Category Archives: Europe

In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah

Probably the coolest thing about Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is it makes a person read books set in, or about countries all over Europe. That’s always been fine with me. Over the years it’s discovered a ton of great books that who knows, had it not been for the European Reading Challenge I might never had read. And trust me, when is that ever a bad thing?

My quest to find yet another book to read for the challenge led me to Tim Judah’s 2015 book In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine. Until it was overshadowed by the tumultuous American election, the conflict in Ukraine seemed to always be in the news. So, when I found an available copy at my public library I helped myself. After a few fits and starts I eventually made my way through it, finishing it last night just before bed.  While perhaps not a page-turning, nevertheless it’s probably the best book out there when it comes to showing just how complex and, well, horribly messed-up the situation has been in Ukraine. Judah travels from one end of the country to another interviewing an almost endless series of people who’ve been involved in, or at least significantly impacted by the ongoing conflict. Like many wars, civil wars and combinations of both, the roots of today’s conflict go deep into the past. As Ukraine struggles define itself as a distinct nation state and plot a political trajectory somewhere between East and West, it must deal with a restive eastern population as well as a resurgent Putinist Russia that sees Ukraine as traditionally part of it homeland.

I’m a sucker for good, on the ground reporting like this. In Wartime reminded me of other books written about Easter Europe like Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War, Lawrence Scott Sheets’ 8 Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Former Soviet Union and last but not least Askold Krushnelnycky’s An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History. Of course, since I am a sucker for this kind of writing, you’ll be sure to see a more books like this featured on my blog in the coming year.

5 Comments

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

About Time I Read It: The Pity of It All by Amos Elon

The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933I can’t remember how long ago, but once a book popped up on my Goodreads page I simply had to read. Published in back 2002, Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 looked like one of those books that’s right up my alley. And not just any book on Jewish history, but one devoted to the history of Jews in Germany. Therefore, like many promising books I read or hear about, I vowed to someday read it. Then, like I’ve done so many times in the past promptly forgot about it. That is, until I was surfing my public library’s online catalog and was it was listed. I quickly placed a hold and before I knew it, a copy become available. Once again, I found myself kicking myself because I should not have waited so long to read Elon’s outstanding book.

The Pity of It All begins with Moses Mendelssohn’s arrival in Berlin. Not yet 15 years old but confident, purposeful and smart enough to trade his backwater Jewish community in Dessau for the brighter lights of Berlin. (This, in an age when the Prussian military’s presence in the city was so huge some joked that Prussia was an army in search of a state.) Even though the city’s gate masters were officially tasked with keeping itinerant Jews from entering the city, Mendelssohn nevertheless made it inside. Once settled, he went on to become not only one of the leading lights of the Enlightenment, but also an early advocate of Jewish assimilation and interfaith dialog. Much like their co-religionists the Rothschild’s, in time the Mendelssohn family name would be associated with fame and accomplishment, from banking to composing.

As one might expect, according to Elon the history of Jews in German is ultimately a tragic one, both in nature and irony. As German Jews embraced German culture, language and education and thus assimilated, like so many of their Christian neighbors Germany’s Jews became increasingly secular. Unfortunately, with many of Germany’s top positions in academia, the military and the like still closed to them, countless German Jews converted. Cynically, or depending how you look at it realistically, those like the poet Heine figured it was an easy transition from non-practicing Jew to non-practicing Christian. Fearing Jews would continue to convert and in great numbers, (one person wrote at the time it seemed like half of Berlin’s Jews were converts) a kind of Jewish Counter Reformation arose with its goal to preserve traditional Judaism while keeping it relevant in a modern secular age.

When it comes to tragedy and irony, during the 200 year history of Germany’s Jews the worst was saved for last. During the First World War and the run-up preceding it, some Germans accused the nation’s Jews of not being patriotic, and thus not German enough. However, in reality a number of influential Jews in academia and industry were solidly behind the Germany’s military endeavors, issuing supportive pronouncements and urging the nation to fight on. Later in the War, after four years of brutal trench warfare and Britain’s naval blockade left Germany hungry and bled white, antisemitic elements looking for scapegoats accused the nation’s Jewish soldiers of lacking bravery. A fact-finding report was issued and when completed, showed Jewish soldiers were fighting as hard as and taking as many casualties as the rest of the German army. (One crazy historical footnote I learned from Elon’s book is the German officer who went to bat for a young Adolf Hitler and made sure he was decorated for bravery was Jewish.) After Germany’s government collapsed at the end of WWI, the nation’s first democratically elected government arose from the political ashes. Also for the fist time in Germany’s history, many Jews held positions of responsibility in the new government. But that young government’s inability to effectively negotiate with the victorious Allies led to significant losses in German territory. (A war that right up to the end, the German people were told they were winning.) This would lead to a decade of widespread anger and resentment, and after the horrors of the Great Depression, opened the doors of power to the antisemitic Nazis in the early 30s.

The Pity of It All is an outstanding book and could easily make my year-end Best of List. It’s also a great companion book to Howard Sachar’s 2007 masterpiece A History of the Jews in the Modern World. Please consider The Pity of It All highly recommended.

1 Comment

Filed under Europe, History, Judaica

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin WallYet another book published well over 10 years ago I discovered only recently is Anna Funder’s 2003 book Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. Even though it won the Samuel Johnson Prize and was shortlisted for several others I’d never heard of Stasiland until just recently when I found a copy through my public library. With my longtime interest in the former Soviet Bloc I could not resist Funder’s book. In the end, I’m glad I yielded to temptation. Stasiland is one of those books that took me forever to read, not because it’s boring but one I kept putting to down in order to read other things. However, slowly but surely I made my way through it. And even it took me a long time to read it didn’t leave me disappointed.

Instead of merely discussing the political system of the old German Democratic Republic (GDR) and how it collapsed, Funder spent time interviewing individual former East Germans and simply letting then tell their life stories. By doing so, she made the historical intimate and personal, and thus put a human face on history. I’m glad she was able to interview former Stasi agents and see how they’ve fared ten years after the Fall of the Berlin wall. (According to Funder, many Stasi agents, trained and well-practiced in the arts of persuasion and intimidating now spend their days not spying and harassing dissidents but selling insurance and financial services.)

Stasiland is also a sad book. Sad because even though many in the West thought East Germany was the most humane nation of the old Soviet Bloc, those living in the GDR lived under an oppressive and unforgiving regime. Individual hopes and dreams were severely attenuated and when that happens lives becoming meaningless. In some cases, perceived enemies of the state who were imprisoned and later died under mysterious circumstances had their bodies quickly cremated to hide the truth from their loved ones. It was also a regime that until the bitter end refused to step aside, even though its aging inner circle was so old some leaders disparately underwent experimental treatments in hopes of forestalling the aging process.

Stasiland is an excellent companion read to Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 and Stephen Kotkin’s Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment.

11 Comments

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

Isaac’s Army by Matthew Brzezinski

Isaac's Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied PolandAlan Furst is one of my favorite contemporary fiction writers and when he highly recommends a book, I take notice. One night while searching my public library’s online database I noticed there was an available copy of Matthew Brzezinski’s Isaac’s Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland. Since I already had a ton of library books in my possession I was a bit hesitant to borrow one more. But with Alan Furst giving Isaac’s Army a glowing recommendation, calling the book “a riveting account of the Jewish resistance in wartime Poland” how could I say no. After making my way through Isaac’s Army I can happily say Mr. Furst did not steer me wrong. Isaac’s Army is a superb book and probably one the best books on the Holocaust I’ve ever read.

Published in 2012, Brzezinski’s (yes, he’s related to President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski since he’s his nephew) book begins with Warsaw on the eve of German invasion. Cursed with having Nazi Germany on the West and Stalin’s USSR on the East, the country’s leaders  nervously and with overconfidence look to Britain and France to hold back the invading tide. Even though Poland’s right-wing authoritarian regime has been showing its antisemitic stripes of late, overall, the Jews of Warsaw are doing well. With half a million Jews calling Warsaw home, the Polish capital isn’t just one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Eastern Europe, it’s a vibrant and populous Jewish mecca.

But then came the Nazi and Soviet onslaughts. After Poland’s crushing defeat Warsaw’s Jews were eventually exiled to the city’s newly created ghetto. Behind the Warsaw Ghetto’s walls parallel power structures and factions materialized, and some of its residence acting out of desperation, venality or naivety became informers, or even collaborators. Before the final round of deportations to the Death Camps, the ghetto’s last residents staged a furious uprising. Believing the Jews were cowardly and too timid to fight back, the Nazi’s were completely taken off guard. Although the rising was ultimately crushed, a number of brave, resourceful and lucky souls escaped death through the sewers. Some of these fighters went on to take part in another failed insurrection a year later, when the Polish Underground rose up against the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising.

What separates Isaac’s Army from your typical books on WWII is this a book about individuals, not armies and generals. Through Brzezinski’s eyes you see their day-to-day struggles over a six-year period. Since they are presented as real people fighting a merciless and powerful enemy of demonic proportions, readers of Isaac’s Army are able to see them as flesh and blood individuals. Contrary to what Stalin would have liked the world to believe, they are human beings, not statistics.

Brzezinski’s book is incredibly researched and contains tons of detail without feeling dry or tedious. So impressed was I with Isaac’s Army that I’m pretty confident it’ll make my year-end Best of List. Just like I did in my previous post with Christian Caryl book Strange Rebels, consider this book highly recommended.

8 Comments

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

Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

51TMZXRLzWL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_

I’m probably not alone in assuming when people rebel against the establishment they’re usually thought of as progressives or modernizers. These individuals see the old order as being, well, old. Sick of dealing with antiquated governance and out of step leaders, such agents for change want to move forward by bringing about needed reforms or even wholesale revolutions. What then do you make of those who, when taking on those in power, look not to the future for inspiration but to the past?

That is the question asked and answered by Christian Caryl in his 2013 book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. It’s a book that’s been on my list to read for several years, ever since I read about it on Goodreads. I felt myself drawn to Strange Rebels because I came of age during this time. Of the many events he recalls, so many of them I watched unfold on the evening TV news. Not long ago my book group opted to read it and I couldn’t have been happier. I’m also happy to report it’s an excellent book.

To Caryl, 1979 was a pivotal year like few others. Britain elected its first female Prime Minister, an avowed conservative who moved the United Kingdom away kicking and screaming from a pro-union, Socialist-style system to free-market, Chicago School of Economics-oriented nation. On the other side of the globe, Deng Xiaoping sought to modernize China and raise living standards by bringing the nation into the global economy through embracing capitalism. In an age when many forward thinking intellectuals thought little of religion, especially conservative Catholicism, Pope John II believed the moral and intellectual strength of Christianity could bring about the end of Soviet oppression. Also in opposition to Soviet-sponsored oppression were the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, who had religious motivations of their own, drawing from their Islamic heritage. Lastly, in neighboring Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow revolutionaries established the world’s first Islamic Republic. By doing so they abruptly ended the Shah’s attempts to make Iran a modern, Westernized (albeit authoritarian) nation.

Through Caryl’s eyes these strange rebels share striking similarities. Thatcher and Deng felt the only way their respective nations could prosper was to embrace free market reforms and lessen the state’s role in the economy. Khomeini, the Mujahideen and John Paul II all had religious motivations to replace the old order with one more in line with those beliefs. Both John Paul II and Khomeini’s religious views were shaped by their philosophical studies: John Paul II augmented his Christian beliefs with modern European philosophy while Khomeini was heavily influenced by Platonic thought, as well as the writings of the Red Shia Ali Shariati. Even though they were Sunnis and not Shias, the Afghan Mujahideen fought to defeat the Soviets and their Afghan allies and eventually set up their own version of an Islamic Republic. And just like Khomeini and his like-minded ruling clerics took inspiration from the Red Shia Shariati, the Mujahideen modeled themselves after the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn shares similarities with Marxist vanguard parties.

It’s one thing to show what these leaders had in common, the hard thing is to convince the reader the things they did in 1979 in no small way shape our world. To his credit, Caryl pulls it off. Thanks to Deng’s reforms, China is now a world power, especially economically. The political/economic system of Britain looks nothing like the dark days of the early 1970s. (As an example, Tony Blair’s Labor Party was not your grandfather’s Labor Party.) ideological heirs to the Mujahideen like al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram fight to impose their will throughout the world as political Islam has become the dominant ideology for protest in the Muslim world, eclipsing Pan-Arabism, Arab Nationalism and Communism. Before 1979 Islamic Republic was an alien concept. Thanks to Khomeini, even many Sunnis find it an appealing one. (Even if they use the term Caliph.) An unwinnable war in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the USSR. It was the churches, both Protestant and Catholic, that provided safe places where dissidents and their allies could organize against the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Strange Rebels is an excellent book. Consider it highly recommended.

3 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle by Mark Braude

In the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, young Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence begins his epic adventure by riding a camel into wilds of the Arabian desert while singing a little song called “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.” Written in the early 1890s, true to the spirit of any good rags to riches story it told the tale of a man of modest origins who struck it rich gambling at Monte Carlo’s world famous casino. According to historian Mark Braude in his 2016 book Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle so popular was this British ditty that during the late 19th and early 20th centuries some felt there wasn’t a place in the English-speaking world where people hadn’t heard the song.

While I’ll admit to having a few vices, gambling has never been one of them. Nor have I been fascinated by the sun-soaked and celebrity populated French Riviera. But perhaps Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is one of those vices since I’m always on the lookout for books I can read for her challenge. So, in keeping with my little addiction, when my public library granted me the opportunity to read a book about the European microstate of Monaco, of course I jumped on it.

As the both the book’s title and subtitle would lead us to believe, Making Monte Carlo is the story of how the tiny principality of Monaco successfully set aside a small cliff side section of its realm for entertainment purposes, chiefly gambling. In order to generate much-needed revenue for the cash-strapped royal coffers, the plan was to sell Monte Carlo as an exotic destination where Europe’s, and later America’s rich and powerful could live like royalty by wagering big money, lose with casual indifference (and by doing so show their just how wealthy and stately they were) and enjoy all the wonderful amenities Monte Carlo had to offer. Before long Monte Carlo also became a place where social climbers, professional gamblers and other aspirants from less regal backgrounds came to win big, find a wealthy spouse or even pitch a lucrative business deal. Legends abounded over the years of  broken-hearted losers who committed, or attempted suicide after crushing losses at the gambling tables. Such stories filled Europe’s somewhat tabloid press causing many to take a dim view of Monte Carlo, seeing it as a destroyer of decent men and women.

Braude strikes me as a good writing with a decent attention to detail. Much to my liking he tends to zero in on social history when telling his story. My only complaint is a minor one in that I wish the author would have covered the period up to the present. (The book ends in the 1930s with he first Monaco Grand Prix road race.) But since this is how Monte Carlo became Monte Carlo, I guess it’s a forgivable offense. Overall, I found myself liking Making Monte Carlo.

5 Comments

Filed under Europe, History

Patience and Fortitude, Red Gold and Pandemic

Once again, I’ve fallen behind in my blogging so I gotta do another catch-up post. I don’t enjoy doing this because it feels like cheating. But hey, what, can I guy do? I got books to write about. So, as they say in the entertainment world, the show must go on.

Of the three books I’ve chosen to briefly spotlight, two are nonfiction and one is fiction. Two are from authors I’m familiar with and one is by an author who’s new to me. As far as subject matter goes, we’re dealing with one of the world’s largest and revered public libraries, life during the German Occupation of France and humanity’s battle against infectious disease.

Scott Sherman’s Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library is another one of those books that was completely off my radar and until I spotted a copy on display at my local public library. Published in 2015, Sherman’s book is an expose of just how close an alliance of real estate developers, NYC power brokers and library big-wigs came to selling off the NYPL’s local branches, gutting the main branch’s iconic reading rooms and relocating the library’s millions of books to an off-site storage facility in New Jersey. The planned overhaul shocked not just NYC’s scholars, intelligentsia and bibliophiles, but many of the world’s famous novelists. The result was a public battle to save the library.

Sherman’s book was an eye opener for me. One, I had no idea this fight to save the NYPL ever happened. Two, I had no idea the NYPL is a nonprofit corporation. All these years I just assumed it was a municipal solely entity owned and operated by NYC.

I was afraid Sherman’s wouldn’t have enough material to devote an entire book to the NYPL controversy and in the end I was relieved he could pull it off. Sometimes these kind of investigative pieces make great lengthy pieces in publications like the New Yorker or the Atlantic but go flat when stretched out and padded to book length. Fortunately, that didn’t feel the case here. Not once while reading Patience and Fortitude was I bored. My favorite parts of Patience and Fortititude were those dealing with the library’s history. (I remember reading in Why the West is the Best the first book checked out of the NYPL was not in English, but in Russian.)

With Alan Furst’s latest novel A Hero of France being released just last week, I figured the time was right to grab one of Furst’s earlier books from the library before they all got snatched up. With only a handful of his Night Soldiers series I haven’t read, I opted for his 1999 offering Red Gold because it’s set mostly in Paris during the German Occupation.  For me anyway, it’s also been tough to find an available copy at the library. Therefore, when given this chance I grabbed Red Gold.

The good news is, even though it’s a sequel of sorts to The World at Night, which to me is the weakest novel of the Night Soldiers series, I enjoyed it a bit more than it’s predecessor. The bad news is just like with The World at Night, I’d have to say it’s one of my least favorite novels of Furst’s But I still like his stuff and I can’t wait to read A Hero of France.

Even though I was slightly disappointed by Sonia Shah’s The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years I could not resist giving her latest book Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond a shot when a copy became available at my public library. After all, I’ve never been able to resist a good book on nasty diseases.

Shah’s book looks not just at the horrible pandemics of year’s past, but how also how some of these like cholera have recently come back with a vengeance to once again haunt us. She also fears in this age of worldwide jet travel, massive factory farms of antibiotic fed chickens, increasing deforestation and the rapid rate in which microorganisms mutate, are we due for another deadly pandemic? Perhaps only time will tell.

While I didn’t love it as much as David Quammen Spillover or Viral Storm, I enjoyed it more than Fever. As a result I have no reservations recommending Pandemic to anyone wanting to read a good book on horrible diseases.

There you have it, three books that in their own ways managed to exceed my slightly low expectations.

 

5 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Europe, Fiction, History, Science