Library Loot

After finishing a book a few days ago I’m now in the mood to borrow more. Here’s what I grabbed today at my terrific small town library. Behold, a little nonfiction, two works of historical fiction and some Scandinavian crime fiction. As you might suspect I’ll be applying all of these towards any number of my beloved reading challenges.  

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlene’s blog. 

Book Beginnings: Operation Napoleon by Arnaldur Indriðason

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 23 in 23 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, last year I decided to finally participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

A blizzard raged on the glacier.

He could see nothing ahead, could barely make out the compass in his hand. He could not turn back even if he wanted to. There was nothing to go back to. The storm stung and lashed his face, hurling hard, cold flakes at him from every direction.

Last week I featured Alan Furst’s 2019 historical thriller Under Occupation. The week before it was Swiss writer Robert Pagani’s 2010 debut novel The Princess, The King and The Anarchist. This week it’s the 2011 Icelandic thriller Operation Napoleon by Arnaldur Indriðason. 

I haven’t had good luck with Icelandic authors so I was a little hesitant to take a chance on Indriðason. But I’m happy to say so far this novel has been a lot of fun. So much so I’m now ready to explore the rest of his fiction. Here’s what Amazon has to say about Operation Napoleon

A mesmerizing international thriller that sweeps from modern Iceland to Nazi Germany. In 1945, a German bomber crash-lands in Iceland durign a blizzard. Puzzlingly, there are both German and American officers on board. One of the senior German officers claims that their best chance of survival is to try to walk to the nearest farm. He sets off, a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, only to disappear into the white vastness. Flash forward to the present. The U.S. Army is clandestinely trying to remove the wreck of an airplane from an Icelandic glacier.

About Time I Read It: Under Occupation by Alan Furst

In search of library books for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I borrowed a copy of Alan Furst’s 2019 historical thriller Under OccupationLongtime readers of my blog (if there are any) are well aware I’m a superfan of his work. Furst’s novels effortlessly transport you to the charming cafes and shadowy back alleys of a continental Europe on the cusp of World War II or the early years of the war when a Nazi victory appeared all but assured. Set in Paris during the German Occupation I figured it would be the perfect book to represent France for the challenge.

Like I’ve said before most, if not all of the novels in Furst’s Night Soldiers series follow a template. A forty-something male protagonist is conscripted  by force of circumstances in the fight against fascism. Intelligent, resourceful and able to throw a punch or pull the trigger if left no choice, our hero usually serves in some secretive capacity be it a spy or member of the underground. Unmarried and blessed with admirable qualities, his romantic relationships are pursued politely and matureadly with a touch of old-world charm, and are not the love ’em and leave ’em predations of Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

The hero of Under Occupation is Paul Ricard, a garret-dwelling Parisian author. One day on the streets of Paris his world completely changes when a fleeing fugitive, bleeding from gunshot wounds crashes into him. Seconds before he dies and pursuing Vichy police arrive he slips Ricard a piece of paper, pleading he pass it along to the French Underground. After learning through his connections it’s a blueprint of a German torpedo warhead he honors the man’s dying wish and forwards it to the resistance, who in turn smuggle it to Great Britain. Ricard’s fine work impresses both the resistance and their handlers in London who quickly enlist him in their fight against the Germans.

If moonlighting as a spy wasn’t enough Ricard is no ordinary writer. He specializes in detective and spy novels, and also like Furst a big fan of British spy novelist Eric Ambler. By creating a character like Ricard, it’s almost like Furst himself gets to star in the leading role. With Furst close to 80 years old and Under Occupation the 15th novel of the Night Soldiers series I suspect this might be his final book. If so, with Furst’s doppelgänger Ricard fighting the good fight can’t think of a better series finale.

Library Loot: European Reading Edition

Same old story. Out running errands the other day, popped into the library for just only a few minutes and walked out with more books. Even though I’m already up to my eyeballs with library books I couldn’t resist grabbing another small stack. This time I decided to focus on fiction for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge.  

  • Under Occupation by Alan Furst (France)- I’m a huge fan of Furst’s historical thrillers. So far this one has been great. 
  • Operation Napoleon by Arnaldur Indridason (Iceland) – I suspect this might not be the author’s best effort but I could not resist the story. 
  • The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook (Germany)-  I’ve had pretty good luck with novels set in Germany immediately following World War II. Maybe this one will continue my lucky streak.
  • The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader (United Kingdom)- Another one of those books an anonymous librarian decided to spotlight by standing it up for all to see. Who can resist a novel about a 13th century English anchoress? 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Claire’s blog

Book Beginnings: Under Occupation by Alan Furst

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 23 in 23 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, last year I decided to finally participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

In early October, the first of the autumn rains began in the late afternoon, with rumbles of thunder up in Normandy somewhere, then, by nightfall, the rain reached Paris, where it beat against the windows of the gray city and streamed down the channels at the edges of the cobblestone streets. The writer Paul Ricard walked bent over in the downpour, headed up a narrow street of ancient buildings in the Sixth Arrondissement: the Rive Gauche, the Latin Quarter.

Last week I featured Swiss writer Robert Pagani’s 2010 debut novel The Princess, The King and The Anarchist. The week before it was Elena Gorokhova’s 2010 memoir A Mountain of Crumbs. This week it’s Alan Furst’s 2019 historical thriller Under Occupation.

 Back in 2014 I stopped by the public library on my way home from work and stumbled across a copy of Alan Furst’s Midnight in Europe. I whipped through Furst’s entertaining piece of historical fiction in a mere few days and by then I was completely hooked. Since then I’ve read almost all of the dozen or so books in his Night Soldiers series, all set in continental Europe during the run-up or early years of World War II. Here’s what Amazon has to say about Under Occupation

Occupied Paris, 1942. Just before he dies, a man being chased by the Gestapo hands off a strange-looking document to the unsuspecting novelist Paul Ricard. It looks like a blueprint of a part for a military weapon, one that might have important information for the Allied forces. Ricard realizes he must try to get the diagram into the hands of members of the resistance network.

Book Beginnings: The Princess, The King and The Anarchist by Robert Pagani

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 23 in 23 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, last year I decided to finally participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

The day she became queen, there were lots of flowers, lots of noises, lots of blood, and lots of dead bodies, but she wasn’t particularly surprised. During the ten seconds that followed the explosion, she wasn’t even very agitated, not because she was in shock but because her mind was somewhere else.

Last week I featured Elena Gorokhova’s 2010 memoir A Mountain of Crumbs. The week before it was Thomas Frank’s 2004 What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. This week it’s Swiss writer Robert Pagani’s 2010 debut novel The Princess, The King and The Anarchist. 

I came across this one the other day at the public library when it caught my eye. Like so many books I’ve discovered over the years some anonymous librarian promoted it by simply propping it up for all to see. Here’s what Amazon has to say about The Princess, The King and The Anarchist

The Princess, The King and The Anarchist takes place on May 31, 1906, the wedding day of King Alphonso XIII of Spain to British Princess Maria Eugenia of Battenberg. As the royal procession snakes its way slowly through Madrid, the cheering of the crowd and the decorum and fanfare of the retinue masks the sinister assassination plot awaiting the young couple just before their gilded carriage enters the palace gates.

About Time I Read It: The Troubled Heart of Africa by Robert B. Edgerton

Years ago one of the first reading challenged I joined was the Africa Reading Challenge hosted by Ghanian book blogger Kinna on her blog Kinna Reads. She invited participants to read at least five books by “African writers, or take place in Africa, or are concerned with Africans and with historical and contemporary African issues”, with at least three of those books by African authors. She also suggested we read books representing at least two regions of the continent: North Africa, Southern Africa, East Africa, West Africa and Central Africa. It was a fun challenge, inspiring me to read books set in, or about a number of African countries including Egypt, Djibouti, and Ivory Coast. Sadly though after Kinna stopped hosting the challenge I read fewer and fewer books about Africa.

Fast forward to the present and I found myself wanting to read about Africa. Not knowing where to start I recently borrowed a library copy of Robert B. Edgerton’s 2002 The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo, figuring it would also make a good follow-up read to Adam Hochschild’s 1998 King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. After finishing The Troubled Heart of Africa early yesterday morning I’m willing to say this book probably won’t go down as one of my favorite nonfiction works of 2023. But I’m pleased to day thanks to Edgerton I now know more about Congo.

A massive county the size of Western Europe, Congo boasts an embarrassment of riches. Despite its near landlocked status it nevertheless possesses a narrow accesses to the sea. While not completely navigable its namesake mighty river provides unfettered access to at least some of the country. But most of all, as far as natural resources go Congo is awash in diamonds, uranium, copper, cobalt and coltan and even boasts significant petroleum reserves. Upon achieving independence in 1960 the Central African nation was the second most industrialized nation on the continent after South Africa.

But being so blessed can also be a curse. For over 500 years powerful nations have coveted Congo’s wealth and taken what they’ve wanted. In the late 15th century Europeans, beginning with the Portuguese enslaved countless Congolese shipping them across the seas to Europe and later the Americas to toil as slaves. A few centuries later the Arabs were doing much the same thing, capturing Congolese from the eastern part of the country and selling them into slavery throughout the Muslim world.

But the worst was yet to come. Feeling his relatively small, newly independent Kingdom of Belgium needed a colony King Leopold cast his eyes towards Africa, ultimately choosing a barely explored interior section of continent still  uncolonized by any European power. Promising to bring Christianity and the glories of Western civilization to the benighted peoples of Central Africa Leopold utilized a mix of skillful diplomacy and centrifuge to stake his claim. For the next several decades he ruled the Congo like his private slave plantation, forcing the population to supply his murderous agents with ivory, and later rubber. The result was the deaths of millions of Congolese from overwork, malnutrition and murder. (Countless more were whipped, tortured and dismembered if deemed uncooperative.)  Only after a global crusade brought these atrocities to light was Leopold forced to transfer ownership of the Congo to Belgium.

Although Belgium granted Congo independence in 1960 because of a half century of Belgian misrule the young African nation was doomed to fail from the beginning. As a result of Belgium’s refusal to provide higher education opportunities to its Black colonial subjects there were no native Congolese doctors, engineers or veterinarians. Likewise, only white Belgians served as military officers or police chiefs. Of the native Congolese vying to lead the newly independent nation virtually none were college educated, the only schooling they received came from lackluster Catholic mission schools. On top of all of this Congo encompassed a bewildering number of diverse ethnic groups, with at least several of these having independence aspirations of their own. Naturally, this would frustrate any attempts to forge a cohesive nation, leading to decades of intermittent civil wars and foreign interventions.

Up to the present day Congo’s abundance of natural resources, far from enriching the country would lead to instability and strife. Vast uranium deposits in Katanga province would attract attention from the world’s powers, spark bloody separatist movements and with nations around the to taking different sides. With the country broken and impoverished after decades of Mubuto’s megalomaniacal misrule the cancer-addled dictator was finally overthrown by a Rwandan and Uganda led army of Congolese rebels. Sadly, instead of this being a promising opportunity for a fresh start a half dozen or so of Congo’s neighbors soon took advantage of the country’s weakened state to invade and pillage Congo’s diamonds and coltan.

In addition to the previously mentioned King Leopold’s Ghost, The Troubled Heart of Africa also makes a good follow-up read to Michela Wrong’s 2001 In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo, not to mention Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 modern classic of a novel The Poisonwood Bible. I’d encourage you to give all four books a shot.

Memoirs of the Middle East: We Heard the Heavens Then by Aria Minu-Sepehr

In keeping with my recent trend of reading borrowed books I’d previously ignored I took another stab at Aria Minu-Sepehr’s 2012 We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of Iran. I’ve been wanting to read it because I love Iranian memoirs and because its author lives in my former hometown of Portland, Oregon. After slow start I finished it a few days ago. While it won’t go down as one of my favorite Iranian memoirs it’s still a pretty good read.

With his father a respected air force general Minu-Sepehr grew up in a household catered by servants and witnessed an endless parade of lower echelon soldiers ready to serve his father’s every whim. Revered as the general’s son he was treated with a degree of deference usually reserved towards minor royalty. Fortunately, for those around him this privileged status, even combined with his father’s doting on him didn’t turn the young Minu-Sepehr into a spoiled brat.

Ensconced on an air force base hundreds of miles from the capital Tehran and safe within his family’s protective cocoon turmoil, trouble is brewing  fueled by years of governmental misrule, political oppression and religious strife. Once unleashed, these forces would eventually lead to the chaotic overthrow of the Iranian monarchy, and its eventual replacement by a ruthless theocracy. Minu-Sepehr’s account of the Iranian Revolution unfolds gradually, as its seen through the eyes of a child and filtered through the protective lenses of his parents and members of his household. Writing as an adult decades later, his recollection of events resembles a slowly at first, then all at once Hemingwayesque approach told with a nuanced voice that comes with age.

We Heard the Heavens Then reminded me how much I enjoy memoirs by Iranians, as well as other writers from the Middle East. I’m hoping in 2023 I’ll be reading  more of these and when I do, you’ll see them featured on this blog.

Book Beginnings: A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 23 in 23 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, last year I decided to finally participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

I wish my mother had come from Leningrad, from the world of Pushkin and the tsars, of granite embankments and lace ironwork, of pearly domes buttressing the low sky. Leningrad’s sophistication would have infected her the moment she drew her first breath, and all the curved facades and stately bridges, marinated for more than two centuries in the city’s wet, salty air, would have left a permanent mark of refinement on her soul.

Last week I featured Thomas Frank’s 2004 What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Before that it was Robert B. Edgerton’s 2002 The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo. This week it’s Elena Gorokhova’s 2010 memoir A Mountain of Crumbs

Even with two of my favorite bloggers Claire of The Captive Reader and Rennie of What’s Nonfiction reviewing this book on their respective blogs it’s taken more over a decade to get off my butt and read it. I’ve grabbed it from the public library several times over the last couple of years only to return it unread. Recently, I borrowed it once again with hopes of reading it and applying it towards not one but several reading challenges. Here’s what Amazon has to say about A Mountain of Crumbs

In this deeply affecting memoir, Elena re-creates the world that both oppressed and inspired her. She recounts stories passed down to her about the horrors of the Bolshevik Revolution and probes the daily deprivations and small joys of her family’s bunkerlike existence. Through Elena’s captivating voice, we learn not only the personal story of Russia in the second half of the twentieth century, but also the story of one rebellious citizen whose love of a foreign language finally transports her to a new world.

About Time I Read It: The Good Assassin by Stephan Talty

I’m sure by now you’ve guessed I borrow a lot of books from the public library only to later return them unread. Every so often however I’ll borrow some of these unread books a second or even third time but instead read them. This has lead to some nice payoffs like Jonathan Kaufman’s The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China and Souad Mekhennet’sI Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihadboth of which made my year-end Favorite Nonfiction List. (Penelope Lively’s Dancing Fish and Ammonites was a honorable mention.)

One such book is Stephan Talty’s The Good Assassin: How a Mossad Agent and a Band of Survivors Hunted Down the Butcher of Latvia. I borrowed an ebook version back in November of 2021 but never touched it. Recently, I decided to give the book another chance and downloaded a borrowable edition to my Kindle.

During the interwar period Herbert Cukurs was called the Charles Lindbergh of Latvia. Tales of his globe-spanning aviation adventures thrilled not just tiny the Baltic nation but also Europe and beyond. Latvians flocked to theaters and auditoriums where he held audiences in the palm of his hand, entertaining them with tales of travel to exotic locations in Africa and Asia. In addition to being both an adventurer and a showman he was friendly and approachable, comfortable rubbing shoulders with all segments of Latvian society, including the country’s Jewish community. Cukurs frequently exchanged pleasantries in Yiddish with Latvia’s Jews and one of last speaking engagements before the war was hosted by a Jewish community center in the nation’s capital Riga.

But rather quickly everything went horribly wrong.  Almost immediately after the Germans invaded Latvia in 1941 Cukurs, like so many of his non-Jewish countrymen embraced the Nazi’s murderous antisemitism. (Some justified this by saying the Jews had collaborated with the Soviets who’d annexed the Baltic nations the year before.) As a senior officer serving in a collaborationist Latvian militia his actions led to the deaths of over 30,000 Jews, earning him the nickname the Butcher of Latvia. But like so many perpetrators of the Holocaust he vanished into the shadows and was never held accountable for his horrible crimes.

By the mid-1960s rumors had been swirling for years Cukurs had been living a comfortable life in Brazil. The Mossad dispatched Jacob Medad, one of its best field agents to South America to locate the man in question and verify his identity. If he was Cukurs, Medad was entrusted with bringing him to justice. How this could be accomplished half a world away in country    ruled by a junta rumored to be sympathetic to Nazi war criminals was anyone’s guess.

Grave subject matter aside, The Good Assassin is a good read. Talty writes well and his story telling never lags. Even though it’s only January it would not surprise me if this book ends up as one of my year-end honorable mentions. Who knows, maybe it will make 2023’s Favorite List of Nonfiction. Only time will tell.