The People of Forever Are Not Afraid

Shanji Boianjiu's debut novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is breathtaking. If follows the lives of Yael, Avishag, and Lea, three Israeli girls who grew up together in a small Israeli village by the Lebanese border. It tells their stories before they are drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces, during their service, and their lives afterwards. An honest look at female soldiers in Israel, Boianjiu wrote the novel in English, not Hebrew (her native language). Boianjiu grew up in Israel in a border town, like the three girls in her novel, and served in the IDF, as all Israeli citizens do. But instead of traveling the world for a year after her service was up, she went on to study at Harvard. In an interview with the New York Times, she said "Writing in English forced me to think carefully about every word I used. The words did not belong to me, so I had to work harder to make them belong in my stories." (Read the full interview here) The viewpoints shift between Yael, Avishag and Lea. Their stories grip you and don't let you go. Boianjiu was the youngest "5 Under 35"of 2011, a major accomplishment for a new novelist. An excerpt of the novel was featured in the New Yorker in June - read it here. What I loved so much about the novel is that it isn't a war novel in the traditional sense. It gives you a real look at the lives of female soldiers in Israel, and war is on the peripheral (Gilad Shalit's kidnapping, 2006 Lebanon War, among others). While the story isn't autobiographical, "her characters experience many things that she did not (many of them borderline fantastical), but one gets the feeling that their boredom and anguish are very much her own." (Interview with Tablet Magazine) She wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in September, when the law exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews — known as Haredim — from mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces expired. She wrote about her experience with Haredim when she was a soldier whose "job was to teach combat soldiers how to use their personal weapons." She had to deal with ultra-religious soldiers whose religious doctrine "prevented them from seeing a woman touch a weapon." However, didn't write her novel to make a political statement. It is more simply the stories of these women in the army, and how it impacted them. When the NYT interviewer asked her, "Did you want the book to say anything in particular about the larger political situation?" She responded,
I did not set out to promote any political agenda when I wrote this book. But the truth is I think my work does inevitably have something to say about the current political situation, and the sad thing is I don’t think the people who view my work only through a narrow political prism will get to learn what that is.
Its a very beautifully written story. Definitely jarring at times, but only because it takes place in a world so removed from my own. (Update: in a related note...just today, Jan 24th, the Pentagon removed a combat ban on women in the U.S. military) A hallmark of a great book for me is feeling like I am there. I am a part of the story. And I undoubtedly felt this way while reading The People of Forever Are Not Afraid. Rating: ★★★★★


The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

John le Carré's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is hailed as "the best spy novel of all time" (x) Published in 1963, during the Cold War, it was revolutionary for portraying the espionage world as it did. Before le Carré's novel, many in the West had a romantic vision of spies, because of James Bond. John le Carré shocked his readers with the gritty realism of what the Soviets and the British actually did. The story of Alec Leamas epitomizes the Cold War ideal of "the ends justify the means." As he says in the famous scene when he is driving to the Wall at the end of the novel, "What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They're a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives" Leamas discovers he is just a pawn in the game. His cynicism is overwhelming. The reader attempts to discover the truth in tandem with Leamas himself. We don't know any more than le Carré tells us - the intricacies of the novel are so remarkable that once the major plot twists have been revealed it still takes time for everything to fall into place. Manipulation runs throughout le Carré's book, but the reader never feels that himself or herself is being manipulated. Towards the end, Leamas begins to wonder if it is ever possible for the spy to "come in from the cold." Is there any way to truly escape the life of a spy? A gripping book, I highly recommend reading it if you have not had the chance yet. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is a true classic. Rating: ★★★★★