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.

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.

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.

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 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.

As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.

As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.

A Trio of Political Books

I enjoyed doing my post A Trio of Books About China so much I thought I’d do another one and feature three books of a similar nature. This time, instead of focusing on China I’d like to spotlight three recently published books that look at the world-wide rise in populist-fueled authoritarianism and the threat it posses to the established democratic order.

  • Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism by Ian Bremmer-  I’ve been fan of Bremmer for years. I loved his 2010 book The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and last February I reviewed his 2006 book  The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. He’s probably the only “thought leader” I follow on social media. I’ve reposted tons of his Facebook posts and retweeted more than a few of his Twitter offerings. As soon as I heard he’d written a new book I requested my public library purchase a digital copy for Kindle download. Luckily for me I was the first in line to read it. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer looks at the impacts of “globalism”: increased trade, (not just in goods and services but also knowledge and ideology) immigration, mass refugee migrations, and the rise of supranational organizations the EU but also the backlash they create leading sometimes to authoritarian regimes at home and abroad.
  • How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt – I couldn’t resist this one when I saw this one on the “New Books” shelf at my public library. Written by two Harvard professors, one an expert in European politics and the other Latin American, the authors take history and recent current events as their guides warning us of the risks facing democracy and how to protect it.
  • Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright – A good friend of mine was kind enough to loan me her AUTOGRAPHED copy, purchased the night she saw Albright speak on her recent speaking tour. This is the second book by Albright I’ve featured on my blog. Back in early 2013 I briefly reviewed her Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. Much like How Democracies Die it’s a warning that democracy is under attack in America and around the world and what to do about it.

So similar are these three books it’s probably easier to write about what they have in common as opposed to their differences. To these writers authoritarianism, or as Albright calls it fascism comes gradually and not overnight. It might begin with a tough-talking nationalist leader claiming to speak for the ignored and pure hearted, who might ban a rival political party but goes on to ban the others. The leader, calling a newspaper or a TV network a threat to the nation will force its shutdown or worse, make it a propaganda organ for the state. Judges are forced to retire and courts are packed with the leader’s hand-picked judicial replacements. A constitutions is rewritten and presidential term limits are abolished. Eventually, you wind up with a dictator for life unaccountable to no one.

There’s also the potential for things to get even worse in the future. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer predicts advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and 3D printing will lead to widespread unemployment in both the developed and developing world, causing unprecedented political and economic instability. Governments around the globe will be forced by their citizens to address crippling problems of unemployment, income disparities, public unrest and mass migrations.

Us vs. ThemHow Democracies Die and Fascism: A Warning are all good books and must reading for the civic-minded. Since they compliment each other so well I can’t encourage you enough to read all three. If, as these four writers claim democracy is under pressure, if not under attack around the world then it’s best to educate oneself. Reading these three books would be a great step in that direction.

The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End by Robert Gerwarth

The good news is I had a blast taking part in this year’s inaugural Thanksgiving Readathon. I’m sure all the participants enjoyed the week’s flurry of blog posts and Twitter updates. The bad news is unlike everyone else who took part in the Readathon I finished only one book. But alas, all is not lost because the one book I did manage to finish, Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End I thoroughly enjoyed. As a matter of fact, I can easily see The Vanquished making my year-end Best Nonfiction List.

Europe emerged from the ravages of World War I a shattered continent. Hunger and influenza stalked the land. Millions of men, most of them in the prime of life were either dead, maimed or emotionally damaged. But perhaps worst of all, the mightiest empires of modern Europe, specifically Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire had fallen, each one collapsing like a house of cards. From the ruins of these once proud empires arose a host of new nations, each one eager to assert its dominance. Frequently, those quests for nationhood resulted in yet more rounds of armed conflict.

It’s cruelly ironic the above-mentioned nations all marched to war in 1914 expecting to enlarge their respective empires only to stripped of their territory five years later. (Even Italy, which wound up on the side of the eventual victors suffered huge losses in men and material only to receive relatively minor land gains.) Out of the ashes of empires arose Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Finland broke completely free from Russia as did the Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

Cruel irony would rear its head once again, since Poland and Yugoslavia, spin-offs from large multi-ethnic empires would be left with significant minority populations of their own. The resurrected nation of Poland would be roughly two-thirds Polish with sizable numbers of Germans, Ukrainians and Lithuanians. Meanwhile, newly created Yugoslavia would begin life as a Serb-dominated kingdom of Croats, Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians, Kosovo Albanians and Montenegrins as well as home to fairly large communities of ethnic Germans and Hungarians. In effect both countries become mini empires of their own. Even smaller nations like Czechoslovakia would face challenges with its Sudetenland Germans as would Romania after absorbing the former Hungarian province of Transylvania. Ethnic solidarity frequently clashed with national will as all sides saw their actions justified according to newly proclaimed rubric of National Self-Determination, as proclaimed in American President and statesman Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points.

World War I was a knock-out blow not only to Europe’s land-based empires but also its traditional political structures. Russia’s absolute monarchy and the shaky provisional government that followed was replaced by Communist dictatorship, inspiring the establishment of short-lived Red regimes in Hungary and Bavaria, insurrection in Germany and bloody civil war in Finland. (And even a bloodier and more extensive civil war in Russia.) The leaders of Italy’s constitutional monarchy, unable to placate the masses in the wake of the county’s “mutilated victory” opened the door to Fascism. Elsewhere in Europe, military coups toppled both monarchs and elected leaders, especially in newly established countries. Lastly, in Germany far-right hooligans, (many of them anti-Semites) and bitter war veterans angry the war was lost not by the military but the nation’s Weimar leaders rioted and seethed. Over the next dozen years this nationwide rage coalesced into the Nazi Party, with disastrous results not only for Germany but the entire world.

The Vanquished an outstanding book, wonderfully complimenting other excellent history books like The Sleepwalkers, October, Paris 1919 and Savage Continent. Please consider The Vanquished highly recommended.