The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

9781594488276_p0_v1_s192x300You gotta like a guy who gets his first book published when he’s 80 years old. Heck, just living to the ripe old age of 80 is impressive enough, but getting your debut work of fiction published at an age when many people are entering an assisted living facility is an amazing feat.

Last week, after dropping off a few books at the public library I took a lazy waltz along the shelves in hopes something might catch my eye. Seeing the non-Western name Jamil Ahmad on the spine of a book I was quickly intrigued. After inspecting it, things started to look familiar. Then I remembered author Jamil Ahmad and his book The Wandering Falcon being featured on NPR a few years back. Well heck, good enough for NPR, good enough for me. So I grabbed it.

Even though The Wandering Falcon isn’t a novel but a collection of short stories, with all the stories sharing a common character. Tor Baz, the orphaned love child of a renegade couple shows up in all nine stories, even if in passing. As the stories shift forward and backward in time, we see Tor Baz young and old, as well as from varying perspectives.

What I really liked about The Wandering Falcon was Ahmad’s ability to capture the people and environment of the rough and tumble borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Seeing this region through Ahmad eyes, it’s a world perhaps best described as harsh and unforgiving, but at the same time rich and colorful. As I read these stories, I found the writing reminiscent of mid-century American writer Paul Bowles and his descriptions of North Africa.

After reading The Wandering Falcon, I’d like to read more works of fiction set in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And why not? The two nations are always in the news and will probably continue to be as Afghanistan slides towards anarchy, Pakistan remains unsettled and the overall region of South Asia rises in significance as the Indian Ocean takes center stage among world policy makers. Therefore, expect to see more books like The Wandering Falcon featured on my blog.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, Fiction, History, Indian Subcontinent

The Figaro Murders by Laura Lebow

The Figaro MurdersWriting a debut novel is gotta be tough. Writing a decent one is probably even tougher. Faced with this daunting challenge, I’m sure many aspiring novelists simply throw in the towel before they’ve written a single paragraph. Some, perhaps unsure of their own abilities and fearing the uncertainties of the publishing world don’t even try. On top of that, there’s more than a few cynics out there who would contend that given what mass-marketed dreck passes for literature nowadays just about anyone can get something published. (Remember 50 Shades of Gray, anyone?)  However, I would disagree. Considering how difficult it’s been for me just doing this blog, writing a first novel looks far from easy.

Maybe that’s why I’m pleasantly surprised whenever I find myself enjoying a debut novel.

One weekend at the public library I found a copy of Laura Lebow’s The Figaro Murders and needing something set in Austria for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge decided to take a chance on it. It struck me as one of those books that might be OK, but not spectacular. Happily, I can report that The Figaro Murders exceeded my simple expectations.

Set in Vienna during the time of Mozart and Salieri, Lebow’s novel begins with Lorenzo Da Ponte, an Italian expat and court librettist, seeing his favorite barber dragged off to debtors prison. On a quest to save his imprisoned friend, De Ponte follows an intriguing set of clues that lead him to the house of a local nobleman. Before long he’s coerced into solving a murder, becomes an unwilling pawn in political power plays and too much his surprise becomes a target for assassins. And on top of all of this, he needs to help his buddy Mozart get The Marriage of Figaro ready for opening night.

I liked The Figaro Murders. Lebow’s mystery is clever, fast-paced and well-written. Without revealing too much, for such a modest novel there’s a surprising degree of complexity when it comes to the whodunnit aspect of the plot. I also enjoyed Lebow’s passing references to the enlightened rule of Austrian Emperor Joseph II. (So much so I wouldn’t mind reading a good biography about the man.) This is an enjoyable mystery and I’m glad I stumbled upon it.

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Immigrant Stories: Tehran at Twilight by Salar Abdoh

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’re well aware of my longtime fascination with the Middle East. You might also know out of all the countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Israel and Iran interest me the most. (There’s probably a number of reason’s why this is so, but since I already discussed this in a post last May I wont go into it right now.) And while Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has me scrambling to read stuff from France to Russia and everywhere in between, let’s just say it’s still hard for me to resist good books about Israel or Iran.

I guess that’s why I could not resist grabbing Salar Abdoh’s novel Tehran at Twilight when I came across it one evening at the public library. Heck, not only would it feed my addiction to Middle Eastern literature, but I could apply it towards Kerrie’s Global Reading Challenge. So of COURSE I took it. Seriously people, what choice did I have?

Published in 2014 by the good people at Akashic Books, Tehran at Twilight begins with a simple premise. Up and coming academic and Iranian-American Reza Melak has been asked by his childhood friend Sina to return to the land of his birth to help sort out a complex business matter. But like any good noir tale, things aren’t that simple. Soon Reza is reunited with a mother he thought was long dead, who has matters of her own that require his assistance. These involve helping her mother’s old friend, an elderly Holocaust survivor, originally from Poland, who ultimately wants to be buried in a local Jewish cemetery but technically can’t because she converted to Islam in order to marrying an Iranian. (After first converting to Christianity.) On top of it, his mother wants to immigrate to America, but the Iranian regime is reluctant to help since she’s a former Tudeh member (Communist) and dissident who spent years imprisoned by the mullahs. Upon his arrival in Tehran, Reza is surprised to learn his very secular buddy Sani is now working for the regime’s very religious zealots. Or is he?  And why is that lowlife government informant Fani following Reza around day and night?

Abdoh’s Tehran is a mean and gritty place. It’s a world of corrupt clerics, wraith-like heroin addicts and dead-end neighborhoods so tough the police treat them as no-go areas. One would think a novel about Iran would be solely revolve around theocratic machinations and geopolitical conflict. Instead, Tehran at Twilight is a story of about greed, deception and murky moral choices. In other words, classic noir.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Fiction, History, Iran, Middle East/North Africa

Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment

Ever go in search of particular book and instead end up buying something else? I once went to a bookstore to buy a copy of Hans Zinnser’s 1934 classic Rats, Lice and History and came home with William McNeill’s just as classic Plagues and Peoples. (Since McNeill’s book went on to be one of my favorites of all time I never doubted once I chose the right book). Recently, my book club chose Colin Renfrew’s Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind as our monthly selection. I was all set to read it but after reading the book’s reviews and reader comments on Amazon I was less than excited. What did excite me was the available selection of Kindle format Modern Library Chronicles for only $2.99. While they all looked like great deals one particular title caught my eye. Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment by Stephen Kotkin looked quite promising. So for less than the price of a pint of good beer, I bought it. And just like years ago when I choose Plagues and Peoples over Rats, Lice and History I have no regrets.

Published in 2009, Uncivil Society is part of the Modern Library Chronicles. It’s a series of compact but nevertheless informative books, probably crafted for introductory and/or supplementary purposes. Over the years I’ve read at two least books from series, namely Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History and Milton Viorst’s Storm from the East: The Struggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West. Both were decent and left me wanting to read others from the series.

In Uncivil Society, Kotkin (with help from Jan Gross) tries to explain not just why the Communist nations of Eastern Europe collapsed, but why it happened so quickly. (Kotkin uses the term “bank run” to describe this rapid implosion.) By looking at the last few decades leading up to the fall of Communism in Poland, East Germany and Romania, according to Kotkin several factors caused the demise of the old Eastern Block. One was those countries’ inability to economically compete the not only with the capitalist nations of Europe and North America, but also the upstart Asian economies of South Korea and Taiwan. Unable to provide their citizens with consumer goods without borrowing money from the West, they soon found themselves drowning in debt with nothing valuable to export. As things started to spiral out of control Gorbachev refused to prop-up the failing regimes. By then it was over for the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Since I’ve had pretty good luck with three different books from the Modern Library Chronicles, I wouldn’t mind exploring a few others. Michael Sturmer’s The German Empire: A Short History, Tim Blanning’s The Romantic Revolution: A History, Richard Bessel’s Nazism and War and Robert S. Wistrich’s Hitler and the Holocaust all look promising. All eeconomically priced and easily available through Amazon, I have a feeling I’ll be reading more from the Modern Library Chronicles.

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

Immigrant Stories: The Train to Warsaw by Gwen Edelman

9780802122445_p0_v3_s192x300Lately, I’m sure some of you have noticed I’ve been playing around with something I call “unofficial sequels.” These are books that even though they were written by completely different authors the books seem to take off right where one book ends. Heck, I’ve even stretched this little obsession of mine to include unofficial trilogies. But enough digression. On to the matter at hand. Now I think I might have found an unofficial prequel.

Not long ago, while making my way through the assorted offerings on the New Books shelf at my public library I came across a copy of Gwen Edelman’s 2014 novel The Train to Warsaw. Her novel takes place 40 years after the end of WWII, which roughly makes it sometime in the 80s. If I’m right and that’s the case, that would make it 10 years before Peter Matthiessen’s In Paradise, which is another novel set in Poland. Interestingly enough, both novels deal with characters looking back on, and dealing with the legacy of the Holocaust. Therefore, you can see how why I’d consider The Train to Warsaw a kind of unofficial prequel to In Paradise.

Edelman’s novel tells the story of Jascha and Lilka, a presumably married couple from London, who years before were young lovers in the Warsaw Ghetto. After both miraculously survived the Holocaust, years later and quite by luck are reunited in London. Jascha has become a world-famous writer and he’s been invited by the Polish government to return to the city of his birth to conduct a public reading from his works. So the two of them return to Warsaw and in doing so find themselves confronting ghosts from the past, as well searching for city that has long since vanished.

Structurally speaking, it’s kind of an odd novel. Instead of discrete chapters, the entire novel is one long series of paragraphs. Even though it’s set in near contemporary Warsaw, throughout much of the book the two characters are constantly reminiscing about life during the Nazi occupation of Poland, especially in the Warsaw Ghetto. It’s one of those novels I didn’t like at first, but the more I read it the more I warmed up to it.

After reading nonfiction works like Bloodlands, Iron Curtain and Savage Continent, I’m glad I found a piece of fiction that helps provide another perspective on World War II and the Holocaust. Reading The Train to Warsaw has stimulated my interest in reading Mila 18so don’t be surprised if you see that classic novel talked about on this blog. If that’s the case, with three Holocaust-related novels featured here we might end up with yet another unofficial trilogy on my hands.

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Immigrant Stories: A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka

9780385537773_p0_v3_s260x420Last year the blog Books in the City hosted the Immigrant Stories Reading Challenge. Thanks to the challenge, by the year’s end I was inspired to read books that dealt with immigrants from a diverse array of countries including IranAzerbaijan, Afghanistan and Hungary. Even after the challenge ended I’ve continued to read about immigrants, whether the books be fictionnonfiction, or a mixture of both.

Considering how much I enjoy reading these kind of books I guess it should be no surprise to anyone that I jumped all over Lev Golinkin’s memoir, A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka when I came across it at the public library.

The good news is overall, I enjoyed Golinkin’s memoir. Much to my satisfaction, he’s another one of those perversely likable individuals with a bit of a self-destructive streak (like Mark Richards in his memoir House of Prayer No. 2 or the protagonist in Thomas Glavinic’s novel Pull Yourself Together) who manages to succeed in spite of himself. His depiction of life in Soviet Ukraine during the twilight years of the USSR made for fascinating reading, as well as his account of how his family escaped to America after first spending time in Austria and Italy. Thankfully, he spent a lot time talking about his life in America as a youth and how hard it was for his family to adjust and eventually thrive in the U.S. Judging by Golinkin’s account, had it not been for the support of various agencies and generous individuals his family never would have made it.

My only complaint with Golinkin’s memoir is its ending. Since I don’t wanna reveal any spoilers, let’s just say by the end of the book you’re expecting Golinkin to achieve some sort of personal enlightenment.  However, when it’s all said and done it never really happens. But maybe I’m expecting too much. It’s still a very good book in that it not only tells a lot about what life was like in the former USSR, but also how challenging it can be as an immigrant in an adopted country. And those my friends, are almost always books worth reading.

 

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

About Time I Read It: The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler

9780143038979_p0_v1_s260x420Earlier this summer, I mentioned my weakness for book sales held at churches and synagogues, and how over the years it’s helped me acquire a number of excellent books. Last year, at one of these book sales I purchased a nice handful of books with one of them being Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. Published in 2006, I’d seen on the library shelf from time to time but never grabbed, even though I figured I’d someday read it, since I’d read so many good things about it on Amazon and Goodreads. But even with the book in my possession, it still sat ignored on my shelf for probably over a year. Then one day, I don’t what inspired me, but I picked up my copy of The Girls Who Went Away and started reading it. After only 20 or 30 pages into it and much to my relief, I quickly realized I’d found another one of those books like Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University and Kyria Abrahams’s I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing that I enjoyed so much I kicked myself for not reading sooner. The Girls Who Went Away is an excellent book.

Fessler begins her book by letting us know she was adopted. According to the story she heard from her adoptive mother, on her first few birthdays her adopted mother would light an extra candle on her birthday cake in honor of the birth mother who gave Fessler up for adoption. Later, as an adult Fessler would embark on a successful art career, and her experiences as an adoptee would help inspire her as an artist. At one of her art installation, Fessler invited other adoptees as well as birth mothers to share their stories with her. Later, Fessler met with many of these women and even a few men, heard their stories and collected their oral histories. The Girls Who Went Away is the result of that project.

According to Fessler, from the 50s to the early 70s approximately 1.5 million children were put up for adoption. Almost always, these children were born to women who were young, single, white and middle class. Theirs was a world that provided independence, means and the early stirrings of a sexual revolution, but at the same time lacked school-based sex education and easy access to reliable contraception. Thanks to the societal double standards of the era, boys could be boys but ‘good girls didn’t fool around.” As a result, many young women found themselves pregnant. If they didn’t get married right away, their only acceptable option was to put their children up for adoption. Frequently, this involved secretly slipping out-of-town and taking up residence in a home for unwed mothers. If the family lacked the finances to pay for her stay or if the homes were full, many pregnant women had to spend time in temporary homes where they women had to work to off-set the costs of room and board.

There’s some serious tear-jerker material in this book. We’re talking stuff that makes truck drivers and construction workers cry. Fessler’s book is chock full of accounts of women who were treated like 3rd class citizens during their pregnancies, from the moment they walked through door at the unwed mothers homes to the time they gave birth in the hospital. But it’s the stories of women looking for they long-lost children that are as moving as they are amazing.

The Girls Who Went Away is a superb book and worthy of all the praise it received. I’m still kicking myself for letting it sit ignored on my bookshelf for over a year. This is an excellent book and I have no problem whatsoever recommending it.

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