2019 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. In my perennial quest to win the coveted “Jet Setter” award I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, each year I find myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

2018 was a down year for me since I read and reviewed just 15 books. I’m happy to report this year I rebounded nicely with a final tally of 23. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Belgium, Iceland and even the micro-state of Vatican City. This year I even read a book about Moldova.

  1. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (Russia)
  2. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939–1940 by William R. Trotter (Finland)
  3. Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe (Iceland)
  4. The Fourth Figure by Pieter Aspe (Belgium)
  5. Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein (Moldova)
  6. A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova (Bulgaria)
  7. The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’ (Hungary)
  8. Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto (The Netherlands)
  9. The Swede by Robert Karjel (Sweden)
  10. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg (Denmark)
  11. The Prince’s Boy by Paul Bailey (Romania)
  12. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (United Kingdom)
  13. The Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White (Turkey)
  14. 1924: The Year That Made Hitler by Peter Ross Range (Germany)
  15. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss (France)
  16. Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made by Richard Rhodes (Spain)
  17. The Volunteer: One Man’s Mission to Lead an Underground Army Inside Auschwitz and Stop the Holocaust by Jack Fairweather (Poland)
  18. Angels and Demons by Dan Brown (Vatican City)
  19. The Italians by John Hooper (Italy)
  20. The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal (Austria)
  21. A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel by Edmund Levin (Ukraine)
  22. Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr (Czech Republic)
  23. North of Ithaka: A Granddaughter Returns to Greece and Discovers Her Roots by Eleni N. Gage (Greece)

 

As you might guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Soviet Spotlight: Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

It took me a long time to read Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets. The only thing that took longer was posting a review. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the book. Not only did it easily made my year-end Favorite Nonfiction list but I also declared it my favorite work of nonfiction read in 2019. But why did things take so long?

Let’s start with why it took so long for me to read it. Strangely enough, it’s not a long book. The Kindle edition I borrowed form Overdrive is a shade under 450 pages. While not short, it’s not exactly a tome either. But Secondhand Time is a book of substance and you don’t read books of substance. You savor them. One cannot fully understand today’s Russia without an in-depth exploration of the Soviet state that preceded it, how it collapsed and the fractured world left in its wake. Alexievich does this by masterfully weaving together a tapestry of oral histories drawn from a deep well of post-war Russian history. From Stalin’s reign of terror to the hopeful early years of Gorbachev’s Presidency and the chaos and uncertainty that followed it, a diverse spectrum of voices chime in Russia’s past and present. Many lament the passing of a once mighty superpower that commanded the world’s attention and for the most part kept its citizens fed, housed and employed even though civil liberties were scarce. Yes, under the Communists the shelves were bare but what good is it to have stores full of quality groceries and merchandise if you’re too broke to buy any of it, complain others. In the past party apparatchiks ran the country and enjoyed special privileges while today mobsters and billionaire kleptocrats live like potentates.

Great books always intimidate me, which is why it took me so long to post my impressions of Secondhand Time. Not only did this book make every notable best book of the year list on the planet, but its author Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for literature! The authors of two of favorite book blogs, Howling Frog Books and What’s Nonfiction both raved about Secondhand Time and rightfully so. There’s probably nothing I could say about this book that hasn’t already said more intelligently and beautifully by someone else. So just go read it and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

About Time I Read It: A Frozen Hell by William R. Trotter

I suspect even the most knowledgeable World War II buff has a hard time remembering the USSR and Finland fought a brief war during the winter of 1939-1940. After months of political tension war finally came to Europe as the armies of Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland, crushing all organized resistance within a few weeks. Coming to the aid of their ally Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany with Germany responding in kind. However, until spring of the following year neither side attacked each other, since both sides were fearful of the other’s defensive capabilities.

During the lull in hostilities Stalin looked ahead to a time when Germany, after defeating Britain and France, would set its sights on the Soviet Union. The USSR needed to secure its northwestern frontier. If Finland was occupied by the Nazis, or at least fell under their sway, Lenningrad, the USSR’s second largest city would be a short skip and a jump away. After the Finnish government rejected Stalin’s demands of Finnish border territory the USSR attacked, expecting to crush Finland quickly. But the Finns fought back. And hard.

William R. Trotter ‘s 1991 book A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939–1940 tells the story of this brief but bloody conflict. According to Trotter, if there was ever a David versus Goliath battle between two modern countries this was it. On one side was Finland, a small Nordic nation of only 4 million with limited resources and an army void of tanks.Pitted against it was the mighty USSR, a Eurasian behemoth with comparatively unlimited human, industrial and military resources including state of the art artillery, aircraft and tanks. Finland’s only hope was to keep the Soviets at bay for as long as possible until military assistance could arrive from friendly nations like France, Great Britain or Sweden.

Fortunately, the Finns had a few things working in their favor. One, they were blessed with outstanding military leadership, specifically they had General Mannerheim running the show. Mannerheim and his subordinates knew if they had any chance to halt the Red Army they needed to use their meager resources as wisely as possible. Therefore, whenever possible they attacked the advancing Soviet units fast and hard,  frequently on skis with machine guns blazing. Poorly led, poorly equipped, unfamiliar with the local terrain and unprepared for the harsh Finish winter, the Red Army conscripts suffered horrific losses. Before long what was promised as a quick Soviet victory turned into a hopeless bloodbath. But how long could Finland hold out against such a mighty adversary?

I’m glad Trotter wrote A Frozen Hell. Stories like this need to be told and told in detail. They should not be relegated to mere historical footnotes.

Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein

It’s great Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge gets me reading books about the smaller countries of Europe like Monaco, Lithuania and Luxembourg. Keeping with this spirit of adventure last week I went looking on Overdrive for something interesting and what did I find but a book about Moldova. For those of you who don’t know, Moldova is a small country in Eastern Europe lodged between Romania and Ukraine. Once called Bessarabia it spent most of the 20th century being tossed back and forth between Romania and Russia/USSR until finally achieving independence from the Soviet Union in the early 90s. It’s one of those out of the way places you pretty much never hear about unless something terribly horrible happens there like a major natural disaster or bloody armed conflict.

Over a hundred years ago something horrible did happen in what’s now called Moldova. Steven J. Zipperstein’s Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History tells the story of the fury that erupted in its capital Kishinev it’s lasting legacy. Just before Easter in 1903 a rabid mob, inflamed by false reports a young child had been ritually murdered by local Jewish elders descended upon Kishinev’s Jewish quarter. Three days later close to 50 of the town’s Jews would be dead, hundred beaten, countless women and girls raped and scores of Jewish homes and business looted.

Anti Jewish riots or pogroms like these had been happening in Imperial Russia for years but this one was different. Unlike previous massacres of this type quickly spread around the world, generating a ripple effect of outrage and activism. Instead of occurring deep inside Russia, Kishinev was on its extreme Western edge and in theory anyway closer to the power centers of Europe. Perhaps more importantly, by the turn of the 20th century the world was experiencing an initial wave of modern globalization. With a sophisticated network of telegraph lines and undersea cables criss-crossing the planet, countless newspapers with the resources to dispatch correspondents via steamship and locomotive to the farthest reaches of the globe the world had become a much smaller place and news, wherever it happened traveled quickly. In addition, after decades of both Russian anti-semitism and advances in steamship technology America was home to a sizable Jewish population. Upon hearing the news of the pogrom Jews in America were outraged and quickly organized to not only aid the victims but also pressure the Russian government to safeguard the lives of their co-religionists. Elsewhere around the world Zionist leaders upon hearing the news from Kishinev lobbied even stronger for a new Jewish homeland.

Pogrom is a well-researched and meaty. I must commend Zipperstein for covering a lot of ground in a relatively short book. I’d consider it a great follow-up read to just about all the Jewish history books I’ve read over the last decade or so. And hey, it’s about Moldova so how could I go wrong?

About Time I Read It: Border by Kapka Kassabova

Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has been one my favorite reading challenges. Over the years it’s been easy finding books set in places like the United Kingdom, France and Germany. I’ve even managed to find books set in smaller countries like Bosnia, Austria and even tiny Vatican City. When it comes to Bulgaria however it’s been tough. In all the years I’ve been participating I’ve found just two books I could apply toward the challenge. In 2015 I reviewed Zachary Karabashliev’s novel 18% Gray and last January it was Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land. Based on my track record, I figured the odds of me finding another book set in or about Bulgaria were pretty slim.

That is until I saw a review of Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe posted on one of my favorite book blogs What’s Nonfiction. Not only was the book about Bulgaria, but also the region where, in the author’s words

Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey converge and diverge, borders being what they are. It is also where something like Europe begins and something else ends which isn’t quite Asia.

The author of What’s Nonfiction had nothing but praise for Border, calling Kassabova’s prose “breathtaking” as well as “eloquent” and “sophisticated” adding “it gave me goosebumps.” Encouraged by her glowing review I went in search of an available copy on Overdrive and much to my surprise I was able to download one.  Yes, the above-mentioned review is spot-on and Border is worthy of the praise.

Unbeknownst to us in the West, until the Fall of Communism countless refugees from Eastern Bloc countries passed through this section of Bulgaria in hopes of reaching Greece orTurkey. Sadly, they were seldom, if ever successful. The Bulgarian border guards patrolling the frontier were authorized to shoot to kill anyone caught crossing the border and many did, preferring to bury to victims secretly in unmarked graves. The Communists even constructed bogus fences in advance of the real ones in hopes of deceiving those attempting to escape. Even the maps they used betrayed them, purposely falsified by the Communist intelligence services.

Ironically, today there’s desperate people crossing the same border but they flowing into Bulgaria from Greece and Turkey and not away from it. Today’s refugees aren’t fleeing Communism but civil war, unrest and extreme deprivation from a host of countries including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the past, Bulgaria’s rulers feared a departure of its citizens would lead to a collapse of the Communist system. Now they fear the they’ll lose their national identity if the country is overwhelmed by Muslim refugees.

Like a shaman who’s able to commune with ancient spirits Kassabova spends much time commenting on the region’s past. Considering its long and storied history perhaps the hollowed ground Kassabova walks upon in some Faulknerian sense the past is never dead and not even past. Border is one of those rare books that defies genre. Kassabova artfully weaves memoir, history, travelogue and reportage into one outstanding book, assisted by her intimate knowledge of the Bulgaria’s language and culture. Border a must read for anyone trying to understand the past, present and perhaps even the future of this corner of the Balkans.

About Time I Read It: The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Back in August I called Peter Høeg’s whodunnit Smilla’s Sense of Snow the grandaddy of Nordic noir/Scandinavian crime because it was published in the early 90s, long before authors like Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankell achieved international notoriety. Lo and behold I learned just this week there was a Swedish husband and wife duo writing such novels way back in the 60s. While searching on Overdrive for something set in Hungary for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I came across an available copy of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s 1966 mystery novel The Man Who Went Up in Smoke. Intrigued, a downloaded it to my Kindle and gave it a shot. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure how a 50 year old piece of crime fiction would hold up after all these years but fear not, for The Man Who Went Up in Smoke met, if not exceeded my modest expectations. And now I want to read more from this pioneering Swedish duo.

Published in 1966, our story begins when Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck is recalled from a well-deserved family vacation on orders from the Foreign Office. A Swedish journalist has gone missing while on assignment in Budapest and government officials are desperate to find out why as quickly and quietly as possible, fearing he’s either defected or has met some untimely end. (One official fears they might have another Raoul Wallenberg on their hands since he also vanished in Hungary without a trace.) Admitting he doesn’t speak a word of Hungarian (neither does anyone else on the force his superiors point out) he can nevertheless liaise with the local police in German and English, both of which he speaks. Once in Budapest Inspector Beck begins retracing the missing journalist’s steps looking for clues in hopes of solving the mystery of his disappearance.

I was struck while reading The Man Who Went Up in Smoke just how the authors depicted the Hungarian authorities as reasonable and sympathetic characters, even though the country was a Communist dictatorship when the novel was published in 1966. (At one point when Beck visits a Budapest police station he remarks to himself how much it looks like his own back in Stockholm.) For a crime novel written 25 years before the Fall of Communism and set mostly behind the Iron Curtain I found it surprisingly apolitical and wondered if this had anything to do with Sweden’s long history of political neutrality. On the other hand, maybe its the authors’ opinion that no matter our political differences, we all have to deal with a world plagued by criminals.

2019 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

Now that I’ve posted my favorite nonfiction of 2019 it’s time to announce this year’s favorite fiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when these books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.

 

The bad news is I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year. As a result, there’s only six books on my list. The good news is I read some great stuff. So, in no specific order of preference here’s my favorite fiction from 2019.

  1. GI Confidential by Martin Limón
  2. The Swede by Robert Karjel
  3. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg
  4. The Prince’s Boy by Paul Bailey
  5. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
  6. Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White

As for declaring an overall winner, it wasn’t easy since all six are fantastic. In the end,  Smilla’s Sense of Snow edged out Remarkable Creatures my favorite. As high as my expectations were for Smilla’s Sense of Snow I was not disappointed.

Typical of me and my reading tastes, all six novels on this list are set outside the USA. Also typical for me, four are historical in nature, ranging from the 19th century to the early 1970s. Lastly, four of these novels could be classified at crime drama and/or mystery. Could I be developing a taste for crime and mystery novels? Perhaps only time will tell.