About Time I Read It: On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe

It’s not everyday you discover a novel by a Nigerian writer, translated from Dutch and set in Antwerp, Belgium. Luckily for me, the good people at my public library felt the same way. Prominently displayed as to catch the eye of even the most unobservant patron like myself Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street is the sad yet skillfully crafted story of four African women, who through a combination of bad luck, poor choices and evil machinations of a Nigerian pimp have been forced to work as prostitutes in the city’s red-light district.

Sisi, Ama, Efe, and Joyce all had dreams, be it a successful career, marital bliss or happy motherhood. But somewhere along the way they encountered significant setbacks. During these most vulnerable moments they encountered Dele. Charming and wealthy, he lavished the young women with flattery and attention, promising they’d make big money working respectable jobs in Europe’s most glamorous cities. Offering to arrange everything, once they accepted one by one Dele flew them to Antwerp, where upon arrival it was made clear they were now prostitutes expected to stand night after night in the windows of the red-light district offering their bodies to passing men. Thrown together in this unenviable predicament, over time the four women form a tight bond, sharing their respective backstories of how they wound up as reluctant sex workers and what they’d like to do once they escaped.

Unigwe’s 2011 novel is a tragic tale told vividly and beautifully. But most of all told as only an African could, employing distinctive cadence and vernacular. Just like Bruce Riedel’s Kings and Presidents, Jonathan Kaufman’s The Last Kings of Shanghai and Cristina García Here in Berlin On Black Sisters Street is shaping up to be one of this year’s pleasant surprises.

Library Loot

I dropped by the public library the other day to return some books only to grab a few more. Just like last time I selected a pair of books by authors from outside the United States. Penelope Lively is a British resident of London while Yasmina Khadra is the pseudonym of exiled Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul who’s lived in France for years. 

  • Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively – I’ve borrowed this book several times only return it ignored and unread. Needing something representing the United Kingdom for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I’m hoping this time I finally read it. 
  • The Attack by Yasmina Khadra- Always hard for me to resist novels set in the Middle East, especially by native authors. Harder still if it’s deckle edged

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlene’s blog.  

Book Beginnings: The Apartment by Greg Baxter

One of my favorite book bloggers, Gilion, in addition to hosting the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 reading challenges also hosts on her Rose City Reader blog Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, sadly I’ve never taken part in Book Beginnings on Friday. That is, until now.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

It’s the middle of December, and everything is frozen over. I arrived six weeks ago with an old, worn-out pair of brown leather shoes. One night I walked around the city with a girl I’d met, and the next day I bought myself some lined, warm, waterproof boots.

The Apartment by Greg Baxter is one of four books I picked up late last month at the public library. So far I’ve enjoyed this slim, well-received novel. Set in an unnamed Central European city, it’s hard for me not to like a first person account of a world-weary, forty-something American male seeking to put his years of military service and intelligence work behind him by pursuing the life of an expat with his new-found local girlfriend as guide.

About Time I Read It: A Hero of France by Alan Furst

In the summer of 2014 I discovered the historical fiction of Alan Furst. Impressed by its eye-catching cover art and intriguing jacket description I helped myself to a copy of his recently published Midnight in Europe early one evening at the public library. Furst’s. novel whisked me away to 1938 as Europe dangled on the precipice of yet another devastating world war, captivating me with fast-paced action and old world characters. I was hooked and have been a fan ever since.

Needing something representing France for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I borrowed a library copy of Furst’s 2016 A Hero of France. Set in France in 1941 during the German Occupation Furst’s novel is a fun ride. Even though it won’t go down as one of my favorites from his extensive Night Soldiers series Furst’s ability to tell a great story combined with his uncanny gift to effortlessly transport you to a Europe that’s equal parts danger and beauty is always worth it.

Unlike most, if not all the novels of Furst’s Night Soldiers that hop from country to country across Continental Europe with the exception of one short scene this one’s set entirely in France. Mathieu the protagonist, like so many of Furst’s isn’t a career spy or soldier but due to circumstances far greater than him has greatness thrust upon him. In typical Furst fashion he’s a single, forty something,  intelligent, of professional background, brave yet cautious and when needed on rare occasions able to throw a punch or pull a trigger. Well-connected, resourceful and able to easily move within any social circle, Mathieu is the ideal candidate to help coordinate the French Underground’s covert efforts to smuggle downed British airmen out of the country and back to England.

With most people in his line of work apprehended or killed by the Germans and their French collaborators within six months Mathieu knows he’s playing a risky game and his days are numbered. But no matter how cynical he might appear he’s a patriot at heart. Assisting him in this endeavor is a diverse cast of co-conspirators including an Eastern European emigre nightclub owner/borderline pimp, a 17 year old Parisian school girl and a stately matron more apt to be seen hunting pheasant on her country estate than living a shadowy life of danger defying the Germans.

Reading A Hero of France reminded me how much I’ve missed Alan Furst’s fiction. In spite of my efforts to read them all there’s still a few books in his Night Soldiers series I’ve yet to read. It’s high time I finally did.

Library Loot

I finished Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country and still making my way through Karl Tobien’s Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag. Last night I started Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street. Yesterday, I drove into town to get my second booster shot and on the way back stopped by the library to return a book. Even though I have a big stack of library books next to my bed I was is still in the mood to grab a few more, especially stuff of an international flavor.  

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlenes’ blog.  

These two authors hail from outside United States and are expats. Heather Morris was born in New Zealand but now resides in Australia. Borris Akunin, Russian-Georgian author and longtime resident of Moscow moved to London in 2014. 

  • Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris – While it seems like everyone is gaga over Morris’s The Tattooist Of Auschwitz I’m going to start with her 2019 follow-up. Looks like a good companion to Dancing Under the Red Star
  • Sister Pelagia and the Red Cockerel by Boris Akunin – A Russian cult leader is murdered aboard a steamship en route from Imperial Russia to Ottoman Palestine and it’s up to Sister Pelagia, a Russian Orthodox nun to catch his killer. A historical whodunnit set against the backdrop of 19th century Russian religious millennialism was too much to pass up.

About Time I Read It: A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen

As I mentioned a few weeks ago my participation in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge so far this year has been pretty lackluster. In hopes of getting back on track I recently borrowed through Overdrive a copy of Keith Gessen’s A Terrible CountryWith Time calling the 2018 novel “hilarious” and declaring “to understand Russia, read A Terrible Country”  I felt confident I’d found the perfect book to represent Russia for the reading challenge. It became apparent after reading only a few pages I’d chosen the right book.

It’s the summer of 2008 and Russian-American New York City resident Andrei Kaplan is stuck in a rut. His girlfriend Sarah recently dumped him at a Starbucks. After spending years slaving away in grad school studying Russian literature and history he can’t land a job anywhere in academia. He’s running out of cash and tired seeing his former classmates land cherry professorships at prestigious universities or leaving academia altogether to make money hand over fist as hedge fund managers.

One day he gets a phone call from his brother Dima, an aspiring entrepreneur who frantically informs him he’s fleeing Russia and needs Andrei to fly to Moscow and look after their elderly grandmother. Without telling him exactly why he has to leave in the dead of night, Dima promises his departure is only temporary. In the meantime Andrei can live rent-free with their grandmother in Dima’s Moscow apartment while enjoying all the city has to offer. With his life going nowhere he obeys his familial obligations, sublets his NYC apartment and relocates to Moscow. Not long after his arrival he learns his grandmother, while physically OK for a 98 year old woman is in the early stages of dementia. After several phone calls with Dima Andrei suspects his brother’s commercial dealings have angered the country’s wrathful oligarchs and might not be returning anytime soon.

In 2008 Russia, while no longer ruled by the Communist Party suffers under an oppression all its own. With Vladimir Putin constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, technically, Dmitry Medvedev is president but most agree it’s Putin in the once-ceremonial role of prime minister calling the shots. Powerful oligarchs and FSB heavies throw their weight around privileged royalty. Russia’s oil exports has generated billions in petrodollars but has managed to enrich only a small, kleptocratic minority while at the same time inflating the economy and making everything expensive for everyone else. (Andrei, a New Yorker, is shocked by Moscow’s insane cost living.) Even though he was born in Russia, speaks the language and spent years studying its literature and history nevertheless after spending most his life in the United States he’s ill-equipped to deal with its rough and tumble culture and lacks the connections, professional and social to be at ease in the land of his birth.

Gessen’s novel resonated with me for personal reasons. As the son of dementia sufferer, I could relate to day to day challenges Andrei faced caring for a loved one in the early to moderate throes of the disease. The forgetfulness, cognitive decline and inexorable erosion of personhood experienced by his elderly grandmother I witnessed firsthand afflict my own mother.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Terrible Country and it’s almost certain to make my year-end list of favorite fiction. Essential reading for understanding Putin’s Russia and capable of delivering more than a few laughs.

Library Loot: A World of Fiction

I’m almost done with Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country, I’m a third of a way into Karl Tobien’s Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag and even though I haven’t touched any of the books from my last library trip I still found myself wanting more. Not just any books, I wanted novels by authors outside the United States, or set in countries outside the United States. Around here we’re starting to hit a stretch of nice spring weather and I’d like to relive those pleasant evenings and weekend afternoons I spent on my porch or deck reading great International fare like Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen or Mahi Binebine’s Horses of God. With that in mind I went looking for fiction of an international flavor.  

Each of are by authors residing outside the United States. Two are American expats, one a native Japanese and the other a Nigerian immigrant living in Belgium. As far as settings go, it’s a fairly diverse lot set in the Jordan, Japan, Belgium and a purposely unspecified “old European city.” 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Claire’s blog.  

  • On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe – A novel about African women forced to work as prostitutes in Antwerp’s red light district doesn’t sound like cheery reading. But the reviews are glowing so I’ll give it a try. 
  • Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashino –  I’ve never read anything by a Japanese writer so this will be a first. I’m a sucker for anything set in the early 1970s. 
  • The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon – Set in Amman, Jordan during the early days of the Arab Spring this mystery/thriller involving the wives of two American military personnel sounds promising. 
  • The Apartment by Greg Baxter – An Amazon “Best Book of the Month” for December 2013, this slim 200 page novel set in a Prague-like city sounds like the perfect thing to read on a lazy weekend afternoon. 

As I’m writing this on a Sunday morning the weather looks amazing. I can’t wait to get outside and start reading. 

About Time I Read It: Kings and Presidents by Bruce Riedel

I’ve mentioned from time to time of all the countries in the Middle East Iran and Israel intrigue me the most. But if I had to pick a runner-up it would probably be Saudi Arabia. A major oil exporter, home to the holiest sites in Islam and ruled since the early 1920s by the puritanical al-Saud family, Saudi Arabia has been a close American ally since the end of World War II. It might seem odd a representative democracy like the United States, a majority Christian nation with a deeply enshrined commitment to a separation of church and state would ally itself with one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies. Even when compared to its Arab neighbors the Islam practiced by most Saudis and heavily promoted by the kingdom’s ruling family is an austere, uncompromising interpretation easily at odds with more modern concepts of feminism, religious tolerance, scientific inquiry and freedom of sexual identity. While both the United States and Saudi Arabia see Iran as a threat to the region the Saudis have traditionally viewed Israel, a chief American ally, as a perennial thorn in their side hellbent on destabilizing an already volatile region.

So, why a long friendship between the two countries? That’s the question Bruce Riedel set out to answer with his 2017 book Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States since FDR. Considering my interest in the Middle East it was hard for me to pass up a borrowable Kindle edition of Riedel’s 2017 book. Knowing nothing about the book or its author I didn’t know what to expect. I’m happy to report Kings and Presidents exceeded my modest expectations and is one of 2022’s pleasant surprises.

While some reviewers complained the book was superficial I disagree. Riedel is no stranger to the Middle East. He spent 30 years in the CIA, served on the National Security Council for four different presidents, as well as a Special Advisor to NATO and is currently a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He covers a hundred or so years of major political and religious developments that helped pave the way for the founding of Saudi Arabia. From there Riedel draws from his decades of foreign policy experience supplemented by memoirs and official documents to craft a detailed and readable history of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia

Even after reading John R. Bradley’s Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crises and Karen Elliott House’s On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future this book taught me more than a few things about Saudi Arabia. I knew the Saudi monarchy, together with the American CIA worked with Pakistan’s intelligence agency the ISI to arm and train Afghan and Islamic resistance groups to fight the Soviets and their Afghan puppet army during the 1980s. But I had no idea military ties between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan go much deeper. For years starting in the 1982 Pakistan stationed a “reinforced armored brigade” of 20,000 troops in Tabuk near the Jordanian border to serve as a both a deterrent to Israel as well as a “loyal Pretorian guard” for the royal family in case of a palace coup or popular uprising. (During the run-up to the first Gulf War the brigade was quietly redeployed across the kingdom along the border with Iraq in case it was needed to counter an Iraqi invasion.) I’ve read the Chinese supplied the Saudis with medium-range ballistic missiles, which, due to their inaccuracy are suitable only for carrying nuclear warheads. Why the Saudis would purchase such missiles while lacking a nuclear arsenal for years has been a mystery. But Riedel plausibly speculates as part of this long and shadowy military alliance the Saudis feel the Pakistanis will provide them with deliverable nukes should the Kingdom be sufficiently threatened by one of its regional rivals like Israel or Iran.

In the end, the US-Saudi alliance is based not upon shared values or long-standing institutions but common interests. Affordable and plentiful oil runs our economy and in turn keeps the Saudis afloat financially. While our leaders disagree over Israel, for decades our two countries have allied with each other against various powers in the Middle East be they Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq or Iran under the Ayatollah or his successors. It’s a marriage of convenience that’s lasted since the spring of 1945 when FDR met with the founding king Saudi Arabia on an American battleship near the Suez Canal and hashed out a deal to both parties’ liking.

About Time I Read It: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild’s 1998 King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa until recently is one many highly praised books sitting in my personal library ignored and unread for years. Even though I’d included it in several TBR reading challenges over the years I never made an effort to read it. Then last week for some inexplicable reason I picked up my copy of King Leopold’s Ghost and gave it a shot. Like so many other great books in my personal library that went unread so long I kicked myself for not reading it sooner.

Until the 1998 publication of King Leopold’s Ghost the death of as many as 10 million Congolese at the hands of their Belgian colonial overlords and agents was a forgotten genocide, at most an obscure historical footnote. Mining the historical record of first hand accounts, newspaper articles, letters and the like Hochschild has bequeathed  to a new generation a detailed and accessible history of the horrors that were inflicted upon the innocent peoples of of late 19th century Central Africa. Hochschild also recalls the forgotten stories of those crusading individuals who frequently faced impossible odds to bring such atrocities to light. Called by many as a history book that reads like a novel, King Leopold’s Ghost is a vivid testimony to both the evil that men do and those committed to fighting it.

As the nations of Europe carved up Africa in search of colonies one monarch from the relatively small kingdom of Belgium sought the biggest prize of all. For the first third or so of his adult life King Leopold was seen by his royal peers as a shallow bore, nothing more than a petty monarch of a minor realm. Tired of being out-shadowed by grander heads of state like his first cousin Queen Victoria of Great Britain Leopold wanted a piece of colonial real estate he could call his own. Playing imperial powers like England and France against each other and enlisting the assistance of the upstart United States while also crafting a wily public relations game he was able to place a huge swath of Central Africa under his control, in effect making it his own personal territory to exploit as he saw fit.

Wealth first flowed from Congo into Leopold’s private purse in the form of Ivory. Before advances in field of petrochemicals ivory was the plastics of the 19th century, used in everything from billiard balls to false teeth. Elephants were slaughtered mercilessly for their tusks to keep up with demand. Later, advances in technology sparked a need for rubber and before long Leopold’s agents were transforming Congo into one, massive rubber plantation. But these extractive industries came a horrible price. Perversely billed as an African “Free State” Congo was little more than a nation of slaves. To enrich Leopold its inhabitants were beaten, mutilated, starved and murdered into submission.

This is a great book that succeeds in telling a grim story. I highly recommend you read it and if you do, I strongly suggest you go with the newer 2020 edition. Barbara Kingsolver, in her foreward recalls the impact the book had on her 20 years earlier around the time her novel The Poisonwood Bible was published. The book concludes with a personal afterword by Hochschild in which he looks back on the two decades since the King Leopold’s Ghost’s publication and how some, but not all in the West, including Belgium have come to grips with the genocide. In the half century following the nation’s independence from Belgium Congo has been plagued by civil wars, poverty and oppression. Almost like Leopold’s murderous ghost still haunts the tortured land.

Library Loot

As the first quarter of 2022 came to a close I realized I haven’t been devoting much attention to my one of my favorite reading challenges. For the better part of a decade I’ve eagerly taken part in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Each year I’ve read and reviewed at least a dozen, sometimes two dozen books with each one about, or set it a different European country, or by a different European author. Sadly, for this year’s iteration of the challenge I’ve read just two books: Andrey Kurkov’s  Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches From Kiev and Cristina García’s Here in Berlin. Feeling the need to step up my game, I dropped by the public library and grabbed a small stack of books, each applicable towards the challenge. 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Claire’s blog.  

  • A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen – I’ve been hankering to read some fiction set in Russia. Time Magazine called Gessen’s novel “hilarious” and essential reading for understanding today’s Russia. 
  • A Hero of France by Alan Furst –  As far as historical fiction goes Furst’s Night Soldiers series of novels are my all-time faves. 
  • The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey by Dawn Anahid MacKeen – I’ve been wanting to read something on the Armenian Genocide for a long time. This book might count as Turkey towards the reading challenge. 
  • Encounters and Destinies: A Farewell to Europe by Stefan Zweig – As I continue to read about Central Europe’s Interwar period, I keep coming across references to Zweig. Originally, I thought I’d start with some of his short stories but I found this recently published collection of essays hard to pass up. 

This weekend the rain has returned and believe it or not, we’re expected to experience colder temperatures and even snow flurries. With a forecast like that I think I’ll just hunker down and read a few good books. Maybe even one of these.