Category Archives: Europe

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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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History

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

1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen

1946: The Making of the Modern WorldI’m a huge sucker for books about a single year in history. Some of my favorites have been 1959, 1968 and 1973. Last year I read 1945 in addition to not one but two books titled 1913. Over the last year or so, I kept seeing a book at my public library called 1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen. However, despite my love for these single year books I never felt compelled to grab a copy. Sadly, I’m embarrassed to say I never did so because I disliked the book’s cover. Then one afternoon I came to my senses, put my petty prejudices behind me and helped myself to an available copy. I’m sure glad I did.

1946, while it might not make my year-end Best of List, could very well end up being one of my pleasant surprises of 2017. Made up of short chapters and employing a direct writing style, Sebestyen’s informative book makes for quick, but fascinating reading. Structured chronologically, it skips around the globe, largely ignoring Africa and the Americas and spending the bulk of time discussing seminal events and developments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Sebestyen’s 1946 chronicles a world in transition. With Nazi German and much of Europe in ruins, the United States and the Soviet Union have emerged as superpowers and their ensuing rivalry would eventually morph into the Cold War. On the other side of the world, Imperial Japan lies defeated, occupied and no longer able to impose its will on East Asia. In Japan’s place is a regional power vacuum with America to a degree the USSR to a slightly lesser degree rushing to fill the void. On a related note, with Japan vanquished Chinese Communists and Nationalists could now be freely fight each other for mastery of the country. Also in Asia, the sun began setting on the British Empire as India/Pakistan moved towards independence and in the Middle East armed Zionists intensified their fight for a modern State of Israel born from the ashes of the Holocaust. Lastly, Britain’s eclipse as a colonial power was part of a larger global trend in anti-colonialism that would in the coming years drive France from Indochina and Holland from Indonesia.

If you end up reading 1946 and would like follow-up books to read let me offer the following suggestions. I would start with Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945. From there I would proceed directly to Keith Lowe’s masterpiece Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II and then to Anne Applebaum’s outstanding book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956

Oh, and one last thing. Don’t me like me. Try not to judge a book by its cover.

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

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

Leaving BerlinDuring the second half of 2016 I ended up taking a break from Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, even though it’s been huge favorite of mine over the years. In retrospect, I’m sure it wasn’t intentional. I think I just got wrapped up in reading other stuff. Plus, I think I got a little burned out from blogging. But with the coming of the new year and a few days off from work I feel refreshed, inspired and ready to participate in as many reading challenges as possible.

After finding a copy though my local public library I was probably drawn to Joseph Kanon’s 2015 historical thriller Leaving Berlin for two reasons. The first reason is it’s set in Germany, so it counts as part of the European Reading Challenge. Secondly, the novel’s premise intrigued me. Set a few years after the end of WWII in a divided Berlin at the beginning of the Cold War sounded like something I could really enjoy.

Perhaps like any good spy novel, there’s a lot going on. After fleeing Nazi Germany 10 years ago, Alex Meier has returned to the city of his youth. The official story is as a writer, he’s been invited back by East Berlin’s ruling Communists to play propagandist and help jump-start the young East German regime. In reality, because of his leftist beliefs he’s been blackmailed by the American intelligence community into returning to his native land in order to secretly spy on their behalf. But he’s a writer and not a spy, and he quickly finds out how dangerous his new role can be.

Based on all the accolades it received, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy Leaving Berlin as much as I should have, but that doesn’t mean Kanon’s thriller left me disappointed. Set mostly in Soviet occupied Berlin and environs, I found the author’s portrayal of the early Communist East Germany interesting reading . Leaving Berlin has left me intrigued and curious about Kanon’s other novels like Istanbul Passage and Alibi. I’m thinking there’s a good chance you’ll see more of Kanon’s novels featured on my blog.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Europe, Fiction, History

About Time I Read It: The J Curve by Ian Bremmer

The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and FallBack in 2010 while TV channel surfing I happened to land on PBS in the middle of Charlie Rose interviewing a geopolitical thinker/writer named Ian Bremmer. Bremmer had just written a book called The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and the two of them discussed recent global economic developments and China’s rise as an international power. As I sat watching the interview I found myself intrigued by Bremmer’s insights and vowed to read his recently published book. Later that year I did. But sadly, as much as I valued Bremmer’s take on the state of the world I never got around to reading more of his stuff.

Fast forward to this past summer, I happened to stumble across Bremmer’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Watching his posted videos and reading his tweets rekindled my appreciation of him. (He’s also probably the only international mover and shaker with a muppet created in his own likeness.) So much so when I discovered my public library had an available copy of his book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall I snatched it up. Unfortunately, it took me a bit longer than it should had for me to make it through his book because I kept getting distracted by other books I was reading at the time. Eventually, I  made my way through it. Overall, I enjoyed it even though I did have one minor problem with it.

That problem, which believe me isn’t a fault of Bremmer’s. The J Curve was published in 2006, making it a decade old. Therefore, the whole time I was reading the J Curve I kept asking myself how relevant his book could be. After all, much has changed since 2006. We’ve seen both the Arab Spring and the coming of ISIS. Dictators like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il have all passed away. (Chavez and Castro’s deaths could lead to greater openness in their respective countries. On the other hand, it looks like Kim Jong-il’s death has led to even more oppression and insanity.) Lastly, in recent years we’ve experienced a global rise in old school nationalism with the passing of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But in spite of all this, happily, I can say yes, The J Curve is still relevant to today’s world.

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The J Curve – Stability versus Openness

Bremmer, in his book The J Curve addresses that age-old question we, especially those involved in the fields of international politics and diplomacy have been asking for years: how does an authoritarian regime liberalize without becoming so unstable it descends into chaos resulting in political fragmentation or worse, yet another authoritarian regime. According to Bremmer, it’s no easy challenge. (Throughout the book he refers to this relationship between political stability and openness as something that can be plotted on a graph, hence the term “J Curve.”)  Over the years, Western nations like the United States has preferred to isolate authoritarian regimes like Iran, Cuba and North Korea with sanctions and censure in hopes of promoting regime change. In Bremmer’s opinion such measures end up being counter productive because the more isolated and impoverished the citizens are in these countries become, the easier it is for those running these regimes to manipulate the masses and thus stay in power. In The J Curve Bremmer looks at different authoritarian countries which succesful liberalized like South Africa, imploded like Yugoslavia and Iraq, and liberalized, imploded and then returned to authoritarianism like the Soviet Union/Russia.

My only knock on this book, really in reality is an unfair one in that it’s 10 years old. But like I said earlier, for a book a book that was published a decade ago it still feels relevant. The portions discussing challenges facing Saudi Arabia, Israel, and especially China look spot on even 10 years after he wrote them. Perhaps because of it’s relevancy after reading the J Curve I’m now inspired to read more of Bremmer’s stuff. So with that in mind, don’t be surprised if you see more of his stuff like Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World and Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World reviewed on my blog.

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