Library Loot: March 14-20

For a long time, Library Loot was a regular feature on my blog. Almost every week I would report to the world which books I grabbed from the public library. This arrangement not only helped my readers get a glimpse into what I hoped to read over the coming weeks, it also gave me the opportunity to see what other book bloggers planned on reading. I discovered many a great book thanks to this little meme, including Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, since it was a Library Loot posting on Claire’s blog The Captive Reader that first brought Lowe’s book to my attention. But sadly, I fell out of the habit of doing Library Loot posts. Time to change that.

Today, on with spring just a few days away I’ve decided to resurrect that little blogging tradition of mine. Behold, a parade of recently acquired books, courtesy of my public library. Of course, it’s no sure thing I’ll end up reading all of them, but perhaps that’s not the point. Maybe the purpose is to share your reading ambitions with others. So, with all that in mind, here’s what I’ve brought home recently from the public library.

Well, there it is. Quite a lot of reading ahead of me. As you can see, it’s pretty nonfiction heavy with half the books dealing with the Middle East and Muslim world. Typical of my reading tastes, all these books have an international focus, be it Spain, India or Europe in general. If I only end up getting through only one or two of them before I have to return the books to the library I’ll consider it a major accomplishment. So with that in mind, maybe I need to wrap up this long overdue Library Loot post and get back to reading.



Filed under Library Loot

Three More Coming Attractions

Trust me, after posting my recent Preview of Coming Attractions I’ve been trying to crank out more reviews, but sadly haven’t had much luck. Nevertheless, I’m confident you’ll start seeing some new posts before you know it. But until then, here’s another preview post to tide you over. Over the last week or so I read an enjoyable novel in addition to two quality works of nonfiction. Hopefully, soon on my blog you’ll be reading about these three books.

The Little Book by Selden Edwards – Back in 2008, I heard a glowing review of this novel on NPR. Not long after that a former co-worker raved about it. I’ve been wanting to read it for years and last week I finally got the chance. I was not disappointed.

The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt- Yet another book I once checked out from the public library only to return it before even reading the first page. But with Judt’s 2008 book Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century making my year-end Best Nonfiction List I’ve been inspired to read the rest of his stuff. Not only is this an excellent collection of autobiographical reflections and historical essays it was composed while Judt was paralyzed and dying from ALS. An impressive book in more ways than one.

The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy – Spotted this one of the shelf at my local public library and simply HAD to have it. Published in late 2016, it tells the forgotten story of a pair of KGB-orchestrated assassinations during the height of the Cold War. A great follow-up book to Ben Shephard’s The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War .



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A Preview of Coming Attractions

Well, I might have began the year with a flurry of posts but for the last few weeks I’ve been missing in action. Sorry about that but I fear I’ve been plagued with a slight case of writer’s block. Anyway, the good news is even though I’ve ignored my blog I’ve still been reading. Hopefully, by doing a little preview post on the books I hope to feature in the coming weeks I can inspire myself to do some blogging. This tactic has worked in the past and I’m cautiously optimistic it’ll work once again.

Below are six books I plan to feature over the coming weeks or so. Half are fiction and the other half are nonfiction. Like most the stuff I read it’s heavy on history, including historical fiction.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford- I read this one for a book club but unfortunately I was unable to attend. I approached Ford’s novel with modest expectations and in the end enjoyed it more than I originally thought I would.

The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping by Aharon Appelfeld – Last September I grabbed this novel from the public library only to return it a few weeks later ignored and unread. But after reading in the New York Times he’d recently passed away I once again borrowed a copy from my public library. I’m glad I did.

The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer – I can’t remember if it was on Goodreads or Amazon, but this one kept popping up as something I should read. I took the suggestion and loved Rojstaczer’s novel. Perhaps the best novel I’ve read so far this year.

The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War by Ben Shephard – If The Mathematician’s Shiva is the best novel I’ve read so far in 2018 then The Long Road Home is the best piece of nonfiction I’ve encountered at this point in the year. An outstanding companion to Savage Continent.

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman – I’ve always had a soft spot for Russian literature going all the way back to my college days. Besides that, who could resist the great cover art courtesy of New Yorker cartoonist Raz Chast?

Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Days of Paranoia by Francis Wheen-  Over the last couple of years I’ve been obsessed with the 70s. Therefore, when I found this book at my public library I eagerly grabbed it. This book was completely off my radar and had it not been for my library I never could have read it.


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2017 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a huge fan of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Over the years she’s encouraged us to read as many books as possible that are set in, or about different European countries or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, over the course of the year participants find ourselves moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year was a bit of a down year for me since I read and reviewed only 13 books. At year’s end I vowed to do better and this year I’m happy to report I read and reviewed 18 books. Just like in past years, a variety of countries are represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, but also smaller ones like LatviaBosnia and even the micro-state of Vatican City. Looking back on the challenge, I read some quality books since three of those novels made my year-end best fiction list. One of those three novels, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (United Kingdom) ended up being my favorite piece of fiction from 2017. As for nonfiction, Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (France) and Anders Rydell’s The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance (Sweden) both made my year-end best nonfiction list.

Like I said at the start, I’m a huge fan of this challenge and I encourage all you book bloggers out there in the blogosphere to sign up. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.


Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe

Kerrigan in Copenhagen by Thomas E. Kennedy

Late last week I found myself in search of one last book to round things out for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. I didn’t have much time to read and review anything so my choices were limited. So nothing too lengthy or complicated. I thought about something set in Ukraine, Hungary or the Czech Republic but nothing seemed to fit the bill. But thanks to my local public library I found a novel set in Denmark. While I initially had my doubts, by the end it become obvious Thomas E. Kennedy’s 2013 novel staring a bar-hopping, self-destructive middle-aged jazz aficionado was the perfect end to another year of the European Reading Challenge.

Lately life hasn’t been kind to Kerrigan, an American expat residing in Copenhagen. In his mid-50’s his health is already starting to fail. His wife, a beautiful and vivacious Danish woman almost 30 years his junior has fled abroad with their infant daughter, who may or may not be really his. Broken hearted he succumbs to the instructions of his estranged wife’s lawyer and signs the divorce papers, even though he still loves her despite her transgressions. His once promising academic career is no more and instead he spends his days researching a travel guide to the countless bars of Copenhagen. However, in reality he’s been drinking himself into oblivion, wandering the streets of the Danish capital in an alcoholic haze as he travels from one bar to another. Just to complicate things he’s fallen in love with his literary assistant, a twice divorced voluptuous Danish woman. Not only is he attracted to her physically, but he finds her intelligence, humor and world-weariness just want he needs considering his current wrecked state.

Yes, Kennedy’s novel is a tale of middle age loss and bumbling search for love but it’s also an homage to James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece Ulysses. Just as Leopold Bloom (also cursed with an unfaithful wife) traveled the streets of Dublin so Kerrigan migrates back and forth across Copenhagen. Other similarities become apparent as Kennedy mentions Joyce’s belief that Danish blood coursed through his veins, thanks to the Viking conquests of the British Isles.

Perhaps another reason I ended up liking Kerrigan in Copenhagen more than I expected is I have a weakness for self-destructive individuals, much like the protagonist Charlie Kolostrum in the Austrian novel Pull Yourself Together and Mark Richard as he recalls in his memoir House of Prayer No. 2. No matter what they still manage to achieve some level of success. Kennedy’s repeated inclusion of historical factoids and jazz trivia made for interesting reading and reminded me a bit stylistically what Marisha Pessl did with her outstanding novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I guess when it’s all said and done, how could I not like a novel about bars, jazz, history, love and middle-aged regret?

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Funny, I’ve never read a novel set in Switzerland. Last week while looking for books I could read for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I noticed there was an available copy of Rose Tremain’s novel The Gustav Sonata. Seeing it’s set Switzerland I was tempted grab it. But not knowing anything about Tremain’s 2016 novel I was a bit hesitant. However, after seeing it won the 2016 Jewish Book Award for fiction and received a glowing review in the Guardian I decided secure a copy. After whipping through it in no time I knew I’d made the right decision.

The Gustav Sonata begins a few years after the conclusion of the Second World War when two five-year old boys meet in kindergarten. When Gustav meets Anton, he’s a sad Jewish boy choking back tears. Gustav is immediately drawn to him and takes him under his wing. Before long Gustav finds sanctuary as a treasured guest of Anton’s well to do and loving family. Unfortunately, Gustav’s own home life is less than stellar. Since his father’s death he and his mother have lived a hand to mouth existence, made worse by his mother’s struggles with physical and mental health issues as well as alcohol abuse. Despite the two boys’ differences and Anton’s frequent bouts of nervousness and self-doubt (today he’d probably be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder) a strong bond develops between them, leading to an intense life-long friendship.

Gustav and Anton’s relationship is a reflection of post war Switzerland as whole. Looking back decades later many in that country and around the world condemn Switzerland for its reluctance and eventual refusal to admit Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. This has led to debates on what should be the country’s priorities during times of extreme emergency. Just as Anton and especially Gustav explore and reflect on the successes and failures of their respective parents so others have scrutinized the actions of previous generations of Swiss when faced with tough moral choices.

I found The Gustav Sonata well written, moving and engaging. With a story that begins in the aftermath of World War II and continues for half a century The Gustav Sonata makes a nice companion novel to All the Light We Cannot See. It’s left me wanting to read more stuff by the novel’s author Rose Tremain. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you see more of her novels featured on my blog.


Filed under Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica

In Europe’s Shadow by Robert D. Kaplan

Years ago during one of my visits to the public library a came across a copy of Robert D. Kaplan’s 2000 book The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War. Contained in this collection of essays on democracy, international relations and assorted global hotspots was a considerably pessimistic article originally written for The Atlantic magazine. In his lengthy piece, “The Coming Anarchy” Kaplan predicted a bleak future for the developing world. Already cursed with fragile governments and limited resources, these countries face a bleak future of overpopulation, resource depletion and explosive urbanization. Unable to cope with such challenges many of them will descend into anarchy while armed conflicts, flights of refugees and human misery become all more common. According to Kaplan the future looked grim. And it left me wanting to read more of his stuff.

Fast forward to 2011 when I read his 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power finding it even more insightful and fascinating. According to Kaplan, the Indian Ocean region will continue to grow in importance as India and China rise, leading to an increase in global trade but also the potential for greater international rivalries and possibly even armed conflicts. I happily devoured Monsoon and had no difficulty including it in my year-end Best Nonfiction list.

So I guess it should be no one’s surprise once I learned Kaplan’s newest book was about the Eastern European county of Romania I immediately went about securing a copy from my public library. Even though  I took a six month break before starting it back up I found it excellent. As high as my expectations might have been, In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond did not disappoint me.

Much like Ian Frazier’s 2010 book Travels in Siberia In Europe’s Shadow is the end result of Kaplan’s many visits to Romania, going all the way back to the 70s when he was a young aspiring foreign correspondent. Until the early 90s, the Romania Kaplan visited was an impoverished Communist backwater ruled with an iron hand by the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. While other Warsaw Pact countries were ruled by drab Leonid Brezhnev kind of leaders Ceaușescu’s autocratic regime was a twisted mix of Stalinism, hard-core Romanian nationalism and North Korean-style cult of personality. After Ceaușescu was overthrown in a bloody uprising the country former Communist apparatchik Ion Iliescu became president. In retrospect Iliescu’s somewhat authoritarian rule served as a transition period between the dark days of Ceaușescu and the freer Western-style rule the country’s citizens enjoy today. A member of both the EU and NATO since 2007, Kaplan’s most recent trips to Romania show a country that despite the curses of the past eagerly desires to move closer towards the West, politically, culturally and economically.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from In Europe’s Shadow is the understanding that depending how you look at it, Romania is blessed and cursed by geography. Throughout its history Romania has had to deal with Russians, Ottomans and Central Europeans (be they Germans, Hapsburgs or Hungarians) trying to impose their will. Traditionally, especially in modern times the solution has been for Romania’s leaders to play one powerful neighbor against the other resulting in varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, as these powerful empires have washed over Romania throughout centuries they’ve left indelible marks. While Romanian is a Romance language written in Latin script one can find influences from Hungarian, Turkish and assorted Slavic languages. Thanks to Byzantine and Russian influences the county’s majority religion is Romanian Orthodox. Depending on the region, years of Hungarian and Turkish rule have flavored everything from cuisine to native dress.

Just as I proclaimed Monsoon should be required reading for the politically engaged and globally minded I’ll do the same for In Europe’s Shadow. As Putin’s Russia continues to flex its muscle especially in Ukraine and the Middle East and Turkey asserts itself Romania navigates between East, West and South. That being the case, In Europe’s Shadow should be required reading.


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