Tuesday, December 15, 2009

When I Was a Soldier by Valerie Zenatti

When I Was a Soldier cover

When I Was a Soldier
by Valerie Zenatti

Hardback: 240 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
First Released: 2005

Source: Won from Color Online.

Back Cover Description:
Like all young Israelis, Valerie Zenatti ceased to be a private citizen on her eighteenth birthday. As is the law, she then enlisted in the national defense service, where for the next two years she endured rigorous training, harsh living conditions, and, eventually, top secret missions with the elite secret service.

Between target practice and sentry duty, Valerie is an ordinary teenage girl. She wonders how her friends and family back home are coping with her absence. She can't stop thinking about her ex-boyfriend in Jerusalem. And, torn between her French heritage and her adopted homeland, she also begins to question how much she really believes in the nation she now defends with her life.

Here, in the arresting voice of a woman who has borne witness, is a thoughtful, compelling memoir of a young soldier--and a country--in turmoil.

When I Was a Soldier was an interesting memoir. Valerie was born in France in 1970, immigrated to Israel with her family when she was thirteen, and joined the Israeli army five years later when she turned eighteen. The memoir focused as much on her personal life as on her training.

The first fourth of the memoir was about the pressure of taking her bac exams...especially since her boyfriend had just broken up with her. The next part--about half of the book--was about her training. Most of this section described her basic training which occurred on an all-girls base. It was interesting to see the similarities and differences between the Israeli basic training and what I've read about American basic training. She also briefly described her training in intelligence work and the stress she was under to learn, learn, learn without mistake! The final section described some of what she did in her intelligence work. She mainly focused on the first year of her two years of military service.

What I found most interesting was her descriptions of the discussions she had with her fellow soldiers and other citizens about the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. A wide variety of views were briefly covered, giving a feel for the complexity of the situation. She also talked about the diversity among the Israeli Jews--their different cultural backgrounds, political views, and level of religious devotion. Valerie's French background was apparently a bit unique in Israel, but her secular view (she didn't believe in God) didn't seem uncommon.

The memoir was written in first person present tense ("I go" instead of "I went"), but this didn't bother me and I usually didn't even notice. There was a minor amount of bad language and some swearing. There was no explicit sex (though she and her friends were sexually active). Overall, I'd recommend this memoir to those interested in what life is like for Israeli eighteen-to-twenty-year-old girls.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
'We're three losers in a land of losers,' Yulia says, spitting her words out and raising her eyebrows in an expression no one would dare argue with. 'This is the arsehole of the world,' she goes on, 'and nothing special ever came out of the arsehole of the world.'

I look into those big blue eyes she's so proud of, especially since she got her contacts. She used to have horrible plastic glasses, with really thick lenses, and she squinted. Long-sighted, astigmatic and with a twinkle in her eyes, as my aunt would say. She carried the burden of it all through her childhood. Since she swapped her glasses for two tiny lenses, it's as if she wants to make the whole world pay for her past humiliations. She's getting her revenge. Sometimes all you can see in her eyes is anger and contempt, or--worse than that--she's lying and her eyes are dressed up in this immeasurable innocence, all blue and transparent, as she talks to one of her teachers, or to a boy. I hate her big blue eyes. I hate my best friend's eyes with a sneaky, furious, impotent sort of hate. And I feel just as much loathing for the way she sometimes speaks, deliberately foul-mouthed and hard, as if she's saying, 'I'm free now. I'm no longer my parents' nice little girl.'

She's my best friend, all the same...I have to admit it and she seems to agree. At school we've been classified as inseparable, no one could imagine bumping into one of us without the other. We've been sitting next to each other systematically for four years, and we phone each other on average eight times a day. When I'm not with her I'm with Rahel, my other best friend.

They were both born in what was once the USSR. Yulia's from Tashkent in Uzbekistan. She likes saying those names in front of me - Tashkent, Samarkand - as if there were treasure sparkling on every street corner back there. In front of other people from Russia she emphasises the fact that her father's of German origin and her mother Romanian; I can tell she's ashamed of Uzbekistan. Everyone else seems to think that that's where the arsehole of the world is. Personally, I haven't got very fixed ideas about the anatomy of our planet.

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