Book Beginnings: A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 23 in 23 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, last year I decided to finally participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”


I wish my mother had come from Leningrad, from the world of Pushkin and the tsars, of granite embankments and lace ironwork, of pearly domes buttressing the low sky. Leningrad’s sophistication would have infected her the moment she drew her first breath, and all the curved facades and stately bridges, marinated for more than two centuries in the city’s wet, salty air, would have left a permanent mark of refinement on her soul.

Last week I featured Thomas Frank’s 2004 What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Before that it was Robert B. Edgerton’s 2002 The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo. This week it’s Elena Gorokhova’s 2010 memoir A Mountain of Crumbs

Even with two of my favorite bloggers Claire of The Captive Reader and Rennie of What’s Nonfiction reviewing this book on their respective blogs it’s taken more over a decade to get off my butt and read it. I’ve grabbed it from the public library several times over the last couple of years only to return it unread. Recently, I borrowed it once again with hopes of reading it and applying it towards not one but several reading challenges. Here’s what Amazon has to say about A Mountain of Crumbs

In this deeply affecting memoir, Elena re-creates the world that both oppressed and inspired her. She recounts stories passed down to her about the horrors of the Bolshevik Revolution and probes the daily deprivations and small joys of her family’s bunkerlike existence. Through Elena’s captivating voice, we learn not only the personal story of Russia in the second half of the twentieth century, but also the story of one rebellious citizen whose love of a foreign language finally transports her to a new world.

About Time I Read It: The Good Assassin by Stephan Talty

I’m sure by now you’ve guessed I borrow a lot of books from the public library only to later return them unread. Every so often however I’ll borrow some of these unread books a second or even third time but instead read them. This has lead to some nice payoffs like Jonathan Kaufman’s The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China and Souad Mekhennet’sI Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihadboth of which made my year-end Favorite Nonfiction List. (Penelope Lively’s Dancing Fish and Ammonites was a honorable mention.)

One such book is Stephan Talty’s The Good Assassin: How a Mossad Agent and a Band of Survivors Hunted Down the Butcher of Latvia. I borrowed an ebook version back in November of 2021 but never touched it. Recently, I decided to give the book another chance and downloaded a borrowable edition to my Kindle.

During the interwar period Herbert Cukurs was called the Charles Lindbergh of Latvia. Tales of his globe-spanning aviation adventures thrilled not just tiny the Baltic nation but also Europe and beyond. Latvians flocked to theaters and auditoriums where he held audiences in the palm of his hand, entertaining them with tales of travel to exotic locations in Africa and Asia. In addition to being both an adventurer and a showman he was friendly and approachable, comfortable rubbing shoulders with all segments of Latvian society, including the country’s Jewish community. Cukurs frequently exchanged pleasantries in Yiddish with Latvia’s Jews and one of last speaking engagements before the war was hosted by a Jewish community center in the nation’s capital Riga.

But rather quickly everything went horribly wrong.  Almost immediately after the Germans invaded Latvia in 1941 Cukurs, like so many of his non-Jewish countrymen embraced the Nazi’s murderous antisemitism. (Some justified this by saying the Jews had collaborated with the Soviets who’d annexed the Baltic nations the year before.) As a senior officer serving in a collaborationist Latvian militia his actions led to the deaths of over 30,000 Jews, earning him the nickname the Butcher of Latvia. But like so many perpetrators of the Holocaust he vanished into the shadows and was never held accountable for his horrible crimes.

By the mid-1960s rumors had been swirling for years Cukurs had been living a comfortable life in Brazil. The Mossad dispatched Jacob Medad, one of its best field agents to South America to locate the man in question and verify his identity. If he was Cukurs, Medad was entrusted with bringing him to justice. How this could be accomplished half a world away in country    ruled by a junta rumored to be sympathetic to Nazi war criminals was anyone’s guess.

Grave subject matter aside, The Good Assassin is a good read. Talty writes well and his story telling never lags. Even though it’s only January it would not surprise me if this book ends up as one of my year-end honorable mentions. Who knows, maybe it will make 2023’s Favorite List of Nonfiction. Only time will tell.

2022 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. Each year 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, I found myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year I read and reviewed  just 10 books. This year I’m happy to report I doubled my output with 20. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany to tiny ones like Vatican City

  1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (Sweden) 
  2. True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy by Kati Marton (Hungary) 
  3. Bitter Lemons of Cyprus: Life on a Mediterranean Island by Lawrence Durrell (Cyprus) 
  4. The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine (Greece) 
  5. The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel (Portugal) 
  6. The Sacrament by Ólafur Ólafsson (Iceland) 
  7. The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples by David Gilmour (Italy) 
  8. Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939 by Adam Hochschild (Spain) 
  9. Rather Die Fighting: A Memoir of World War II by Frank Blaichman (Poland) 
  10. Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History by Lea Ypi (Albania) 
  11. I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys (Romania) 
  12. God and the Fascists: The Vatican Alliance with Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, and Pavelic by Karlheinz Deschner (Vatican City) 
  13. The Son and Heir by Alexander Münninghoff (The Netherlands)
  14. The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach (Belarus) 
  15. A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen (Russia) 
  16. Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively (United Kingdom) 
  17. On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe (Belgium) 
  18. A Hero of France by Alan Furst (France) 
  19. Here in Berlin by Cristina García (Germany) 
  20. Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches From Kiev by Andrey Kurkov (Ukraine) 

Just like last year it was a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction. Five of these are translated works. Two were originally published in Dutch, and one each from German, Russian and Swedish. A number of these books also made my 2022 Favorite Nonfiction or 2022 Favorite Fiction lists

As you can 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.

Pan-European Lives: Afropean by Johny Pitts

Every year during Nonfiction November I discover a ton of good books. This year one of those happened to be Johny Pitts’s 2019 Afropean: Notes from Black Europe. Thinking it might be a nice addition to my European Reading Project I borrowed a downloadable copy for my Kindle. Crazy thing is even after I started reading Afropean I couldn’t remember which blogger introduced me to it. It was only after I featured the book in a recent Book Beginnings that I leaned it was the author of Hopewell’s Public Library of Life I needed to thank for bringing Afropean to my attention. Mystery solved!

Pitts is a British citizen, born in the United Kingdom to an African- American father and a white working class English mother. Growing up in the diverse working class city of Sheffield he rubbed shoulders with immigrants and the children of immigrants from across Africa, the West Indies and South Asia. A writer and journalist by trade, Afropean recalls his travels across the Continent exploring communities of Europeans of African descent. From Paris to Berlin, despite their dark skin they’re almost invisible, quietly work away with their heads down in low-end service jobs, providing vital, yet unappreciated services. But at the same time they’re also creating a vibrant and novel culture proudly both African and European.

Historically speaking, Europe and Africa share deep ties. France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal while no longer colonial powers still attract former subjects from Africa and the Caribbean basin. Scandinavia and Germany, thanks to their strong economies and social safety nets are also popular destinations for immigrants and political refugees from Africa. During the Cold War students from across Africa flocked to Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University and were welcomed with open arms as idealogical brethren committed to building a socialist world. But after the death of Communism and its attendant third-world solidarity the Russians have grown increasingly xenophobic with racially-motivated murders of African immigrants in that country on the rise.

I found Pitts’s recollections of, and thoughts about Portugal the most memorable. An early seafaring nation, it was one of the first in Europe to  establish a colonial empire. As a result it wasn’t long before enslaved individuals were brought from Africa to be auctioned off in Lisbon. Long after the abolition of slavery colonial subjects from across the empire made their way to Portugal after earning Portuguese citizenship by jumping through a series of prohibitive hoops. While attending university in Portugal many become politically active and advocated for the independence of their respective homelands, some of the last colonial possessions left in the world. Eventually, by the mid-1970s their struggles would pay off, winning independence for places like Angola and Mozambique. Some of these former students would go on to serve as heads of state of these newly independent nations.

Of all the cities Pitts visited during his Continental odyssey, Marseille felt the most promising for Europeans of African descent or origin, despite its reputation as a rough town. Situated on the Mediterranean coast, the unpretentious port city is poised perfectly to accommodate transplants from Africa and beyond. Walking Marseille’s streets and interacting with its diverse residents Pitts found the city’s welcoming vibe more Mediterranean than French.

Afropean is more than just good travel writing. It’s a sympathetic as well as insightful look at one of Europe’s most overlooked and under appreciated communities.

The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabriele and David Perry

Last year in one of my Nonfiction November posts I featured a selection of books about the Middle Ages. One of which was Charles Warren Hollister’s Medieval Europe: A Short History. It’s been a favorite of mine for decades thanks to its straightforward approach and readable style. But my most lasting takeaway from this excellent book is the author’s firm denial a European-wide “Dark Ages” ruled the continent for a thousand years. The reality, Warren Hollister argued is a bit more complex. Over that long length of time some parts of Europe advanced economically and intellectually while others might have stagnated or even regressed. In the decade since I read Medieval Europe the more I’ve read about this period of history the more Warren Hollister’s claim rings true. 

Looking for another decent book on the Middle Ages I recently borrowed a Kindle edition of Matthew Gabriele and David Perry’s late 2021 book The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. They subscribe to a similar viewpoint. Europe did not spend a thousand years as some benighted peninsula at the extreme end of Eurasia, cut-off economically, culturally and intellectually from the rest of the world. Instead it was a vibrant, dynamic and well-connected continent, enriched mightily by even its most distant neighbors.

Traditionally, many felt the Dark Ages began with the Fall of Rome. As successive waves of barbarian hordes overran the Italian peninsula high culture came to an end. In reality, the Empire’s borders had been growing increasingly porous over the last several hundred years.  Intermarriages involving Roman elites and their foreign counterparts were becoming commonplace. More and more foreign-born soldiers were rising up the ranks of an increasingly polyglot Roman army, with some even becoming generals. And when these invading groups did takeover, they adopted Roman customs and language and quickly converted to Christianity. (Or in the case of the Goths ditched Arianism for the era’s more orthodox Christianity.) Lastly, regardless of who happened to be running the show in Rome the Byzantines still saw themselves as Romans. Carrying on the legacy of Rome they soldiered on until their crushing defeat at the hands of the Turks in the mid 15th century. 

Gabriele and Perry also challenge the notion of Europe’s distinctness vis-à-vis its Islamic neighbors. Both Christianity and Islam, along with Judaism aren’t just monotheistic religions. There are Abrahamic faiths, which comparatively speaking, share more similarities than differences. While Christian armies frequently fought Muslim armies during the Crusades and the Reconquista from time to time they fought as allies, both in the Middle East and Iberia. Intellectually, the writings of Islamic luminaries Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd, (Averroes) together with their Jewish counterpart Maimonides profoundly influenced European thought, especially the theology of Thomas Aquinas. 

After the Mongols’ expansive conquests a well-maintained conduit was established across Eurasia, facilitating the transfer of goods and ideas between Europe and the Far East. Chinese silks flowed west, Catholic missionaries traveled east and a guy named Marco Polo captivated Europe with stories of his travels. 

The Bright Ages, much like the above mentioned Medieval Europe is a straightforward, readable and fresh look at Europe’s Dark Ages which in reality, probably wasn’t all that dark. 

About Time I Read It: True Believer by Kati Marton

When I stumbled across a copy of Kati Marton’s True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy not long ago at the public library I quickly snapped it up. I’d been wanting to read True Believer for over five years and figured now was a good a time as any to finally read it. What I didn’t realize however until I got the book home it’s by the same author who also wrote The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World. Had I known that, I would have tried a little harder to get my hands on it. But this also raised my expectations, since I’m a big fan of Marton’s 2006 The Great Escape. In the end I generally liked True Believer, even if I didn’t enjoy it as much as The Great Escape.

During the Great Depression with millions of Americans out of work it appeared capitalism itself was on its last legs. Meanwhile, free peoples across the globe were threatened by the rising tide of fascism. While it might be hard for us to imagine today but during this dark period in history a small number of Americans saw communism as the answer. Seeking a successful model to emulate these same idealistic individuals looked to the USSR for inspiration and guidance. As a result a surprising number of intelligent and socially conscious individuals in the United States government, joined, or allied themselves in one way or another with the Communist Party. Noel Field was one of them.

Born and raised in Europe and son of an internationally-renowned American zoologist, the Harvard-educated Field was an ideal candidate for the State Department. An outspoken idealist of progressive opinions he quickly attracted the attention of a local Soviet spy ring. Hoping to create a more equitable world, he eagerly agreed signed on as a communist agent. Even though he zealously believed in his cause and happily provided his masters with valuable intelligence, for secrecy reasons Field was never allowed to formally join the Communist Party. Later, during World War II he worked in France and Switzerland offering support to Jewish and anti-fascist refugees while also assisting the OSS.

But Field’s story takes a tragic turn. The true believer he was, Field dutifully followed Moscow’s orders.  After the war, as the Cold War heated up, Stalin began purging newly installed communist leaders across the Eastern Bloc. Either out of ignorance or blind faith, he offered up his former comrades to Stalin’s henchmen. Soon after that security services of the USSR lured Field behind the Iron Curtain. He was promptly arrested, and based on his past association with the American OSS charged with spying for the West. After his interrogation and torture Field was convicted in a sham trail and cast into prison. Eventually released after Stalin’s death he spent the remainder of his life in Budapest a committed communist serving in the Hungarian government.

While I might not have enjoyed True Believer as much as Marton’s earlier book The Great Escape, it’s a great look at a sadly forgotten piece of Cold War history.

Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age by Robert D. Kaplan

I’ve been a fan of Robert D. Kaplan for over two decades, ever since that day at the library when I stumbled across a copy of The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War. His 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power is my favorite of his works, easily making that year’s list of Best Nonfiction. Later, in 2018 I read his acclaimed 2016 offering In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond. This time around Kaplan shifted his focus from the Indian Ocean region to a slice of Eastern Europe. Called “poetic” and “reflective” by Timothy Snyder in his review for The Washington Post, to me hinted a departure for Kaplan. After successfully tackling the wide with Monsoon, he shifted towards the deep with In Europe’s Shadow, augmenting his new approach with extra attention to historical background thanks to his research and personal experience.

His latest book, published this spring  Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age is a continuation of that approach. A fusion of travelogue, history, memoir and geopolitical analysis Adriatic is a leisurely yet learned journey down the Adriatic Coast. Making his way from Trieste to Corfu Kaplan travels geographically as well as chronologically. The erudite and well-traveled Kaplan concludes the key to predicting the region’s future is first understanding its past.

For much of the 20th century the lands of the former Yugoslavia was ravaged by war, begging with the first two Balkan Wars in the years before World War I. (A war that was sparked by Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia.) During World War II, German-occupied Yugoslavia descended into bloody civil war as various factions, both ethnic and ideological fought for control. Tito and his fellow Communists’ eventually victory in 1945 would lead to authoritarian, one-party rule but also a half century of peace. But with the fall of Communism the nation unravelled and the fighting returned. Today, a precarious peace prevails throughout a region populated by relatively small nation states. With many weak, both politically and economically, plagued by high degrees of corruption and ripe for border conflicts they’re easy prey for outside players ranging from organized crime syndicates to regional powers like Turkey and Russia. No surprise Kaplan and others feel the best chance for lasting stability is to bind the region into some sort of supranational entity. Possible candidates range from a kind of a neo-Yugoslavia to a more robust EU recast like a latter-day Hapsburg Empire or Holy Roman Empire.

For the last hundred years or so we’ve perceived the lands of the Adriatic, and for that matter Europe in general as geographically, culturally and politically distinct. But that always wasn’t the case. From Roman times to the early Middle Ages North Africa, together with Europe were seen as one region, anchored by the Mediterranean Sea. Only after the Arab conquests of North Africa and the Middle East did Europe did a sense of separateness sink in. 700 year later, after the Ottomans’s conquest of Byzantium and neighboring lands this notion of distinctness would only deepen.

But while Europe might have been hemmed in by Muslim forces, trade flourished. Their horizon’s broadened from the Crusades, Europeans soon developed a taste for fine fabrics and spices. Later, high end goods from China began to flow from East to West with the Adriatic a primary entry point. Not only would this greatly enrich Italian Genoa and Venice but in the process help bankroll the Renaissance.

Today, the Adriatic, along with the rest of Europe is being reconnected with the rest of the word. Wars, grinding poverty and oppression are driving refugees from across North Africa, the Middle East and beyond onto the shores of the Adriatic. Populations, for good, bad or otherwise are mixing and bringing Europe closer to its ancient neighbors. Throughout the Adriatic Kaplan noted evidence of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, a modern version of the storied Silk Road. Just like hundreds of years earlier, one wonders which parts of the Adriatic will once again profit handsomely from the increase in trans-Eurasian trade.

While the Middle East, the Taiwan Straights, North Korea and Ukraine might dominate our current headlines, Kaplan and others believe in the coming years major geopolitics will be playing out in the Adriatic. All the more reason to read Kaplan’s excellent book.


Book Beginnings: Afropean by Johny Pitts

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, finally in 2022 I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”


When I first heard it, it encouraged me to think of myself as whole and unhyphenated: Afropean. Here was a space where blackness was taking part in shaping European identity at large. It suggested the possibility of living in and with more than one idea: Africa and Europe, or, by extension, the Global South and the West, without being mixed-this, half-that or black-other. That being black in Europe didn’t necessarily mean being an immigrant.

Last week I featured Robert D. Kaplan’s 2022 Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age. Before that it was the 2014 rerelease of Paul D’Amato’s 2006 The Meaning of Marxism. This week it’s Johny Pitts’s 2019 Afropean: Notes from Black Europe.

I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember which blogger recently introduced me to Afropean. (If it’s you, let me know in the comments section and I’ll give you a well-deserved shout-out.) Yesterday, I borrowed an ebook version through Overdrive and so far Afropean is shaping up to be an excellent read. Called a Best Book of 2019 by The Guardian, New Statesman and BBC History Magazine here’s what Amazon has to say.

Afropean is an on-the-ground documentary of areas where Europeans of African descent are juggling their multiple allegiances and forging new identities. Here is an alternative map of the continent, taking the reader to places like Cova Da Moura, the Cape Verdean shantytown on the outskirts of Lisbon with its own underground economy, and Rinkeby, the area of Stockholm that is eighty per cent Muslim. Johny Pitts visits the former Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, where West African students are still making the most of Cold War ties with the USSR, and Clichy Sous Bois in Paris, which gave birth to the 2005 riots, all the while presenting Afropeans as lead actors in their own story.

Book Beginnings: Adriatic by Robert D. Kaplan

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, finally in 2022 I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”


The geopolitical map of Europe has moved south, back to the Mediterranean, where Europe borders Africa and the Middle East. The Mediterranean has now begun to achieve a fluid classical coherence, uniting continents. But explaining this will take time. It involves philosophy, poetry, and landscape before I get to international relations. So bear with me.

Last week I featured the 2014 rerelease of Paul D’Amato’s 2006 The Meaning of Marxism. Before that it was John Connelly’s 2020  From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe. This week it’s Robert D. Kaplan’s 2022 Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age.

I’ve been a fan of Kaplan for over two decades, ever since that day at the library when I stumbled across a copy of The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War. His 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power is my favorite of his works, easily making that year’s list of Best Nonfiction. After reading the good news he’d written a new book, I placed a library hold on an ebook and before I knew was able to borrow a copy for my Kindle. Called a “multifaceted masterpiece” by The Wall Street Journal and one of the year’s best books by The New Yorker, here’s what Amazon has to say.

In this insightful travelogue, Robert D. Kaplan, geopolitical expert and bestselling author of Balkan Ghosts and The Revenge of Geography, turns his perceptive eye to a region that for centuries has been a meeting point of cultures, trade, and ideas. He undertakes a journey around the Adriatic Sea, through Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece, to reveal that far more is happening in the region than most news stories let on. Often overlooked, the Adriatic is in fact at the center of the most significant challenges of our time, including the rise of populist politics, the refugee crisis, and battles over the control of energy resources. And it is once again becoming a global trading hub that will determine Europe’s relationship with the rest of the world as China and Russia compete for dominance in its ports.

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings

Last week Katie from the blog Doing Dewey kicked off Nonfiction November. This week Rennie at What’s Nonfiction has agreed to host. She invites participants to share their favorite book pairings, and takes a pretty inclusive approach. It could be a pairing of nonfiction books with fiction, podcasts, documentaries, movies or even additional works of nonfiction.

In past years I’ve been straight-forward, just pairing up nonfiction books with works of fiction. However, last year I did something new and featured Michael David Lukas’s 2018 novel The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, pairing it with a half-dozen books about the ancient Cairo Geniza and Egypt’s Jewish community. This year I thought I’d return to my old ways. I’ll be looking back at what I read in 2022, both nonfiction and fiction and select 15 books. For every work of nonfiction I’ll suggest a piece of fiction and visa versa.

Considering my reading tastes it’s no surprise I’ve included lots of history and international politics kind of stuff. For the first time doing these pairings I’ve featured books by two siblings (Masha and Keith Gessen), a pair of books by the same author (Andrey Kurkov) and two works of nonfiction by the same author (Adam Hochschild). In other firsts, close to half were translated into English from another language, with three quarters of these books written by either immigrants, expats, refugees or children of immigrants. I hope you enjoyed my post and I look forward to reading all the others from Nonfiction November.