I think one of the coolest yet sadly underutilized thing in the book blogger world is the Library Loot meme. Time and time again I’ve learned about new books thanks to bloggers who’ve simply taken the time to tell the world what they picked up at the library that week. One such blogger is Claire of The Captive Reader. Last January in one of her Library Loot posts she mentioned a new book by Keith Lowe entitled Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II. Just the title along was enough to make me read it. Then, later that summer after hearing the author interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air, I knew right then and there I needed to read Lowe’s book. So you can only imagine my joy when I spotted a copy at my public library. After grabbing it and taking it home, I pushed aside whatever books I had been reading and dived straight into Savage Continent. After finishing it last week or so I can tell you without a doubt I have no regrets. Savage Continent is a superb book.
According to Lowe, most Europe at the end of WWII resembled a post-apocalyptic wasteland. With over 30 million dead, countless major cities reduced to rubble and entire communities wiped off the face of the earth, the same mighty continent that gave the world the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and some of the greatest achievements of the modern age was in ruins. To give today’s readers a sense of context, here’s how Lowe begins his book:
Imagine a world without institutions. No governments. No school or universities. No access to any information. No banks. Money no longer has any worth. There are no shops, because no one has anything to sell. Law and order are virtually non-existent because there is no police force and no judiciary. Men with weapons roam the streets taking what they want. Women of all classes and ages prostitute themselves for food and protection.
But wait, there’s more. State-sponsored ethnic cleansing spawns some of the largest forced migrations in history. Revenge killings stalk the land. Elsewhere in Europe civil wars erupt as groups on the political left and right fight over who will rule in the post-war world. Borders are being redrawn. Millions, many of them Holocaust survivors and former slave laborers, languish in displaced persons camps. Throughout Eastern and Central Europe unpopular Communist regimes are being imposed by the Soviet Union. Poles are killing Ukrainians, Ukrainians are killing Poles and everyone is killing Germans. The French, Italians, Yugoslavs and Greeks are killing each other. Partisans in Lithuania and Ukraine are waging guerilla warfare against Red Army troops. With close to 90 per cent of Europe’s Jews dead those remaining are leaving Europe for America, Britain and Palestine. Confronted with this grim reality world leaders fear with good reason that Europe will never recover.
This is a fantastic book. After reading Savage Continent not only does one get a detailed look at the depth and scope of the devastation, one learns that after Germany’s surrender, the misery and killings did not end. Ethnic and political conflicts that raged during and immediately after the Second World War in France, Italy and Greece would shape those nations’ political trajectories for years to come. The worst would be Yugoslavia, where after 50 years of relative peace the nation would erupt with its own nightmare of bloody ethnic warfare.
Savage Continent also makes a great follow-up read to books like Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956, Catherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945 and Agate Nesaule’s A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile. In conclusion, as I said at the beginning this is a superb book. Highly recommended.
More than once I’ve declared on this blog that I can’t resist a good prison memoir. That being the case, how could I resist reading Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison after hearing so many good things about the Netflix series it’s inspired? Let’s just say when I stumbled across Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir during one of my weekend library visits I grabbed it without a second thought. Good thing I did because after finishing it the other night I was not disappointed.
Since many of you are already familiar with the story of Kerman’s incarceration I wont recall a lot of the details. After pleading guilty to charges associated with her relatively brief and minor role in an international drug smuggling operation, she was sentenced to 15 months in a federal women’s prison. After all the plea bargaining, sentencing delays and bureaucratic BS lasting the better part of a decade she finally surrendered herself to a US federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut. While in prison the upper middle class Smith College graduate rubbed elbows with memorable and intriguing cast of rogues ranging from transgender divas to political dissident nuns. But by and large, most of her fellow prisoners were poor and/or working class women of color, with the bulk of them serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
I’ve always been skeptical whenever I heard calls to radically reform or even abolish the so-called drug war. Until I read Kerman’s memoir. With so many of Kerman’s fellow prisoners serving out their drug-related convictions because their respective communities lack few, if any legal avenues to make a living, one wonders if there’s a better way to run the country. If we as a nation spent as much money strengthening these disadvantaged communities through workforce training, subsidized childcare, drug and alcohol treatment and job creation as we do incarcerating their their members I doubt we’d have such a prison problem in America.
I enjoyed reading Orange is the New Black and judging by the many positive comments it’s generated around the blogosphere I’m not alone. If, after reading it you’d like to read other quality prison memoirs there’s several I’d recommend. Avi Steinberg’s memoir Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, is quite good as is Ted Conover’s memoir Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. Lastly, if you ever wanted to know what it’s like to be an American in a South Korean prison you can’t go wrong with Cullen Thomas’s Brother One Cell: An American Coming of Age in South Korea’s Prisons. All three memoirs are definitely worth your time.
While I try not to judge a book by its cover, some covers definitely grab my attention. With its sepia-toned portrait of an exotic and unidentifiable old world cityscape, I found Gini Alhadeff’s The Sun at Midday: Tales of a Mediterranean Family hard to pass up when I came across a copy during one of my weekend public library visits. Making it even harder to resist was the promise of a Mediterranean family’s history, as opposed to say solely that of an Italian or Turkish one. Lastly, when it comes to books I have a soft spot for the obscure, the forgotten and the overlooked. Therefore, none of us should be surprised that I grabbed The Sun at Midday and took it home to read.
Published in 1997, The Sun at Midday is part memoir and part family history. As for her own history, Alhadeff was born in Alexandria to Italian parents who were Sephardic Jews who converted to Catholicism while living in Italy. (Raised Roman Catholic and her Jewish roots kept secret from her, only later as a young adult living on her own did she learn the whole story.) Forced out of Egypt by Nasser’s nationalist policies, her family relocated to Khartoum, Sudan in order to restart the family cotton business. After that Alhadeff would go on to call Florence, Tokyo, London and New York all home. While I wouldn’t call her a wealthy and glamorous jet-setter, nevertheless she seems well-traveled, sophisticated and cultured.
To me it’s the lives of her assorted family members I found the most memorable. With a playboy Catholic priest for a cousin and a gynecologist uncle who survived Auschwitz there’s no shortage of interesting material. Going back a bit in her family tree there are brushes with the rich and powerful, fortunes made and lost and narrow escapes from danger. And plenty of scandal and love affairs to keep things entertaining.
With tales of Alhadeff’s Alexandrian origins, Sephardic roots and family drama, The Sun at Midday reminded me a lot of Andre Acimen’s Out of Egypt. Even the two authors’ writing style, seemed very similar. Therefore, if you can read both books back to back, I’d encourage you to do so. Then, after reading those two books follow them up with Lucette Lagnado’s excellent memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
“A Portuguese-Jewish trader partners with a sexy Dutch widow to corner the coffee market. Who knew 17th century commodities trading could be so suspenseful? ” These are the words of a helpful librarian as she did her part in recommending David Liss’s The Coffee Trader: A Novel. Several years ago, my public library began prominently displaying staff recommended books, each one flagged with an identifying bookmark inscribed with a one or two sentence mini-review. I’ve been quite pleased with my public library for doing this. Had it not been for their staff recommendations, I might never have read Julie Holland’s Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER or Lauren Slater’s Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir. Therefore, as I held Liss’s 2003 novel in my hands that day at the library I wondered to myself if I would end up liking another staff recommended book. Rest assured, after finishing it this morning at my local coffee shop I can tell you yes, I did.
Set in 17th century Amsterdam and just as advertised, it is the story of a Portuguese-Jewish trader, his coquettish Dutch business partner and their attempt to control Europe’s infant coffee market. However, just as you might expect from a clever and entertaining bit of fiction, there’s more to it than just that. Complicating trader Miguel Lienzo’s plans to corner the coffee market is Solomon Parido, a ruthless and influential member of the city’s Jewish governing council as well as a long-time enemy of Miguel’s. Allied with Parido is Miguel’s own brother Daniel, whose wife beautiful and ill-treated wife Hannah Miguel secretly longs for. Meanwhile, there’s also the shadowy Alonzo Alferando, an excommunicated Jew turned ruthless loan shark (a character fascinating enough to warrant his own series of novels) who’s taken a keen interest in Miguel’s business plans. Plus there’s no shortage of secrets, betrayals, shifting allegiances and plots twists.
Thanks to the good people at my public library I found an entertaining piece of fiction. After having good luck The Coffee Trader I’d like to read more from David Liss. His 2000 novel A Conspiracy of Paper sounds promising as does its 2004 sequel A Spectacle of Corruption. Maybe someday soon I will.
As Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has me reading my way through Europe, I’m beginning to encounter books set in not one, but multiple European countries. This has inspired me to start a new series called Pan-European Lives. With this series I hope to feature books by or about people who have visited or lived in multiple European countries. In addition to nonfiction works like memoirs and biographies, eventually I hope to include even a piece of fiction or two. Right now I have no idea how extensive the series will be, or exactly which books will be featured. But I’m optimistic this will be a worthwhile endeavor.
What I can tell you is the first book in this series is Paula Fox’s 2005 memoir The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe. In 1946 Fox was 22 years old and living in New York City. When offered the opportunity to work as a freelance journalist in Europe on behalf of a small British news service she hopped a converted American Liberty ship and made her way to England. After a brief stay in London (and crossing paths with an incredibly intoxicated Winston Churchill) she made her way to Paris. While in France she fell in love, met Jean-Paul Sartre and spent time playing cards with her Holocaust survivor neighbor. Tasked with covering the Polish elections, she journeyed to Warsaw by way of Prague. While on assignment in Poland her journalistic companions included a number of Europeans (including a Czech and several Yugoslavs) and one American (ostensibly there on behalf of a Midwestern Jewish newspaper, but in all likelihood a Zionist agent sent to make contact with the remnants of Poland’s Jewish community and assess its prospects for eventual immigration to Palestine). She would end her European odyssey with a trip to Spain and with it a chance to experience life under Franco’s authoritarian rule.
Even though many Amazon reviewers were less than impressed with Fox’s memoir, I kinda liked it. Her direct writing made for easy but engaging reading. While I wished she could have spent more time discussing the political developments of her day, her encounters with various individuals she met along the way made for interesting reading. Not a bad book to kick off the Pan-European Lives series.
Doing the European Reading Challenge has been a lot of fun. What’s nice about the “one country, one book” thing is it forces you to spread things around and not just read a bunch of books set in one country or a small group of countries. But while it might be easy to find books set in the United Kingdom, France or Russia how can you find books set in places like Luxembourg, Lichtenstein or Moldova? Even with publishers like Europa Editions and Melville International Crime regularly supplying us with fresh stuff from places like Spain, Ukraine, Italy and even Turkey it’s not easy to find books set in or about the microstates of Europe. Therefore, if I wanted to broaden my participation in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I’d have to do a little research. Or experience a bit of good luck. Or both, which recently was the case with me.
After reading a few book blogs I discovered that American author Chris Pavone had recently written an international thriller set in, of all places the tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Published in 2012, his first-time novel entitled The Expats, earned a ton of positive reviews and blogger comments. Then, last weekend during one of my trips to the public library I happened to stumble on display of books that were recommended for readers’ book clubs. Looking down, what did I find but a small stack of about dozen copies of The Expats. I couldn’t have been more happier.
But even happier I did become because I thoroughly enjoyed The Expats. It tells the story of Kate, her husband Dexter and their two young boys living the lives of expats in beautiful and sophisticated Luxemburg. While Dexter works as a cyber security consultant for a local bank and Kate keeps house, raises the children and socializes with other expat wives something dark and mysterious seems to be going on in the shadows. Why is Dexter working long hours and spending weekends and holidays on business trips to exotic locations like Bosnia? Who really is that charming and fun-loving American expat couple who’s taken an immediate liking to them? Lastly, could Kate’s former secret life as a CIA assassin be coming back to haunt her? Let’s just say if you’ve seen movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and True Lies, even the closest of married couples can harbor secrets from each other. Big secrets.
Not only did I find this an entertaining novel, I also found it smart and very clever. (Yes, I saw a few developments coming, but that’s OK. There’s also no shortage of surprises either.) There’s also a bit of humor thrown in too. But through all the action and intrigue, it’s still a novel about trust, marital life and living with the choices one made in the past. (One Amazon reviewer commented “I could start a therapy group based on this novel.”) For these reasons alone, I have no problem recommending The Expats.
Seems like ages since I featured a work of nonfiction. Don’t worry, just because I’ve been reading a lot of international fiction of late doesn’t mean I’ve lost my love of nonfiction. I’ve also been reading some nonfiction. One those books, The Book of Genesis: A Biography
Once I began reading it, I found this a deceptively sophisticated book. As I suspected, Hendel began by assessing the book of Genesis within the context of modern scholarship – you know, all that stuff having to do with the ancient E, J, D and P sources. From there Hendel chronicled how Genesis as well as the rest of the Hebrew Bible has been interpreted by the great minds of Western thought, starting with the Greek-influenced Neoplatonists like Philo of Alexandria (and arguably to some degree St. Paul), the figurative interpreters of the Middle Ages like St. Augustine and the eventual backlash centuries later with the rise of more literal interpreters like Rashi and Luther. (By the 16th century, as more Europeans gained access to printed vernacular Bibles, public opinion turned against this medieval-era practice of Biblical interpretation. According to Hendel, proof of this popular contempt can be found in the ribald and satirical words of Francois Rabelais’ The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel.) With the rise of modern world bringing us the theory of evolution, critical Biblical scholarship and a greater understanding the earth’s advanced age, such literal interpretations of Genesis started to fall out of favor. (Hundreds of years earlier, the discoveries of the New World and the heliocentric solar system helped begin the erosion of the antiquated version of Biblical literalism.) Lastly, with the rug of literalism pulled out from under it, literary artists like Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka would mine Genesis for its artistic value.
Dry at times and maybe a tad repetitive, nevertheless Hendel’s book covers a lot ground. I found his approach insightful and above all, erudite. If it’s anything like the others in Princeton’s Lives of Great Religious Books series, I can’t wait to read them all.