Immigrant Stories Challenge: The Beggar and the Hare by Tuomas Kyrö

The Beggar and The HareWith 75 per cent of the year over, when I look back on my reading I feel like a lazy slacker. That’s because so far this year, only I’ve read and reviewed about 10 books for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Last year I was cranking them out right and left. This year, not so much. Sadly, I doubt I’ll exceed last year’s total of 21 books. Bummer. So much for my plan to read the most books and win the challenge’s reading contest.

The good news is despite my pathetic rate of participation I’m still reading some very good books about or set in Europe. I’ve also managed to discover a few European authors here and there that were completely off my radar until this just year. For example, until about a week ago, I’d never heard of the Finnish author Tuomas Kyrö. Or for that matter, ANY Finnish authors. But a few days after a trip to my public library I soon found myself reading his quirky, funny and quickly paced novel The Beggar and the Hare.

Kyrö’s novel follows the adventurous wanderings of Vatanescu, a blue-collar Romanian everyman who travels to Finland in hopes of making enough money to buy his young son a pair of top-notch soccer shoes. With few resources no official authorization to work abroad, Vatanescu has to enlist the services of former Russian security services agent turned human trafficker. Dumped on the streets of Helsinki and forced to panhandle to earn his keep, one day he flees his oppressive mobster boss with a handful of cash and embarks on a picaresque odyssey from one end of Finland to another. With a friendly rabbit as his loyal companion the two travelers encounter individuals from across the socioeconomic spectrum. Almost always humorous in nature, their interactions with foreign guest workers, politicians, upper class retirees, bureaucrats and criminals not only entertain, but also provide thoughtful social and political commentary on life in today’s Europe.

Not knowing what to expect when I grabbed this novel off the shelf, by the end I was left pleasantly surprised. The Beggar and the Hare feels fresh, funny and smart. Kudos to David McDuff for providing the novel’s English translation. At the end of the year, when I compile my “best of” lists, don’t be surprised if The Beggar and the Hare makes the cut.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, International Crime

A Manual for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian

A Manual for Creating AtheistsI’ve never read a book by an author who works across the street from where I work. Peter Boghossian, the author of A Manuel for Creating Atheists is a professor at Portland State University and its campus borders my workplace on two sides. Knowing Boghossian could be walking near my building at any given time throughout the day, reading his book was like reading something written by a neighbor you’ve never seen, let alone met. Therefore, as reading experiences go I’d have to classify this one as being, well, charming.

But what to do with a book that some readers could find anything but charming?  Let’s be honest, a book written by an avowed atheist created specifically as a how to manual for other atheists to “deconvert” religious believers might not be everyone’s cup of tea. How on earth then do I write favorably of such a book when knowing that more than several of my loyal readers are deeply religious? And what about those readers, who aren’t religious per se, but profess some sort of spirituality or low-key, laissez-faire religious outlook on life?

Years ago, I read of an advertising executive who made a name for himself during Madison Avenue’s golden age. In his opinion, in order to be successful in advertising one must always assume one’s audience is intelligent. I firmly believe all readers of this blog are highly intelligent. Therefore, if I praise this book and give it my recommendation, I do so my audience’s intelligence in mind.

Unlike some atheist books out there, Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists isn’t an anti-religious manifesto. It’s about engaging people who believe in things not supported by decent evidence. According to Boghossian, it’s not so much what these people believe but why they believe it. It’s the process they’ve employed that’s brought them to this current state of belief that’s the real issue. By using teaching techniques like the Socratic method one can help these individuals recognize their beliefs are flawed and in need of reevaluation. Once new evidence and new ways of critical thinking are introduced challenging their enclosed and restricted belief systems, deep and lasting change can occur. But it all starts with asking the right questions.

That is why I liked this book. The same intellectual tools Boghossian uses to challenge the foundations of religious belief can also be used to combat the shaky evidence and reasoning behind medical and dental quackery, crackpot conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. I’m also looking forward to applying the lessons learned from this book to deal more effectively with some of the challenges that plague the modern workplace, like magical thinking and poor decision-making. Bold and uncompromising, I found A Manual for Atheists rich in content and delightfully applicable. (Christopher Johnson, cofounder of the Onion called it “a book so great you can skip it and just read the footnotes.”)

I recommend this book to all readers no matter what their religious persuasions might be. I would especially challenge religious individuals to read this book. If, after reading this book you find your faith intact then you’ve lost nothing and quite possibly emerged with a faith that’s stronger. However, if after reading it you find yourself questioning your beliefs then you probably know, in all honesty, it was necessary. Regardless of our religious beliefs, I believe all intelligent people want to know the truth. Therefore, I highly recommend A Manual for Creating Atheists.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic

Think Like a Freak by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your BrainAfter years, no, make that decades of reading books I finally did it. I joined a book club. You would think with all the reading I do that at some point in my life I would have been in at least one book club, even for the briefest period of time. The truth is, I’ve always wanted to be in one, but I just never got around to doing it. But thanks to the magic of Meet Up, I recently joined the Badass Book Club PDX. And my first book with this group: Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain. Last month, about eight of us sat down over pints of beer at a local watering hole and talked about Levitt and Dubner’s newest book.

Published in May of this year, Think Like a Freak marks the third collaboration between Levitt and Dubner of Freakonmics fame. (Their second book, SuperFreakonomics I reviewed back in 2011.) Instead presenting a collection of interesting case studies like they did with their previous two books, this time around the authors have written a kind of “how to” book for us lowly mortals on how to solve life’s problems by disregarding long-held assumptions, popular opinions and conventional logic. Instead, we are encouraged to look at these challenges from radically new perspectives: fresh and inquisitive like a child, open and non-judgmental thanks to a suspended personal moral compass and lastly, with the knowledge that all of us respond in some way or another to incentives.  Interestingly enough, in much the same way I felt about SuperFreakonomics, there are things my new book club liked about Think Like a Freak, and things we didn’t.

Let’s start with the things we liked. To varying degrees we found the book interesting and definitely worth talking about. Think Like a Freak is very readable and at times even entertaining. With a business book kind of feel about it, Think Like a Freak should lend itself well for practical application. Generally, we liked the many examples and case studies discussed throughout the book. We also found the footnotes incredibly rich.

As for the negative, more than a few book club participants thought the book was a bit superficial and lacking in hard analysis. Just has many critics have accused Malcolm Gladwell of cherry picking his supporting evidence in order to make his claims, so also did several book club participants accuse the authors of Think Like a Freak of doing much the same. Lastly, two participants felt a bit cheated after buying the book because according to them, a lot of the stuff covered in Think Like a Freak is also available for free via podcasts on the Freakonomics website.

Looking back, I’m glad I joined this book club. It’s fun to talk about a book we’ve all read, not to mention hearing everyone’s opinions. The next book I’ll be reading for this group is Steven Pinker’s 2002 bestseller The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. So look for a review of that much-talked about book in about a month or two. Can’t wait to hear what my new book club friends have to say about this one.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, Science

Rock the Casbah by Robin Wright

Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic WorldYou think your job is tough, try writing a book that’s relevant and up to date on the Islamic World. For decades the region was criticized as politically and socially stagnant. Yet over the last couple of years we’ve seen a cascade of tumultuous events sweep across that part of the world. From stolen elections in Iran to the uprisings of the Arab Spring, to civil warfare in Syria and Iraq, it’s been a crazy last few years. Heck, only a few months ago none of us had even heard of Boko Haram or ISIS. Nowadays they’re the lead stories on the evening news. My how things have changed.

With that in mind, foreign policy specialist and international journalist Robin Wright chose a thankless job when she decided to write Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.  To produce a book that’s insightful and intelligent enough to fully describe- let alone analyze-the many grassroots developments happening throughout such a diverse and expansive part of the world is a task almost Sisyphean in nature. But with much energy, optimism and a dash or two of honesty, she does a credible job.

I first came across her stuff back in 2010, when during one of my weekend library visits, I discovered a copy of her 2008 book Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East. After enjoying Dreams and Shadows I finally got off my duff three years later and read her 1986 book Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam. (Years ago an old mentor of mine gave me a copy and it had been sitting in my private library ignored and unread.) Therefore, when I found that Wright had written a book about this region I was understandably excited. After letting it sit on my desk for a few days I cracked it open and began reading. I must have liked it because it didn’t take me long to finish it. Just as she did with Dreams and Shadows, Wright did a fine job spending lots of time in the field interviewing the very people who are trying to bring about these sweeping changes. Almost always she let them speak for themselves, which I think is a good thing. She also provides analysis, and considering she’s no stranger to the politics of the area I found her insight valuable. (Unfortunately, the copy I read was an earlier one and therefore missing the updated chapter. Fortunately, what Wright had to say in last chapter of my copy I found very intelligent and honest.) I thought her chapter on art in the Islamic world, especially comedy was bar none my favorite of the book.

When it comes to the future of the Islamic world, Wright is an optimist. She has confidence in those who strive mightily seeking to change things for the better But she’s still a cautious optimist and definitely not a Pollyanna. I don’t think anyone has a magic crystal ball when it comes to predicting what the future holds for that part of the world. But if anyone can help show us where things are going, Robin Wright can.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Islam, Israel, Middle East/North Africa

Pan-European Lives: Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst

Spies of the BalkansI’ve never considered myself a “series” reader. You know, the kind of person who likes to read novels by a particular author that are part of an extend series of books. Frequently, these books share common characters, locations and/or historical settings. While many readers love this kind of thing, traditionally, it’s never been my cup of tea. That is, until now.

Enter Alan Furst. A few months ago during one of my weekend library visits I stumbled on a copy of his 2014 novel Midnight in Europe. After enjoying the heck out of it, I was happy to discover it’s actually the latest book in his Night Soldiers series. According to Wikipedia, there’s 13 books in the series, all set in Europe during World War Two or the interwar period of the 1930s. Armed with this knowledge I later returned to the public library and grabbed The Spies of Warsaw. After finishing that one I went back to the library looking for more. After rummaging through what was available on the shelf I settled on his Spies of the Balkans, probably because that part of the world has always fascinated me.

Just like I did with Midnight in Europe and The Spies of Europe I whipped through Spies of the Balkans quickly, enjoying it as I went along. Although I’ve read only three of the Night Soldiers novels. already I’m starting to pick out a number of similarities.

  • War on the horizon: With Midnight in Europe and The Spies of the Warsaw set in the late 30s, WWII is only a few years away. Spies of the Balkans begins in 1940 with the repulsed Italian invasion of Greece. Even though Greece is safe for the moment, everyone knows the Germans are on their way.
  • A single, mature (but not terribly older) male protagonist: Old enough to be in a position of responsibility but not too old to be a daring man of action when needed. Being single allows him a  romantic adventure. (However, unlike the vintage James Bond character, he doesn’t use women and toss them aside. He’s refreshingly honorable and romantic.)
  • A wide spectrum of supporting characters from across Europe.
  • One Continental city serves as home base, but the action takes place throughout Europe: In Midnight in Europe it was Paris. In The Spies of Warsaw it was Warsaw. With Spies of the Balkans it’s Salonica, Greece. And just like the two previously mentioned novels, all of Europe serves host to Furst’s adventures.
  • Lastly, no matter where the novel is set, there’s always a side trip to Paris.

Like I mentioned at the start, I enjoyed Spies of the Balkans. Of the three Furst novels I’ve read so far, Midnight in Europe is still my favorite. I’d probably rank this one neck and neck with The Spies of Warsaw.

With another one of Alan Furst’s novels under by belt, what’s up next? Will it be Mission to Paris? Or how about Red Gold or Kingdom of Shadows? I guess you’ll have to stick around to find out.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, Turkey

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

The Cat's TableBack in June I featured Mirko Bonné’s 2013 novel The Ice-Cold Heaven: A Novel because it’s set in Antarctica, and therefore eligible to be counted as part of the “seventh continent” portion of Kerrie’s Global Reading Challenge. Fortunately, to make things a bit easier for the challenge participants she’s broadened the concept of the seventh content to include ”the sea, the space, a supernatural/paranormal world, history, the future-you name it.” That works rather nicely for me. But what to next read as part of that seventh continent? Then, last week at the public library I had my answer. For the second time this summer I came across a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s 2011 novel The Cat’s Table. I was a bit hesitant to take a chance on it because I’ve had mixed results with Ondaatje. I loved The English Patient. However, Anil’s Ghost, not so much. But after noticing The Cat’s Table is a novel about a sea voyage a little lightbulb in my head suddenly went off. I could classify its setting as “international waters” and include it as one of my submissions the seventh continent. So, with that in mind I grabbed it.
OK, so it counts for my reading challenge but how was it? Thankfully, it’s no Anil’s Ghost. But it ain’t The English Patient either. But who cares. I enjoyed it

The Cat’s Table is the story of an 11-year-old Ceylonese boy, who along with two of his young countrymen, dine each evening at the “cat’s table” during a three-week sea journey from Colombo to London. Designated as a table reserved for social misfits, eccentrics and potentially troublesome lower-class children, the cat’s table serves as a kind of quarantine for any passengers not worthy of being near the Captain’s table and his esteemed guests. (Remember that scene in the movie Animal House when they exile Mohammad, Jugdish and company to the far corner during that snooty fraternity party?) Of course, just like any high school cafeteria that uncool table is where the truly interesting and memorable people eat. At this table our young traveler gets a world-class education as he rubs elbows with a vagabond musician, a British spinster and a small cast of somewhat mysterious but incredibly fascinating passengers. When not dining with this band of misfits he and his young buddies run roughshod over the ship, secretly spying on passengers, exploring the off-limits bowels of the ship and causing general mayhem.

I enjoyed The Cat’s Table for several reasons. One, it combined two few elements I’ve always enjoyed in a piece of fiction or memoir: coming of age and encountering class/racial barriers. In addition, with the novel told in the first person, you see the world through the eyes of an innocent, but with an innocence that is slowly but surely fading away. Being it’s told from the vantage point of a middle age man looking back after a half century makes that loss of innocence feel even more poignant.

Like I said, I enjoyed The Cat’s Table and as a result it’s rekindled my interest in Michael Ondaatje. I’d be willing to read more of his novels. Just don’t make me read Anil’s Ghost again.

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Filed under Fiction, History, Indian Subcontinent, International Crime

Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

We hear all the time about “failed states.” Usually located in somewhere in the developing world, these national basket cases tend to share a common set of attributes: endemic corruption, political instability, widespread poverty, high unemployment, gun violence, population outflow and economic dependence on one particular manufactured product, cash crop or extractive industry (crude oil, copper, rare earth minerals, etc.). But are there also cities that possess these same unenviable qualities? After reading Charlie LeDuff’s 2013 book Detroit: An America Autopsy I can tell you without any doubt that yes, there are. Sadly, the city LeDuff writes about it is not in Somalia, Haiti or Afghanistan. It’s Detroit, located right here in the good old USA.

LeDuff’s book had been on my radar since the end of last year, after several book bloggers mentioned it during the Nonfiction November Project. When I saw a copy on display at my public library I grabbed it, hoping it would live up to my expectations. Holy cow, it sure did – and then some. Detroit: An American Autopsy is an extremely gritty, uncompromising and unforgiving look at America’s biggest failed city. It’s a city where mayors wind up in prison, arson is a spectator sport, police doctor crime stats to hide the true murder rate, 1 in 30 residents are homeless, 40 per cent of the city is vacant and 911 response times can run two hours. For over a century Detroit depended on the American auto industry, but thanks to executive mismanagement, inflexible unions and foreign competition the city’s vibrant economic engine is a shadow of its former self. Instead the new growth industries are drug dealing, graft, public assistance, arson and illegally harvesting scrap metal.

LeDuff, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter, is no stranger to the mean streets of Detroit. Not only did he grow up there, but his sister, also a Detroit resident, was heavily involved in drugs and died a violent death. His brother, another city resident, lost his job and then later his home due to foreclosure (sadly fitting because Detroit is also America’s foreclosure capital). Detroit is LeDuff’s city, he knows it well and as a result he throws himself head-first into his book. His mission to show the world the true face of Detroit is passionate, reckless and tenacious. (Kim, from Sophisticated Dorkiness, in her brief but excellent review mentioned LeDuff’s utilizing the “gonzo” style of journalism in writing his book. Considering Detroit is such a train wreck, I’m guessing LeDuff knew what he was doing.)

This is one of the best pieces of nonfiction I’ve read this year. Don’t be surprised if it makes my Best Nonfiction List for 2014. Highly recommended.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, History, Memoir