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.
Years ago, and quite probably by accident, I discovered the essays of Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic. I found her 1993 essay collection Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War a fresh, direct and passionate look at the region’s bloody conflict. Not long after reading Balkan Express, I happened to see a little blurb in The New Yorker noting that an English language translation of her novel Marble Skin had recently been published in the United States. Before long I was able to procure a copy from my local public library. Crazy thing is after reading only a few pages I put her novel down and didn’t read another page.
Last week, while at the public library combing the shelves for novels set in Europe, I wanted to find something from Croatia. Remember that Drakulic is Croatian, I looked to see if any of her stuff was available. Lo and behold, there it was. Not only was it there, but I’m willing to bet my bottom dollar that it was the same 1994 hardcover edition of Marble Skin I checked out years ago. Time to give Marble Skin another chance I told myself. And that’s exactly what I did.
Marble Skin is not an easy novel to write about. For one, it’s written from a first person perspective in a kind of dream-like state; at times you’re left wondering how reliable is the narrator. Second of all, it follows a young woman’s transition to womanhood and with it the powerful, confusing and potentially dangerous world of sexual attraction. With her mother’s remarriage the young protagonist must now share her household with an adult male who is far from oblivious to her blossoming womanhood. As you might guess boundaries familial, ethical and legal will be crossed.
After comparing Drakulic’s fiction to her nonfiction, I think I like her as an essayist more than a novelist. However to be fair, I should read more of her stuff in order to make a fair assessment. With a pretty decent catalog of her writing available for me to choose from, I shouldn’t have any problem.
I was introduced to the fiction of Atiq Rahimi over three years ago. One evening after work while working my way through the assorted novels and anthologies of the international authors shelf at my public library I found a copy of his 2010 novel The Patience Stone. Set in pre-Taliban Afghanistan during that country’s civil war, Rahimi’s short novel revolves around an Afghan woman caring for her comatose husband as fighting rages around them. As the evening wears on, her one-sided conversation with him becomes more like a fevered confession as she reveals her darkest secrets. Looking back, I remember enjoying The Patience Stone. I was impressed with Rahimi’s ability to tell such a story laconically, but with intensity. And while that story might have seemed simple in the beginning, as that story unfolded layers of complexity bubbled to the surface.
Earlier this week I stopped by the library after work and took a swing through the fiction section in hopes of finding a few books for the European Reading Challenge. After seeing a book sitting on a shelf entitled A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear how could I not investigate? Once I learned it was written by Atiq Rahimi, the author of The Patience Stone I could not resist.
Published in 2011, just like Rahimi’s earlier novel The Patience Stone, A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear also takes place in Afghanistan. This time, it’s 1979, not long after pro-Soviet elements have seized power in a coup and are now terrorizing the citizens of Kabul. After savagely beaten by soldiers for violating curfew, a young college student named Farhad has been taken in by a mysterious women and slowly nursed back to health. His recovery takes him through alternating states of lucidity and feverish hallucination. Confined to a stranger’s house and dwelling in this twilight zone bordering the real and the imagined, Farhad fears he’s died and now awaiting God’s judgment at the hands of his avenging angels.
I wasn’t disappointed with A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear. But I didn’t like it as much as The Patience Stone, even though it possesses some of the same qualities of and similarities to Rahimi’s earlier novel. What’s really cool is it’s inspired me to read more books set in or about Afghanistan. So don’t be surprised when you see more of these kind of books featured on this blog.
Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has definitely got me reading more books about Europe or set in Europe. Since the rules state that each book must be by a different author and set in a different country, the challenge has forced me to broaden my horizons and read stuff from countries across European. It’s also encouraged me to broaden my horizons when it comes to what kind of books I read. For years, I’ve read almost exclusively nonfiction. But over the last couple of years, I’ve found myself reading more and more fiction, especially stuff by international authors. (Other reading challenges like Mysteries in Paradise’s Global Reading Challenge and the Introverted Reader’s Books in Translation Reading Challenge have also provided inspiration.) Some of this international fiction has been of the mystery and crime varieties. My latest foray into these kind of genres is Anthony Quinn’s (sorry, not that Anthony Quinn) Border Angels. I came across a copy last weekend at the public library. Set in Northern Ireland, I grabbed it knowing I could count it as the United Kingdom part of the European Reading Challenge. However, I almost didn’t borrow it because I was worried it was some mass-marketed, superficial piece of crap. Much to my surprise, I was utterly wrong. Quinn’s Border Angels is a fast-paced and intelligent mystery.
Published in 2013, Border Angels is book two in the Inspector Celcius Daly series of mysteries. Set in Northern Ireland, it’s the story of police detective Daly’s race against time to locate Lena, a beautiful young Croatian women and recent escapee from an illegal brothel. A victim of sexual slavery and now on the run, Lena is the sought after missing link to a murder, a suspicious suicide, a blackmail scheme and a huge misappropriation of public funds. Trying to catch her before Daly does is her former pimp as well as a hit man with ties to the IRA. And like any decent mystery, there’s a few plot twists along the way.
I guess one of the reasons I was surprisingly satisfied with Border Angels is it’s not some cheap shoot ‘em up bang-bang. The plot involves human trafficking, the recent world-wide real estate bust, political corruption, the global economy and the legacy of the IRA. Quinn’s Border Angels is recreational reading at it’s best.
About two years ago while out running errands I happened to hear over my car radio NPR correspondent John Powers’s review of
Fast forward to about a week ago when I found myself meandering through the shelves of fiction at the public library. (A bit of a departure for me, since I usually meander through the shelves of nonfiction. History, religion, memoirs and international relations tends to be the bulk of my reading fare.) Keeping my eyes open for novels by European authors (or at least ones set in Europe) since once again I’m taking part in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, what did I find but a copy of Death and the Penguin. Remembering that this is a book I’ve been wanting to read, I grabbed it. After finishing it yesterday morning I’m glad I did.
Published in 2011 by the good people at Melville International Crime, Death and the Penguin is the story of Viktor and his pet penguin Misha, who he purchases from a local zoo after it becomes too broke to care for its animals. Unsuccessful at getting his fiction published, Viktor’s approached by a Kiev newspaper and offered the job of writing advance obituaries of Ukraine’s rich and powerful. Viktor, who’s happy just to land a paying job in the somewhat impoverished post-Soviet Ukraine, knows it’s common for newspapers and press agencies to stockpile these kind of articles in order to be ready at a moment’s notice should the opportunity afford itself. However, when the subjects of his advance obits start turning up dead, Viktor fears the worst. Is he just a cog in a larger killing machine? Will he suffer the same murderous fate once his services are no longer needed?
I found Kurkov’s novel dark but a bit plodding at times. I also found it funny in places and towards the end even a bit suspenseful. More than a few reviewers thought the novel accurately captured those feelings of uncertainty and ambiguity one probably experiences living in Ukraine, a nation that seems lawless and at the same time authoritarian. Not only did I enjoy Death and the Penguin, I’m looking forward to reading its sequel, Penguin Lost.
Since I’d seen Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Prisoner of Heaven mentioned on several blogs over the last year or so, I figured it was a novel worth reading when I came across a copy in the international authors section of my public library. After grabbing a few additional works of international fiction and later, after navigating the automated check-out machines, I still asked myself if I’d made the right call by grabbing Zafon’s 2012 novel. The next day, when I began reading it I soon had my answer. After reading just a few pages I quickly fell in love with The Prisoner of Heaven. This is a wonderful piece of fiction.
Written as the third installment of a trilogy comprising The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, one can still read and enjoy The Prisoner of Heaven without having read the other books in the series. (According to the author’s introduction, this was Zafon’s intent.) The novel begins in Barcelona, Spain in 1957 when a mysterious and disfigured stranger enters the sleepy Sempere family bookstore. His purchase of a valuable edition of The Count of Monte Cristo serves as a catalyst in bringing to light secrets that have remained hidden for decades. The action is quick, the dialog crisp and the characters complex and at times even mysterious. When a novel combines a bookstore full of old books, life during Franco’s oppressive rule, a body and soul crushing prison filled with political prisoners and people’s thirst for revenge, what’s not to like?
I’m happy to recommend this novel to anyone. I’m also happy to report that The Prisoner of Heaven helps fulfill a number of reading challenges: the Everything Espana Reading Challenge, European Reading Challenge, Books in Translation Reading Challenge, Global Reading Challenge and I Love Library Books Reading Challenge. Since I enjoy reading challenges as much as I do an excellent novel, that somewhat serendipitous bit of good fortune made me very happy.