Published in 2005, Faith at War is a collection of pieces recalling Trofimov’s travels across the Muslim world during the years immediately following 9-11. In his quest to better understand the challenges facing the world’s Muslims and with it the rage some have directed towards the West he interviewed clerics, government officials, dissidents and Islamic fighters. Trofimov traversed three continents, reporting from a host of countries stretching from Saudi Arabia to Mali to Bosnia. During the US-led invasion of Iraq he sped across the border from Kuwait in a rented SUV and then returned two years later to observe life under US occupation. In Afghanistan he spent time embedded with American Marines as they did patrols of remote villages searching for Taliban fighters, their allies and weapons. Lastly, Trofimov show us the surprising success story of Mali, a poor North African country at the time of Trofimov’s visit had embraced a home-grown vibrant democracy, perhaps in some ways made easier thanks to the laissez-faire interpretation of Islam practiced by most Malians. (Sadly, in 2012 this later day Belle Époque would come to an end, at least temporarily when the country was briefly overrun by Islamic fighters.)
Despite being published a decade ago, Faith at War holds up well. Yes, it’s a pre-Arab Spring and pre-ISIS world Trofimov writes about but his insights provide valuable backstory to what’s going on right now not just in the Middle East but also the wider Islamic world.
Trust me, after posting my recent Preview of Coming Attractions I’ve been trying to crank out more reviews, but sadly haven’t had much luck. Nevertheless, I’m confident you’ll start seeing some new posts before you know it. But until then, here’s another preview post to tide you over. Over the last week or so I read an enjoyable novel in addition to two quality works of nonfiction. Hopefully, soon on my blog you’ll be reading about these three books.
The Little Book by Selden Edwards – Back in 2008, I heard a glowing review of this novel on NPR. Not long after that a former co-worker raved about it. I’ve been wanting to read it for years and last week I finally got the chance. I was not disappointed.
The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt- Yet another book I once checked out from the public library only to return it before even reading the first page. But with Judt’s 2008 book Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century making my year-end Best Nonfiction List I’ve been inspired to read the rest of his stuff. Not only is this an excellent collection of autobiographical reflections and historical essays it was composed while Judt was paralyzed and dying from ALS. An impressive book in more ways than one.
Well, I might have began the year with a flurry of posts but for the last few weeks I’ve been missing in action. Sorry about that but I fear I’ve been plagued with a slight case of writer’s block. Anyway, the good news is even though I’ve ignored my blog I’ve still been reading. Hopefully, by doing a little preview post on the books I hope to feature in the coming weeks I can inspire myself to do some blogging. This tactic has worked in the past and I’m cautiously optimistic it’ll work once again.
Below are six books I plan to feature over the coming weeks or so. Half are fiction and the other half are nonfiction. Like most the stuff I read it’s heavy on history, including historical fiction.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford- I read this one for a book club but unfortunately I was unable to attend. I approached Ford’s novel with modest expectations and in the end enjoyed it more than I originally thought I would.
The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer – I can’t remember if it was on Goodreads or Amazon, but this one kept popping up as something I should read. I took the suggestion and loved Rojstaczer’s novel. Perhaps the best novel I’ve read so far this year.
Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Days of Paranoia by Francis Wheen- Over the last couple of years I’ve been obsessed with the 70s. Therefore, when I found this book at my public library I eagerly grabbed it. This book was completely off my radar and had it not been for my library I never could have read it.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a huge fan of Rose City Reader’sEuropean 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.
Late last week I found myself in search of one last book to round things out for Rose City Reader’sEuropean Reading Challenge. I didn’t have much time to read and review anything so my choices were limited. So nothing too lengthy or complicated. I thought about something set in Ukraine, Hungary or the Czech Republic but nothing seemed to fit the bill. But thanks to my local public library I found a novel set in Denmark. While I initially had my doubts, by the end it become obvious Thomas E. Kennedy’s 2013 novel staring a bar-hopping, self-destructive middle-aged jazz aficionado was the perfect end to another year of the European Reading Challenge.
Lately life hasn’t been kind to Kerrigan, an American expat residing in Copenhagen. In his mid-50’s his health is already starting to fail. His wife, a beautiful and vivacious Danish woman almost 30 years his junior has fled abroad with their infant daughter, who may or may not be really his. Broken hearted he succumbs to the instructions of his estranged wife’s lawyer and signs the divorce papers, even though he still loves her despite her transgressions. His once promising academic career is no more and instead he spends his days researching a travel guide to the countless bars of Copenhagen. However, in reality he’s been drinking himself into oblivion, wandering the streets of the Danish capital in an alcoholic haze as he travels from one bar to another. Just to complicate things he’s fallen in love with his literary assistant, a twice divorced voluptuous Danish woman. Not only is he attracted to her physically, but he finds her intelligence, humor and world-weariness just want he needs considering his current wrecked state.
Yes, Kennedy’s novel is a tale of middle age loss and bumbling search for love but it’s also an homage to James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece Ulysses. Just as Leopold Bloom (also cursed with an unfaithful wife) traveled the streets of Dublin so Kerrigan migrates back and forth across Copenhagen. Other similarities become apparent as Kennedy mentions Joyce’s belief that Danish blood coursed through his veins, thanks to the Viking conquests of the British Isles.
Perhaps another reason I ended up liking Kerrigan in Copenhagen more than I expected is I have a weakness for self-destructive individuals, much like the protagonist Charlie Kolostrum in the Austrian novel Pull Yourself Together and Mark Richard as he recalls in his memoir House of Prayer No. 2. No matter what they still manage to achieve some level of success. Kennedy’s repeated inclusion of historical factoids and jazz trivia made for interesting reading and reminded me a bit stylistically what Marisha Pessl did with her outstanding novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I guess when it’s all said and done, how could I not like a novel about bars, jazz, history, love and middle-aged regret?
Funny, I’ve never read a novel set in Switzerland. Last week while looking for books I could read for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I noticed there was an available copy of Rose Tremain’s novel The Gustav Sonata. Seeing it’s set Switzerland I was tempted grab it. But not knowing anything about Tremain’s 2016 novel I was a bit hesitant. However, after seeing it won the 2016 Jewish Book Award for fiction and received a glowing review in the Guardian I decided secure a copy. After whipping through it in no time I knew I’d made the right decision.
The Gustav Sonata begins a few years after the conclusion of the Second World War when two five-year old boys meet in kindergarten. When Gustav meets Anton, he’s a sad Jewish boy choking back tears. Gustav is immediately drawn to him and takes him under his wing. Before long Gustav finds sanctuary as a treasured guest of Anton’s well to do and loving family. Unfortunately, Gustav’s own home life is less than stellar. Since his father’s death he and his mother have lived a hand to mouth existence, made worse by his mother’s struggles with physical and mental health issues as well as alcohol abuse. Despite the two boys’ differences and Anton’s frequent bouts of nervousness and self-doubt (today he’d probably be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder) a strong bond develops between them, leading to an intense life-long friendship.
Gustav and Anton’s relationship is a reflection of post war Switzerland as whole. Looking back decades later many in that country and around the world condemn Switzerland for its reluctance and eventual refusal to admit Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. This has led to debates on what should be the country’s priorities during times of extreme emergency. Just as Anton and especially Gustav explore and reflect on the successes and failures of their respective parents so others have scrutinized the actions of previous generations of Swiss when faced with tough moral choices.
I found The Gustav Sonata well written, moving and engaging. With a story that begins in the aftermath of World War II and continues for half a century The Gustav Sonata makes a nice companion novel to All the Light We Cannot See. It’s left me wanting to read more stuff by the novel’s author Rose Tremain. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you see more of her novels featured on my blog.
Years ago during one of my visits to the public library a came across a copy of Robert D. Kaplan’s 2000 book The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War. Contained in this collection of essays on democracy, international relations and assorted global hotspots was a considerably pessimistic article originally written for The Atlantic magazine. In his lengthy piece, “The Coming Anarchy” Kaplan predicted a bleak future for the developing world. Already cursed with fragile governments and limited resources, these countries face a bleak future of overpopulation, resource depletion and explosive urbanization. Unable to cope with such challenges many of them will descend into anarchy while armed conflicts, flights of refugees and human misery become all more common. According to Kaplan the future looked grim. And it left me wanting to read more of his stuff.
Fast forward to 2011 when I read his 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power finding it even more insightful and fascinating. According to Kaplan, the Indian Ocean region will continue to grow in importance as India and China rise, leading to an increase in global trade but also the potential for greater international rivalries and possibly even armed conflicts. I happily devoured Monsoon and had no difficulty including it in my year-end Best Nonfiction list.
So I guess it should be no one’s surprise once I learned Kaplan’s newest book was about the Eastern European county of Romania I immediately went about securing a copy from my public library. Even though I took a six month break before starting it back up I found it excellent. As high as my expectations might have been, In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond did not disappoint me.
Much like Ian Frazier’s 2010 book Travels in Siberia In Europe’s Shadow is the end result of Kaplan’s many visits to Romania, going all the way back to the 70s when he was a young aspiring foreign correspondent. Until the early 90s, the Romania Kaplan visited was an impoverished Communist backwater ruled with an iron hand by the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. While other Warsaw Pact countries were ruled by drab Leonid Brezhnev kind of leaders Ceaușescu’s autocratic regime was a twisted mix of Stalinism, hard-core Romanian nationalism and North Korean-style cult of personality. After Ceaușescu was overthrown in a bloody uprising the country former Communist apparatchik Ion Iliescu became president. In retrospect Iliescu’s somewhat authoritarian rule served as a transition period between the dark days of Ceaușescu and the freer Western-style rule the country’s citizens enjoy today. A member of both the EU and NATO since 2007, Kaplan’s most recent trips to Romania show a country that despite the curses of the past eagerly desires to move closer towards the West, politically, culturally and economically.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from In Europe’s Shadow is the understanding that depending how you look at it, Romania is blessed and cursed by geography. Throughout its history Romania has had to deal with Russians, Ottomans and Central Europeans (be they Germans, Hapsburgs or Hungarians) trying to impose their will. Traditionally, especially in modern times the solution has been for Romania’s leaders to play one powerful neighbor against the other resulting in varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, as these powerful empires have washed over Romania throughout centuries they’ve left indelible marks. While Romanian is a Romance language written in Latin script one can find influences from Hungarian, Turkish and assorted Slavic languages. Thanks to Byzantine and Russian influences the county’s majority religion is Romanian Orthodox. Depending on the region, years of Hungarian and Turkish rule have flavored everything from cuisine to native dress.
Just as I proclaimed Monsoon should be required reading for the politically engaged and globally minded I’ll do the same for In Europe’s Shadow. As Putin’s Russia continues to flex its muscle especially in Ukraine and the Middle East and Turkey asserts itself Romania navigates between East, West and South. That being the case, In Europe’s Shadow should be required reading.
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 émigrésin 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 Great Britain, 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 Landbecause 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?
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.)