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.

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.

Old Books Reading Project: Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng

Imagine you spent six and half years in solitary confinement. Over the course of your imprisonment you were beaten, tortured, verbally abused, denied decent medical and dental care and what little food you were fed was so bad it frequently made you ill. Falsely accused of being a traitor or spy for various foreign powers you were repeatedly ordered to confess your crimes. However, not once were you formally charged, let alone tried in court. During that time you were allowed no visitors, or for that matter any communication whatsoever with the outside world. But thanks to your indomitable spirit not once did you surrender and utter a false confession. After more than a half decade of torment you were released.

Right after you were freed someone tells you why you were imprisoned. You didn’t spend years in a hellish prison because of some bureaucratic mix-up or an official’s personal vendetta. No, it was all because of a power struggle between two rival factions within the government. You were one of thousands maybe even millions of others who were casualties of China’s Cultural Revolution.

Hoping to outflank his younger and more competent rivals in 1996 Chairman Mao Zedong urged the nation’s young people to attack what Mao and his cronies declared “capitalist”, “bourgeois” or “traditionalist” elements ruling China. For 10 years the nation was paralyzed by purges, political instability and factional violence. (Looking back later, Nien thought, “perhaps the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution should be more aptly renamed Cultural Annihilation.”)  Only after Mao’s death and his inner circle deposed could saner heads prevail and thus bring an end to the madness known as the Cultural Revolution.

I picked up a paperback copy of Nien Cheng’s 1986 memoir Life and Death in Shanghai years ago at used book sale only to let sit ignored in my personal library.  I might have kept ignoring it had not Paul French’s City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai put me in the mood to read more about Shanghai. So last week I dusted off my vintage copy of Life and Death in Shanghai and finally cracked it open. Like many good books in my personal library I should not have waited so long to read it.

College educated in the West and fluent in English, Nien, a widow, worked for Shell Oil until the company was expelled from China in 1966. After being questioned repeatedly by the authorities about her ties to not just Shell but also the United Kingdom, United States and Taiwan-based Republic of China she soon faced baseless accusations of espionage and class betrayal. Despite passionately and intelligently proclaiming her innocence she was thrown in prison. Much like Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, author of the previously reviewed Journey into the Whirlwind, she figured once the authorities realized they’d made a mistake and wrongfully imprisoned her she’d quickly be released. Since the Communists took power there’d been arrests and purges off and on. Confirming Tolstoy’s dictum “there are no conditions to which a man may not become accustomed, particularly if he sees that they are accepted by those about him” while imprisonment was terrible, it happened from time to time in Communist China.

Mao had once declared that 3-5 per cent of the population were enemies of socialism. To prove him correct, during the periodically launched political movements, 3-5 per cent of the members of every organization, whether it was a government department, a factory, a school or a university, must be found guilty of political crimes or heretical thoughts against socialism or Mao Tze-tung Thought. Among those found guilty, a number would be sent either to labour camps or prison.

Hopefully, Nien thought, soon it would all be rectified. But only after endearing six and half years of sheer hell, followed by a change in the political winds was Chien released. Allowed to return to her former residence she was placed under close government surveillance and left with the threat of re-arrest and re-imprisonment dangling over her head. Only with a more pragmatic regime in control of China that lead to friendlier relations with nations like the United States was she allowed to immigrate to the West where she could truly at last be free.

Soviet Spotlight: Journey into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg

I’m guessing it was my love of both prison memoirs and Soviet history that inspired me grab a copy of Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg’s memoir Journey into the Whirlwind I found lying in the street, quite possibly while walking to the bus stop after enjoying a few pints of beer with friends at a local pub. After letting it sit on my bookshelf ignored and unread for the last five or so years last week I finally I began reading it. Like other good books from my personal library I’d been reluctant to touch I wish I’d read it sooner.

In 1934 Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg was a college instructor and newspaper editor in Kazan, Russia where both her and her husband were loyal Communists and true believers in the Soviet dream. The same year, that Soviet dream would become a nightmare for millions afterJoseph Stalin used the murder of Politburo member Sergei Kirov as an excuse to launch his infamous purges. Within a few years Ginzburg was arrested, interrogated, stripped of her Party membership, tried on trumped-up charges of belonging to a “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist group”, and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. After spending several years in solitary confinement she was shipped to the wilds of the Soviet Far East to labor in the forests of the Kolyma Valley where she would have died of malnutrition and overwork had a camp doctor not took pity on her and made her one his nurses.

Like the French Revolution preceding it, or the Iranian one that followed, the new Soviet state, now under Stalin’s despotic control began devouring the children of the revolution. At first her fellow convicts were devoted Party members like her, along with a few members of rival revolutionary groups who’d lost out to the Bolsheviks. Later, as Stalin’s paranoia intensified it drove up arrest quotas and combined with the widespread use of torture causing more and more of the accused to wrongly implicate their friends, colleagues and even family members the camps swelled with not just elite members of society like former military officers, Party leaders, and ironically, defrocked members of the dreaded secret police but also everyday working people and simple peasants. Foreigners from Italy and Germany who’d moved to Russia in hopes of building a worker’s paradise also found themselves slaving away in the Gulag along with tons of common criminals. At first, Ginzburg and true believers like her thought it had all been some sort of mistake, figuring they’d soon be released. Later, as time went by and the horror of incarceration took their toll they stopped believing in the goodness and infallibility of the Communist Party and cared only for their individual survival.

As grim as things get in Journey into the Whirlwind, it’s still a vivid, well-written and fast-paced account of one of humanity’s darkest periods. Not only does it make great follow-up reading to Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn’s epic The Gulag Archipelago Volume 2: An Experiment in Literary Investigation but also Anne Applebaum’s outstanding Gulag: A History. Journey into the Whirlwind is a great book and I definitely should have read it sooner.

Immigrant Stories: Undocumented by Dan-el Padilla Peralta

For weeks I kept noticing Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s 2015 memoir Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League when I passed through the memoirs, biographies and autobiographies section at my public library but I never felt the urge to borrow it. Then one Saturday, right before they closed all the public libraries I strolled past it but this time thought otherwise.  I finally realized this is a book I needed to read. Any guy who goes from a homeless shelter to an Ivy League university is smart as hell and full of ambition. And people like that can always teach you a thing or two. Inspired by my revelation I grabbed Padilla Peralta’s memoir and went to work reading it. Finding it damn near impossible to put down I’m pleased to say Undocumented did not disappoint me.

Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s life story bares little resemblance to the unflattering stereotype many Americans have of immigrants. He didn’t brazenly enter the US in a spirit of lawlessness seeking employment and public assistance. He was brought to America legally by his parents from the Dominican Republic, because his mother needed advanced medical care for her high-risk pregnancy. Not long after the birth of his brother Yando his father returned home, sick of trying to support his family working low-paying jobs. Over time Padilla Peralta’s parents grew estranged and even though Padilla Peralta and his mother’s visas expired they continued living in the US. Fearing deportation if their applications for legal residency was denied and seeing how well her oldest son was faring in school she opted to keep the family in the US, putting them in legal limbo and thus ineligible for most, if not all public assistance. (Fortunately, being born in America Yando was eligible for aid since he was a citizen.)

Forced to live in a New York City homeless shelter after losing their apartment, a young volunteer took the young Dan-el and his brother under his wing. Recognizing  Dan-el’s was a voracious reader with a budding intellect, he encouraged the boy to apply to Collegiate, the same prestigious prep school where JFK attended. At Collegiate he flourished where his hard work, ambition and smarts paved the way for his entrance to Princeton. After majoring in the classics of Greece and Rome he graduated with high honors, earning a scholarship to study at Oxford. But his undocumented status was always there, like a hidden stigma he fought to conceal.

This a great follow-up book to Tara Westover’s Educated, as well as other memoirs by first-generation college graduates like Carlene Cross’ Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Steve Pemberton’s  A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home.  It also deserves to be read alongside other Ivy League memoirs like Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever and Andrea Raynor’s Incognito: Lost and Found at Harvard Divinity School.

This memoir should be mandatory reading for any American with strong opinions about immigration, pro or con. It’s also a wonderful memoir and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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.