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.

About Time I Read It: The Arrogant Years by Lucette Lagnado

Back in 2011 I shared my thoughts on Lucette Lagnado’s 2007 family memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. I loved how she took me inside the long-vanished world of Old Cairo, a diverse and enchanting universe where a tapestry of cultures and religions existed side by side creating a place that was both European and Middle Eastern. For a book that didn’t make my year-end Favorite Nonfiction list The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit must have made a lasting impression on me. I say that because when I recently stumbled across a series of podcasts produced by Tablet magazine and saw one featuring an interview with Lagnado I immediately listed to it. I was delighted to learn she’d written a follow-up book called The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn which focused on the life of her mother. A few weeks later I borrowed an ebook of The Arrogant Years through my public library’s Overdrive portal. I’m pleased to say I found The Arrogant Years hard to put down, burning through it in a mere few days.

The Arrogant Years is the memoir of a family, as well as two very different worlds. The first of these long vanished worlds is that of old Cairo. Before General Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in 1954 Egypt was a place where Muslims, Jews and Christians easily coexisted. (For another great look at this forgotten time I can’t recommend enough Andre Aciman’s 1994 memoir Out of Egypt.) In a society that saw itself as more Levantine than Arab, conversant in French and culturally and intellectually akin to Europe Lagnado wistfully writes “it was possible to be Jewish and a pasha … Jewish and an aristocrat, Jewish and a friend to ministers and kings.” Living in such a cosmopolitan capital, it’s little wonder her mother, a young woman as beautiful as she was intelligent, would catch the eye of the Pasha’s wife. Knowing a gifted bibliophile when she saw one, she hired the gifted teen to oversee her husband’s massive library. (Perhaps the perfect role for someone who’d read the collected works of Proust in the original French by the age of 15.) Later, she’d catch another’s eye, that of a dashing Jewish boulevardier, who, despite being over two decades her senior proposed marriage after a whirlwind courtship.

The second of these vanished worlds is mid-century America, specifically the provincial and segregated Jewish communities of New York City. Many synagogues were ethnically segregated, with North African and Middle Eastern Jews (many recent arrivals like Lagnado’s family) confined to one synagogue while those from Eastern Europe electing to worship in those of their own. Some synagogues, like the one favored by the Lagnados took a more traditional approach to worship by strictly segregating men and women, much to the displeasure of the young Lucette. Inspired by Emma Peel from the sixties British adventure TV series The Avengers she believed it was her heroic duty to overcome this injustice by slowly inching her chair week after week into the mens’ section. Keeping in mind the old-world sensitivities prevalent in her congregation one can only assume her modest fight for gender equality didn’t go exactly as she’d hoped.

While the Lagnados might have lived a charmed life in pre-Nasserite Egypt, in America things weren’t so easy. Her father never regained his stature as a wildly successful man about town. Her mother, forced to give up her dream job as the Pasha’s librarian, ultimately found a somewhat similar but perhaps not as glamorous job working for the Brooklyn Public Library. Lastly, if adjusting to life in America wasn’t tough enough, while in high school Lucette had win a life or death battle with cancer.

The Arrogant Years reminds me of other great memoirs I’ve read over the last several years like Carlene Cross’ Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith, and Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League. Memoirs like these might not get as much hype as say Tara Westover’s Educated but because they’re so well written and tell such amazing and unique stories need to be appreciated more. Consider The Arrogant Years more than a worthy follow-up to The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.

About Time I Read It: Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

As 2020 continues to live up to its annus horribilis reputation, I find myself turning to fiction, especially humorous fiction as a much-needed escape. To fulfill this need, last week I used Overdrive to download an ebook of Gary Shteyngart’s 2006 novel Absurdistan, a book I’d been itching to read for years, ever since I spotted a paperback edition shelved in the “librarian’s choice” section at my public library. Like so many backlisted books I’ve featured on this blog, I enjoyed the heck out of it and cursed myself for not reading sooner.

325-pound Misha Vainberg, aka Snack Daddy, son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, proud graduate of Accidental University and luxury loft-dwelling New York City resident finds himself stranded in Russia and unable to re-enter the United States after his mobster father offs a visiting Oklahoma businessman. Homesick for the Big Apple and missing his Dominican girlfriend, his desire to go home only grows stronger after a rival mobster assassinates Misha’s father by flinging a landmine at his Land Rover in full view of tourists in St. Petersburg. (Only to be followed by Misha recklessly bedding his late father’s 20-something widow.) With his best friend Alyosha-Bob (née Robert Lipshitz an American-born Jew from “the northern reaches of New York State”, who, after settling in “St. Leninsburg eight years ago and was transformed, by dint of alcoholism and inertia, into a successful Russian biznesman renamed Alyosha, the owner of ExcessHollywood, a riotously profitable DVD import-export business, and the swain of Svetlana, a young Petersburg hottie”) and loyal manservant Timofey in tow flies to the former Soviet Republic of Absurdistan to purchase an illicit Belgian passport courtesy of a debased local diplomat. Rechristened as Belgium’s newest citizen, Misha sets his sights on a future life somewhere in the EU and thus one step closer to America.

But then things get weirdly complicated – and comical. Before Misha and his companions can depart a civil war erupts sealing the borders and grounding international flights. Right after his girlfriend dumps him via email for her Russian emigre literature professor “Jerry Shteynfarb” (author of The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job and reputed lothario) he ends up falling in love with an American-educated local tourguide who Misha later learns is the cherished daughter of an Absurdistani strongman. Before he knows it he’s being feted like a future son-in-law and hired on as the war-torn country’s new Minister of Multicultural Affairs. Not bad for an obese, substance-abusing, anxiety-suffering, gangster rap-loving, $350-an-hour Park Avenue therapist-dependent son of a murdered Russian mobster.

The fictional, purportedly oil-rich Absurdistan Shteyngart has created bears a strong resemblance to Azerbaijan, with elements of Bosnia, Rwanda of the mid 1990s and Borat’s Kazakhstan. It probably resembles many former Soviet Republics bordering on Russia’s Southern flank, which after escaping Soviet domination, still hasn’t made the transition to full democracy and sadly, probably never will. Western consumer goods and other relatively luxurious amenities are available, but only to a small, largely corrupt well-to-do. Ruled by autocrats and plagued by perpetual ethnic conflict, life in the country resembles something akin to the Middle Ages as opposed the 21st century.

Absurdistan is funny as hell in a sick and wrong kind of way. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: Judas by Amos Oz

In late 2018 I was saddened by the news Israeli author Amos Oz had passed away. I’d only read Between Friends, his collection of eight interconnected short stories and short coming of age novel Panther in the Basement but longed to read more, especially his memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness. For some inexplicable reason earlier this week I found myself in the mood for more of his fiction so I borrowed an ebook version of his 2016 historical novel Judas. Of the three books of his I’ve read, I’m pleased to say I enjoyed this one the most. There’s even a good chance it will wind up making my year-end list of Favorite Fiction.

It’s 1959 and Jerusalem is a city divided between Israel and Jordan. Shmuel Ash, originally from Tel Aviv, is a young idealist who’s lost his way. His steady girlfriend recently dumped him to marry her boring ex-boyfriend. The socialist cell he’d been a member of, passionately debating in smoke-filled coffee shops the role of the enlightened proletariat collapsed under the weight of its idealogical differences. Bereft of funds after the bankruptcy of his family’s business he’s forced to quit his university studies, even though he’s on the cusp of graduating. Unmoored and with nothing to lose, he answers a help-wanted posting for a live-in caretaker for an elderly man. For a modest stipend plus room and board Shmuel stays up half the night bantering with Gershom Wald, a crutch-dependent invalid as cantankerous as he is erudite and brilliant. Sharing this eccentric household is Atalia Abarbanel, the beautiful 40-something widow of Gerhom’s dead son and daughter of Shealtiel Abravanel, onetime member of the Jewish National Council who, because of his opposition to making Israel a Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs was branded a traitor by his fellow Zionists and forced to resign in disgrace.

Surrounded by bookshelves stacked with dusty old tomes in a half-dozen languages Shmuel and Wald’s late-night arguments chiefly revolve around Israeli politics and, because Shmuel until recently was a religious scholar specializing in Jesus as viewed from a Jewish perspective, the role of Judas as betrayer. As they argue night after night, the reader begins to wonder if being a traitor is necessarily a bad thing. Fully aware “courageous people have appeared who were ahead of their time and were called traitors or eccentrics” Shmuel muses “anyone willing to change will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change and are scared to death of change and don’t understand it and loathe change.”

But no matter how much he debates Wald, nothing can take his mind off the beguiling Atalia. She drifts in and out of his presence, elusive yet nevertheless attentive. In spite of her aloofness, she invites him to share a series of chaste, though pleasant evenings on the town. During their conversations she regularly reminds him there’s been a series of admiring young men who preceded him as Wald’s caretaker and each one left broken hearted. But Shmuel is a young man in love and relishes their bittersweet relationship.

With its secluded alleyways, Hungarian restaurants, Romanian-born police officers and sizable first-generation immigrant citizenry, the Jerusalem of Amos Oz’s Judas feels more like the Jewish quarter of some pre-war European capital than a Middle Eastern city. Dark, wintery and possessing a distinct Mitteleuropa flavorJerusalem in essence becomes the novel’s fourth character.

Judas has been called a love story, coming of age novel, intellectual novel, historical novel, philosophical re-appraisal of the Biblical character of Judas and allegory for the modern state of Israel. Not only is it all of these things, it’s also a terrific novel. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: “The Rest of Us” by Stephen Birmingham

I was in the mood for a little Jewish history so I used Overdrive to borrow an ebook of Stephen Birmingham’s “The Rest of Us”: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews. Originally published in 1984, a Kindle version was released in 2015 and for the last couple of years I’ve flirted with borrowing a copy but never got around to it. Not knowing much about Birmingham’s book I went in with modest expectations. I’m happy to report “The Rest of Us” impressed the heck out of me, so much so it’s almost certain to make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction.

Jews had been immigrating to the United States for years, even before America was a nation. These larger waves of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth like many immigrants were initially looked down upon by many Americans, including their fellow Jews who’d arrived decades earlier from Germany. Most were dirt poor, spoke no English and possessed few, if any marketable skills. (Thankfully most, if not all were at least literate.) However, after only a generation or two their contributions in fields as diverse as motion pictures, radio, beauty products and even organized crime were unrivaled.

One wonders how such a modern miracle could occur. While the crowded and impoverished tenements of New York City were no picnic, and anti-Jewish prejudice abounded, relatively speaking it was heaven when compared to Imperial Russian with its murderous pogroms, state-sponsored anti-semitism and grinding poverty. In a freer country like the United States creative and ambitious forces pent up for generations could be unleashed. While imperfect by today’s standards, institutions like public schools, welfare agencies and a fledgling third-tier City College of New York helped recent immigrants and their native-born children master English, receive public assistance and get an education. Lastly, timing could have been everything with the Jews of Eastern Europe arriving at the turn of the 20th century  and thus being in right place at the right time to explore new and promising technologies like motion pictures and radio. Those who’d established or helped establish flourishing organized crime syndicates were poised to enter the bootlegging  trade once Prohibition was established, with many of the same players instrumental into turning the once sleepy desert town of Las Vegas into a gambling and entertainment Mecca after the Second World War.

If you love rags to riches stories, this book is for you. David Sarnoff went from a teenager selling newspapers on the streets to New York to a young radio operator banging out morse code messages (legend has it he was at his post taking incoming messages from the Titanic when it went down) to the head of RCA. When a young Szmuel Gelbfisz left Warsaw he was so poor he couldn’t bribe the border guards to let him enter Germany. After escaping containment he swam the Oder River, made his way across Germany and eventually to America where he became a successful glove maker, then salesman and eventually VP of sales. With several of his co-religionists he decided to produce feature-length motion pictures. Years later the world would know him as movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. Israel Isidore Beilin, who came to America as a five years old would become Irving Berlin, and despite not knowing how to read sheet music was a huge contributor to the Great American Songbook with such hits as “White Christmas, “Easter Parade” and “God Bless America.” Lastly, when nine year old Meier Suchowlański arrived from Russia who would have thought years later as Meyer Lansky he would build a vast international criminal empire and be cool as hell while doing it.

“The Rest of Us” isn’t just great Jewish history, but also American history. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: Masquerade by Tivadar Soros

Over the years I’ve read books translated from a variety of languages including Russian, Arabic, Italian, Albanian and Greek but I’ve never read anything translated from Esperanto. Esperanto, for those who don’t know is an international auxiliary language created in the late 19th century by Polish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof. Using the Latin alphabet with vocabulary borrowed from Romance and Germanic languages, combined with Slavic grammar Zamenhof hoped Esperanto would be so easy to learn and use it would become a universal second language, helping promote world peace and international understanding. While Esperanto might not have made the world a peaceful place it soon developed a kind of cult following among linguists, intellectuals and internationalists around the globe.

Thoughts of Esperanto were the furthest thing from my mind that day at the public library when I spotted Masquerade: Dancing Around Death in Nazi Occupied Hungary on the shelf. What caught my eye was the book’s author Tivadar Soros. Wondering if Tivadar was somehow related to billionaire philanthropist and human rights advocate George Soros I took a closer look at Masquerade and learned from its jacket blurb Tivadar was George’s father. I also learned Tivadar Soros’s 2001 memoir recalls the year he spent hiding under a false identity in Nazi occupied Hungary. Needing something set in Hungary something for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I grabbed Masquerade along with a few other books and headed to the automated check-out kiosk mere hours before my public library locked the doors in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID19.

I was pleasantly surprised by Masquerade. Initially I feared something translated from Esperanto might come across as wooden or clunky but kudos to Humphrey Tonkin for  crafting a translation that expertly captures the memoirist’s voice, one heavily ladened with Mitteleuropa charm, sophistication and, believe or not considering the circumstances, optimism. Tivadar comes across as a confident, urbane and intelligent man of the world, even if that world is crashing down around him.

Using the skills and connections he’d acquired over the years as a successful and respected Budapest attorney, he’s able to secure false identities and secret hiding places for himself as well as his wife and two sons. Wisely, the Soros family opts to live underground instead of registering with the local Jewish council, thus avoiding deportation to Auschwitz. Throughout his ordeal, Tivadar retains not only his humanity but also his refinement and sense of purpose. Perhaps for that reason alone Masquerade is a memoir worth reading.

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.