2019 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. In my perennial quest to win the coveted “Jet Setter” award 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, each year 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.

2018 was a down year for me since I read and reviewed just 15 books. I’m happy to report this year I rebounded nicely with a final tally of 23. 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, Iceland and even the micro-state of Vatican City. This year I even read a book about Moldova.

  1. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (Russia)
  2. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939–1940 by William R. Trotter (Finland)
  3. Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe (Iceland)
  4. The Fourth Figure by Pieter Aspe (Belgium)
  5. Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein (Moldova)
  6. A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova (Bulgaria)
  7. The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’ (Hungary)
  8. Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto (The Netherlands)
  9. The Swede by Robert Karjel (Sweden)
  10. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg (Denmark)
  11. The Prince’s Boy by Paul Bailey (Romania)
  12. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (United Kingdom)
  13. The Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White (Turkey)
  14. 1924: The Year That Made Hitler by Peter Ross Range (Germany)
  15. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss (France)
  16. Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made by Richard Rhodes (Spain)
  17. The Volunteer: One Man’s Mission to Lead an Underground Army Inside Auschwitz and Stop the Holocaust by Jack Fairweather (Poland)
  18. Angels and Demons by Dan Brown (Vatican City)
  19. The Italians by John Hooper (Italy)
  20. The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal (Austria)
  21. A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel by Edmund Levin (Ukraine)
  22. Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr (Czech Republic)
  23. North of Ithaka: A Granddaughter Returns to Greece and Discovers Her Roots by Eleni N. Gage (Greece)

 

As you might 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.

Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein

It’s great Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge gets me reading books about the smaller countries of Europe like Monaco, Lithuania and Luxembourg. Keeping with this spirit of adventure last week I went looking on Overdrive for something interesting and what did I find but a book about Moldova. For those of you who don’t know, Moldova is a small country in Eastern Europe lodged between Romania and Ukraine. Once called Bessarabia it spent most of the 20th century being tossed back and forth between Romania and Russia/USSR until finally achieving independence from the Soviet Union in the early 90s. It’s one of those out of the way places you pretty much never hear about unless something terribly horrible happens there like a major natural disaster or bloody armed conflict.

Over a hundred years ago something horrible did happen in what’s now called Moldova. Steven J. Zipperstein’s Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History tells the story of the fury that erupted in its capital Kishinev it’s lasting legacy. Just before Easter in 1903 a rabid mob, inflamed by false reports a young child had been ritually murdered by local Jewish elders descended upon Kishinev’s Jewish quarter. Three days later close to 50 of the town’s Jews would be dead, hundred beaten, countless women and girls raped and scores of Jewish homes and business looted.

Anti Jewish riots or pogroms like these had been happening in Imperial Russia for years but this one was different. Unlike previous massacres of this type quickly spread around the world, generating a ripple effect of outrage and activism. Instead of occurring deep inside Russia, Kishinev was on its extreme Western edge and in theory anyway closer to the power centers of Europe. Perhaps more importantly, by the turn of the 20th century the world was experiencing an initial wave of modern globalization. With a sophisticated network of telegraph lines and undersea cables criss-crossing the planet, countless newspapers with the resources to dispatch correspondents via steamship and locomotive to the farthest reaches of the globe the world had become a much smaller place and news, wherever it happened traveled quickly. In addition, after decades of both Russian anti-semitism and advances in steamship technology America was home to a sizable Jewish population. Upon hearing the news of the pogrom Jews in America were outraged and quickly organized to not only aid the victims but also pressure the Russian government to safeguard the lives of their co-religionists. Elsewhere around the world Zionist leaders upon hearing the news from Kishinev lobbied even stronger for a new Jewish homeland.

Pogrom is a well-researched and meaty. I must commend Zipperstein for covering a lot of ground in a relatively short book. I’d consider it a great follow-up read to just about all the Jewish history books I’ve read over the last decade or so. And hey, it’s about Moldova so how could I go wrong?

About Time I Read It: The Pawnbroker’s Daughter by Maxine Kumin

After having pretty good luck with Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying and Firoozeh Dumas’ Laughing Without an Accent I decided to make another pass through my public library’s section of memoirs, biographies and autobiographies. I ended up grabbing three books, one of which was Maxine Kumin’s 2014 memoir The Pawnbroker’s Daughter. Perhaps I was drawn to it because it looked familiar. Or maybe I couldn’t resist the story of a small business owner’s daughter becoming a celebrated prize-winning poet. Regardless of my motivation, I whipped through Kumin’s short book and in the end felt I’d selected a pretty decent memoir.

The first third or so of The Pawnbroker’s Daughter was my favorite. Born in 1925 to Jewish couple in Philadelphia, nevertheless as a young child she was taught by Catholic nuns at a neighboring convent. Barred from attending Harvard because she was a woman, she earned her BA and MA from nearby Radcliffe, its all women parallel. Near the end of World War II she fell in love with and married a young soldier who, secretly had been working on the Manhattan Project. While raising three children she continued to teach and most importantly, wrote poetry. Over the course of her lifetime she received countless honors including the Pulitzer Prize and Poet Laureate.

While I thought middle portion of the book was merely OK, the last third of The Pawnbroker’s Daughter was more to my liking. Here, Kumin recalls how she and her husband traded the hustle and bustle of city life for that of a farm in rural New Hampshire. Recalling how they cared for horses, renovated a dilapidated barn and farmhouse and rehabilitated crop fields all struck a familiar chord with me, since recently I also relocated to the country after spending my entire adult life living in a city.

The Pawnbroker’s Daughter won’t make my year-end Best of List, but it didn’t leave me disappointed either. Judging by the snippets of her poetry she managed to weave into her memoir I’m left believing she was a heck of poet over the course of her career. Reading her memoir has left me wanting to explore Maxine Kumin the poet and if I do, you’ll read all about it on this blog.

Soviet Spotlight: Where the Jews Aren’t by Masha Gessen

Growing up I had a fondness for old atlases, almanacs, stamps, encyclopedias and the like. Probably because I had nothing else better to do I’d pour over these artifacts for hours on end, losing myself in a forgotten world of vanished countries, colonies, semi-idependent realms and puppet states like the Free City of DanzigTannu Tuva and Manchuku. One day while looking over an old map I came across an odd sounding place deep in Soviet Asia called the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. From what I could tell, it looked like at one time anyway the Jews of the USSR had their own designated homeland. Intrigued, I wondered how I could learn more about this strange place. Alas unfortunately, this was in age before the Internet. So, unless I wanted to hop a bus downtown to my city’s central library and enlist the services of a talented and helpful reference librarian I had few resources at my disposal. To me anyway, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast would remain a mystery.

But few things are able to remain a mystery forever. After hearing great things about the writing of Russian-American journalist and LGTBQ activist Masha Gessen I went searching for her books on Overdrive where I stumbled across an available Kindle edition of her 2016 book Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region. Here after all these years was entire book devoted to this place I’d heard of so long ago. Naturally, I borrowed a copy of Gessen’s book and quickly went to work reading it. I mean come on, what else am I supposed to do?

According to Gessen, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, (to makes things somewhat easier in her book she refers to it as Birobidzhan, after its capital) was born in an era when the newly proclaimed USSR, despite its many authoritarian excesses, instead of persecuting the Jews like its Tsarist predecessors had done, saw them as yet another nationality to be incorporated into the Soviet Union realm. For the greater socialist good Yiddish writers were encouraged to produce pro-Soviet literature while Yiddish theatre flourished thanks to Soviet patronage. Before long Communist leaders set aside a slice of territory in East Asia on the border with China to be the Jews’ new Soviet homeland. Despite its remote location, swampy terrain, and complete lack of infrastructure the Jews of the young USSR were strongly encouraged to make Birobidzhan their new home, with the government supplying one-way tickets and enlisting the services of Jewish writer David Bergelson to sing the praises of the new Jewish Socialist paradise. Later, after World War II with their villages destroyed and families wiped out many Soviet Jews who’d survived the Holocaust migrated East to Birobidzhan in hopes of rebuilding their shattered lives.

Sadly, once Stalin turned against the Jews in the twilight of his reign Birobidzhan became an empty dream. Jewish leaders were imprisoned with many, like Bergelson executed on bogus charges of treason or “rootless cosmopolitanism.” Eventually, Birobidzhan became a Jewish territory in name only.  Even after Stalin’s death in the early 1950s Soviet Jews saw little value in living in Birobidzhan. The modern state of Israel became the preferred Jewish national homeland as evident by the roughly one million Soviet Jews who immigrated to Israel once given the chance.

Where the Jews Aren’t is great book for people like me who love reading about those quirky and forgotten parts of history. It also makes great follow-up reading to Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry Lev Golinkin’s memoir, A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka and Paul Goldberg’s 2016 debut novel The Yid. I enjoyed Gessen’s book and look forward to reading more of what she’s written.

About Time I Read It: A Child of Christian Blood by Edmund Levin

I must have a weakness for books about Ukraine. From Andrey Kurkov’s novel Death and the Penguin to Askold Krushnelnycky’s An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History to Tim Judah’s In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine I’ve featured a number of these books on my blog. Succumbing to my weakness for books about Europe’s second largest country I borrowed through Overdrive a copy of Edmund Levin’s 2014 book A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel.

A Child of Christian Blood is the tragic story of Mendel Beilis. A non-practicing Jew, father of five, and clerk at a Kiev brick factory lived an uneventful life until a young neighbor boy was found murdered. Like something out of Kafka’s The Trial, a few months later without a shred of evidence Beilis was sent to prison for two years (under Russian law, a prisoner had no right to legal counsel until he was charged) before being formally charged with blood libel, the impossible crime of killing a Christian boy by draining his blood for the purpose of making Passover matzos.

Unfortunately for Beilis, the deck was horribly stacked against him. According to Levin, the reactionary and rather dim-witted Tsar Nicholas II was a notorious anti-semite, who saw Beilis’s trial as the perfect opportunity to bolster his decrepid  monarchy by scapegoating the country’s Jews. In hopes of pleasing the Tsar the Empire’s resources were marshalled against Beilis. Promises were made should Beilis be found guilty judge and prosecution alike would receive generous promotions. An array of “expert witnesses” (one of which, Alexeevich Sikorsky was the father of aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky) were enlisted to testify blood libel was practiced by Russia’s Jews and therefore Beilis was the murderer. Tsarist officials selected a jury composed solely of rural residents, fearing one made up of educated, Kiev urbanites would likely vote for acquittal.

To risk sounding alarmist I saw a few similarities between Tsarist Russian and today’s America. The societies of early 20th century Imperial Russian and Ukraine were starkly divided between conservatives and liberals, much like that of early 21 century America. Today in our country we see a divided media with right wing cable news, websites and talk radio promoting conservative views while print media and politicized late night talk shows lean liberal. A hundred years ago the only news media Russia and Ukraine had were newspapers but those too were a cacochany of conservative and liberal voices. (Covering the Beilis trial for one liberal Russian newspaper was Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, father of Lolita author Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov.) But probably my most disturbing takeaway from A Child of Christian Blood was seeing just how many ambitious officials bought into the Tsar’s antisemitc agenda in hopes of advancing their careers. Like the Sarah Sanders Huckabees of the world who parrot Trump’s lies they forget whenever autocrats are dethroned their toadies fall with them.

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.

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.