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.

Inge’s War: A German Woman’s Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler by Svenja O’Donnell

My quest to learn more about 20th century European history inspired me to borrow a library copy of Svenja O’Donnell’s 2020 family memoir Inge’s War: A German Woman’s Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler. Published in 2020, it tells the story of her mother, grandparents’ and great grandparents’ and the lives they lived in the German city of Königsberg (now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad) and harrowing escape just ahead of the invading Red Army during the final months of World War II leading to their eventual resettlement after the war in West Germany.

Born in Paris to a German mother and an Irish father, the British-educated O’Donnell has served as Bloomberg‘s UK political correspondent covering Brexit and other European developments. In her capacity as a journalist she visited Russian Kaliningrad, where she concluded the fall of Communism “brought heavy job losses” and the city “became a hub of drugs and human trafficking, with a rampant heroin problem and the highest rate of HIV in Europe.” Mindful of her family’s connection to the city from pre-Soviet times, during her assignment in Kaliningrad she phoned her elderly grandmother to let her know she was visiting the former Königsberg. Upon hearing the news her grandmother responded somberly there were deep family secrets she needed to be told. Then, over the next 10 years until her death Inge revealed to her granddaughter the details of a life lived long ago, and a world destroyed years ago by the ravages of war.

Born in Königsberg, as a 16 year old Inge was able to convince her protective Lutheran parents to enroll her in a girls academy in Berlin. Wishing to insulate her from the temptations of a big city, they were more than happy when she eventually moved out the school’s designated boarding house and in with a classmate’s family, knowing they’d keep a close eye on her. But before long the two girls were frequenting Berlin’s underground swing dancing clubs and enjoying all the exciting nightlife Berlin of the early War years was able to offer. But temptations arose closer to home as she fell head over heels in love with her friend’s older brother leading to her pregnancy. Sadly, her boyfriend’s father disapproved of her and to thwart any possibility of marriage used his connections to fast track his conscription into the Wehrmacht. Broken hearted, young and pregnant, in order to give her pregnancy and motherhood a thin veneer of legitimacy Inge had to settle for a wedding ceremony featuring an empty chair as proxy for the absent groom. Making maters worse, the father of her child was taken captive in the Battle of Stalingrad and languished for serval years in a Soviet POW camp.

Later, in the dead of winter, now as a young mother with an infant daughter in tow Inge and her relatives were forced to flee Königsberg as the Red Army juggernaut slammed into East Prussia, laying waste and exacting revenge. Evacuated by ship, her vessel narrowly escaped being torpedoed by Soviet submarines and thus avoided the same fate as the MV Wilhelm GustloffSafely in western Germany they sought refuge in occupied Denmark but left after the end of hostilities, in no small part due to the inhospitality of the local Danes, resentful of their prior treatment at the hands of the Germans. Back in a Germany shattered by years of war and occupied by the victors Inge attempted to build a new life for herself and her infant daughter.

Inge’s War is well written and satisfied my need for a good book on 20th century European history. Through the eyes of O’Donnell’s grandmother I was able to see a central European world long forgotten but with faint echoes that can still be heard today.

About Time I Read It: Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

One fall Friday evening in 2013 while drinking with friends at the pub someone recommended Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Sadly, like many great book recommendations I’ve received over the years it took me forever to act on my friend’s advice. I even borrowed a copy from the public library not once but twice  only to later return it unread. Last week, just like I did with Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad I decided to give Command and Control another chance. I secured a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work reading Schlosser’s 2013 book. And just like I Was Told to Come Alone I kicked myself for not reading it sooner.

Schlosser made a name for himself with his best seller Fast Food Nation but could he tackle the high stakes and technical world of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons and the global arms race they spawned? Any doubts I might have had were quickly put to rest mere pages into this book. Command and Control isn’t just a history of that arms race. It’s also a detailed and fascinating history of the costly and sometimes deadly accidents that’s plagued the weapons’ history. Anchoring this history is Schlosser’s recalling of a routine maintenance operation gone horribly awry leading to the explosion of a Titan II ICBM outside Damascus, Arkansas in 1980.

I came away from this book shocked by the sheer number of serious accidents involving nuclear weapons that have occurred over the decades. More shocking than that, it feels miraculous none of them resulted in any warheads accidentally detonating. (Although in 1961, when a B-52 broke apart over rural North Carolina and accidentally released two thermonuclear bombs one of them narrowly escaped detention. Had it gone off, it would have spread a plume of radioactive fall-out as far north as Washington DC, and just in time for Kennedy’s inauguration ceremony.) Nor did any American military commander or his NATO counterpart go rogue and facilitate the unauthorized use of one of these weapons, even during the dark hours of the Cuban Missile Crises. Luckily still, the many false alarms experienced by our nation’s early warning systems did not mistakenly set off a nuclear holocaust.

Schlosser fears we might not be so lucky in the future. Since the 1970s more countries have developed their own nuclear weapons, or in the case of Iran are actively working toward one. Pakistan and India, neighbors with deep-seated rivalries, especially over contested territory, have come close to nuking each other several times over the last twenty plus years. It’s also assumed Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has been dispersed to undisclosed locations throughout the country in hopes of protecting it from an Indian first strike. However, this potentially creates more opportunities for Islamic terrorists or rogue elements within the military to commandeer a warhead. Overall, while some developing countries like India and Pakistan have been able to incorporate Western technology into their respective nuclear weapons programs Schlosser wonders if they have also successfully imported our culture of safety and associated protocols. With India, Pakistan and Iran all possessing significantly higher industrial accident rates than the United States perhaps we should be concerned.

I found Command and Control even better than I’d expected and easily makes my year-end list of favorite nonfiction. Please consider it highly recommended.

Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan by Erika Fatland

Just before the entire world went on lockdown I was wandering through the stacks at the public library one afternoon when I happened to see a copy of Erika Fatland’s Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Intrigued by what I saw I still declined to  borrow it, but figured someday down the road I eventually would. Recently, I found myself in the mood to read about the “Stans” of Central Asia and borrowed a copy of Fatland’s book through my public library’s Overdrive portal. I enjoyed the author’s account of her journeys across the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and now can’t wait to read her recently published English edition of The Border: A Journey Around Russia Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, … Finland, Norway, and the Northwest Passage.

Before reading Sovietistan I didn’t know a lot about this part of the world. I did however know all the countries are landlocked. (Although two of them border the equally landlocked Caspian Sea.) I’d also read one of the countries, Turkmenistan, for years was ruled by a dictator so megalomaniacal he renamed several months of the calendar in his honor. Lastly, thanks to the magic of Hollywood I knew Kazakhstan was home to the fictional character Borat.

Combining travelogue with generous portions of history and contemporary politics Fatland serves up a detailed yet personal look at all five Stans of Central Asia: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Like so many former European colonies in Africa and Asia, these landlocked countries of Central Asia, while steeped in history are in essence modern creations, with legacies dating back to the early years of the USSR. After the Soviet Union collapsed all five declared independence. In the decades since then they’ve attempted, in varying ways and with varying success, to guide their young nations between East and West always mindful of their former master to the North and its undeniable influence.

The countries visited in Sovietistan feel ancient and exotic while at the same time modern and Western. Just as the lucrative trade of the Silk Road brought wealth to the ancient kingdoms and imperial provinces of this region centuries ago, today oil and gas exports generate billions in petrodollars, financing lavish presidential palaces and, depending on the country funding national infrastructure. Sadly however, like many oil exporting countries in the developing world most of this generated wealth ends up lining pockets of the elites only to be squirrelled away overseas in foreign bank accounts or spent profligately on luxury items. Like the potentates of old, their current day presidents have ruled their respective Central Asian countries with iron fists. (The exception being Kyrgyzstan, which even though it’s the most corrupt of all the Stans, its president actually stepped aside in response to public pressure.) Inheriting not just the borders of the old USSR but also its Stalinist mode of governance, some leaders have imposed their own cults of personality, with their imposing likenesses gracing statues and portraits ubiquitously throughout their respective countries.

While blessed with oil deposits and physical beauty, ecologically some of the Stans are horribly scarred. Years of Soviet above-ground nuclear weapons testing have ravaged parts of Kazakhstan and produced generations of health problems for its residents. Years diverting water to grow cotton has catastrophically drained the Aral Sea, leaving it a shadow of its former self.

This is a great look inside a part of the world that in my opinion doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Please consider Sovietistan recommended reading.

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings

Last week Rennie at What’s Nonfiction  hosted Nonfiction November and this week another great blogger, Katie at Doing Dewey has agreed to host. In her post she enlists us to offer up our recommendations.

This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

In previous years I’ve approached this by discussing an extensive collection of nonfiction/fiction pairings but this time I’d like to do something different. I’ll be featuring an historical novel I recently read along with several works of nonfiction that make for wonderful follow-up reading.

Published in 2018, Michael David Lukas’s The Last Watchman of Old Cairo jumps back and forth between the early 2000s, 1897 and the 11th century. Joseph, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, is puzzled when a strange package from Egypt arrives in the mail one day. Intrigued by its cryptic contents, the son of a Jewish mother and an estranged, now-deceased Muslim father decides to put his university studies on hold and visit the land of his ancestors in search of answers.

The heart of the novel is Cairo’s Ibn Ezra Synagogue, for centuries center of the city’s vibrant Jewish community until a series of the mass exoduses starting in 1956 spurred by Egyptian President Nasser’s anti-Jewish and anti-western measures drove them from the country. In the late 1890s the synagogue would achieve worldwide notoriety after its repository of ancient documents or Geniza was mined and catalogued by a visiting Cambridge scholar, his young female assistant and a pair of brilliant middle aged Scottish twin sisters. Also, legend had it the synagogue was the secret home of the Ezra Scroll, written by the great Lawgiver himself 2,500 years ago and purported to possess powerful supernatural properties.

This multiple award-winning historical novel is an enjoyable mix of intrigue, romance and a touch of magic. If you take my recommendation and end up reading it, I can’t encourage you enough to follow it up with a few other books, all nonfiction.

Start with Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. Published in 2011, this National Jewish Book Award finalist is a detailed look at the history of the Geniza, its treasured contents and the intrepid individuals who helped bring it all to light. Located in an out of the way annex of the synagogue, the Geniza was kind of hallowed dumping ground for old letters, business records, marriage contracts, divorce writs, holy scriptures and everything in between. Dubbed by some scholars as the “living Sea Scrolls” they provided a highly detailed look at centuries of everyday Jewish life in the region and beyond.

Proceed next to Janet Soskice’s 2009 The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. Here you will learn more about two of the late-Victorian era’s most fascinating, and under-appreciated women. Denied higher educations thanks to the sexism of the day, the pair nevertheless went on to master Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac plus a host of other languages (between the two of them close to a dozen) and traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and the Levant where they were instrumental in locating and acquiring a number of ancient Christian manuscripts. Later, the sisters, together with Solomon Schechter would transport the contents of the Ibn Ezra Geniza back to Cambridge where it could be secured safely and extensively studied.

As the old TV pitchman used to say, “but wait, there’s more.” For great looks into the lost world of Egypt’s Jewish community I highly recommend a quartet of great family memoirs. Lucette Lagnado’s 2007 The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, her 2011 follow-up The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, André Aciman’s 1994 Out of Egypt and Gini Alhadeff’s 1997 The Sun at Midday: Tales of a Mediterranean Family all provide vivid portraits of an exotic yet cultured place that managed to be Middle Eastern, European, Muslim and Jewish all at the same time. But sadly is no more.

About Time I Read It: To Hell and Back by Ian Kershaw

As part of an ongoing research project I’ve been reading books on European history, especially that of 20th century. Back in September I read Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century and recently I borrowed through Overdrive Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949.  In 2019 I read its sequel The Global Age: Europe 1950-2017 and was duly impressed. I’m happy to report Kershaw did not disappoint me.

Like some cataclysmic three act play, the first half of the 20th century brought to the European continent World War I, the Depression and World War II. 50 years later Europe emerged from this bloody third act impoverished and broken. While Nazism and Italian Fascism had been vanquished, the exhausted Continent was left almost equally divided between East and West, and would remain so for another half century.

In To Hell and Back Kershaw addresses in detail everything I’d hoped: the run-up to World War I and its significant battles; the Paris Peace Conference and the new European order it spawned, including the punitive reparations imposed upon the young Weiner Republic of Germany; the rise of new forms of revolutionary totalitarianism in the USSR, Italy and Germany as well as a concomitant slide from democracy to conservative authoritarianism throughout much of Europe with the exception of Great Britain, France, the Low Countries and Scandinavia (in addition to other outliers Czechoslovakia and Eire); the Depression: and the Second World War’s origins, horrors and aftermath. He also discusses the period’s significant social, economic, technological and artistic developments.

Perhaps my most memorable take away from Kershaw’s book are the of destabilizing effects of ethnic tensions in Central and Eastern Europe. Restive nationalities yearning for independence or union with their neighbors, and long-oppressed ethnic groups perceived to be standing the way of national homogeneity would help spark not one but two world wars during the first half of the 20th century.

Meant as a blow against Austro-Hungarian rule over the region’s southern Slavs, in 1914 a Serb nationalist assassinated the Austrian Archduke and his wife. Backed with a blank check by its increasingly bellicose ally Germany, Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia to punish and reassert dominate over its southern neighbors (and given the dual empire’s own multi-ethic composition, reassert dominance domestically as well). Russia, in turn would come to the aid of its junior ally Serbia and respond with force. Germany, coming to defense of Austria-Hungary would declare war on Russia also hoping to carve off a slice of its neighbor’s territory. Thus began the First World War.

By the 1930s the Nazis, a party that elevated race above state, would take control of a divided and dysfunctional Germany. Chief among the demands of Hitler and his cronies was the incorporation of neighboring ethnic Germans into the Reich. After annexing Austria he demanded, and was awarded the Sudetenland, home to a sizable German population. But after the German army occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia Great Britain and France learned they’d reached the limits of appeasement. Once Hitler began calling for the Polish Corridor and Danzig (technically a “free city” under League of Nations protection, overwhelming ethnic German but closely administered by  Poland) war looked likely. In 1939 when Germany signed a non-aggression pact with the USSR to secure its Eastern flank war was inevitable. Poland was invaded from both West and East. Just like 20 years earlier, military aggression in Eastern Europe would spark a continent-wide conflict with devastating consequences.

This makes superb follow-up reading to other faves of mine, especially MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World , Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, Ross Range’s 1924: The Year That Made Hitler and Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II.

Speaking of follow-up books, I’m hoping To Hell and Back will inspire me to read both Keith Lowe’s The Fear and the Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us and Tony Judt’s tour de force Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945.

Please consider To Hell and Back highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: Swiss Watching by Diccon Bewes

In the 2006 franchise reboot Casino Royal, James Bond meets his MI 6 contact Vesper Lynde on the train to Montenegro to be briefed on the details of his mission. After dinner they spar conversationally, each trying to size up the other. (And from an operational and sexual standpoint battle to impose their respective dominance.) Lynde wonders aloud if Bond is little more than a former SAS type with an easy smile and expensive watch. “Rolex?” she asks. Bond replies “Omega.” Both esteemed brands made only in Switzerland, a country long associated with high-end watches.

One wonders how a small, mountainous, landlocked country with few natural resources could be a global leader in quality wristwatches but also secure (and secretive) banking as well as delectable milk chocolates, all while enjoying centuries of political neutrality. Add to this a premier tourist destination, especially for the world’s rich and famous.

Over the years Claire of the book blog The Captive Reader has been one of my go to sources when it comes to books about Europe. (As well as the Interwar Period.) Last December in one of her Library Loot posts she mentioned Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money by Diccon Bewes. Needing something representing Switzerland for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I went looking for a borrowable copy of Bewes’s book and secured one through Overdrive. One of Financial Times’s books of the year Swiss Watching didn’t disappoint me. Like Bruce Henderson’s Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler is one of the year’s pleasant surprises.

Bewes, after falling in love decided to leave his native England and move to Switzerland to be with his boyfriend. Traveling from one end of the country to another his book is an intimate, intelligent and candid perspective on Switzerland’s history, culture and geography, similar to what his fellow Brits John Hooper and Tobias Jones did for Italy in their respective books The Italians  and The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country

Through Bewes’s eyes you see Switzerland as a land of contradictions, starting with the nation’s longstanding practice of political neutrality. For hundreds of years, even through two world wars Switzerland has avoided belligerency. Neutral but not pacifist, Switzerland is a leading exporter of military hardware, on occasion even selling arms to both warring sides. Traditionally, all Swiss all males are required to serve in the military. (Only recently was a nonmilitary service option added.) After released from active duty each reservist is required to keep a service rifle in his home, leading to Switzerland having more gun-related suicides than anywhere in Europe. (In hopes of addressing this disturbing distinction, the ammo is now safely secured in Swiss armories.) Lastly, the nation is crawling with fallout shelters, even apartments have a basement location where Swiss can ride out a nuclear exchange.

Politically, Switzerland is probably one of the most democratic nations on earth. Like most European nations it has an elected bicameral parliament but Switzerland boasts no president or prime minister with executive powers. The closest the Swiss have is the seven member Federal Council which serves as a collective head of state with a rotating Presidency that’s chiefly ceremonial. Almost all important legislation is decided by referendum, both at the national and local level. However, despite being one of the world’s few, if only direct democracies voter participation is surprisingly low. Because Switzerland’s path to citizenship is heavily skewed against immigrants and their children close to 20 percent of the population are non citizens and thus ineligible to vote. Another rarity among the world’s democracies, Swiss women didn’t earn the right to vote in national elections until 1971. Not until 1992 did the last Swiss federal state or Canton grant women the vote in a local election.

Landlocked and bereft of natural resources the Swiss would need to be creative if they were to be successful. Beginning in the 19th century the Swiss built a network of railways crisscrossing the country, connecting it to its larger, more resource and sea port blessed neighbors. High value products easily transported via rail, products like premium time pieces, cheeses and milk chocolates became lucrative exports. Calvinistic Geneva with its orderly, literate and industrious culture combined with a healthy respect for thrift and privacy would make the city, and the nation as a whole a banking Mecca. Innovation would be key to Switzerland’s success,  whether it be crafting a better cheeses, making chocolate more delectable by adding milk or manufacturing sexier wristwatches.  Like a determined prize fighter punching above its weight no wonder the small alpine country ranks 8th in the world for Nobel Prize laureates.

Originally published in 2010 and updated in 2018, like I said at the beginning Swiss Watching is one of this year’s pleasant surprises. It might even make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

The Best American Essays 2020 edited by André Aciman

I’m no stranger to André Aciman. In the summer of 2009 I read his 1996 memoir Out of Egypt, which had been sitting on my shelf unread for who knows how long. Five summers later it was his semi autobiographical novel Harvard Square I spent several warm evenings reading on my front step while watching the comings and goings of my fellow apartment dwellers. Even though I’d read just two of his books I considered myself a fan of his writing and looked forward to reading more of it.

Finding myself in the mood for a decent essay collection I discovered through Overdrive a borrowable Kindle edition of The Best American Essays 2020 edited by none other than André Aciman. Eager to see which essays Aciman deemed worthy of inclusion I downloaded it and went to work reading. I’m happy to say after finishing it Aciman’s choices did not disappoint me.

Annual anthologies like these are always a crap shoot. While some years better than others, on average each offering has one to three of outstanding pieces, with the bulk being pretty good while the remaining two or three selections not so hot. Fortunately, none of the essays Aciman selected are duds. Even my least favorite inclusions  had their moments. So hats off to Aciman.

Over the years I’ve read close to a dozen of these anthologies and Aciman’s introduction to this edition easily ranks as one of the best. Drawing from his deep well of erudition he explains what makes a great essay, serving up examples from Montaigne, Machiavelli and Proust. (If you’re looking for an impressive reading list, check out his interview 2015 interview on the Vox Tablet podcast.)

My favorites essays in the collection were ones with sharply focused narratives and specific topics in mind, akin to the long form pieces you’d find in Harpers, the New Yorker or Atlantic. While considered essays, they easily could be included in anthologies featuring outstanding writing in the fields of science and nature  or crime. Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece of prehistoric cave painting “The Humanoid Stain”,  Clinton Crockett Peters’s “A Thing About Cancer” – a novel look at the dreaded disease seen through the lens of the 1982 John Carpenter horror film The Thing  were two such pieces. Susan Fox Rogers’s essay on infamous 1920’s child murder Nathan Leopold and his love of birding was a fine science and nature feature as well as a crime one.

Much to my surprise just as it was with Jonathan Franzen’s edited Best American Essays 2016, a couple of my favorite essays touched on LGTBQ themes. Probably my favorite of these was the lead essay “How to Bartend” by Lebanese-American painter and writer Rabih Alameddine.  After being diagnosed with HIV he moved back to his native Lebanon to attend graduate school and pursue a “third worthless degree.” Needing cash he picked up a gig tending bar at an upstairs “faux upscale taproom with an English private club motif” complete with “pretentiously bound hardcovers in fake bookshelves.” Here half heartedly went about his job, pouring occasional drinks but preferring to be left alone to read novels during his normally slow workdays. Instead of a primer on good bartending his essay is a darkly humorous look at the difficult but ultimately satisfying process of finding ones tribe.

Instead of finding one’s tribe Alex Marzano-Lesnevish’s “Body Language” the focus is the long, painful process of discovering one’s gender, or if it be, non-gender. Even Peter Scheldahl’s life journey from midwestern bumpkin to NYC-dwelling art critic and mildly reckless aesthete recalls a passing gay affair, despite being an admittedly straight man with at least two heterosexual marriages and countless liaisons under his belt. (A degree sexual fluidity also rumored to be shared by Aciman himself.)

It feels like every annual essay collection contains more than a few contributions by authors looking back and reflecting on their long lives or the long lives of loved ones. As I grow older and slowly come to grips with my own mortality, and those around me I dislike these kind of pieces less and less, no longer complaining they’re products of an unwanted cottage industry. Instead, when I encounter such writing I grudgingly welcome whatever words of wisdom they offer while at the same time yearning for younger days.

But before I succumb to the ravages of old age, I’ll treat myself to a few more enjoyable anthologies. And as I do I’ll happily share my impressions of them with all of you.

20 Books of Summer: Dark Continent by Mark Mazower

A couple of years ago I was rummaging through one of those Little Free Libraries/public bookcases you find in so many neighborhoods when I came across a copy of Mark  Mazower’s 1998 book Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century. Happy to come across a book I’d been wanting to read, I eagerly helped myself.

Dark Continent is more than just a history of Europe in the 20th century. It’s also a deep dive into how and why democracy waxed and waned across the Continent during the 75 or so years following the end of World War I.

By the War’s end the great European land-based empires had collapsed and spawned a host of successor states across Central and Eastern Europe including the Balkans. In the beginning almost all were parliamentary democracies, complete with competing political parties representing constituencies across the spectrum. But by the eve of the Second World War democracy in Europe was a rare commodity. Authoritarian regimes were the norm be they the USSR, Germany, Italy or Spain. Even newly independent states like Hungary and Poland, while not overtly Fascist or Communist were run by hard-right strongmen.  According to Mazower these fledgling democracies inherited parliamentary traditions and structures evolved from years of battling autocratic monarchs. With parliaments powerful but cumbersome and prone to deadlock, and presidents and prime ministers unable to govern effectively they were ill-equipped to handle the challenges facing the states of interwar Europe: the Great Depression, sizable communities of ethnic minorities complicating the notion of a unified nation sate, specter of Communist takeover from home or abroad and newfound power of mass organizations of populist or reactionary nature to affect political change.

Complicating all of this was the decline of birthrates across the Continent beginning around the turn of the century. Although the killing ended with the cessation of hostilities a generation of young men had been slaughtered and would not be returning home to raise families. Therefore, unlike the period following World War II there was no baby boom and populations in the former belligerents either plateaued or continued to decline. Leaders and policy makers in countries across Europe feared a demographic implosion would prevent them from sustaining the standing armies and industrial output needed to compete against their rivals. Prefiguring today’s rising anti-immigrants sentiment in Europe and America many in interwar Europe thought it only a matter of time before they were swamped by their more populous neighbors either through immigration or military invasion.

Just 20 years after the last colossal European war another would engulf the Continent. While the democracies of Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, it was the authoritarian states of Germany, Italy and Russia’s successor state the USSR that shoulder the blame for restarting hostilities. According to Mazower the reasons are rooted in each of the three authoritarian states’ ruling ideology: German Nazis saw race as the only legitimate institution and the most Central and Eastern Europe states as artificial and illegitimate created by the Treaty of Versailles; Italy’s Fascists yearned for the glory days of the Roman Empire and coveted the lands of North Africa and the Balkans; Stalin and his fellow Soviets saw the modern state as a capitalist construct meant to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie and the sooner the USSR’s armies conquered its rivals, the sooner it could help spread the dictatorship of the proletariat.

By 1945 Germany’s dreams of colonizing Europe and Italy’s attempts to resurrect the Roman Empire lay in ruins. Five years of war, occupation, and genocide left the Continent impoverished and in shambles. Within five years an “Iron Curtain” had descended upon Europe, dividing the the Continent between two rival blocs. The West was home to an alliance of more or less democratic nations, allied with the United States and opposed to Communist expansion. To the East lie a collection of Soviet-imposed authoritarian states, collectively isolated and inward-looking. The dynamics of the stark division and the tensions it spawned would dictate European politics, foreign and domestic for the next 70 years.

In the West, once the cities and factories were rebuilt the region entered an unprecedented era of economic growth. With industrialization growing at a breakneck pace the ensuing labor shortages forced many countries to import workers from abroad. At first workers from Europe’s periphery like Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Communist outlier Yugoslavia migrated to the factories of West Germany, France and the like. Later, the call for workers went answered in more distant lands including Turkey, North Africa, and in the case of the United Kingdom the Caribbean and South Asia. Giving the Western economies a much needed boost, it would create long term questions over the nature of citizenship and limits of multiculturalism.

This time, in the West anyway, democracy did not wither up and die in the decades following WWII as it did after the previous world war. Learning from their past mistakes and traumatized by the horrors of authoritarian rule and foreign occupation constitutions were rewritten or retooled to prevent parliamentary gridlock. Structural changes were enacted to protect human rights and promote functioning and responsible governments. In hopes of preventing another Great Depression governments took a more active role in economic planning and enlarged the social safety net. (Ironically, both measures were first introduced by the authoritarian states of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Communist USSR.) A movement to foster closer political and economic cooperation among European nations would eventually give birth to the European Common Market and later European Union. (Again ironically, according to Mazower eerily similar to a concept floated by Nazi Minister of Industry and Production Adolf Speer.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain things weren’t so rosy. After Stalin’s death the reigns of power did loosed somewhat, but those in the Eastern Bloc enjoyed few of the civil and economic liberties enjoyed by those in the West. Forced industrialization promoted almost full employment, but wages were relatively low and desirable consumer goods scarce. Attempts to reform the systems from within were crushed in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1981. In hopes of propping up their failing economies Communist leaders in places like Hungary and Poland borrowed heavily from the West. In Romania, efforts to pay off these mounting debts led to crippling austerity measures resulting in a rapid plunge in living standards.

The 1970s and the decade following it would bring new challenges to Europe, both East and West. The oil shocks that bookended the 1970s spawned simultaneous inflation and economic stagnation, long believed impossible according to the rules of classical economics. Quickly dubbed “stagflation” the nations of Western Europe saw their economies contract and state coffers weaken and with it the ability to support social safety nets. Worse yet, European industries faced greater competition from East Asia in an array of product lines including automobiles and consumer electronics. In some countries the unemployed and underemployed cast unfriendly eyes towards local guest workers with nervous governments like West Germany’s offering to help repatriate them.

Meanwhile, at the far end of the Eastern Bloc, the once mighty colossus of the USSR began to stagnate and teeter. Unable to reform a doomed system, make it economically competitive and politically relevant on a global stage without inadvertently causing its demise Gorbachev’s USSR finally collapsed. During the last year or so of its death spiral, one by one the captive nations of Eastern Europe shed their authoritarian regimes, long since seen as illegitimate, incompetent and oppressive.

Dark Continent covers a lot of ground. Mazower’s prose can be a bit dense but he’s one hell of a researcher. A challenging read perhaps, but nevertheless informative. He’s left me with a deeper understanding of modern European history and a desire to learn more.