• The Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price *** (of 4)

    Truly, everything you might ever want to know about Vikings and how they ruled with terrible violence is scrutinized. Scandinavia, Western Europe, and the British Isles from roughly 700 – 1,000 CE were all under Viking rule. What makes the book so compelling, however, is the degree to which the author explains the tools of modern archaeology. Long gone are simple descriptions of dates, rulers, eras, and material culture. In the olden days of archaeology, the past was filtered through strongly clouded lenses. Thusly, the Vikings have largely been described by Christian missionaries who were at first overwhelmed by pagan invaders and later rationalized their missionary zeal for conversion by re-imagining Viking perceptions of the world. Price puts on a pair of 21st century lenses.

    To take one example, Viking religion and belief in their gods was understood only in relation to Christianity, while Price argues rather effectively that even the concept of religion is a construct of monotheism. Price cross-references material objects found in archaeological digs, nordic sagas which mostly tell us what Vikings wanted to believe and fossilize about themselves, and a handful of written accounts left by traders, mostly Arab and a few Jewish who ventured north. The result is a description of life that does its best to describe Vikings as they saw themselves and to expand our vision of the past to include women, LGBTQIA, slaves, immigrants, emigrants, mealtime, daily work, child rearing, and so forth.

    Most remarkable is the degree to which the combination of story and artifacts make clear the extent to which even in the first millennia the Vikings were integrated into a global economy. There are Vikings and Viking things in Egypt, Iraq, India, and China. Walrus tusks, for example, and Viking swords are found along the Silk Road. Simultaneously, there are Vikings buried in silk.

  • Lush Life by Richard Price *** (of 4)

    A nearly 15-year-old period piece that still has legs because the characters are so richly drawn and so authentically New York City. The lower east side of the city is being captured in a snapshot mid-gentrification. The neighborhood still has ghosts of its immigrant Jewish community of the early 20th century: collapsing synagogues, hidden Yiddishisms, and grandchildren returning to the neighborhood as 20-something hipsters calling on local bars deep into the dark hours. But there are also immigrant Chinese in walk-up apartments, Arab marketers, Irish cops, Blacks and LatinX living in project housing, drug dealers who seem to cross all the hidden boundaries, and clueless college students.

    In this case, there’s also a mugging that goes bad when a first-time mugger working as an assistant to a slightly older teen pulls a trigger he probably shouldn’t have. But the crime is secondary to the mish-mash of people that make up a New York City neighborhood in transition. If you have any chance to listen to this book on audio, do so. Bobby Cannavale embodies every accent to perfection.

  • The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon *** (of 5)

    lazarusIn 1908 a Jewish immigrant named Lazarus Averbuch knocked on the door of Chicago’s police chief.  After handing the Chief Shippy a letter (we never learn what it says), a frightened police force shoots Lazarus several times until he is quite dead.  Aleksander Hemon writes one fictional account of Lazarus’s murder, a second of the author’s parallel immigration from Bosnia to the United States, a third about his investigation into Lazarus’s origins in Eastern Europe and life in Chicago’s tenements, and a fourth as a travelogue back to Bosnia taken by the author and a fantastical story-telling companion named Rora.  Lazarus dies because deeply anti-Semitic law and order fears anarchists are destroying America and anyone with dark skin, big ears or a nose that might be Jewish is suspect.  Immigration to a new country is awful, except it is not as bad as the pogroms that drive you to flee.  Getting an author’s grant to take adventures through post-war Sarajevo and rural slavic countries provides good product for a novel, but ambitious, and award-winning as the novel is, the multiple story lines all remain too independent to cohere into a compelling whole.

  • Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya ** (of 4)

    Panic_in_a_SuitcaseIn the first half of the book, Pasha, an intentionally depressive poet, because without depression there can be no decent poetry, arrives from Odessa to spend a summer month in Coney Island with his Russian Jewish family.  Pasha trips on the sand at the beach, gets lost on the subway, but doesn’t seem to mind, argues with his sister, and is babied by his Mama.  Every character is funny and wonderful and this young author’s style is reminiscent of her Russian forebears, Chekhov and Tolstoy, in that there is infinite amount of talking and pondering while almost nothing of consequence happens.  There are even several laugh aloud moments, but by the time Part II rolls around, and the story turns to Frida, Pasha’s niece, the desire for a plot, or even anything resembling a plot, overrides lovely sentences and exquisitely rendered scenes of Russian immigrants lost between two worlds.  If you are the kind that loved War and Peace this will be a delicious little morsel.  On the other hand, if Russian novels feel a wee bit tedious, Panic might not be worth the effort.

  • We Need New Names by Noviolet Buluwayo *** (of 4)

    we-need-new-names-3e60731d6539be68A young girl growing up in the disintegrating country of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe escapes by moving in with her aunt in Detroit, Michigan.  Her account is covered in this two-part, highly autobiographical novel of life in two cultures.  Part one is the joy and hunger of growing up with your friends on the streets in Zimbabwe.  Darling, the main character, and her friends play outside all day long.  They steal guavas from rich people to squelch their gnawing stomachs.  Their clothes are torn, dirty donations.  Their elders are away in South Africa searching for income or contracting HIV.  Even as children, they are not nearly so ignorant of the world as we Westerners perceive: they know how to play the aid organizations, how deceptively palliative the churches are, and with surprising accuracy what opportunities exist in the U.S.  Part two in some ways is more predictable.  Life in America is hard for immigrants torn from the tastes, aromas, dust, and relatives back home.  Darling finds American culture confined to computers, texting, shopping malls, school exams, cars, and cable.  Coming of age is hard; doing so in a foreign country is harder; forsaking your homeland, even in search of opportunity, is always wrenching.  The contribution of this book is its contemporary view of the experience.

  • Sugar in the Blood by Andrea Stuart ** (of 4)

    Sugar-in-the-BloodWhile investigating her genealogy, the author, Andrea Stuart, learns she is the descendent of both a slave owner and a slave.  She gets all the way back to the first British settlers of Barbados in the Sixteenth Century, finding a great, great (probably a dozen greats) grandfather who left Britain in search of bounty and who manages to scratche out just enough to start a lineage of sugar plantation owners.  It’s an interesting idea for a book, because Stuart has enough information to fill in the gaps for a dozen generations.  She covers politics, slavery, agriculture, and adventure.  Unfortunately, it reads like a long Master’s thesis.  A lot of research, but not that much fun to read.

  • This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz **** (of 4)

    A series of connected short stories about Yunior, a semi-autobiographical doppleganger for the author, Junot Diaz.  Yunior is a streetwise Dominican immigrant in a poor neighborhood in New Jersey, son of a largely absentee father, an overwrought, overworked mother, and brother to Rafa an unrepentant womanizer dying of cancer.  Yunior himself loves women, but mostly for their sex.  Each one is a mountain to conquer, from whose peak there always seems to appear another on the horizon.  And yet this disrespectful, infidelity prone schmo is not only lovable himself, but pitiful in his cluelessness.  That is the secret of the book.  We are simultaneously repelled by Yunior’s callousness toward women, a trait I have been assured is one hundred percent Dominican, and anxious to see him finally find the love he desperately craves.  Yunior is a contemporary, hip-hop, Espanglish speaking Charlito Brown.

  • Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English ** (of 4) by Natasha Solomons

    Mr. Rosenblum and his wife Sadie arrive in England as German refugees in 1937.  Mr. Rosenblum wants so desperately to assimilate that he keeps lists of all things British to emulate:  manners of speech, foods, how to carry an umbrella, fold a handkerchief.  He is indifferent to his wife’s longing for memory, so much so that without telling her he purchases land in the English countryside to build a golf course.  He does so only after being denied admittance to every golf club near London because of his Jewish heritage.  Alas, that’s the whole story.  The characters, even British country-siders are stock, the drama is minimal, the loss of heritage is sad, and I don’t really know if Mr. Rosenblum is finally accepted in British society or not, because I never finished the book.

  • Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese *** (of 4)

    This is a half-century story of Marion Stone, born in the late 1950s  as the twin son of a British physician and a nun (oops).  Both his parents vanish at his birth leaving him to be raised in a medical outpost in Addis Ababa by two Indian doctors, where he learns medicine first hand before becoming a surgeon, like his father, later in life.  The characters are lovingly drawn and Ethiopian poverty and politics provide the continuing backdrop, the most interesting character in the book is medicine.  I’ve never cared a great deal about the science and art of medicine, but Verghese, a practicing surgeon, lays it out in such graphic detail I was riveted by the myriad details, diagnoses, and decisions trauma surgeons must master.

  • When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka *** (of 4)

    A short introduction to the dehumanizing, racist relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps at the outset of World War II.  We follow a single, nameless family from a small bungalow in Berkeley, after the father is hauled off for questioning by the FBI.  It is the day after Pearl Harbor.  Weeks later Mom and the two children are moved to a church, the Tanforan horse racing track, and finally a desert internment camp in Nevada.  Dislocation, despair, depression, disbelief, and quiet obedience pervade these Japanese stripped of their rights and dignity.  Dad is returned to his family four years later a broken man.  No explanation or reparations are offered by the U.S. government.  When the Emperor was Divine reads more like a young adult book than a great novel, but for those who don’t know much about the Japanese internment camps, this is a good place to begin.