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Book Nook - 08-08-2016

Monday, August 08, 2016
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to adc.booknook@gmail.com.

The World Is Not Enough
Daniel Silva has created one of the finest espionage thrillers in recent times featuring Gabriel Allon, an Israeli spy-assassin, who is also an extraordinary art restorer. So, the books are often as much about art history as about the Israeli intelligence services battling international terrorism.

Silva is so eerily prescient that what he writes about leaps right out of the news headlines. Over eighteen books his hero tracks and destroys terrorists from Iran, to Palestine, to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and other hotbeds of unrest and radicalisation, particularly groups that endanger Israel. In his latest, bestselling novel, The Black Widow, an ISIS run terror outfit carries out bombings in Paris and Amsterdam, which really happened a few weeks later. Silva writes in his foreword, that he began writing The Black Widow before the Paris attacks of 2015, and he considered putting aside his typescript, but made the decision to let it be published. He notes in a sad tone, “I only wish that the murderous, millenarian terrorism of the Islamic State lived solely on the pages of this story.”

His novels provide a concise history of the troubles in the Middle East, and don’t soft peddle Islamic terrorism. He names the terrorist groups Allon sets out to fight in each book, with a team of dedicated officers. Allon is on friendly terms with heads of other intelligence organizations in the world, and they often help one another in their mission to battle extremists.

Allon was a talented art student with a promising career, when he was picked by the head of the Israeli secret service to avenge the murder of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich in 1972 by Palestinian militant group Black September. He was one of the elite team that hunted and killed the murderers.  His art career ruined, he joins the Israeli security agency known simply as the Office. Allon suffers tragedy himself, when a bomb kills his young son and maims his wife; he subsequently falls in love with and marries fellow intelligence agent Chiara, and in The Black Widow tries to keep work away and look after his new born twins. He is also waiting to take over as Chief of the Office, when the ISIS bombing that kill his friend Hannah Weinberg, one among many, bring him back into the field,.

The man responsible for the bombings is the mysterious Saladin, and the only way of reaching him is by planting an undercover agent into his network. The woman chosen and trained for the highly dangerous mission is a Jewish doctor, Natalie Mizrahi, who is given a new Palestinian identity and past so that she can infiltrate the ISIS hideout.

She takes on the assignment reluctantly, but once she is in, Natalie, or Leila Hadawi as she is renamed, acts with exemplary courage, losing her nerve just once before she is to be thrown into the lion’s lair. For the reader every page is full of tension and a heart-in-the-mouth feeling for Natalie and her suffering.  It can be very difficult to become another person, to the extent that even her dreams belong to Leila. One slip could mean death not just for her, but thousands of innocents to be targeted in attacks being planned by terrorists.

The Black Widow is a terrific book, close enough to reality to be scary, but also tempered with the softness of emotions—love, friendship, loyalty and devotion to a cause. In a sense Gabriel Allon and Saladin are not that different—only one seeks to protect and the other to destroy.

The Black Widow
By Gabriel Allon
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 544

Excerpt of The Black Widow
It was Toulouse that would prove to be Hannah Weinberg’s undoing. That night she telephoned Alain Lambert, a contact at the Interior Ministry, and told him that this time something would have to be done. Alain promised a swift response. It would be bold, he assured Hannah, boldness being the default response of a fonctionnaire when in reality he planned to do nothing at all. The following morning the minister himself paid a visit to the site of the attack and issued a vague call for “dialogue and healing.” To the parents of the three victims he offered only regrets. “We will do better,” he said before returning hastily to Paris. “We must.”

They were twelve years of age, the victims, two boys and a girl, all Jewish, though the French media neglected to mention their religion in the first reports. Nor did they bother to point out that the six attackers were Muslim, only that they were youths who resided in a suburb, a banlieue, east of the city center. The description of the attack was vague to the point of inaccuracy. According to French radio, an altercation of some sort had occurred outside a patisserie. Three were injured, one seriously. The police were investigating. No arrests had been made.

In truth, it had not been an altercation but a well-planned ambush. And the attackers were not youths, they were men in their early twenties who had ventured into the center of Toulouse in search of Jews to harm. That their victims were children seemed to trouble them not. The two young boys were kicked, spat upon, and then beaten bloody. The girl was pinned to the pavement and her face slashed with a knife. Before fleeing, the six attackers turned to a group of stunned bystanders and shouted, “Khaybar, Khaybar, ya-Yahud!” Though the witnesses did not know it, the Arabic chant was a reference to the seventh-century Muslim conquest of a Jewish oasis near the holy city of Medina. Its message was unmistakable. The armies of Muhammad, the six men were saying, were coming for the Jews of France.

Regrettably, the attack in Toulouse was not without precedent or ample warning. France was presently in the grip of the worst spasm of violence against Jews since the Holocaust. Synagogues had been firebombed, gravestones toppled, shops looted, homes vandalized and marked with threatening graffiti. In all, there had been more than four thousand documented attacks during the past year alone, each carefully recorded and investigated by Hannah and her team at the Isaac Weinberg Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism in France.

Named for Hannah’s paternal grandfather, the center had opened its doors under heavy security ten years earlier. It was now the most respected such institution in France, and Hannah Weinberg was regarded as the foremost chronicler of the country’s new wave of anti-Semitism. Her supporters referred to her as a “memory militant,” a woman who would stop at nothing to pressure France into protecting its besieged Jewish minority. Her detractors were far less charitable. Consequently, Hannah had long ago stopped reading the things that were written about her in the press or in the sewers of the Internet.

The Weinberg Center stood on the rue des Rosiers, the most prominent street in the city’s most visible Jewish neighborhood. Hannah’s apartment was around the corner on the rue Pavée. The nameplate on the intercom read Mme Bertrand, one of the few steps she took to safeguard her security. She resided in the flat alone, surrounded by the possessions of three generations of her family, including a modest collection of paintings and several hundred antique lunettes, her secret passion. At fifty-five, she was unmarried and childless. Occasionally, when work permitted, she allowed herself a lover. Alain Lambert, her contact at the Interior Ministry, had once been a pleasant distraction during a particularly tense period of anti-Jewish incidents. He rang Hannah at home late after his master’s visit to Toulouse.

“So much for boldness,” she said acidly. “He should be ashamed of himself.”

“We did the best we could.”

“Your best wasn’t good enough.”

“It’s better not to throw oil on the fire at a time like this.”

“That’s the same thing they said in the summer of nineteen forty-two.”

“Let’s not get overly emotional.”

“You leave me no choice but to issue a statement, Alain.”

“Choose your words carefully. We’re the only ones standing between you and them.”

Hannah hung up the phone. Then she opened the top drawer of the writing desk and removed a single key. It unlocked a door at the end of the hall. Behind it was the room of a child, Hannah’s room, frozen in time. A four-poster bed with a lace canopy. Shelves stacked with stuffed animals and toys. A faded pinup of a heartthrob American actor. And hanging above the French provincial dresser, invisible in the darkness, was a painting by Vincent van Gogh. Marguerite Gachet at Her Dressing Table… Hannah trailed a fingertip over the brushstrokes and thought of the man who had carried out the painting’s one and only restoration. How would he respond at a time like this? No, she thought, smiling. That wouldn’t do.

She climbed into her childhood bed and, much to her surprise, fell into a dreamless sleep. And when she woke she had settled on a plan.

Reader’s Recommendation
By Parul Dixit

Doha! Diary of a Delhi-O-holic by Anam Arsalan, a sports journalist turned sports administrator, is a satirical tale of two cities divided by a thin geographical border and how the protagonist settles down in the  new city. A plethora of emotions and a thought provoking narrative. The book highlights the woes and struggles faced by an expat in a new city and how he decides to brave them all.

An honest attempt to portray the monotonous lives of the expats in the Middle East in a quirky and fascinating style. The style is engaging and reflective of the author's signature tongue in cheek humour blended in an articulate tone that captivates the mind and heart of the readers. The book summarises the journey of the protagonist, and how his maladies and newly found peace in a foreign land are intertwined in a beautiful tale.

A treat to the intellectual minds, the book touches various lives and depicts the hues of its characters as against the paleness of the life thrown in.

Doha! Diary of a Delhi-O-holic
By Anam Arsalan
Publisher: Partridge India
Pages: 136

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