Pan-European Lives: The World at Night by Alan Furst

The World at NightI’m going to assume if you’ve been reading my blog over the last year, you know about my recent obsession with the historical thrillers of Alan Furst. During the second half of 2014 I devoured seven of his novels, thoroughly enjoying each one. Published over a 25 year period, his acclaimed Night Soldiers series of 13 books expertly and effortlessly propel readers to continental Europe during the years leading up to the Second World War, or the first year years of the conflict prior to American involvement. While Furst’s Europe is overflowing with old world charm and sophistication, there’s also no shortage of dangerous intrigue and death. Reading one of Furst’s novels is like stepping inside a world of old memories and legends that have been forgotten for 75 years.

But read enough books by any particular author, no matter how personally beloved and chances are you’re going to encounter one of his/her book you probably don’t like. Of course, the book doesn’t even have to be terrible and leave you feeling majorly disappointed. Simply, it could have just felt a bit flat. Unfortunately, that is how I felt after reading Alan Furst’s 1996 novel The World at Night.

You might remember from my previous post the high expectations I had for The World at Night when I spotted a copy at my local public library. On top of it, after reading Tom Gabbay’s Alan Fust-like novel The Lisbon Crossing, I was definitely in the mood for a little Alan Fust. A bit into The World at Night, I felt optimistic since the novel seemed to possess all the elements common to a Furst thriller: an honorable, intelligent and mature protagonist forced to play secret agent, war and/or the threat of war, romance, international intrigue, travel, danger and a Paris setting. But even this, combined with Furst’s unrivaled ability to transport the reader to a time and place long forgotten I never fully warmed up to The World at Night. To me, something seemed missing.

I wonder what that missing “something” could be. Could it be the tighter narrative and therefore faster pace of his later novels Midnight in Europe or Mission to Paris? Could it be greater abundance of shadowy and intriguing supporting characters of The Spies of Warsaw or Kingdom of Shadows? Or even the larger geographic scope and “big picture” discussion of history Furst employed in The Polish Officer?

However, regardless of my mild disappointment, I’m confident I’ll be back working my way through the remaining novels of Furst Night Soldiers series before I know it. A few months ago I received a hand me down copy of Furst’s 2005 thriller Dark Voyage. Before summer’s end I’d like to read it, along with Blood of Victory and perhaps Dark Star. So with that in mind, be ready to see a few more of Furst’s novels featured on my blog.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History

Library Loot: July 1 to 7

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, and in turn link that post on another book blogger’s page. 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, with my last one appearing two years ago.

Today, on this warm and lazy July 4th holiday 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. If I make it though only a portion of these of books 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

About Time I Read It: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

One of the many cool things about being in a book club is sometimes it forces you to read those great books you’ve been meaning to read, but haven’t yet. Thanks to my book club, this spring I was tasked with reading David Quammen’s  Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic and before that Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Recently, one of my book club members suggested we read Isabel Wilkerson’s multiple award-winning 2010 book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. This is a book I’d heard nothing but great things about from a variety of sources, including one of my favorite bloggers Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness. (Not only did she give the book a glowing review, she also interviewed its author.) Upon hearing his suggestion, I seconded his nomination, adding my two cents that the book had “won a sh*it load of awards.” Then, with surprisingly little discussion and absolutely no debate, we selected The Warmth of Other Suns as our next book. And my goodness, did we make the right choice.

The Warm of Other Suns is the story of the nation’s largest human migration of the 20th century.  From approximately 1915 to 1970 close to six million African-Americans fled the South for the cities of the Northeast (especially the Harlem neighborhood of New York), Midwest (Chicago, Milwaukee and Cleveland to name a few) and West (Oakland and Los Angeles). Pulled both by the lure of promising jobs and the chance to live in communities free from such hallmarks of Jim Crow oppression like lynch mobs, debt slavery (or peonage), state-sanctioned racism and voter disenfranchisement these multitudes came north and west in search of freedom and opportunity. The first waves came by train and many wound up working in factories, fulfilling the demand for workers during the First and then Second World War. During the later years of the migration, as America moved away from train travel many fled via bus and private automobile, taking advantage of the nation’s new Interstate Highway System. Wherever these new residents settled, they helped remake the cultural and political landscape of America. According to Wilkerson we can feel the lasting impact of this migration to this day.

In addition to Wilkerson’s excellent writing, probably what makes this book great is its masterful blend of the personal with the “big picture.” Not only does she take the historian’s approach in telling how this migration evolved and its significance, but she compliments it with the highly detailed and personal stories of three African-American migrants and their families. By telling their life stories, she makes this epic yet sadly overlooked part of America’s history feel alive and tangible.

This is a terrific book and should easily make my year-end best of list for 2015. Without a doubt it’s great book for any readers seeking a deeper understanding of America and how we as a nation got to where we are today. Please consider this book highly recommended.


Filed under Current Affairs, History

About Time I Read It: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

9780609809648_p0_v1_s260x420If you’re like me, there’s nothing like finally reading a book that for years you’ve been wanting to read. And if you’re like me, the only thing better than that is when you finally do read it, it’s even better than you had hoped. That, my friends is how I felt when I finally got around to reading Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

I’ve been wanting to read Weatherford’s book for over decade, ever since it was published back in 2004. Sadly, I never got around to doing so, even after I received a copy as a Christmas present several years ago. Even with this prized book in my possession I’m embarrassed to say it just sat on my desk gathering dust. But with 2015 shaping up to be the year I tackle the many ignored and unread books of my personal library perhaps it’s no surprise I finally picked up Weatherford’s book and read it.

As the book’s title hints, this isn’t just the story of Genghis Khan. Yes, his incredible rise from impoverished Mongol horseman to emperor of Eurasia is all here. But Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is much more than that. If any leader could be called an enlightened despot than Weatherford’s Genghis Khan would be him. Under his rule religious toleration abounded, ethnic communities and local customs were respected and international trade flourished. His empire was also the first to promote such modern concepts like universal literacy, paper money and diplomatic immunity for ambassadors and envoys. With an empire stretching two continents and served by a meritocracy-based civil service, state-run postal service and rule of law (not to mention an aversion to torture as a tool for justice and means of state control) Genghis Khan’s kingdom was not only impressive but by today’s standards much a head of its time.

Some have criticized Weatherford for painting too rosy of picture of Genghis and his empire. Others have questioned his book’s historical accuracy. Frankly, I don’t care. It’s well-written and fun to read. Much like Thomas Cahill did with his books How the Irish Saved Civilization and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea:Why the Greeks Matter Weatherford has the ability to make  history enjoyable and fascinating. Therefore, I highly recommend Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.


Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Islam, Japan, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

Pan-European Lives: The Lisbon Crossing by Tom Gabbay

Even though he’s been writing for decades, I didn’t discover the novels of Alan Furst until just last year. After happily devouring his 2014 novel Midnight in Europe I simply had to have more. Over the last part of last year I burned through a half-dozen or so of his Night Soldiers novels and enjoyed every last one. Since then I’ve also tried to keep an eye out for similar  authors capable of feeding my Alan Furst addiction. So far anyway, I’ve discovered the historical fiction of Jenny White and Sam Eastland. (Eastland seems to be my favorite of the two.) Recently, perhaps by dumb luck, I discovered another writer whose fiction an Alan Furst fan might enjoy.

During one of my weekend visits to the public library I stumbled upon a copy of Tom Gabbay’s 2007 novel The Lisbon Crossing. Set in neutral Portugal during the early years of World War II, Gabbay’s novel tells the story of former Hollywood stuntman turned amateur sleuth Jack Teller and his quest to help a fading German film star find her long-lost friend who’s gone missing in Lisbon. Bad enough it looks like the missing woman no longer alive, on top of it every time he turns around he’s being harassed by Lisbon police, Nazi agents and British spies. And the more he looks for her, the more he suspects she was part of a larger conspiracy reaching all the way to the English royal family.

While I didn’t enjoy The Lisbon Crossing as much as I did the novels in Furst’s Night Soldiers series, there are a number of desirable similarities. Besides its wartime setting in continental Europe, familiar Furstian elements like bi-nationality, international intrigue and a hero forced by circumstances to play secret agent are all found in Gabbay’s thriller. And in keeping with a Furst tradition, there’s also a trip to Paris, but that’s all I’ll say since I don’t want to reveal any spoilers. (But I will say it doesn’t involve dinner at Furst’s favorite fictional Parisian restaurant Brasserie Heininger.)

It looks like Gabbay has written a few other historical thrillers, and after reading The Lisbon Crossing I’d be willing to give them a shot. I’d also like to see if there’s anything else out there an Alan Furst fan might enjoy. Heck, for that matter, I’d also like to read a little more Alan Furst. Funny, it was about this time last year I discovered the fiction of Alan Furst. Maybe it’s time to read a few more of his novels.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History

My Recent Used Book Buying Binge

Since I’m a heavy user of the public library, if at all possible, I try not to buy books. If I do, I usually buy them used. While I’ve had terrific luck finding quality used books at neighborhood garage or yard sales, I’ve probably found my greatest literary treasures at church (and synagogue) book sales. (No wonder Muslims refer to Christians and Jews as “Peoples of the Book!) Usually held in some basement meeting space or Sunday school classroom, by working my way through the legions of mass-marketed paperbacks of yesteryear and the battered church hymnals and study guides, I almost always walk away with a decent find or two. Five years ago, in one of my earliest posts, I shared with you how happy I was with a nice assortment of trade paperbacks thanks to a local church book sale. Looking back on what I purchased that day, two of those books, Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great America Dust Bowl and Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi’s The Monster of Florence ended up making year-end best of lists in 2011 and 2013 respectively. Yes, church book sales have been very good to me.

With the weather of late being rather nice and conducive to getting out and about, I’ve hit several church book sales over the past few weekends. In addition, I also recently bought a few fine books at a rummage sale that was held of all places at a local auto repair facility. (It was fund-raiser to benefit a scholarship for women to attend automotive school.) As a result, I now have MORE books, many of which I’ve been wanting to read for years. If you wanna take a closer look at what I bought, I used the WordPress feature “Gallery” so readers can flip through all the books like a slide show. Here are my latest acquisitions:


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About Time I Read It: Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder

I can’t believe it’s been almost five years since the day I happened to catch Timothy Snyder speaking on Book TV about his then recently published book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. While watching Snyder deliver his lecture at New York City’s Ukrainian Institute of America I found myself completed captivated as he spoke at length of a region in Eastern Europe, when in the 30s and 40s, so many people died it boggles the imagination. So massive was this loss of life that Snyder dubbed it the “Bloodlands.”

According to Snyder, roughly speaking this area stretches East of Berlin to West of Moscow, comprising what is now Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia,  and the Baltic republics of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Within this region (closely corresponding to the border areas of pre-World War I Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary) approximately 14 million people were deliberately murdered from 1933 to 1945. Almost all of them civilians (and a huge proportion of them women, children and the aged), they were systemically killed as a result of Nazi and Soviet policies. Compounding the tragedy, since this massive eradication of human life left so few survivors able to testify to the magnitude of this horror, and since these crimes against humanity occurred behind what would later become “the Iron Curtain”, it would take over 50 years and the fall of Communism before those in the West could finally comprehend the full scope and depth of this unimaginable modern horror. But now, with Snyder’s 2010 book Boodlands, we can finally begin to learn what really happened.

I received this book as a Christmas present several years ago but I’m embarrassed to say that I finally got around to reading it only a few weeks ago. However, like any excellent book once I went to work on it, I was sucked in like nobody’s business.

Not only does Bloodlands give Westerners a detailed and vivid look at the hidden horrors of the Eastern Front and the Stalinist nightmare that preceded it, but it also makes us look at World War II in a whole new light. With the glance at a map, one can easily see that Germany and European Russia border the Bloodlands, yet are not part of it. During the 30s and 40s both powers were ruthless dictatorships hell-bent on radically remaking this region as dictated by each regimes’ overarching political-economic blueprint. Therefore, by treating these Nazi and Soviet atrocities in the Bloodlands as two aspects of one single bloody quest for domination, Snyder takes a novel and bold approach to how we understand World War II, the Holocaust and Stalinist Russia.

Not only is Bloodlands well-written and well-conceived, it’s insanely well-researched. (According to Wikipedia, Snyder reads and/or speaks 11 European languages. This undoubtably helped him as he poured over archive material from Germany, Russia and Central Europe in creating this excellent book.) It’s also ideal to read alongside books like Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 and Catherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945. Like I said, this is an excellent book. I can easily see it making my Best Nonfiction of 2015 list come December.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a very grim book. But that should stop no one from reading it. Perhaps one of my favorite book bloggers said it best. Jean, on her blog Howling Frog Books called Bloodlands “the most unremittingly grim and tragic book I’ve ever read. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it, because YOU SHOULD. But it won’t be fun.” Thanks, Jean. I could not agree more.


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