Category Archives: Area Studies/International Relations

About Time I Read It: Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne

You probably remember the novels featured in my two previous posts, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty and The Sleeping World I found among the new releases and featured titles displayed on the shelves just inside the main entrance of my public library. Interestingly enough, the topic of this post, Teddy Wayne’s debut novel Kapitoil  I also discovered sitting on one of those shelves. But that was way back in 2010, right after it was published and prominently displayed on the New Books shelf. You see, almost a decade ago on several occasions I saw Wayne’s novel sitting there and while I toyed with reading it, alas I never did. Nevertheless, its title stuck in my head and for years off and on I thought about reading it. Then, about a week ago I got the itch to finally do so. Luckily for me, I was able to find an available copy at my public library. Much like I did with The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty I burned through Kapitoil in no time. And I enjoyed it.

Our story begins in the fall of 1999 when Karim Issar, a 20-something, self-taught computer programmer from the Arab nation of Qatar travels to New York City to assist financial giant Schrub Equities in safeguarding its IT infrastructure from the looming disaster known at the time as the Y2K bug. Finding this particular project simple and uninspiring, the highly capably and talented Karim shifts his attention to a side project, a computer program that uses news articles to predict changes in oil prices. Soon his new program is earning the company tons of cash, which does not go unnoticed by founder and CEO Derek Schrub who begins taking the young Karim under his wing, showering him with attention and lavish perks. But even though Karim is on the fast-track to wealth and prestige, he worries his invention is merely making money off the misfortune of others. He also fears losing ownership of the program, and with that his chance to  better humankind by using the program’s core algorithm to track and prevent global disease outbreaks.

I enjoyed Wayne’s novel and perhaps what I liked most about it was seeing Karim slowly acclimate to American life. Through countless fits and starts, he gains a deeper understanding of American English as well as our nation’s nuanced, and at times contradictory cultural mores. Awkwardly, he makes only a few friends, but those friendships are authentic and meaningful. Kapitoil reminded me a lot of movies like 1984’s Moscow on the Hudson and 1986’s Crocodile Dundee in which a relatively innocent outsider finds himself in a large American city and in process of learning the ropes we the audience see our own culture in a new light as it’s perceived through the eyes of a foreigner.

In conclusion, I found Kapitoil an enjoyable read. Since Teddy Wayne has written a few more novels since Kapitoil was published almost a decade ago, I have a feeling I’ll be reading more of his stuff in the future.

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Filed under Arab World, Fiction, Middle East/North Africa

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida

During the spring and summer of 2014 I frequently dropped by the Central Branch of my public library just to see which new books were displayed on the shelves just inside the main entrance. While most of the featured material consisted of newly acquired stuff, there were tons of librarian’s choice selected books as well. As a result of these little side trips I discovered a number of quality novels like Lauren Grodstein’s The Explanation for EverythingAndré Aciman’s Harvard Square, Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen and Matthew Olshan’s Marshlands. Once home, I spend my evenings sitting outside my door reading these recently published works of fiction frequently with an adult beverage in hand and accompanied by friendly neighborhood cat or two. Good times indeed.

With the return of summer, I found myself longing for those pleasant evenings of drinks and good fiction. (Unfortunately, since then I moved, and it’s hard for the neighborhood cats to make it to my third floor balcony.) So recently I’ve gone back to raiding the those shelves near the main entrance of the Central Branch. One of the novels I recently grabbed off those shelves, The Sleeping World wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but the other Vendela Vida’s 2016 novel The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty I thoroughly enjoyed.

Our story begins with our nameless 30 something female protagonist traveling solo on a transatlantic flight from Florida to Morocco on trip that vaguely feels like a personal vacation but without any hint of joy or pleasure. Upon checking in to her hotel, she’s quickly robbed of her credit cards, passport and other valuables. After visiting local police station only to be “reunited” with another woman’s credit cards and ID, she opts to spend her time in Casablanca living as that woman, knowing full well she could end up in jail or something worse. Before long she’s noticed by a local film crew shooting on location in Casablanca and gets hired as a fill-in body double for the movie’s starring American actress. The two women soon bond over gin and tonics while swapping relationship horror stories. With this series of improbable events behind her our heroine has shed her previous identity and reinvented herself as a minor league Hollywood jet-setter.

More than one reviewer described this novel as taught and I wholeheartedly agree. Vida’s writing is tight and to the point. To risk sharing any spoilers, let’s just say she doesn’t reveal everything at once, but by the time you get to the end everything has unfolded nicely.

If, after reading The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty you find yourself in the mood to read more about Morocco, I would suggest novels like Mahi Binebine’s Horses of God and Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Leaving Tangieras well as nonfiction pieces like Joseph Braude’s The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty served as my introduction to the writing of Vendela Vida. Her excellent novel has left me craving more. I can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of her stuff.

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Filed under Arab World, Fiction, Middle East/North Africa

The Sleeping World by Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes

A couple of weeks ago I found myself rummaging around the new book section at my public library’s Central Branch when I came across what I thought was a novel set in Spain by a Spanish author. Reading the novel’s brief description, I could see the setting for The Sleeping World takes place two years after the death of dictator Francisco Franco as the nation begins taking its first shaky steps toward democracy. Duly intrigued, I grabbed it along with another book and headed for the automated check-out kiosk. Later that night, I began reading it. Pleasantly sucked in at first, I soon realized this was one of those novels I wasn’t enjoying as much as I’d hoped, but thankfully it had enough good things going on that I continued to read it. Oh well, sometimes that’s the way it is with debut novels.

Written not by a Spaniard, but actually an American born and raised in the Midwest, Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes’ first-time novel follows the adventures and misadventures of a small group of college age friends, the focus of which is Mosca, a rebellious young woman whose parents and brother were murdered by Spain’s Fascist security forces. Drifting from protest to protest and dingy bar to dingy bar across Spain, Mosca’s small band of misfits passionately yet aimlessly stumble about fueled by a steady diet of drugs, alcohol, Marxist-flavored radical politics and early punk music.

While some reviewers and readers enjoyed Fuentes’ novel, I on the other hand merely found it OK. I enjoyed the author’s glimpse into the turmoil of early post-Franco Spain but overall The Sleeping Years was not a big hit with me. On the other hand, I take comfort in knowing this is Fuentes’ first novel and as a novelist, she shows considerable promise. Therefore, with that in mind I look forward to her next novel which I’m betting will be much more to my liking.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History

Soviet Spotlight: The Jews of Silence by Elie Wiesel

The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet JewryLast year, when I heard the news Elie Wiesel passed away like many others I was saddened because the world lost not only a powerful writer and wise man but also a survivor one of history’s darkest episodes. Over a prolific career spanning over half a century, his extensive body of work was undoubtably shaped by not just the horrors of the Holocaust but also his quest for meaning in the modern age. Throughout his many writings he asked how does a Jew, or really for that matter any person live a just and fulfilling life?

Saddened to hear of his passing, I later found myself inspired to read more from his extensive body of work. I even thought about doing some sort of ongoing series, perhaps calling it an Elie Wiesel retrospective. Unfortunately, like so many blogging projects I’ve vowed to embark upon, I never got around to doing so. Typical of me.

I stumbled upon his book The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet Jewry completely by accident while fumbling through my public library’s catalog of available Kindle downloads. Seeing it was a collection of Wiesel’s newspaper dispatches he wrote in 1965 chronicling his travels across what was then the western portion of the former USSR observing Jewish life under the authoritarian rule of the Communists I simply HAD to borrow this book. So of course, I did.

Despite being a slim book (the paperback version is only 144 pages) it nevertheless punches above its weight. Wiesel recalls in detail the conversations he had with his coreligionists throughout the major cities of the USSR including Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Vilnius. He describes meeting Jews who are free, but not completely free of oppression. He learns despite the Soviet lines of proletariat equality and all men are brothers old prejudices die hard. The USSR’s Jews are still looked at with suspicion by some in power, and are seen as “rootless cosmopolitans” with questionable allegiance to the Soviet state. Worse, some see them as a potential fifth column secretly supporting America or the (then young) modern state of Israel. All of this is made worse by living under one of the mid-twentieth century’s most oppressive regimes.

The Jews of Silence left me wanting to read more stuff by Wiesel. It also made me wanna read Gal Beckerman’s 2010 book on the Jews of the USSR When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone which I’m happy to report I bought myself as a Christmas present late last year. So with that in mind, look for more books by Wiesel and one by Beckerman to show up on my blog.

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

About Time I Read It: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The topic of this post, Sarah Waters’ novel The Paying Guests has been on my list to read for about three years, ever since I heard Maureen Corrigan’s glowing review on Fresh Air. My desire to read Waters’ novel was reinforced not long after that, when a well-read co-worker of mine raved about it. But I think it was reading Margaret MacMillan outstanding history book Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World with its detailed look at Europe in the immediate post-WWI era that finally inspired me enough to read The Paying Guests. (Set mostly in the London district of Camberwell, I could apply it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, not to mention maybe even another reading challenge or two.) So duly inspired, I found an available copy through my local public library and began reading it. I’m happy to report I was not disappointed.

I won’t say too much about the story, but for those unfamiliar with The Paying Guests it takes place in 1922, when a down on their luck mother and daughter team decide to solve their cash flow problem by renting a room to a young married couple. Of course any situation in which a family is left with no choice but to share their home with a couple of strangers is not the best of all possible worlds. However, when a lesbian romance blossoms between daughter of the house Frances and border Lillian you know things will end badly. You just don’t know when and disastrous it will be in the end.

While many, rightfully so, have praised this novel for its charged but nevertheless nuanced eroticism, I’d like to applaud The Paying Guests for other reasons. One, as far as I can tell Waters researched the hell out of it. Reading it, you feel like you’ve been transported back to England in the years immediately after World War I. Two, undoubtably because Waters long ago established her bona fides not just a lesbian writer, but one who excels at portraying how those romances could have played out in historical contexts much less accepting than our present one. (In one interview she prided herself on her ability to “pay attention to women’s secret history and lives.”) Since I can’t articulate it better than Maureen Corrigan did back in September of 2014, I’ll just quote her:

What’s so immediately compelling about our protagonist, Frances Wray, is that, in a way that doesn’t seem at all anachronistic, she’s comfortable in her own queer skin. It’s most of the rest of the world — and, tragically, some of the people in her own house — who have serious problems with Frances and her so-called unnatural sexuality.

Three, for all the above-mentioned reasons and probably a few others I didn’t mention, The Paying Guests is just one hell of a well-written novel. It’s got me wanting to explore more of Sarah Waters’ stuff and something tells me that’s not a bad thing.

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About Time I Read It: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The subject of my previous post, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 happened to be the selection of one of my three book clubs. In keeping with this theme, the book featured in this post, The Golem and the Jinni, was recently selected by one of my other book clubs. Yesterday I met with members of my book club at a local wine shop/bar to discuss it. I’m happy to report to the last man and woman, all of us enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni, and when a whole book club likes a book, it means it’s a pretty darn good.

Published in 2013, I’ve been wanting to read The Golem and the Jinni ever since one of those those “based on your history, you should read this” algorithms utilized by Goodreads brought the novel to my attention. Once my book club chose it as our May selection, I was able to secure an available copy through my public library. Despite being 657 pages long, it felt like I made my way through the novel rather quickly. Which, like having your whole book club praise a book, is never a bad thing.

Blending elements of fantasy, romance, mythology, religion and historical fiction, Wecker’s tells the story of two supernatural beings, who through strange twists of fate find themselves in turn-of-the-century New York City. One is Chava, a beautiful golem originally created by a one-time rabbinical student turned malevolent magus to serve as a submissive wife to a somewhat moneyed but nevertheless loser lech. The other, a roguish but likable Jinni named Ahmad, suddenly finds himself in Gotham after spending the last thousand years or so imprisoned in an old flask. While physically appearing normal, neither Chava or Ahmad are human. But on the other hand, neither are lacking in humanity. Their interactions with the diverse denizens of New York show the depth and width of the human condition. We readers are kept entertained by their supernatural abilities (physical as well as mental) as well as their sometimes fumbling attempts to pass as lowly mortals.

Despite The Golem and the Jinni popularity among readers, some reviewers were critical, taking issue with the novel’s length. I on the other hand have no such complaint, since it allowed Wecker to flesh out the unique and memorable cast of supporting characters who populate the novel. I thoroughly enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni and can easily see it making my year-end Best Fiction list.

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Filed under Arab World, Fiction, History, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

Trieste by Dasa Drndic

Every once and awhile I grab a book that wasn’t exactly what I expected. Mind you, whenever this happens it hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing. More than once it’s turned out pleasantly surprising. Other times, I’ve been disappointed. Then there’s the times I’ve been left scratching my head, unable to decide if I my disappointment was justified or had I really been treated to an excellent book that just didn’t work for me.  Croatian novelist Dasa Drndic’s Trieste is one of those books.

After spying an available library copy of Trieste I was drawn to Drndic’s 2014 novel for a number of reasons. One, it’s set in Italy and therefore eligible for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Two, much of it takes place during World War II. Three, I’ve always had a fascination with the “border cities” of old Europe: cities located on the border of two countries that over history find themselves tossed back and forth between empires. Cursed by geography, places like Gdansk (Danzig), Lviv (Lemberg) and Trieste have always had special place for me.

As novels go, Trieste is a bit of an odd duck. If there’s a chief storyline, it’s that of Haya Tedeschi, an Italian Jew who, during the Second World War had an unlikely love affair with a German SS officer that resulted in the birth of her son. Tragically, mere months after his birth the infant was stolen by German agents as part of the Lebensborn project: an SS-coordinated plan to fill Hitler’s Reich with Aryan infants by any means necessary, including kidnapping children from across occupied Europe. 60 plus years later the elderly Haya has pulled off the near impossible task of locating her long-lost son and nervously awaits a reunion with him in the northeastern Italian town of Gorizia.

I called the book an odd duck because in addition to lots of Hays’s familiar history, the rest of the books seems to alternate between fiction and history, in addition to taking a number of odd and lengthy detours.  Therefore, while there were parts of Trieste I enjoyed, there were parts I didn’t. If you ask me if I liked this book or not, I’m not sure I can offer up a convincing answer.

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