Book #1. Tudor Parfitt’s “The Lost Ark of the Covenant”: One of the most exciting books I have ever read was Graham Hancock’s “The Sign and the Seal”, which attempted to trace the possible journey of the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple in Jerusalem to an Ethiopian Coptic Church in Axum, the old Ethiopian capital. It was painstakingly researched, and footnoted, and tied together Jews and Christians, and Crusaders, and Muslims, and Ethiopians and Freemasons, and Templars and members of the Order of Christ, and Scotsmen and Portuguese explorers in a way that actually made sense, and opened up the world of the reader to unbelievable possibilities. When I heard that Tudor Parfitt, a London and Oxford scholar who has specialized in locating and studying remote Jewish communities, had put out a new book, also tracing the possible journey of the Ark of the Covenant, this time through Ethiopia but beyond to the lands in South Africa inhabited by the Lembas, I was of course intrigued.
I had read an earlier book by Parfitt, “The Thirteenth Gate”, which I found interesting, but more of a travel book than a scholarly book. But I knew that Parfitt had been studying the possible Jewish origins of the Lemba for a long time, and that recent DNA findings confirmed the origins of at least a part of the tribe, I had hoped that this book would be as stimulating, and as credible, as Hancock’s.
But, unfortunately, it was not to be the case. By a long shot. There is as much about Parfitt and his friends (an odd assortment, to be sure), as there was about the Lemba and the Ark. There are no footnotes or scholarly citations and, except that it is clear that Parfitt is able to understand an array of ancient languages, there is no reason to think that he has a scholarly bone in his body.
Does he demonstrate that the Ark could have made it to the land of the Lembas? No. And what is more, he has decided that the Ark was really a drum, not a container, a hollow drum made of acacia wood, and he finds something that he has been looking for and determines, based on testing, that it is about 800 years old and, ergo, that it must have been a copy of the original 3000 year old drum/Ark.
A very disappointing, and quite silly, book, if you ask me.
Book #2. Pete Earley’s “Comrade J”. A different topic, but one which is of equal interest to me. Russian spies. Comrade J (for Jean) is the code name of Sergei Tretyakov, a KGB trained spy, who became one of Russia’s top undercover operatives in the United States AFTER the fall of the Soviet Union, when the U.S. and Russia were in theory friends.
I found this to be a fascinating book to read and find that Pete Earley, except for a few chapters which really were digressions, tells the story very well.
Tretyakov and his wife, growing disgusted with the post-Communist Russia, where Boris Yeltsin let his friends strip the country’s resources and become billionaires, where Russian led UN Oil for Food program in Iraq became a way for Russian middlemen to grow rich on UN money, and where there appears to be no way to solve any problem peacefully, decide to defect to the US, so that their daughter will grow up in a truly free society.
The way Russian spies are trained and placed abroad, the way they target and solicit foreigners who will provide documentation harmful to their own countries, the espionage bureaucracy with backbiting, jealousy and deception. All of this is fascinating.
But my problem with this one? How do you know that any of it is true? This is a book about deception, about a high level Russian agent who defects to the west and who cooperates with Earley in writing the book (because he wants to get his message out). How do you know that any of it is true?
You have to take it on faith and, if you can do that, this is one terrifically interesting book.
Book #3. Book #3 was supposed to be Benny Morris’ “1948”, the story of the first Arab-Israeli war, just after the creation of the country. It purports to tell an honest story as to how Jews treated Arab civilians and vice versa during this crucial period, and has received very positive reviews. My copy is a paperback “Advanced Readers Copy”, and the font was so difficult, the print so small, and the 600+ pages so cluttered, that I just couldn’t spend the time necessary to get through it. Perhaps the book, as finally printed, is easier to read; I hope so. And perhaps I will get back to it one day. I am sure of that.
So, instead I wanted something short, easy and with big print, and I picked up a book written by TV journalist Chris Matthews, published in 2002, entitled “American”. I didn’t expect much, but in fact I was quite impressed.
What I liked was the way Matthews organized the book, focusing on what he believes to be the basic elements of America’s vision of itself: self made citizens, always in some sort of state of rebellion, willing to fight for their rights but reluctant to do so, but men and women of action, common folks, underdogs, looking for the lone hero to come to the rescue, having a pioneering spirit, believing that America is an exceptional place, and optimistic.
Having divided the book into separate segments devoted to these elements, he then gave examples, and the examples were a mixture of movies (Casablanca, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, etc.), literary characters (Hemingway, Fitzgerald), presidents (Washington, Jackson, Reagan, Roosevelt), and other historical figures (Daniel Boone, Thomas Paine), weaving them together into a coherent picture of the American people.
OK, so it’s not perfect. You can argue with his categories, and he doesn’t talk about minorities or the underclass very much. But he does give you a lot to think about, and he reminds you of things you might have already forgotten from our literary and historical past.
Well worth reading.