I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a huge fan of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Over the years she’s encouraged us to read as many books as possible that are set in, or about different European countries or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, over the course of the year participants find ourselves moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.
Last year was a pretty good year for me since I read and reviewed 18 books. Unfortunately, this year I didn’t do as well with only 15. Just like in past years, a variety of countries are represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, but also smaller ones like Croatia, Lithuania and even the micro-state of Vatican City. Unlike last year, this year’s selection is almost exclusively nonfiction with only The Hired Man, The Lady and the Unicorn and The Little Book being works of fiction. As for the nonfiction, a lion’s share of the books deal with World War II and the Holocaust or the Cold War or both. Lastly, The Little Book made my year-end Favorite Fiction list while The Book Smugglers and God’s Secretaries made the Favorite Nonfiction one. Overall, from top to bottom it’s a great assortment of quality books.
- The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David E. Fishman (Lithuania)
- The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country by Tobias Jones (Italy)
- The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House by Norman Eisen (Czech Republic)
- Shepherd of Mankind: A Biography of Pope Paul VI by William E. Barrett (Vatican City)
- The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia)
- In the Darkroom by Susan Fuladi (Hungary)
- The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy (Ukraine)
- The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (Belgium)
- The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest by Peter Duffy (Belarus)
- God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson (United Kingdom)
- The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn Beer (Germany)
- The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat by Michael Jones (Russia)
- The Little Book by Selden Edwards (Austria)
- The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond by Stephen O’ Shea (Switzerland)
- A Secret Life: The Polish Colonel, His Covert Mission, And The Price He Paid To Save His Country by Benjamin Weiser (Poland)
Like I said at the start, I’m a huge fan of this challenge and encourage all you book bloggers to sign up. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
I’ve never been to Italy, but I’ve been hearing crazy things about the place my whole life. Even as a kid I knew the country was an American ally and NATO member but at the same time I kept hearing the Italian Communist Party was huge. Every so often on the evening there’d be stories about terrorist bombings or groups like the Red Brigades or various Mafia factions running around murdering, kidnapping, and causing mayhem. In later years blood-soaked violence faded from the headlines only to be replaced by the sordid details surrounding Amanda Knox’s trial, subsequent imprisonment and release and the corrupt, despotic, larger than life reign of Silvio Berlusconi. Taking all this into account, as well as the nation’s natural beauty and climate, thousands of years of impressive history, world-class food, wine and fashion and beautiful works of art and to me you have a country that’s as beautiful as it’s broken.
This belief of mine, whether it’s grounded in reality or not has inspired me to read about Italy. Back in 2013 it was Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi’s 2008 best seller The Monster of Florence. In 2015 it was 2005’s The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt. I enjoyed both books and neither of them did anything to change my views of Italy. Always eager to yet another book about Italy, imagine how happy I was one Saturday morning at the public library when I came across a copy of Tobias Jones’s 2003 book The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country. With a subtitle like that, how could I go wrong?
Jones, a Brit, moved to the Italian city of Parma to teach English at the local university. (One of my favorite stories from his teaching days is the one about three different female students decided to give speeches on the importance of fine Italian lingerie. Let’s just say all the young men in the class, who had all been sleeping suddenly woke up.) He spent four years traveling around the country trying to learn and understand as much as possible about his new home. Jones weighs in on Italy’s second religion, soccer and the widespread belief certain referees favor certain teams. He also looks at the deep scars stemming from the Years of Lead, a period of far left and far right perpetrated violence lasting from the late 60s into the 80s. As expected he discusses the country’s suffocating bureaucracy as well infamous corruption. Jones also spends time discussing Silvio Berlusconi. Thanks to his media ownership, populism, shady business practices and authoritarian methods Italy’s leader comes off as one part Benito Mussolini, one part Vladimir Putin and one part Donald Trump.
In retrospect The Dark Heart of Italy feels like one of those books that didn’t blow me away when I read it but after time grows on me. Let’s just say if you’re planning on visiting Italy, I’d grab a copy of this book to read on the flight over. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
Last September, if I hadn’t been obsessing on college football and spending time outdoors in the nice fall weather, I would have heard on NPR or read online in the Washington Post about a great book with the irresistible title of The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House. Fortunately for me, the good people at my public library were wise enough to purchase a copy which I discovered a few weeks ago during one of my weekly library visits. In another stroke of good luck, I ended up enjoying Norman Eisen’s 2018 book.
From the ashes of World War I emerged the young nation of Czechoslovakia. In the years following the war one of its citizens, Otto Petschek made a fortune in the coal market and wound up with more money than he could comfortably spend. (Petschek probably wasn’t the only Czechoslovakian making lots of cash. According to Eisen, during the 1920s Czechoslovakia had the 10th largest economy in the world.) So, like one of the great European monarchs of ages past, he had a palace built for him and his family. Perhaps also like of those potentates of old, he imposed his will upon the palace’s design and construction, frequently overruling the presiding architect and eventually overseeing the entire operation. After years of delays and cost overruns Petschek would get his palace, but his mammoth pet project would leave him drained both physically and financially. To make matters worse, with rise of Nazism and the German invasion of Czechoslovakia Petschek’s heirs, being Jews would be forced to leave their palatial home never to return.
Being such a grand creation, over the decades Petschek’s palace would serve as home for the powerful. During World War II it was the official residence of Rudolf Toussaint, Wehrmacht general entrusted with occupying the area. (Toussaint was a fascinating figure. He never joined the Nazi Party, loathed the SS and as far as German generals go was pretty decent guy.) After the war it became the US ambassador’s residence and remains so to this day. (During the Velvet Revolution of 1989, America’s ambassador was none other than Shirley Temple Black. Believe it or not, she was also happened to be visiting 20 years early in 1968 and witnessed firsthand the country’s brief Prague Spring being mercilessly crushed by the Soviet military.)
If you went looking for someone to write a book like this, Eisen would be the right person for the job. Not only did he live in the palace as Obama’s appointed ambassador to the Czech Republic he’s also the son of a Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor whose own powerful story is included in the book. Plus, he writes well.
I love the idea of an object, in this case a palace playing a central role in a nation’s history. I enjoyed The Last Palace and it makes a great companion read to Madeleine Albright’s Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. I have no problems recommending The Last Palace.
When I came across Susan Fuladi’s memoir In the Darkroom at the public library one Saturday morning I didn’t know a lot about it, other than it had been highly praised by reviewers and some way or another dealt with life in Hungary. Since I could use a book set in or a about Hungary for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, and having fond memories of Faludi’s 1991 outstanding work Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, I decided to take a chance on it. After reading only a few pages I’m thankful I did. Her 2016 memoir is outstanding, easily exceeding my expectations
Imagine you haven’t spoken to your father in decades, and for good reason because you remember all too well he was an abusive jerk throughout your childhood. Then one day out of the blue you receive an email from him letting you know he’s living thousands of miles away in Hungary and would like to reconnect with you after all these years. This awkward situation becomes even more challenging once he informs you he’s now a woman. Susan Faludi’s quest to understand her estranged father’s radical transformation takes her from America to Hungary, where her father was born, survived the Holocaust and as a young adult fled Communist rule. As Faludi recalls her father’s life and her relationship with him, she also explores the history of Hungary, including the horrors of the Holocaust, post-war Communist oppression and eventual embrace of Western-style democracy and free market capitalism, albeit tainted of late by the emergence of reactionary political leadership.
This is a surprising good book and even though it’s early in the year there’s a good chance In the Darkroom will wind up on my Best Nonfiction List of 2019. I have no problem recommending it.
A few months ago I started craving longform journalism. Luckily for me, I have a huge stack of cast-off New Yorker magazines I’ve managed to accumulate over the last couple of years so I have no shortage of available reading material. But as I began exploring this cache I found myself craving longform stuff in book form, preferable curated by a capable editor. Fortunately for me, my public library has a number of essay collections and last week I borrowed two, one of which happened to be The Best American Essays 2015. I burned through it quickly, which is always a good sign. It also left me wanting to read more essays, which also a good sign.
Within the pages of The Best American Essays 2015 I found stuff by familiar authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Anthony Doerr and David Sedaris but the rest of the contributors were new to me. New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy served as the guest editor for 2015’s edition and a good chunk of the pieces she selected dealt with the personal: aging, mortality, family and marriage. Had I known this was the case, I might not of decided to read her collection, fearing the essays were too sentimental or self-centered. Kudos to Levy though, there’s not a stinker in the bunch. (Although Zadie Smith’s “Find Your Beach” might not have been up to my liking.) Of these Justin Cronin’s “My Daughter and God” in which he recalls in detail the existential crises and religious quest resulting from his wife and daughter’s brush with death was a favorite of mine as was John Reed’s edgy piece “My Grandma, the Poisoner” about a dear grandmother who, in all likelihood was a serial poisoner. Kelly Sunderberg’s “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is probably the best account I’ve read on the complexity and pain of spousal abuse.
As for other memorable contributions in this collection, hats off to Philip Kennicott for his piece “Smuggler” on the perils and pitfalls of gay literature. Even as a non-gay male I found his essay fascinating and smart as hell without being dry and pretentious. As a cat lover, how could I not enjoy Tim Kreider’s “A Man and His Cat” about what it’s like to adopt (or perhaps more accurately, be adopted by) a stray cat. Lastly, Isiah Berlin’s “A Message to the Twenty-First Century” on the evils of totalitarianism was another of my favorites. Originally written in 1994 it wasn’t published until a decade later. Sadly, in this age of Internet-enabled bigotry and Donald Trump, Berlin’s warnings are sorely needed.
Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.
As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.
As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.
Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Israel, Japan, Judaica, Latin America/Caribbean, Memoir, Science, Turkey
A million years ago (OK, maybe not THAT long ago although it kinda feels like it) I read a memoir entitled Seminary: A Search in which the author Paul Hendrickson recalled the years his spent as a seminarian, following with a short stint as a Catholic priest and eventually his departure from the priesthood. Perhaps because I was an impressionable young man when I read Seminary: A Search it remains one of my favorite memoirs to this day. With that in mind, I found it hard to resist John Cornwell’s 2006 memoir Seminary Boy when I spotted a copy at my public library. As I took it to the check-out desk I wondered if I’d enjoy Cornwell’s memoir as much as I did Hendrickson’s.
Growing up in England in the 1950s John Cornwell had a pretty rough childhood. Raised Catholic, his family was poor, his mom was abusive and ne’er-do-well father was never around. After being sexually abused by a random stranger, young John retreated inwardly to the religion of his upbringing. At the tender age of 13 he entered Cotton College, a junior seminary for teen boys desiring to enter the priesthood. Overwhelmed and struggling to keep up academically Cornwell chafed under the College’s strict monastic regimen. Making all of this worse, he and his fellow young seminarians had to navigate the potential relationship risks and pitfalls that frequently materialize when groups of young males and their elders are sequestered together while being told to avoid any “special friendships” with each other. Fortunately, one of the more avuncular and intellectual of the priests took Cornwell under his wing, exposing him to a wider world of high culture and sophisticated ideas. Unfortunately though in the end, as Norah Vincent wrote in her 2006 New York Times review of Seminary Boy “[t]here is nothing surprising or enlightening here — just run-of-the-mill Catholic misery.”
Looking back, I thought Seminary Boy was OK, but nothing exceptional. Because so much time has elapsed it seems unfair to measure it against Hendrickson’s Seminary: A Search so I won’t. And it certainly won’t stop me from reading other seminary memoirs in the future.