Library Loot

I dropped by the public library the other day to return some books only to grab a few more. Just like last time I selected a pair of books by authors from outside the United States. Penelope Lively is a British resident of London while Yasmina Khadra is the pseudonym of exiled Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul who’s lived in France for years. 

  • Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively – I’ve borrowed this book several times only return it ignored and unread. Needing something representing the United Kingdom for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I’m hoping this time I finally read it. 
  • The Attack by Yasmina Khadra- Always hard for me to resist novels set in the Middle East, especially by native authors. Harder still if it’s deckle edged

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

2021 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. Each year I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, I found myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year I read and reviewed 20 books, and for my efforts once again earned the coveted Jet Setter Award. Compared to past years my performance in 2021 was pretty lackluster with just 10 books read and reviewed for the challenge. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Switzerland. This year for this first time I’ll be including something by a Norwegian author. 

  1. Becket or the Honor of God by Jean Anouilh (United Kingdom)
  2. Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan by Erika Fatland (Norway)
  3. Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money by Diccon Bewes (Switzerland)
  4. Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer- The True Story of the Man Who Recruited Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames by Victor Cherkashin and Gregory Feifer (Russia)
  5. The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo (Spain)
  6. Not All Bastards Are from Vienna by Andrea Molesini (Italy)
  7. Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie (Germany) 
  8. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum (Ukraine)
  9. Empire of Lies by Raymond Khoury (France)
  10. Family History of Fear by Agata Tuszyńska (Poland)

Much like last year it was a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction with five books apiece. Four are translations from other languages, including Polish. Red Famine easily made my Favorite Nonfiction list for 2021 while Swiss Watching was a runner-up. Both The Invisible Guardian and Empire of Lies made my year’s Favorite Fiction list with Not All Bastards Are from Vienna along with There There as my favorite novels of the year.  

As you can guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Inge’s War: A German Woman’s Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler by Svenja O’Donnell

My quest to learn more about 20th century European history inspired me to borrow a library copy of Svenja O’Donnell’s 2020 family memoir Inge’s War: A German Woman’s Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler. Published in 2020, it tells the story of her mother, grandparents’ and great grandparents’ and the lives they lived in the German city of Königsberg (now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad) and harrowing escape just ahead of the invading Red Army during the final months of World War II leading to their eventual resettlement after the war in West Germany.

Born in Paris to a German mother and an Irish father, the British-educated O’Donnell has served as Bloomberg‘s UK political correspondent covering Brexit and other European developments. In her capacity as a journalist she visited Russian Kaliningrad, where she concluded the fall of Communism “brought heavy job losses” and the city “became a hub of drugs and human trafficking, with a rampant heroin problem and the highest rate of HIV in Europe.” Mindful of her family’s connection to the city from pre-Soviet times, during her assignment in Kaliningrad she phoned her elderly grandmother to let her know she was visiting the former Königsberg. Upon hearing the news her grandmother responded somberly there were deep family secrets she needed to be told. Then, over the next 10 years until her death Inge revealed to her granddaughter the details of a life lived long ago, and a world destroyed years ago by the ravages of war.

Born in Königsberg, as a 16 year old Inge was able to convince her protective Lutheran parents to enroll her in a girls academy in Berlin. Wishing to insulate her from the temptations of a big city, they were more than happy when she eventually moved out the school’s designated boarding house and in with a classmate’s family, knowing they’d keep a close eye on her. But before long the two girls were frequenting Berlin’s underground swing dancing clubs and enjoying all the exciting nightlife Berlin of the early War years was able to offer. But temptations arose closer to home as she fell head over heels in love with her friend’s older brother leading to her pregnancy. Sadly, her boyfriend’s father disapproved of her and to thwart any possibility of marriage used his connections to fast track his conscription into the Wehrmacht. Broken hearted, young and pregnant, in order to give her pregnancy and motherhood a thin veneer of legitimacy Inge had to settle for a wedding ceremony featuring an empty chair as proxy for the absent groom. Making maters worse, the father of her child was taken captive in the Battle of Stalingrad and languished for serval years in a Soviet POW camp.

Later, in the dead of winter, now as a young mother with an infant daughter in tow Inge and her relatives were forced to flee Königsberg as the Red Army juggernaut slammed into East Prussia, laying waste and exacting revenge. Evacuated by ship, her vessel narrowly escaped being torpedoed by Soviet submarines and thus avoided the same fate as the MV Wilhelm GustloffSafely in western Germany they sought refuge in occupied Denmark but left after the end of hostilities, in no small part due to the inhospitality of the local Danes, resentful of their prior treatment at the hands of the Germans. Back in a Germany shattered by years of war and occupied by the victors Inge attempted to build a new life for herself and her infant daughter.

Inge’s War is well written and satisfied my need for a good book on 20th century European history. Through the eyes of O’Donnell’s grandmother I was able to see a central European world long forgotten but with faint echoes that can still be heard today.

The Best American Essays 2020 edited by André Aciman

I’m no stranger to André Aciman. In the summer of 2009 I read his 1996 memoir Out of Egypt, which had been sitting on my shelf unread for who knows how long. Five summers later it was his semi autobiographical novel Harvard Square I spent several warm evenings reading on my front step while watching the comings and goings of my fellow apartment dwellers. Even though I’d read just two of his books I considered myself a fan of his writing and looked forward to reading more of it.

Finding myself in the mood for a decent essay collection I discovered through Overdrive a borrowable Kindle edition of The Best American Essays 2020 edited by none other than André Aciman. Eager to see which essays Aciman deemed worthy of inclusion I downloaded it and went to work reading. I’m happy to say after finishing it Aciman’s choices did not disappoint me.

Annual anthologies like these are always a crap shoot. While some years better than others, on average each offering has one to three of outstanding pieces, with the bulk being pretty good while the remaining two or three selections not so hot. Fortunately, none of the essays Aciman selected are duds. Even my least favorite inclusions  had their moments. So hats off to Aciman.

Over the years I’ve read close to a dozen of these anthologies and Aciman’s introduction to this edition easily ranks as one of the best. Drawing from his deep well of erudition he explains what makes a great essay, serving up examples from Montaigne, Machiavelli and Proust. (If you’re looking for an impressive reading list, check out his interview 2015 interview on the Vox Tablet podcast.)

My favorites essays in the collection were ones with sharply focused narratives and specific topics in mind, akin to the long form pieces you’d find in Harpers, the New Yorker or Atlantic. While considered essays, they easily could be included in anthologies featuring outstanding writing in the fields of science and nature  or crime. Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece of prehistoric cave painting “The Humanoid Stain”,  Clinton Crockett Peters’s “A Thing About Cancer” – a novel look at the dreaded disease seen through the lens of the 1982 John Carpenter horror film The Thing  were two such pieces. Susan Fox Rogers’s essay on infamous 1920’s child murder Nathan Leopold and his love of birding was a fine science and nature feature as well as a crime one.

Much to my surprise just as it was with Jonathan Franzen’s edited Best American Essays 2016, a couple of my favorite essays touched on LGTBQ themes. Probably my favorite of these was the lead essay “How to Bartend” by Lebanese-American painter and writer Rabih Alameddine.  After being diagnosed with HIV he moved back to his native Lebanon to attend graduate school and pursue a “third worthless degree.” Needing cash he picked up a gig tending bar at an upstairs “faux upscale taproom with an English private club motif” complete with “pretentiously bound hardcovers in fake bookshelves.” Here half heartedly went about his job, pouring occasional drinks but preferring to be left alone to read novels during his normally slow workdays. Instead of a primer on good bartending his essay is a darkly humorous look at the difficult but ultimately satisfying process of finding ones tribe.

Instead of finding one’s tribe Alex Marzano-Lesnevish’s “Body Language” the focus is the long, painful process of discovering one’s gender, or if it be, non-gender. Even Peter Scheldahl’s life journey from midwestern bumpkin to NYC-dwelling art critic and mildly reckless aesthete recalls a passing gay affair, despite being an admittedly straight man with at least two heterosexual marriages and countless liaisons under his belt. (A degree sexual fluidity also rumored to be shared by Aciman himself.)

It feels like every annual essay collection contains more than a few contributions by authors looking back and reflecting on their long lives or the long lives of loved ones. As I grow older and slowly come to grips with my own mortality, and those around me I dislike these kind of pieces less and less, no longer complaining they’re products of an unwanted cottage industry. Instead, when I encounter such writing I grudgingly welcome whatever words of wisdom they offer while at the same time yearning for younger days.

But before I succumb to the ravages of old age, I’ll treat myself to a few more enjoyable anthologies. And as I do I’ll happily share my impressions of them with all of you.

20 Books of Summer: The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks

My book club announced it was reading Elyn R. Saks’s 2007 memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness and I couldn’t have been happier. The book, along with Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, had been on my list to read forever and this was a great excuse to finally read it. In a stroke of good luck I was able borrow a Kindle version through Overdrive and quickly went to work on it. Even without devoting my full attention I made quick work of Saks’s memoir. And like so many backlisted titles I’ve encountered over the years wished I’d read it sooner.

Born to a stable and supporting upper middle class family in Miami Saks, by all indicators and expectations was on a promising trajectory towards college, graduate/law school, professional accomplishment, marriage and motherhood. That is until as a high schooler she began experiencing hallucinations, many of them encouraging her to harm herself and others.

Convinced the hallucinations were the result of a fleeting,  experimentation with recreational drugs (once with pot, the other with peyote) her parents exiled Saks to a lock-down residential care facility in hopes of curing her “addiction.” Ran with the discipline one usually encounters in religious cults and Marine Corp basic training she emerged several years later with an aversion to all drugs, illegal and otherwise and an unhealthy insistence upon personal self-reliance. Unfortunately, as her symptoms worsened during her years away at college and later graduate school it was this instilled mindset that led to Saks mistakenly believing she could handle her debilitative mental illness on her own without any therapy, hospitalization or medication.

Left untreated her illness worsened, leading to several involuntary hospitalizations and rounds of treatment. After years of clinical dead-ends, and in retrospect misdiagnoses, she was finally diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia. This would lead to a longterm regimen of one on one therapy and a series of different anti-psychotic medications.

Despite these seemingly insurmountable challenges (not to mention surviving not one but two bouts of cancer as well as a brain hemorrhage) Saks nonetheless persevered. After graduating from Vanderbilt she earned a graduate degree from Oxford, following it up with a law degree from Yale. Later, as a professor at USC’s law school she went on to publish a number of articles and books and today is not only a best-selling memoirist but also a leading expert on the intersection of law and mental illness.

If you’re on the many who loved Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family then this book is for you. Saks’s memoir is an intimate look at the mysterious and much stigmatized illness of schizophrenia, a disease whose root causes a mystery to scientists and doctors alike and cure an illusive mystery.

Echoing the Persian poet Rumi’s aphorism that a person who exhibits both positive and negative qualities, strengths and weaknesses is not flawed, but complete Saks concludes her memoir by declaring “[m]y good fortune is not I’ve recovered from mental illness. I have not, nor will I ever. My good fortune lies in having found good life.”

20 Books of Summer: Family History of Fear by Agata Tuszyńska

Well, it didn’t take me long to deviate from my original 20 Books of Summer. Right after finishing There There I dived into Agata Tuszyńska’s Family History of Fear, casting aside any hope I’d stick to my carefully pre-arranged shelf of summer reading material. And why not? I need something representing Poland for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Plus, I’ve had pretty good luck with family memoirs with Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s A Mirror Garden, Marina Benjamin’s Last Days in Babylon: The History of a Family, the Story of a Nation and Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World as well as its follow-up The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn all being enjoyable reads.

When Polish poet and cultural historian Agata Tuszyńska was 19 years old her mother surprisingly confided to her they were Jewish. Tuszyńska, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, mines the depths of this secretive family history for her 2016 memoir sharing with the world stories kept untold for far too long.

With her grandfather languishing in a POW camp Tuszyńska’s grandmother and mother were packed into the crowded Warsaw Ghetto and subjected along with thousands of other Jews to the horrors of disease, malnutrition and abuse. The two would eventually escape, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the Nazis while avoiding betrayal by their fellow Poles, be they cruel opportunists or hateful antisemites. For days on end the two hid in secret rooms or backs of closets. (Bored with nothing to do her eight year old mother read in the dim light to pass the time. As a result after the war she frequently squinted, eliciting puzzled comments from her schoolmates.) Later, she grew up and married a college classmate who went on to be one of Poland’s premier sportscasters.

In Family History of Fear Tuszyńska shares stories of both sides of her family, Jew and Gentile. Her style leans towards nonlinear, jumping back and forth chronologically and familial.  Unfortunately, by the time I reached the final third of the book I found myself losing interest. Fortunately, my interest rekindled at the end. Her memoir closes with the ruling Communists’ antisemitic campaign against the nation’s few remaining Jews, ostensibly taken to combat “Zionism” in response to Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. (For additional insight into one of the darker and more obscure periods of late-stage Soviet Communism I highly recommend both Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: The Year That Rocked the World and Gal Beckerman’s outstanding When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.)

I borrowed Family History of Fear from the library because I wanted not just a book about Poland, but also the Poland of years gone by. Today’s Poland is religiously and linguistically homogenous but a hundred years ago it was a diverse land. Before World War II 3 million Jews lived in Poland, more than anywhere including the USSR. Overall, Jews made up 10 percent of the country’s population including roughly of third of Warsaw. For many, especially in the countryside Yiddish, not Polish was their primary if not exclusive language. (Even in the capital Warsaw intermarriage was rare, and those who did were usually Communists.) Along its eastern borders were sizable communities of Ukrainians, almost all practicing Orthodox. But due to the ravages of war, genocide and Communist oppression that pre-war world of Poland has passed into history. Tuszyńska’s Family History of Fear is an elegy for both a family and a nation.

About Time I Read It: Spy Handler by Victor Cherkashin and Gregory Feifer

Another book I picked up at the library along with Hitlerland and A Mirror Garden was Victor Cherkashin and Gregory Feifer’s Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer- The True Story of the Man Who Recruited Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames. Since I’ve always enjoyed good cloak and dagger stuff it was hard to resist borrowing this 2004 book, especially since I loved Feifer’s 2009 book The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan. (It easily made my Favorite Nonfiction list back in 2017.) Even though Spy Handler is fairly light it still took me awhile to read because I kept getting distracted by other books. To be honest, I’m not sure just how much I really liked it. I will say however it gave me an inside at the shadowy world of International espionage from the perspective of a former KGB officer. And that is never a bad thing.

Victor Cherkashin spent a lifetime as a KGB officer around the world in India, Australia, Lebanon, West Germany and finally Washington, DC in the United States. Over the course of his career he was tasked with keeping an eye of Soviet citizens abroad as well as obtaining valuable information on foreign intelligence services and their operations. Eventually, his highest priority was the recruitment of foreign agents, and if needed, rooting out of spies within his own agency. Most importantly of all, Cherkashin was instrumental in facilitating two of the KGB’s biggest espionage coups: the recruitment of agents Aldrich Ames (CIA) and Robert Hanssen (FBI). 

In the movies, James Bond and Jason Bourne are forever battling their enemies with gunfire and brutal hand to hand combat but in reality most spy craft is conducted nonviolently. Like high level corporate sales reps spies approach their adversaries with charm and guile in hopes of getting them to switch their allegiances, or at least cooperate in some way, usually by supplying valuable information. Since their intended targets have similar goals, the result is an almost gentlemanly fraternity of rival intelligence agents, each side surprisingly cordial to the other. (In hopes of maintaining friendly relations spies have taken their counterparts and their families to sporting events or out fishing.) 

Ironically, when agents become traitors frequently it’s not because of this glad-handing. Even during the Cold War as the two sides squared off at each other personal, not ideological reasons motivated agents to betray their respective countries. For many it was simply financial, be it the need to pay off gambling debts, live a lavish lifestyle or support an expensive mistress. Passed over for promotions, demoted or simply feeling not valued by their employer some agents were motivated by revenge. (After the seriously ill son of a KGB agent died after being denied permission to seek medical care in the West the agent later agreed to spy for the United  States.) 

But despite all the niceties, spying is a risky game. More often than not spies are exposed not caught. All it takes is one well-placed turncoat with access to high-level information to blow the covers of countless agents. Some who approach foreign operatives with tantalizing information are double agents, hoping to keep their rival agency off balance with bogus or misleading intelligence. Some spies, if they do manage to get caught, agree to secretly do the bidding of their original employer in hopes of leniency. These triple agents can string their handlers along for years and in the process do all kinds of damage. With human foibles trumping even the most sophisticated technology a spy agency is only as strong as its weakest agents. 

About Time I Read It: The Witness Wore Red by Rebecca Musser and M. Bridget Cook

Long before the days of COVID, while drinking with friends one evening at the pub I mentioned I’d picked up a half dozen or so books at used book sale, one of them David Ebershoff’s best-selling novel The 19th Wife. Upon hearing this a friend suggested I also read Rebecca Musser’s memoir The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice. I took her advice to heart and made a note to someday read it, should the opportunity ever arise. During a recent visit to the public library that day finally came, when I spotted a copy on the shelf nestled with the other memoirs. After finishing it a few days ago I’m happy to report my friend did not steer me wrong. 

Published in 2013, Musser and her co-author M. Bridget Cook recall the years Musser spent growing up in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, her arranged marriage at 19 to octogenarian cult leader Rulon Jeffs, departure and eventual cooperation with law enforcement and legal officials to bring the cult and its leaders to justice for their numerous crimes, chief of which was orchestrating forced marriages and sexual abuse of the cult’s teen girls. This firsthand account of surviving a horribly oppressive and insular community and the long road to finding ones freedom and personhood in a larger world makes for sobering yet inspirational reading.  

A repressively puritanical community ruled by an authoritarian theocrat where girls are forced into polygamous marriages to men decades older than them could easily describe some ISIS-controlled enclave of the Middle East or Afghanistan under the Taliban. But instead of some faraway place this dystopian nightmare occurred much closer to home. After the LDS church renounced polygamy in the late 19th century those who wished to continue the practice formed their own communities in the American Southwest and on the cult’s satellite property in British Columbia, Canada. Musser was raised in this environment and as a young adult after growing disillusioned with life under the cult’s new leader bolted to safety. 

In 2002, after maneuvering himself into the office of “President and Prophet, Seer and Revelator” upon the death of his father Rulon Warren Jeffs quickly amassed dozens of underage wives, eliminated his rivals, made the cult’s already strict moral even stricter and forced his followers to obey his every whim. (One of which was to prohibit the wearing of the color red, declaring it immoral.) Originally promised by Warren Jeff she could remain single, or marry again, this time to a man of her choosing Jeffs quickly changed his mind. Ordering Messer to instead marry him he threatened to “break her” or worse if she refused. Seeing the not so subtle handwriting on the wall she fled the cult’s compound in the predawn hours along with Ben, a fellow young cult member she’d grown close to first personally then romantically. The couple settled in Coos Bay on the Oregon Coast where Musser’s brother lived after being excommunicated and began building a life of their own, free of FLDS control. Unfortunately as the years went by their marriage began to sour and the two divorced, about the same time Musser would be called upon by state and federal authorities to assist them in their efforts to apprehend Warren Jeffs and his accomplices for their crimes and provide courtroom testimony to convict them.

It’s hard for most Americans to believe a cult like the one ran by Warren Jeffs could exist in 21st century America. According to Musser and Cook this was possible because Warren Jeffs commandeered a close-knit religious community built on one man rule, in which the cult’s president was also prophet and high priest. With every rule and pronouncement ordained by God nothing could be questioned. Outsiders were seen as apostates or heathens destined for eternal damnation and not to be trusted. Most, if not all contemporary art, music and literature were deemed unwholesome. The cult’s theology enshrined polygamy, female subservience, puritanical morally and religious separatism. Warren Jeffs could do as he pleased and none of his congregants could stop him.

In 2018 for Nonfiction November’s Be the Expert series I posted a piece on memoirs by women who’d walked away from their respective religious communities. I’m pleased to say The Witness Wore Red would make a worthy addition to that list of fine books. 

Middle Eastern Memoirs: A Mirror Garden by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

I’m a sucker for memoirs by Iranians. Firoozeh Dumas’s, Funny in Farsi and Laughing without an Accent made me chuckle while first hand accounts of imprisonment like Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran and Maziar Bahari’s Then They Came for Me left me thankful I didn’t live in a police state. Seems like I’ve been digging on Iranian memoirs since the day I began posting on WordPress. Back in 2017 I featured several of them in my Nonfiction November post. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll finally get around to reading Reading Lolita in Tehran and Lipstick Jihad, two Iranian memoirs that everyone has read except me. 

Two weeks ago at the public library I came across copy of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s 2007 memoir A Mirror Garden. Born in Iran in the 1920s, she lived a long and rich life, bouncing back between Iran and New York City before passing away two years ago at the ripe old age of 96. In her memoir (with help from Zara Houshmand) she recalls growing up in rural Iran before moving to Tehran with her family after her father was elected to the nation’s parliament. A budding young artist in her youth, she longed to study in Paris but with the world engulfed in the Second World War and with it France under German occupation her dream was unrealistic. Settling instead on America, with hopes of making it to Paris once the War ended, a sympathetic American official arranged passage for her and her entourage (an arranged husband to be and two male chaperones) aboard an American warship. Eventually Farmanfarmaian and her companions made their way to New York City so she could pursue her education and make inroads into the city’s vibrant art circles where she would rub elbows with the likes of Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell. With considerable reluctance she married her first husband, but didn’t let that stop her from taking advantage of all the amazing things New York had to offer an aspiring young artist. After a series of freelance gigs doing fashion illustration she landed a position with the department store Bonwit Teller, where she worked with a shy young illustrator by the name of Andy Warhol. 

After extricating herself from what had become a dead-end marriage a few years later she remarried, this time to a fellow Iranian who’d been attending graduate school in New York. Her new husband’s career would take her back to Iran where the two of them lived for 20 years, along with their children. While visiting family in New York the Ayatollah and his goons seized power and fearing they’d face imprisonment or worse by returning they opted to remain in the United States. Years later, after the death of her second husband she made several trips back to Iran where she eventually settled for good before passing away in 2019.

Farmanfarmaian was a remarkable individual. An accomplished painter and illustrator she blended traditional Persian styles with contemporary Western and was recognized world wide for her work with mosaics and mirrors. Like some real life Forest Gump she met a number of famous personalities over the course of her lifetime. As a young woman in Iran she played Twister with the Shah and his retinue. Later in life, Salvador Dalí attended one her openings in New York and during the same visit to the United States Senator Ted Kennedy and his then wife Joan hosted a reception for her in Washington DC. Even though they never met face to face Paul Newman was her next door neighbor and when it came time to sell her luxury condominium Warren Beatty, a buddy of Newman’s, dropped by to look at it. At an art installation in London she met Prince Charles, who asked her to teach at a college devoted to traditional Islamic arts and crafts he founded. She politely declined. “I’m honored, but I don’t think my English it up to it.” 

What A Mirror Garden might lack in locus it more than makes up for in charm and diversion. Think of it as a pleasant road trip filled with so many entertaining side excursions by the time you reach your intended destination you’re almost disappointed.

2020 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. Each year I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, I find myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year I read and reviewed 23 books, and for my efforts earned the coveted Jet Setter Award. I wasn’t as productive in 2020 but still managed to read and review 20 books for the challenge. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Belgium, Switzerland and even the micro-state of Vatican City. This year for this first time I’ll be including books representing Slovakia and Norway

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

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

As you can guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.