Category Archives: Fiction

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

Leaving BerlinDuring the second half of 2016 I ended up taking a break from Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, even though it’s been huge favorite of mine over the years. In retrospect, I’m sure it wasn’t intentional. I think I just got wrapped up in reading other stuff. Plus, I think I got a little burned out from blogging. But with the coming of the new year and a few days off from work I feel refreshed, inspired and ready to participate in as many reading challenges as possible.

After finding a copy though my local public library I was probably drawn to Joseph Kanon’s 2015 historical thriller Leaving Berlin for two reasons. The first reason is it’s set in Germany, so it counts as part of the European Reading Challenge. Secondly, the novel’s premise intrigued me. Set a few years after the end of WWII in a divided Berlin at the beginning of the Cold War sounded like something I could really enjoy.

Perhaps like any good spy novel, there’s a lot going on. After fleeing Nazi Germany 10 years ago, Alex Meier has returned to the city of his youth. The official story is as a writer, he’s been invited back by East Berlin’s ruling Communists to play propagandist and help jump-start the young East German regime. In reality, because of his leftist beliefs he’s been blackmailed by the American intelligence community into returning to his native land in order to secretly spy on their behalf. But he’s a writer and not a spy, and he quickly finds out how dangerous his new role can be.

Based on all the accolades it received, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy Leaving Berlin as much as I should have, but that doesn’t mean Kanon’s thriller left me disappointed. Set mostly in Soviet occupied Berlin and environs, I found the author’s portrayal of the early Communist East Germany interesting reading . Leaving Berlin has left me intrigued and curious about Kanon’s other novels like Istanbul Passage and Alibi. I’m thinking there’s a good chance you’ll see more of Kanon’s novels featured on my blog.

5 Comments

Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Europe, Fiction, History

Girl at War by Sara Nović

Girl at WarAfter reading one excellent novel set in the former Yugoslavia I was definitely in the mood for another. Right after finishing The Wolf of Sarajevo I found myself cruising my public library’s online catalog when Sara Nović’s 2015 novel Girl at War caught my eye. Reading the book’s brief description, I was happy to see Nović’s novel is set in the small Balkan nation of Croatia. I was even happier to see Girl at War received a ton of accolades, including being named a finalist for LA Times Book Prize. Feeling optimistic I helped myself to an available copy. Before long I was whipping through Nović’s novel at a fast clip and much to my satisfaction enjoying every bit of it. I’m happy to report Girl at War is an outstanding debut novel and worthy of the praise it’s received.

Girl at War begins one hot and humid day in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. The year is 1991 and Yugoslavia has yet to fragment into a patchwork quilt of nations. Like the proverbial calm before the storm, before long 10-year-old tomboy Ana Jurić will experience the horrors of war once Croatia declares independence and the Serb-dominated Yugoslavian National Army and their allied paramilitaries attack the newly independent nation. From there the story shifts to 2001 with Ana a college student in New York City. Suffering from PTSD and probably some from of survivor’s guilt, she feels disconnected and unsatisfied to the world around her. With her relationship with her boyfriend Brian mediocre at best, the only person she shares a meaningful connection to is one of her college professors. Sensing Ana is not just a refugee, but more importantly also a survivor he supplies her with books by Primo Levi and W. G. Sebald, individuals like her who suffered the horrors of totalitarianism. But deep down, Ana knows she must confront the ghosts of her past and face her old fears. She must return to Croatia.

Like I said at the beginning, this is a terrific novel. Luckily for me I picked a great piece of fiction as a follow-up novel to The Wolf of Sarajevo. Please consider Girl at War highly recommended.

9 Comments

Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History

The Wolf of Sarajevo by Matthew Palmer

The Wolf of SarajevoTo me there’s nothing like taking a chance on a book you knew nothing about but in the end you thoroughly enjoyed. Recently, I noticed my public library had an available copy of Matthew Palmer’s The Wolf of Sarajevo. Knowing only that it’s set in Bosnia and therefore applicable to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I grabbed it. (Being the cynic that I am, I tried not to put too much stock in the favorable comments on Amazon.) After just a few pages I was completely sucked  in. The Wolf of Sarajevo is one of this year’s early pleasant surprises.

Published last may, The Wolf of Sarajevo is set in present day Bosnia. Even though today’s headlines are all about North Korea and the Middle East, (or President Trump’s train wreck Presidency) back in the 90s the war in former Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia was all over the news. While the fighting might have ended decades ago, old wounds haven’t fully healed and the young nation limps along held together by an uneasy peace between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. Just when it looks like a landmark peace agreement is about to be struck, a deal that could finally fully heal the fractured nation as well grant it membership in the EU, Bosnia’s Serb leader suddenly and inexplicably pulls out. The State Department’s man on the ground Eric Petrosian, along with Danish EU rep Annika Sondergaard are at a loss why, but after doing a little investigative work soon learn a shadowy figure with the nom de guerre Marko Barcelona is pulling strings behind the scenes. His goal isn’t just to scuttle the peace process but reenergize simmering animosities and ultimately plunge Bosnia and probably the entire region into another round of bloody warfare.

Holy cow what a fun novel. I found The Wolf of Sarajevo fast-paced, intelligent, dark and at times, even wickedly funny. (Perhaps for those reasons it reminded me a bit of Chris Pavone’s outstanding 2012 debut novel The Expats.) Palmer knows Bosnia and its history and none of this should be a surprise since he spent 25 years in the State Department, much of it in the former Yugoslavia. Believe me, I have no problem recommending this terrific page-turner.

3 Comments

Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, International Crime

Pan-European Lives: Dark Voyage by Alan Furst

Dark VoyageAs any of my longtime readers will attest, I love the novels of Alan Furst. Over the last couple of years I’ve devoured almost the novels of his extensive Night Soldiers series. Expertly researched and well written, Furst’s novels capture atmosphere and tension-filled drama of Europe on the precipice of war or during the early years of World War II before the Allied Invasion. With just a handful of books left in the series I haven’t read, my goal for 2017 is the read those last remaining novels. Those happen to be Dark Voyage, Dark Star, Red Gold and his most recent offering A Hero of France. So with that in mind, my first step in accomplishing this goal began when I cracked open my hand me down copy of Furst’s Dark Voyage, 

Just like all the other novels in Furst’s Night Soldiers series, Dark Voyage follows what’s become for me a familiar template. Set during the years leading up to, or the early years of WWII, a middle-aged gentleman of Continental extraction finds himself battling the Nazis as part of one secretive plot after another. Almost always, he’s never a spy or intelligence operative in the traditional sense, but instead some sort of professional who’s been pressed into the role by the Brits, Americans or their allies. In the case of Dark Voyage, it’s the adventures of Dutchman Eric DeHaan, Captain of the Noordendam. One night while in port in Morocco, Captain DeHaan is told by agents of the Dutch military in exile that his ship has been loaned to the British navy for secret military operations. Covertly repainted and renamed the Santa Rosa and now sailing under the flag of neutral Spain, DeHaan takes the battered freighter from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. With him is a diverse multinational cast of crew and passengers resembling a microcosm of Europe and the Mediterranean including a Greek stowaway, a German Jew, two spies (one working for the British, the other a Russian on the run from Stalin’s secret police) assorted Dutch, Germans and Spaniards, and an Egyptian Copt radio operator.

For whatever reason, this wasn’t one of my favorite Furst novel, but nevertheless I enjoyed it. Since my goal is to finish out the series before the end of 2017 it’s a sure bet you’ll see a few other Alan Furst novel’s featured on my blog.

2 Comments

Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, Middle East/North Africa

About Time I Read It: In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

In the Country of MenAs I mentioned in my earlier post, I’ve been itching to read Hisham Matar’s novel In the Country of Men for over 10 years. The problem is, it’s been hard as heck to secure a library copy. When you write a coming of age novel that’s set in Libya that ends up getting shortlisted for the Book Man Award everyone wants to read it. So like any popular book, it seemed like it was perpetually checked out from my local library. But one day not long ago, I noticed there was an available copy so I quickly grabbed it. I’m happy to let you know I was not disappointed, even having to wait 10 years to read it.

Set in Libya in 1979 during an era when Qadhafi reigned supreme, the novel’s young narrator Suleiman recalls his life in the capital Tripoli as the nine-year old son and only child of a couple whose marriage, to say the least is less than ideal. His father, a businessman with a penchant for hatching one unsuccessful business venture after another, is frequently absent, ostensibly for business purposes. His mother, an emotionally unstable alcoholic, literally curses the day she married Suleiman’s father preferring to spend her purposeless days and nights lamenting the state of her marriage while pining for the brief period of freedom she enjoyed as a teen girl before she was forcibly married off by her family. While all this is going on, young Suleiman witnesses firsthand the soul crushing oppression of a ruthless dictatorship.

Matar did a fine job telling this story not just through the eyes of a young child, but also as an adult looking back years later would tell that child’s story. Not only is In the Country of Men is an excellent novel, it’s also an excellent debut novel. Please consider it highly recommended.

4 Comments

Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Fiction, History, Middle East/North Africa

Patience and Fortitude, Red Gold and Pandemic

Once again, I’ve fallen behind in my blogging so I gotta do another catch-up post. I don’t enjoy doing this because it feels like cheating. But hey, what, can I guy do? I got books to write about. So, as they say in the entertainment world, the show must go on.

Of the three books I’ve chosen to briefly spotlight, two are nonfiction and one is fiction. Two are from authors I’m familiar with and one is by an author who’s new to me. As far as subject matter goes, we’re dealing with one of the world’s largest and revered public libraries, life during the German Occupation of France and humanity’s battle against infectious disease.

Scott Sherman’s Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library is another one of those books that was completely off my radar and until I spotted a copy on display at my local public library. Published in 2015, Sherman’s book is an expose of just how close an alliance of real estate developers, NYC power brokers and library big-wigs came to selling off the NYPL’s local branches, gutting the main branch’s iconic reading rooms and relocating the library’s millions of books to an off-site storage facility in New Jersey. The planned overhaul shocked not just NYC’s scholars, intelligentsia and bibliophiles, but many of the world’s famous novelists. The result was a public battle to save the library.

Sherman’s book was an eye opener for me. One, I had no idea this fight to save the NYPL ever happened. Two, I had no idea the NYPL is a nonprofit corporation. All these years I just assumed it was a municipal solely entity owned and operated by NYC.

I was afraid Sherman’s wouldn’t have enough material to devote an entire book to the NYPL controversy and in the end I was relieved he could pull it off. Sometimes these kind of investigative pieces make great lengthy pieces in publications like the New Yorker or the Atlantic but go flat when stretched out and padded to book length. Fortunately, that didn’t feel the case here. Not once while reading Patience and Fortitude was I bored. My favorite parts of Patience and Fortititude were those dealing with the library’s history. (I remember reading in Why the West is the Best the first book checked out of the NYPL was not in English, but in Russian.)

With Alan Furst’s latest novel A Hero of France being released just last week, I figured the time was right to grab one of Furst’s earlier books from the library before they all got snatched up. With only a handful of his Night Soldiers series I haven’t read, I opted for his 1999 offering Red Gold because it’s set mostly in Paris during the German Occupation.  For me anyway, it’s also been tough to find an available copy at the library. Therefore, when given this chance I grabbed Red Gold.

The good news is, even though it’s a sequel of sorts to The World at Night, which to me is the weakest novel of the Night Soldiers series, I enjoyed it a bit more than it’s predecessor. The bad news is just like with The World at Night, I’d have to say it’s one of my least favorite novels of Furst’s But I still like his stuff and I can’t wait to read A Hero of France.

Even though I was slightly disappointed by Sonia Shah’s The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years I could not resist giving her latest book Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond a shot when a copy became available at my public library. After all, I’ve never been able to resist a good book on nasty diseases.

Shah’s book looks not just at the horrible pandemics of year’s past, but how also how some of these like cholera have recently come back with a vengeance to once again haunt us. She also fears in this age of worldwide jet travel, massive factory farms of antibiotic fed chickens, increasing deforestation and the rapid rate in which microorganisms mutate, are we due for another deadly pandemic? Perhaps only time will tell.

While I didn’t love it as much as David Quammen Spillover or Viral Storm, I enjoyed it more than Fever. As a result I have no reservations recommending Pandemic to anyone wanting to read a good book on horrible diseases.

There you have it, three books that in their own ways managed to exceed my slightly low expectations.

 

5 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Europe, Fiction, History, Science

The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Laurel Corona

As I proclaimed in one of my earlier postsRose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has inspired even this diehard nonfiction fan to read more fiction. Of course, if I’m going to read fiction there’s a strong likelihood it’s going to be historical fiction since that’s what this old history buff is going to read. So, when I found out my public library had available a novel set in the 15th century on the Iberian peninsula I figured what the heck and grabbed it.

Published in 2014, Laurel Corona’s The Mapmaker’s Daughter tells the story of Amalia Riba, a Sephardic Jew and Converso. The story begins with her as a young girl living in Spain. A child prodigy possessing intelligence and talent far beyond her years, she eagerly assists her mapmaker father in translating documents and other important duties. After her mothers dies, her and her father move to Portugal so he can supply his cartographical skills to Henry the Navigator. Upon growing to young womanhood, she’s married off to a Portuguese explorer but without revealing any spoilers let’s just say the only things good about her marriage is it was short and resulted in the birth of her daughter. From there she falls in love with a dashing and intelligent Moorish ambassador and moves to the Muslim kingdom of Grenada to be with him. Later, she leaves Grenada returning to both Portugal and Spain. The novel ends with Amalia a much older woman, reflecting on the events of her life as she and her co-religionists are being cast out of Spain per Ferdinand and Isabella’s infamous royal decree.

The Mapmaker’s Daughter made for light, but nevertheless entertaining reading. Kudos to author Corona for weaving into her story true historical figures like Spain’s Queen Isabella and Grand Inquisitor Torquemada. If you’re a history fan like myself it’s hard not to like the novel The Mapmaker’s Daughter.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arab World, Fiction, History, Judaica