About Time I Read It: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The subject of my previous post, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 happened to be the selection of one of my three book clubs. In keeping with this theme, the book featured in this post, The Golem and the Jinni, was recently selected by one of my other book clubs. Yesterday I met with members of my book club at a local wine shop/bar to discuss it. I’m happy to report to the last man and woman, all of us enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni, and when a whole book club likes a book, it means it’s a pretty darn good.

Published in 2013, I’ve been wanting to read The Golem and the Jinni ever since one of those those “based on your history, you should read this” algorithms utilized by Goodreads brought the novel to my attention. Once my book club chose it as our May selection, I was able to secure an available copy through my public library. Despite being 657 pages long, it felt like I made my way through the novel rather quickly. Which, like having your whole book club praise a book, is never a bad thing.

Blending elements of fantasy, romance, mythology, religion and historical fiction, Wecker’s tells the story of two supernatural beings, who through strange twists of fate find themselves in turn-of-the-century New York City. One is Chava, a beautiful golem originally created by a one-time rabbinical student turned malevolent magus to serve as a submissive wife to a somewhat moneyed but nevertheless loser lech. The other, a roguish but likable Jinni named Ahmad, suddenly finds himself in Gotham after spending the last thousand years or so imprisoned in an old flask. While physically appearing normal, neither Chava or Ahmad are human. But on the other hand, neither are lacking in humanity. Their interactions with the diverse denizens of New York show the depth and width of the human condition. We readers are kept entertained by their supernatural abilities (physical as well as mental) as well as their sometimes fumbling attempts to pass as lowly mortals.

Despite The Golem and the Jinni popularity among readers, some reviewers were critical, taking issue with the novel’s length. I on the other hand have no such complaint, since it allowed Wecker to flesh out the unique and memorable cast of supporting characters who populate the novel. I thoroughly enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni and can easily see it making my year-end Best Fiction list.

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Filed under Arab World, Fiction, History, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016

Although I don’t read them at the rate I used to, I’m a big fan of anthologies. You know, those end of the year compilations featuring the year’s best writing in a particular genre, whether it’s short story, essay or mystery. While I don’t consider myself a true crime aficionado, I love The Best American Crime Writing, finding those collections hard to resist whenever an available copy surfaces at my public library. But the one anthology I’ve always loved is the Best American Science and Nature Writing. So when one of my book clubs voted to read The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 I went running to the public library in search of a copy. After finding one, I leisurely plodded my way through it, reading the selections out-of-order just as I usually do with these anthologies. In the end, I was happy with The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016.

Traditionally, the knock of these kind of books is they’re”uneven”, meaning some of the selections are great, some are OK and some, well are meh. With this particular offering, I didn’t get that feeling. Of the pieces chosen for inclusion by guest editor Amy Stewart only Amy Leach’s “The Modern Moose” was not to my liking. In what some might consider a no brainer, Stewart elected to include Kathryn Schulz’s outstanding Pulitzer-prize winning New Yorker article on the horrors of a possible Cascadia mega quake “The Really Big One. ” (When her piece appeared in the New Yorker it generated a ton of buzz here in my fair city of Portland, Oregon.) On a bittersweet note, there’s a short offering from the late Oliver Sacks, one of the last things he wrote before losing his battle with cancer.

I believe behind every successful anthology is a talented editor. With that in mind, there’s pair of pieces in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 I thought for sure I wouldn’t like, but loved the hell out of them. Their very inclusion in this anthology proves Stewart was the right editor for the job. Being male, I had no desire to read Sarah Maslin Nir’s “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers” but her powerful and well-written expose of the serious health risks facing nail salon workers is top-notch. Likewise, with every Tom, Dick and Harry weighing in online with their varying opinions on autism, I figured Apoorva Mandavilli’s article “The Lost Girls” on the little known and misunderstood challenges faced by autistic females wouldn’t hold my interest. Much to my surprise it would up being one of my favorites in the anthology.

Reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 reminded how much I miss reading these anthologies. Therefore, don’t be surprised when you start seeing more of them featured on my blog.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Science

Trieste by Dasa Drndic

Every once and awhile I grab a book that wasn’t exactly what I expected. Mind you, whenever this happens it hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing. More than once it’s turned out pleasantly surprising. Other times, I’ve been disappointed. Then there’s the times I’ve been left scratching my head, unable to decide if I my disappointment was justified or had I really been treated to an excellent book that just didn’t work for me.  Croatian novelist Dasa Drndic’s Trieste is one of those books.

After spying an available library copy of Trieste I was drawn to Drndic’s 2014 novel for a number of reasons. One, it’s set in Italy and therefore eligible for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Two, much of it takes place during World War II. Three, I’ve always had a fascination with the “border cities” of old Europe: cities located on the border of two countries that over history find themselves tossed back and forth between empires. Cursed by geography, places like Gdansk (Danzig), Lviv (Lemberg) and Trieste have always had special place for me.

As novels go, Trieste is a bit of an odd duck. If there’s a chief storyline, it’s that of Haya Tedeschi, an Italian Jew who, during the Second World War had an unlikely love affair with a German SS officer that resulted in the birth of her son. Tragically, mere months after his birth the infant was stolen by German agents as part of the Lebensborn project: an SS-coordinated plan to fill Hitler’s Reich with Aryan infants by any means necessary, including kidnapping children from across occupied Europe. 60 plus years later the elderly Haya has pulled off the near impossible task of locating her long-lost son and nervously awaits a reunion with him in the northeastern Italian town of Gorizia.

I called the book an odd duck because in addition to lots of Hays’s familiar history, the rest of the books seems to alternate between fiction and history, in addition to taking a number of odd and lengthy detours.  Therefore, while there were parts of Trieste I enjoyed, there were parts I didn’t. If you ask me if I liked this book or not, I’m not sure I can offer up a convincing answer.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick

If I may for a moment, channel The Most Interesting Man in the World and say I don’t always read young adult books, but when I do, I prefer something that’s socially and politically relevant. When I saw my public library had an available copy of Malala Yousafzai’s 2014 memoir I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World I decided to grab it lest someone beat me to it. I mean, it’s not everyday you get to read something authored by history’s youngest Nobel laureate. Plus, with my interest in the history and politics of South Asia, I’d be fool to pass up a chance to read I Am Malala. Lastly, considering she spoke in town about six months ago it might be wise to read Yousafzai’s memoir in the event I find myself in a conversation with someone who saw her speak that night in my hometown of Portland. (Remember, one of the keys to being a great conversationist is knowing your audience. And that requires preparation, possibly even research.)

But I was hesitant to read it because the edition I’d selection was billed as the Young Reader Edition. Was this some dumbed-down, Dick and Jane Reader version of what I assumed was a powerful memoir? So, like any decent American who needs to know something, I went running to the Internet. Luckily for me, I came across Kasey’s blog PhDs and Pigtails. Back in March of 2015 she posted an outstanding piece in which she weighed in on the pros and cons of both the original version of I Am Malala and its Young Reader Edition. In the end, while she suggested it’s best to read both versions, she preferred the Young Reader Edition. Feeling enlightened by Kasey’s recommendation I began reading I Am Malala. After whipping through it in mere days I’m happy to report Kasey did not lead my astray. I Am Malala did not disappoint me.

If you’re a half-way intelligent person who’s spent even a modicum of time reading or watching the news over the last few years, you’re probably familiar with Malala’s story. After surviving being shot three times in the head by militants who found her views on female education an affront to Islam, the Pakistani teen became an international human rights celebrity and eventual co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s about I knew about her before reading this book.

Thanks to I Am Malala I learned there’s a lot more to her story. For one, I had no idea prior to her assassination attempt she was such a vocal proponent of female eduction, doing interviews and meeting with officials. I also didn’t know how close she came to either dying or suffering major brain damage. (Or that she sought treatment in a series of four hospitals, with the last one in the United Kingdom.) But what will really stick with me after reading I am Malala is this young woman’s sense of purpose and belief in the importance of her cause, aided in no small part by her vast reservoir of self-confidence.

Not only did I enjoy this memoir, there’s a good chance at the end of the year when I look back on all the books I’ve read that I Am Malala could earn an honorable mention. This is a great book for young readers, as well as the not so young like myself.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Indian Subcontinent, Islam, Memoir

Spring Forward – With Books!

When you fall behind in your blogging perhaps all you can do is spring forward with a big list of books. My goodness did I fall behind in my blogging. A combination of writer’s block, a nasty bought of insomnia and overall laziness put me way behind the eight ball.  The end result is I’m having to do one of those dreaded catch-up posts I keep telling myself is just another preview post that I hope will inspire me to get back to blogging.

While my recent lack of blogging prowess is certainly bad news. The good news is even though my reading took a hit thanks to the insomnia (tired and zombie-like during the day, there’s nothing like taking 10 minutes to read one page of text) I still managed to read some quality books, both fiction and nonfiction. Of the six books featured below, two and possibly three stand a good chance of making my end of the year Best Nonfiction while two more are strong contenders for my Best Fiction category.

Enough talk, on to the catch-up list:

  • The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan by Gregory Feifer – If this title looks familiar it’s because I mentioned it last July in my Books I’ve Desperately Wanted to Read post. Took me close to eight years to get around to reading Feifer’s 2009 book but in the end I was not disappointed.
  • Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan – Another book featured in the above-mentioned post. Finally, after many fits and starts I was able to track down an available library copy. An outstanding book!
  • Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’ Neil – After hearing all kinds of buzz about this one my book club took a chance on it. Bad enough to be poor and powerless in America. Sucks when Big Data wants to keep it that way.
  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker – I read this 2013 novel for yet another of my book clubs. Combining Jewish mythology with that of pre-Islamic Middle East, Wecker’s novel is an enjoyable blend of fantasy, history, love and revenge.
  • Trieste by Dasa Drndic – Grabbed this one because it’s set during World War II and I could apply it towards the European Reading Challenge. Overall, kind of an odd book and I’m not sure what to make of it.
  • The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – For the last few years I’ve been wanting to read this 2014 historical novel after hearing Maureen Corrigan rave about it on NPR’s Fresh Air. After a well-read co-worker also sang its praises I knew I was on to something.

 

 

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1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen

1946: The Making of the Modern WorldI’m a huge sucker for books about a single year in history. Some of my favorites have been 1959, 1968 and 1973. Last year I read 1945 in addition to not one but two books titled 1913. Over the last year or so, I kept seeing a book at my public library called 1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen. However, despite my love for these single year books I never felt compelled to grab a copy. Sadly, I’m embarrassed to say I never did so because I disliked the book’s cover. Then one afternoon I came to my senses, put my petty prejudices behind me and helped myself to an available copy. I’m sure glad I did.

1946, while it might not make my year-end Best of List, could very well end up being one of my pleasant surprises of 2017. Made up of short chapters and employing a direct writing style, Sebestyen’s informative book makes for quick, but fascinating reading. Structured chronologically, it skips around the globe, largely ignoring Africa and the Americas and spending the bulk of time discussing seminal events and developments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Sebestyen’s 1946 chronicles a world in transition. With Nazi German and much of Europe in ruins, the United States and the Soviet Union have emerged as superpowers and their ensuing rivalry would eventually morph into the Cold War. On the other side of the world, Imperial Japan lies defeated, occupied and no longer able to impose its will on East Asia. In Japan’s place is a regional power vacuum with America to a degree the USSR to a slightly lesser degree rushing to fill the void. On a related note, with Japan vanquished Chinese Communists and Nationalists could now be freely fight each other for mastery of the country. Also in Asia, the sun began setting on the British Empire as India/Pakistan moved towards independence and in the Middle East armed Zionists intensified their fight for a modern State of Israel born from the ashes of the Holocaust. Lastly, Britain’s eclipse as a colonial power was part of a larger global trend in anti-colonialism that would in the coming years drive France from Indochina and Holland from Indonesia.

If you end up reading 1946 and would like follow-up books to read let me offer the following suggestions. I would start with Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945. From there I would proceed directly to Keith Lowe’s masterpiece Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II and then to Anne Applebaum’s outstanding book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956

Oh, and one last thing. Don’t me like me. Try not to judge a book by its cover.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Japan, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

Leaving BerlinDuring the second half of 2016 I ended up taking a break from Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, even though it’s been huge favorite of mine over the years. In retrospect, I’m sure it wasn’t intentional. I think I just got wrapped up in reading other stuff. Plus, I think I got a little burned out from blogging. But with the coming of the new year and a few days off from work I feel refreshed, inspired and ready to participate in as many reading challenges as possible.

After finding a copy though my local public library I was probably drawn to Joseph Kanon’s 2015 historical thriller Leaving Berlin for two reasons. The first reason is it’s set in Germany, so it counts as part of the European Reading Challenge. Secondly, the novel’s premise intrigued me. Set a few years after the end of WWII in a divided Berlin at the beginning of the Cold War sounded like something I could really enjoy.

Perhaps like any good spy novel, there’s a lot going on. After fleeing Nazi Germany 10 years ago, Alex Meier has returned to the city of his youth. The official story is as a writer, he’s been invited back by East Berlin’s ruling Communists to play propagandist and help jump-start the young East German regime. In reality, because of his leftist beliefs he’s been blackmailed by the American intelligence community into returning to his native land in order to secretly spy on their behalf. But he’s a writer and not a spy, and he quickly finds out how dangerous his new role can be.

Based on all the accolades it received, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy Leaving Berlin as much as I should have, but that doesn’t mean Kanon’s thriller left me disappointed. Set mostly in Soviet occupied Berlin and environs, I found the author’s portrayal of the early Communist East Germany interesting reading . Leaving Berlin has left me intrigued and curious about Kanon’s other novels like Istanbul Passage and Alibi. I’m thinking there’s a good chance you’ll see more of Kanon’s novels featured on my blog.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Europe, Fiction, History