Immigrant Stories Challenge: All Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Grjasnowa

Years ago, I read in the newspaper that a rather surprising number of Jews from the lands of the former Soviet Union were emigrating to Germany. Considering that nation’s role in the Holocaust, it seems hard to fathom that Jews, when finally offered the chance to freely leave the USSR, would opt for Germany as a future home. But if my feeble memory serves me, because of that nation’s generous social welfare system, political freedoms and willingness to atone for the horrible sins of its past, a significant number of Jews from across the former USSR were flocking to Germany. As I’ve said before, history is seldom without a sense of irony.

This surprising bit of human migration is the inspiration for Olga Grjasnowa’s 2014 debut novel All Russians Love Birch Trees. Her novel tells the story of Masha, a 20-something, largely non-practicing Jewish woman. Originally from Azerbaijan, Masha resides in Frankfort, Germany with her soccer playing German boyfriend. Fluent in five languages and conversant in several others, she spends her days hanging out with her Muslim immigrant friends, studying languages, applying for translator jobs and bickering with her boyfriend Elias. Later, she finds herself in Israel “working” (most workdays she’s idle and only occasionally escorts a German air worker to a Palestinian village or refugee camp) as a translator for a German nongovernmental organization. While in Israel she witnesses the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict firsthand, trying to understand it from her own particular outsider’s perspective. Masha also embarks on her own, almost accidental romantic adventures.

Some readers and reviewers even though they liked All Russians Love Birch Trees unfortunately thought it was a bit disjointed. Thankfully for me that wasn’t a problem. I also found her writing fresh and direct. (Kudos therefore to Eva Bacon, the novel’s translator for doing a fine job.) Needless to say I was impressed by Grjasnowa’s debut novel. Don’t be surprised if it makes my year-end list of Best Translated Fiction.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

Pan-European Lives: Kingdom of Shadows by Alan Furst

2014 might be remembered for many things, but when it comes to my reading life I’ll probably remember it as the year I discovered Alan Furst. It all started one day at the public library when I found a copy of his recently published novel Midnight in Europe. After that I quickly developed a minor obsession with Furst’s fiction, devouring six of his earlier novels in fairly rapid succession. All this by a guy who has traditionally seen himself as reader of mostly nonfiction, let alone a fan of “series” novels.

But the more I think about it, maybe that’s why I like Furst’s Night Soldiers novels so much. Set in Continental Europe during the years leading up to, or just after the outbreak of World War II, they appeal not only to my love of 20th century history (especially the interwar period) but also my fascination with Eastern and Central Europe. The novels are sophisticated while at the same time not dense with overly elaborate and confusing plots. There’s also number of memorable crossover characters who drop in throughout the series, just to make things a bit more entertaining. Lastly, how could I not enjoy Furst’s Night Soldiers novels when all of them revolve around a noble, intelligent, brave (yet never foolhardy) man around my same age?

Kingdom of Shadows is the seventh of Furst’s novels I’ve read this year. Published in 2000, it tells the story of Nicholas Morath, a Hungarian advertising executive who finds himself pressed into the spy business by his wealthy and mysterious uncle Count Janos Polanyi (my favorite of Furst’s supporting crossover characters). His uncle’s errands send the 40-something Nicholas across Europe, where he engages in one secret mission after another. When not serving as a secret courier or amateur black ops specialist, like many of Furst’s heroes Nicholas enjoys living the high life in Paris. And just like Furst’s other heroes, Nicholas has a pleasurable but not irresponsible love life.

Will my obsession with the novels of Alan Furst continue in 2015? Right now my guess would be yes, it will. During my library visits I’ve frequently seen Dark Voyage and The World at Night available on the shelf and both novels have intrigued me. I’m also intrigued to read some of the authors that Furst has credited as his inspiration. I’ve read several online articles about Furst and in them he’s mentioned writers Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Joseph Roth and Arthur Koestler as important influences on his work. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you see some of their novels also featured on this blog in the coming year.

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

Immigrant Stories Challenge: 50 Children by Steven Pressman

Knowing it had generated a good deal of positive buzz over the last six months or so, it was hard for me to resist Steven Pressman’s 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany when I spied a copy prominently displayed on the shelf during one of my weekend visits to the public library. Besides that, after reading a half-dozen of Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers novels I was in the mood for a little nonfiction dealing with the Nazi Reich on the eve of WW II. Plus, I could also feature the book as part of the Immigrant Stories Reading Challenge. So of COURSE I grabbed it! I mean come on, what else was I supposed to do?

Published in April of this year, 50 Children tells the story of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a Jewish-American couple from Philadelphia who in the spring of 1939 traveled to Vienna in hopes of bringing 50 Jewish children to safety in America. In order for them and their allies to pull off this bold rescue not only would they need the permission of the Nazis but also ironically the US government, which at the time was firmly opposed to allowing even a modest number of Jewish refugees to enter the country. (For this Pressman blames the American public’s strong feelings of isolationism and fears that refugees could compete for jobs in the weakened Depression-era economy. Within the US government the existence of a number of Anti-Semitic officials and elected leaders, combined with wide-spread indifference were also contributing factors.) Gilbert and Eleanor would also need money, help from sympathetic elements within the US State Department and assistance from Vienna’s endangered Jewish community. And a whole lot of luck.

50 Children is one of those well-written and I suspect well-edited books that you fly through almost effortlessly. Even though I read it while I was on vacation it still seemed like I ripped through the thing in almost no time. I’m happy to report that after hearing all the positive buzz about 50 Children in the end I was not disappointed.

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Filed under Europe, History, Judaica

Pan-European Lives: The Polish Officer by Alan Furst

As I declared in one of my earlier posts, it appears novelist Alan Furst has turned me into a bit of a series reader. If someone would have told me only a year ago that I’d find myself eagerly devouring one novel after another from some writer’s series I would have told that person he or she was crazy. But that was before I discovered Furst’s 2014 novel Midnight in Europe. And then suddenly I found myself in love with a series I could not get enough of.

My latest obsession from Furst’s Night Soldiers series is The Polish Officer. Originally published back in 1995, a few weeks ago while raiding the shelves at the public library I was delighted to find a 2001 trade paperback edition. Even though I was already plodding my way through a few other books nevertheless I still grabbed it. I’d been itching to read The Polish Officer in addition to his 2000 Kingdom of Shadows, and I was hoping to read either or possibly both of them before year’s end. Feeling victorious I left the library with a copy of The Polish Officer in my hot little hands and eagerly looked forwarded to reading it .

All of the Furst novels I’ve read up to this point have been cast from a similar mold and The Polish Officer is no exception. The action takes place during the first years of World War II, beginning with the German invasion of Poland and ending several years later with the Nazi-led attack on the USSR . Once again, the novel’s protagonist is 40-something, sophisticated, highly intelligent, Continental and reluctantly thrust into the role of secret agent by forces much greater than himself. (In this case he’s Captain Alexander de Milja, a former Polish military cartographer.) Once again, the protagonist’s travels take him across Europe, with no small amount of time spent in Paris. (Along the way he encounters several of Furst’s supporting crossover characters.) Lastly, just like in Furst’s other novels there’s a romantic adventure or two for our noble hero.

The Polish Officer makes the sixth novel in the Night Soldier series I’ve read. I’m happy to report that I enjoyed it. (Without revealing too much, on several occasions Furst had de Milja running around gathering intelligence on future German military operations. Just like I might with good detective work in a crime or mystery novel, found those little adventures intelligent and interesting. They also helped add a little depth to the overall story.) I’m sure there are those who dismiss Furst’s writing for being heavy on formula. But frankly I don’t care because it’s a fun formula. That means in the near future you’ll be seeing more of Furst’s Night Soldiers novels featured on my blog.

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The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War by Tim Butcher

2014 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. For months I’ve been wanting to feature a few books about this brutal armed conflict. Sadly however, I never got around to it. Even though I have no shortage of suitable books to read, I just never  took the time to read any of them. But lo and behold one day at the public library I found a copy of Tim Butcher’s 2014 book The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War. After picking the book up and giving it a quick look over I found myself drawn to it for several reasons. One, since it deals with Bosnia I could count it as part of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Two, it’s by the same guy who wrote Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through The World’s Most Dangerous Country and since that book has been on my to read list for a long time I figured The Trigger had to be worth reading. And three, as its title declares it deals with that infamous assassination forever blamed for starting World War I. So with that in mind, how could I resist reading Butcher’s The Trigger?

Perhaps since civilization began writers and other creative types have praised the Rule of Three. Whether on purpose or by accident Butcher appears to have followed this time-honored formula while writing his book. The Trigger is a blend of memoir, travelogue and history. Butcher spent the 90s in Bosnia reporting on the newly independent nation’s bloody conflict. As a result of those wartime travels he developed a fascination with Gavrilo Princip, the young Bosnian who fatally shot the Austrian Archduke and his wife, thereby setting in motion the cascade of events leading to World War I. In order to explain not just how, but why this assassination was carried out by Princip, Butcher returned to present day Bosnia. Following in the young Princip’s footsteps he traversed the rugged and somewhat isolated nation, visiting his birthplace and other former residences. Butcher also spent time in Belgrade, Serbia where Princip met with Serbian elements opposed to Austria’s recent annexation of Bosnia. After Princip and his co-conspirators were given training and weapons they were sent back to Sarajevo with the tacit agreement they’d assassinate the Austrian royal couple during their upcoming state visit.

Recently on Goodreads I called The Trigger a history of Bosnia in three acts. In order to understand how and why the assassination occurred, Butcher chronicled the history of Bosnia, from its days as an ottoman province up to the time it was absorbed by Austro-Hungarian Empire. Then, in an effort to assess the lasting legacy of Princip’s actions, Butcher recalled his experiences covering the 90s Bosnian War, as well as his recent travels in Bosnia and neighboring Serbia.

It is that legacy which could be seen as one of history’s many cruel ironies. Princip was a nationalist, but not just any nationalist. Despite being an Orthodox Christian from Bosnia, he was neither a Serbian or Bosnian nationalist. Instead, he wanted to drive the Austrians out of the South Slavic lands of Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia so those provinces could unite with their already independent Slav brothers in Serbia and Montenegro. His ultimate goal was not an independent Bosnia but a united South Slavic nation free of Austrian domination. But with the disintegration of Yugoslavia 70 years later, his expansive dream would be seen as over idealistic and despised by the very people he sought to liberate.

I enjoyed reading the The Trigger. Not only is it an appropriate book to read during this hundredth  anniversary of WWI, but I also think it makes a rather nice follow-up read to other books about or set in the former Yugoslavia like Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia, Peter Maass’s Love They Neighbor, Christopher Stewart’s Hunting the Tiger and Geraldine Brooks’s novel People of the Book.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Memoir

Immigrant Stories Challenge: In the Sea There are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

From time to time we hear of memoirs and other nonfiction books that were supposedly true, but after closer scrutiny turned out to be mere fabrications. While those literary incidents occasionally make headlines, we seldom hear about works of fiction that are closely based on real events. Recently, I discovered one of these relatively rare books during one of my library visits when I stumbled across a copy of Fabio Geda’s In the Sea There are Crocodiles. Geda’s slim but satisfying book is a novelized account of young Enaiatollah Akbar’s five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy.

The story begins in pre-9/11 Afghanistan when Akbar and his mother are forced to flee their impoverished village by the ruling Taliban. Members of the persecuted Hazara ethnic group, Akbar’s mother eventually realizes that life under the murderous Taliban is no longer an option and the two of them flee to Pakistan. After his mother leaves him, he risks his life traveling across Southwest Asia and the Balkans until finding sanctuary in Italy. Along the way he encounters human traffickers, desperate migrants, corrupt officials and more hardship and death than any boy should ever experience.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt that Geda’s book embodies a number of paradoxes. Billed as a novel, it’s based on the true life account of Akbar’s harrowing journey across five countries and two continents. (Interspersed throughout In the Sea There are Crocodiles are fragments of interviews between Akbar and Geda.) Told in the third person, nevertheless the world is seen through the eyes of the novel’s tween protagonist. While some have labeled the novel a piece of young adult literature, I found it more than suitable for a grown up audience. Lastly, in spite of the misery, injustice and horror Akbar suffered on his long journey, he never seems to lose his youthful optimism and trust in humanity. It is for primarily for these reasons that I have no problem recommending this surprisingly good book.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

This Common Secret by Susan Wicklund

This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion DoctoFew issues polarize America like abortion. 40 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade the abortion debate still impacts our political landscape. Pundits are forever voicing opinions on this divisive issue while politicians proudly proclaim their abortion views in order to solidify votes from their respective constituencies. Conventional wisdom dictates your opinion of abortion in no small way determines where you exist on the political spectrum and says much about your religious affiliation. Evoking passionate feelings one way or the other, it’s usually seen as a hot bottom issue with little, if any room for compromise.

Maybe that’s why I enjoyed Susan Wicklund’s 2007 memoir This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor. Wicklund spent decades as an abortion provider, mostly in small town middle America. This Common Secret is not a manifesto or a position paper. It’s her straight-up and honest account of her years in the trenches as a women’s reproductive health physician performing abortions.

I read this book months ago and there are things about it that still stick with me. Of the cases she describes, most the women were scared and all were vulnerable, seeing abortion as their last option. All sought to keep it a secret, hence the book’s title. (Wickland recalls an evening she spent at a local tavern. While dancing on the dance floor several of her former patients began dancing around her as a form of unspoken tribute.)  Some of her patients enlisted her services even though the procedure conflicted with their stated religious beliefs. (This included one female anti-abortion protester.) Encountering one patient who didn’t want an abortion but felt pressured due to because of economic reasons, Wicklund convinced a local anti-abortion activist to help cover the woman’s hospital bills so she could give birth to the child. She also dealt with gut-wrenching cases of rape and incest.

No matter your views on abortion, I’d encourage you to read This Common Secret. In her memoir Wicklund comes across as sane, experienced and compassionate. It’s also an excellent book and just like the recently featured The Unlikely Disciple it could very well end up making my 2014 Best Nonfiction List. And just like The Unlikely Disciple I highly recommend it.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Memoir, Science