About Time I Read It: On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe

It’s not everyday you discover a novel by a Nigerian writer, translated from Dutch and set in Antwerp, Belgium. Luckily for me, the good people at my public library felt the same way. Prominently displayed as to catch the eye of even the most unobservant patron like myself Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street is the sad yet skillfully crafted story of four African women, who through a combination of bad luck, poor choices and evil machinations of a Nigerian pimp have been forced to work as prostitutes in the city’s red-light district.

Sisi, Ama, Efe, and Joyce all had dreams, be it a successful career, marital bliss or happy motherhood. But somewhere along the way they encountered significant setbacks. During these most vulnerable moments they encountered Dele. Charming and wealthy, he lavished the young women with flattery and attention, promising they’d make big money working respectable jobs in Europe’s most glamorous cities. Offering to arrange everything, once they accepted one by one Dele flew them to Antwerp, where upon arrival it was made clear they were now prostitutes expected to stand night after night in the windows of the red-light district offering their bodies to passing men. Thrown together in this unenviable predicament, over time the four women form a tight bond, sharing their respective backstories of how they wound up as reluctant sex workers and what they’d like to do once they escaped.

Unigwe’s 2011 novel is a tragic tale told vividly and beautifully. But most of all told as only an African could, employing distinctive cadence and vernacular. Just like Bruce Riedel’s Kings and Presidents, Jonathan Kaufman’s The Last Kings of Shanghai and Cristina García Here in Berlin On Black Sisters Street is shaping up to be one of this year’s pleasant surprises.

Library Loot

I dropped by the public library the other day to return some books only to grab a few more. Just like last time I selected a pair of books by authors from outside the United States. Penelope Lively is a British resident of London while Yasmina Khadra is the pseudonym of exiled Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul who’s lived in France for years. 

  • Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively – I’ve borrowed this book several times only return it ignored and unread. Needing something representing the United Kingdom for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I’m hoping this time I finally read it. 
  • The Attack by Yasmina Khadra- Always hard for me to resist novels set in the Middle East, especially by native authors. Harder still if it’s deckle edged

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlene’s blog.  

Book Beginnings: The Apartment by Greg Baxter

One of my favorite book bloggers, Gilion, in addition to hosting the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 reading challenges also hosts on her Rose City Reader blog Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, sadly I’ve never taken part in Book Beginnings on Friday. That is, until now.

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.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

It’s the middle of December, and everything is frozen over. I arrived six weeks ago with an old, worn-out pair of brown leather shoes. One night I walked around the city with a girl I’d met, and the next day I bought myself some lined, warm, waterproof boots.

The Apartment by Greg Baxter is one of four books I picked up late last month at the public library. So far I’ve enjoyed this slim, well-received novel. Set in an unnamed Central European city, it’s hard for me not to like a first person account of a world-weary, forty-something American male seeking to put his years of military service and intelligence work behind him by pursuing the life of an expat with his new-found local girlfriend as guide.

About Time I Read It: A Hero of France by Alan Furst

In the summer of 2014 I discovered the historical fiction of Alan Furst. Impressed by its eye-catching cover art and intriguing jacket description I helped myself to a copy of his recently published Midnight in Europe early one evening at the public library. Furst’s. novel whisked me away to 1938 as Europe dangled on the precipice of yet another devastating world war, captivating me with fast-paced action and old world characters. I was hooked and have been a fan ever since.

Needing something representing France for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I borrowed a library copy of Furst’s 2016 A Hero of France. Set in France in 1941 during the German Occupation Furst’s novel is a fun ride. Even though it won’t go down as one of my favorites from his extensive Night Soldiers series Furst’s ability to tell a great story combined with his uncanny gift to effortlessly transport you to a Europe that’s equal parts danger and beauty is always worth it.

Unlike most, if not all the novels of Furst’s Night Soldiers that hop from country to country across Continental Europe with the exception of one short scene this one’s set entirely in France. Mathieu the protagonist, like so many of Furst’s isn’t a career spy or soldier but due to circumstances far greater than him has greatness thrust upon him. In typical Furst fashion he’s a single, forty something,  intelligent, of professional background, brave yet cautious and when needed on rare occasions able to throw a punch or pull a trigger. Well-connected, resourceful and able to easily move within any social circle, Mathieu is the ideal candidate to help coordinate the French Underground’s covert efforts to smuggle downed British airmen out of the country and back to England.

With most people in his line of work apprehended or killed by the Germans and their French collaborators within six months Mathieu knows he’s playing a risky game and his days are numbered. But no matter how cynical he might appear he’s a patriot at heart. Assisting him in this endeavor is a diverse cast of co-conspirators including an Eastern European emigre nightclub owner/borderline pimp, a 17 year old Parisian school girl and a stately matron more apt to be seen hunting pheasant on her country estate than living a shadowy life of danger defying the Germans.

Reading A Hero of France reminded me how much I’ve missed Alan Furst’s fiction. In spite of my efforts to read them all there’s still a few books in his Night Soldiers series I’ve yet to read. It’s high time I finally did.

Library Loot

I finished Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country and still making my way through Karl Tobien’s Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag. Last night I started Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street. Yesterday, I drove into town to get my second booster shot and on the way back stopped by the library to return a book. Even though I have a big stack of library books next to my bed I was is still in the mood to grab a few more, especially stuff of an international flavor.  

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlenes’ blog.  

These two authors hail from outside United States and are expats. Heather Morris was born in New Zealand but now resides in Australia. Borris Akunin, Russian-Georgian author and longtime resident of Moscow moved to London in 2014. 

  • Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris – While it seems like everyone is gaga over Morris’s The Tattooist Of Auschwitz I’m going to start with her 2019 follow-up. Looks like a good companion to Dancing Under the Red Star
  • Sister Pelagia and the Red Cockerel by Boris Akunin – A Russian cult leader is murdered aboard a steamship en route from Imperial Russia to Ottoman Palestine and it’s up to Sister Pelagia, a Russian Orthodox nun to catch his killer. A historical whodunnit set against the backdrop of 19th century Russian religious millennialism was too much to pass up.

About Time I Read It: A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen

As I mentioned a few weeks ago my participation in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge so far this year has been pretty lackluster. In hopes of getting back on track I recently borrowed through Overdrive a copy of Keith Gessen’s A Terrible CountryWith Time calling the 2018 novel “hilarious” and declaring “to understand Russia, read A Terrible Country”  I felt confident I’d found the perfect book to represent Russia for the reading challenge. It became apparent after reading only a few pages I’d chosen the right book.

It’s the summer of 2008 and Russian-American New York City resident Andrei Kaplan is stuck in a rut. His girlfriend Sarah recently dumped him at a Starbucks. After spending years slaving away in grad school studying Russian literature and history he can’t land a job anywhere in academia. He’s running out of cash and tired seeing his former classmates land cherry professorships at prestigious universities or leaving academia altogether to make money hand over fist as hedge fund managers.

One day he gets a phone call from his brother Dima, an aspiring entrepreneur who frantically informs him he’s fleeing Russia and needs Andrei to fly to Moscow and look after their elderly grandmother. Without telling him exactly why he has to leave in the dead of night, Dima promises his departure is only temporary. In the meantime Andrei can live rent-free with their grandmother in Dima’s Moscow apartment while enjoying all the city has to offer. With his life going nowhere he obeys his familial obligations, sublets his NYC apartment and relocates to Moscow. Not long after his arrival he learns his grandmother, while physically OK for a 98 year old woman is in the early stages of dementia. After several phone calls with Dima Andrei suspects his brother’s commercial dealings have angered the country’s wrathful oligarchs and might not be returning anytime soon.

In 2008 Russia, while no longer ruled by the Communist Party suffers under an oppression all its own. With Vladimir Putin constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, technically, Dmitry Medvedev is president but most agree it’s Putin in the once-ceremonial role of prime minister calling the shots. Powerful oligarchs and FSB heavies throw their weight around privileged royalty. Russia’s oil exports has generated billions in petrodollars but has managed to enrich only a small, kleptocratic minority while at the same time inflating the economy and making everything expensive for everyone else. (Andrei, a New Yorker, is shocked by Moscow’s insane cost living.) Even though he was born in Russia, speaks the language and spent years studying its literature and history nevertheless after spending most his life in the United States he’s ill-equipped to deal with its rough and tumble culture and lacks the connections, professional and social to be at ease in the land of his birth.

Gessen’s novel resonated with me for personal reasons. As the son of dementia sufferer, I could relate to day to day challenges Andrei faced caring for a loved one in the early to moderate throes of the disease. The forgetfulness, cognitive decline and inexorable erosion of personhood experienced by his elderly grandmother I witnessed firsthand afflict my own mother.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Terrible Country and it’s almost certain to make my year-end list of favorite fiction. Essential reading for understanding Putin’s Russia and capable of delivering more than a few laughs.

About Time I Read It: Here in Berlin by Cristina García

After a heavy diet of nonfiction over the last four months I needed a little fiction. I was also itching to read something for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, which  sadly I’ve neglected for months. With that in mind, I decided to revisit Cristina García 2017 Here in Berlin, a book I originally borrowed from the public library last October but later ignored and returned unread. Securing a borrowable copy through Overdrive I immediately went to work reading it. After whipping through Here in Berlin in no time I found it one the early pleasant surprises of 2022.

Though a work of fiction, I would hesitate to call Here in Berlin a novel. It closely resembles an oral history, something like Studs Turkel’s The Good War in which a diverse cast of individuals produce a chorus of recollections to create a vivid and colorful tapestry. But in this case of Here in Berlin those voices are fictional. Many are elderly like a Jewish Holocaust survivor who hid in a moulding crypt before her gentile spouse arranged their safe passage to England. Some are perpetrators, accused of aiding and abetting in Nazi atrocities while others have spent the entire lives bringing those same accused to justice.

Born in Havana to a Guatemalan father and a Cuban mother, García and her family fled the island’s communist regime for America, where she went on to be a successful writer, journalist and academic. Courtesy of García we see Berlin through a Cuban lens, as the novel’s mysteriously vague Cuban interviewer serving as interlocutor records testimony after testimony with special attention towards those with even the most tenuous connection to the Caribbean island nation. We meet an older Cuban gentleman, who as a young boy during World War II was shanghaied by the crew of a German U-boat when it covertly went ashore in Cuba. (After “serving” for a period aboard the submarine and bonding with its crew he was impressed by the batteries used to power the submersible. Later, after they returned him to his native land he successfully reverse engineered the technology for industrial use.) Until the Fall of Communism Berlin was the capital of East Germany, a nation within the Soviet-dominated Socialist Bloc of nations. As a result we learn of liaisons between Cuban soldiers and Angolan peasant women and the offspring it produced.

Many of the lives recalled in Here in Berlin intersect. When they do, they do so briefly yet profoundly. García’s Berlin is a place where ghosts from the past are alive and well, confirming Faulkner was right when he said the past is never dead and not even past.

2021 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 20 books, and for my efforts once again earned the coveted Jet Setter Award. Compared to past years my performance in 2021 was pretty lackluster with just 10 books read and reviewed for the challenge. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Switzerland. This year for this first time I’ll be including something by a Norwegian author. 

  1. Becket or the Honor of God by Jean Anouilh (United Kingdom)
  2. Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan by Erika Fatland (Norway)
  3. Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money by Diccon Bewes (Switzerland)
  4. Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer- The True Story of the Man Who Recruited Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames by Victor Cherkashin and Gregory Feifer (Russia)
  5. The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo (Spain)
  6. Not All Bastards Are from Vienna by Andrea Molesini (Italy)
  7. Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie (Germany) 
  8. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum (Ukraine)
  9. Empire of Lies by Raymond Khoury (France)
  10. Family History of Fear by Agata Tuszyńska (Poland)

Much like last year it was a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction with five books apiece. Four are translations from other languages, including Polish. Red Famine easily made my Favorite Nonfiction list for 2021 while Swiss Watching was a runner-up. Both The Invisible Guardian and Empire of Lies made my year’s Favorite Fiction list with Not All Bastards Are from Vienna along with There There as my favorite novels of the year.  

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.

Old Books Reading Project: Becket by Jean Anouilh

Years ago, each fall around the time of my birthday I used to spend a Saturday morning shopping at the Friends of Multnomah County Library’s annual used book sale. Almost always I walked out of there with more books than I knew what to do with but I didn’t care. I was happy.

One of those books I bought so long ago was a paperback edition of Jean Anouilh’s play Becket or The Honor of God. Published in 1960 it’s a dramatic portrayal of the friendship between Thomas Becket and King Henry II of England, Becket’s appointment by Henry to the office of Archbishop of Canterbury and the two mens’ tragic falling out leading to Becket’s eventual assassination in 1170. More than just some costume drama like so many great pieces of literature it explores a multitude of themes.  It vividly depicts how some friendships, even the most passionate ones can have tragic arcs and end horribly. It also shows the age-old tension between church and state, as well as the battles that frequently arise between the recently converted or recommitted and their less pious former confidantes.

At first I thought it was odd a Frenchman would write a play set in Medieval England. In the introduction, Anouilh recalls purchasing a copy of 19th century French historian Augustin Thierry’s History Of The Conquest Of England By The Normans at a book stall along the Seine. (One of “curious little stalls set up on the parapet where old gentlemen of another age sell old books to other old gentlemen and to the very young.”) Fascinated by Thierry’s account of fractured friendship between Becket and Henry and with encouragement by his wife, he brought forth a play mined from the depths of history. Rooted in the real events and larger than life personalities of 12th century Europe the play is not without its historical inaccuracies, of which the playwright freely admits in the play’s introduction.

Perhaps it’s only appropriate Anouilh would write a play set chiefly in England. Though geographically separated by the English Channel, in the time of Becket there was no clear-cut delineation between England and France. Thanks to their conquest of England a hundred years earlier, it was the Norman French, not the native Saxons who ruled the land, with Henry of the House of Plantagenet as sovereign. This blending of realms would lead to the Hundred Years War with English armies fighting countless battles on French soil. It would also result in Saxon resentment towards their French overlords, exemplified by Anouilh’s Saxon Becket (historically inaccurate since he was descended from Norman stock) sympathizing with the Saxon downtrodden while sparring with the ruling aristocracy, including his formerly beloved Henry.

In the end, this is also a play about the abuse of power. Throughout the centuries, right up to the present despots and those who style themselves as such have enlisted, or at the very least inspired agents to commit heinous acts on their behalf. Time and time again the Nixons, Putins and Trumps of the world have enlisted those around them to do their sordid bidding, always denying any direct responsibility for their actions. To paraphrase 19th century orator, lawyer and “Great Agnostic” Robert G. Ingersoll, nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. The play Becket, also entitled The Honor of God easily could have been called The Recklessness of Kings. As monarch Henry wielded considerable power, but at the same time sorely lacked in character.

2021 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

Now that I’ve posted my favorite nonfiction of 2021 it’s time to announce this year’s favorite fiction. Since I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year my list will be kinda short.

  1. The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas
  2. There There by Tommy Orange
  3. Not All Bastards Are from Vienna by Andrea Molesini
  4. Empire of Lies by Raymond Khoury
  5. Prague Spring by Simon Mawer
  6. The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo

As short as the list is, I’d also like to add a pair of honorable mentions. Once again, Peiter Aspe did not disappoint me. Earlier this year I also read my first James Patterson novel and much to my surprise I was pleasantly entertained. To consider his 2012 thriller/mystery Guilty Wives unworthy of honorable mention doesn’t seem right.

  1. From Bruges with Love by Pieter Aspe
  2. Guilty Wives by James Patterson and Davis Ellis

As for this year’s winner in fiction, for the first time ever it’s a tie. There There and Not All Bastards Are from Vienna will share the honor. Both are outstanding.

Typical of my reading tastes, seven of these eight novels are set outside the USA, with three translated from other languages. Also typical of my tastes four are historical fiction. An equal number are thriller/mysteries.