One of the nice things about this blog business is that occasionally I am given books that I wouldn’t have ordinarily come across on my own. The most recent such book? Shut Up, I’m Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government by Gregory Levey. Leavey’s memoir is hilarious. And by hilarious I mean funny, but often in an, “Oh my God, we’re all going to die” kind of way.
Levey, a Canadian, found himself adrift in his second year of law school in the US. His plan was to take a break before completing his third year of law school and join the Israeli Army. On a lark, he sends a resume to the Israeli Mission to the UN to apply for any internships that may be available. Hilarity, of a sort, ensues.
Levey finds himself hired, not as an intern, but as a speech writer for the Israeli Ambassador to the UN. The misadventures at the Embassy are hilarious, but also frightening when one factors in the whole precarious nature of the Middle East.
The memoir is written as a fish out water story, and Levey himself points out at almost every opportunity that he has absolutely no business in the jobs that he held for the Israeli government. Examples of absurd situations for a 25 year-old non-Israeli citizen to find himself in abound. Levey has to decide how Israel should vote on an UN resolution when he stumbles upon the realization that he is the only person at the UN affiliated with Israel (a country of which he is not a citizen). Result? The U.S. and Greg vote “no,” the rest of the world votes “yes.” An international incident hinges on his shaky translation of French. Etc.
Despite his own feelings about his capabilities, just as he plans to leave the UN Mission the situation escalates. At the request of Prime Minister Sharon(!), Levey moves to Israel to become an English speech writer for the PM’s office. While in Israel, Levey has a front row seat during a particularly volatile time in Israeli history. The author feels very much the outsider despite his position with the corridors of power, in no small part because of his inability to abide the rudeness of the Israeli’s themselves. In one passage, Levey notes:
…life in Israel was difficult. I was sure there were many wonderful, kind, and caring Israeli’s, but they all seemed to be on vacation. “The customer service alone is enough to make you want to start an intifada,” an American I met quipped…
I am quite sure that Levey’s book will be seen as controversial in some Jewish circles. In fact, there were passages that I read and thought, “This guy is either really brave in his honesty or else he is really, really stupid.” I don’t think that it is the latter.
The web site Very Short List, which features a daily post about things that are worth your time, came up with the following Venn diagram to describe the book:
Close enough. However, the book that Shut Up, I’m Talking reminds me of most is Dan Kennedy’s Rock On. The absurd behind the scenes look by an employee that feels completely lost and out of place in the employee of a powerful and monolithic entity is true enough for both books. Levey’s memoir carries additional weight, because – oh my God- this is a sovereign nation’s government that we’re talking about.
While the memoir is specifically about Levey’s service with Israel, I have no doubt that similar issues and absurdity exist for all countries (particularly my own). As such, Shut Up I’m Talking is a useful reminder of the inherent fallibility of governments. Shut Up is a fun, engaging, and sobering read. I recommend it to all that might find the subject matter – the fate of the world as we know it – of interest. It’s also good fun if you’ve ever found yourself over your head in the job world. Levey’s experience shows that it could have been much, much worse.
It just so happens that Gregory Levey will be reading from Shut Up, I’m Talking at Wordsmiths this Wednesday night. Quel coïncidence, no?
Check out the author’s blog.