Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Review: Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel

Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel by Matti Friedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On the surface, this concise book is a thrilling untold history of Israel’s first spies. It is in some ways a tale out of a Daniel Silva Gabriel Allon novel. As the title tells us, these were spies of no country: they become spies and operated before the state came into existence. Friedman focuses primarily on four men of the Arab Section. They were recruited to be spies because they could pass as Arabs: they knew the language, the customs, the way of life, in a way only a local could.

And this gets to the second layer. These four men were born and raised in the Arab world: they were from Syria, Yemen, and Jerusalem. They were not from Warsaw or Minsk. The Mizrahi, Jews of the Islamic world, were largely invisible in the early days of Israel and in the founding stories of Israel. Friedman’s book is telling the story of these four to help us see the Mizrahi and their importance to Israel; then and today. The title is, I suspect, also part of this layer: the Israel that they become spies for didn’t fully see them. They believed in and spied for the Land of Israel: but the state of Israel came into existence when they were already operating in Beirut and Damascus. By the time they returned to Israel, it was already a very different from the place they left. In this sense too, maybe, they were spies of no country.

Another layer of the book is the slipperiness and messiness of identity. This was a time of gigantic shifts and things got very messy, very quickly. The uneasy, yet relatively stable world in Europe was finally destroyed by WWII and now that was happening in the Middle East as new countries, including Israel, created themselves with new identities. This is given some measure of reality with the lives of these four spies. They were Jews born in the Arab world; they grew up speaking Arabic. As these shifts began, they left the Arab world to live among the Jewish, Hebrew speaking communities in what soon would be Israel. But then as spies, they are sent to live as Arabs among the Arabs. This is highlighted by this quote about the men as they were training to be spies: “But were they Arabs? They would have said no, and most Arabs would have said no. But they were native to the Arab world—as native as Arabs. If the key to belonging to the Arab nation was the Arabic language, as the Arab nationalists claimed, they were inside. So were they really ‘becoming like Arabs’? Or were they already Arabs? Were they pretending to be Arabs, or were they pretending to be people who weren’t Arabs pretending to be Arabs?” (58). It’s enough to give anyone an identity crisis!

Another layer is the ambiguity of founding stories and myths. This not unique to Israel. Americans face this too in trying somehow to make sense of the intellectual and practical achievements of liberty by men such as Jefferson and Washington with the horrors and evils of slavery in which they partook. Friedman’s book highlights the seeming paradox that Israel born out of the ideas in 19th century Europe is peopled by a population half of whom have grandparents from places like Iraq rather than Poland. Friedman’s spies come from and teach us something about this half of the population. Largely invisible for the first part half of Israel’s existence, they are becoming more and more a prominent part of the country’s culture and politics. Understanding the future of Israel means, in part, understanding this invisible past.

Friedman’s book is an opening, an invitation to this past.

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Friday, July 19, 2019

Review: College Teaching At Its Best

College Teaching At Its Best College Teaching At Its Best by Chris Palmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are several useful and helpful tips in Palmer's book. But overall, I didn't get a lot out of it. I've been teaching for nearly twenty years, so maybe I'm not the target audience. Some of this quite basic. It does seem geared a bit more towards a new college teacher, and it that regard it could be a good resource. Even with that caveat, the advice is a bit limited. It struck me as much more applicable to one who is a teaching at a more competitive or elite school with classes of 25-30 relatively well-prepared students. There is a chapter on teaching large lecture classes and there is some helpful items here. But this brings me to my other concern: much of this is overly idealistic. The techniques and advice often require a lot of time, effort, and resources from the instructor to implement, manage, and maintain. (Here's a simple example: he suggests meeting with all your students within the first two weeks of the semester. But with several hundred students each semester that's not realistic.)

The problem is not the extra effort(this is our job after all); the problem is that it ignores the reality that many if not most teachers at the college level are teaching 3 to 4 sections of large classes with little TA help, so they are already stretched thin. And there is little external incentive from the administration to do these things--and in some cases, the implicit incentives are to do less, not more. Most university's give a lot of lip service to academic excellence but do little to actually support it (and some of the policies undermine it). The book doesn't seem to acknowledge this reality of teaching.

Another huge problem is that there is nothing in the book about online or even hybrid teaching. This gaping lack is egregious as most universities have more and more teaching online--where the challenges are different and much of the advice in this book is irrelevant.

On the plus side, the book is clear and concisely written. It is easy to read over a weekend, so if you are teacher and want to improve(or are new), I'd cautiously recommend it. Some of the tidbits might speak to you and help you out. I certainly picked up a few things that I'll add to my repertoire.

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Monday, July 08, 2019

Review: North of Boston

North of Boston North of Boston by Elisabeth Elo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was perusing one of the local used book stores and saw this book. Being from the Boston area, I'm attracted to all things Boston, so I picked it up. The flap sounded interesting so I bought it. I'm so glad I did! I immediately got into the story and the main character, Pirio Kasparov. She is intelligent, a smart-ass, and has a solid moral base. She gets sucked into the mystery in a classic sort of way (the author has one of the characters quote Sam Spade's line about your partner getting killed and how you are supposed to do something. That might have been a little too on the nose, but I loved it). Pirio is not cut from a standard issue thriller/mystery female lead mold. There are classic elements, but Elo creates a unique and memorable character in Pirio.

Many of the other characters are interesting and well-drawn, if sometimes stereotypical. The plot is well done; there were elements laid down early on that you knew where going to play a role later but it wasn't obvious how it would play out. It's not perfect, and there are some obvious "twists" but overall still original and enjoyable.

I would definitely read more Pirio novels if Elo writes them and I hope she does. I recommend this to other fans of thrillers/mysteries.

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