Death and the Maiden by Frank Tallis

51ea8I4vOCL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_I blame Rose City Reader and specifically her European Reading Challenge for making me read more historical fiction. Had it not been for her inspiring me to read books about or set in different European countries I might never have discovered the novels of Alan Furst, David Liss and Vilmos Kondor.  Now, thanks to Rose City Reader I’ve discovered yet another author of enjoyable historical fiction. His name is Frank Tallis.

While searching my public library’s database for more books applicable to the European Reading Challenge I came across Tallis’ Death and the Maiden, part of his Max Liebermann series. Like the others in the series, it’s set during the fin de siècle in the Vienna of Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler when the city was the capital of a declining but still robust Austro-Hungarian Empire. With its sumptuous restaurants, charming coffee shops and a world-class opera, Vienna was the toast of Europe. But beneath this civilized veneer lurked the darker forces of revolutionary socialism, ethnic separatism and xenophobia. Tasked with running the city and keeping those centrifugal forces in check (while at the same time benefiting from some of them) was Vienna’s populist and anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger whose authority was outranked only by the Emperor.

When the Vienna Opera’s celebrated diva Ida Rosenkranz is found dead in her apartment, presumably the victim of a laudanum overdose, the authorities guess it’s just another love-sick young woman who has committed suicide. But to the novel’s two protagonists Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt and Dr. Max Liebermann Ida’s death looks like anything but an open and shut case. But if it wasn’t suicide then what was it? And if the beautiful diva was murdered, who did it? Was it one of Ida’s powerful admirers?

Just like with The Fifth Servant, this historical novel was a pleasant surprise to me. Tallis writes well and as a result the narrative flows nicely. I’m glad the author incorporated into the story real historical figures like Freud, Mahler, Lueger and even Emperor Franz Joseph I. I’m also glad Tallis employed two equal protagonists, much like Patrick O’Brien did with his Aubrey–Maturin series of maritime novels. The duo of Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt, a family man and Dr. Max Liebermann, a Jewish bachelor and protégé of Freud compliment each other well. I can easily see myself reading more novels in this series.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History

Pan-European Lives: Jabotinsky and Limonov

JabotinskyLimonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in RussiaA Jewish novelist puts his successful literary career behind him to lead a Zionist movement that almost a hundred years later still influences Israeli politics. A Russian dissident, after allowed to leave the USSR and spending half a decade in New York City living as a vagrant, sexual libertine and finally butler to the rich and glamorous moves to Paris where he flourishes as a radical chic journalist. And if that’s not enough our adventurous Russian friend will trade the City of Light for the battlefields of the former Yugoslavia to fight with Serbian paramilitaries (and be accused of committing crimes against humanity). Upon returning to his native Russia, the new political party he helps create first attracts the attention, then wrath of Russia’s new authoritarian leadership which earns him a brief stint in prison, but also major political street cred.

Recently, I read two biographies of two very different men. Understandably, it’s easy to look at their respective lives and pick out all the things that are different. The funny thing is the more I reflected on those lives, the more similarities I saw.

Some might ask why a Gentile like me would want to read Hillel Halkin’s 2014 biography Jabotinsky: A Life. I would answer after seeing Jabotinsky’s name pop up time and time again in books on Jewish history and Israeli politics I could not resist reading it when I found an available copy through my public library. In spite of it’s relatively slim size, I’m embarrassed to say it took me forever to read it, but only because I kept getting distracted by everything else I was trying to read. That of course is a shame because Halkin has written a pretty good book. It’s detailed but not dry. I have to commend the author for producing a readable biography of what some might consider an obscure historical figure but an influential one nevertheless. (Jabotinsky’s legacy isn’t just political. Since his historical novel Sampson was adapted for the silver screen years ago, he’s probably the only founding Zionist to have an IMDB listing.)

If you’re me, and you’re lazily wandering along the shelves at the public library and you find a book titled Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia my goodness why would you NOT want to read it? Emmanuel Carrère’s “pseudobiography” (even after reading this book I’m not exactly sure what this term means) did not disappoint. Reading Carrère’s account of Limonov everything feels outrageous and larger than life, proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction.

Born 60 years apart, one a Jew and the other a Gentile, both men could not be more different in political views, personal behavior and overall character. With that in mind you might be asking how are these two men alike? Both men grew up in the Ukraine but left to following their dreams elsewhere, with both mens’ travels taking them across Europe (Italy and Switzerland for Jabotinsky and France for Limonov) as well as across the Atlantic to New York (where Jabotinsky died in 1940 and was subsequently buried and only recently was his body reburied in Israel). Perhaps foremost, both started out as journalists and later transitioned to writing books of fiction and nonfiction. Both men briefly spent time as soldiers. Lastly, both men founded political organizations that harkened back to an imagined glorious past. (Jabotinsky looked to the ancient kingdom of Israel as a model for his modern version. He was also inspired by Garibaldi’s unification of Italy and Ireland’s breakaway from the British Empire. Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party, should it ever take power would love to bring back to glory days of Stalin and dominate Eurasia. One could also argue the group has significant fascist overtones.)

There you have it, two good biographies of two very different men. Except maybe, just maybe, they’re really not that different after all.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Israel, Judaica

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle EastIf you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’re probably aware a number of the great books I’ve been featuring I learned about through the NPR program Fresh Air. Be it Lawrence Wright’s expose on Scientology Going Clear, Keith Lowe’s magnificent history of early post-World War II Europe Savage Continent or Doug Saunders’ intelligent and well-reasoned look at Europe’s Muslim population The Myth of the Muslim Tide I have the good people at Fresh Air to thank for bringing these terrific books to my attention. Now, I’m happy to say there’s one more book I can add to that list: Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.

Back in October of 2014 I heard Russell’s interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.  Listening to the program, I was fascinating by what Russell had to say about the Middle East’s small and increasingly endangered religious communities. Vowing to someday read Russell’s book, I quickly added to my “to read” list on Goodreads and kinda forgot about it. But about a month ago, feeling ambitious and in need of fresh reading material for an upcoming vacation I bought a copy off Amazon. Taking advantage of my time off I quickly made my way through Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms all the while enjoying Russell’s rather excellent book. On top of that, I was even able to talk my book club into reading it. And they enjoyed it too!

If anyone should write a book about the disappearing religious communities of the Middle East, it should be Gerard Russell. Fluent in Arabic and Persian, Russell spent years in the troubled region as a diplomat for both the British government and the United Nations. He’s also highly knowledgable of the area’s history and religions, including the beliefs, practices and philosophies of ancient times. For his book he traveled the entire length of the Greater Middle East, from bustling streets of Cairo to the isolated mountain villages along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. With communities like the Copts, Mandaeans and especially the Yazidis suffering persecution at the hands of Islamists, these beleaguered practitioners of ancient faiths have been leaving the Muslim world in droves. As a result, Russell’s travels took him thousands of miles away from the Middle East to newly established exile communities in London, Michigan and even Nebraska.

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a great book. In order to serve up a rich, detailed and readable treatment of the subject matter, Russell skillfully manages to incorporate ancient history, politics, travelogue, philosophy and religion. Therefore, I have no problem recommending this excellent book.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, History, Iran, Islam, Israel, Middle East/North Africa

About Time I Read It: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

The Plot Against AmericaCashing in on his celebrity cachet, a populist demagogue and political outsider takes control of America’s Republican Party. After getting elected President he begins a state-sanctioned campaign of persecution against one of the nation’s largest minorities. While America’s progressive elements loudly cry foul the country’s new President employs media manipulation and carefully staged publicity stunts to push his hateful agenda, feeding off deep-seated racist and xenophobic sentiments. While America descends into darkness the new President enjoys a cozy, almost treasonous relationship with a European dictator.

No, I’m not taking about life under President Donald Trump. I’m describing Philip Roth’s 2004 alternate history novel The Plot Against America. Roth’s novel has been on my list to read for over a decade, but not long ago I finally said enough is enough and grabbed a copy from my public library. As I’m sure you can guess from my opening paragraph, the more I read The Plot Against America, the more the novel started to sound like Trump’s blueprint for America.

The alternate history that Roth concocts for The Plot Against America involves aviator Charles Lindbergh winning the Republican nomination and going on to defeat FDR in the 1940 Presidential Election. Once President, Lindbergh begins a slow, subtle but malevolent campaign against the nation’s Jews designed to isolate them politically and economically. Through the eyes of young Philip Roth, we see the nation succumb to the antisemitic machinations of Lindbergh and his cronies. Will America throw off the yoke of oppression, or will the nation become another Nazi Germany?

I enjoyed Roth’s novel, so much so it’s left me wanting to read more stuff from the venerable American author. It’s also made me wanna read more works of alternate history, a genre that’s always fascinated me, even though I’ve read very little of it. So with that in mind, don’t be surprised if you find me reading Goodbye, Columbus or American Pastoral. Or a bit of alternate history like Days of Rice and Salt or Lion’s Blood.

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Filed under Fiction, History, Judaica

The Fifth Servant by Kenneth J. Wishnia

The Fifth ServantEven though I’ve read only two of his novels, I’ve recently taken a liking to the historical fiction of David Liss. His 2004 novel The Coffee Trader easily made my 2014 Favorite Fiction list while his 2014 offering The Day of Atonement not only made last year’s list but received my nod for best piece of fiction. Duly impressed with the novels of Liss, I hope to read more of his stuff in the near future.

Last week while searching my public library’s online catalog for books I could read for the European Reading Challenge I came across a listing for Kenneth J. Wishnia’s 2010 novel The Fifth Servant. After looking it up on Amazon, I saw The Fifth Servant had received a “starred review” from Publishers Weekly. As good an accolade as that might be, what really made me borrow a library copy was the praise it received from David Liss. “Whatever you are currently reading, I promise you it is not nearly as intelligent, witty, compelling, or entertaining as The Fifth Servant….Wishnia makes history come alive.” With a recommendation like that, how could I go wrong? After finishing The Fifth Servant earlier this morning down at my neighborhood coffee shop I’m happy to report Liss did not lead me astray.

Set during the 16th century in Prague, the novel begins when the body of a murdered young girl is found outside a Jewish-owned business. Given just three days to solve the murder, newly arrived shammes (a kind of custodian/gofer/low-level assistant for the local synagogue) Benyamin Ben-Akiva must navigate an array of hostile and reluctant personalities, both Jew and Gentile, if he’s to find the true killer before the city’s Jewish population is brutally punished. Fortunately Ben-Akiva is no mere flunky but instead a highly intelligent and educated individual who quickly blossoms into a brave man of action.

The Fifth Servant is an entertaining adventure with something for everyone: mystery, action, suspense, romance and even a little humor. Both mystery fans and fans of historical fiction will enjoy the novel. With much of it set in Prague’s Jewish Quarter and our heroic protagonist a brilliant Talmudist, I highly recommend The Fifth Servant to Jewish readers. Wishnia did a fine job painting a rich and vibrant picture of what the Jewish section of Prague looked like so many centuries ago. David Liss was right. This is a wonderful novel.

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Filed under Christianity, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Fiction, History, Judaica

About Time I Read It: The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell

I never jumped on the Scandinavian crime fiction bandwagon. Back in the late 2000s and earlier 2010s when the genre was enjoying its peak in popularity, it seemed like I was the only one riding the bus or hanging out at the coffee shop who wasn’t reading something by Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo or Henning Mankell. No matter how many of my friends, co-workers and fellow book bloggers raved about the stuff I never felt the urge to read any of it. But over the last few years as I participated in reading challenges like Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge and Introverted Reader’s Books in Translation Reading Challenge, slowly but surely found I myself reading thrillers, crime fiction and assorted noir-like novels set in other countries, frequently penned by foreign authors. In retrospect, I’m thinking well, why shouldn’t I? For as long as I can remember, I’ve been intensely curious about the life, politics and goings on in countries around the world. So, if Dostoyevsky thought the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons, then I’m pretty confident a piece of crime fiction can serve as a kind of window onto a nation’s soul.

Therefore, with all those past recommendation in mind and duly inspired by two above-mentioned reading challenges, I recently grabbed a copy of Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga from the good people at my public library. After what felt like only a few pages I soon realized why everyone has been so gaga over Scandinavian crime fiction. Darkly realistic, morally complex and set in an exotic while at the same time not too terribly alien environment, I can now see why these Nordic noir novels have been so popular with American readers. On top of that, Mankell’s novel is smart, fast-paced and entertaining.

Set in 1991, The Dogs of Riga begins when a life raft containing a pair of well-dressed dead bodies washes ashore on an out-of-the-way Swedish beach. After determining the two men were shot execution style and hailed from Eastern Europe, local Inspector Kurt Wallander’s search to solve the crime takes him across the Baltic to Latvia, at that time still part of the Soviet Union when the USSR was slowly collapsing, but hadn’t collapsed completely. In his quest for answers Wallander soon finds himself caught in the middle between those in Latvia who would rather live under Soviet rule and those who yearn for political independence.

After enjoying The Dogs of Riga as much as I did I’m ready not only for more of Henning Mankell’s fiction but also more Nordic noir. So, even though I’m a big fan of nonfiction, don’t be surprised when you see more stuff like The Dogs of Riga featured on this blog. Of course keeping in mind how popular that fiction is, I doubt any of my blog’s readers will be disappointed.

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

Heretics and How God Changes Your Brain

Sadly, once again I find myself falling behind in my blogging and needing to play a little catch-up. In the future if this happens, (and probably will) my guess is you’ll see me doing more of  these little catch-up posts in which I discuss multiple books. Even though it feels like I’m “cheating, it’s a great way to recover lost ground. Plus, it allows me to utilize the gallery feature, which it always fun to use and ideal when spotlighting a series of books.

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now by Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Back in December when I did my year-end catch-up post, one of the many books I briefly featured was Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. While I didn’t say a lot about her book, I did mention in my post my wish to read more of her stuff in the coming year. Not long after I wrote those words, I discovered Hirsi Ali had written another book. Much to my joy, I was soon able to secure a copy from my public library.

Seen by many as a controversial figure because of her highly critical views of the Islamic world, her latest book in my opinion doesn’t come off as being anti-Muslim per se, even though she is quite critical when it comes to many of the religion’s core beliefs and practices . Her call to reform is similar to that of Anouar Majid as outlined in his 2007 book A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America.

Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World by Thomas Cahill. Cahill has been a personal favorite of mine for years, ever since I read his  How the Irish Saved Civilization way back in 1995 . Since then, I’ve tried to read everything of his I can get my hands on, including his short biography of Pope John XXIII.

Honestly, I did not feel confident about Heretics and Heroes, since his last book in his Hinges of History series Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe left me a bit disappointed. So, with no small bit of trepidation, I grabbed a copy of Heretics and Heroes from my public library and gave it a shot. This time, much to my relief there was no disappointment.

Heretics and Heroes covers the Renaissance and Reformation eras from the late fourteenth to the early seventeenth century. Just as expected, Cahill hits all the pivotal events and major personalities. Much to my joy, he also takes time to discuss more than a few vital but overlooked historical contributions. I like Cahill because he makes history entertaining and accessible to readers who are not historians. It’s like having a lengthy but entertaining discussion about history over coffee with friendly and knowledgeable college professor. In so many ways reminded me of Tamin Ansary in his book  Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes.

How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist by Andrew Newberg M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman – This was my book group’s selection for the month of February and honestly, when the decision was announced I wasn’t excited to read it. But with a week to go until our meeting I said what the heck and a bought a copy from Amazon. Fortunately for me, it was a quick read. Even more fortunate for me, it was not the super new age/woo/misuse of neuroscience book I feared. How God Changes Your Brain could be seen as a kind of self-improvement book and touts the benefits of meditation and meditation-like practices to lower stress to improve physical and mental health. Instead of being turned off by the book it left me wanting to adopt some of its recommended practices. It also left me wanting to read Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.

In an earlier post in which I discussed three different books, I briefly touched on some of the similarities I saw between the three books. When looking at these particular three, both Hirsi Ali and Cahill in their respective books discuss religious reformations and how they’ve been initiated by “heretical” individuals. Newberg and Waldman in their book, extol spiritual exercises as form of healthy meditation, and gave the example of Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises as one example among many such exercises one could use to achieve greater health and well-being. Once again, I love finding commonalities in my reading material.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, History, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa, Science