Reading List

Pnina: Angels and Demons

Taken from Amazon editorial reviews of the book:

“Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is shocked to find proof that the legendary secret society, the Illuminati–dedicated since the time of Galileo to promoting the interests of science and condemning the blind faith of Catholicism–is alive, well, and murderously active. Brilliant physicist Leonardo Vetra has been murdered, his eyes plucked out, and the society’s ancient symbol branded upon his chest. His final discovery, antimatter, the most powerful and dangerous energy source known to man, has disappeared–only to be hidden somewhere beneath Vatican City on the eve of the election of a new pope. Langdon and Vittoria, Vetra’s daughter and colleague, embark on a frantic hunt through the streets, churches, and catacombs of Rome, following a 400-year-old trail to the lair of the Illuminati, to prevent the incineration of civilization.”

This book is highly recommended because of beinng a great thriller and an easy fast read.

Pnina: In the Time of Butterflies


Pnina: Rule of Law

Dan, a barrister (one of two lawyer types in England), is forced against his will to take up the prosecution of a WWII war crime case.  In this case a respected English politician, who served as a high ranking officer during the war,  is accused of ordering the killing of a Russian Jew.  During the research for the case Dan unearths many unexpected details.  The book deals with a difficult subject, but is a fast easy read.

Pnina & Shahaf: Burmese Days by George Orwell

Before he gained faim for writing Animal Farm and 1984, George Orwell (actual name: Eric Arthur Blair) lived in Brittish-controlled Burma, working in the Indian Imperial Police.  His experience there inspired this book, Burmese Days, his first novel.  When you travel around Myanmar today you can find copies of this book for sale everywhere.  Pnina and I picked up a copy – we figured it would teach us something about the culture in Myanmar.  We did pick up a few tid-bits about that, but more so we learned about the way the Brits treated the locals, which was not good.  The story is about several Brittish people living in Kyauktada, a village in northern Myanmar.  The Brits live as gods among the locals.  They spend their time in their exclusive Club, drinking whiskey and complaining about the native brutes while being waited upon by Burmese servants.  Meanwhile, a corrupt local, U Po Kyin, schemes to disgrace all other native officials and to become the first native admitted into this exclusive Club.  The story is pretty good, and it’s surprisingly easy to read considerng that it’s writtin in 1930’s English.  It’s also a little painful to read because just about every character in the story is dispicable in one way or another.

Pnina + Shahaf: Year Zero by Jeff Long

This is a random sci-fi book we picked up at Mr Charles Guesthouse in Hsipaw, Myanmar (most of the books on their shelf were in German or other languages, so the choices were limited).  A Greek billionaire spends his fortune collecting ancient Christian artifacts in the hope of finding Jesus’ DNA, to try to prove or disprove his existance.  Instead he accidentally unleashes an apocalyptic plague from a glass vile hidden in an ancient cross artifact.  The plague sweeps the world while scientists in Los Alamos labs attempt to find a cure.  The book also deals with human cloning and various related ethical issues.  It was an OK book, entertaining enough, but not great.  At times it brings up some interesting ideas about how the world would react in the face of such a plague.  But at times the characters in the book behave “out of character”, e.g. they spent 150 pages behaving one way, and suddenly, with no reason, change completely.

Pnina + Shahaf: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hossaini

Another great novel from the author of The Kite Runner.  This book also takes place in Afghanistan, and covers a long stretch of time, from communist occupation in the 1970’s [check this] to the Mujaheedin liberation, onto infighting between the different Mujahideen factions, to Taliban conquest, and to the US-lead liberation in the 1990’s [check this too].  It’s the story of two women, Mariam and Laila, who are brought together by the circumstances of all these wars.  Though they are not related, they grow to support each other like mother and daughter while dealing with the brutish, male-dominated society.  We won’t say more because it’s a really good story.  It also taught us a little more about Afghani history.
Pnina + Shahaf: High Society by Ben Elton

Pnina and I were sitting having lunch in a restaurant in 4000 Islands, Laos, when this German girl comes over and says “I just finished this book, do you want it?”  So we took it.  Probably not one we would have picked out, but it was interesting.  It’s a novel that takes place in modern-day London, and deals with hard drugs (Heroin, Cocain, etc.).  There are several parallel stories and the author jumps from one to another in stacato manner (some chapters are just one-page long).  There’s a rising member of parliament who spearheads an effort to legalize all drugs (not just pot).  His argument is that by doing so the government can shut down the huge illegal drug industry and all the corruption surrounding it, and in addition they can make sure that people who take drugs can do so in a safe manner.  There’s a self-indulgent rock star who trips along from one scandal to another, always drugged up but irresistably charasmatic.  There’s a young Scottish girl who is seduced into a life of bondage as a crack whore.  And there are other characters surrounding them.  The book is a fast read because at least 50% is dialogue.  And most of it is fun to read, though at times Elton’s characters repeat the same tirades about legalizing drugs (especially the politician).  By the way, we heard that back in the 1980’s some Italian politician moved to legalize drugs, but he was assassinated by the Mafia.

Pnina: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

This is the one book Pnina brought with her to start the trip.  The rest of the books were picked up in book-exchanges in various hostels.

The story revolves around a Hmong (pronounced: “mong”) girl that has a severe form of epilepsy.  The Hmong people originated in China and were forced to the mountains in Lao, where they kept their traditions and were known as great warriors and mountain people.  They were recruited by the Americans to fight against the communist-backed Pathet Lao in the 1960’s — a fact that is kept fairly secret.  For their help, some Hmong were granted visas to live in the US.  The book focuses on the difference between the American and Hmong cultures, and the difficulty both have in understanding each other’s intentions, actions and reactions.  For example, the parents of this epileptic child believed that she fell down when a spirit caught her, and in fact, most Hmong epileptic become their “Shaman” in their culture.  It’s highly recommended.

Shahaf + Pnina: Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

This is the one book Shahaf brought to start the trip, recommended by Mary Black of Redfin’s book club.

The true story of a guy who robbed more than 20 banks and post offices in Buda Pest in the late 1980’s and 90’s. Shahaf: it was a fantastic story and a quick read; Mom, you might particularly enjoy it because it deals with Hungarian/Romanian relations (though only a bit takes place in Arad).  Pnina: it got boring at times but it’s amazing that it all actually happened.

Pnina + Shahaf: The Queen’s Fool

Historical fiction. It’s a story about a Jewish family trying to escape religious persecution in the 1500’s. The daughter somehow gets a job as a jester (“fool”) to the queen because it is believed that she has the power to see the future.  And so she gets involved in various plots and counter plots to overthrow the queen. Pnina liked it as a fun read. I read it too and thought it was so-so.

Shahaf + Pnina: The Secret Life of Bees

Historical fiction.  A 14-year old girl, Lily, living in South Carolina with her mean father, T-Ray, and her black nanny Roseline.  Roseline gets into trouble with the law and Lily helps her escape.  Together they find a new home with three sisters who have a honey business.  Some sad parts, some funny parts.  You learn about race issues and the art of bee-keeping, and about healing scars.  It’s just an amazing story.  So far it’s the best book we’ve read on the trip.

Daddy Strasbourger – this is especially recommended for you! 🙂

Pnina: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Complete Fiction, don’t believe it for a second 🙂  After growing up hearing quotes from that book I expected a bit more than what I knew from the quotes.  I enjoyed the book, but not as much as I have from other sci-fi books I read when I was a kid (e.g. Assimov’s).  Maybe I am tainted by reality now that I an considered an adult.  I would recommend reading this book to fill up a hole in one’s popular culture, else skip it.  Shahaf: what? blasphemy!

Pnina + Shahaf: Cry, The Beloved Country

Pnina: Historical Fiction.  The book deals with tribal disintegration, land misuse, and racial issues in the mid 20th century in South Africa (before the apartheid system was fully established).  A priest searches for his lost son, sister, and brother in Joburg.  Along the way he encounters one disaster after another – I won’t ruin the story.  It’s a great story, very sad, and it’s apropos to read it after visiting South Africa.  Highly recommended.

Shahaf: I wouldn’t say “highly recommended”.  It’s good but not great.  What I liked is that it paints an interesting picture of South Africa before the inception of apartheid, how black people rushed to the big cities in hopes of finding good work but instead found destitution.  The story itself is interesting too.  On the other hand there were stylistic things that didn’t work for me.  In dialog passeges the author doesn’t tell you who’s saying what.  He also waxes raphsodic about the beauty of the land, a little too much for me.  So again, good but not great.

Shahaf: Memoirs of a Geisha

First off, this book is tricky.  It tries to come across as a biography, but it’s really a novel.  In particular, there’s a whole intro where the author talks about the months he spent interviewing the geisha for the purpose of writing her story – none of that happened.

Anyhow, what I liked is that the book teaches you about the life of a geisha – where the girls came from, the strict hierarchy of a geisha house and what the girls endured in training, the business of it all.  It’s also interesting to hear about the impact of WW II on Gion, the big geisha neighborhood.  In between, the book is filled with some drama that got a little boring here and there.

Pnina + Shahaf: Gorillas in the Mist

Shahaf: This book was written by Dian Fossey about the 13 years she spent studying gorillas in the volcanos at the intersection of the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda.  I loved the parts that talked about Fossey’s stuggle to set up her research camp in the mist of a civil war in DRC.  I liked her ongoing struggle to ward off poachers.  And it was interesting to learn about the behavior of gorillas – how they build nests, eat feces, battle each other, etc.  Those are the good parts and they account for maybe half the book.  The other half is a boring chronicle of several gorilla groups.  It’s basically the telling of a family tree – gorillas are born, some die, some switch groups, and so on.  You can imagine how exciting that is.

The idea was to read this book before coming face to face with gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi National Park.  Pnina managed to finish the book on time.  I was 40 pages shy.

Pnina + Shahaf: The Gate

This is an autobiography written by Francois Bizot about his years in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge uprising.  Bizot was in Cambodia researching Bhuddism when he was picked up by Khmer Rouge soldiers as a suspected spy.  He spent 3 months in prison under the watch of Douch, a man who was later responsible for some of the worst torture of the genocide.  But Douch was, remarkably, responsible for releasing Bizot from prison.  Some years later, when Phnom Phen fell to the Khmer Rouge and foreigners saught shelters in their respective embassies, Bizot worked as a liazon in the French Embassy.

Bizot comes across as both courageous and stupid, and the story is incredible.  It’s a different perspective onto the Khmer Rouge genocide.

Pnina + Shahaf: Lies My Teacher Told Me (audio)

Shahaf: We picked up this 12-CD audiobook before leaving on the trip.  I converted the tracks to MP3 and put them on our little MP3 players and we listened to them while hiking or taking bus rides.  It was a good way to pass the time.  The author of this book, James Loewen, did an extensive survey of 12 of the most popular high-school history books in America.  What he learned is that they provide a skewed and European-centric view of what happened in the past.  Good people are made into flawless heros when the books neglect to mention the bad things they did, etc.  Loewen discusses various topics…Woodrow Wilson’s racism and military involvement in Russia and Europe; Hellen Keller’s socialist ideology and fight for human rights; the way Colombus essentially developed a system of torture for conquered people, one that was followed by other colonial powers in the years to come; and so on.  Also, Loewen talks about the forces in society that lead to crappy books like this.  In particular, states have book admission committees that bar unfavorable language in books, and otherwise generally focus on fancy graphics more than on good content.  The book was very interesting to listen to, and it certainly corrected some misconceptions I had since my history classes in Michigan.  At the same time, I think there are some holes in Loewen’s argument.  He says that at an average of 888 pages our current history books are way to long (ok, I agree), but then to a large degree he talks about content they miss and rarely talks about content that can/should be skipped.  Still, I’d recommend this book.

Pnina:  I never took any highschool history classes in the states because I graduated before I moved there.  So, I was interested in learning about US history in a more objective way and thought that this book will provide me that.  I did learn much, but it was only a piecemeal because the author assumes  the reader has a full picture of US history, and I definitely do not.   I still recommend this book, even if you’ve never taken a US history course in your life.

Pnina: Anna Karenina (in Hebrew)

This novel is like a soap opera placed in 19th century Russia.  In between betrayals and afairs there is discussion about the social system and changes accuring to it in the country.  This book was in a somewhat archaic Hebrew so it was a bit harder to read, but it was interesting non-the-less.

Shahaf + Pnina: Darfur, A New History of a Long War

Shahaf: I chose this book from a bookstore in Kigali, we even shelled out a good $20 for it (as opposed to most of the other books, which we got free from book exchanges).  But after about 30 pages I gave up.  It was such a huge mess.  Too many different tribes, too many figures.  Also the book is not told in chronological fashion so it’s impossible to tell how events relate.  I don’t often give up on books, but I have no regrets about skipping this one.

Pnina: In three words: “A big mess”.  This is what I would describe both the book and the situation in Darfur in the last 30-40 years.  The book is difficult to follow, but it does give you an overall understanding of the situation — the arabs got in control of the government and sponsored mass killing and violence against non-arabs in the region.  Various tribe militias retaliated by killing many innocent arabs, and from there more factions developed.  To add to the mess, Gaddafi from Libya was supporting the arabs and had Libyan troupes stationed in Darfur to fight against the non-arab leader in the neighboring Chad.  At the same time, the leader in Chad (Idris?) supported the non-arabs.   This means no one was safe, and the government was supporting and perpetuating this war.  Unfortunately, I assume none of that changed in the last year since the book has been published.  I would not recommend this book.

Shahaf + Pnina: Cold War

Shahaf: After The Secret Life of Bees, this is my favorite book so far.  It’s a great succinct description of what happened since the end of WW II until the collapse of the USSR.  This includes related struggles in China, Vietnam, Korea, Cuba, and other locations.  Highly recommended.

Shahaf + Pnina: Snow Falling on Cedars

Historical Fiction.  The story of a Japanese man, Kabuo Miyamoto, living on a fictitious island called San Piedro in the very real set of islands called San Juan, not far from where Pnina and I live in Seattle.  The man is accused of murdering a white fisherman, Carl Heine.  It’s an interesting whodunit story, but also an interesting view on race relations between white Americans and Japanese Americans after World War II.  Our brother-in-law, Nathan, who grew up on San Juan Island says that by now most of the Japanese farmers that settled there in the past have left the island.  Pretty good book.

Pnina + Shahaf: Oil!

Historical fiction.  It’s a story of a boy growing up in California, watching his father build a successful oil business.  The boy, Bunny, is torn between the greedy, corrupt, capitalist ways in which his dad conducts business, and the socialist/communist movements around the world in the early 20th century.

Shahaf: Even though the book was written way back in 1927, it doesn’t sound old.  There are few old-time phrases here and there, but in general it feels like a recently-written book.  It’s an easy quick read.  You learn something about the actual process of getting oil out of the ground.  You also learn about politics before and after the first world war.  The story of the novel is interesting, though at times I found the main character (Bunny) tough to like for his lack of backbone.

Pnina: Great read.  Sinclair does a great job sweeping you into the story and discussing the political views of the time.  I am eager to read his book “The Jungle” about the meat packing industry.

Pnina (portions) + Shahaf: The Political Economy of the Middle East

This is probably the strangest book on our reading list.  We picked it up from the book exchange at our hotel in Cairo.  We figured it would be interesting to learn something about the middle east as we travel through it.

The book was interesting.  It covers the region called MENA: Middle-East North Africa.  Basically everything from Moroco to Sudan and Egypt in Africa, plus the Arabian peninsula, east to Iran, and north to Turkey.  It discusses a lot of topics: education, health, labor, resources, income, and so on.

There were parts of the book that definitely read like a PhD thesis.  For example, chapter 1 is called “The Framework of the Study”.  We skimmed over those sections 🙂

In case you’re not terribly excited to pick up the book, here are the few interesting points we picked up…

In general these countries have a shortage of water, food, and jobs, and in a few cases a giant supply of oil.  The oil-rich countries have tried to use their oil money (“oil rents”) to kick-start other industries, but most of these efforts have failed, largely because of mismanagement.  The education systems are getting better, but they’re still not good (with a few notable exceptions, including Israel).  Educated youths generally try to find jobs in the government, but there are only so many of those jobs; it’s precisely these educated jobless youths who often turn to militant Muslim organizations.

One interesting anecdote.  Decades  ago, Iran was ruled by a US-backed Shah.  During the Islamic revolution the Shah was deposed and the new authorities reversed all his policies.  One reversal was about birth control – the Ayatolas made it illegal to abort births and in general promoted a “be fruitful and multiply” policy.  This policy stuck for many years, to the point that the average Iranian family had 7+ children!  Eventually this became a real problem, so the rulers started to change their policies, and today Iran has one of the most liberal policies for family planning.  Among other things they reintroduced contraceptives to the health system and even started offering free male/female sterilization to parents who already have three or more children.  Wow!  I would not have imagined this kind of policy in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Pnina + Shahaf: The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

This is a novel that starts in the 1960’s.  Dr David Henry’s wife, Norah, gives birth to twins, Paul and Phoebe.  Paul is healthy, but Phoebe is born with Down syndrome.  Dr Henry makes a rash decision to send Phoebe off to be cared for in an institution.  When his wife wakes from her drug-induced sleep, he tells her that their daughter, Phoebe, died at birth.  So begin two parallel stories – the Henry household, continually haunted by Phoebe’s death, and  another household where Phoebe grows up.  The story is told from several characters’ point of view, the voice changing from one chapter to the next.  Overall it was a pretty good read.

Pnina + Shahaf: The White Tiger

This was a crazy fiction story about an Indian guy, Balram, who rises from servitude to become a successful enterpreneur in Bangalore.  The story is written as a series of letters from Balram to some Chinese official who is set to visit India to learn about enterpreneurship.  The story is very dark and sarcastic.  Some parts make you want to throw up, some parts you can’t help laughing.  It was apropos to read this book having just traveled in India; some parts rang very true.  Also, the book is under 300 pages and took just a couple days to read.  It’s very entertaining.  Definitely recommended.  By the way, it won the Booker prize in 2008.

Pnina + Shahaf: Shantaram

Yet another book about India.  This one is non-fiction and much longer (933 pages), but just as wild.  It’s the story Gregory David Roberts (the author), who escapes from prison in Australia and finds a new life in Mumbai.  Among other things he sets up a health clinic, joins the mob, fights with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, falls in love, gets arrested, and writes his story three separate times (the jailors burn his first two copies).

Pnina + Shahaf (soon): The Map of Love

Another Booker prize winner.

A historical fiction.  Isabel, an American, finds a trunk left by her late mother.  This trunk includes possessions of her British Grandmother, Anna.  Back in the year 1900, Anna visited Egypt and fell in love with Sharif.  Now, years later, Isabel visits Egypt to learn about her heritage, and with a contact — Amal — learns  about Anna’s life in Egypt under colonial rule.

This story keeps jumping in time and from one narrator to another, so it takes some time to get used to the style.  Overall, it is a great story.

Pnina: The Horse Whisperer

Grace and her horse, Pilgrim, are involved in a major accident that renders both in a poor physical and mental state.  Annie, Grace’s mom, who has not been the best mother until that point, is determined to help her daughter heal by healing her horse.  To do that she tracks down and convinces/forces Tom, a horse whisperer, to take upon himself that nearly impossible task.  Tom’s magic is taken up not only by the horse but also by Grace and Annie.  I won’t say anymore.   This was a fun quick read, but it had some sad parts too.

Pnina: The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl


Shahaf + Pnina: The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren

We feel like we’ve been rick-rolled.  Pnina and I are not religious/spiritual people, so why did we pick up this book?  Because during the trip we listened to a lof of TED podcasts, and one of the lectures was by Rick Warren.  His speech was great.  I’m paraphrasing here but he essentially said something like “science is good but it doesn’t answer certain questions (e.g. ethics) and religion can play a role there; Christianity is not for everyone, but it works well for me” and a lot of other progressive-sounding stuff.  Plus, he mentioned that his book sold over 30 million copies.  All this was enough to convince Pnina and I to check out this book and see what the fuss is about.

Well, the book is completely different from the lecture…

To be fair, the book does have a few parts that I liked.  For example, there’s a section about illegitimate children, who are often stigmatized in Christian society.  Warren says that there’s no such thing as illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents (“your parents may not have planned you, but God did”).  Very cool way of looking at things.  In another section Warren mentions that everything we see around us is God’s property, so we should take care of everything in the best way possible (which implies, in my mind, that all Christians should be hard-core tree-huggers, no?).  There’s a section that discusses the fact that Christians often disagree about which musical style is the right one to use in worship.  Warren says: “Frankly, the music style you like best says more about you — your background and personality — than it does about God.  One ethnic group’s music can sound like noise to another.  But God likes variety and enjoys it all.”

There were also some tid-bits that weren’t necessarily positive/negative in my mind, but simply strange or suspicious.  For example, when discussing Noah’s arc, he says: “Noah had never seen rain, because prior to the Flood, God irrigated the earth from the ground up.”  Say what??  🙂  Religion would be better off if it didn’t try to make these wacko claims and stuck to morals/ethics/philosophy/stories.

But put these few positive or weird/interesting passages aside, and the rest of the book is pretty infuriating to read.  His progressive viewpoints are completely shattered when he claims, like a “good” fundamentalist Christian, that the only way to reach heaven is to be reborn in Christ; anything shy of that, and you’re going to hell.  Presumably, it doesn’t even matter if you happen to be born in some remote place where you don’t have any contact with Christianity at all (granted, that’s pretty difficult these days, but it was certainly true in the past).  And, as I understand it, you’re still going to hell if you happen to be a Muslim/Jew/Hindu/Zoroastrian/whatever who spends all your life doing good deeds; it hardly matters how you live your life if you don’t take that step of being reborn in Christ.

It’s exactly this “you’re with us or you’re damned” thinking that made me quit the book about half way through.  Pnina didn’t even make it that far.  She skimmed the first few chapters and called it quits saying “this is bullshit” many many times.

A further complication was what to do with this book.  Normally we would trade it with other backpackers, or just give it away.  But in this case we don’t want to pass the book along because we really don’t like its overall message.  We thought about burning it, but that doesn’t feel right either — it is a book after all.  We’ll probably end up selling it to some used book store in Seattle.


9 responses to “Reading List

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  2. Wow, a new section, I like this! And how could Pnina not love the Hitchhiker’s Guide?! Remember, the answer is 42.

  3. Shahaf & Pnina, there is reason to believe that one or both of you have had your passwords stolen from your e-mail accounts. A few people have received e-mails from you asking for money. The grammar has been bad, but they’ve known personal information about you, probably based on what they could find in your e-mail accounts. Hopefully you get this so you can take action. Hopefully everything is ok.

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  6. I just noticed this page. Very cool, what a great idea! I wish Sarah and I had done something similar. “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” is one of Sarah’s all time favorites, though I’ve yet to read it.

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  9. alaide p. mammana

    Dear Shahaf and Pnina,
    I am a friend of Shahaf´s parents. I loved your site. It is really impressive.
    I invite you to come to Brazil to include it in your nice web site.
    Best regards.

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