Funny, I’ve never read a novel set in Switzerland. Last week while looking for books I could read for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I noticed there was an available copy of Rose Tremain’s novel The Gustav Sonata. Seeing it’s set Switzerland I was tempted grab it. But not knowing anything about Tremain’s 2016 novel I was a bit hesitant. However, after seeing it won the 2016 Jewish Book Award for fiction and received a glowing review in the Guardian I decided secure a copy. After whipping through it in no time I knew I’d made the right decision.
The Gustav Sonata begins a few years after the conclusion of the Second World War when two five-year old boys meet in kindergarten. When Gustav meets Anton, he’s a sad Jewish boy choking back tears. Gustav is immediately drawn to him and takes him under his wing. Before long Gustav finds sanctuary as a treasured guest of Anton’s well to do and loving family. Unfortunately, Gustav’s own home life is less than stellar. Since his father’s death he and his mother have lived a hand to mouth existence, made worse by his mother’s struggles with physical and mental health issues as well as alcohol abuse. Despite the two boys’ differences and Anton’s frequent bouts of nervousness and self-doubt (today he’d probably be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder) a strong bond develops between them, leading to an intense life-long friendship.
Gustav and Anton’s relationship is a reflection of post war Switzerland as whole. Looking back decades later many in that country and around the world condemn Switzerland for its reluctance and eventual refusal to admit Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. This has led to debates on what should be the country’s priorities during times of extreme emergency. Just as Anton and especially Gustav explore and reflect on the successes and failures of their respective parents so others have scrutinized the actions of previous generations of Swiss when faced with tough moral choices.
I found The Gustav Sonata well written, moving and engaging. With a story that begins in the aftermath of World War II and continues for half a century The Gustav Sonata makes a nice companion novel to All the Light We Cannot See. It’s left me wanting to read more stuff by the novel’s author Rose Tremain. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you see more of her novels featured on my blog.
Tony Judt is one of those writers I’ve wanted to read, yet never have. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always wanted start with his multiple prize-wining Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 but I’ve been scared to do so since it’s well over 800 pages. Even my attempts to read his shorter books like The Memory Chalet and Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century ended in failure because I had to return both books to the library before even starting them.
As you might remember from my previous post, I’ve been hankering to read some quality 20th century history. Therefore, during my recent flurry of book borrowing I decided to once again give Judt a try. In my quest to greater understand the 20th century a few weeks ago I secured a copy of Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century from my public library.
Instead of a conventional history book devoted to a selected time period that proceeds in tidy chronological order Reappraisals is a collection of essays, mostly in the form of book reviews for publications like the New York Review of Books and New Republic. Rest assured, these are not puff pieces but thoughtful and intelligent reflections on the notable personalities and key events of the last century.
Reappraisals isn’t light reading. Judt was erudite as hell and his writing reflects a rich and sophisticated vocabulary. While one might expect to find chapters on Pope John Paul II, Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair in a book like this, perhaps only the extremely well read weren’t surprised to see lengthy essays on the life and significance of French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, Austrian-French novelist Manès Sperber and Polish philosopher and intellectual dissident Leszek Kołakowski. But for readers who want to learn and be intellectually challenged this book is ideal. Judt’s chapter length discussions on pivotal events like the Cuban Missile Crises, Six Day War or Fall of France are done with considerable depth and opinion. Reappraisals is definitely the thinking person’s guide to the 20th century.
I’m sure you know by now I’ve been searching high and low for historical novelists whose writing an Alan Furst fan like myself can happily sink my teeth into. After having a modicum of success exploring the fiction of Jenny White, Sam Eastland and Jonathan Coe I kept searching. Last June, by a stroke of good luck I discovered Tom Gabbay’s novel The Lisbon Crossing. Set in Portugal during the early years of the World War II, I found his 2007 novel the kind of thing an Alan Furst fan could enjoy. But while I generally liked it, I kept wondering what else could be out there? Could there be another novelist whose kind of historical fiction I could get into, just like that of Alan Furst?
This rather quirky quest of mine would take me back to Portugal, and to a writer I’d sadly neglected to consider. During one of my visits to the public library I found of copy of David Liss’ novel The Day of Atonement. Picking it up to do a quick inspection, I was intrigued by the novel’s plot: a Portuguese Jew, after fleeing Lisbon years earlier as a child returns to the nation of his birth masquerading as an English businessman. Remembering how much I enjoyed Liss’ earlier novel The Coffee Trader, I figured I’d also enjoy The Day of Atonement. Come to find out I was right.
The Day of Atonement is a well-written and fast-paced novel set in mid-18th century Lisbon, a city as picturesque as it is dangerous. Our hero navigates the city’s dim alleys and cut-throat bars not to conduct business per se but to exact revenge. But will he pull off his bold plan before being unmasked not simply as an imposter, but also a despised Jew?
With 10 novels to his name there’s no shortage of stuff by David Liss for me to read and hopefully enjoy. I can’t wait to do so.
You might remember from one of my previous posts it’s good I read Adam Kirsch’s The People and the Books before I read Mark Glickman’s Stolen Words because it gave me a deeper understanding of Judaism’s most revered texts. This in turn provided me with greater context and understanding of the Nazi’s widespread plundering and destruction of the Jewish books of occupied Europe. Likewise, by reading Stolen Words prior to Anders Rydell’s The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance has only enhanced my understanding of the Nazi’s mission to forcibly acquire, and in some cases destroy Europe’s books.
According to Rydell, a Swedish journalist and editor, the Nazi’s had a well-formulated plan. As they conquered Europe, special teams would confiscate not just Jewish books and books owned by Jews or Jewish entities but any books of a “degenerate” nature. Usually, that meant books deemed Communist or associated with Freemasons. (The Nazi’s loathed Freemasonry, thinking its arcane rituals too akin to Jewish religious rites.) Once they had all forbidden books they wanted (and destroyed what they couldn’t use) they could, like something out of Orwell’s 1984, deny the enslaved masses access to contrary opinions, thus giving the Nazis a monopoly on the truth. In time, the Germans would go one step further. Select academics and government propagandists would intensely study the confiscated books, mining them for information to help promulgate the Nazi’s twisted pseudo scientific agenda.
Just like with Stolen Words, one walks away from the Book Thieves saddened that so many of the confiscated books are lost forever, or exist in libraries or private collections and can never be returned to their rightful owners. (Or worse, their current possessors refuse to repatriate them to their owner’s descendants.) Extensive libraries across Europe from Vilnius to Rome vanished into the Nazi’s black hole. The Turgenev Library of Paris, famous for its collection of Russian materials, including Marxist texts was shipped to Germany in its entirety. Later, when the Soviets took Berlin they in turn took the books to the USSR. Sadly, 75 years later only a fraction of the Turgenev’s books exist. Sad also to think close to 100 million books were destroyed when the Germans invaded the USSR.
The Book Thieves is an excellent book. Not only does it make a worthy companion to Stolen Words, but it’s great reading for bibliophiles and history buffs.
Filed under History, Judaica
Besides inspiring me to read books dealing with all kinds of European countries, Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has also got me reading more fiction. Probably because I’m a fan of history, most the fiction I’ve been reading over the last few years has been of the historical variety.
The latest piece of history fiction to catch my eye is Laurie Zico Albanese’s Stolen Beauty. Noticing the 2017 novel is set in Austria, I grabbed a copy from my public library knowing I could apply towards the Rose City Reader’s challenge. Making my decision easier was knowing Stolen Beauty is historical fiction and jumps back and forth between two different but equally pivotal periods in Austria’s history.
Stolen Beauty is the story of two different yet nevertheless related women, in this case aunt and niece. Our story begins with Maria, a young newlywed living in Vienna on the eve of the Anschluss or German annexation of Austria. Being Jewish, naturally she’s terrified of what the Nazis have in store for her and her family. As tension builds the story then shifts backwards a generation or so to the same city and we see Maria’s niece Adele as a young woman who comes of age during the city’s fin de siècle period of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and antisemitic populist mayor Karl Luger. It’s during this portion of the novel Vienna becomes a complex character of its own. With its lively salons, avant-garde art scene and Mitteleuropa sophistication, it rivaled Paris as another City of Light. However, beneath that veneer one could see portends brewing of different kind of Europe, one of ethically based nation states and dark, murderous antisemitism.
Stolen Beauty held my interest and entertained me. Not only did the novel appeal to my inner historian but I enjoyed seeing the two female protagonists evolve as they matured and faced new challenges. If you follow my lead and end up reading Stolen Beauty, I would encourage you to also read Death and the Maiden, one of the Max Liebermann mysteries by Frank Tallis set in turn of the century Vienna. Stolen Beauty is an enjoyable novel and I’m glad I stumbled across a copy.
We’ve all been told never judge a book by its cover. Perhaps I should have remembered that bit of advice when I impulsively grabbed a library copy of Ayelet Tsabari’s short story collection The Best Place on Earth. For some silly reason, after taking one look at the book’s brightly colored cover art I immediately assumed it was about India. Nope, I was wrong. You see, Ayelet Tsabari is a Mizrahi Jew of Yemeni heritage, born and raised in Israel but now living in Canada. Her debut collection of 11 short stories show life as it’s experienced by an array of mostly Mizrahi characters spanning the globe from Israel to Canada. Luckily for me, overall it’s a decent selection of stories. On top of that, come on, when does one come across a collection of short stories from a Mizrahi point of view? With that in mind, who cares if this book has nothing to do with India.
Seems like most short story collections contain stories you enjoy, stories that are so-so and some that just don’t work for you. While some of the stories in The Best Place on Earth I liked more than others, there weren’t any pieces I detested. My favorite story is probably “Casualties,” the tale of a young Israeli Army medic known as the “Moroccan firecracker” who supplements her army salary by selling black market gimel passes that medically excuses its pass holder from duty, allowing the conscript to flee the base for a bit of unauthorized R and R. For whatever reason, I enjoyed the stories set in Israel much more than the ones set in Tsabari’s current home of Canada. (Maybe Canada isn’t as relatively exotic, and therefore not interesting enough for me.)
I’m pleased to say Tsabari’s collection nicely compliments Rachel Shabi’s outstanding look at Israeli Mizrahi life We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands. On a related note, if you haven’t read Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World or Ariel Sabar’s My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq I welcome you to do so, especially after you’ve read The Best Place on Earth. Which I’m thinking, is a collection of short stories you just might possibly enjoy.
I’d read all kinds of cool things about Paul Goldberg’s 2016 debut novel The Yid, but seeing Portland Silent Reading Party co-host Karen reading a copy was the only recommendation I needed. Even though I easily found an available copy through my public library it seemed like it took forever to finally start reading it. However, when I did get around to cracking it open I burned through The Yid in nothing flat.
The inspiration for Goldberg’s darkly funny and intelligent novel is the little known period of 20th century history that occurred during the twilight years of Stalin’s reign called the Doctors’ Plot. During this period Soviet media was awash with stories of Jewish doctors, acting on orders from America, Great Britain and Israel were engaged in a nefarious conspiracy to murder high-ranking government officials and poison good Soviet citizens. Fortunately, before Stalin and his inner circle could begin mass arrests and deportations of the USSR’s Jewish citizens the Soviet dictator died. (I first learned of forgotten period years ago when I read Vladimir Pozner’s memoir Parting with Illusions.)
The craziness begins late one night in 1953 when a trio of Soviet secret police arrive to arrest Solomon Levinson. A retired actor from the now defunct State Jewish Theater who also spent time fighting for the Reds in the Russian Civil War, let’s just say Levinson knows how to handle a sword and handles it well. After swiftly dispatching the three government agents he teams up with a quirky band misfits who include surgeon Aleksandr Kogan; African-American émigré Frederick Lewis (whom in addition to English can speak Russian, Esperanto and Yiddish) and Kima Petrova a woman of modest means but powerful political connections. Taking inspiration from the Shakespearean theme of murdering a crazed monarch, Levinson and his band set out to rid the Soviet Union of Stalin before Stalin can enact his evil plans.
The Yid is a clever page turner. Who knows, maybe one of the reasons Goldberg is able to write such a wonderful novel is because he himself is a Jew who escaped the Soviet Union and came to America at the tender age of 12. Don’t be surprised if Goldberg’s excellent debut novel end up on my year-end list of best fiction.