What I’ve Read This Month – December 2012 to June 2013

Books Bought:

  • Fooled by Randomness – Nassim Taleb (Kindle)
  • ההוביט, או לשם ובחזרה – ג’.ר.ר. טולקין
  • חלומו של הכוזרי – מיכה גודמן
  • זה המקום – אהוד בנאי
  • מרוקו – אבי טולדנו
  • Bill Smith Goes to College – David Stag (Kindle)
  • The Signal and the Noise – Nate Silver (Kindle)
  • A Judgement in Stone – Ruth Rendell
  • From Doon with Death – Ruth Rendell
  • The Monster in the Box – Ruth Rendell
  • The Forgotten Affairs of Youth – Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Garden of Betrayal – Lee Vance (Kindle)
  • The Kill Artist – Daniel Silva (Kindle)
  • How to Stay Sane – Philippa Perry (Kindle)
  • The Unnamed – Joshua Ferris (Kindle)
  • עיר מקלט – ליעד שהם
  • The Nearly Complete Works of Donald Harington, Vol. 1 (Kindle)
  • The Nearly Complete Works of Donald Harington, Vol. 2 (Kindle)
  • The Nearly Complete Works of Donald Harington, Vol. 3 (Kindle)
  • כל יום, כל שעה – נטשה דארגניץ
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman (Kindle)
  • סיפור קטן ומלוכלך – רוני גלבפיש
  • האם שימפנזים חושבים על פרישה? – יעקב בורק
  • שדים ברחוב אגריפס – חגי דגן
  • מסדר זיהוי – ליעד שהם
  • גן נעמי – ישי שריד
  • צימר בגבעתיים – אשכול נבו
  • ללכת על דגים – חיים נבון
  • איך מוצאים חתול שחור בחדר חשוך – יעקב בורק
  • אם החיטה – מיקי בן כנען
  • פורקוגניטו – דוד פסיג
  • Start Up Nation – Dan Senor, Saul Singer

Books Read:

  • Innocent Graves – Peter Robinson
  • Bill Smith Goes to College – David Stag
  • Fooled by Randomness – Nassim Taleb (Kindle)
  • ר’ חסדאי קרשקש – זאב הרוי
  • The Signal and the Noise – Nate Silver (Kindle)
  • The Garden of Betrayal – Lee Vance (Kindle)
  • Dead Right – Peter Robinson
  • The Kill Artist – Daniel Silva
  • The Enchantress – Michael Scott (Kindle)
  • How to Stay Sane – Philippa Perry (Kindle)
  • זה המקום – אהוד בנאי
  • The Unnamed – Joshua Ferris (Kindle)
  • In a Dry Season – Peter Robinson
  • Mysteries of the Middle Ages – Thomas Cahill
  • A Distant Mirror – Barbara Tuchman
  • Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian – Eoin Colfer (Kindle)
  • עיר מקלט – ליעד שהם
  • אם החיטה – נעמי בן כנען
  • חלומו של הכוזרי – מיכה גודמן
  • ספר לבן – פאול קוהוט
  • The Cherry Pit – Donald Harington (Kindle)
  • מוות לסירוגין – ז’וז’ה סאראמאגו
  • גן נעמי – ישי שריד
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman (Kindle)
  • מעוף הברבורים – סמי מיכאל
  • Not in Heaven – Eliezer Berkovits

The hiatus in posting to this blog has unfortunately also meant I neglected my monthly “What I’ve Read This Month” posts. The last one I posted was for November 2012, which means I need to catch up on 7 months. Regretfully, the reviews this time will be significantly shorter, not because the books I read did not deserve more thoughtful reviews, but simply because of time limitations. Hopefully from July things will get back on track.

One positive side effect from this pause is the ability to look back on some statistics from the past few months. I read about one book every 10 days, which is lower than my average. This is not surprising, given the circumstances which did not allow me much reading time. Almost all of the books I read were in English. Most of the books were fiction; only a few were non-fiction (again understandable given that my mind was occupied elsewhere). Finally, the ratio of “books bought” to “books read” was about 1.25 to 1, meaning I bought 25% more books than I read (the ratio is actually higher, as three of the books I bought are collections that contain several books). This is probably due to “Hebrew Book Week” in Israel, which resulted in the purchase of a relatively large number of books in Hebrew last month.

And now on to the reviews, in the order I read the books:

  

  

  

  

  

 

“Innocent Graves” is the eighth book in the Inspector Adam Banks detective series by Peter Robinson. This time, Inspector Banks needs to deal with the murder of Deborah Harrison, a 16-year-old whose body was found in the church yard. The murder inquiry focuses on a young man wearing a yellow jacket, seen at the scene. But as Banks and his colleague Susan Gay dig deeper, they unearth secrets related to Deborah’s family that take the plot in another direction. Deborah’s father is a prominent businessman dealing with classified defence projects and his business dealings seem to have affected Deborah, who had secrets of her own. Robinson proves again he can put together a murder whodunit that is easy and pleasurable to read.

“Bill Smith Goes to College” is an e-book I received for review through LibraryThing. I wrote my review here.

I read Nassim Taleb’s “The Black Swan” a couple of years ago, and now I got around to reading his previous book, “Fooled by Randomness”. This is the book that made Taleb famous for his theory about the role of chance in markets. Taleb says that humans tend to explain away random events by rationalising them, instead of accepting that life has an element of randomness in it. He examines biases such as causality, “survivorship” (learning only from winners) and skewed distributions. Fortune magazine named “Fooled” as one of the smartest books of all time. I’m not so sure. While I share Taleb’s contempt for the inhabitants of Wall Street, I feel the pendulum has swung too much in the opposite direction. True, not everything can be explained and rationalised; but not everything in life is down to Lady Fortuna either.

Several years ago, the Zalman Shazar Center in Jerusalem embarked on an ambitious project: to publish monographies of the leading figures in Jewish cultural and philosophical history. About ten books have been published so far. This one deals with “Rabbi Hisdai Crescas”, and was written by Prof. Zev Harvey from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Rabbi Crescas was born in Barcelona, Spain in 1340 and became one of the leading Jewish thinkers of the late middle ages. He was a Talmudic scholar, a philospher, a scientist and a poet. He was perhaps the most vocal opponenet to Maimonides, earning him a prominent spot in both pro- and anti-Maimonides camps since. His anti-Aristotelian book “Light of God” is considered one of the groundbreaking philosophical/scientific works of the era. Crescas laid the foundations of modern science in his approach to time and space and his writings influenced the likes of Galileo and Newton. Harvey’s book, like most of the books in the series, is excellent. The first chapters deal with the biorgraphy of Crescas and his polemics with Maimonidean philosophy. Subsequent chapters lay out his approach to prophecy, God, love, science, faith, determinism and mysticism. The closing chapters deal with Israel and Jewish independence. Harvey’s writing is clear and flowing so despite the “heaviness” of the subjects addressed, the book is a good read also for laymen not familiar with medieval Jewish thought.

I bought “The Signal and the Noise” after I saw a recommendation (I think it was in “The Economist”). As everyone knows by now, Nate Silver became famous after correctly predicting the outcome of the US election, down to the last state. In this book, he strives to separate the chaff from the wheat when it comes to predictions about the future. In Silver’s words, “the difference between what we know and what we think we know”. He urges us to think in probabilistic terms, explaining Bayes Theorem of conditional probability and why he thinks it’s relevant to almost any prediction: baseball scores, politics, stock market, etc. He calls for more modesty from TV pundits, and that is hardly a call one can argue with.

Another book I bought upon a recommendation (again, I think from The Economist) was “Garden of Betrayal”, by Lee Vance. This is the story of Mark, a Wall Street high-flyer who has it all, until one evening his son Kyle vanishes, snatched off the streets of New York City. Years go by and Mark’s family almost disintegrates. He immerses himself in work, analysing news events from around the world and alerting his clients what to buy and what to sell. One day, when a natural gas pipeline in Russia gets blown to pieces and, apparently unconnected, new information about Kyle comes up. Mark and his daughter embark a chase for Kyle, the personal getting tangled in international politics and intrigue. “Garden of Betrayal” is a great thriller.

“Dead Right” is the ninth installment of the Inspector Banks series by Peter Robinson, and not one of the best in the series. The body of Jason Fox, a white supremacist, is found lying in an alleway behind a pub. Witnesses that saw him exchanging harsh words with three Pakistani men quickly bring the investigation round to focus on race crime. But Inspector Banks, needless to say, is not convinced. He releases the young Pakistanis from custody, bringing upon him the wrath of his superiors. He digs into Jason’s ties in the Albion League, the white power group he worked for, and his family. The plot this time is quite thin. It is obvious from the start that there is more to the crime than meets the eye, but the going is slow. Robinson is still a master of crime fiction, but “Dead Right” is below his usual standards.

“The Kill Artist” is the first book in the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva. Allon is a retired Mossad agent, spending his time restoring famous art paintings in a secluded house in southern England. His former boss turns up one day with an offer Allon can’t refuse: join him in hunting down and killing Tariq al-Hourani, the Palestinian terrorist responsible for killing Allon’s son and seriously wounding his wife. This is a great spy novel, a fast read.

“The Enchantress” is the sixth and final novel in “The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel” series by Michael Scott. I read all the book in the series right after my teenage son read them, and I must say I enjoyed them immensely. The gold and silver twins, Sophie and Josh Newman, wrap up their adventures in this book, going back in time to the mythical isle of Danu Talis, where they discover who their “real” parents are. Scott wraps up loose ends in this last installment, bringing together characters from various mythologies to create a worthy finale for this great series.

(Full disclosure: Ehud Banai is one of my favourite singers.) “זה המקום” is Ehud Banai’s second book (I didn’t read the first). It’s a quasi-autobiographical work, divided into a few chapters, each from a different period in his life. Those who know Banai from his live shows know that, provided he’s in the right mood, he will occasionally tell a short story from his past. Some of these stories, such as the one about one of his taxi rides where the driver did not recognize him and started bad-mouthing his work, have attained cult-like status. The stories in this book are reminiscent of these stories told on stage, but with the advantage of being longer and in writing. Banai’s is a surprisingly talented writer, his prose carrying the reader into the world he inhabited in that particular moment of his life.

“The Unnamed” by Joshua Ferris is a weird book. I bought it after The Economist recommended it in its “best book of the year” list. Tim Farnsworth is a successful lawyer that is stricken with a strange and unpredictable illness: a sudden compulsion, that comes on at random moments, to start walking and not stop until he collapses asleep in exhaustion. Tim and his wife Jane went through two such periods of incessant walking and consulted with every possible expert (and voodoo doctors), with no diagnosis and no cure. The book starts with the third period of walking and describes what Tim and Jane go through trying to cope with this despairing situation. Ferris’ writing is haunting, forcing the reader to continue page after page, in the hope that Tim finds some relief from this perambulatory madness. Whilst it’s an intriguing and compelling story, it also leaves you breathless and exhausted. What kind of mind comes up with such a story?

Peter Robinson’s tenth novel in the Alan Banks series, “In A Dry Season”, is one of his best. A skeleton turn up in dried-up reservoir built on the ruins of an old village, Hobb’s End. Helped by Detective Sergeant Annie Cabbot, Banks quickly finds out this is not the dull assignment he thought he was being thrown into by his old boss Jimmy Riddle (whom he once punched in the face). He uncovers secrets from the Second World War, secrets long forgotten by everyone but a former resident of the village who is now an acclaimed writer. She tells Banks about her adventures as a young woman when the area was teeming with American airmen and how an innocent love affair ended in murder. Uncovering the secret behind the skeleton means Banks and Cabbot need to piece together the lives of people long dead. Robinson has done it again.

Thomas Cahill is an academic best known for his “Hinges of History” series. I read the four previous books in the series and written reviews about two of them: “How the Irish Saved Civilization“, “The Gifts of the Jews“. The fifth book in the series is about the “Mysteries of the Middle Ages”. Cahill takes a different approach in this book. Whilst the first four books centered around one topic (Irish clergy in the Middle Ages, the Jews’ contribution to mankind, Jesus and the Ancient Greeks), in this book Cahill picks a few “over arching” themes that, in his mind, define the Middle Ages and writes about them from the perspective of one major city. So Alexandria is used to describe Reason; Bingen and Chartres to describe the worship of the Virgin Mary; Florence – poetry; Ravenna – politics; and so on. The book is also different from the previous ones  in its beautiful layout and the images and illustrations that adorn every page. Whilst I don’t think Cahill has unearthed any “mysteries” in this book, he deserves credit for the presentation and popular (sometimes too popular) style of writing.

I bought Barbra Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror” ages ago, and it sat there on the shelf looking at me reprovingly all this time. I kept meaning to read it, but as a Tuchman book deserves the appropriate frame of mind and attention, I kept putting it off. Finally, I decided I could not take those looks any longer and dove right in. The book’s self-explanatory subtitle is “The Calamitous 14th Century”. Tuchman picked a rather obscure French nobleman by the name of Enguerrand de Coucy, and through his life (which was remarkably long for someone living at that time) recounts the horrors of that century: the Black Plague, the Hundred Years War, the internecine Papal wars, the persecution of Jews, riots, uprisings, rebellions… you get the picture. Tuchman being Tuchman, the account is detailed yet gripping, studious yet readable. I didn’t enjoy “The Distant Mirror” as much as I enjoyed “The Guns of August” (arguably Tuchman’s best book) or “The March of Folly”, but it was still a book that kept me up long past my bedtime. If only all historians knew how to write like Tuchman.

Reading the last book in the Artemis Fowl series was a welcome break after the Barbra Tuchman historical tome.“The Last Guardian” wraps up the adventures of that most annoying teenager, whom I’ve come to hate over the last seven books in the series. I really only started reading the books because my son was reading them and I wanted to share the experience. The first few books were pleasant enough, but eight books is definitely too much. The only good thing about “The Last Guardian” is that it is, well, last. There is nothing new in this book, no new meaningful characters and no surprises in the plot. Don’t hold your breath: the good side wins.

Liad Shoham is an Israeli lawyer who decided to dab in crime fiction writing. “עיר מקלט” (“Sanctuary”) is my first try, and it was a pleasant if somewhat disturbing surprise. The background to the story is the underworld of illegal workers in south Tel Aviv, a social and economic problem the country has been late waking up to. Shoham does not mince words or detail when he describes the reality most Israelis would prefer not to face. He describes the lawless and hopeless world of these illegal workers, most of them Africans, and the misery they face. There are small islands of hope, in the form of good souls on both sides – the African and the Israeli – but this book, even though it is fiction, leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling. It contributes to the understanding of this complex issue without siding with either side of the divide. And for this Shoham should be lauded.

As I once pointed out, reading a book recommended by a friend is almost always guaranteed to be a pleasant experience. “אם החיטה” (“Mother of Wheat”) by Naome Ben Canaan is no exception to this rule. As others have pointed out before me, Ben Canaan has managed what seems like an impossible feat. In a relatively short book she managed to weave an incredibly gripping and touching story, with vivid and unique characters. Other authors need double or triple the number of pages to achieve the same result. It is hard to describe this book. It is a fantasy, but one that is also very real. The book starts off with the main character, a small woman living on her own in Tel Aviv, building an helicopter from a kit she ordered online. She takes off for her nightly flights and embarks on an adventure that is so implausible it seems perfectly natural. She becomes a multi-millionaire after stumbling upon a unique method to make wheat grow quicker. Her friends to this incredible journey include a piccolo-playing giant, an old couple who disappear into a hole in the ground, two Bedouin brothers and a feisty Italian agronomist. Ben Canaan weaves the stories of these characters into one fascinating tale of love, hope, grief and happiness. Immediately after finishing the book, I went out and bought a copy for me to own. Such books are good companions to have in the home, close by, just in case one feels an urge to jump back into their magical world.

Micah Goodman is a teacher of Hebrew Thought at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. I enjoyed his previous book, about Maimonides’ “Guide to the Perplexed”, was looking forward to his new book, “חלומו של הכוזרי” (“The Kuzari’s Dream”) about Maimonides’ contemporary “thought rival”, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy. In fact, generations of scholars, including Goodman’s mentor David Hartman (who recently passed away), have pitted “Perplexed” against the “Kuzari” to highlight the two main schools of thought in Jewish Philosophy. Goodman sets out to unravel the mysteries of the “Kuzari”, much as he did with his book about the “Perplexed”. Alas, he is much less successful this time around. His reading of the “Kuzari” seems somewhat strained and artificial. I had the feeling, throughout the book, that Goodman shot the arrow and then proceeded to draw the target around it. He so desperately wanted to show that the traditional reading of the “Kuzari”, as a national chauvinistic approach to Judaism, was flawed. He tries to convince us that there is a secret reading to the book that “smooths out” ideas unpleasant to the liberal, modern reader. I was not convinced.

Pavel Kohout’s “White Book” is a strange book, as befits the image of Czech writers (see Milan Kundera). What happens in Communist Czechoslovakia when a sports teacher discovers he has mastered the capability to walk on the ceiling, thus defying the law of gravity. The state cannot allow this flaunting of one of nature’s basic rules to go unpunished. This satirical book describes how the organs of state scramble first to hide, then to dismiss and finally to ignore, this remarkable feat of human thought and resolution. Kohout manages to make the reader laugh out throughout the book, especially those sections that purport to bring “genuine” transcripts of official proceedings of various state bodies, despite the inevitable horrific end.

I came by Donald Harington by chance a few years ago, with his Stay More novels. Recently I bought his “almost complete works” trilogy and started off by reading his first novel, “The Cherry Pit”. This is the story of Clifford Stone, depressed curator of arcane Americana in Boston, who decides to go back to his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, in search of himself and his future. He is dragged into a spiraling vortex of events linked to people from his past, ending up in the most absurd situations. I don’t know the American South well (actually, not at all), but it seems Harington paints life there with a detailed and loving brush. I found his writing to be a bit too verbose this time, with an exaggerated use of arcane words. But, as usual, he was a pleasure to read.

José Saramago’s “Death with Interruptions” is a novel about death. Literally. Death, the main character in this book, takes a short pause from her (for Death is a woman) timeless toil. The people of the fictional country wake up to find they no longer die. Ill people remain ill, but don’t die. After an initial period of joy, it becomes painfully clear that the new reality is not sustainable. The government, aided by the Mafia, devise ways to smuggle people across the border to die, for Death has taken a break only in their country. But then Death makes a return, and life goes back to normal. Well, almost normal, because Death has a new rule: she sends a letter in a violet envelope to those who are about to die, to give them one week to prepare. People adjust to the new regimen, but there is one exception: a lonely cello player who refuses to die. No matter how many times Death sends the violet envelope to this cellist, the letter keeps coming back. It has now become Death’s mission in life, if you excuse the pun, to kill this obnoxious human being. What happens when she meets him I leave you to find out. Saramago, as usual, weaves a lovely story.

I once knew Yishai Sarid personally. We worked at the same place and he even attended my wedding. So as soon as I read he had a new book out, “גן נעמי” (“Naomi’s Kindergarten”), I went out and bought it. The book is the story of an ageing woman who manages a kindergarten in a small building, not far from Tel Aviv beach. A local real estate entrepreneur buys the building and gives Naomi a notice of eviction, as he wishes to demolish the building and build an extravagant upscale condominium in its place. Naomi doesn’t know what to do. She struggles to make ends meet anyway. Her energies are spent from constantly having to deal with “over-parenting” parents and from worrying about her artist son. She hires a lawyer to track down her American benefactor’s heirs, as she was promised she could continue using the building. There is no happy ending to the book. It is a sad book, dealing with some of the civic issues plaguing Israel’s biggest city. I enjoyed this book. It is markedly different than Sarid’s first novel, “Limassol” – it is much slower in pace and has a much “softer” ending – but it is much more touching and thought provoking. Kudos to Sarid for another great book.

Daniel Kahneman is an economics Nobel prize winner. His groundbreaking work, with his colleague Amos Twersky, paved the way for behavioral economics. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” is a book that is supposed to summarize most of Kahneman’s work over his illustrious career. The book’s central theme is the existence of two modes of human thought: system 1 – the fast and instinctive mode; and system 2 – the slow, more logical, mode. Throughout the book Kahneman strives to show how we are “slaves” to system 1, even though we believe we are rational, logical beings. He brings many examples and describes some of the studies he conducted. Although his writing is much less “popularized” than, say, Dan Ariely, this is still a book that can be enjoyed by the uninitiated (like me). There are many “wow” moments that makes us realize how little we understand our thought processes.

Sami Michael is one of Israel’s most beloved authors. Winner of many prizes, Michael has won the hearts and souls of countless Israelis with books such as “A Trumpet in the Wadi” and “Victoria”. His latest novel, “מעוף הברבורים” (“The Flight of the Swans”), doesn’t rise to the same heights as his previous achievements, but is a welcome addition to his repertoire. Two brothers, William and Shraga Alkabir, are the central characters of this book. The first few pages are a masterpiece of story weaving, giving the reader just enough information to know who the brothers are, and giving away just enough hints to make the read curious about the hidden secrets of the family. There are two major secrets that unravel later in the book and even though the careful and alert reader can pick them out early enough, this does not diminish the pleasure of reading.

Eliezer Berkovits is one of my favourite writers of Jewish Thought. I consider his book “God, Man and History” to be a masterpiece. As I wrote in my review of that book: “If I were ever asked to make the impossible choice of recommending one book, and one book only, on Jewish thought, God, Man and History would most definitely make it to the short list.” Although “Not in Heaven” does not reach the same heights of “God, Man and History”, it is still a remarkable book. Berkovits sets out to map the history of Halacha, Jewish law, and to explain its functions and nature. It is a great book even for someone new to Jewish Philosophy, as Berkovits illustrates his principles with numerous examples from the Talmud and other scriptures.

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One thought on “What I’ve Read This Month – December 2012 to June 2013

  1. Pingback: What I’ve Read This Month – September-December 2013 | Nafka Mina

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