Right before our local public libraries closed their doors in an effort to halt the spread of the rampaging Corona Virus I secured a tall stack of books betting I’d probably be hunkered down for a while. Luckily for me, as a health precaution our libraries ordered us to not return any borrowed materials and as a result we get to keep our books until further notice. As the world battles the worst pandemic in a century at least I’ve got plenty to read.
One of the books I grabbed before our libraries suspended operations was Martin Cruz Smith’s 2004 whodunnit Wolves Eat Dogs. Over the last year or so I’ve been supplementing my diet of nonfiction with international thrillers, crime novels and the like and figured now was a good time to dive back into the fiction of Martin Cruz Smith, an author I haven’t read in decades. Set mostly in Ukraine, I could apply it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, making it hard to resist. I burned through Wolves Eat Dogs in only a few days and I must have enjoyed it because it left me wanting to read more of his stuff.
It looked like a simple suicide. One of Russia’s billionaires, deciding he couldn’t take it anymore and jumped out the window his Moscow luxury high-rise. A lesser Investigator would have closed the book the second he arrived on the scene but not Arkady Renko. Knowing from experience whenever wealthy and powerful Russian men are killed it’s never by their own hands Renko, over the protests of his superiors decides to dig a bit deeper. Before long his investigation takes him to Ukraine, specifically to Chernobyl and the Zone of Exclusion, an irradiated shadowland abandoned since the 1986 nuclear disaster now home to an assortment of squatters, animal poachers, scavengers and corrupt militia men. It’s here Renko suspects there’s some sort of connection between Chernobyl and the dead billionaire. But what is it?
Inspector Renko is one of those great characters you can’t get enough of. Smart as hell and honest, and because he’s been at it so long knows his stuff. After years of fighting crime in the USSR and the near lawless post-Communist regime that took its place, Renko’s left cynical and damaged, but amazingly still in possession of his humanity. He’s tough, level-headed and never reckless. Those occasions when he does need to kick some ass, he does it right.
Like I said above, I enjoyed Wolves Eat Dogs and I’m hoping to read more of Cruz Smith’s fiction in the future. With a little luck this won’t be my last blog post featuring the adventures of Inspector Renko.
Another book I’d see on the shelf at my public library and was always temped to borrow is Katherine Wilson’s 2016 memoir Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law. While I’m not a big fan of food memoirs or travel stuff I do however have a slight to moderate fascination with Italy. After spending the last two years wondering if I should read this book last week I finally borrowed it. I’m happy to report Only in Naples is not only light, entertaining and charming but also an insightful outsider’s look at life in Southern Italy.
After graduating from Princeton with honors, Katherine Wilson felt she needed a little time overseas before starting graduate school. She secured an unpaid temporary internship at the US consulate in Naples and almost immediately upon her arrival was taken in by a loving Neapolitan family whose mother Raffaella was the best cook she’s ever encountered. Seeing she’s young and by herself in a foreign country they took Katherine under their wings without a second thought. Slowly but surely during her time in Naples she also began to fall in love with their son Salvatore, a handsome law student. Romance blossomed which lead to marriage which eventually lead to Katherine living the life of an American expat in Italy with a Italian husband and two children.
Soccer might be Italy’s national pastime but the country’s national treasure is its food. I learned from reading Only in Naples the Italians take immense pride in their cuisine. We Americans might be content with the microwaveable frozen individuals entries found in supermarkets and greasy take-out but the Italians prefer their meals lovingly made from scratch using only the best available ingredients. Sandwiches are best consider snacks, not meals and on the rare occasions when appropriate (like in a brown bagged lunch for a construction worker or soccer fan attending a match) they’re top-notch creations far exceeding anything available in America. During a hospital visit the author saw patients and their loved ones complaining about the food served. Every meal she saw looked absolutely mouth-watering to the point she could barely restrain herself from inhaling the food laden plates before they were cast aside by the disgruntled Italians. Arriving in Naples a bit overweight and plagued with an eating disorder, in her first five weeks living in Naples she lost 20 pounds, completely lost her urge to binge eat, and for the first time in her life thoroughly enjoyed what she ate.
Only in Naples is one of those wonderful books that exceeds your modest expectations. If you like to travel, cook or above all eat, it’s the book for you.
It feel like I’ve been participating in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge for years. During that time I’ve featured several books about Bosnia. Back in 2012 it was Zlatko Dizdarević’s Sarajevo: A War Journal followed up a year later with Peter Maass’ Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War. Then in 2014 it was Tim Butcher’s The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War. Lastly, in 2017 I opted for a little fiction and featured Matthew Palmer’s novel The Wolf of Sarajevo. In addition, I’ve also reviewed three novels set in Croatia and a nonfiction piece about a Serbian warlord. So I guess when it comes to books anyway I’m no stranger to the former Yugoslavia.
Julian Borger’s 2016 book The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt has been on my radar for the last three or four years but I never made any effort to read it until recently when I borrowed an ebook version of it through my public library’s Overdrive portal. I hesitate to declare a book about the search for notorious war criminals makes a great read but I found The Butcher’s Trail a surprisingly good book and wish I’d read it sooner.
When Yugoslavia violently disintegrated in the 90s Bosnia became a bloody horror show as Orthodox Serbs, and to a lesser degree Catholic Croats fought Bosnian Muslims for control of the newly independent nation. Armed to teeth with weapons once belonging to the former Yugoslav National Army Serb paramilitary forces besieged the capital Sarajevo assaulting it with artillery shells and sniper fire daily. Elsewhere in the country, Serb paramilitaries engaged in murderous ethnic cleansing against Muslim civilians killing tens of thousands. Finally, Western leaders had enough and the United States and NATO played hardball, forced the warring factions to agree to a peace deal to end the killing. But for years the Serbian architects and leaders responsible for the lion’s share of the slaughter were never brought to justice. Then, slowly over a period of time one by one they were located, apprehended and brought to stand trial at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. The Butcher’s Trail is the story of how these wanted individuals were brought to justice
Many, if not most of these missions were done secretly, usually using elite forces trained in covert ops and anti-terrorism. (British forces, thanks to their years of experience apprehending IRA leaders performed quite well when it came to capturing Serbian war criminals.) Eventually, after successfully bagging a number of low and mid level targets the focus shifted to bigger fish, specifically the political leaders who ultimately responsible, men like Radovan Karadžić, Ratko Mladić and Slobodan Milošević. A difficult mission, but as Borger shows in his book ultimately not impossible.
This is an excellent book and easily one of the best I’ve read so far this year. I have no problem recommending The Butcher’s Trail.
Frustrated your state-appointed math teacher refuses to teach math and instead spends the entire time dispensing propaganda you walk out of class. Afterwards security forces, fearing your’re a dangerous student radical throw you in prison and the guards beat you to a pulp. Before you know it a kangaroo court convicts you of treason and sentences you to death. Minutes before you’re about to be shot by a firing squad one of the prison guards rushes over with news your sentence has been commuted to life imprisonment. Relieved you won’t be shot, nevertheless you’re still facing a lifetime behind bars. Later you learn your life was spared because the guard has fallen in love with you and used his political connections to call off your execution. He also wants you to marry him, and if you don’t he’ll harm your family.
By the way, you’re only 16 years old.
Marina Nemat’s 2007 memoir Prisoner of Tehran is one of those books I’ve known about for a decade but never got around to reading. Despite my longtime fascination with Iran I could never bring myself to read Prisoner of Tehran, preferring to walk right by it whenever I spotted a copy on the shelf at the public library. Then during one of my weekend library visits I finally grabbed it. Prisoner of Tehran isn’t a bad book, but a sad one because nobody, least of all a 16 year old should ever go through what the author did.
In 1982 when Nemat was imprisoned Iran’s theocratic regime ruled the country with an iron hand by stifling dissent, jailing enemies of the state – perceived or otherwise – and executing thousands regardless of age or gender. In most civilized countries Nemat’s walkout would earned her a trip to the principal’s office. In Iran under the Ayatollah such treasonous acts were punishable by death. Saved from the firing squad but still a prisoner and left with little choice but to marry the guard who rescued her, the 16 year old’s future looked grim.
Like I said, Prisoner of Tehran isn’t a bad book, just a sad one. And like many sad books at times it’s not easy to read. But it’s a well-written account of a story that needs to be told. So don’t be afraid to read it.
Some staff member at my favorite local library must be a fan of Richard Dawkins because for weeks a copy of the esteemed scientist’s 2013 memoir An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist had been prominently displayed in the memoirs, biographies and autobiographies section. One Saturday my curiosity finally got the better of me and I decided to borrow it. Once the memoir was in my possession I slowly made my way through it, finishing mere days before it was due back at the library. Perhaps like most books, there as things about it I liked and things I didn’t.
This is the second book I’ve read by the renowned British evolutionary biologist, science writer and “New Atheist.” Over a decade ago I read his much talked about 2006 book The God Delusion. (Not long afterwards I followed it up with Alister McGrath and Joanna McGrath’s Christian response,The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine.) Written as the first volume of a two volume set, the book covers the lives of his parents, his childhood and his early career as a scientist, ending with the publication of his first book The Selfish Gene.
Before reading Appetite for Wonder I would have assumed even though I wasn’t an expert on Dawkins I probably knew more about him than the average person. After reading this book I learned quite quickly how ignorant I really was. For instance, I had no idea he was born in Africa. (His father had been working as an agricultural civil servant in what is now Malawi when he was drafted into the military. A few years later, after his father was posted to nearby Kenya Dawkins was born.) Likewise, I had no idea one of the world’s most prominent atheists was a devout Anglican in his youth, albeit for a short period. I also wasn’t aware he spent time at UC Berkeley as an assistant professor of zoology during the tumultuous late 60s and took part in anti-war protests. Lastly, I had no idea he was a pioneer in the field of computer programing.
My least favorite passages of the book are the ones where Dawkins goes on and on about early computer programming. I also didn’t enjoy some of the science-related stuff, but his thoughts on evolution towards the end of the book were pretty good. Overall, it’s a decent book and it’s left me thinking I might read more of his stuff down the road.
It’s not every day I get to read a novel set in Slovakia. Even if roughly half of Michael Genelin’s 2008 crime novel Siren of the Waters takes place in the what used to be the eastern half of the Central European nation of Czechoslovakia it’s still my first literary foray into that part of the world. (Keep in mind of course if its author Michael Genelin is an American, so it can’t be considered Slovakian literature.) Wanting something set in Slovakia for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I borrowed an ebook version through Overdrive and went to work reading it almost immediately. I burned through it quickly and generally enjoyed it. Like any good crime novel, it’s entertaining and filled with a number of plot twists, most of, if not all I never saw coming.
On a highway outside the capital Bratislava, Jana, a veteran commander in the Slovak police force and her partner are called to investigate a deadly automobile accident. Inside the smoldering wreck of a van they find multiple bodies and no survivors. After discovering the deceased passengers were all young women and the driver male (and probably from Ukraine) Jana suspects it’s a case of human trafficking come to a fatal end. Knowing the fire in the van was purposely set she sets off in search of the those criminal elements responsible. Her search takes her to first Ukraine and then France, where she takes part in a international conference on human trafficking. Every clue Jana uncovers along the course of her international journey leads to more questions, as well as additional violence.
Roughly over half of Siren of the Waters is set in Slovakia in the years preceding the fall of Communism. Arranged chronologically in the form of flashbacks, they follow Jana’s life starting with her career as a young police officer employed by the authoritarian Communist government, her stormy marriage to her actor husband turned political dissident and ending with the collapse of the old Communist regime. I enjoyed this part of the novel and I credit the author for doing the research needed to give those passages their authenticity.
Like I said, it’s not every day I get to read a novel set in Slovakia. Luckily for me it also kept me entertained.
Way back in the spring of 2002 a friend invited me to spend the weekend at the beach with a house full of complete strangers. (Make a long story short, they were terrific people and I had a great time.) Late Saturday morning after an evening of late night festivities we were sitting around treating our hangovers and lack of sleep with some light breakfast and coffee when a couple of us began talking about books. After I told him I enjoyed history he recommended a book called Constantine’s Sword. As luck would have it, a month or so later a buddy and I were rummaging through a second hand bookstore and what did I come across but a used copy of James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews. Following that guy’s advice I bought the book and later that weekend eagerly dived into it. After reading just the first dozen pages I quickly realized I was the recipient of excellent advice.
Flash forward to 2020 and I’m wandering the shelves at my rural public library and what do I find but Warburg in Rome, a 2014 novel by James Carroll, the author of Constantine’s Sword. Seeing it’s set in Italy (and therefore applicable towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge) near the end of WWII and the years following it I couldn’t resist. In the end I found Warburg in Rome reasonably entertaining, even though I wouldn’t put it in the same league with other WWII-era historical thrillers by Alan Furst or Philip Kerr. But hey who cares?
In June 1944, just as the Allies are invading Normandy, two American men touch down in recently liberated Rome. One, a secular Jew, is David Warburg from the US War Refugee Board, sent to assist Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis and their Fascist allies. The other, Monsignor Kevin Deane, a Catholic priest from New York City also sent to provide aid and comfort to the afflicted. Despite their religious differences the two become fast friends and end up encountering a host of diverse characters ranging from a beautiful yet shadowy French-Italian Red Cross worker, a Jewish resistance leader, an ambitious young German priest with ties to Hitler’s inner circle and an English nun proficient in cryptography. Later, after Germany’s surrender they discover a secret network deep within the Vatican to help wanted Nazi war criminals flee to Argentina.
Like I mentioned earlier, Warburg in Rome probably isn’t the best historical thriller I’ve read but it kept me entertained so I’m happy I read it. I’m also happy I went to the beach that weekend years ago with a bunch of total strangers. Had I not, I might never of read anything by James Carroll.