The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman (Fiction / Mystery / Humor)

Writing: 4.5/5 Characters 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5

Another fun title (the second) from Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series. In this episode, our four retirement village oldies take on the local drug lord, the useless baddie who attacked their most timid member, and a tangle of spies spying on spies — one of whom happens to be Elizabeth’s very-ex-husband.

A reminder on the characters from my first review: Elizabeth, with the mysterious background and friends in high and low places who all seem to owe her favors; Ibrahim, the retired psychiatrist, who pores over the cases he failed; Ron, the former trade union leader who loves a chance to get back on the stage; and Joyce, the newest addition, who has the often underappreciated skill of bringing everyone together while remaining invisible herself.

As an American, I had not heard of Richard Osman before reading the first book, but I gather he is well-known in Britain as “an English comedian, producer, television presenter, writer, and the creator and co-presenter of the BBC One television quiz show Pointless.” I like his writing a great deal — funny, wry, with characters who could appear dull on the outside but are actually intriguing on the inside (as so many people are if you take a deeper peek). His spare style distills what you need to know without muddying the waters with a lot of extraneous fluff. I gulped it in a single sitting.

BY the way, I feel like I just reviewed Osman’s first book — The Thursday Murder Club (link) but apparently that was about a year ago. Time flies when … everything is closed and you’re stuck in the house? In any case, one benefit of Covid is that every single one of my favorite authors appears to have tripled their productivity. My “to read” pile is overflowing.

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 28th, 2021.

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.