20 Books of Summer: North of Ithaka by Eleni Gage

I planned on reading I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates this summer, as one of my 20 Books of Summer and for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. The more I thought about it however, the more I wanted to read something about modern Greece as opposed to Ancient Greece. My search for the right book led me to Eleni N. Gage’s 2005 memoir North of Ithaka: A Granddaughter Returns to Greece and Discovers Her Roots. (If you ask me if the author’s pretty picture gracing book’s cover influenced my choice, as an American I’ll refuse to answer that question on the grounds it would incriminate me.)

There’s lots to like about North of Ithaka. For starters, you have to admire Gage, who in her 20s decided to take a sabbatical from her New York based magazine job and move half way around the world to rural Greece to rebuild her family’s farmhouse in the small village of Lia. (The same one where her grandmother was tortured before being taken out and executed by Communists during the Greek Civil War.) While there immersed herself in the local culture (made easier by her fluency in Greek and deep roots to the area) and gained a deeper understanding of Greece’s history, politics and society. With a convert’s zeal she re-embraced her family’s Greek Orthodox faith, enthusiastically participating in its rituals and traditions. Even as an agnostic I enjoyed how she actively took part in all the Church had to offer, thereby enriching herself.

Above all, North of Ithaka is a likable memoir because Gage, first and foremost is a talented writer. It makes a nice follow-up read to Nikos Kazantzakis’ classic 1964 novel The Fratricides, as well as a suitable offering for the European Reading Challenge.

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20 Books of Summer: War on Peace by Ronan Farrow

When chosing a book to read I usually take backcover praise with a grain of salt. But when Ian Bremmer says it’s a “must-read” I take notice. That’s all it took for me to grab a copy of Ronan Farrow 2018 insider’s look at the State Department War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence when I spotted a copy at the public library.

Over the course of his career, Farrow has worn at least two hats, one as a State Department Iawyer and the other as an investigative journalist. Thanks to the author’s diverse background War on Peace could be seen as two books in one. As a former State Department official Farrow recalls the time he spent at the agency, much of it working for veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke. (Through Farrow’s eyes anyway, the late Holbrooke comes off as an overly driven figure so eccentric I suspect he resided somewhere on the Autism spectrum.) Utilizing his talents as an investigative journalist allowed Farrow to serve up a no-holds barred look at the messy world of international diplomacy. To pull off this feat he interviewed every living former State Department head. Farrow must have some serious street cred becuase he’s able to sit down with Kissinger, Albright, Clinton, Kerry and Tillerson.

Overall, War on Peace is pretty good. I especially enjoyed what Farrow had to say about Afghanistan, Pakistan and those countries’ role in the “War on Terror.” (Regarding Pakistan’s level of dedication in fighting al-Queda and the Taliban, let’s just say it’s no coincidence Osama bin Laden lived comfortably for years in a fortified compound a stone’s throw away from the nation’s top military academy.) The behind the scenes look at the Iranian nuclear deal was another favorite of mine. Lastly, while it angered and depressed me, Farrow’s depiction of the State Department being gutted by the Trump administration made for excellent reading.

20 Books of Summer: Laughing Without an Accent by Firoozeh Dumas

Leave it to me to lead off the 20 Books of Summer with an alternate. Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad ranked dead last on my list, weighing it at 24 out of 20. But by God, I was going to read it no matter what. I have a fondness for her writing, (and for that matter, Iranian writers in general) dating back five years ago when I discovered her 2004 memoir Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America.  Knowing she’d written at least one follow-up piece I figured someday I’d read more of her stuff but never made any effort. Then one day I noticed my local public library had a copy of her 2008 offering Laughing Without an Accent.  A few weekends ago I finally made good on my vow and borrowed it. While Funny in Farsi might be a better book, surprisingly Laughing Without an Accent might be funnier and thus more entertaining.

It’s a collection of vignettes, all of them humorous to one degree or another.  Dumas serves up a lifetime of annectdotes including her early childhood in pre-Revolutionary Iran, (I liked how she contrasted life, from a child’s persepctive, in rural bordertown Abadan versus cosmopolitan Tehran) her upbringing in Southern California during the 70s and early 80s, college years at UC Berley, mother trying to raise her two young children as well as daughter to a pair of aging immigrant parents, and wife of a techie in boom and bust Silicon Valley.

My favorite chapters are those in which she recalls how her world changed after Funny in Farsi became a bestsellerEven the ruling theocrats of Iran permitted her memoir to be translated and published, but without the part in which her father declares the traditional Islamic prohibition on eating pork should no longer apply, thanks to modern advances in food safety and sanitation. I chuckled as she recalled her adventures as the 7 AM guest speaker for a group of New-Agey entrepreneurs. (Her parents, tagging along for moral support and blissfully unaware of the group’s intentions, thought those in attendance were sweet and wonderfully polite, and hearilty enjoyed the provided buffet breakfast.) Dumas also includes the text of one the graduation speeches she’s been asked to give. (Frequently because Kite Runner novelist Khaled Hosseini wasn’t available.) Speaking to the assembled graduates, she dispensed her wisdom and much to my joy, encouraged them to read books.

Laughing Without an Accent left me with a desire to read more memoirs. And with a nearby public library chock full of them, chances are you’ll see more of these featured on my blog.

2018 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a huge fan of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Over the years she’s encouraged us to read as many books as possible that are set in, or about different European countries or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, over the course of the year participants find ourselves moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year was a pretty good year for me since I read and reviewed 18 books. Unfortunately, this year I didn’t do as well with only 15. Just like in past years, a variety of countries are represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, but also smaller ones like Croatia, Lithuania and even the micro-state of Vatican City. Unlike last year, this year’s selection is almost exclusively nonfiction with only The Hired Man, The Lady and the Unicorn and The Little Book being works of fiction. As for the nonfiction, a lion’s share of the books deal with World War II and the Holocaust or the Cold War or both. Lastly, The Little Book made my year-end Favorite Fiction list while The Book Smugglers and God’s Secretaries made the Favorite Nonfiction one. Overall, from top to bottom it’s a great assortment of quality books.

  1. The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David E. Fishman (Lithuania)
  2. The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country by Tobias Jones (Italy)
  3. The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House by Norman Eisen (Czech Republic)
  4. Shepherd of Mankind: A Biography of Pope Paul VI by William E. Barrett (Vatican City)
  5. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia)
  6. In the Darkroom by Susan Fuladi (Hungary)
  7. The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy (Ukraine)
  8. The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (Belgium)
  9. The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest by Peter Duffy (Belarus)
  10. God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson (United Kingdom)
  11. The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn Beer (Germany)
  12. The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat by Michael Jones (Russia)
  13. The Little Book by Selden Edwards (Austria)
  14. The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond by Stephen O’ Shea (Switzerland)
  15. A Secret Life: The Polish Colonel, His Covert Mission, And The Price He Paid To Save His Country by Benjamin Weiser (Poland)

Like I said at the start, I’m a huge fan of this challenge and encourage all you book bloggers to sign up. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

About Time I Read It: The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones

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.

The Last Palace by Norman Eisen

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.

About Time I Read It: In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi

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.