When my book club chose China Miéville’s October: The Story of a Revolution as our November selection I was a bit surprised. You see, our club only reads nonfiction. Miéville’s body of work encompasses science fiction, fantasy and graphic novels.(His writing has been labeled by some as “New Weird”) He’s definitely a writer of fiction. But when I went to buy a copy of October I was surprised to learn it’s not a work of fiction but nonfiction. Yes, the multiple award-winning author of Perdido Street Station and Scar has truly branched out.
Published in May of this year, October is a month by month account of the tumultuous events of 1917, beginning in February when an unlikely alliance of workers, soldiers and women (many of them war widows) drove out the Romanovs and ending in November when the shaky Provisional Government was overthrown by Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks.
I thought I knew more than the average person when it came to the Russian Revolution but after reading October I learned the surprising degree of my ignorance. Heck, the stuff about Lenin alone could make for an interesting book in the hands of a gifted writer like Miéville. Perhaps most important of all, as several member of my book club pointed out how quickly these events unfolded and considering the contingent nature of those developments how easy it could had been for someone other than the triumphant Bolsheviks to have seized lasting control of Russia. General Kornilov and his conservatives, the Mensheviks or the teetering Provisional Government with only a lucky break or two could have wound up masters of Russia. All while the German Imperial Army stood a stone’s throw from Petrograd poised to deliver the final knock-out blow.
As I mentioned earlier, of all the historical figures portrayed in October, I found Lenin the most fascinating. (Provisional Government leader Alexander Kerensky could be a close second.) Fortunately for me, on this 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution two books about Lenin recently hit the bookstores, both by talented authors. Some of you might remember a few years back when I reviewed Catherine Merridale’s 2006 book Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945. Her new book is Lenin on the Train. Last March I reviewed Tariq Ali’s novel A Sultan in Palermo. His latest book The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution was also released this spring. After reading October I can’t wait to get a crack at these two new books.
I know I’ve said it a million times but Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is one of my favorite reading challenges. Because the rules of the challenge state each book must be by a different author and set in a different country it inspires participants to read books set in countries from across Europe. I don’t know about you but I think that’s pretty cool.
I’ve made pretty good progress up to this point, reading and reviewing about a dozen books representing countries from the United Kingdom to Russia and everything in between. However, there’s still plenty of work to be done before the challenge wraps up on January 31, 2018. Last weekend, while searching my library for books to apply towards the challenge I came across a novel set in Ireland. Published late last year, The Magdalen Girls looked like a nice departure from the “deep thinker” diet of books like Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present and Peter Watson’s The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century I’ve been reading of late.
The year is 1962 and the place is Dublin, Ireland. After 16-year-old Teagan Tiernan is wrongly accused of having improper relations with a young Catholic priest she’s promptly sent away to the Sisters of the Holy Redemption’s laundry house. Forced to work in the laundry as “penance” for her “sins” she and the other imprisoned girls endure malnourishment, back-breaking labor, and physical and emotional abuse. Teagan soon realizes she needs to escape before she’s reduced to a broken shell of a human being like the rest of girls in the laundry. Passionately proclaiming her innocence she secretly conspires with two of the girls to escape.
Sad and maybe a tad melodramatic at times, nevertheless I enjoyed The Magdalen Girls. I found it fast-paced, decently written and possessing a few plot twists that I never saw coming. I needed something light and entertaining and The Magdalen Girls did not disappointment me.
Some of you might remember one of my Five Bookish Links posts in which I posted a link to a piece that appeared in Small Wars Journal. In the article, James King asked members of INTELST forum, a group of almost 4000 current and former Military Intelligence professionals what they thought are the best books for intelligence analysts. What I neglected to mention in my post is according to King “while the list is composed of mostly non-fiction there are a few fiction books. One of these fiction books, Ghost Fleet, was nominated more than any other book on the list.”
If there’s a consensus among 4000 military intelligence experts the novel Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War should be required reading then this is a novel I need to read. Luckily for me, I was able to borrow a downloadable copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Inspired by King’s recommendation I quickly went to work on the Ghost Fleet and because it’s such a page-turner I blew through it in only a few days.
Ghost Fleet takes place approximately 10 years in the future. China is ruled by the Directorate, a junta of military strong men and civilian business leaders. Believing the United States stands in the way of China’s continued ascendency as a world power, and confident in their nation’s technological and military prowess the Directorate authorizes a sneak attack on American forces in East Asia and the Pacific. Just as the Germans enlisted the declining power of Austria-Hungary as their junior partner in World War I, the Directorate adds Russia as its junior partner attacking US bases in Japan, Guam and Hawaii. Before long America’s Pacific-based Aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines have been destroyed, its spy and GPS satellites have been shot to pieces and Hawaii is under Chinese occupation.
Alas, this is not your grandfather’s World War III novel. When the call goes out for assistance at America’s hour of need it’s answered by a diverse cast of heroes. A former Sudanese “Lost Boy” now Silicon Valley mogul recruits the best and brightest minds in the business to take down China’s IT infrastructure. A flamboyant Aussie biotech billionaire (a kind of ethnic Indian version of Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban rolled into one) who, styling himself a modern-day privateer, seeks America’s blessing for his efforts to pillage Chinese military assets. A university-based Chinese-American female scientist whose expertise in designing massive batteries is a potential military game changer. As Hawaii suffers under Chinese occupation a gang of American servicemen and servicewomen calling themselves the North Shore Mujahideen engage in high-tech assisted hit and run attacks on the Islands’ occupiers. Lastly, a female serial killer, as beautiful as she is emotionally damaged, has been haunting the bars and beaches of Honolulu brutally murdering Chinese occupiers one by one.
To dismiss Ghost Fleet by saying it’s not high-class literature misses the point. Not only is it an exciting page-turner but those in the know have praised the book to high heaven. When an American Admiral proclaims the book is “a startling blueprint for the wars of the future and therefore needs to be read now!” if for that reason alone I’ll recommend Ghost Fleet.
Tony Judt is one of those writers I’ve wanted to read, yet never have. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always wanted start with his multiple prize-wining Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 but I’ve been scared to do so since it’s well over 800 pages. Even my attempts to read his shorter books like The Memory Chalet and Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century ended in failure because I had to return both books to the library before even starting them.
As you might remember from my previous post, I’ve been hankering to read some quality 20th century history. Therefore, during my recent flurry of book borrowing I decided to once again give Judt a try. In my quest to greater understand the 20th century a few weeks ago I secured a copy of Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century from my public library.
Instead of a conventional history book devoted to a selected time period that proceeds in tidy chronological order Reappraisals is a collection of essays, mostly in the form of book reviews for publications like the New York Review of Books and New Republic. Rest assured, these are not puff pieces but thoughtful and intelligent reflections on the notable personalities and key events of the last century.
Reappraisals isn’t light reading. Judt was erudite as hell and his writing reflects a rich and sophisticated vocabulary. While one might expect to find chapters on Pope John Paul II, Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair in a book like this, perhaps only the extremely well read weren’t surprised to see lengthy essays on the life and significance of French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, Austrian-French novelist Manès Sperber and Polish philosopher and intellectual dissident Leszek Kołakowski. But for readers who want to learn and be intellectually challenged this book is ideal. Judt’s chapter length discussions on pivotal events like the Cuban Missile Crises, Six Day War or Fall of France are done with considerable depth and opinion. Reappraisals is definitely the thinking person’s guide to the 20th century.
I’m sure you know by now I’ve been searching high and low for historical novelists whose writing an Alan Furst fan like myself can happily sink my teeth into. After having a modicum of success exploring the fiction of Jenny White, Sam Eastland and Jonathan Coe I kept searching. Last June, by a stroke of good luck I discovered Tom Gabbay’s novel The Lisbon Crossing. Set in Portugal during the early years of the World War II, I found his 2007 novel the kind of thing an Alan Furst fan could enjoy. But while I generally liked it, I kept wondering what else could be out there? Could there be another novelist whose kind of historical fiction I could get into, just like that of Alan Furst?
This rather quirky quest of mine would take me back to Portugal, and to a writer I’d sadly neglected to consider. During one of my visits to the public library I found of copy of David Liss’ novel The Day of Atonement. Picking it up to do a quick inspection, I was intrigued by the novel’s plot: a Portuguese Jew, after fleeing Lisbon years earlier as a child returns to the nation of his birth masquerading as an English businessman. Remembering how much I enjoyed Liss’ earlier novel The Coffee Trader, I figured I’d also enjoy The Day of Atonement. Come to find out I was right.
The Day of Atonement is a well-written and fast-paced novel set in mid-18th century Lisbon, a city as picturesque as it is dangerous. Our hero navigates the city’s dim alleys and cut-throat bars not to conduct business per se but to exact revenge. But will he pull off his bold plan before being unmasked not simply as an imposter, but also a despised Jew?
With 10 novels to his name there’s no shortage of stuff by David Liss for me to read and hopefully enjoy. I can’t wait to do so.
After enjoying the heck out of Vendela Vida’s novel The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty I was up for reading more of her stuff. Once I learned one of her earlier novels, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name happened to be set in the Nordic region of Lapland I added it to my Overdrive wish list, knowing I could apply it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Last week I found myself in the mood for more of Vida’s fiction so I borrowed a digital copy for my Kindle. Much like with The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty I whipped through the book in no time. And just like I did with The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty I enjoyed it.
Life hasn’t been kind to Clarissa Iverton. Her mother ran off when she was 14, leaving her dad to care for Clarissa and her developmentally disabled younger brother. Years later, reeling from her father’s recent death, she learns he wasn’t her true biological dad. Then, days later, just when things couldn’t possibly get any worse she breaks up with her fiancé. In hopes of meeting her real father Clarissa travels halfway across the world to Northern Finland, where she ends up unearthing even deeper and darker family secrets.
Even though I liked The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty slightly more than this earlier novel of Vida’s in no way did Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name leave me disappointed. Vida has a gift for writing taught novels featuring female protagonists, who despite any personal weaknesses still manage to overcome whatever curve balls life has thrown their way. While I’ve read only two of her novels, I like they’re set in exotic foreign locales, be it sun-drenched Morocco or frozen Lapland . Therefore, I doubt Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name will be the last novel by Vendela Vida featured on my blog.
Filed under Europe, Fiction
I’d heard amazing things about Paula McLain’s 2012 novel The Paris Wife when I came across a copy a few years ago at a church book sale. Attractively priced at 5o cents, how could I resist a novel inspired by the life of Hadley Richardson, the spouse of Ernest Hemingway, one of my favorite American writers. Chiefly set in Paris, I could also apply it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge should I need something representing France. But like so many books I’ve bought over the years, it languished on the shelf ignored and unread. That is, until a couple of weeks ago, when, fortified with a new pair of glasses I assembled a tower of books to read. The Paris Wife was included in that tower and before I knew it, the novel had been cracked open and I was reading it. And enjoying the heck out of it.
The Paris Wife begins not in Paris, but in Chicago where Richardson and Hemingway meet at a party. Richardson, 28 years old and nine years Hemingway’s senior had long since surrendered any dreams of marriage opting instead for the quiet life of spinsterhood. Nevertheless she’s immediately attracted to Hemingway finding him irresistably charming and interesting.
It’s in Europe, starting in Paris that Hemingway’s evolution to becoming a great American author begins. Not only is Paris the City of Light, it’s also home of the interwar literary avant-garde. Before long greats like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein have taken young Hemingway under their respective wings, coaching and encouraging him as a writer. Later, Hemingway and Richardson’s trips to Spain provide inspiration for his break-out novel The Sun Also Rises. But it’s also in Paris, surrounded by a cast of free-wheeling, hard-drinking and hard-loving expats that their marriage begins to fall apart. The rest as they say is history.
The Paris Wife is a terrific novel and easily exceeded my already high expectations. McLain researched the hell out of this novel and it shows. She can also flat-out write. Therefore, The Paris Wife should have no problem making my year-end Best Fiction list. Please consider this novel highly recommended.