Title: The Herods:
Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession
Author: Bruce Chilton
Pages: 346 (plus bibliology & indices)
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through Edelweiss+. This in no way affects the content of my review)
If you are acquainted with the Gospels & Acts, you probably remember multiple members of the Herod dynasty putting in less than flattering appearances (starting with Herod the Great’s attempt to murder the infant Jesus in Matthew 2). In this book, Bruce Chilton tells the full story of the Herodian dynasty’s rule over Israel. It is a convoluted tale of political & religious maneuvering, egomania, paranoia, sexcapades, and violence.
Chilton portrayal of the Herods seems fairly balanced. He frequently gives them credit for savvy political moves but does not downplay the cruelty, hubris, and mania that characterized this ruling family. I appreciated getting the full picture of who these people were and how they (and Israel) fit into the broader history of the Roman Empire. If that is what you are interested in, I would definitely recommend this book (especially if you don’t want to wade through Josephus’s Antiquities and Jewish War on your own).
However, I would not recommend coming to this book to learn about the Herods’ interaction with John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early church leaders. The author’s views in this regard are steeped in higher criticism, the “historical Jesus” movement, and all the related academic jargon. He treats the Bible (especially the Gospels and Acts) as distorted legends and propaganda to be sifted through for tiny grains of truth. Jesus is recast to suit a purely naturalistic/sociological/political understanding of religion devoid of true divine revelation. Call me unenlightened, but the “historical Jesus” is a pathetic, unconvincing substitute for the Son of God.
As a follower of Jesus who takes the Gospels as divinely-inspired Scripture, I am probably not the intended audience for this book. Nevertheless, it did increase my overall understanding of these people and their time period, and I am glad that I read it (even if the “historical Jesus” parts made me cringe).
Title: The Little Drummer Girl
Author: John LeCarré
Rating: 2 of 5
I recently noticed that this book had been turned into a TV series, so I decided that it was finally time to knock it off the TBR list. I was curious to see how LeCarré would handle a female protagonist since all the other books I have read by him are pretty male-centric. It turns out that Charlie, a sex-obsessed actress who dabbles in radical left-wing politics, spends most of the book being manipulated and exploited by Israeli intelligence and Palestinian terrorists. Most of the time she is running on pride, stunned shock, lust, and/or anger. Hardly a strong female lead, but most of LeCarré’s male protagonists are some combination of angry, pathetic, and loathsome, so I suppose Charlie is par for the course.
The overall plot of the book follows Charlie’s “recruitment” (aka kidnapping, browbeating, flattery, and Stockholm syndrome) by Israeli intelligence and her subsequent mission to help track down a major Palestinian terrorist operating in Europe. Throughout the book Palestinians are portrayed relatively sympathetically (and who doesn’t feel compassion for people in refugee camps?). Israelis, on the other hand, are seen primarily through the lens of angry statements of suffering Palestinians and in the person of pragmatic, brutally efficient agents. Ethical explanations by the Jewish characters are little more than casual dismissal of concerns (“we’re saving Jewish lives”) or disillusioned near-agreement with the Palestinians that Israel’s behavior is from the same mold as that which perpetrated the Holocaust. To me the whole thing came off very one-sided and anti-Israeli.
Overall, this book featured the usual gritty realism at which LeCarré excels (thus 2 stars instead of 1). However, a plot centering on the manipulation and exploitation of a young woman and laced with anti-Israeli rhetoric was just plain angering and depressing. LeCarré is always on the disillusioned/angry side, but this was a bit much even for him.
Title: 90 Minutes at Entebbe:
The Full Inside Story of the Spectacular Israeli Counterterrorism Strike and Daring Rescue of 103 Hostages
Author: William Stevenson
Rating: 3 of 5
This book recounts the amazing feat of counter-terrorism in which Israeli special forces secretly flew into Uganda and rescued Jewish hostages who had been on a plane hijacked by German and Palestinian terrorists (aided and abetted by the mad dictator Idi Amin). However, for a book with “Full Inside Story” in its subtitle, this account was disappointingly sparse on details at some points. The description of the “90 minutes” of the actual raid takes up maybe 20 pages out of 240 and is the least detailed section of the book.
Most of the book covers (in a somewhat jumbled manner) the background of the terrorists; the treatment and conditions of the hostages; very generalized descriptions of the diplomatic & political maneuvering, intelligence gathering, military planning, etc. leading up to the raid; and the diplomatic fallout after the raid (including a partial transcript of a debate in the UN security council). All of this is accompanied by a fair amount of finger-wagging at the rest of the world for not doing more about international terrorism and leaving Israel to go it alone (even though there are numerous mentions of the US, France, and Britain providing Israel with intelligence).
Overall, the Entebbe raid is an amazing chapter in history and I am glad to have learned more about it, but I was underwhelmed by this author’s presentation of it.