his faith.

But some awkwardly wrong facts in the book tarnish the integrity of Yousef’s story. Here are some of them:

  • In the preface he gives a short introduction to the Arab-Israeli conflict, citing the Balfour Declaration as the trigger for Jewish immigration to Palestine and the eventual foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, an event the Palestinians see as the nakba, the catastrophe. All true, but he neglects to mention the Palestinians have a hand in the nakba by rejecting a year earlier the UN partition plan that would have brought about a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
  • He then refers to the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount, the third most holy place for Islam, as “the iconic golden-domed structure that visually defines the profile of Jerusalem”. But Al-Aqsa’s dome is greyish-silver in colour. It is the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat As-Sakhrah) that is golden.
  • When he writes about Black September, the events of September 1970 that brought about the expulsion of Palestinian organisations from Jordan, he correctly states these organizations re-established themselves in Lebanon. But he describes Lebanon as “reeling” from the civil war, when in fact the Lebanese civil was did not start until 1975.

These errors, which are acceptable for a person who is not a “native”, seem strangely out of place in an account by a Palestinian “prince” who grew up in the West Bank. It made me wonder whether all the heart-racing accounts of his actions as an undercover agent were indeed a truthful description of events, or perhaps there was some of infamous Arab imagination fuelling those descriptions.

“The Snack Thief” (“Il Ladro di Merendine”) is the third book in the “Detective Montalbano” series by Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri. Two seemingly unrelated incidents – a man found stabbed to death in an elevator and a Tunisian man shot dead on a boat – are being investigated by the tireless Montalbano. It turns out that the stabbed man was in the habit of paying his young Tunisian cleaning lady for “extras”, the very same lady being involved with the shot Tunisian in some illegal activity. The cleaning lady also dies, but her young boy escapes and is protected by Montalbano and his fiancé Livia, who falls in love with the boy and dreams of adopting him and making a family with the reluctant boyfriend-detective.

Why the man is stabbed to death and by whom, what is the nature of the illegal activities taking place and why do the Italian Secret Services take interest in this sordid southern affair – all of these will need to remain secret, lest I spoil it for future readers. Suffice to say that Montalbano (as usual) makes the connections everyone else fails to make and solves the case. In the process, he realises a few things about his personal life and his attachment to Livia.

Camilleri is, as usual, a pleasure to read. The prose at times reads like poetry, peppered with the impossible Sicilian dialect that gives the Montalbano series its distinctive rhythm.

One of the major differences between the Jewish Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and the Christian scriptures (the New Testament) is consistency. Whilst you can find hundreds of versions of the New Testament, some with major differences in the text, any two Torah scrolls from anywhere in the world will be virtually identical. The reason for this is the halacha (Jewish law) that prohibits reading from the Torah scroll if even the smallest of mistakes is found. As small a mistake as a broken letter (ink not properly joined) or two joint letters. The scroll is closed and is not read from again until the mistakes are corrected.

By far the most important and earliest manuscript of the Torah is the Aleppo Codex. Written in the 10th century C.E. in Tiberias, Israel, it is the most authoritative document when it comes to the text of the Jewish Bible, the Tanach. “The Aleppo Codex” (“תעלומת הכתר”) by Matti Friedman is the story of this document.

The Codex was verified and annotated by Aharon Ben Asher, the last member of a dynasty of Hebrew grammarians, around the year 920. The Codex was purchased by a community in Jerusalem and later found its way to Cairo, after being ransomed from crusaders who stole it. The Rambam (Maimonides) himself used it, describing it as a trusted text. From Egypt it found its way to Aleppo, Syria, where it was guarded by the Jewish community there for centuries, hidden in a cave in the synagogue. In 1947, after the UN announced its partition plan for Palestine, rioters burned down the synagogue. From here starts a journey riddled with mystery and intrigue, a journey masterfully described by Friedman in this thrilling book. Parts of the Codex found their way to Israel, smuggled by a Syrian Jew, and today reside in Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem (named after the Israeli Prime Minister who helped retrieve the lost document). An electronic version of the surviving pages can be seen here.

This is a true story written as a thriller novel. A fascinating read.

“Night Soldiers” is a espionage novel set in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Khristo Stoianev, a young Bulgarian, watches helplessly as his younger brother is kicked to death by pro-Nazi supporters and understands the darkness that is coming to his country. Helped by a Soviet agent, he flees to Moscow, where he joins the secret  police, the NKVD. After his training he is sent to Spain to help fight Franco, but is asked to kill his comrades in arms because they are not “true Communists”. He flees to Paris where the Nazis finally catch up with him. He meets his love there, Aleksandra, but it turns out the NKVD has been following him and they make Aleksandra disappear. After a long prison term he is freed and send to Eastern Europe, where he joins forces with Western intelligence to help beat Germany.

Sounds complicated? That’s because it is. This is not your run of the mill, straight narrative espionage story. Not only is the plot twisted and complicated; so is Furst’s prose. It takes a while to get used to his writing, as he builds up the description of events for long paragraphs before revealing the main point. His style helps convey, more than the story itself, the dispiriting reality of war. Spies, refugees, soldiers, regular citizens – all come to life under Furst’s unique style. The “night soldiers” are anti-heroes, ordinary people who found themselves working for the NKVD, trying their best to survive and live to see another day.

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

  1. Pingback: Reading List « Nafka Mina

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

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