About Time I Read It: The Italians by John Hooper

For as long as I’ve been done the European Reading Challenge I’ve included a book about Italy. Last year it was Tobias Jones’s The Dark Heart of Italy and in previous years I spotlighted works of historical fiction like Tariq Ali’s A Sultan in Palermo and Dasa Drndic’s Trieste to nonfiction fare like Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi’s The Monster of Florence and John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels. In 2014 it was In the Sea There are Crocodiles, Italian writer Fabio Geda’s novelization of Afghan refugee Enaiatollah Akbar’s five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy. Chances are, if I’m doing the European Reading Challenge, I’m gonna read a book about Italy.

John Hooper’s 2015 The Italians had been on my radar for the last three or four years before I borrowed a Kindle copy through Overdrive. Like Tobias Jones, Hooper is also a British journalist, having worked for both the Guardian and Observer newspapers and now covers Italy and the Vatican for the Economist. Also like Jones, Hooper has written a book that paints Italy in broad yet nevertheless revealing strokes – and entertaining ones.

According to Hooper, Italy is nation of contradictions. Proudly Catholic and home to the Vatican, it’s also fiercely anticlerical. Judging by the country’s declining birthrate many Italians are ignoring the Church’s prohibition on birth control. For a nation that fought long and hard to unify itself in the 19th century, the wealthy and industrialized North still can’t stand the impoverished South and visa versa. Organized crime syndicates like the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and Neapolitan Camorra plague the country but also generate 10 percent of Italy’s GDP, and yet a 2009 European Commission report revealed the United Kingdom’s violent crime rate was eight times that of Italy.

No other example from The Italians sums up both Italy’s reputation for bureaucratic lunacy as well as its national pastime for fantasia, a word Hooper translates as meaning “somewhere on the permeable frontier between imagination and creativity” like the case of the Italian army battalion Terzo Corpo designato d’Armata. In 1950 with the Cold War in full gear and Stalin’s armies firmly in control of Eastern Europe many feared the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact would soon invade America’s NATO allies like Italy. To deter them, the Italian high command secretly created an army of 300,000 troops based in Padova. However, even with a real commander-in-chief this army existed only on paper. Over the years tons of paperwork was generated in the form of promotions, payroll records, procurements and the like. If any Soviet spies operating in Italy picked up even snippets of this information they’d report back to Moscow the existence of a 300,000 man army and perhaps think twice about invading.

If any of you plan on traveling to Italy for your next vacation, do yourself a huge favor and read Hooper’s The Italians before you leave. You’ll be glad you did.



The Wolf of Sarajevo by Matthew Palmer

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

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

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

About Time I Read It: The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell

I never jumped on the Scandinavian crime fiction bandwagon. Back in the late 2000s and earlier 2010s when the genre was enjoying its peak in popularity, it seemed like I was the only one riding the bus or hanging out at the coffee shop who wasn’t reading something by Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo or Henning Mankell. No matter how many of my friends, co-workers and fellow book bloggers raved about the stuff I never felt the urge to read any of it. But over the last few years as I participated in reading challenges like Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge and Introverted Reader’s Books in Translation Reading Challenge, slowly but surely found I myself reading thrillers, crime fiction and assorted noir-like novels set in other countries, frequently penned by foreign authors. In retrospect, I’m thinking well, why shouldn’t I? For as long as I can remember, I’ve been intensely curious about the life, politics and goings on in countries around the world. So, if Dostoyevsky thought the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons, then I’m pretty confident a piece of crime fiction can serve as a kind of window onto a nation’s soul.

Therefore, with all those past recommendation in mind and duly inspired by two above-mentioned reading challenges, I recently grabbed a copy of Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga from the good people at my public library. After what felt like only a few pages I soon realized why everyone has been so gaga over Scandinavian crime fiction. Darkly realistic, morally complex and set in an exotic while at the same time not too terribly alien environment, I can now see why these Nordic noir novels have been so popular with American readers. On top of that, Mankell’s novel is smart, fast-paced and entertaining.

Set in 1991, The Dogs of Riga begins when a life raft containing a pair of well-dressed dead bodies washes ashore on an out-of-the-way Swedish beach. After determining the two men were shot execution style and hailed from Eastern Europe, local Inspector Kurt Wallander’s search to solve the crime takes him across the Baltic to Latvia, at that time still part of the Soviet Union when the USSR was slowly collapsing, but hadn’t collapsed completely. In his quest for answers Wallander soon finds himself caught in the middle between those in Latvia who would rather live under Soviet rule and those who yearn for political independence.

After enjoying The Dogs of Riga as much as I did I’m ready not only for more of Henning Mankell’s fiction but also more Nordic noir. So, even though I’m a big fan of nonfiction, don’t be surprised when you see more stuff like The Dogs of Riga featured on this blog. Of course keeping in mind how popular that fiction is, I doubt any of my blog’s readers will be disappointed.

Virgins, Crime, and Florence of Arabia

Sorry folks, I just haven’t been in the mood to blog. Honestly, I’m not sure why I’ve been slacking off so much. Maybe after doing this blog for six years I’m starting to feel burned-out. Maybe age is catching up with me and I no longer possess the intellectual vigor I once had. Or maybe after working a long day at the office all I care to do during my free hours is just unwind and unplug. What I do know is I haven’t stopped reading. And that means regardless of any reluctance to blog, I need to do some writing. So, just as I’ve done in the recent past, let me do a little catch-up and get you all up to speed on what I’ve been reading, thanks to my local public library.

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay – McKay’s 2012 novel has been on my radar for a few years, ever since I read a favorable review on another book blog. It tells the story of Moth, an impoverished  young girl who winds up being sold into domestic servitude by her alcohol and drug addicted mother. After escaping the clutches of her employer, a physically abusive and emotionally unstable housewife trapped in a troubled marriage, she naively falls in with a group of girls residing in a local “infant school” or relatively upscale brothel specializing in providing fresh young girls (“near whores” as they call themselves) to older, well-healed men. While living in the brothel, she’s befriended by a crusading woman doctor who warns her of the “virgin cure”: the mistaken belief held by some syphilitic men that sex with a virgin girl will cleanse them of their diseased blood and thus cure them of the disease.

The Virgin Cure did not disappoint and like any good book that took me a few years to get around reading, I wished I’d read it sooner. I enjoyed McKay’s writing and especially enjoyed her depiction of New York City in 1871 with all its grinding poverty, violence and wide gap between rich and poor. So much did I enjoy The Virgin Cure I think I’d also like to read her 2006 multiple award-winning novel The Birth House.

The Best American Crime Reporting 2009 edited by Jeffrey Toobin – I used to totally dig on anthologies. I loved reading stuff like The Best American Science and Nature Writing, The Best American Essays and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. I have fond memories of sitting on the porch of a local brewpub one crisp early winter evening with a pint of beer in one hand and copy of The Best American Crime Writing: 2004 Edition: The Year’s Best True Crime Reporting in the other. And while I don’t consider myself a fan of true crime writing (or maybe I am and I just won’t admit it) I had an utterly enjoyable evening drinking great beer and reading engaging and well-written accounts of the human condition’s less savory manifestations. Therefore, with pleasant memories like these, I guess it’s no wonder when my public library offered me the opportunity to read The Best American Crime Reporting 2009 I seized it.

Even though the online reviews for The Best American Crime Reporting 2009 look a bit on the lukewarm side, I liked the book. Kudos to Toobin for choosing an interesting collection of diverse pieces covering a variety of stories, everything from Somali gang activity in Minneapolis-St. Paul to a Polish deconstructionist author who’s been accused of committing a murder that resembles something straight out of his own novel to the latest efforts in combating the ubiquitous scourge of shoplifting. While most anthologies tend to be uneven offerings, I enjoyed every one of Toobin’s selections.

Florence of Arabia by Christopher Buckley – I’ve been itching to read this one for close to a decade and just like with The Virgin Cure, I kicked myself for not reading it sooner. I expected great things from the man who wrote Thank You For Smoking and Buckley did not let me down. His 2004 novel is smart, fast-paced and funny as hell. When our heroine is sent to a Middle East emirate to start the region’s first Arabic language satellite TV station for women chaos and hilarity ensues. If you have any interest in the Arab world this novel is for you. If you’ve been closely following events in this part of the world for a long time then this novel is definitely for you.

About Time I Read It: The Skies Belong Us by Brendan I. Koerner

Each year, there’s about a dozen or so works of nonfiction that create an amazing amount of hype. These are the kind of books that get rave reviews and make notable year-end lists. Based on my experience, when a book generates a ton of positive buzz and propels its author on that much sought-after high-profile interview circuit, it’s usually worth reading. But no matter how popular and praised a newly published book might get, I frequently find myself skeptically wondering  just how good it is. Of course, understanding that everyone’s tastes are different, even though a particular book might be loved by millions, who’s to say I’ll still enjoy it? (As an example, I point to Katherine Boo’s 2012 book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity I found her writing a bit herky-jerky at times and the book’s pace not entirely to my liking. Obviously, I had no idea what I was talking about because her book went on to win every award on the planet and sold like hotcakes.) Therefore, I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to know just how good a book is I had to read it myself.

Back in 2013, Brendan I. Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking was one of those much talked about books. Not only was it featured on CNN and NPR, my local alternative newsweekly Willamette Week even did a feature on it. Viewers of Book TV were able to catch the book’s author delivering a promotional lecture. And lastly, esteemed book blogger Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness added it to her stack of that summer’s reading. The Skies Belong to Us was shaping up to be one popular book.

Like many books that become popular and then fade into the background as they’re replaced by the next big literary thing, I eventually forgot about The Skies Belong to Us. But of course once a book’s popularity cools off, it’s easier to find an available copy at the public library. So last weekend, during one of my regular trips to the public library I spotted a copy of The Skies Belong to Us. Thinking it would be a perfect opportunity to discover if Koerner’s 2013 book was worthy of all the high praise it elicited I eagerly grabbed it.

The Skies Belong to Us, as its subtitle declares, vividly recounts what could be called America’s golden age of hijacking, which lasted from about 1968 to 1973. Long before No Fly Lists, walk-through body scanners and TSA pat-downs, desperate individuals were hijacking commercials airliners at a furious pace. Although in today’s age we take for granted such simple security measures like pre-flight metal detectors and baggage X-rays. However, 40 years ago these, at least in the beginning of this early war on terror, were not utilized. (Their implementation was resisted strongly by both the airlines and the federal government as being too expensive to implement and too inconveniencing for air travelers.) Without these safeguards in place, political extremists of varying agendas, the psychologically unbalanced and even a few daring con men (let’s just say D.B. Cooper wasn’t the only one to parachute out of a jet with big wad of extorted cash) were hijacking planes one after another. Sometimes several jets would get hijacked in one week. On at least one occasion, two planes were hijacked in a single day.

While there’s many fascinating hijackers from this now largely forgotten era of modern American history, Koerner wisely elected to focus on the story of Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, a modern-day interracial Bonnie and Clyde who successfully hijacked an American airliner to Algiers. After being granted sanctuary by Algeria’s left-leaning authoritarian government, the couple joined a small expat community of African-American radicals. After growing tired of life under Algerian rule Holder and Kerkow fled to Paris. There in Paris, Kerkow, a former back-country girl from Coos Bay, Oregon became fluent in French and quickly remade herself into a stylish and sophisticated woman. Holder on the other hand, suffering from both a severe anxiety disorder and PTSD stemming from his multiple combat tours in Vietnam, drifted aimlessly.

The is an excellent book. I found it darn near impossible to put down. Not once while quickly burning through The Skies Belong to Us did I tire of it or encounter a dry stretch in the narrative. Easily, this is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read this year. (It also makes for fantastic follow-up reading to Andreas Killen’s 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America.) I Highly recommended this terrific piece of narrative nonfiction.

Immigrant Stories: 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev

I’ve mentioned in a few of my earlier posts that I have a soft spot for flawed protagonists who manage to do well in spite of themselves. Crazy thing is I haven’t actively sought out books staring these kind of characters. But for whatever reason or reasons they keep falling into my lap. The latest one to cross my path is Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray. Originally published in his native Bulgaria back in 2008, it went on to win a pair of awards including Bulgarian novel of the year. Thankfully, for Western readers an English language edition was published by Open Letter in early 2013. I stumbled across a copy of 18% Gray during one of my weekend public library visits and was inspired to read it thanks to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Not knowing a single thing about the book or its author, I grabbed it only because I could use a piece of Bulgarian fiction for the challenge. But fortunately for me, I got lucky. I was pleasantly surprised by Karabashliev’s novel. And let’s be serious – how often does one find a book by a Bulgarian author?

18% Gray tells the story of Zack, Southern California-dwelling Bulgarian immigrant who’s found himself in a bit of a predicament. Depressed after his wife has left him and hating both his dead-end job and the boss that comes with it, Zack slips across the border into nearby Tijuana for a little adult-oriented R and R. What starts as a little bar-hopping soon degenerates into a huge drunken bender. By the end of his alcohol-fueled misadventure he’s inadvertant stopped a drug-related murder, beat-up a pair of total strangers, stolen a van and found himself in possession of a duffel bag of high-grade marijuana. Zack then sets off on a cross-country journey to NYC in hopes of selling his illicit loot for a handsome price.

I enjoyed 18% Gray. Even with all the flashbacks such as former life in Bulgaria, his college days in the US and his overall frustrations with living in the states, the action keeps coming. And above all, it’s funny. Zack is a bit of a loser, but he’s not stupid or mean. Deserted by his wife and lamenting his mediocre life, Zack just wants to unload the weed, make a huge pile of cash and go on to be the successful photographer he’s always wanted to be. But before that can happen, he must arrive safely in New York with his precious cargo intact. And that won’t be easy.

Like I mentioned at the beginning, I was pleasantly surprised by 18% Gray. I have no reservations recommending it to readers seeking a little adventure and more than a few chuckles. Feel free to give it a shot.

2014 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

Over the last few years, my consumption of fiction has grown considerably compared to what it was only a few years ago. Heck, in January of 2009 I posted on my old Vox site that during the preceding year I’d read only two measly works of fiction. But as we all know, tastes change. So for whatever reason, nowadays I find myself reading a significant amount of fiction.

So much fiction that for the first time, I’m able to post a top ten list of my favorite fiction from 2014. This covers the best English language fiction I read over the course of the year.

  1. You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik – Dead Poets Society meets The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”
  2. Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst – I had a hard time deciding if Furst’s earlier novels The Spies of Warsaw, Mission to Paris or Spies of the Balkans were better books and therefore more deserving of being included on my list. But his Midnight in Europe made me wanna read everything in his Night Soldiers series. So Midnight in Europe it shall be.
  3. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow – Hard not like a great debut novel. Harder still to not like one that’s set in my hometown of Portland, Oregon.
  4. The Coffee Trader by David Liss – To quote a librarian at my public library “a Portuguese-Jewish trader partners with a sexy Dutch widow to corner the coffee market. Who knew 17th century commodities trading could be so suspenseful? ” What more could I want from a novel?
  5. Harvard Square by André Aciman – Two North African immigrants, one Jewish and the other Muslim could not be more different from each other. But their unlikely friendship helps make for a thoroughly enjoyable novel.
  6. The Expats by Chris Pavone – Who wants to read a novel about a bored, stay at home mom in Luxembourg? Probably no one. Make her an ex-CIA assassin and have her solve a mystery or two and you’ve got a winner.
  7. The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein – For me anyway, the conflict between science and faith has always made for fascinating reading. When you see that conflict played out in a novel it’s a very special thing.
  8. Border Angels by Anthony Quinn – If you told me I’d fall in love with a mass-marketed, paperback edition of a crime thriller set in Northern Ireland I would have called you crazy. Well, I did. Quinn’s novel is fast-paced, intelligent and entertaining.
  9. Jacob’s Oath by Martin Fletcher – Two young Holocaust survivors meet and fall in love amidst the ruins of postwar Germany. Perfect to read alongside Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent.
  10. Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement – A fictional account of the Mexican drug wars from the perspective of a young woman coming of age in the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico.

So what jumps out at me when I survey this list? Seven of these ten books are set abroad, with six out of the seven set in Europe. Education is a recurring theme with Harvard Square and The Explanation for Everything both set at universities on the American East Coast, while You Deserve Nothing taking place at an exclusive high school in Paris. Over half the novels on the list are set at least ten years in the past with The Coffee Trader reaching all they way back to the 17th century. Lastly, I find it surprising that The Expats, You Deserve Nothing and The Girl Who Fell from the Sky are all debut novels.

Trust me, it wasn’t easy proclaiming a winner. But after much consideration, my favorite piece of fiction from 2014 has to be Chris Pavone’s The Expats. His debut novel did not disappoint me. I have no problems recommending it, or any other novel on this list.