Category Archives: Area Studies/International Relations

About Time I Read It: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

I’ve been thinking about reading Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon off and on for well over half a decade. For years whenever I saw a copy of it at the library I’d always waltz right by it without even giving the book a second look. Even after seeing Grann interviewed on The Charlie Rose Show about his then recently published collection of New Yorker pieces The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession I still didn’t run out and read Grann’s bestseller The Lost City of Z. I guess when you wanna read so many books you just can’t get to everything,  Then one day, I finally grabbed a copy from the library and read it. Luckily for me I thought it was pretty darn good.

To me, The Lost City of Z seemed like two books woven into one. One book told the story of Percy Stewart, one of those intrepid yet slightly crazed Brits who loved traveling to exotic and inhospitable places. After years journeying around the globe in search of adventure and scientific discovery Stewart turned his sights to the Amazon, where legend had it an ancient city once stood. Convinced he could locate the ruins of this great settlement, Stewart and his son entered the dense Amazonian rainforest and were never seen again.

The other book chronicles city-slicker, New York resident Grann’s mission to discover what exactly happened to Stewart. Realizing he can’t solve the mystery of Stewart’s disappearance from the cozy confines of the Big Apple, Grann travels to the Brazilian hinterland. Provisioned and equipped with the all the modern world can supply, Grann nevertheless feels like he’s risking life and limb. Will he find out what really happened to Stewart, or will he end up like so many others before him who went searching for Stewart only to succumb to disease, killed by natives or emerge from the jungle physically and psychologically broken.

I’m glad I read 1491 and 1493 before I read The Lost City of Z because both books provide excellent background material to Grann’s book. Fortunately for me, last year or so I was given a copy of Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey which looks like a terrific follow-up to The Lost City of Z. Therefore, don’t be surprised in the near or not so near future if you see The River of Doubt featured on this blog.

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Filed under History, Latin America/Caribbean

Books About Books: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

A book entitled The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts has got to be a bibliophile’s dream. About a year after seeing reviews of Joshua Hammer’s book flood the Internet I spotted an available copy at my public library. So, with a title like that of course I grabbed it.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the story, 500 hundred years ago the North African city of Timbuktu was the Oxford or Cambridge of the medieval Islamic world. Scholars, clerics, jurists and doctors from across the  Muslim realms came to Timbuktu to do research and exchange ideas. This was made possible in no small part by the city’s extensive collection of manuscripts covering a diverse array of subjects including philosophy, religion, science and medicine. Over time, even though Timbuktu slipped into obscurity, the manuscripts nevertheless remained hidden away in places like mosques and privates homes. Until about 10 years ago, Abdul Kader Haidara, a forward thinking Malian realized it was high time to gather the countless manuscripts spread throughout the city and place them in one climate controlled library. This would not only make the aged texts easily accessible for the world’s scholars, but more importantly it would protect them from the ravages of time and the elements.

But as the old saying goes, no good plan survives contact. In 2012 when Islamist fighters conquered the area and began imposing their interpretation of Sharia law, the city’s new rulers took a dim view of the manuscripts. Fearing for good reason the Muslim extremists saw the texts as religiously impure, Haidara made sure the library’s manuscripts were secretly extracted and hidden away throughout the area. With out saying too much, had it not been for Haidara and a number of ordinary Malian citizens who risked their lives to hide the manuscripts countless irreplaceable writings would have went up in smoke.

One of the cool surprises of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is Hammer devotes a significant amount of time showing how Mali found itself in such a dire situation. In only a few years Mali went from West African backwater to a hip, up and coming cultural Mecca, once the world discovered the nation’s vibrant indigenous music scene. But once Mali’s ethnic rivalries were amplified by larger geopolitical struggles the country became a battleground. Therefore, when the Islamists do come to Timbuktu, you the reader are able to understand the conflict in its fuller context.

Combining elements of travelogue, battlefield reporting and historical writing The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu did not leave this bibliophile disappointed.

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Filed under Africa, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, History, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

About Time I Read It: Death in the City of Light by David King

When I stumbled across David King’s 2011 book Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris during one of my weekend visits to the public library I was compelled to grab the book for three reasons. One, at the time I thought needed to read and review something about, or set in France for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. (Silly me, right after I walked out of the library I suddenly remembered Paris 1919 had already taken that honor.) Second, my love of Allan Furst’s Night Soldiers novels has kindled my interest in the German Occupation of Paris. Three, when granted the opportunity to read about a serial killer running loose in occupied Paris Death in the City of Light was a book I couldn’t pass up.

One day Paris police receive a report of suspicious smoke and a nasty stench emanating from a Parisian townhouse. After the police arrive and do a quick inspection of the property they find not only bones and other human remains but also a sound-proof room, presumably some sort of killing chamber. If having to live under Nazi occupation wasn’t bad enough, in the spring of 1944 the good people of Paris learn a serial killer has been stalking them. Soon the hunt is on for the residence’s registered owner, Marcel Petiot a former politician and current doctor. As the investigation proceeds people start asking questions. Who has Petiot murdered? Were the victims Nazis and French collaborators? If so, would that make him a patriotic hero? On the other hand, if his victims were Jews and members of the French Resistance would that mean Petiot is a Nazi agent? Or is he simply an evil murderer killing indiscriminately without agenda, political, personal or otherwise.

Death in the City of Light is a decent and fairly entertaining book. To King’s credit his book feels well-researched, and therefore there’s no shortage of detail. Ironically, in spite of King’s hard work in telling this forgotten story, we may never know everything about  Petiot and his murderous acts. Some secrets even the most barbarous and unrepentant killers take to their graves.

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Filed under Europe, History

Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese

Besides inspiring me to read books dealing with all kinds of European countries, Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has also got me reading more fiction. Probably because I’m a fan of history, most the fiction I’ve been reading over the last few years has been of the historical variety.

The latest piece of history fiction to catch my eye is Laurie Zico Albanese’s Stolen Beauty. Noticing the 2017 novel is set in Austria, I grabbed a copy from my public library knowing I could apply towards the Rose City Reader’s challenge. Making my decision easier was knowing Stolen Beauty is historical fiction and jumps back and forth between two different but equally pivotal periods in Austria’s history.

Stolen Beauty is the story of two different yet nevertheless related women, in this case aunt and niece. Our story begins with Maria, a young newlywed living in Vienna on the eve of the Anschluss or German annexation of Austria. Being Jewish, naturally she’s terrified of what the Nazis have in store for her and her family. As tension builds the story then shifts backwards a generation or so to the same city and we see Maria’s niece Adele as a young woman who comes of age during the city’s fin de siècle period of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and antisemitic populist mayor Karl Luger. It’s during this portion of the novel Vienna becomes a complex character of its own. With its lively salons, avant-garde art scene and Mitteleuropa sophistication, it rivaled Paris as another City of Light. However, beneath that veneer one could see portends brewing of different kind of Europe, one of ethically based nation states and dark, murderous antisemitism.

Stolen Beauty held my interest and entertained me. Not only did the novel appeal to my inner historian but I enjoyed seeing the two female protagonists evolve as they matured and faced new challenges. If you follow my lead and end up reading Stolen Beauty, I would encourage you to also read Death and the Maiden, one of the Max Liebermann mysteries by Frank Tallis set in turn of the century Vienna. Stolen Beauty is an enjoyable novel and I’m glad I stumbled across a copy.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica

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 good 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