20 Books of Summer: North of Ithaka by Eleni Gage

I planned on reading I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates this summer, as one of my 20 Books of Summer and for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. The more I thought about it however, the more I wanted to read something about modern Greece as opposed to Ancient Greece. My search for the right book led me to Eleni N. Gage’s 2005 memoir North of Ithaka: A Granddaughter Returns to Greece and Discovers Her Roots. (If you ask me if the author’s pretty picture gracing book’s cover influenced my choice, as an American I’ll refuse to answer that question on the grounds it would incriminate me.)

There’s lots to like about North of Ithaka. For starters, you have to admire Gage, who in her 20s decided to take a sabbatical from her New York based magazine job and move half way around the world to rural Greece to rebuild her family’s farmhouse in the small village of Lia. (The same one where her grandmother was tortured before being taken out and executed by Communists during the Greek Civil War.) While there immersed herself in the local culture (made easier by her fluency in Greek and deep roots to the area) and gained a deeper understanding of Greece’s history, politics and society. With a convert’s zeal she re-embraced her family’s Greek Orthodox faith, enthusiastically participating in its rituals and traditions. Even as an agnostic I enjoyed how she actively took part in all the Church had to offer, thereby enriching herself.

Above all, North of Ithaka is a likable memoir because Gage, first and foremost is a talented writer. It makes a nice follow-up read to Nikos Kazantzakis’ classic 1964 novel The Fratricides, as well as a suitable offering for the European Reading Challenge.

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20 Books of Summer: The Prince’s Boy by Paul Bailey

While I consider myself reasonably well-read, sadly my exploration of LGBTQ literature has been to say the least, lackluster. Fortunately, what little I have read I’ve enjoyed, including the fiction of several excellent lesbian authors. For example, two years ago Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests narrowly beat out Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics as the best novel I read in 2017. Years ago, after Jeanette Winterson charmed and intrigued me at a Portland Arts and Lectures presentation I ran out and purchased a discounted copy of her 1985 novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. I ended up loving it. I’ve also had good luck with Dorothy Allison, enjoying both Bastard out of Carolina and her essay collection Skin. Lastly, in 2017 had I done an Honorable Mention list for the year’s best fiction I would have given the nod to Alexis M. Smith’s 2016 Lamda Award-winning novel Marrow Island.

On the other hand, my exposure to gay authors has been limited. A few years out of college I read Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice after someone told me it takes place during a cholera epidemic. (I’m a sucker for disease books.) Only recently have I explored the nonfiction writing of John Berendt. The City of Falling Angels made for great reading and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil looks to be a lock for my end of the year Favorite Nonfiction list.

I can now add Paul Bailey to my short list of LGTBQ authors. Something clicked that day at the library when I came across a copy of his 2014 novel The Prince’s Boy. Not only was I in the mood for short piece of historical fiction, I liked its cover art. Since it’s only 150 pages long I whipped through it in no time. I’m happy to report I enjoyed it.

The year is 1927 and Dinu Grigorescu, a young Romanian man, has been sent to Paris by his wealthy father to be educated and cultured in the ways of the world. Following his deeply hidden desires he enters a gay brothel and ends up indulging those desires with Razvan, a fellow Romanian. Soon the two of them strike out on their own, enjoying all that Paris has to offer. Over the course of their relationship, Dinu learns his lover Razvan is a man with a past, and a troubled one at that. The novel covers about 40 years, encompassing the rise of Fascism, World War II, and the post-war period, as Dinu looks back on his life as an expat in London.

With roughly half the novel set in Romania and told from the perspective of a Romanian, I’m temped to apply this towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Yes, this is a short novel. However, as one reviewer in Goodreads pointed out sometimes less is more. So if that’s the case it’s no surprise The Prince’s Boy makes for satisfying reading.

About Time I Read It: A Child of Christian Blood by Edmund Levin

I must have a weakness for books about Ukraine. From Andrey Kurkov’s novel Death and the Penguin to Askold Krushnelnycky’s An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History to Tim Judah’s In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine I’ve featured a number of these books on my blog. Succumbing to my weakness for books about Europe’s second largest country I borrowed through Overdrive a copy of Edmund Levin’s 2014 book A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel.

A Child of Christian Blood is the tragic story of Mendel Beilis. A non-practicing Jew, father of five, and clerk at a Kiev brick factory lived an uneventful life until a young neighbor boy was found murdered. Like something out of Kafka’s The Trial, a few months later without a shred of evidence Beilis was sent to prison for two years (under Russian law, a prisoner had no right to legal counsel until he was charged) before being formally charged with blood libel, the impossible crime of killing a Christian boy by draining his blood for the purpose of making Passover matzos.

Unfortunately for Beilis, the deck was horribly stacked against him. According to Levin, the reactionary and rather dim-witted Tsar Nicholas II was a notorious anti-semite, who saw Beilis’s trial as the perfect opportunity to bolster his decrepid  monarchy by scapegoating the country’s Jews. In hopes of pleasing the Tsar the Empire’s resources were marshalled against Beilis. Promises were made should Beilis be found guilty judge and prosecution alike would receive generous promotions. An array of “expert witnesses” (one of which, Alexeevich Sikorsky was the father of aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky) were enlisted to testify blood libel was practiced by Russia’s Jews and therefore Beilis was the murderer. Tsarist officials selected a jury composed solely of rural residents, fearing one made up of educated, Kiev urbanites would likely vote for acquittal.

To risk sounding alarmist I saw a few similarities between Tsarist Russian and today’s America. The societies of early 20th century Imperial Russian and Ukraine were starkly divided between conservatives and liberals, much like that of early 21 century America. Today in our country we see a divided media with right wing cable news, websites and talk radio promoting conservative views while print media and politicized late night talk shows lean liberal. A hundred years ago the only news media Russia and Ukraine had were newspapers but those too were a cacochany of conservative and liberal voices. (Covering the Beilis trial for one liberal Russian newspaper was Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, father of Lolita author Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov.) But probably my most disturbing takeaway from A Child of Christian Blood was seeing just how many ambitious officials bought into the Tsar’s antisemitc agenda in hopes of advancing their careers. Like the Sarah Sanders Huckabees of the world who parrot Trump’s lies they forget whenever autocrats are dethroned their toadies fall with them.

About Time I Read It: The Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White

Back in 2015 when I reviewed Jenny White’s 2006 historical novel The Sultan’s Seal I mentioned the novel “sucked me in” and how much I liked its protagonist, Kemil Pasha, a British-educated, professionally trained magistrate tasked with solving crimes in 19th century Istanbul. However, like so many other debut novels I found The Sultan’s Seal “a bit rushed” with a few loose ends leading to an abrupt ending. But for all my grousing I remained optimistic I’d enjoy her subsequent novels.

Not long ago I received notification her 2007 follow-up to The Sultan’s Seal, The Abyssinian Proof  was now available through Overdrive. After downloading a copy to my Kindle I soon found myself engrossed in it. I quickly realized my faith in White was not wasted. When compared to its predecessor The Abyssinian Proof is a big improvement.

Early one morning Kamil Pasha is summonded before his imperious boss and ordered to solve a mystery. Holy relics sacred to the empire’s Muslim and  Christian communities are being stolen and it’s feared the objects are being sold overseas to wealthy British collectors. With the thefts spawning tension between the empire’s major religious communities it’s imperative the culprits are apprehended and as many of the relics as posssible are returned to their rightful owners. Just to complicate things even more, involved in this somehow is a shadowy religous sect based in an abandoned cistern beneth the city of Istanbul.

The Abyssinian Proof is a lot of fun. It’s a great companion read to a guity pleasure of mine, Paul L. Maier‘s 2011 novel The Constantine Codex, a kind of Christian Da Vinci Code. Like I said at the begining, my faith in Jenny White remains unshaken.

2018 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a huge fan of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Over the years she’s encouraged us to read as many books as possible that are set in, or about different European countries or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, over the course of the year participants find ourselves moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year was a pretty good year for me since I read and reviewed 18 books. Unfortunately, this year I didn’t do as well with only 15. Just like in past years, a variety of countries are represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, but also smaller ones like Croatia, Lithuania and even the micro-state of Vatican City. Unlike last year, this year’s selection is almost exclusively nonfiction with only The Hired Man, The Lady and the Unicorn and The Little Book being works of fiction. As for the nonfiction, a lion’s share of the books deal with World War II and the Holocaust or the Cold War or both. Lastly, The Little Book made my year-end Favorite Fiction list while The Book Smugglers and God’s Secretaries made the Favorite Nonfiction one. Overall, from top to bottom it’s a great assortment of quality books.

  1. The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David E. Fishman (Lithuania)
  2. The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country by Tobias Jones (Italy)
  3. The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House by Norman Eisen (Czech Republic)
  4. Shepherd of Mankind: A Biography of Pope Paul VI by William E. Barrett (Vatican City)
  5. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia)
  6. In the Darkroom by Susan Fuladi (Hungary)
  7. The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy (Ukraine)
  8. The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (Belgium)
  9. The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest by Peter Duffy (Belarus)
  10. God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson (United Kingdom)
  11. The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn Beer (Germany)
  12. The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat by Michael Jones (Russia)
  13. The Little Book by Selden Edwards (Austria)
  14. The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond by Stephen O’ Shea (Switzerland)
  15. A Secret Life: The Polish Colonel, His Covert Mission, And The Price He Paid To Save His Country by Benjamin Weiser (Poland)

Like I said at the start, I’m a huge fan of this challenge and encourage all you book bloggers to sign up. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Books About Books: The Book Smugglers by David E. Fishman

In one of my previous posts I mentioned how I couldn’t resist a book entitled The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House. Well, imagine then how hard it was to resist a book called The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis. While visiting my old childhood library awhile back I spotted a copy prominently displayed on the New Books shelf. As soon as I got home I downloaded a borrowable eBook version and quickly went to work reading it. Unable to put it down I breezed through it in no time. And we all know when that happens you’re got a great book on your hands.

Published in late 2017,  David E. Fishman’s The Book Smugglers vividly recalls one of the Holocaust’s saddest yet also inspiring stories. After the Germans captured the then Polish city of Vilna (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania) they found themselves ruling over a city that was home to one of Europe’s largest and most vibrant Jewish communities, nicknamed the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” After imprisoning Vilna’s Jews in the city’s ghetto the Nazis went to work plundering Vilna’s countless Jewish books and documents.  Their goal was to collect everything and ship a third of it back to Germany to be studied and retained as museum pieces documenting a race that had been successfully exterminated. The other two-thirds would be destroyed.

Needing assistance in their twisted endeavor the Nazis press-ganged a number of Vilna’s Jews to help transport and catalog the stolen materials. In hopes of saving at least a fraction of what the Nazis plundered some of these Jews risked their lives to secretly smuggle out and hide a huge cache of Jewish books. Had it not been for these brave souls hundreds of rare books materials would have been lost forever.

I can’t rave enough about this book. It compliments perfectly two other outstanding books about the Nazis and stolen Jewish books, namely Rabbi Mark Glickman’s Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books Anders Rydell’s The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance. Not only did it easily make My Five Favorite Books of Summer list but also my year-end Favorite Nonfiction one. Please consider The Book Smugglers highly recommended.

The Last Palace by Norman Eisen

Last September, if I hadn’t been obsessing on college football and spending time outdoors in the nice fall weather, I would have heard on NPR or read online in the Washington Post about a great book with the irresistible title of The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House. Fortunately for me, the good people at my public library were wise enough to purchase a copy which I discovered a few weeks ago during one of my weekly library visits. In another stroke of good luck, I ended up enjoying Norman Eisen’s 2018 book.

From the ashes of World War I emerged the young nation of Czechoslovakia. In the years following the war one of its citizens, Otto Petschek made a fortune in the coal market and wound up with more money than he could comfortably spend. (Petschek probably wasn’t the only Czechoslovakian making lots of cash. According to Eisen, during the 1920s Czechoslovakia had the 10th largest economy in the world.) So, like one of the great European monarchs of ages past, he had a palace built for him and his family. Perhaps also like of those potentates of old, he imposed his will upon the palace’s design and construction, frequently overruling the presiding architect and eventually overseeing the entire operation. After years of delays and cost overruns Petschek would get his palace, but his mammoth pet project would leave him drained both physically and financially. To make matters worse, with rise of Nazism and the German invasion of Czechoslovakia Petschek’s heirs, being Jews would be forced to leave their palatial home never to return.

Being such a grand creation, over the decades Petschek’s palace would serve as home for the powerful. During World War II it was the official residence of Rudolf Toussaint, Wehrmacht general entrusted with occupying the area. (Toussaint was a fascinating figure. He never joined the Nazi Party, loathed the SS and as far as German generals go was pretty decent guy.) After the war it became the US ambassador’s residence and remains so to this day. (During the Velvet Revolution of 1989, America’s ambassador was none other than Shirley Temple Black. Believe it or not, she was also happened to be visiting 20 years early in 1968 and witnessed firsthand the country’s brief Prague Spring being mercilessly crushed by the Soviet military.)

If you went looking for someone to write a book like this, Eisen would be the right person for the job. Not only did he live in the palace as Obama’s appointed ambassador to the Czech Republic he’s also the son of a Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor whose own powerful story is included in the book. Plus, he writes well.

I love the idea of an object, in this case a palace playing a central role in a nation’s history. I enjoyed The Last Palace and it makes a great companion read to Madeleine Albright’s Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. I have no problems recommending The Last Palace.