Category Archives: History

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.

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Filed under Fiction, History, Science

About Time I Read It: Hell and Good Company by Richard Rhodes

My seemingly never-ending quest for books to read for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge prompted me to read Richard Rhodes’s 2015 book Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made. Like so many books I’ve featured over the years on this blog I discovered Rhodes’s book when I came across a copy at the public library. Figuring anyone who could craft a masterpiece like The Making of the Atomic Bomb could also write a decent book on the Spanish Civil War I decided to give Rhodes’s book a try.

It took me several weeks to finish Hell and Good Company, mostly because I was  reading two other books at the same time. Some publications like the Wall Street Journal, The Economist and the Washington Post praised the book and while I enjoyed portions of it, overall I thought Hell and Good Company was good, but perhaps not great. But hey, it counts towards Rose City Reader’s challenge so I guess I can’t complain.

Called by many as the dress rehearsal for World War II, from 1936 to 1939 the Spanish Civil War pitted Franco’s rebellious Fascist army against the forces of Spain’s leftist government. Aiding Franco were Moroccan mercenaries, and the air forces and tank divisions of Germany and Italy. On the other side, the USSR supplied the Spain’s Republican regime with planes and tanks and legions of foreign nationals from around the world fought alongside the Spanish leftists in hopes of defeating the forces of Fascism. In the end however, Franco’s well-supplied forces defeated the Republicans and their international allies leading to three decades of Fascist rule.

According to Rhodes, the Spanish Civil War, though relatively short and overshadowed by World War II would nevertheless have a lasting legacy. In arts and letters, it would inspire the great Spanish painter Picasso to create his masterpiece Guernica and provide powerful material for a host of mid-century writers including Hemingway, Orwell and Dos Pasos. The war also saw advances in battlefield medicine in the areas of triage, blood transfusion and plaster casts. Militarily, even though tanks had been around since World War I, it was during the Spanish Civil War they were first utilized to anything resembling their full potential. Lastly, perhaps the war’s gravest legacy was the use of airplanes to deliberately target population centers with waves of bombs both explosive and incendiary. Before long, residents of Warsaw, Rotterdam and London would experience the horrors of the Luftwaffe’s terror bombings. Eventually, Germans in Hamburg and Dresden would experience a similar fate at the hands of the British and Americans.

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Filed under Europe, History

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.

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Filed under Christianity, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica, Memoir

Books About Books: The Book Smugglers by David E. Fishman

In one of my previous posts I mentioned how I couldn’t resist a book entitled The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House. Well, imagine then how hard it was to resist a book called The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis. While visiting my old childhood library awhile back I spotted a copy prominently displayed on the New Books shelf. As soon as I got home I downloaded a borrowable eBook version and quickly went to work reading it. Unable to put it down I breezed through it in no time. And we all know when that happens you’re got a great book on your hands.

Published in late 2017,  David E. Fishman’s The Book Smugglers vividly recalls one of the Holocaust’s saddest yet also inspiring stories. After the Germans captured the then Polish city of Vilna (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania) they found themselves ruling over a city that was home to one of Europe’s largest and most vibrant Jewish communities, nicknamed the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” After imprisoning Vilna’s Jews in the city’s ghetto the Nazis went to work plundering Vilna’s countless Jewish books and documents.  Their goal was to collect everything and ship a third of it back to Germany to be studied and retained as museum pieces documenting a race that had been successfully exterminated. The other two-thirds would be destroyed.

Needing assistance in their twisted endeavor the Nazis press-ganged a number of Vilna’s Jews to help transport and catalog the stolen materials. In hopes of saving at least a fraction of what the Nazis plundered some of these Jews risked their lives to secretly smuggle out and hide a huge cache of Jewish books. Had it not been for these brave souls hundreds of rare books materials would have been lost forever.

I can’t rave enough about this book. It compliments perfectly two other outstanding books about the Nazis and stolen Jewish books, namely Rabbi Mark Glickman’s Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books Anders Rydell’s The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance. Not only did it easily make My Five Favorite Books of Summer list but also my year-end Favorite Nonfiction one. Please consider The Book Smugglers highly recommended.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Judaica

About Time I Read It: The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones

I’ve never been to Italy, but I’ve been hearing crazy things about the place my whole life. Even as a kid I knew the country was an American ally and NATO member but at the same time I kept hearing the Italian Communist Party was huge. Every so often on the evening there’d be stories about terrorist bombings or groups like the Red Brigades or various Mafia factions running around murdering, kidnapping, and causing mayhem. In later years blood-soaked violence faded from the headlines only to be replaced by the sordid details surrounding Amanda Knox’s trial, subsequent imprisonment and release and the corrupt, despotic, larger than life reign of Silvio Berlusconi. Taking all this into account, as well as the nation’s natural beauty and climate, thousands of years of impressive history, world-class food, wine and fashion and beautiful works of art and to me you have a country that’s as beautiful as it’s broken.

This belief of mine, whether it’s grounded in reality or not has inspired me to read about Italy. Back in 2013 it was Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi’s 2008 best seller The Monster of Florence. In 2015 it was 2005’s The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt. I enjoyed both books and neither of them did anything to change my views of Italy. Always eager to yet another book about Italy, imagine how happy I was one Saturday morning at the public library when I came across a copy of Tobias Jones’s 2003 book The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country. With a subtitle like that, how could I go wrong?

Jones, a Brit, moved to the Italian city of Parma to teach English at the local university. (One of my favorite stories from his teaching days is the one about three different female students decided to give speeches on the importance of fine Italian lingerie. Let’s just say all the young men in the class, who had all been sleeping suddenly woke up.) He spent four years traveling around the country trying to learn and understand as much as possible about his new home. Jones weighs in on Italy’s second religion, soccer and the widespread belief certain referees favor certain teams. He also looks at the deep scars stemming from the Years of Lead, a period of far left and far right perpetrated violence lasting from the late 60s into the 80s. As expected he discusses the country’s suffocating bureaucracy as well infamous corruption. Jones also spends time discussing Silvio Berlusconi. Thanks to his media ownership, populism, shady business practices and authoritarian methods Italy’s leader comes off as one part Benito Mussolini, one part Vladimir Putin and one part Donald Trump.

In retrospect The Dark Heart of Italy feels like one of those books that didn’t blow me away when I read it but after time grows on me. Let’s just say if you’re planning on visiting Italy, I’d grab a copy of this book to read on the flight over. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

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Filed under Europe, History, Memoir

The Last Palace by Norman Eisen

Last September, if I hadn’t been obsessing on college football and spending time outdoors in the nice fall weather, I would have heard on NPR or read online in the Washington Post about a great book with the irresistible title of The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House. Fortunately for me, the good people at my public library were wise enough to purchase a copy which I discovered a few weeks ago during one of my weekly library visits. In another stroke of good luck, I ended up enjoying Norman Eisen’s 2018 book.

From the ashes of World War I emerged the young nation of Czechoslovakia. In the years following the war one of its citizens, Otto Petschek made a fortune in the coal market and wound up with more money than he could comfortably spend. (Petschek probably wasn’t the only Czechoslovakian making lots of cash. According to Eisen, during the 1920s Czechoslovakia had the 10th largest economy in the world.) So, like one of the great European monarchs of ages past, he had a palace built for him and his family. Perhaps also like of those potentates of old, he imposed his will upon the palace’s design and construction, frequently overruling the presiding architect and eventually overseeing the entire operation. After years of delays and cost overruns Petschek would get his palace, but his mammoth pet project would leave him drained both physically and financially. To make matters worse, with rise of Nazism and the German invasion of Czechoslovakia Petschek’s heirs, being Jews would be forced to leave their palatial home never to return.

Being such a grand creation, over the decades Petschek’s palace would serve as home for the powerful. During World War II it was the official residence of Rudolf Toussaint, Wehrmacht general entrusted with occupying the area. (Toussaint was a fascinating figure. He never joined the Nazi Party, loathed the SS and as far as German generals go was pretty decent guy.) After the war it became the US ambassador’s residence and remains so to this day. (During the Velvet Revolution of 1989, America’s ambassador was none other than Shirley Temple Black. Believe it or not, she was also happened to be visiting 20 years early in 1968 and witnessed firsthand the country’s brief Prague Spring being mercilessly crushed by the Soviet military.)

If you went looking for someone to write a book like this, Eisen would be the right person for the job. Not only did he live in the palace as Obama’s appointed ambassador to the Czech Republic he’s also the son of a Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor whose own powerful story is included in the book. Plus, he writes well.

I love the idea of an object, in this case a palace playing a central role in a nation’s history. I enjoyed The Last Palace and it makes a great companion read to Madeleine Albright’s Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. I have no problems recommending The Last Palace.

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

Old Books Reading Project: Shepherd of Mankind by Willam E. Barrett

Like I mentioned in my previous post, when it comes to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge it’s easy to find books representing large countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia. But what about the small ones? And the really small ones? How about the smallest one of all? By that I mean Vatican City. My solution over the last few years has been to read a biography of a pope. Both times I did they were short biographies of Pope John XXIII, one by Christian Feldman and the other by Thomas Cahill. Lucky for me, I happen to possess in my personal library a biography of Pope Paul VI. For good, bad or otherwise it’s been gathering dust for years. Not long ago I decided to finally crack it open and give it a read.

Published in 1964, William E. Barrett’s Shepherd of Mankind: A Biography of Pope Paul VI is definitely a product of its time. Written by a devout Catholic, Barrett’s biography is adorned with an official Vatican imprimatur. While I’m hesitant to deem it a hagiography, nevertheless I was hard pressed to find anything critical or highly unflattering in this book about Pope Paul VI or, before his election Giovanni Montini. But hey, I knew that going in so no big deal.

What I did like about Shepherd of Mankind, when compared to the two above-mentioned papal biographies is the portion of the biography that focuses on the workings of the Vatican. (This is of course to be expected, before he became Pope John XXIII, Angelo Roncalli spent much of his career outside the Vatican, serving in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and France.) For years Montini was Pope Pius XII’s right hand man in charge of Vatican domestic affairs. In 1954, Pius appointed Montini Archbishop of Milan, in a move Barrett hints was to get him out of the Pope’s hair. (According to Barrett, Pius, plagued with escalating health issues and growing cranky with age began seeing Montini’s interruptions as bothersome. Employing the age-old tactic of Promoveatur ut amoveatur or promote him to remove him, he exiled him to Milan.)

But to Montini’s credit, during his four years in Milan he flourished. While serving as Archbishop he raised funds to build new churches, and actively engaged in dialog with artists, intellectuals and non-catholics like atheists, Protestants, Muslims and ex-Catholics. Despite seeing Communism as a false god and enemy of the Church, Montini was strongly pro-labor, regularly visiting the city’s factories and chatting with workers. He strove hard to bring dispirited ex-Catholics back to the fold and narrowly survived an attempt on his life when a would be assassin threw a bomb into his residence. (He had left the room only moments before it went off.)

Since it was published in 1964 the book pretty much ends when Montini becomes Pope. Sadly, much to my disappointment Barrett spends little time discussing the Second Vatican Council. Who knows, perhaps a book solely devoted to that episode of Church history I could end up read ing for the European Reading Challenge.

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Filed under Christianity, Europe, History