Sometimes you don’t like a book as much as you respect it. That’s how I feel about Marie Jalowicz Simon’s 2015 memoir Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany. For whatever reason, I just didn’t enjoy reading it that much. Maybe it was the writing, maybe it was the overall structure, maybe it was the editing but for whatever reason, I just never fell in love with it. I never took a liking to memoirist Jalowicz Simon either. But my goodness, after reading how she survived as a Jew in Nazi German during World War II whatever issues I had with Underground in Berlin seemed oh so trivial. I came away from her memoir in awe that any human being could have pulled off what she did and lived to tell the story.
I came across a copy of Underground in Berlin through my public library and knowing I could use a book set in Germany for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I secured myself a copy. (Come to think of it, I think I might have seen the book listed on Goodreads since it looked kind of familiar.) Probably because I wasn’t too enamored with the book, it took me forever to get through Underground in Berlin. But like I mentioned earlier, once I did finish it, my respect for its author knew no bounds.
It’s one thing to cheat death once, or even twice during a lifetime. Jalowicz Simon did it on a daily basis for over half a decade, living under one of history’s most efficiently murderous regimes. The fact she survived at all is proof her own resourcefulness and perseverance. She also never would have survived without the assistance a huge constellation of individuals, each person with his/her reason for helping, and not all those reasons pure and noble. Lastly, to risk being profane even Jalowicz Simon concludes good fortune, usually masquerading as simple dumb luck played no small part in keeping her alive.
If you’re like me and a big Alan Furst fan, my guess is you’re also fascinated to some degree what civilian life must have been like in Nazi Germany. If that’s the case, then you might want to explore Underground in Berlin. If you’re a reader who finds yourself drawn to books on the Holocaust, you too might want to read this since Jalowicz Simon’s memoir shed light its horrors right down to an individual, almost prosaic level. Once again, while I might not have enjoyed Underground in Berlin, I sure as hell respected it.
As I proclaimed in one of my earlier posts. Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has inspired even this diehard nonfiction fan to read more fiction. Of course, if I’m going to read fiction there’s a strong likelihood it’s going to be historical fiction since that’s what this old history buff is going to read. So, when I found out my public library had available a novel set in the 15th century on the Iberian peninsula I figured what the heck and grabbed it.
Published in 2014, Laurel Corona’s The Mapmaker’s Daughter tells the story of Amalia Riba, a Sephardic Jew and Converso. The story begins with her as a young girl living in Spain. A child prodigy possessing intelligence and talent far beyond her years, she eagerly assists her mapmaker father in translating documents and other important duties. After her mothers dies, her and her father move to Portugal so he can supply his cartographical skills to Henry the Navigator. Upon growing to young womanhood, she’s married off to a Portuguese explorer but without revealing any spoilers let’s just say the only things good about her marriage is it was short and resulted in the birth of her daughter. From there she falls in love with a dashing and intelligent Moorish ambassador and moves to the Muslim kingdom of Grenada to be with him. Later, she leaves Grenada returning to both Portugal and Spain. The novel ends with Amalia a much older woman, reflecting on the events of her life as she and her co-religionists are being cast out of Spain per Ferdinand and Isabella’s infamous royal decree.
The Mapmaker’s Daughter made for light, but nevertheless entertaining reading. Kudos to author Corona for weaving into her story true historical figures like Spain’s Queen Isabella and Grand Inquisitor Torquemada. If you’re a history fan like myself it’s hard not to like the novel The Mapmaker’s Daughter.
How can any true bibliophile resist a book called The House of Twenty Thousand Books? I mean come on, just look at that picture on the cover. If you’re a true book lover, who wouldn’t want to live a house like that, with books stacked floor to ceiling? So who could blame me for wanting to read Sasha Abramsky’s The House of Twenty Thousand Books when I discovered the book while surfing my public library’s online catalog. After leisurely making my way through it I’m happy to report The House of Twenty Thousand Books did not disappoint this lover of books, especially old books.
The House of Twenty Thousand Books is the story of Chimen Abramsky, Sasha’s grandfather. Born in 1916 near Minsk in the old Russian Empire, later Chimen emigrated to England to escape Stalinist oppression. Even though Chimen’s father, an incredibly gifted and esteemed Rabbi suffered mightily at the hands of the Soviets, (he narrowly escaped being executed only to spend several years in the Gulag) nevertheless, not long after his arrival in England Chimen became a diehard Communist. So steadfast in his political beliefs that despite Stalin’s purges, show trails and legions of atrocities only in the late 50s would Chimen abandon Communism in favor of a less dogmatic and more liberal form of humanism.
But books was Chimen’s passion. His Communist zeal inspired him to collect rare books and manuscripts dealing with socialism, labor and Marxism. With some of his treasured editions containing handwritten margin notes by Karl Marx himself, Chimen’s personal library was the envy of Communists and leftists from around the world. Later in life, as he drifted away from Communism, Chimen began to collect rare and vintage Jewish books, many of them acquired from behind the Iron Curtain, thus saving them from obscurity and possible destruction. As he built his massive library, filling his home with books each room would be devoted to a certain subject, with the master bedroom serving as a kind of “holy of holies” of Chimen’s most precious volumes where only special guests could enter.
Published in 2015, The House of Twenty Thousand Books is one of those rare books that succeeds in being many things. On one level, it could be considered a memoir since Abramsky recounts his childhood growing up in London before he left for American to attend graduate school. It’s also a biography of his grandfather Chimen, the tireless bibliophile who over decades created the house of books. But it’s also a history book, chronicling not only the history of the Abramsky family, but that of England, with a focus on left and far left politics. It’s also a fine book of Jewish history. Therefore, with that all said I thoroughly enjoyed The House of Twenty Thousand Books and have no problem recommended this fine book to any bibliophile.
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.
A 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.
If 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.