Category Archives: Area Studies/International Relations

About Time I Read It: The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith H. Beer

As young kid growing up there was an old back issue of Reader’s Digest magazine next to the toilet in our bathroom. Every once and awhile it would magically disappear and a different, usually slightly newer edition would appear in its place. Frequently, while sitting on the toilet during my fits of boredom I’d flip through its pages. Once while doing this I came across a condensed version of book about Jews secretly living in Germany during the Second World War. Even though I was too young to fully comprehend the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust, something I read that day has stuck with me all these years. According to that piece in Reader’s Digest I learned those Jews called themselves U-boats. Like German submarines hiding beneath the waves to avoid detection so did the country’s surviving Jews employ new identities and carry counterfeit documents while trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities.

Fast forward to the present and once again I’ve encountered the tale of a human U-boat. Published in 1999, I was gifted a copy of Edith Hahn Beer’s memoir The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust about two years ago and I’d been itching to read it but never got around to it. However, last week I finally cracked it open. Needless to say I was not disappointed.

The product of a modest upper middle class secular Jewish family from Vienna, by the late 1930s Edith Hahn’s life was full of promise. Young, intellectually gifted, politically active and enjoying a happy love life Edith was on the verge of graduating from law school and en route to a career as a judge when Nazi Germany absorbed Austria. Stripped of her civil liberties and made to live as a third class citizen, Edith endured forced labor before escaping and securing an Aryan identity and counterfeit papers with the help a friend. (A friend who was not only humane and resourceful, but also as stylish as Marlene Dietrich.) Living in Germany with a new identity, she would meet and fall in love with Werner, a Nazi Party member and supervisor at an aircraft plant. Until the end of the war Edith would hide in plain sight from the Gestapo.

Like a lot of excellent well-written books The Nazi Officer’s Wife reads effortlessly. Even though I finished it a few days ago, several memorable passages continue to stick with me. One is the time she was in childbirth labor and refused to take any anesthesia lest she babble away any incriminating information. Another such passage, probably the saddest of the memoir is the time she was listening to the BBC on her shortwave radio (listening to foreign broadcasts in itself was a crime punishable by imprisonment in a concentration camp) and heard the England’s Chief Rabbi offer prayers for the “remnants” of Europe’s Jews. It was then Edith learned something unimaginably horrific had happened to her co-religionists, not to mention her friends and family.

If you haven’t guessed by now this is a superb memoir. I have no hesitations recommending it.

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Filed under Europe, History

Focus on the Eastern Front: The Retreat by Michael Jones

Before I finally started reading The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust I figured it might be wise to first read The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat. You see, I’ve had the book for almost ten years and considering how much I’ve enjoyed other books on the Eastern Front I’m kinda amazed I let it set on my shelf unread for so long. So one Sunday morning I grabbed my copy of Michael Jones’ 2009 book and headed to the coffee shop. Before I knew it The Retreat sucked me in and had me wishing I’d read it years ago.

As 1941 drew to a close the German military looked invisible. After smashing the Polish, Dutch, Belgian, Norwegian, French, Greek, Yugoslav and British armies the Nazis stood masters of Europe. Germany’s only adversary was Great Britain, which after being driven from the Continent sat alone and beleaguered. So, in the summer of 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and appeared completely unstoppable in its drive to destroy the Red Army and capture Moscow many thought the Nazis were indeed superman destined to rule if not the world then much of Eurasia. But before long, in the dead of the Russian winter something unexpected happened – they were stopped. Jones’ The Retreat takes a close look and shows how and why Germany’s initial drive to conquer the Soviet Union ended in failure.

What struck me the most about The Retreat it’s not as much a “big picture” analysis of the Eastern Front but more a collection of accounts of German and Soviet soldiers who did the fighting. Much of this is based on original sources like the combatants’ journals and letters as well as interviews done after the war. The result is a readable “boots on the ground” look at the brutal fighting in the USSR.

Germany’s plan to vanquish the Soviet Union, if successful all depended on a quick push to Moscow and successful capture of the Soviet capital. However, despite Germany’s many early victories and impressive territorial gains by late 1941 the Nazi juggernaut began to slow. Logistically, the challenge of supplying such a massive invasion force thousands of miles deep in the heart of Russia became too great. With the onset of winter the German army found itself bereft of winter clothing as well as cold-weather impervious lubricants for its tank, truck and airplane engines. The Germans also underestimated the Soviet Union’s ability to rebuild its depleted armed forces both in men and material. (Also, once Stalin learned Japan was planning on striking South and attacking the Americans, British and Dutch and not the Soviet Far East he reinforced his armies defending Moscow with fresh Siberian-based troops.) Lastly, the Nazis underestimated the Soviet people’s will to resist a hated invader and once Soviet soldiers learned millions of their countrymen had died or where dying in POW camps fought even harder, preferring to die fighting than be captured.  (On the other hand, the Soviets committed errors as well, most notably engaging in costly frontal assaults against the Germans instead of attempting to encircle them.)

Fighting was savage on the Eastern Front but Jones’ includes a few accounts of shared humanity. One German soldier, after stumbling upon a Russian house with an impressive library including many books in German was told by the house’s Jewish owner to help himself since the whole place will end up getting torched in the end. Despite hearing reports of an impending Soviet attack, German forces occupying a Russian village went ahead with their impromptu Christmas Eve service . Before long local villagers flocked to the service, even though Christmas, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition isn’t celebrated until early January. Then, slowly and quietly assorted men begin to assembling at the back of the crowd. These were Red Army soldiers and partisans. In the end no shots are fired and quiet handshakes and well-wishes were exchanged between Germans and Russian fighters.

The Retreat is good book and it compliments rather well other books on the Eastern Front I’ve read like Katherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945 Willy Peter Reese’s A Stranger to Myself and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History

About Time I Read It: The Little Book by Selden Edwards

I can’t believe it’s been ten years since I heard Selden Edwards’ 2008 novel The Little Book reviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. That review must have made an impressive on me because I’ve been wanting to read this book for years. About a month ago after learning an e-book was finally available for Kindle download through my pubic library’s Overdrive account I helped myself.

One day Wheeler Burden, a middle-aged American wakes up and finds himself in Vienna in the year 1897. How and why he’s been sent back in time is a mystery. Fortunately for him, thanks to the excellent education he received as a young man Burden adapts quickly to the intellectually charged cafe culture of Fin de siècle Vienna and before long finds himself holding court in American-accented German with the city’s young intelligentsia discussing and debating.

But this is no ordinary time travel novel. It took Edwards 30 years to write The Little Book and he threw a heck of a lot into it. He incorporates a ton of backstory for Burden our time traveler like his upbringing in rural California, East Coast prep school adventures, collegiate baseball heroics and post-college rise to rock and roll stardom. While in Vienna he meets several historical figures including Sigmund Freud. Speaking of which, without revealing too much The Little Book is a time travel novel with a Freudian soul.

I’m happy to say after waiting ten years to read The Little Book I wasn’t disappointed. Like many good novels, there’s no shortage of plot twists, some I saw coming and some, well, I didn’t. I know it’s early in the year but there’s a good chance The Little Book ends up making my year-end list of best fiction.

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Books About Books: The Possessed by Elif Batuman

I’d been seeing Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them at the library for the last few years but could never bring myself to borrow it, despite my life-long weakness for Russian literature going all the way back to my college years. Truth be told, in the end it was probably New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s cover art that made me wanna grab it. Published in 2010, and as its subtitle promises The Possessed is a look inside the world of classic Russian literature and its passionate devotees, especially academics. For good, bad or otherwise, The Possessed isn’t restricted to Russian literature since Batuman devotes two chapters recalling the time she spent studying abroad in the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan.

While I found the soap opera antics of Tolstoy’s dysfunctional family entertaining it was what Batuman had to say about Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel that stuck with me the longest. Come to find out, Babel has a kind of six degrees of separation connection of to the classic film King Kong. A decade before he co-directed King Kong, Merian C. Cooper flew as a volunteer for the Kościuszko Squadron, which supported the Polish Army in the Polish-Soviet War. During the war he was shot down by Soviet forces, captured and held prisoner for nine months. As a POW he was interrogated by Babel, who was serving in the Red Army. Later, Cooper escaped captivity, made his way to Latvia and eventually back to America. He would go on to make a number of classic films including King Kong. Another of those films, The Most Dangerous Game, featured an expat Russian count as its villain.

The Possessed is a pretty good book. Readers interested in Russian literature as well as literature in general shouldn’t be disappointed. For that matter, neither should lovers of Russian history. Down the road I’d like to follow-up The Possessed with her novel The Idiot since I’ve heard some good buzz about it of late. Might just have to give The Idiot a shot.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History

About Time I Read It: Faith at War by Yaroslav Trofimov

Even though it’s been a decade since I read it I still find myself recommending Yaroslav Trofimov’s outstanding 2007 book Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine. Whenever someone asks me for a reading list of books about the Middle East I always include it along with other favorites like Kai Bird’s Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, Neil MacFarquhar’s The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday and Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem. Last Saturday, during one of my weekend visits to the public library I came across a copy of Trofimov’s first book Faith at War: A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu. Knowing full well I had  a sizable stack of library books next to my bed waiting to be read I still grabbed Faith at War, hoping I’d enjoy it as much as I did Siege of Mecca. Well, after happily burning through it in no time I’m happy to say Trofimov did not disappoint me.

Published in 2005, Faith at War is a collection of pieces recalling Trofimov’s travels across the Muslim world during the years immediately following 9-11. In his quest to better understand the challenges facing the world’s Muslims and with it the rage some have directed towards the West he interviewed clerics, government officials, dissidents and Islamic fighters. Trofimov traversed three continents, reporting from a host of countries stretching from Saudi Arabia to Mali to Bosnia. During the US-led invasion of Iraq he sped across the border from Kuwait in a rented SUV and then returned two years later to observe life under US occupation. In Afghanistan he spent time embedded with American Marines as they did patrols of remote villages searching for Taliban fighters, their allies and weapons. Lastly, Trofimov show us the surprising success story of Mali, a poor North African country at the time of Trofimov’s visit had embraced a home-grown vibrant democracy, perhaps in some ways made easier thanks to the laissez-faire interpretation of Islam practiced by most Malians. (Sadly, in 2012 this later day Belle Époque would come to an end, at least temporarily when the country was briefly overrun by Islamic fighters.)

Despite being published a decade ago, Faith at War holds up well. Yes, it’s a pre-Arab Spring and pre-ISIS world Trofimov writes about but his insights provide valuable backstory to what’s going on right now not just in the Middle East but also the wider Islamic world.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, History, Middle East/North Africa

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.

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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