Books About Books: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

A book entitled The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts has got to be a bibliophile’s dream. About a year after seeing reviews of Joshua Hammer’s book flood the Internet I spotted an available copy at my public library. So, with a title like that of course I grabbed it.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the story, 500 hundred years ago the North African city of Timbuktu was the Oxford or Cambridge of the medieval Islamic world. Scholars, clerics, jurists and doctors from across the  Muslim realms came to Timbuktu to do research and exchange ideas. This was made possible in no small part by the city’s extensive collection of manuscripts covering a diverse array of subjects including philosophy, religion, science and medicine. Over time, even though Timbuktu slipped into obscurity, the manuscripts nevertheless remained hidden away in places like mosques and privates homes. Until about 10 years ago, Abdul Kader Haidara, a forward thinking Malian realized it was high time to gather the countless manuscripts spread throughout the city and place them in one climate controlled library. This would not only make the aged texts easily accessible for the world’s scholars, but more importantly it would protect them from the ravages of time and the elements.

But as the old saying goes, no good plan survives contact. In 2012 when Islamist fighters conquered the area and began imposing their interpretation of Sharia law, the city’s new rulers took a dim view of the manuscripts. Fearing for good reason the Muslim extremists saw the texts as religiously impure, Haidara made sure the library’s manuscripts were secretly extracted and hidden away throughout the area. With out saying too much, had it not been for Haidara and a number of ordinary Malian citizens who risked their lives to hide the manuscripts countless irreplaceable writings would have went up in smoke.

One of the cool surprises of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is Hammer devotes a significant amount of time showing how Mali found itself in such a dire situation. In only a few years Mali went from West African backwater to a hip, up and coming cultural Mecca, once the world discovered the nation’s vibrant indigenous music scene. But once Mali’s ethnic rivalries were amplified by larger geopolitical struggles the country became a battleground. Therefore, when the Islamists do come to Timbuktu, you the reader are able to understand the conflict in its fuller context.

Combining elements of travelogue, battlefield reporting and historical writing The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu did not leave this bibliophile disappointed.

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Filed under Africa, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, History, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life Without Religion edited by Karen Garst

Over the years I’ve read countless anthologies and oral histories. During that time, while reading those kind of books not once had I read anything by a person I knew personally. That is, until now. And when it happened it was a complete surprise.

Early one evening after work I once again found myself at the public library rummaging through the shelves of newly acquired books. Just before I decided to leave I thought I’d take one more pass through the shelves and when I did I spotted a copy of Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life Without Religion. Since I have a soft spot for stuff written by women who’ve left their faith communities I happily grabbed it.

A few days later while reading the autobiographical pieces collected in Women Beyond Believe I began noticing more and more of the contributors happened to live in my current hometown of Portland, Oregon. Finding that a bit odd, I looked at the editor’s info as presented in the book. Not only is Karen Garst a fellow Portlander, but so are also most or close to all the women featured in her collection. You can imagine my surprise when I learned one of those women I know from several Meet-Ups I’ve attended over the last couple of years. Small world, aint it?

The roughly two dozen women who’ve contributed to this book are former believers representing a broad spectrum of Judeo-Christian religions. Be it Catholic, Mormon, Jewish or Protestant all of these women for a variety of reasons left their respective faiths. Each one of their stories makes for worthwhile reading.

I’m glad Garst put together this fine collection because frankly, there’s a need for books like hers. While there’s no shortage of books written by avowed atheists, a lot of them are written by men. With a few notable exceptions like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Betty Bogaard and Candace R. M. Gorham it tends to be a male-dominated field. Perhaps with the successful publication of Women Beyond Belief we’ll see more books written by women of non-faith.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic

About Time I Read It: Death in the City of Light by David King

When I stumbled across David King’s 2011 book Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris during one of my weekend visits to the public library I was compelled to grab the book for three reasons. One, at the time I thought needed to read and review something about, or set in France for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. (Silly me, right after I walked out of the library I suddenly remembered Paris 1919 had already taken that honor.) Second, my love of Allan Furst’s Night Soldiers novels has kindled my interest in the German Occupation of Paris. Three, when granted the opportunity to read about a serial killer running loose in occupied Paris Death in the City of Light was a book I couldn’t pass up.

One day Paris police receive a report of suspicious smoke and a nasty stench emanating from a Parisian townhouse. After the police arrive and do a quick inspection of the property they find not only bones and other human remains but also a sound-proof room, presumably some sort of killing chamber. If having to live under Nazi occupation wasn’t bad enough, in the spring of 1944 the good people of Paris learn a serial killer has been stalking them. Soon the hunt is on for the residence’s registered owner, Marcel Petiot a former politician and current doctor. As the investigation proceeds people start asking questions. Who has Petiot murdered? Were the victims Nazis and French collaborators? If so, would that make him a patriotic hero? On the other hand, if his victims were Jews and members of the French Resistance would that mean Petiot is a Nazi agent? Or is he simply an evil murderer killing indiscriminately without agenda, political, personal or otherwise.

Death in the City of Light is a decent and fairly entertaining book. To King’s credit his book feels well-researched, and therefore there’s no shortage of detail. Ironically, in spite of King’s hard work in telling this forgotten story, we may never know everything about  Petiot and his murderous acts. Some secrets even the most barbarous and unrepentant killers take to their graves.

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Filed under Europe, History

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Once again, my well-read friend did not lead my astray when it comes to book recommendations. Last summer, in one his emails he sang the praises of Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall, even though he was only half-way through the book. Since sending that email, I couldn’t help but notice the tons of accolades and awards Hawley’s 2016 novel has earned. This told me once again, my friend knows a good book when he sees one. So, with all that in mind it’s no surprise when I found a copy at my public library I grabbed it, despite having several other library books I was trying to get read before their respective due dates. Fear not, my decision to put everything else aside was the right one because my goodness, Before the Fall is fantastic page-turning and worth every ounce of hype it’s generated.

The premise is a simple one but like that of many great stories as things unfold one learns that nothing about Before the Fall is quite that simple. One evening a private plane with 11 passengers and crew takes off from Martha’s Vineyard for what should be a fairly short and uneventful trip to New York City. 16 minutes later the plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are a four-year old boy and a middle-aged painter. Fortunately for the two of them, the painter swam competitively both in high school and college and recently started hitting the pool again. Once they make it to shore, the man, thanks to his heroic efforts becomes the 24 news cycle’s latest hero of the week, much to his dissatisfaction. His inability to remember details of the crash not only frustrates government investigators but also fuels speculations that somehow, no matter how unlikely it seems was somehow responsible.

It’s no coincidence the novel is called Before the Fall since the heart and soul of this novel is its backstory, specifically the lives of the 11 characters leading up to the moment they boarded the doomed aircraft. Among the victims is the CEO of a thinly disguised Fox News Network; (whose star broadcast personality, an equally thinly disguised Bill O’Reilly sees the crash as part of some liberal government conspiracy or act of terrorism); a Wall Street heavy-hitter under indictment for laundering cash from rogue nations like North Korea and Iran; a former Israeli special forces badass turned private security specialist; and lastly a beautiful, young and slightly wise beyond her years flight attendant.

Before the Fall is an outstanding work of fiction and easily exceeded my expectations, which is no small feat considering all the hype surrounding this novel. Not only should you consider Before the Fall highly recommended, there’s also a strong likelihood you’ll see it included on my year-end Best Fiction list.

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About Time I Read It: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

It’s been my experience whenever a well-read friend recommends a book, it’s best to read it. Not long ago a buddy told me about a quirky novel with the odd title of Special Topics in Calamity Physics. According to him, I simply had to read it. So, following his advice I went searching through my public library’s catalog and lo and behold, there was an available copy. Hoping his recommendation was a sound one, I checked out that copy and later that evening began reading it. Yes, I’m happy to report my buddy did not lead me down the wrong path. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, just like he said is quirky. But more importantly it’s bold, original and entertaining as hell.

Published in 2006, Pessl’s debut novel is told from the perspective of Blue, a precocious 16-year-old girl. The daughter of an itinerant college professor, she’s intelligent well beyond her years and not only well-read, but in all likelihood better read than most adults twice or even three times her age. After spending years crisscrossing the country as her father drifted from one teaching position after another other (almost always at some third tier college in a podunk town), the two of them spend a year or so in Stockton, North Carolina where Blue enrolls at the prestigious Saint Gallway School.

Not long after starting at this private academy Hannah Schneider, a Bohemian film instructor introduces Blue (after a chance encounter at the supermarket where she makes small talk with Blue’s professor father) to a clique of the school’s cool kids, called the Blue Bloods. Of the Blue Bloods, my favorite is probably Jade. The daughter of a onetime model with the odd first name of  Jefferson, who spends her time conspicuously absent from her daughter’s life (usually in places like Vale in the arms of handsome ski instructor), Jade is a vain, celebutante in training and one of the ringleaders of the Blue Bloods. Needless to say, the intellectual Blue and the shallow hedonist Jade make an unlikely and therefore entertaining pair.

Without revealing too much, just when you think this is just another coming of age novel (albeit a clever and edgy one) the author throws up some major twists and we’ll just leave it at that. Special Topics in Calamity Physics lived up to all my friend’s hype. I’m glad I took his advice.

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Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese

Besides inspiring me to read books dealing with all kinds of European countries, Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has also got me reading more fiction. Probably because I’m a fan of history, most the fiction I’ve been reading over the last few years has been of the historical variety.

The latest piece of history fiction to catch my eye is Laurie Zico Albanese’s Stolen Beauty. Noticing the 2017 novel is set in Austria, I grabbed a copy from my public library knowing I could apply towards the Rose City Reader’s challenge. Making my decision easier was knowing Stolen Beauty is historical fiction and jumps back and forth between two different but equally pivotal periods in Austria’s history.

Stolen Beauty is the story of two different yet nevertheless related women, in this case aunt and niece. Our story begins with Maria, a young newlywed living in Vienna on the eve of the Anschluss or German annexation of Austria. Being Jewish, naturally she’s terrified of what the Nazis have in store for her and her family. As tension builds the story then shifts backwards a generation or so to the same city and we see Maria’s niece Adele as a young woman who comes of age during the city’s fin de siècle period of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and antisemitic populist mayor Karl Luger. It’s during this portion of the novel Vienna becomes a complex character of its own. With its lively salons, avant-garde art scene and Mitteleuropa sophistication, it rivaled Paris as another City of Light. However, beneath that veneer one could see portends brewing of different kind of Europe, one of ethically based nation states and dark, murderous antisemitism.

Stolen Beauty held my interest and entertained me. Not only did the novel appeal to my inner historian but I enjoyed seeing the two female protagonists evolve as they matured and faced new challenges. If you follow my lead and end up reading Stolen Beauty, I would encourage you to also read Death and the Maiden, one of the Max Liebermann mysteries by Frank Tallis set in turn of the century Vienna. Stolen Beauty is an enjoyable novel and I’m glad I stumbled across a copy.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica

The Best Place on Earth by Ayelet Tsabari

We’ve all been told never judge a book by its cover. Perhaps I should have remembered that bit of advice when I impulsively grabbed a library copy of Ayelet Tsabari’s short story collection The Best Place on Earth. For some silly reason, after taking one look at the book’s brightly colored cover art I immediately assumed it was about India. Nope, I was wrong. You see, Ayelet Tsabari is a Mizrahi Jew of Yemeni heritage, born and raised in Israel but now living in Canada. Her debut collection of 11 short stories show life as it’s experienced by an array of mostly Mizrahi characters spanning the globe from Israel to Canada. Luckily for me, overall it’s a decent selection of stories. On top of that, come on, when does one come across a collection of short stories from a Mizrahi point of view? With that in mind, who cares if this book has nothing to do with India.

Seems like most short story collections contain stories you enjoy, stories that are so-so and some that just don’t work for you. While some of the stories in The Best Place on Earth I liked more than others, there weren’t any pieces I detested. My favorite story is probably “Casualties,” the tale of a young Israeli Army medic known as the “Moroccan firecracker” who supplements her army salary by selling black market gimel passes that medically excuses its pass holder from duty, allowing the conscript to flee the base for a bit of unauthorized R and R. For whatever reason, I enjoyed the stories set in Israel much more than the ones set in Tsabari’s current home of Canada. (Maybe Canada isn’t as relatively exotic, and therefore not interesting enough for me.)

I’m pleased to say Tsabari’s collection nicely compliments Rachel Shabi’s outstanding look at Israeli Mizrahi life We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands. On a related note, if you haven’t read Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World or Ariel Sabar’s My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq I welcome you to do so, especially after you’ve read The Best Place on Earth. Which I’m thinking, is a collection of short stories you just might possibly enjoy.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Fiction, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa