Silence, by Shusako Endo

Earlier this week I read the novel “Silence”, by Shusako Endo, and yesterday I watched the eponymous newly-released movie based on this novel.

Endo’s 1966 novel tells the story of a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Sebastiao Rodrigues, who travels to Japan together with a fellow priest, to find out what happened to their mentor, Father Ferreira, with whom the church had lost contact. This is 17th century Japan, when Christianity is outlawed and Christians are being persecuted by the ruling Shogunate.

Guided by a drunkard and unreliable Japanese Christian, Rodrigues and his partner land on an island off the coast of Kyushu and find refuge in a remote village of hidden Japanese Christians. They witness the hardships these peasants need to endure, suffering torture and death and yet refusing to renounce their faith and apostatize. The Jesuit priests flee from the authorities but are eventually captured and tortured by the local inquisitor. Rodrigues meets Ferreira and finds out what happened to him.

“Silence” here refers to the silence of God. Rodrigues’ faith is tested when he witnesses, again and again, the unbelievable sufferings of these humble Japanese peasants. He cries out for God to intervene but is answered with silence. This silence shakes him to the core and leads to internal struggles and to interesting theological exchanges with his Japanese inquisitors.

The novel is very engaging and the movie, directed by Martin Scorsese, is a faithful representation of the novel. At almost 3 hours long, and given its content, it is not an easy movie to watch. But reading the novel first helped, because knowing the story ahead of time allowed me to focus on the acting and the filmography. At times I felt as if I was watching a painting rather than a movie.

Earlier this month I visited Kyushu for the first time, and witnessed firsthand the Christian legacy in Japan. I was introduced to this painful time in history through the memorial for the 26 martyrs on Nishizaka hill in Nagasaki, and the artifacts from the Shimabara Rebellion at the local castle (an event which triggered the brutal repression of Japanese Christians depicted in the novel). Endo’s book and Scorsese’s movie both resonated strongly with me after this visit.

“Borderlife”, by Dorit Rabinyan

The new book by Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan, “Boderlife” (original Hebrew title “גדר חיה”), became a bestseller in Israel almost instantly. But not thanks to Rabinyan’s reputation or to good reviews.

The novel catapulted to the top of the bestseller lists because the Ministry of Education banned the book from inclusion in high school curricula. The reason? It is a story of an intimate relationship between a Jewish Israeli woman and a Muslim Palestinian man. Such a relationship was deemed inappropriate for teenager consumption, lest it endanger the separate identities of the two peoples and encourage assimilation. Following the public outcry, the Ministry clarified that the book is not banned, just “not included” in the recommended reading list.

The plot in short. A young Israeli woman, Liat, meets a young Palestinian man, Hilmi, in New York. They are both there temporarily. They fall in love and have a relationship that lasts a few months, during the winter of 2003. In the spring, they both return home – she to Tel Aviv, he to his village in the West Bank – and the relationship ends. They don’t meet in Israel/Palestine. Their short-lived relationship is a common love story, except of course in the background is the fact that they come from two sides of a bitter national conflict. Sometimes they argue, but mostly the book focuses on the woman’s thoughts (it’s written in the first female form) about this impossible love.

Rabinyan writes well, in beautiful Hebrew prose, just as she did in her previous two award-winning novels. But truth be told, the story itself is quite banal. I doubt whether this book would have been such a success had the authorities – in a typically short-sighted decision – not made it famous by declaring it “liber non grata”.

In my opinion, the Jewish-Muslim love story is not the problem of this book. Besides the banality of the love story, what is much more annoying is the way Rabinyan depicts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is not a political novel (maybe it is?), but Rabinyan manages to subtly convey her opinion about who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy in this conflict.

A few examples:

  • Hilmi comes from an educated family, who readily accepts his Jewish girlfriend. In contrast, Liat goes through painstaking efforts to hide her relationship, lest her family “hang her in public”.
  • Hilmi comes from a family that was deported from Israel in 1948, and when he was a teenager he was jailed for 4 months for writing graffiti. The soldiers in the military prison are described as minor sadists, who derive pleasure from making the Palestinian prisoners sing Israeli songs against their will.
  • Liat constantly thinks about how her lover sees their relationship through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She is constantly on the defensive, imagining his pains. Hilmi, on the other hand, is carefree and a free spirit (he is a painter).
  • The Israelis Liat and Hilmi bump into in New York are described as loud, rude and selfish. On the other hand, Hilmi’s brothers and friends are described as beautiful, smart and gentle.

And so it goes, on and on. Frankly, this is tiring. It is so typical of the prevailing zeitgeist among certain Israeli left-wing writers that it borders on the pathetic. My views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are well known to the readers of this blog, and yet I find such one-sided depictions of “who’s good and who’s bad” in this conflict truly despicable. I couldn’t enjoy this well-written book because of this annoyingly self-deprecating, perhaps even self-hating, subtext. Shame really.

So maybe, after all, the Ministry of Education’s decision, although misguided in its intention, is a blessing in disguise. Israeli teenagers are blessed not to be exposed to such dribble about the conflict they grew up into. They deserve better.

Pepper, Silk & Ivory

When one thinks about Jewish history in the 20th century, it is typically about Jews in Europe and the U.S., and, from the middle of the century, Israel. Rarely does one think about Asia as being significant in the history of the Jews. But, as this book “Pepper, Silk & Ivory” shows, Jews played a major role in Asia’s history as well.

Pepper Silk and Ivory

Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, who served as the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan for 8 years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is one of the foremost experts on Jewish history in Asia. Together with writer and producer Ellen Rodman, he tells this history through a series of captivating, sometimes gripping, stories. In 23 well-researched and informative chapters, he unfolds the sometimes unbelievable stories of Jews who helped shape history around the continent and were shaped by it.

In this book you will read about the Jewish man who was a general in the Chinese army; the Jewish woman who insisted on including rights for women and children in Japan’s constitution (and succeeded); the Jewish banker who financed Japan’s victory against Russia in the 1904 war; the moving story of the Jewish refugees in Shanghai during World War II; the first Chief Minister of Singapore, a Jew; the origins of the giant conglomerate Shell Oil; and much, much more.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Tokayer in Tokyo many years ago, and last year again in Kobe. Listening to this man is like tuning in to a history documentary on Discovery Channel. This book is a monumental accomplishment, and one that every person interested in the history of the Jews should read.

What I’ve Read This Month – July 2014

Books Bought:

  • La Voce del Violino – Andrea Camilleri (Kindle)
  • The People of Forever Are Not Afraid – Shani Boianjiu (Kindle)

Books Read:

  • יהדות ללא אשליה – אליעזר גולדמן
  • The Last Coyote – Michael Connelly
  • The People of Forever Are Not Afraid – Shani Boianjiu (Kindle)

Eliezer Goldman (1918-2002) was born in New York, Goldman made aliyah when he was 20 and became a life-long kibutznik at Sde Eliyahu. He taught at Bar Ilan university and in 1988 won the Bialik Prize for Jewish Thought. Despite this distinguished career, he is little known and his writings have not made it to mainstream Jewish Philosophy curricula. And that’s a real shame.

Goldman is a pragmatist (in fact, his PhD was on Pragmatism). This book, “יהדות ללא אשליה” (“Judaism with No Illusion”) is an anthology of various writings and research papers he wrote, collected under two categories: 1. Jewish Thought and 2. Ethics, Society and State. Reading through these essays, one is amazed by the breadth and depth of Goldman’s intellectual reach. He deals with the most burning issues in Jewish Philosophy and current day challenges of the Jewish State, all in a clear and resonating voice.

Unlike his more famous, likely-minded contemporaries such as Yishayahu Leibowitz and David Hartmann, Goldman led a life away from the media limelight. With his passing away, some of his students have started publishing his writings and holding symposiums discussing them. Hopefully this will expose this important thinker to wider audiences in coming years.

“The Last Coyote” is the fourth book in the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly. The title of the book comes from Bosch’s frequent dreams and sightings of a coyote near his home in Los Angeles.

This book is different from the first three in the series. Bosch is suspended from duty after punching his commanding officer in the face and is undergoing therapy sessions with a psychologist. He also broke up with his girlfriend a few months ago. In short, he’s a mess, and it feels so in the book. The atmosphere is much darker and pessimistic than in previous books.

The mission Bosch is after here is solving a murder that took place decades ago, his mother’s murder. She worked as a prostitute and was found one day dumped in a Hollywood alley. The murder was never solved and many loose ends were left unexplored. Bosch realizes he cannot get on with his life without closure on this case, so – devoid of his badge and gun – he embarks on a personal mission to find out who killed his mother. The trail leads him to some surprising and prominent figures whose paths his mother crossed. In the end, as usual, the real killer is actually someone quite different.

I didn’t like this book as much as the previous ones. Solving his mother’s murder was supposed to be some highlight in Bosch’s life, but the dark and depressing mood of this story somehow manages to ruin the “joy” of reading a crime thriller. Bosch is doing way too much navel gazing in this novel. Hopefully he will be back to himself in future books in the series.

Shani Boianjiu is a young Israeli author who wrote a book, in English, about her military service: “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid”. The book is the story about three friends – Yael, Avishag and Lea – who grew up together in a small village in northern Israel. When they get drafted to the army, their lives change, but in different ways. Yael trains infantry soldiers to shoot; Avishag stands guard in border crossings; Lea checks Palestinians entering Israel to work. As young women they talk about boys and worry about their future.

I bought this book because of the excellent reviews it received. Unfortunately, I was unable to complete it. I tried really hard, but the ramblings of Boianjiu were so boring I just couldn’t take it. I felt like I was reading the diary of a teenager, and a tedious one at that.

Serves me right. I should have followed my instincts. When I read reviews that say things like “a distinct new voice in literature” I become suspicious. Boianjiu’s awful book proves my instincts are correct.

What I’ve Read This Month – February-April 2014

Books Bought:

  • The Turkish Gambit – Boris Akunin (Kindle)
  • מפגשים: חמשה סיפורים מיפן – אירית ויינברג, עורכת
  • The Racketeer – John Grisham
  • The Disappeared – Kristina Ohlsson
  • The Faithful Spy – Alex Berenson (Kindle)
  • מוסדות השלטון בישראל – דב בן-מאיר (Kindle)
  • Flexigidity – Gidi Grinstein
  • The Ghost War – Alex Berenson (Kindle)
  • Kosher Lust – Shmuel Boteach
  • Death in Venice – Thomas Mann (Kindle)
  • Dubliners – James Joyce (Kindle)
  • Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse (Kindle)
  • The Silent Man – Alex Berenson (Kindle)
  • The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
  • The Honest Truth About Dishonesty – Dan Ariely
  • The English Assassin – Daniel Silva (Kindle)

Books Read:

  • The Turkish Gambit – Boris Akunin
  • סימנטוב – אסף אשרי
  • על דעת הקהל: ספר היובל לכבוד אביעזר רביצקי, כרך א’ – בנימין בראון
  • מפגשים: חמשה סיפורים מיפן – אירית ויינברג
  • Black Ice – Michael Connelly
  • סוף המירוץ – מישקה בן-דוד
  • על דעת הקהל: ספר היובל לכבוד אביעזר רביצקי, כרך ב’ – בנימין בראון
  • Flexigidity – Alex Berenson
  • חיים כהן, שופט עליון – שיחות עם מיכאל ששר
  • The Ghost War – Alex Berenson (Kindle)
  • ירושלים – גונסאלו טווארש
  • Siddharta – Hermann Hesse (Kindle)
  • Death in Venice – Thomas Mann (Kindle)
  • The Silent Man – Alex Berenson (Kindle)

February and March were slow reading months, but I made up for them in April. 14 books in all in these 3 months, besides the various periodicals and magazines that take up precious reading time. I guess the Passover holidays helped… 16 new books added to my library, of which 2 were sent to me for review. Had to install a new bookshelf in my basement last month.

I have not had the time to write a review to all the books I read. I procrastinated with the reviews for a long time, resulting in a pileup of books on my desk… So I’ve decided to publish what I wrote and “jump” to the current month (July), leaving quite a few books without a review. As the proverb goes: “What the heart craves time takes away”…

I so enjoyed reading the first book in the Fandorin series by Boris Akunin (Azazel, reviewed here), that I immediately downloaded the second book in the series, “The Turkish Gambit” to read on my Kindle. And I was positively surprised, as I was expecting “more of the same” and got something very different, yet not less entertaining.

The first book focused on the young detective Fandorin and his first big case – uncovering a global plot to overtake the world (no less!). Fandorin was the narrator of the story, so I expected to see him as the main character in this new book. Instead, “The Turkish Gambit” is more of a historical espionage novel where Fandorin is hardly the main character.

The story is narrated by Varvara Suvorova, a young Russian woman who travels to meet her fiancé, a cryptographer at the war front of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877. The fiancé turns out to be busy, so Suvorova spends most of her time with the foreign journalists covering the war, and gets to meet Fandorin, becoming (unwillingly for both sides) his assistant.

In this novel, Akunin manages to make Fandorin a hidden hero. He is absent from most pages of the book, while the story focuses on the progress of the war and the Russian effort to take back a city held by the Turks. But Akunin astutely makes Fandorin appear occasionally to keep the reader wondering what he’s up to, all the while guessing that he’s working on the real story, away from the noisy proceedings of the war. And indeed Fandorin emerges as the astute observer behind the scenes, who manages to uncover and foil the “Turkish Gambit” to win the war. Another enjoyable book from Akunin.

I bought this book in one of those book sales where you buy the book by the kilogram… I picked it up because I got the author’s name – Assaf Asheri – confused with another, more popular, Israeli writer – Ehud Asheri. After finishing the book (with great effort) I regret this mistake.

“Simantov” is the surname of police detective Mazal, whose unit focuses on the paranormal, with emphasis on Jewish mythology paranormal. Her mother and her have a problematic relationship, but she relies on her as she’s taught her everything she knows. The basic plot is that a group of “sons of God”, more commonly known as angels, kidnap seven women who are the “daughters of Lilith” (the first wife Adam had, before Eve, according to Jewish mythology). The police are scrambling to find the perpetrators of the kidnappings, a talk that proves to be quite difficult given that the kidnappers are, well, angels. In step Mazal, her mother Ruth, and a bunch of mystics, to help guide the police.

This book is a mess. It jumps from topic to topic, never dwelling long enough on any character (including Mazal) or any part of the plot. The author’s excessive use of metaphors is, frankly, quite tiring and in some places totally inadequate. The prose seems stuck at times, erratically jumping to unrelated thoughts by the undeveloped characters.

As mentioned, I had a difficult time finishing this book. It ends – how predictabley disappointing! – with a supernatural fights between the angels, the daughters of Lilith and heavenly intervention (in the form of, no less, the prophet Elijah). I could have given this book a miss and saved a few precious hours of reading displeasure.

This two-volume book is a collection of essays and academic papers put together in honour of Prof. Aviezer Ravitzky, a renowned scholar of Jewish Thought and winner of the Israel Prize. Ravitzky never fully recovered from the head injury after being hit by a bus in 2006, and the essay written by his children and opening this book highlights the life of the family before and after the accident.

As expected, this book was a joy to read. Israel’s most prominent scholars came together to discuss one of the topics studied and researched by Ravitzky: Religion and Politics in Jewish Thought. The book is divided into various sections: Philosophy in Antiquity and Middle Ages, Kabbalah, Contemporary Thought and Halacha. It is impossible to summarise the wealth of knowledge contained in this book. It is a fitting achievement in honour of a great man.

This book, “מפגשים” (“Encounters”) is an anthology of five stories, written by some of the most prominent Japanese writers, and translated into Hebrew by Irit Weinberg. It appeared only in digital format, in the budding Israeli e-book website Booxilla.

All stories were written around the Second World War in the 20th century (3 prior to the war; 2 after it). They have one thing in common: they are not “grand stories”. They tell the story of simple, everyday people, and their encounters with each other. In the background is the complex relationship between traditional Japanese culture and encroaching Western culture. The stories are typically Japanese in that they describe a slow-moving lifestyle, concentrating in seemingly mundane daily happenings, but slowly revealing a deep understanding of human nature.

Confession: I don’t like Michael Connelly much. My wife is a bigger fan than I am, so that’s why we have 16 of his novels at home. This is only the third one I’ve read.

“Black Ice” is a book in the Harry Bosch series (I believe the second one). Bosch, a homicide detective carrying baggage from his fighting days in Vietnam, is investigating the apparent suicide of another cop, from the narcotics division. Although he is warned by his boss to stay away from the case, he (of course) does not. His investigation ties in with other cases he is working on, and he ends up going to Mexico to track down the origins of the “Black Ice” drug that originates there.

I don’t know what bothers me about Connelly’s writing. These are the kind of books one finishes on a flight or during a lazy afternoon, but it took me more than two weeks to finish it! Something’s not clicking between me and Connelly, and I can’t put my finger on what it is.

I have read (almost) all of Mishka ben David’s books. A retired Mossad agent and a PhD in Hebrew Literature, ben David is an excellent writer. This book is different from his previous ones, proving his abilities go beyond spy novels.

“סוף המרוץ” (“End of the Race”) is a book infused with love for horses and horse racing. Ben David apparently owns a horse riding farm, and his passion for the subject is apparent on every page of this book.

After a long deliberation, Yotam, a successful IDF officer, decides to cut short his military career and spend more time with his family. Except he’s a bit late. His wife tells him she’s leaving right before he has the chance of telling her about his big decision. He decides to build a horse riding farm, something his wife always dreamed about, to try and win her heart back. In parallel, he grapples with his newly found fatherhood.

Enter Yotam’s younger brother. After spending years in the Far East adopting Zen Buddhism, he decides to compete for becoming the national champion in horse racing. He trains with his Bedouin friend and slowly plants the competitive bug also in Yotam. The brothers have conversations about the meaning of life and how to live it, enabling Yotam to define for himself what he really wants and his relationship with his estranged wife.

I enjoyed reading this book, so different from all other ben David books.

My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit

This book is an attempt to explain Israel. If I were asked how long it would take to accomplish such a gargantuan task, my guess would have been several encyclopedic tomes, and then some. Ari Shavit did it in less than 500 beautifully written pages.

My Promised LandShavit uses his family’s history as the framework for telling the story of Israel. His great-grandfather, a Victorian English Jew, travels to Palestine in 1897 and, after a short tour of the land, decides to make it his home. Through the experiences of this early 20th century Zionistic immigrant, Shavit begins to weave the magnificent yet tragic story of the Jewish settlement of Palestine. Magnificent because of the unparalleled success of Zionism in bringing back a people who were nation-less for two millennia to their forefathers’ land, to build a thriving and prosperous country. Tragic because the land these pioneers settled was not empty. In their eagerness to fulfill their mission, they neglected to take into proper account the existence of the native Arab population. Half a century before the establishment of the State of Israel, they story of Shavit’s great-grandfather encapsulates the seeds of the struggle for this tiny piece of land.

With admirable candour and acute perspicacity Shavit goes on to examine the multifaceted story that is Israel, the forces that shaped it into being and the forces that will determine its future. He speaks of how the story of Masada – where besieged Jews committed suicide en masse rather than succumb to Roman forces – became the defining story for early Zionists. He recounts, with vivid detail, the story of Lydda, an Arab town whose population was forced into exile during the 1948 War of Independence (known to Palestinians as the Nakba, the Catastrophe). He interviews right-wing settlers and left-wing “peaceniks” to try and understand the post-1967 struggle between a Greater Israel and the efforts to bring an end to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. He examines the demographic changes that are transforming Israeli society: the huge influx of ex-Soviet Jews in the 1990s, the minority of Arab-Israelis and the fast-growing Ultra Orthodox community. He analyses the policy of nuclear opacity that allowed Israel to build a doomsday capability and yet avoided leveraging its existence even in the most dire of circumstances. And he describes the threats that Israel faces in the 21st century, among them a regional nuclear arms race, the so-called “Arab Spring”, the complex relationship with world Jewry and the troubling lack of sense of identity in the young generation.

While I don’t necessarily agree with all of Shavit’s conclusions, I am awed by his phenomenal accomplishment. He succeeded to convey the complexity of Israel, past and present, in a coherent and comprehensive way, while trying to outline a vision for the future. Even as an Israeli, familiar with the story and the details, I found this to be a fascinating read.

I also found myself wondering if non-Israelis would find Shavit’s book as comprehensible and evocative as I did. I will recommend it to some friends abroad and see what they say.

Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts

My wife bought this book and read it a long time ago. I’ve been meaning to read it but I guess the fact that it is almost 1,000 pages long contributed to it getting neglected on the shelf. But a few weeks ago a friend from work sent out an email recommending it, and as I take friends’ recommendations seriously (they almost always turn out to be spot on) I decided it’s time to read “Shantaram”.

This book is an autobiography of sorts. Gregory David Roberts is a convicted armed robber who escaped from prison in Australia and landed in Bombay (today Mumbai) with a fake New Zealand passport in the name of Lindsay (Lin) Ford. In this book, Mr. Roberts weaves a tumultuous tale based (loosely? closely?) on his experiences in India and, later, in Afghanistan.

As soon as he lands in India, Lin meets Prabaker (Prabu), a man who offers his services as a guide. Lin is charmed by Prabu’s smile and hires him, thus beginning a long  friendship that, sadly, ends in tragic circumstances. Lin travels with his new friend to Sunder, his home village, where he learns to speak Mahrati and is given a Maharashtrian name – Shantaram, meaning “man of God’s peace”. After Lin and Prabu are robbed, they end up living in a huge Bombay slum, where Lin runs the local “clinic”, administering first aid using illegal medicine procured from the city’s leper colony.

There is also the local “expat” community – French, Italians, Germans, Nigerians – most of whom escaped a former life and are etching out a living in Bombay, mostly via illegal means. Lin falls in love with Swiss Karla and becomes friends with local gangsters and Bollywood producers. Slowly but surely he is drawn into a mafia operation run by an Afghan don, Khader Khan, who becomes a father figure to Lin. After a vicious spate at the local jail, Lin is “rescued” by Khan and becomes devoted to his organization and cause. This is how he ends up going to Afghanistan and joining arms with the rebels fighting the Russian invaders.

The story is interesting enough, but perhaps more interesting are the little anecdotes about life in India. Mr. Roberts is a keen watcher of people, and he manages to pack countless descriptions of daily activities. One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the story of his train journey to Prabu’s home village. When boarding the train, Prabu risks his life to secure a seat for his foreigner friend, by hiring a burly guy to escort Lin through the crowds and himself lying down on the seat to “reserve” it, despite being beaten repeatedly by angry passengers around him. But as soon as the train departs and fighting for seats is no longer a necessity, the passengers become friendly and courteous. Some of these passages in the book make you laugh out loud. Others make you sad.

Despite its length, this is an easy book to read. The tale is fascinating and the prose is engaging. It almost makes you forget that Mr. Roberts is a fugitive who engages in illegal activities that cause harm to many people. A classic antihero figure.

Reading Habits

Every avid book reader out there has his or her habits (not to say, quirks). I find that some of my reading quirks are changing with the introduction of electronic books, but others only get stronger over the years. Here are some of them:

books

1. When I start a book I always check how many pages it has. Then I do a quick calculation on which page I would reach 10% or 25% of the book, and that’s how I monitor progress. With the advent of the Kindle, this habit become meaningless. First, there are no “pages” in an electronic book. And second, the Kindle shows you exactly where you are in the book; not only that, it shows you how many minutes are left to the end of the chapter (or book).

2. I used to never read two books at the same time. In recent years, this habit died out. Because I cannot use the Kindle on Shabbat, and because I read only books in English on the Kindle, I now find myself quite often reading two (sometimes three) books simultaneously.

3. I never read a book that’s been translated if I can read it in the language it was written in. I can read in four languages, so unless the book was written in a language that is not one of these four, I will wait until I get my hands on a copy in the original language. No matter how long it takes.

4. I will never, under no circumstances, skip to the end of the chapter or, God forbid, to the end of the book to find out what’s happened. I have heard of quite a few people who do that, and I find it hard to believe those people and I belong to the same homo sapiens species.

5. Very rarely will I not finish a book. The book must be really awful, or I must be really bored to death by it (not just regularly bored), before I give up on it. I find that this habit has changed somewhat in recent years, as I have come to the sad realisation that I will not live forever and therefore have a limited time to read.

6. I try to catalog every book I own (my library is here). It’s not a full catalog; my guess is I’m about 60-70% done. I also try to review every book I read (my reviews are here), or at the very least rate them. My rating method is simple: almost all books get 3 stars (out of 5), because most books I read are what I expected them to be. If the book is better than I expected, I will give it 4 stars. If it’s a “must read”, I will give it 5. Very rarely do I rate a book with 1 or 2 stars, because I will usually not start a book that I know will not be at least “OK”. This goes back to the realisation of me having a limited time on this earth…

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.