20 Books of Summer: Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg

I’ve yet to jump on the Nordic noir/Scandinavian crime bandwagon, but after reading the grandaddy of them all, Peter Høeg’s 90s whodunnit Smilla’s Sense of Snow maybe it’s finally time. In search of something for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, not to mention just a fun piece of fiction, I borrowed a copy through Overdrive and gave it a try. Before long I was sucked in and couldn’t put it down.

On the surface, things look simple. One night in Copenhagen a young Greenlandic boy is found dead after falling off the roof of an apartment building. The responding police deem it an accident but one of the late boy’s neighbors, Smilla, a 30-something loner of mixed Danish-Greenlander heritage thinks otherwise. Based on her extensive knowledge of snow, stemming from not just her early childhood in Greenland but also her time as a snow and ice scientist, suspects foul play. (Smilla also knows he was deathly afraid of heights and thinks it’s odd he’d be on the roof in the first place.) Her quest to know the truth will take her from the corridors of Denmark’s wealth and power to her ice-covered childhood home in Greenland.

Smilla is a great character. Intelligent, misanthropic, dogged and not afraid to throw a punch or two if needed she reminds me a lot of Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones character from the Netflix series of the same name. Fitting for such a broken individual, your knowledge of the character is slowly revealed bit by bit over the course of the novel.

This novel is dark, seasoned with memorable characters, complex (to quote the Dude from The Big Lebowski “there’s so many levels, man” ) and pulls you along like a freight train to the bitter end. It’s easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

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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.

20 Books of Summer: The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal

Last month when I assembled my 20 Books of Summer I included only one work of fiction. Needing something representing Austria for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I selected Elisabeth de Waal’s 2014 novel The Exiles Return. Like so many other books featured on this blog I stumbled across it one Saturday morning at the public library. Wanting something set in Austria and noticing it takes place during the final year of the Allied occupation I found The Exiles Return impossible resist. After the novel’s slow start things eventually picked up and I found myself for the most part enjoying it. I don’t read a ton of fiction, but what I do tends to be recent stuff published within the last ten years. Stylistically, The Exiles Return feels different when compared to my usual reading fare, like it’s an older piece of fiction.

And that’s probably because it is. Elisabeth de Waal, a highly educated and talented Viennese Jewish émigré wrote it back in the 50s. Only recently her grandson Edmund de Waa, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes (another book I keep seeing at my public library and vowing someday to read) was able to get it published. In addition, The Exiles Return has a slight but noticeable old world flavor, undoubtedly the result of the author’s Mitteleuropa origins, making her the right kind of author to craft such a tale.

As the title would lead us to believe, it’s a story of three former residents (or in the case of one, the daughter of a former resident) who’ve returned to Austria 10 years after the conclusion of World War II. Much like Germany, its neighbor to the North, Austria lies shatterd, vanquished and occupied by the four victorious Allies of Great Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union. Kuno Adler, a Jewish medical scientist has returned to Vienna to continue his research from 15 years ago before having to flee for his life. Marie-Theres, the 18 year old daughter of an Austrian mother and Danish father, now both American residents, has been sent to live with her Austrian relatives in hopes the change in scenery and culture will transform her from a standoffish, unfocused girl into a mature, focused woman. (In other words, stop being so self-aborbed and settle down and get married to a nice young man.) Lastly, Theophil Kanakis, a wealthy member of the country’s former Greek community has returned to Vienna in hopes of taking advantage of Austria’s depressed post-war economy to buy low and sell high. Like many a good story, all three of their lives intersect in one way or another.

What I liked most about The Exiles Return wasn’t as much the novel’s story, but the story behind the novel. 60 years after a brilliant Jewish refugee penned a novel it’s finally published for the world to read. Such a story is worthy of a novel all its own.

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.

About Time I Read It: The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

After a heavy diet of nonfiction I found myself in the mood for a little fiction. Specifically, I was craving something around 200 pages, like Matthew Olshan’s Marshlands, Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty or Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen, novels I have fond memories of reading during the early evening hours of summer. Luckily for me, one of the books I picked up last month at a friends of the library book sale was Simon Van Booy’s 2013 novel The Illusion of Separateness. Just a shade over 200 pages, it’s just what I needed.

I enjoyed The Illusion of Separateness not because it’s short but because it’s good. Utilizing a minimalist approach Van Booy weaves together a beautifully interrelated tale stretching 70 years and two contitents involving a host of diverse characters including a blind museum docent, biracial Hollywood director, disfigured German WWII veteran and nursing home superintendent. Each one is profoundly linked in someway to the other, even if by a single act of kindness.

After finishing The Illusion of Separateness earlier today I’d like to read more of Van Booy’s fiction. But right now I just wanna lose myself within the pages of another excellent short novel.

About Time I Read It: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Back in 2012 I offered up my impressions of Tracy Chevalier’s 2001 best-selling novel Girl With a Pearl Earring, a thoroughly enjoyable historical novel I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t read until 10 years after it was published. Later, in 2013 I featured her 2003 follow-up The Lady and the Unicorn. While I didn’t enjoy Chevalier’s follow-up as much as its predecessor, it entertained me nevertheless. But more importantly it left me hungering for more of her fiction.

Luckily for me my local public library has a nice selection of her novels, one of which Remarkable Creatures, has intrigued me ever since I read reviews of it almost a decade ago. The story of two British women in mid-19th century England whose shared passion for ancient fossils puts them at odds with both the male-dominated scientific community and the local churches is too good a story for me to pass up forever. So, a few weeks ago during one of my weekend library visits I finally borrowed a copy of Remarkable Creatures and later that day went to work reading it. And just like with Girl With a Pearl Earring, I kicked myself for waiting so many years to finally read it.

Roughly 20 years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, Mary and Elizabeth spend their days hunting for fossils along the beaches and hillsides of a small English coastal town. Mary, the younger of the two is a local and blessed with “the eye”, that is the uncanny ability to spot fossils that no others can. Elizabeth, a middle age “spinster” originally from London but shunted to the remote English coast by her family shares Mary’s love of fossil hunting but also serves as Mary’s mentor as well as go between, helping the lower class Mary navigate the confusing and intimidating world of the British upper class. Their passion, hard work and self-taught paleontological knowledge eventually reap significant rewards and led to budding notoriety. But alas, 1830s Britain is firmly a man’s world, and Mary and Elizabeth like all women in that age are not treated as intellectual equals no matter how talented they might be.

Reading this novel as a former evangelical Christian, it was the faith versus science aspect of the novel that intrigued me the most. As Mary and Elizabeth uncover more and more fossilized remains of strange and never before seen creatures they and other fossil aficionados begin questioning their religious beliefs. Why would God create a species of animal just to let it die out? If, on the other hand, the fossils are of animals that haven’t gone extinct, why is it no one has seen any of these animals alive anywhere in the world? Lastly, with the very existence of fossils indicating the earth is hundreds of thousands if not millions of years old, could it be the world wasn’t created in six days and isn’t 4000 years old?

While I enjoyed Remarkable Creatures more than The Lady and the Unicorn I must say Girl With a Pearl Earring is still my favorite of the three. It’s left me wanting to read more of Chevalier’s fiction. Thanks to my public library there’s a good bet you’ll see more of her novels featured on my blog.

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.