Spies of No Country by Matti Friedman

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Algonquin Books through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 5, 2019.
This is the story of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence told from the perspective of four spies from Israel’s “Arab Section” — a precursor of what would eventually become Mossad. Although the book includes a lot of background about the Middle East and the War itself, it is primarily a personal account of the experiences — both internal and external — of the spies.

The spies were Jewish men of Arab descent who wanted to be pioneers in the new, experimental (Zionist, socialist, and paradisical) country. Instead they were asked to “live like an Arab” — far from family and friends and amidst people with completely antithetical views (such as “Death to all Jews”). They were given false Arab / Muslim identities and sent out to gather intelligence and sometimes engage in sabotage. When they were finally able to come back to Israel two years later, it was to a completely different place — the reality of the country was a stark contrast to the ideal which they had held. Drawn from interviews, personal writings, and historical reports, the book did a good job of detailing the time and place as well as the attitudes and activities of the spies and those upon whom they spied.

The writing is uneven with an irregular structure resulting from the mashing together of personal accounts, historical documentation, and the author’s occasionally inserted opinions. A little more synthesis and coherence would have been very welcome. However, I did learn a great deal and appreciated the way the many details brought the time and place to life for me.

While I’ve known the rough history of Israel for a long time, I had either forgotten or never had known many of the specifics that I picked up from the book. At the time Israel declared independence in May 1948, 90% of its Jews were European — and looked down on the “black” Jews of Middle Eastern descent. The creation of Israel was a solution to a European, not Middle Eastern, problem. The declaration of Independence caused a massive influx of Jews from the surrounding Middle Eastern countries — not because they were enamored with the idea of a Jewish state but because they were fleeing a sudden and drastic increase in persecution in their home countries. As an example, according to the book Baghdad was 1/3 Jewish prior to 1948 (pretty much 0% now). So the solution to a European problem resulted in a much more widespread and amplified problem for the same target population in the broader Middle East.

Middle Eastern history is long and complicated and this book did not dissuade me from my largely pro-Israel stance. However, it certainly gave me a deeper comprehension of the experiences of the every-day people of the time on both sides of the fluid borders.

The Return by Hisham Matar

A beautifully written memoir by a man whose life has been steeped in exile. The narrative follows his 2012 return to Libya — the first time he has set foot in the country since his family fled in 1979 when he was eight. Living primarily in England, he has been constantly trying to find out what happened to his father, Jaballa Matar, who “disappeared” in 1990 at the height of Qaddafi’s reign of terror. Flashbacks to childhood, his father’s disappearance, and the persistent and largely unfulfilled quest for information comprise most of the text. Various family artifacts and conversations introduce even more history — his grandfather’s arrest and escape in the time of Mussolini, short stories written by his father as a young man, and interviews with those who had memories of his father in prison.

This is a memoir, not an objective work; however it is steeped in the history of the region. The personal is an overlay on the political and social history of Libya from the Italian invasion of 1911 through the present. I found it very helpful to jot down a timeline of events as they are delivered when relevant to his thinking / discovery / memory, rather than in any chronological order. The personal reflection is profound — he grows up almost entirely away from the place and people he calls home, in the shadow of an absent father who is either hero or traitor depending on who is doing the talking. His prose is vivid, but not overly emotionalized. The description of the politics and bureaucracy involved in even trying to find out whether or not his father is still alive is stunning — in the literal sense of the word.

Pulitzer Prize winner! Definitely worth reading.

Some quotes:
“There is no country where the oppressed and the oppressor are so intertwined as in Libya.”

“That slightly stifled gait all political prisoners have. As though oppression were toxic sediment that lingered in the muscles.”

“They were a gift sent back through time, opening a window onto the interior landscape of the young man who was to become my father.”

“Guilt is exile’s eternal companion. It stains every departure.”

Just the Funny Parts by Nell Scovell

Writing: 5; Importance: 4; Pleasure Factor: 5

Funny, personal, and important – all in one sparkling package!

There’s been a recent spate of celebrity memoirs written by female comedians. I’ve read (or tried to read) them all:  Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Anna Ferris’ Unqualified, Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me?, etc.  This one is much, much, better — no doubt due to the fact that Nell Scovell is a comedy writer rather than a comedy performer and therefore can really write!

This memoir is part sitcom, part Hollywood wannabe training material, and part exposé on the difficulties of women getting fair treatment (or any treatment at all, really) in the industry. The very first line is her own paraphrase of Nietzsche: “That which doesn’t kill me … allows me to regroup and retaliate” — a great and apt opening!

I love Nell’s writing – it’s well structured and quite personal but never strident nor overly dramatic. Some great quotes, intriguing character profiles, factual depictions of the diversity (or utter lack thereof) in writer rooms, and a real sense of the frustrations in the field. The book is littered with fabulous (and funny) story ideas that went nowhere for no reason.  Her summarized job timeline in the appendix is full of “shot but unaired”, “unshot”, and “unsold” labels, with what feels like a tiny sprinkling of successes.  Such futility!  Any dreams I had of working in Hollywood (luckily I had none) have been thoroughly quashed by reading through this descriptive tour of a Hollywood writing career. At the same time, Nell’s love and passion for the work is obvious, and it is clear she wouldn’t choose to be doing anything else.

Perhaps you know her from Sabrina the Teenage Witch or perhaps from her co-authorship of Lean In with Sheryl Sandberg.  Even if you’ve never heard of her at all, you’ll enjoy this well-documented peregrination through her life as a writer of comedy. FYI I tend to find non-fiction a slog, rarely making it past the 1/3 mark, but I gobbled this book up in two days.