Library Loot

Even though I’m making my way through several books right now I could not resist grabbing another sizable stack of reading material when I stopped by the public library yesterday while running errands. My modest small town library never ceases to surprise me with its impressive array of great books. Never underestimate your local public library! 

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

Library Loot

With a tall stack of library books by my bed I should be content with what I’ve got and continue reading my way through it. But after returning several books to the library the other day I felt reckless and borrowed more. Will I ever learn? Probably not. 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

2020 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 find 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 23 books, and for my efforts earned the coveted Jet Setter Award. I wasn’t as productive in 2020 but still managed to read and review 20 books 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 Belgium, Switzerland and even the micro-state of Vatican City. This year for this first time I’ll be including books representing Slovakia and Norway

  1. An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist by Richard Dawkins (United Kingdom)
  2. The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. by Carole DeSanti (France)
  3. The Last Battle by Cornelius Ryan (Germany)
  4. Warburg in Rome by James Carroll (Italy) 
  5. The Last by Hanna Jameson (Switzerland) 
  6. The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (Russia)
  7. Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith (Ukraine) 
  8. 1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Åsbrin (Sweden)
  9. Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs by Greg King and Penny Wilson (Austria)
  10. Masquerade: Dancing Around Death in Nazi Occupied Hungary by Tivadar Soros (Hungary)
  11. Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin (Slovakia)
  12. The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt by Julian Borger (Bosnia) 
  13. The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Spain) 
  14. Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne (Greece)
  15. An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew by Annejet van der Zijl (The Netherlands) 
  16. From Bruges with Love by Peiter Aspe (Belgium)
  17. Guilty Wives by James Patterson and David Ellis (Monaco)
  18. Prague Spring by Simon Mawer (Czech Republic)
  19. The Vatican Cop by Shawn Raymond Poalillo (Vatican City)
  20. The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb by Neal Bascomb (Norway)

It was about a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction for this years’ challenge, with fiction tallying slightly more with 11 books. Five books were translated from other languages, including one, Masquerade from Esperanto. Both The Last Battle and The Future is History made my 2020 Favorite Nonfiction list while The Last, Beautiful Animals and The Angel’s Game made the Favorite Fiction list. I declared The Angel’s Game my favorite novel of 2020. 

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.

2020 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

Now that I’ve posted my favorite nonfiction of 2020 it’s time to announce this year’s favorite fiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when these books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.

When I first sat down to write this post, I feared I hadn’t read enough fiction in 2020 to justify such a list. Lo and behold I soon realized I’d read a number of terrific novels over the course of the year.

  1. The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
  2. Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
  3. Judas by Amos Oz
  4. Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley
  5. Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne
  6. The Letter Writer by Dan Fesperman
  7. Polar Star by Marin Cruz Smith
  8.  The Last by Hanna Jameson
  9. The Accomplice by Joseph Kanon
  10. The Fourth Figure by Pieter Aspe

As for declaring an overall winner, that honor goes to The Angel’s Game by the late Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

Typical of my reading tastes, eight of theses novels are set outside the USA. Lastly, as many as six of these novels could be classified at crime drama and/or mystery. In last year’s post I made a similar observation, leading me to wonder if I’ve developed a taste for these genres. Seeing this trend continue in 2020 it looks like I have.

About Time I Read It: The Letter Writer by Dan Fesperman

I was in the mood for a little fiction after finishing “The Rest of Us” and Overdrive recommend I follow it up with Dan Fesperman’s The Letter Writer. How could I refuse a historical whodunnit set in New York City in the months following  Pearl Harbor in which a detective, newly arrived from North Carolina teams up with a mysterious “letter writer” who earns a living writing letters for the city’s illiterate immigrants, speaks five languages, has the manners and speech of a university professor, and possesses an almost supernatural ability to uncover priceless information? I mean come on, what’s not to like?

When a body is found floating in the Hudson River, Detective Woodrow Cain is sent to investigate. Through the assistance of Mr. Danziger, the above-mentioned letter writer he learns the murdered man was a recent German immigrant, likely Nazi sympathizer and a suspect in the recent fire of the ocean liner SS Normandie, which suspiciously caught fire while being converted to a troop ship. Proudly advertising himself as a dealer in “information” Danziger proves to be an invaluable guide to New York City’s diverse immigrant community, not to mention the city’s seedy underside. But no matter how helpful Danziger is to Cain’s investigation, nevertheless the detective suspects there’s more to Danziger than he lets on.

The Letter Writer has everything. There’s an out of his element detective with a tragic past who’s also a single dad to a young daughter. If trying to solve a series of murders wasn’t hard enough, his crooked, old-boy dominated police precinct thinks he’s either incompetent or an informant sent by higher ups to spy on them. There’s also action, romance, political intrigue and high level corruption. I was thoroughly entertained by The Letter Writer and have no reservations whatsoever recommending it.

Soviet Spotlight: Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith

The day at the public library I picked up Martin Cruz Smith’s Wolves Eat Dogs I also grabbed his 1989 thriller Polar Star. Published decades ago, I can still remember when  it was released to much fanfare and touted as a sequel to Cruz Smith’s mammoth best seller Gorky Park.

Instead of set in Moscow and environs like its predecessor, Polar Star takes place in the Bearing Sea mostly aboard a giant factory ship. As part of an inaugural joint venture between the USSR and the United States a small fleet of American-owned fishing boats pass their fish-laden nets up to the Polar Star to be processed, frozen, stored and later sold with the two parties sharing the profits. With the USSR deep into glasnost and perestroika expectations are running high both teams can work together for the greater good.

Deep inside the bowels of the huge factory ship is former Moscow Militia Inspector Arkady Renko, knee deep in fish guts slaving away on the production line. When one of the Soviet crew is found dead, Renko is quietly pressed into service to determine how she died, and to do so as quickly and discreetly as possible lest her untimely demise derail the fragile commercial alliance. His task is daunting one, made even more difficult by those who would rather call it a suicide and cover things up. Before long he learns just about everyone onboard the small flotilla is shady, secretive and potentially criminal. Think of it as Murder on the Orient Express meets The Deadliest Catch.

Polar Star, while an older thriller still packs a punch. (Although thanks to its age it now reads like historical fiction.) I enjoyed it even more than Cruz Smith’s more recent Wolves Eat Dogs. After enjoying Polar Star I now wanna read the entire Arkady Renko series.

City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai by Paul French

It only took me six years but in the summer of 2018 I finally got around to reading Paul French’s 2012 book Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. Not only did Midnight in Peking did make my Top Five Books of Summer but also my year-end list of Best Nonfiction. While I didn’t notice it at the time, that same summer another book by Paul French was released. City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai is another in-depth look at the seedy underside of a major Chinese city on the eve of World War II. Oddly enough, as much as I enjoyed Midnight in Peking I didn’t run out and get a copy of City of Devils. But I figured someday in the near future I’d read it.

Recently, I was bored, found myself searching Overdrive for something new to read and saw City of Devils was available to borrow. After downloading it to my Kindle I jumped into French’s 2018 book and never looked back. Just like Midnight in Peking there’s a good chance it make my year-end Best Nonfiction List.

Today we think of Shanghai as the ultra modern Paris of the Orient. China’s richest and largest city is blessed with a booming economy, futuristic skyline and a well deserved reputation as a global hub for international trade, finance and transportation. But in the decades prior to the Second World War Shanghai was a much different place. Thanks to a collection of unequal treaties imposed upon China by the Western powers and Japan, Shanghai, while technically a Chinese city, was home to several foreign settlements, each separately administered by British, French, American and Japanese authorities. Within these foreign enclaves Chinese sovereignty didn’t apply and a general sense of lawlessness prevailed. The city was home to thousands of Russian refugees who’d fled Communist rule as well as countless Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. Adding to this polyglot mix were a number of residents from Italy and the Philippines.

In its heyday, Shanghai, just like Mos Eisley on the planet Tatooine was a wretched hive of scum and villainy rife with gambling, prostitution, corruption, gun-running, drugs and alcohol. At the same time, coexisting with this vice was a lively world of wealth, opulence and sophistication as well-heeled crowds danced the night away in palatial ballrooms to the music of world-class orchestras. African American bands from Harlem served up cutting edge jazz to appreciative audiences on a nightly basis. Shanghai was a mixture of New York City, Paris, London and Roaring 20s mob-ruled Chicago with Russian and Yiddish overtones transported to the Orient.

Two self-made men, both of them foreigners, ruled free-wheeling Shanghai like modern royalty. One was “Lucky” Jack Riley,  U.S. Navy boxing champion and escaped convict, his introduction of slot machines to Shanghai revolutionized the city’s gambling scene. The other was “Dapper” Joe Farren, a Viennese Jew who went from professional ballroom dancer to nightclub mogul and with it Shanghai’s premier man about town. But, as history as shown us time and time again, impressive fortunes can fall as fast, or even faster than they rise and when it came to those of Lucky and Dapper there would be no exceptions.

I thoroughly enjoyed City of Devils. If you’re a fan of Erik Larson or anyone else who has the gift for writing nonfiction that reads like fiction this book is for you. I have no problem recommending this great book.