Latvia is a small country. Nevertheless, over the last few years I’ve still managed to read a couple of books set in this tiny Baltic nation. For instance, last year I read Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga and back in 2013 it was Agate Nesaule’s ward-winnng memoir A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile.
Last September I came across a review in the New York Times of a recently published memoir by Latvian-American Pulitzer Prize-finalist and nonfiction writing professor Inara Verzemnieks. Intrigued by David Bezmozgis’ review, I placed a hold on Verzemnieks’ memoir with my public library and before I knew it, a copy became available. I’m happy to report I breezed through Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe in no time. Which of course based on my experience usually means I’d chosen a good book to read.
Like many children unlucky to be born to a pair of broken parents Verzemnieks was raised by her grandparents, both active members of a tight-knit community of Latvian émigrés in Tacoma, Washington. While growing up Verzemnieks took part in numerous activities like special summer camps, Latvian-langauge church services and folk dancing all meant to keep alive the culture and spirit of her relatives’ former homeland. Years later, she traveled to Latvia to interview those blood relations who stayed behind. Among the Living and the Dead is a beautifully written and fast-paced account of their lives, especially the hardships they endured living under not one, but two brutal regimes as well as suffering the ravages of war.
History has not been kind to Latvia. With the exception of the interwar period of 1918 to 1940 when the country briefly existed as an independent nation it’s been dominated by larger and mightier European powers. Only relatively recently with the collapse of the USSR has Latvia been able reclaim its independence. While the country as a whole was ruled by Russia (be it imperial or Soviet) individual Latvians, especially those in rural areas lived as serfs, laboring for their Germanic overlords. World War II brought immense suffering to the Latvians. Starting in 1940 the Soviet Union invaded and annexed Latvia, imposing Communist rule and with it forced collectivization, murder and deportation. (Verzemnieks’ great aunt Ausma was sent to Siberia.) The following summer the country would be invaded once more, this time by the Germans. After spending three years living under German occupation Latvia was invaded and annexed a third and final time by the Soviets.
In addition to invasion and annexation, depopulation is another recurring theme. Under the Soviets thousand of Latvians were either exiled to Siberia or sentenced to years of hard labor in the Gulag. Even after breaking free from the former Soviet Union, according to Verzemnieks thousands of Latvians have left and continue to leave in search of greener pastures in Western Europe and America.
The strength of this memoir is its writing. As I mentioned earlier Verzemnieks writes beautifully. Therefore, I have no hesitation recommending Among the Living and the Dead to anyone, especially readers interested in one the more overlooked countries of Europe.
I’ve been participating in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge for several years and based on my experience it’s easy finding books set in places like the United Kingdom, France and Germany. I’ve even managed to find books set in smaller countries like Bosnia, Austria and even tiny Vatican City. But when it comes to Bulgaria it’s been tough. Only once have featured a book set in that particular Eastern European nation. I’d almost given up when I learned author Elizabeth Kostova had recently written a novel set in Bulgaria. In spite of hearing this good news, I still didn’t run out and grab a copy of her latest novel The Shadow Land because I still remember a friend of mine calling Kostova’s earlier novel The Historian the worst novel she’d ever read. (Daunting too is the The Shadow Land’s length weighing in just a shade under 500 pages.) But knowing that novels set in Bulgaria are few and far between I took a chance, easily securing a copy from my public library. Much to my relief, The Shadow Land is not an awful novel. To my surprise, I rather enjoyed it.
The story begins with the novel’s 20-something American protagonist Alexandra Boyd arriving in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia to begin her new job teaching English at a local school. Immediately upon her arrival, due to a mix-up while entering a taxi she gets stuck holding an urn of human ashes meant for interment at a Bulgarian monastery. With the helpful assistance of a local cab driver she’s nicknamed Bobby Alexandra embarks on a search to reunite the cherished remains with its rightful owners. But much to her surprise, she quickly learns there are powerful people actively trying to stop her. But why?
On one hand, while I’m tempted criticize the author for her novel’s length, on the other hand I must praise her because The Shadow Land possesses so many of the elements one would expect from a quality novel. Readers of The Shadow Land will encounter exotic locations, heart-breaking loss, action, mystery, shifts in timeline as well as narration and even a bit of romance. And plenty of plot twists.
Who knows, after lucking out with The Shadow Land I might even give her other books including The Historian a chance. Don’t be surprised if I do.
Years ago my local newspaper featured a glowing review of a book whose author up to then had been a complete stranger to me. Judging from that review, Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary sounded like a heck of a book. Not long after it was released in paperback (and hearing some great word of mouth) I purchased a copy at Powell’s. From start to finish, Winchester’s 1998 book never ceased to entertain me. Who would have thought a book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary would make such wonderful reading?
Sadly, as much as I loved The Professor and the Madman I’ve read only one other Simon Winchester book. Back in 2011 I read his The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom and while I might not have enjoyed it as much as I did The Professor and the Madman nevertheless I found it an enjoyable read. Recently, I decided to give one of Winchester’s books a shot. Bestowed with the brief title and lengthy subtitle of Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers, sounded like a book I could sink my teeth into. And believe me, I did.
Pacific is a kind of hybrid travelogue combining history, geography, geology, climatology and international relations. In his book Winchester show readers the diversity, greatness and rising geopolitical importance of the region encompassing the world’s largest ocean. Much like science historian, broadcaster and fellow Brit James Burke, for each chapter Winchester focuses on two seemingly unrelated historical events. But in the end, after showing both their connectedness and vital significance he ties the loose ends together thus creating an informative and entertaining book.
However, I’m concerned Winchester’s book might possess a few factual errors. Early on he calls the island Guam a republic, which according to Wikipedia is “unincorporated and organized territory of the United States in Micronesia.” Later in the book, when describing the 1975 Fall of South Vietnam he describes Saigon being surrounded by Viet Cong army units as opposed to North Vietnamese troops. Lastly, he includes Germany as one of the European nations possessing colonies in South East Asia. With the exception of a few South Pacific islands and the settlement in Shandong, China Germany had no territories even close to South East Asia. (Unless of course you want to count German New Guinea.)
Lapses in fact-checking or not, Pacific is a pretty good book. It also makes a worthy companion read to Robert Kaplan’s 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. With Pacific under my belt, I think I’ll finally tackle Winchester’s 2010 offering Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms,and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories. If that’s the case, get ready to see yet another Simon Winchester book featured on my blog.
Awhile back a former co-worker raved about a novel with the intriguing title of The Lonely Polygamist. Figuring with a title like that I couldn’t go wrong, I vowed to someday read it. Well, last week or so that day finally came. As I happily made my way through Brady Udall’s 2010 novel I quickly realized my former co-worker of mine did not steer me wrong.
Considering the book’s primary character, Golden Richards is male Fundamentalist Mormon and by default a polygamist, one would assume Golden lives a life of unfettered male privilege. A plethora of subservient wives to indulge his every whim and an army of loving and devoted children some might argue Golden has got it made. Or does he?
His construction business is failing, forcing him to take on projects hundreds of miles from his home. (So desperate for construction gigs he’s agreed to remodel a legal brothel in Nevada, telling his wives he’s working on a retirement center.) His family is a train wreck riven by factions and power-struggles as his four sister wives jockey for control of his chaotic and overpopulated household. Father to 28 children, there’s so many kids under Golden’s roof he’s forced to employ a mnemonic device just to remember their names. Complicating his predicament, while away on business he finds himself falling in love with another man’s wife.
The Lonely Polygamist is one of those wonderful novels you just went to keep reading. Not only is the writing crisp, Udall takes the reader through a full spectrum of emotions. Also, without saying too much, there’s no shortage of plot twists that if you’re like me, you never saw coming. I loved The Lonely Polygamist and it easily made my year-end list of best fiction.
Last week I announced my favorite fiction from 2017 and now it’s time to do the same with my favorite nonfiction works of the year. Of course, it doesn’t matter when these books were published. All that matters is I enjoyed the heck out of them.
- The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End by Robert Gerwarth
- SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
- Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan
- The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan by Gregory Feifer
- The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark
- The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature by Adam Kirsch
- Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers
- Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil
- October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville
- Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century by Tony Judt
- The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance by Anders Rydell
- Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books by Mark Glickman
Considering my reading tastes, perhaps none of us should be surprised 10 out of 12 these books deal with history. Interestingly, four out of those 10 books are about World War One and/or its aftermath. Declaring an overall winner was not easy. In keeping with my World War One focus, I’ll bestow Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919 as my favorite nonfiction book of the year.
As the year known as 2017 finally draws to a close, it’s time for me to look back and announce to the world my favorite books of the year. Just like last year, I’ll start by talking about the outstanding fiction from 2017. Later, I’ll follow it up with another post dedicated to my favorite nonfiction books. Of course, this year just like in previous ones, it doesn’t matter when the books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.
As for declaring an overall winner, it wasn’t easy since all 12 books are fantastic. In the end, it was tough call to make but I awarded it to The Paying Guests. As high as my expectations were for this book, I was not disappointed.
And a diverse collection of novels indeed. Set in faraway locations like Libya, Croatia and Morocco the armchair traveler in me was duly satisfied. So also was my inner historian, with one novel set in turn of the 20th century New York City, one in Stalinist Russia and another in 1920s London. Lastly, several of the below-mentioned books were first time novels. Kudos to their respective authors for a job well done!
- The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
- The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida
- The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
- In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
- The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
- Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
- Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
- Conclave by Robert Harris
- The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
- The Yid by Paul Goldberg
- The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
- Girl at War by Sara Nović