Category Archives: Europe

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

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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About Time I Read It: Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan

Seems like the more I enjoyed reading a book, the longer it takes me to post a review of it. As to why, I’ve always thought it’s because frankly, outstanding books are not easy to write about and deep down, I’m afraid any review I write won’t do the book justice. I’m sure that’s the case with Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. I read this thing months ago and it’s taken me forever to get off my butt and write about it. Well, that wait is over.

Published 15 years ago in 2002, Paris 1919 has been on my list to read for over six years, ever since I learned Amy of the blog Amy Reads happened to be reading it. Those following my blog might also remember Paris 1919 was one of the books, just like The Great Gamble that was featured in the post “Books I’ve Desperately Wanted to Read.” With this being the hundred year anniversary of World War I, from time to time I’d at check-in at my public library to see if a copy happened to be available. One of those times I got lucky and a copy was available for the taking. So, of course I grabbed it. And loved it.

It’s hard to read Paris 1919 and not marvel in both the scope of the Paris Peace Conference but also its lasting consequences. For one, in today’s hyper interconnected, 24 hour news cycle driven, Twitter-crazed world, it’s hard to imagine the world’s leaders setting up shop in some city for six months just to hash out a peace treaty. Also, some of the participating delegations and their respective support staff were, numerically speaking, huge. The British and America groups rented out entire hotels and even brought their own nationals to staff the places. Those attending the Paris Peace Conference, in official or unofficial capacities was like a who’s who of the mid-20th century. Lawrence of Arabia, Ho Chi Minh, Queen Marie of Romania, FDR and Eleanor, Arnold J. Toynbee and John Maynard Keynes all rubbed elbows at the Conference in some degree or another. (Even French novelist Marcel Proust was seen at one of the Conference’s many dinner parties. According to MacMillan he was overheard asking one his fellow dinner guests to regale him in great detail of the Conference’s developments.)

As for the consequences of the Conference, with a few exceptions the blueprint that was drawn in 1919 holds true today. The great land-based empires of western Eurasia were carved up. Russia lost, then won, then lost its Baltic territories. With the collapse of Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany, Poland regained its independence and Czechoslovakia became independent. (Although 70 years later it would split in two). A Serb-dominated Yugoslavia would arise from the ashes of WWI only to horribly disintegrate by the century’s end. Lastly, the Ottoman Empire’s remaining Middle Eastern territories were seized by Britain and France. As a result of this land grab British Palestine became the State of Israel. The Kurds were left without a homeland. Iraq is a sectarian mess. The rest of the Middle East, especially the former Ottoman lands have been unstable for years, especially recently. Lastly, over the last 75 years there hasn’t been a group of freedom fighters or separatists who haven’t espoused the Wilsonian term of self-determination at least one in a manifesto or proclamation.

Paris 1919 is easily one of the best pieces of nonfiction I’ve read this year. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t make my year-end best of list. Consider this book highly recommended.

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

Conclave by Robert Harris

I love Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Since the rules state “each book must be by a different author and set in a different country” intrepid participants are inspired to read books representing the breadth of Europe. Let’s face it, as I’ve mentioned before on my blog, it’s easy to find books representing large countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia. But what about the small ones? And the really small ones? How about the smallest one of all? By that I mean Vatican City. My solution over the last few years has been to read a biography of a pope. (Both times I did they were short biographies of Pope John XXIII, one by Christian Feldman and the other by Thomas Cahill.) Nothing against papal biographies, but I wondered if there were other books about or set in Vatican City that I could read for the European Reading Challenge.

As luck would have it, I found a solution. Thanks to my public library I learned British novelist Robert Harris has a new novel out and it’s set in of all places the Vatican. Excited the author of the outstanding alternate history novel Fatherland had turned his literary attention to the world of high-stakes Vatican politics excited me. So I grabbed a copy of Conclave and began reading it. After weathering a few distractions I eagerly ripped through it. I’m happy to say Conclave did not disappoint me. Ian Samson writing for the Guardian called the novel “unputdownable” and I’m tempted to agree because it’s one hell of a page turner.

Named after an assembly of cardinals who meet under lock and key in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope, Conclave begins with the somewhat mysterious death of a revered reformist pope and moves quickly to the quest to elect his successor. Sequestered from the outside world, the Conclave is rife with high drama and intrigue. Like any sizable voting assembly there are factions. Not only is there a rivalry  between conservative elements (called “Trads” for their traditionalist or Pre-Vatican II views) and progressives (some from Continental Europe and America sharing liberal outlooks with a few Liberation Theologians from Latin Americans) but there’s also blocks of cardinals representing Italian, Latin American, African and Anglophone interests. Just to make things even more interesting, a mysterious Cardinal arrives in Rome just in time for the Conclave. A Filipino with a long but unpublicized history of humanitarian work in Africa and the Middle East, thanks to his secret elevation to Cardinal by the late Pope he too can vote in the Conclave.

Like any good page-turner, the story moves quickly and there’s no shortage of twists and turns. Conclave is one of those light, fast-paced pieces of contemporary fiction that’s entertaining as hell and a pleasure to read. So naturally, I have no problem recommending this wonderful novel.

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Filed under Christianity, Current Affairs, Europe, Fiction

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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