Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein

It’s great Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge gets me reading books about the smaller countries of Europe like Monaco, Lithuania and Luxembourg. Keeping with this spirit of adventure last week I went looking on Overdrive for something interesting and what did I find but a book about Moldova. For those of you who don’t know, Moldova is a small country in Eastern Europe lodged between Romania and Ukraine. Once called Bessarabia it spent most of the 20th century being tossed back and forth between Romania and Russia/USSR until finally achieving independence from the Soviet Union in the early 90s. It’s one of those out of the way places you pretty much never hear about unless something terribly horrible happens there like a major natural disaster or bloody armed conflict.

Over a hundred years ago something horrible did happen in what’s now called Moldova. Steven J. Zipperstein’s Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History tells the story of the fury that erupted in its capital Kishinev it’s lasting legacy. Just before Easter in 1903 a rabid mob, inflamed by false reports a young child had been ritually murdered by local Jewish elders descended upon Kishinev’s Jewish quarter. Three days later close to 50 of the town’s Jews would be dead, hundred beaten, countless women and girls raped and scores of Jewish homes and business looted.

Anti Jewish riots or pogroms like these had been happening in Imperial Russia for years but this one was different. Unlike previous massacres of this type quickly spread around the world, generating a ripple effect of outrage and activism. Instead of occurring deep inside Russia, Kishinev was on its extreme Western edge and in theory anyway closer to the power centers of Europe. Perhaps more importantly, by the turn of the 20th century the world was experiencing an initial wave of modern globalization. With a sophisticated network of telegraph lines and undersea cables criss-crossing the planet, countless newspapers with the resources to dispatch correspondents via steamship and locomotive to the farthest reaches of the globe the world had become a much smaller place and news, wherever it happened traveled quickly. In addition, after decades of both Russian anti-semitism and advances in steamship technology America was home to a sizable Jewish population. Upon hearing the news of the pogrom Jews in America were outraged and quickly organized to not only aid the victims but also pressure the Russian government to safeguard the lives of their co-religionists. Elsewhere around the world Zionist leaders upon hearing the news from Kishinev lobbied even stronger for a new Jewish homeland.

Pogrom is a well-researched and meaty. I must commend Zipperstein for covering a lot of ground in a relatively short book. I’d consider it a great follow-up read to just about all the Jewish history books I’ve read over the last decade or so. And hey, it’s about Moldova so how could I go wrong?

About Time I Read It: Border by Kapka Kassabova

Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has been one my favorite reading challenges. Over the years it’s been easy finding books set in places like the United Kingdom, France and Germany. I’ve even managed to find books set in smaller countries like Bosnia, Austria and even tiny Vatican City. When it comes to Bulgaria however it’s been tough. In all the years I’ve been participating I’ve found just two books I could apply toward the challenge. In 2015 I reviewed Zachary Karabashliev’s novel 18% Gray and last January it was Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land. Based on my track record, I figured the odds of me finding another book set in or about Bulgaria were pretty slim.

That is until I saw a review of Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe posted on one of my favorite book blogs What’s Nonfiction. Not only was the book about Bulgaria, but also the region where, in the author’s words

Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey converge and diverge, borders being what they are. It is also where something like Europe begins and something else ends which isn’t quite Asia.

The author of What’s Nonfiction had nothing but praise for Border, calling Kassabova’s prose “breathtaking” as well as “eloquent” and “sophisticated” adding “it gave me goosebumps.” Encouraged by her glowing review I went in search of an available copy on Overdrive and much to my surprise I was able to download one.  Yes, the above-mentioned review is spot-on and Border is worthy of the praise.

Unbeknownst to us in the West, until the Fall of Communism countless refugees from Eastern Bloc countries passed through this section of Bulgaria in hopes of reaching Greece orTurkey. Sadly, they were seldom, if ever successful. The Bulgarian border guards patrolling the frontier were authorized to shoot to kill anyone caught crossing the border and many did, preferring to bury to victims secretly in unmarked graves. The Communists even constructed bogus fences in advance of the real ones in hopes of deceiving those attempting to escape. Even the maps they used betrayed them, purposely falsified by the Communist intelligence services.

Ironically, today there’s desperate people crossing the same border but they flowing into Bulgaria from Greece and Turkey and not away from it. Today’s refugees aren’t fleeing Communism but civil war, unrest and extreme deprivation from a host of countries including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the past, Bulgaria’s rulers feared a departure of its citizens would lead to a collapse of the Communist system. Now they fear the they’ll lose their national identity if the country is overwhelmed by Muslim refugees.

Like a shaman who’s able to commune with ancient spirits Kassabova spends much time commenting on the region’s past. Considering its long and storied history perhaps the hollowed ground Kassabova walks upon in some Faulknerian sense the past is never dead and not even past. Border is one of those rare books that defies genre. Kassabova artfully weaves memoir, history, travelogue and reportage into one outstanding book, assisted by her intimate knowledge of the Bulgaria’s language and culture. Border a must read for anyone trying to understand the past, present and perhaps even the future of this corner of the Balkans.

About Time I Read It: The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Back in August I called Peter Høeg’s whodunnit Smilla’s Sense of Snow the grandaddy of Nordic noir/Scandinavian crime because it was published in the early 90s, long before authors like Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankell achieved international notoriety. Lo and behold I learned just this week there was a Swedish husband and wife duo writing such novels way back in the 60s. While searching on Overdrive for something set in Hungary for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I came across an available copy of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s 1966 mystery novel The Man Who Went Up in Smoke. Intrigued, a downloaded it to my Kindle and gave it a shot. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure how a 50 year old piece of crime fiction would hold up after all these years but fear not, for The Man Who Went Up in Smoke met, if not exceeded my modest expectations. And now I want to read more from this pioneering Swedish duo.

Published in 1966, our story begins when Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck is recalled from a well-deserved family vacation on orders from the Foreign Office. A Swedish journalist has gone missing while on assignment in Budapest and government officials are desperate to find out why as quickly and quietly as possible, fearing he’s either defected or has met some untimely end. (One official fears they might have another Raoul Wallenberg on their hands since he also vanished in Hungary without a trace.) Admitting he doesn’t speak a word of Hungarian (neither does anyone else on the force his superiors point out) he can nevertheless liaise with the local police in German and English, both of which he speaks. Once in Budapest Inspector Beck begins retracing the missing journalist’s steps looking for clues in hopes of solving the mystery of his disappearance.

I was struck while reading The Man Who Went Up in Smoke just how the authors depicted the Hungarian authorities as reasonable and sympathetic characters, even though the country was a Communist dictatorship when the novel was published in 1966. (At one point when Beck visits a Budapest police station he remarks to himself how much it looks like his own back in Stockholm.) For a crime novel written 25 years before the Fall of Communism and set mostly behind the Iron Curtain I found it surprisingly apolitical and wondered if this had anything to do with Sweden’s long history of political neutrality. On the other hand, maybe its the authors’ opinion that no matter our political differences, we all have to deal with a world plagued by criminals.

About Time I Read It: Amsterdam by Russell Shorto

About five years ago (goodness how time flies) I met a former co-worker for happy hour at a local watering hole. Right after we wrapped things up and were heading towards the exit, she caught sight of a woman having a drink at the bar and reading a book. Curious, my friend asked her what she was reading. When the woman showed her a copy of Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City my former co-worker pointed to me and responded “you need to talk to him because he reads EVERYTHING.” Well, despite what she proudly proclaimed to a complete stranger I don’t read everything, but I do take note of a good book when I see one. Thanks to her, Shorto’s Amsterdam has been on my list to read ever since our little happy hour adventure.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago I found myself in the mood to read something about the Netherlands I could apply towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. In the past I’ve gone with historical novels like David Liss’ The Coffee Trader and Tracy Chevalier’s  Girl With a Pearl Earring or nonfiction works such as Timothy Brook’s history book Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, relatively speaking, I haven’t read many books, be they fiction or nonfiction dealing with the Netherlands. Luckily for me, my public library just so happens to have a copy of Shorto’s Amsterdam I could borrow to satisfy my craving for something about the Netherlands.

One tends to think of Amsterdam as a permissive European city filled with marijuana-infused coffee shops, legal prostitution, picturesque canals, art museums and bicycles. As an American expat living and working in Amsterdam, Shorto found that image surprisingly spot-on and wondered why it was so. In search of answers he delved into the city’s past looking for clues. Amsterdam is the fruit of his labors.

According to Shorto, Amsterdam, just like every city, is the way it is because of its past. Centuries ago, the area’s Dutch, in a community effort drained the local marshes and built canals, dams and to create the land on which to build the city. Because this was done communally, the newly created territory could not be claimed by feudal lords. Lacking any hereditary ruling class, the city developed an  egalitarian outlook on life. When the winds of Reformation blew across Europe, the anti-authoritarian Dutch of Amsterdam welcome the new religious creeds with open arms. After the ruling Habsburgs of Spain overtaxed the Dutch to pay for their overseas military adventures they revolted. Spain’s response was bloody and heavy handed, even by the standards of the day. (By today’s standards Spain’s General the Duke of Alba would have been charged with war crimes and genocide.) After 80 years  the Netherlands achieved independence and left many Dutch, especially in Amsterdam distrustful of dictators and religious authoritarianism.

Over the years, this laissez-faire attitude of tolerance would make the city a haven for religious refugees like English Puritans, Sephardic Jews and French Huguenots. Many of these new residents were highly skilled and educated and thus helped enrich the city and its environs. It produced great thinkers like Spinoza and provided sanctuary to the likes of Locke and Descarte. Thanks to the city’s spirit of freedom and communalism, no wonder Amsterdam gave us the first capitalist joint ventures and stock exchange. (This led to entities like the Dutch East India Company and with it, ironically, dehumanizing imperialism.) At one point its publishing houses produced over a third of Europe’s books.

Amsterdam is more than a history of a city but also a history of ideas, especially the concept of tolerance and how it can shape history. In this respect, it has much in common with  Amy Chua’s Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance–and Why They Fall.  With that in mind Amsterdam gave me a lot to think about. Thank goodness one night my former co-worker asked a total stranger what she was reading.

2019 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

Now that I’ve posted my favorite nonfiction of 2019 it’s time to announce this year’s favorite fiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when these books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.

 

The bad news is I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year. As a result, there’s only six books on my list. The good news is I read some great stuff. So, in no specific order of preference here’s my favorite fiction from 2019.

  1. GI Confidential by Martin Limón
  2. The Swede by Robert Karjel
  3. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg
  4. The Prince’s Boy by Paul Bailey
  5. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
  6. Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White

As for declaring an overall winner, it wasn’t easy since all six are fantastic. In the end,  Smilla’s Sense of Snow edged out Remarkable Creatures my favorite. As high as my expectations were for Smilla’s Sense of Snow I was not disappointed.

Typical of me and my reading tastes, all six novels on this list are set outside the USA. Also typical for me, four are historical in nature, ranging from the 19th century to the early 1970s. Lastly, four of these novels could be classified at crime drama and/or mystery. Could I be developing a taste for crime and mystery novels? Perhaps only time will tell.

2019 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

With 2020 mere days away, I need to finally announce my favorite nonfiction books of 2019. I read some great nonfiction books this year, all but one courtesy of the public library. I’d like to limit my list to just 10, but I just can’t. So here’s 12 books in no particular order of preference I have no problems whatsoever recommending.

  1. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres
  2. If All the Seas Were Ink by Ilana Kurshan
  3. The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey
  4. The Global Age: Europe 1950-2017 by Ian Kershaw
  5. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance
  6. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich
  7. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss
  8. The Library Book by Susan Orlean
  9. 1924: The Year That Made Hitler by Peter Ross Range
  10. In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
  11. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
  12. Educated by Tara Westover

Sadly, I haven’t been able to review all the books on this list but hopefully I can post the rest in the next few weeks or so. This year, proclaiming an overall winner has been agonizingly difficult. After much consideration I’m going to go with Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets.

Add to this list a slew of honorable mentions like T. J. English’s Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution, Ken Silverstein’s The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor and Nathan Miller’s New World Coming : The 1920s and the Making of Modern America and the more I think about it, 2019 was a pretty decent year for nonfiction.

Educated by Tara Westover

Tara Westover’s memoir Educated won, or was short-listed for just about every award and honor on the planet, but that’s not why I read it. I did so because two friends of mine, who’ve known me for years and are all well acquainted with my reading tastes highly recommended it to me. I’m happy to report they were right. Not only did I enjoy Educated, it easily made my year-end Favorite Nonfiction List.

Since many of you have read Educated or are familiar with Westover’s life story I’ll try not to rehash too much. (I’ll probably do so anyway since it’s such an amazing story.) Growing up in rural Idaho and attending the LDS (Mormon) church, Westover and her family were dominated by her extreme anti-government religious zealot father like it was his own personal religious sect. Because he saw human institutions as evil, corrupt and on the verge of collapse he forbid Westover and the rest of her family from seeking medical care, attending school, possessing a driver’s license, having insurance or taking part in any meaningful social activities outside her immediate family.

After an older brother told her BYU accepted home-schooled students, she made it her goal to do well enough on her college placement exam to attend  the Utah-based university even though she’d never set foot in a classroom in her life. Westover tested well, got it and after an understandably rough start flourished, growing leaps and bounds intellectually and socially. Encouraged and guided by mentors as wise as they were kind, her hard work and perseverance paid off, earning her admission to both Harvard and Cambridge.

I’m a huge fan of memoirs by women who’ve left oppressive religious communities as well as those by people who successfully overcame poverty or extreme hardship. No wonder I loved this book because on top of that, it’s wonderfully written. Trust me, it’s worthy of all those awards and honors.