Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld

The novel featured in my last post, Jacob’s Oath: A Novel, is set in the immediate post-war period and tells the story of two Holocaust survivors trying to rebuild their shattered lives. The subject of this post, Badenheim 1939, when compared to Jacob’s Oath: A Novel feels like a prequel. Set in 1939 on the eve of WWII, it tells the story of a community of Jews confined to the Austrian resort village of Badenheim. Originally drawn to Badenheim for its annuals arts festival, they now find themselves unable to leave. After forced by the authorities to register as Jews with the “Sanitation Department” a languid and almost dream-like atmosphere descends upon Badenheim. Largely self-absorbed with their own personal dramas and petty concerns, a growing sense of uneasiness begins to take root among the confined Jews concerning their future: a vaguely defined forced resettlement to Poland. Needless to say any reader possessing even most the basic knowledge of WWII knows this will not end well.

Originally published in Hebrew in Israel in 1979 with an English-language edition appearing in the United States a year later, Appelfeld’s novel has been called many things. Many have called it an allegorical satire of the Holocaust. Some have called it a work of romantic realism. Others have deemed it a pro-Zionist piece of literature. With it’s slowly unfolding sense of tragedy, some have labeled it Kafkaesque. At the same time many have felt the novel’s characters seem straight out of a play by Chekhov.

Alas, it’s these characters that’s spawned the more vigorous debate  Some readers have called them one-dimensional and I’m tempted to agree. (While I do have a soft spot for the village’s two prostitutes who happen to be sisters.) A few critics have gone far enough to blast Appelfeld for portraying his characters in such a negative light as to be deserved the horrible fate that ultimately befell them. As for me, Badenheim 1939 is a somewhat dark and provocative allegory for the Holocaust. I also saw it as a window into pre-war Jewish Europe. This makes it a nice companion novel to Jacob’s Oath. And as you might remember from my previous post, I thought Jacob’s Oath made a nice companion read to Savage Continent. So, with that in mind all three books complement each other. And that’s never a bad thing.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica

Jacob’s Oath: A Novel by Martin Fletcher

Jacob's Oath: A NovelLate last year, as part of the Nonfiction November project a number of book bloggers posted their suggested pairings of nonfiction books with works of fiction. Even though I didn’t participate in that part of the Nonfiction November project, I nevertheless loved reading everyone’s suggestions. It’s always nice when you can follow-up a quality piece of nonfiction with an equally fine work of fiction. Like combining the right wine with the right cheese, finding a perfect pair of fiction and nonfiction that complement each other is a wonderful treat.

With that in mind, I’m happy to report that I recently stumbled upon a novel that pairs nicely with the subject of my last post, Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II. Martin Fletcher’s Jacob’s Oath: A Novel tells the story of two young Jewish lovers in post-war Heidelberg, Germany struggling repair their horribly shattered lives after years of war and Nazi oppression. During the Holocaust Sarah lived on the run, hiding in safe houses and basements. With his deceased mother a British national, Jacob was spared immediate execution or transport to Auschwitz and was instead sent to the “exchange camp” of Bergen-Belsen, along with other Jews the Nazis hoped they could eventually swap for German POWs held overseas. While imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen he survived the horrors of severe malnutrition, disease and sadistic guards. One of those guards, Hans Seeler nicknamed “The Rat” murdered Jacob’s brother and Jacob has vowed to kill Seeler and thus avenge his brother’s death. But will he turn his back on vengeance and instead begin a new life with Sarah?

I enjoyed Fletcher’s novel. I found it fast-paced and a bit of a thriller. With visions of post-war German’s wholesale destruction fresh in my mind after reading Savage Continent, I thought Fletcher did a credible job depicting that conquered nation’s shattered landscape. And in the midst of all this destruction are two young lovers, each one trying to come to grips with horrible personal loss. But while at the same time finding love in a place where neither of them would have expected it. How’s that for book pairing?

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica

Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe

Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War III 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.

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

About Time I Read It: Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman

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.

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Filed under Current Affairs, International Crime, Memoir

Pan-European Lives: The Sun at Midday by Gini Alhadeff

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.

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Filed under Arab World, Europe, History, Judaica, Memoir, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

The Coffee Trader: A Novel by David Liss

“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.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica

Pan-European Lives: The Coldest Winter by Paula Fox

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.

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