The Best Place on Earth by Ayelet Tsabari

We’ve all been told never judge a book by its cover. Perhaps I should have remembered that bit of advice when I impulsively grabbed a library copy of Ayelet Tsabari’s short story collection The Best Place on Earth. For some silly reason, after taking one look at the book’s brightly colored cover art I immediately assumed it was about India. Nope, I was wrong. You see, Ayelet Tsabari is a Mizrahi Jew of Yemeni heritage, born and raised in Israel but now living in Canada. Her debut collection of 11 short stories show life as it’s experienced by an array of mostly Mizrahi characters spanning the globe from Israel to Canada. Luckily for me, overall it’s a decent selection of stories. On top of that, come on, when does one come across a collection of short stories from a Mizrahi point of view? With that in mind, who cares if this book has nothing to do with India.

Seems like most short story collections contain stories you enjoy, stories that are so-so and some that just don’t work for you. While some of the stories in The Best Place on Earth I liked more than others, there weren’t any pieces I detested. My favorite story is probably “Casualties,” the tale of a young Israeli Army medic known as the “Moroccan firecracker” who supplements her army salary by selling black market gimel passes that medically excuses its pass holder from duty, allowing the conscript to flee the base for a bit of unauthorized R and R. For whatever reason, I enjoyed the stories set in Israel much more than the ones set in Tsabari’s current home of Canada. (Maybe Canada isn’t as relatively exotic, and therefore not interesting enough for me.)

I’m pleased to say Tsabari’s collection nicely compliments Rachel Shabi’s outstanding look at Israeli Mizrahi life We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands. On a related note, if you haven’t read Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World or Ariel Sabar’s My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq I welcome you to do so, especially after you’ve read The Best Place on Earth. Which I’m thinking, is a collection of short stories you just might possibly enjoy.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Fiction, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

Soviet Spotlight: The Yid by Paul Goldberg

I’d read all kinds of cool things about Paul Goldberg’s 2016 debut novel The Yid, but seeing Portland Silent Reading Party co-host Karen reading a copy was the only recommendation I needed. Even though I easily found an available copy through my public library it seemed like it took forever to finally start reading it. However, when I did get around to cracking it open I burned through The Yid in nothing flat.

The inspiration for Goldberg’s darkly funny and intelligent novel is the little known period of 20th century history that occurred during the twilight years of Stalin’s reign called the Doctors’ Plot. During this period Soviet media was awash with stories of Jewish doctors, acting on orders from America, Great Britain and Israel were engaged in a nefarious conspiracy to murder high-ranking government officials and poison good Soviet citizens.  Fortunately, before Stalin and his inner circle could begin mass arrests and deportations of the USSR’s Jewish citizens the Soviet dictator died. (I first learned of forgotten period years ago when I read Vladimir Pozner’s memoir Parting with Illusions.)

The craziness begins late one night in 1953 when a trio of Soviet secret police arrive to arrest Solomon Levinson. A retired actor from the now defunct State Jewish Theater who also spent time fighting for the Reds in the Russian Civil War, let’s just say Levinson knows how to handle a sword and handles it well. After swiftly dispatching the three government agents he teams up with a quirky band misfits who include surgeon Aleksandr Kogan; African-American émigré Frederick Lewis (whom in addition to English can speak Russian, Esperanto and Yiddish) and Kima Petrova a woman of modest means but powerful political connections. Taking inspiration from the Shakespearean theme of murdering a crazed monarch, Levinson and his band set out to rid the Soviet Union of Stalin before Stalin can enact his evil plans.

The Yid is a clever page turner. Who knows, maybe one of the reasons Goldberg is able to write such a wonderful novel is because he himself is a Jew who escaped the Soviet Union and came to America at the tender age of 12. Don’t be surprised if Goldberg’s excellent debut novel end up on my year-end list of best fiction.

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

Books About Books: Stolen Words by Mark Glickman

Besides Gregory Feifer’s The Great Gamble, another book I bought for myself last Christmas morning happened to be Rabbi Mark Glickman’s Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books. I can’t remember just how this book originally came to my attention, but once it caught my eye Stolen Words went straight to the top of my to be read list (TBR). Perhaps it was fitting that mere days after buying a copy of Stolen Words I began reading it. As I enjoyably made my way through it, it didn’t take me long to realize I’d made a valuable purchase. Stolen Words is a very book.

As Nazi Germany overran the nations of Europe, special teams were officially tasked with plundering Jewish books from synagogues, libraries and households. While the Nazi’s might have begun their reign of terror by burning books, quickly their goal shifted to collecting such books. According to the Nazi’s twisted logic, they sought to mine the stolen books in hopes of proving to the world the Jews were an enemy race bent on the destruction of humanity. Entire state-sponsored libraries of confiscated Jewish books were planned, but put on hold until the end of the war. By the time Germany surrendered, millions of stolen books lay stashed in warehouses, and in one case an ancient castle.

With so many of the book’s original owners murdered and entire Jewish communities wiped off the face of the earth, returning them to their rightful owners would be a Sisyphean task. Not counting the countless texts grabbed by the Soviets as the Red Army surged towards Berlin, that thankless project fell to the occupying Americans. After years of effort, in the end some books found their way to America, some to libraries in Europe and some to the young State of Israel. Tragically, too many of these stolen books vanished off the face of the earth, never to be read or studied again.

As the old cliché goes, timing is everything. I lucked out by reading Adam Kirsch’s The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature prior to reading Stolen Words since this helped me gain a deeper understanding of the great texts of Judaism. In turn, Stolen Words served as a nice lead-in to Anders Rydell’s The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance. (Review forthcoming.)

Stolen Words is a great book for any bibliophile, not to mention readers interested in Judaism but also the horrors of the Second World War.

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Filed under Europe, History, Judaica

About Time I Read It: Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan

Seems like the more I enjoyed reading a book, the longer it takes me to post a review of it. As to why, I’ve always thought it’s because frankly, outstanding books are not easy to write about and deep down, I’m afraid any review I write won’t do the book justice. I’m sure that’s the case with Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. I read this thing months ago and it’s taken me forever to get off my butt and write about it. Well, that wait is over.

Published 15 years ago in 2002, Paris 1919 has been on my list to read for over six years, ever since I learned Amy of the blog Amy Reads happened to be reading it. Those following my blog might also remember Paris 1919 was one of the books, just like The Great Gamble that was featured in the post “Books I’ve Desperately Wanted to Read.” With this being the hundred year anniversary of World War I, from time to time I’d at check-in at my public library to see if a copy happened to be available. One of those times I got lucky and a copy was available for the taking. So, of course I grabbed it. And loved it.

It’s hard to read Paris 1919 and not marvel in both the scope of the Paris Peace Conference but also its lasting consequences. For one, in today’s hyper interconnected, 24 hour news cycle driven, Twitter-crazed world, it’s hard to imagine the world’s leaders setting up shop in some city for six months just to hash out a peace treaty. Also, some of the participating delegations and their respective support staff were, numerically speaking, huge. The British and America groups rented out entire hotels and even brought their own nationals to staff the places. Those attending the Paris Peace Conference, in official or unofficial capacities was like a who’s who of the mid-20th century. Lawrence of Arabia, Ho Chi Minh, Queen Marie of Romania, FDR and Eleanor, Arnold J. Toynbee and John Maynard Keynes all rubbed elbows at the Conference in some degree or another. (Even French novelist Marcel Proust was seen at one of the Conference’s many dinner parties. According to MacMillan he was overheard asking one his fellow dinner guests to regale him in great detail of the Conference’s developments.)

As for the consequences of the Conference, with a few exceptions the blueprint that was drawn in 1919 holds true today. The great land-based empires of western Eurasia were carved up. Russia lost, then won, then lost its Baltic territories. With the collapse of Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany, Poland regained its independence and Czechoslovakia became independent. (Although 70 years later it would split in two). A Serb-dominated Yugoslavia would arise from the ashes of WWI only to horribly disintegrate by the century’s end. Lastly, the Ottoman Empire’s remaining Middle Eastern territories were seized by Britain and France. As a result of this land grab British Palestine became the State of Israel. The Kurds were left without a homeland. Iraq is a sectarian mess. The rest of the Middle East, especially the former Ottoman lands have been unstable for years, especially recently. Lastly, over the last 75 years there hasn’t been a group of freedom fighters or separatists who haven’t espoused the Wilsonian term of self-determination at least one in a manifesto or proclamation.

Paris 1919 is easily one of the best pieces of nonfiction I’ve read this year. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t make my year-end best of list. Consider this book highly recommended.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Japan, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

Conclave by Robert Harris

I love Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Since the rules state “each book must be by a different author and set in a different country” intrepid participants are inspired to read books representing the breadth of Europe. Let’s face it, as I’ve mentioned before on my blog, it’s easy to find books representing large countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia. But what about the small ones? And the really small ones? How about the smallest one of all? By that I mean Vatican City. My solution over the last few years has been to read a biography of a pope. (Both times I did they were short biographies of Pope John XXIII, one by Christian Feldman and the other by Thomas Cahill.) Nothing against papal biographies, but I wondered if there were other books about or set in Vatican City that I could read for the European Reading Challenge.

As luck would have it, I found a solution. Thanks to my public library I learned British novelist Robert Harris has a new novel out and it’s set in of all places the Vatican. Excited the author of the outstanding alternate history novel Fatherland had turned his literary attention to the world of high-stakes Vatican politics excited me. So I grabbed a copy of Conclave and began reading it. After weathering a few distractions I eagerly ripped through it. I’m happy to say Conclave did not disappoint me. Ian Samson writing for the Guardian called the novel “unputdownable” and I’m tempted to agree because it’s one hell of a page turner.

Named after an assembly of cardinals who meet under lock and key in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope, Conclave begins with the somewhat mysterious death of a revered reformist pope and moves quickly to the quest to elect his successor. Sequestered from the outside world, the Conclave is rife with high drama and intrigue. Like any sizable voting assembly there are factions. Not only is there a rivalry  between conservative elements (called “Trads” for their traditionalist or Pre-Vatican II views) and progressives (some from Continental Europe and America sharing liberal outlooks with a few Liberation Theologians from Latin Americans) but there’s also blocks of cardinals representing Italian, Latin American, African and Anglophone interests. Just to make things even more interesting, a mysterious Cardinal arrives in Rome just in time for the Conclave. A Filipino with a long but unpublicized history of humanitarian work in Africa and the Middle East, thanks to his secret elevation to Cardinal by the late Pope he too can vote in the Conclave.

Like any good page-turner, the story moves quickly and there’s no shortage of twists and turns. Conclave is one of those light, fast-paced pieces of contemporary fiction that’s entertaining as hell and a pleasure to read. So naturally, I have no problem recommending this wonderful novel.

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Filed under Christianity, Current Affairs, Europe, Fiction

Reading Afghanistan: The Great Gamble by Gregory Feifer

Some of might remember a post I did last July called “Books I’ve Desperately Wanted to Read.” In that post I featured 15 different books I’ve been wanting to get my hands on for a long, long time. One of those books Gregory Feifer’s, The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan has been on my to read list since 2009, when it was first published. After years of making no effort whatsoever to read The Great Gamble, Christmas morning six months ago I decided to treat myself by buying it and a few other books off Amazon. Honestly, I can’t remember exactly when I decided to finally sit down and start reading it, but when I did I immediately took a liking to Feifer’s 2009 book. Once again, I had one of those “why did I wait to so long to read this?” kind of moments I always experience when reading an excellent book I should have read years ago.

The Great Gamble is Feifer’s detailed and highly readable account of the Soviet Union’s costly and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to install and sustain a friendly regime in neighboring Afghanistan. A former NPR Russia correspondent based in Moscow, Feifer made good use of his home abroad and the journalistic connections that came with it to interview those who fought in Afghanistan. Living in Moscow he was also able to utilize Soviet-era archives to help show what USSR’s aging leadership was thinking when it decided to roll across the border two days after Christmas in 1979. Fearing Afghanistan’s latest dictator might withdraw the fractious and horribly impoverished country from the USSR’s orbit of client states, the Soviet inner circle somehow authorized (actual written documentation either no longer exists or was never written down) the invasion as a quick surgical strike by Soviet special forces. Eliminate Afghanistan’s leader, put in the USSR’s chosen successor and go home. Funny how these kind of military operations never exactly go as planned. A decade later a bloodied and disillusioned Red Army would limp home after accomplishing little if anything. On top of that, in one of history’s more striking ironies, several years later the same  global superpower that invaded Afghanistan would collapse like a house of cards.

The Great Gamble is an excellent book. Reading Feifer’s accounts of Soviet troops winning individual battles only lose the overall war, shows the near impossible task of defeating a force of motivated insurgents, especially when those insurgents receive international backing including bases in a neighboring county. Personally, my favorite part of The Great Gamble was Feifer’s account of the lack of coordination and communication between different elements of the USSR’s intelligence and elite military services. Soviet spies tried to poison Afghan President Hafizullah Amin once, and when unsuccessful tried again. Ailing and fighting for his life, different elements of Soviet intelligence dispatched a doctor who ultimately saved his life. But alas, it was all for naught when right after that a squad of Soviet commandos stormed the Presidential palace and killed him.

Like I said before, The Great Gamble is an excellent book. So much did I enjoy it there’s a good chance you’ll see it included in my year-end best of list of outstanding nonfiction.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, History

Reading Afghanistan: The Places in Between by Rory Stewart

I was no stranger to The Places in Between, or its author Rory Stewart when I decided to grab a copy from my public library. You see, years ago, a dear friend of mine after returning from a shopping trip to Powell’s Books informed me she’d bought a copy and asked if I’d heard of it. (At the time I’d hadn’t. But I was vaguely familiar with one of his other books, The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.) As for Rory Stewart, I was introduced to his writing when I read the foreword he wrote to Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East. Since I thought it was one of the best  forwards I’d ever read, I welcomed any opportunity to read more of Stewart’s stuff. Needless to say, when a copy of The Places in Between came available, I grabbed a copy.

You gotta admire a guy like Stewart. Mere months after the US has toppled the Taliban, he arrives in Afghanistan. Alone and in the middle of winter, this fearless (or crazy, depending on how you look at it) Scotsman sets out to walk across the country, from Herat to Kabul. The locals think he’s either insane, or worse some sort of spy. At the start of his trek, he’s  confronted by several  “government” agents, probably with Iranian connections. After explaining his intended mission, one of his interrogators responds incredulously  “there are no tourists.” Reminding him it’s winter and the high mountain passes are covered with tons of snow he adds “you will die, I can guarantee. Do you want to die?” Undeterred, Stewart proceeds to hike across north-central Afghanistan usually accompanied by a few Afghans. But always on foot. And always at the mercy of the hostile elements, both natural and human.

Reading The Places in Between you learn quickly Afghanistan is one hell of a rough place. Think of it as wall to wall grinding poverty. There’s no infrastructure worth speaking of and thanks to the country’s mountainous terrain most population centers are terribly isolated and thus insulated from the reach of any central government. Instead warlords and chieftains rule individual pieces of the country. Theses are the men Stewart must win over if he’s going to make it across Afghanistan alive.

My only knock on The Places in Between is a slight oneStewart’s habit of including so many passages of medieval travelogue might have gone a bit too far. But alas my complaint is a minor one, and should not defer anyone from reading this very good piece of travel writing.

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Filed under Afghanistan, History, Islam