What I’ve Read This Month – September-December 2013

Books Bought:

  • על דעת הקהל: ספר היובל לכבוד אביעזר רביצקי – בנימין בראון
  • על גרשם שלום: תריסר מאמרים – יוסף דן
  • Dead Man’s Time – Peter James
  • The Last Runaway – Tracy Chevalier
  • The Black Box – Michael Connelley
  • Trains and Loves – Alexander McCall Smith
  • במופלא ממני – אמונה אלון
  • סוף המרוץ – מישקה בן דוד
  • אפשרות של אלימות – דרור משעני
  • My Promised Land – Ari Shavit
  • בין הכוזרי לרמב”ם – יצחק שילת
  • מסע הפיל – ז’וזה סאראמאגו
  • ארטור – דן בניה סרי
  • פיתיון – שולמית לפיד
  • הרצל אמר – יואב אבני
  • סימנטוב – אסף אשרי
  • שמחה גדולה בשמיים – אמונה אלון
  • הבדיחה – מילאן קונדרה
  • ירושלים – גונסאלו טווארש
  • יהדות ללא אשליה – אליעזר גולדמן
  • ישעיהו ליבוביץ: בין שמרנות לרדיקליות – אביעזר רביצקי
  • חיים כהן שופט עליון: שיחות עם מיכאל ששר
  • הקדמות הרמב”ם למשנה – יצחק שילת
  • אגרות הרמב”ם – יצחק שילת
  • שמונה פרקים לרמב”ם – תרגום: מיכאל שוורץ

Books Read:

  • חמש דרשות: על ארץ ישראל ועם ישראל – הרב יוסף דב הלוי סולובייצ’יק
  • שדים באגריפס – חגי דגן
  • מסדר זיהוי – ליעד שוהם
  • אלוהים משחק בקוביות – מיכאל אברהם
  • אשת הסוד – אודליה כרמון
  • לא בבית הזה – יוסף בר יוסף
  • בין הכוזרי לרמב”ם – יצחק שילת
  • סיפור קטן ומלוכלך – רוני גלבפיש
  • The Black Echo – Michael Connelley

September was an “Hebrew-only” month, both in terms of books bought and of books read. Perhaps it was the Jewish High Holidays, all occurring in September this year, that influenced this accidental turn of events?

Anyway, a large number of books bought, reflecting a special sale in this temporary bookstore in Tel Aviv which was selling overstock from various publishing houses. 7 books for 100 shekels, that’s 14 shekels per book (about $4). Quite a bargain when it comes to Israel, where the standard list price for a new book is around 90 shekels ($25).

All that’s going to change now, with a new law coming into effect soon mandating a “price list” cost for the first 1.5 years after a book’s been published. This essentially provides an 18-month protection for the authors against deep discounts. I’m a bit ambivalent about this law. On one hand I think books in Israel are way too expensive. On the other hand I think authors should be compensated better. I’m not sure this is the right way forward.

Anyway, the more alarming news (personally) is that October, November and December were a first for me in many years: less than two books read per month! This is a sad reflection on how busy I’ve been at work these past few months. Things must change, and fast…

On to the reviews:

“חמש דרשות: על ארץ ישראל ועם ישראל” (“Five Addresses on Israel, History and the Jewish People”) is a collection of five essays written by Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevy Soloveitchik about Israel. Most of the essays are transcripts of lectures he gave at the Mizrachi movement conventions in the US.

Rabbi Soloveitchik (“The Rav” as he was knows to his students in the US) writes about the fulfilled dream of the founding of the State of Israel with a passionate and clear voice. He forcefully rejects the skepticism voiced on both sides of the American Jewish spectrum – the Ultra-Orthodox on one hand and the Reform movement on the other – about the fulfillment of this dream. He recognizes the need of joining hands with the secular majority in Israel, whilst at the same time making sure the values and foundations of the Jewish religion remain unharmed. These lectures were given in the 1960s but remain relevant to this day.

The book concludes with an essay by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, one of The Rav’s most prominent students, summarizing the views of The Rav on Zionism in general.

“שדים באגריפס” (“Demons in Agripas Street”) is the third book by Hagai Dagan I’ve read. The first was his summary of Jewish mythology (non-fiction), and the second was his Biblical spin-off story on the feud between the houses of David and Saul in the struggle for the monarchy. The first I liked. The second so-so. The third made me laugh out loud, but not necessarily in a good way. More in a “puleeze! seriously?!” kind of way.

Dagan (disclosure: many years ago, we served together in the same military unit) is an expert on Jewish mythology. He has dedicated his academic career to the study of the esoteric in-and-outs of the most obscure writings in this area. “Demons in Agripas Street” is a work of fiction, about a secret unit that battles demons who appear unexpectedly and wreak havoc with innocent human bystanders or with sophisticated military equipment. An innocent taxi driver is caught up in the operations of this unit and unwillingly becomes part of the team. The tale is a humouristic one (how else can one treat a story about demons?) with the battle between the sides gradually escalating to an all-out battle in which – hold your breath – God himself makes an appearance.

Dagan’s mastery of the subject matter is evident. The most obscure demons make an appearance in this book. However, I found the “casual” mention of Dagan’s non-fiction book about Jewish Mythology as a source of reference for the team’s experts to be a little too self-promoting. If you ignore this faux pas and the rather tiring prolonged description of the final battle, this is a cute little book. If you’re in the right mood, that is.

“מסדר זיהוי” (“Lineup”) is the second book by lawyer-author Liad Shoham that I read. The first was “Sanctuary” (reviewed here).

Ziv Nevo, a young man, is accused of rape. When questioned by the police he prefers to remain silent, even though he did nothing wrong. The reasons for his silence unfold as the story progresses, a story which Shoham writes in an enviable flowing and suspense-filled prose.

There are many characters in this book, but each is unique and adds to the story. The old woman who witnesses the rape is mentioned in the beginning, but does not become central to the book’s plot until much later. The ambitious young lawyer who sees her ideals about the legal profession being trampled over again and again. And the member of a crime gang who has second thoughts about his boss’s orders. Shoham is a pleasure to read.

Michael Avraham is an accomplished philosopher-academic-rabbi. He teaches at various universities and colleges and has published numerous articles and books. In “אלוהים משחק בקוביות” (“God Plays with Dice”), Avraham takes on Richard Dawkins’ famous book, “The God Delusion”, and sets out to show that evolution does not necessarily disprove the existence of God.

It is never easy to understand Avraham’s writings, certainly not to the deep philosophical level into which he dives. But if I understood correctly, his main argument is the following. The Darwinists are correct and evolution is a mostly valid scientific theory. But the Creationists are also correct in saying that evolution is a highly improbable occurrence, as likely to have happened as a tornado whipping through a metal scrapyard would leave behind a fully formed and functional jumbo jet. To reconcile these two opposing views, Avraham contends that if indeed a highly unlikely event such as evolution took place, then this is proof that a higher force (which he calls God) must have been involved. There is no way the laws of nature alone could have brought about such a miraculous chain of events.

A personal confession: while I love reading Avraham’s writings (and his musings on a leading intellectual online forum), I am always left a little disappointed at the end. He tends to frame the questions brilliantly, setting expectations for similarly elegantly formed answers. But when I get to the answers, they are always complicated to understand. While I attribute this to my lack of understanding rather than to Avraham’s intellectual prowess, it is still extremely frustrating.

Seven years ago, Israel was rocked by rape allegations made against its then President, Moshe Katsav. Three years ago Katsav was convicted and after his appeal was rejected he started serving a seven-year prison sentence.

One of the women mentioned in this sordid affair was “O” from the Ministry of Transportation, who claimed Katsav exposed himself in front of her and tried to rape her when she was working for him when he was a cabinet Minister. Her case was not part of the trial due to statute of limitations, but her story was heard by the court and she was pronounced as a reliable witness.

“O” is Odelia Carmon and the book she wrote, “אשת הסוד” (“The Confidante”) tells her story. But it does not focus exclusively on the Katsav affair. Carmon lays out her career as a media adviser for several leading Israeli politicians, including now Prime Minister, Binyamin Netayahu (in his first tour as PM in the late 1990s).

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book (in a gossipy kind of way) is the one about Sarah Netanyahu and her behaviour as the “first lady”. One example: Sarah accompanied her husband on a state visit to the US. She was in her room at the Waldorf Astoria and wanted to switch the TV on to watch her husband give a speech. She couldn’t operate the remote so what did she do? She called the PM’s office in Jerusalem and had the secretaries there call the hotel front desk to come help her out. Calling the front desk herself was apparently out of the question for her royal highness. Although stories about Sarah and her conduct are a dime a dozen (given the sadly long tenure of her husband as PM), it was still shocking to read some of these stories told by a first-hand witness.

“לא בבית הזה” (“Not in this House”) by Yosef Bar-Yosef is a sad book. It tells the story of a father, his son and their relationship with a young woman who rents the basement in their house. The father and the son have very different personalities and the book is mostly about how their differences shape their relationship and the one they develop, each in his own way, with the tenant.

Bar-Yosef is a playwriter, and “Not in this House” is his first novel. It is written much as if it were intended to be played out on a theatre stage, and as such I found it a bit slow and infused with sadness about the human condition of three lost souls. This is not a book to lift your spirits.

 

 

 

Kuzari Rambam“בין הכוזרי לרמב”ם” (“Between the Kuzari and the Rambam”) examines the differences in philosophical and theological thinking of two of the greatest medieval Jewish thinkers: Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy (known for his work “Kuzari”, an imaginary dialogue between the King of Kuzar and a Jewish scholar), and Rabbi Moshe Mimon (“Maimonides”). The author, Yitzchak Shilat, is one of the most prominent scholars of Maimonides in our time. He edited and published many of the manuscripts written by Maimonides, with his own commentary attached.

Comparisons between Kuzari and Rambam are common. Their views on prophecy, human esprit, gentiles, etc. are well known. In this book Shilat tries to frame the discussion by quoting the views of the two in distinct categories of thought. I didn’t find the book to be very interesting (unlike other books by Shilat), perhaps because there is less commentary and more quotes.

I’ve been meaning to read “סיפור קטן ומלוכלך” (“A Dirty Little Story”) by Roni Gelbfish for a long time now. Gelbfish is a young Israeli author, a secular woman married to a religious man. I’ve been reading her blog for a while, and wanted to see how her first major novel was. I finally got around to it.

This is a story about a normative guy who, while jogging in the park, bumps into a girl who was just assaulted and he helps her out. So far so good. But this seemingly chance episode triggers in him some old memories associated with a relationship he had back in high school. These memories won’t let go and he is consumed by feelings of remorse and uncertainty. It’s a “dirty little story” that happened long ago but refuses to go away and sink into oblivion. A little secret that haunts his life and gradually encroaches on his entire being.

Gelbfish writes beautifully, in excellent Hebrew prose. I was particularly impressed with how she managed to enter the mind of a man and describe, pretty accurately, how he things about the other sex. Either she must have had some very close male friends who were very open with her about their thoughts, or we men are very easy to figure out…

“The Black Echo” is Michael Connelly’s first book in the Harry Bosch detective series.

The body of Billy Meadows, a drug addict, is found in a drainpipe. It looks like a case of overdose. Billy was a “tunnel rat” in Vietnam, the soldiers who lowered themselves into the Viet Cong tunnels and spent hours navigating underground. They called it the “Black Echo”. Bosch was also a “tunnel rat” and he knew Billy. Several things about the body didn’t seem right and Bosch believes Billy was murdered.

Of course Bosch is not alone in this story. There must be a female in there as this is a detective story… The female is an FBI agent who investigated Bosch in the past and now needs to work with him side by side. He mistrusts her at first, but they grow close. Together they put together the pieces of the puzzle, involving an elaborate plot to rob safe deposit boxes of ex Vietnamese officials who were granted asylum in the US. Not all is at it seems to be…

This is a good cop novel. There are many more in this Bosch series, so next time I need a quick read to get my mind off things, I might visit Connelly again.

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One thought on “What I’ve Read This Month – September-December 2013

  1. Pingback: What I’ve Read This Month – January 2014 | Nafka Mina

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