England’s Medieval Game of Thrones

While history buffs are likely very familiar with the Norman invasion of England in 1066, they might not know as much about the preceding half century and this epic book fills that gap.

It was a time of violence almost beyond belief, though it might remind readers of early 1900s pogroms in Russia and October 7th in Israel. Raiding Vikings from various countries as far away as what became Poland weren’t satisfied with just burning Anglo-Saxon towns and cities to ash–even if they’d received gold and silver as ransom. They raped women and cut off their breasts, threw victims into fires to burn alive, speared babies to death or smashed their skulls, and hanged men by their privates when they weren’t beaten, clubbed, or hacked to death.  The survivors often became slaves.

Strife seemed almost constant, with Anglo-Saxon and Viking armies “marching back and forth and up and down the length of England for years, each time inflicting punishment on whatever unlucky locals got in their way, for not having sufficiently resisted the previous conquerors.”  And as if that wasn’t bad, in Normandy, nobles were known to “tear each other to shreds and destroy themselves, for they lust after rebellion, love sedition, and indulge willingly in treachery.”

In both countries, alliances between factions and families could shift with stunning speed, oaths were followed by betrayals that were followed by promises of fealty, exiles and returns were as common as brothers having their own brothers murdered and treasuries raided. Feuds simmer and erupted and died down again, only to savage a new generation.

In these sometimes hellish landscapes, castles were besieged and destroyed and rebuilt, farms were burned, cattle slaughtered, and danger and death were omnipresent–and likewise disease, since the Anglo-Saxons had no understanding of hygiene. They used water riddled with garbage, human waste, and animal corpses. “Random death was so common in England that the Anglo-Saxons had a word for it, aelfscot, ‘elf shot,’ struck down by an invisible, otherworldly arrow.”

And among the various kings, lords, and chieftains on both sides of the English Channel (or “The Southern Sea”) there were plots, coups, murders, betrayals, assassinations and enough violence to make the series Vikings look like something from the Disney Channel.

Parallel to all this madness and dislocation was the quiet, steady, painstaking work of monks copying manuscripts in scriptoriums, work that was encouraged by Alfred the Great to save such treasures for posterity. That very human impulse to save learning and wisdom is both touching and fragile, because raiders had no use for books and loved burning them.

There’s what seems like a cast of thousands here and the names like Aelgifu are hard to scan, but the author does a decent job of individualizing people and separating legend from fact, as well a immersing you in a period that is at times both familiar and utterly alien. Hollway is especially good at charting the changing names of places from Latin to Danish to Old English and Modern English, helpfully explaining the roots of those names. All the same, the fusillade of names can sometimes be exhausting, especially when someone has two or more different names. And there’s way too much speculation about what people might have done or said or felt. 

Beyond that, this book that has two main faults, both of them inexplicable: there are no maps and no genealogies whatsoever, so it’s hard to picture where cities, counties, and countries are located when they’re mentioned, and hard to remember who’s related to whom–and how.  ★★★

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and other news outlets as well as for several NPR radio stations, one of which hosted his interview show with guests like Salman Rushdie and Erica Jong.


Russia and Martin Cruz Smith

Once American intelligence agencies verified that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, it behooved all thinking Americans to inform themselves about our long-term enemy, an enemy many of us thought was no longer a potent threat. The invasion of Ukraine and the recent suspicious Siberian death of Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin’s foremost opponent, makes educating ourselves even more pressing.

You couldn’t start anywhere better than with the crime novels of Martin Cruz Smith. They present a wide-ranging, richly-textured portrait of the ailing, corrupt Soviet Union collapsing and slowly turning into an even more corrupt, money-mad Russian kleptocracy. A country that undermines American democracy in profound and devilish ways, like supporting the current Speaker of the House with campaign donations.

The touchstone for all this upheaval is the cynical, battered hero Arkady Renko. Renko should have risen much higher than he has as a police inspector, because his father was a famous general in The Great Patriotic War (WWII).  But he disobeys orders, won’t cut corners, and won’t accept cover-ups. In other words: he’s honest. It hasn’t done him any good in the old order and it’s even less helpful in the new one where everything is for sale. In fact, it almost gets him killed more than once.

His latest dangerous case sends him to Siberia in search of his testy journalist girlfriend Tatiana who’s risking her life researching a story about oligarchs and oil–and much more than she’s let him know about. Siberia is “where strange things happened and stranger things were just around the corner…It was a zone on the edge where planes of existence overlapped.  Nothing was inexplicable.”

But everything is potentially lethal.  When Arkady lands in the grim Siberian city of Chita, the chatty cab driver laughingly warns him, “Don’t go by first impressions.  It gets worse. A few days ago an oil tanker on a train headed to Moscow exploded two kilometers from the station.  It went up in flames for no good reason. They say you could have seen the blast from the moon.”

Renko asks if that happens often there and the driver says, “It’s Chita. Anything can happen.” And anything does, as Arkady is the subject of more violence in this book than ever before, or perhaps more accurately, violence unlike anything he could have imagined.

I’ve read all of the previous novels twice and look forward to reading them again. They’re beautifully written, but not in such a way as to interfere with the narrative. Every word serves the story, like these quietly ominous lines from  Three Stations: “Yegor’s name was like a drop of ink in water. Everything took a darker shade.”

Line by line he’s also one of the funniest novelists we have, and Renko’s sly insolence when dealing with his nasty boss Zurin is one of the highlights of the series. Their barbed relationship doesn’t prepare you, though, for a shocking request Zurin makes near the end of the book that could not only change Renko’s life but change the course of Russian history. And while the characters may be fictional, their prototypes are not.

“Brilliant” may be an over-used word for  reviewers, and so is “stunning”–but both of them fit.  There’s more to say than that, however. Martin Cruz Smith has been writing an epic history of contemporary Russia that should have earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature by now. ★★★★★

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post and other publications, online journals, and radio stations.  He is the author of 27 books in many genres.

Our Forgotten War

Anna Reid is the author of Borderland, a brilliant book about the history of Ukraine, and she tackles an even more complicated story in A Nasty Little War.

The Allies in WWI were under the delusional belief that they could intervene in Russia’s civil war, invade the country after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and Russia’s peace treaty with Germany, and force it back into the war and/or crush the Bolsheviks. Armies from more than a dozen countries landed in Russia’s Far East, in the Caucasus, and the frozen north near Finland. They fought a dizzying array of armies, supported over a dozen different governments, ignored the massacres of Jews as well as mass executions, and believed that they were making Russia great again. Or at least harmless.

Arrogance, lack of information and insight, shambolic planning, bigotry, and theft of supplies undermined the campaigns at almost every step. One of the most ludicrous examples of stupidity among many falls to President Wilson. He initially sent troops from Michigan and Wisconsin to Russia’s subarctic Murmansk and Archangel because it was believed they would be used to the cold. 

If there wasn’t so much cruelty, confusion, death and and combat, you might think the months of political and military wheel spinning had been organized by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Even when nearly 200,000 troops were on the ground across the vast country, they made very little impact.  The only real success was establishing Red Cross hospitals which had never been a war aim and some treaty agreements for the newly-independent Latvia and Estonia.

The vivid and engrossing book is enlivened by quotations from letters and diaries and many of them from the Allied side are stunning in their crudity.  Churchill as Minister of Munitions thought that Russia was “a very disagreeable country, inhabited by immense numbers of ignorant people.”  As for the Bolsheviks, he likened them at various times to ferocious baboons, vampires, rats, crocodiles, and hyenas.  He was hardly alone in his invective and myopia. My favorite English twit is the aristocrat who wondered airily in Vladivostok why anyone would want to live in Siberia.

Amid the fog of war, Jews suffered way out of proportion to their numbers: as many as 200,000 were victims of mass rape and murder.  The culprits were Russians of all stripes, Poles, Ukrainians, Cossacks. Almost as disturbing as events that presage the Holocaust was the way that British politicians, diplomats and military officers downplayed, ignored, or denied that these horrific massacres were taking place.  Readers might likely connect all of this to the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

The book teems with generals, warlords, politicians, Cossacks, coup leaders, assassins–and nationalities and ethnic groups–who most people have never heard of.  Given the cast of thousands, A Nasty Little War could have used a Dramatis Personae section at the beginning to help readers keep track.  It also lacks a detailed map of the Caucasus, but it’s otherwise stunning history of events that should be much better known. Because even an American president and a British prime minister didn’t know their countries had ever fought in Russia.  ★★★★

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report, The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram and several public radio stations in Michigan.

Hitchens Hits Hard: A New Collection

I confess that Christopher Hitchens’ erudition and wit can sometimes be intimidating: His writing is just so damned smart, caustic, and rhetorically relentless. Imagine an Oxford-educated Robin Williams at warp speed with, I guess, a First in Classics, perhaps, or whatever degree is most impressive to the hoi polloi (and yes, I know, the British just say hoi polloi). 

So I recommend this book of previously uncollected essays and reviews, some of them quite scathing, to be sampled slowly, like an 16-year-old Lagavulin. Because this stuff is definitely peaty.

Consider the essay titled “Spanking” in which Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher made Hitchens lose “all independent volition” when they met at a book party. He actually obeyed when she ordered him to bow lower and lower until she could “thwack” him on the butt.  Yes, it was with rolled-up papers, but still. . . .

The opening of that piece is a treasure house of finely-tuned mockery:

Sometimes in the late autumn of 1977, I went to a book party that was held in the Rosebery Room of the House of Lords. Why I went I can’t think–the volume was some piece of unreadable bufferdom* extruded by Lord Butler, who as “Rab” had never in his life done anything to live down the sobriquet “flabby-faced old coward.” He himself was vaguely present, moving about the carpet like a terrible tortoise.

I thought instantly of the grotesque bejeweled tortoise that Rex Mottrom gave Julia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited.

There’s much to feast on here, like the gimlet-eyed portrait of Princess Margaret having the full weight of the British government suppress her quite ordinary need for love and deny her marriage to the divorced man she loved.  It’s hard to read those sad, boozy pages without seeing Lesley Manville’s riveting performance–the glamor and clamor–in The Crown. Hitchens has no love for royalty and its discontents and while the essay is brutal, it’s also surprisingly compassionate.

The book is heavily political from politics in the Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon years to the sexual hypocrisy of J. Edgar Hoover.  Hitchens hated all four men, and gives readers good reasons why.

And people who feel Barbie was “snubbed” might find the surprising “At the Oscars” illuminating. Or infuriating.  Either way, it’s masterful reportage and analysis.

One fascinating feature of the book is published letters responding to complaints about various articles of his. In Hitchens’ ripostes, he often seems to be dueling an unarmed–or at least unskilled–opponent.

Hitchens’ essays frequently quote Oscar Wilde  and I found myself deeply grateful for his reference in one essay to a master of humor almost equal to Wilde: H.H. Munro who wrote under then pen name of “Saki.” Saki’s Edwardian tales are priceless in their dissection of the period’s arrogance and self-love. Read them when the world is too much with you, late or soon.

The author was known by many people as “Hitch” and the publishers went with a punning title and cover, but honestly, a stiletto or rapier would have been a more fitting implement.  ★★★

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post and other newspapers as well as for NPR stations in Michigan.  Guests on his interview show on Lansing Public Radio included Salman Rushdie, Erica Jong, and Julian Barnes.

*the state of being foolish, old-fashioned, and incompetent

Why Is China’s Genocide Ignored? Especially by U.S. Faculty & Students?

Over more than a decade, the Chinese government has been grossly persecuting Muslims in the western region of Xianjiang. An officially-recognized ethnic minority of between 11-13 million people, the Uyghurs speak a Turkic language. As second-class citizens, they have seen their lives grow more tenuous, constricted, desolate and desperate as the Chinese have spun ugly new twists on the Nazi persecution of Jews and Soviet-style surveillance.

Supposedly protecting China from terrorists, Chinese persecution has involved demeaning the Uyghurs as less than human; endless interrogations over things as minor as speaking to someone abroad on the phone–and even arresting those people; denying them passports; arresting and “disappearing” people who have passports; seizing anything related to Islam like Korans, Islamic books, and prayer rugs; forcing people to change their Muslim names and expensively register the change in newspapers; arbitrarily arresting and detaining a million people in slave labor camps. Uyghurs have even been forced to renounce Islam and praise Communism in word and song. And they have to pay for the installation of state surveillance cameras on their apartment buildings.

People just disappear, and family and friends don’t know where they are or if they’re even alive. Torture has been employed against Uyghurs in prisons and camps, and so is forced sterilization of some women. The aim is to terrorize this population and destroy their culture. The oppression extends beyond their region: Uyghurs who have come to Beijing for any number of reasons cannot stay in ordinary Chinese hotels but are ghettoized in Uyghur hotels.

Much of this is detailed soberly but powerfully by renowned Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut Izgil in his memoir Waiting to Be Arrested at Night.  In his devastating short book he details his three-year imprisonment after trying to travel outside of China, along with endless interviews and bureaucracy that go beyond Kafkaesque. Chinese surveillance of its people who all have ID cards is highly sophisticated, strict, far-reaching, and inexorable. And the Uyghurs aren’t just spied on, they’re fingerprinted, forced to give blood samples, and photographed extensively via computers for facial advanced recognition.

The author tells the stories of friends who almost died trying to get to freedom in the West and his own attempts to escape China with his family are heartbreaking, the stuff of a thriller. Luckily, he made it out.

In one of the most haunting passages, he and his wife are interrogated in a basement office where they pass by prison cells, bloodstained floors, and a chair with straps meant to immobilize people being tortured. Waiting anxiously to be summoned downstairs, they had heard a man crying out in pain–until a steel door to the stairs was shut by police.

Many colleges and universities around the U.S. seem to think that they should be making foreign policy declarations even though their central mission is education. Given that drive and the uproar about the war in Gaza, it’s shocking that when it comes to China, Muslims there do not seem to count despite their horrendous suffering–and the fact that the U.S. has declared what is happened in China to be genocide.

Michigan State University is a sad example with its furious meetings about the war in Gaza. Whatever lies behind student and faculty silence about the Uyghurs, the institutional silence could be due to the fact that MSU has long-standing and apparently remunerative ties with China. You have to wonder if other universities have similar reasons for shamefully ignoring the truth. ★★★★★

Lev Raphael is a former book reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and has also reviewed for The Washington Post and several public radio stations in Michigan.

Downton Shabby

Brandy Schillace’s debut mystery The Framed Women of Ardmore House is a classic fish-out-of-water crime novel.  Jo Jones may have a drab name but she’s a fascinating woman: autistic, divorced, broke, an editor who loves mysteries and classic literature, and the surprised inheritor of an English country mansion.

It’s not remotely a show place. The once-magnificent gardens are dilapidated and the house is a wreck: there’s a major roof leak, filth, mold, and water damage throughout, and it’s all overseen by a creepy caretaker who has boundary issues. 

Not surprisingly, he’s soon dead with Jo as the prime suspect because they’ve argued and she had him fired. As you might expect from an author who’s been a professor of Gothic Literature, the lights often go out in this book and there’s a mysterious portrait that Jo finds hanging in the wrong place before it disappears completely. The hunt is on!  Who was the woman, who stole the portrait and why? That’s Jo’s mission while the police zero in on her  as the murderer because of her barbed interactions with the caretaker.

Schillace has skillfully made Jo’s autism turn her into a suspect because her behavior is awkward to say the least. She seems to those around her either strangely detached and unemotional when you’d expect the opposite–but she can also flare up and panic. She can ramble and is frequently inappropriate in her questions and answers. As a stranger who is truly strange in the eyes of almost everyone in town, Jo is a magnet for suspicion. 

But Jo has a keen memory that makes her a terrific amateur sleuth even if she sometimes has trouble reading people. Conversely, she can see connections that other people can’t and can make those connections faster. 

Book lovers of all kinds will relate to her because she lives in books, noting “Always, I love words. The way they look and feel and smell. It’s hard to explain. Words have just always been my people. And I don’t forget them after I read them.”

This is a charming mystery with bite and filled with wonderful observations. Like these about the stodgy detective investigating the murder: 

He did not want to be in the incident room on a Saturday. He wanted to go for a walk with the dog he didn’t have (but kept meaning to get) and have a pint somewhere with real food and the general hum of humans.  Murders were damned inconvenient.

That parenthesis is delicious and so is that last line worthy of P.G. Wodehouse, though I suppose he would have used “dashed.”

With plenty of suspects, the book is a fine blend of darkness and light and will make an entertaining weekend read wherever you are.  ★★★★★

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, Jerusalem Report and several NPR stations in Michigan. His suspense novel Assault With a Deadly Lie was a Midwest Book Award finalist.

The Secret Life of Roman Emperors

Rather than write a chronological study of the seemingly dozens of emperors who followed the end of the Roman Republic, noted scholar Mary Beard has done something very different and far more original.

She’s organized her lavishly illustrated and highly entertaining book around obvious but fascinating themes: their loves, their food, their slaves, their famous or infamous acts, their assassinations and they people they had executed, the palaces and temples they built, their families and rivals, their courtiers good and bad, the women and men in their beds that they loved or hated or simply disposed of when they thought the time was right.

We have inherited lots of potentially dubious stories about who they all were, whether the fiendish Caligula or the noble Hadrian, but Beard  wants to cut through all the myths, good and bad, and all the images we have from films or paintings and any other sources.  As she puts it so trenchantly:

The image of Roman emperors that has come down to us is a complicated and multilayered construction: a glorious combination of hard historical evidence, spin, political invention and reinvention, fantasies of power, and the projection of Roman (and some modern) anxieties. It makes the “real” emperor hard to pin down.

But Beard does her very best at assessing whether tales of seduction, murder, incest, mind-boggling banquets can be determined to be real, fantasies, propaganda, rumor, or libel. Perhaps many of these stories are more about how the emperors were perceived, how their roles were conceived of by contemporary poets and historians, and how they thought about themselves?  You’ll be surprised that some emperors actually felt victimized by living in the midst of a “court culture of deference, deceit, and dystopia.”

Bread is never anything less than witty, especially when she cleverly employs  contemporary labels like “microaggressions.”  The book is dense with fact and fancy, a beautiful survey of historical remains around the Mediterranean that tell the stories of these famous and forgettable men.  Beard does her best to explore the lives of the vast array of slaves with myriad specialties and the “bureaucrats” who were surprisingly few and far between in helping run a gigantic empire.

Foodies will be intrigued to learn that much of what he think we know about their banquets may be bogus, but the layout of their dining rooms with streams and waterfalls and dishes sailed across to their couches is amazing.

Perhaps most intriguing of all, access to emperors was a lot more available than we might think and they often were called upon to decide on legal matters as petty (in their terms) as the unpaid rental of a cow. Beard also has a fascinating chapter on what kind or work emperors actually did, and elsewhere explains that our movies that show crazed, mixed-gender crowds at the Coliseum are dead wrong.  Women were relegated to the nosebleed section along with slaves, and there was a strict dress code and class separation.  The audience for the savagery was as polite, she says, as formally-attired opera goers.

This is an intimate but encyclopedic study of an Ancient Rome under its many emperors as bedazzling, bewildering, besotted with its own power–but delightfully quirky, nitty-gritty, and surprisingly recognizable and like our own oddly imperial times.  This is a book to savor and marvel at for its lightly-worn erudition and its revelation of relics of Rome you’ve likely never read about. ★★★★★

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for Salon, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, and Jerusalem Report.

Surprising Thriller in Poland

Poland, a Green Land novel by the renowned Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld, surprisingly reads like a slow burn thriller.

The adult son of Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors who live in Tel-Aviv, Jakov Fein quixotically decides after their death that he wants to visit the little village they had such fond memories of.  That is, memories from before they escaping a gruesome Nazi massacre. You’d be right to wonder why. Fein never felt connected to them and he’s estranged from his wife and two daughters so he’s clearly more than looking for his past: maybe what he learns there can be a guide to his future.\

Like a Gothic novel, when he arrives in Krakow and tells people where he’s headed, he’s uniformly warned off: “There’s nothing there.”  Even the cart driver taking him there seems to find his mission pointless.

Are they right?  Do they mean well?

At first, things seem rosy on the edge of the village.  He takes a room in a farmhouse with a welcoming widow, Magda, who lovingly cooks for him, treats him well, and in a major surprise, turns out to have known his family when she was a little girl.

Fein falls in love with his host and in love with the green fields, the woods and the flowing river–all of which seem so different from Israel.  He fills in more and more gaps in the lives his parents never quite shared with him, learns family history and seems to be blossoming in some strange way.

But things turn ominous very soon as the locals find out he’s Jewish.  They alternate between praise for Israelis as strong and deep-seated antisemitic venom and hatred.  He learns a lot, risks a lot, and you wonder if he’ll make it out alive.

The book’s strength is the tension that builds and the way it reads like a novel of suspense as well as some kind of fable.  That latter aspect is reinforced by all the times the author describes Fein’s.  Sadly, they don’t work: they feel way too long, too specific in detail and dialogue to actually come across as dreams.  Some readers may get bored because they slow the narrative way down.

Too often the characters in this book, no matter who they are, speak about Fate, Life, God, Jews, History, Poland, War in almost stilted, oracular fashion and it seems too much like speechifying.

I’ve read many of the late author’s books and if you want to sample him, Badenheim 1939 is truly wonderful.  This book doesn’t equal its power and depth.  ★★★
Lev Raphael is the author of The German Money and twenty-six other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Brilliant, Scary Satire

As a book reviewer, you can often feel like you’re on a high-speed train missing all the terrific possible stops along your route. People wherever you go mention books that you somehow never got to read read or read about because you’re too damned busy reading and reviewing other books. 

Back when I worked for half a dozen different publications, I remember weeks where I was reviewing three or more books on deadline and either reading or writing with no break whatsoever. Okay, I did eat and go to the john.  And maybe hit the gym, but in my head I was always thinking about the next review–and the one after that–and the one after that.

So I confess I missed the bravos for The Other Black Girl, but I am here to tell you that it is a laugh-out-loud, gorgeously written, and effing brilliant satire of the publishing world–and much more.  I love this powerful novel and I envy the author her style, her humor, her satire, her poise.  She is stone cold amazing. And for those readers who think MFA programs turn out cookie-cutter writers, guess again.  She is an original.

The set-up is great: Nella, whose name recalls the Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen, is the only Black editorial assistant in the prestigious Wagner publishing house.  A publisher whose mail room staff is all people of color but whose editorial, art, and publicity staff are all uniformly white, many of them quite privileged.  Nella’s little cubicle is a lonely place, and “blacksplaining” cultural realities and events to her White colleagues often works her last nerve. 

She’s not a legacy hire and though her family was comfortable, they weren’t wealthy and that helps isolate her even more–at least in her own mind.  She’s also not happy being stuck at a low pay grade, though she loves the work, most of the time.  Enter Hazel, a much hipper Black editorial assistant with whom she feels she can (and should) bond, but things quickly get weird, competitive, and creepy in the extreme.

The author worked at Knopf for three years so she has an inside track on creating a workplace filled with kooks and quirks, competition, hypocrisy and back stabbing.    Like so many organizations today, Wagner makes feeble attempts to embrace diversity and the author’s wit here as elsewhere is stiletto-sharp.  The satire is never laid on too thick, however, and Nella is a wise, weary hero to admire and root for.

And so you feel you’re deep in a novel about workplace competition, Black solidarity and White cluelessness/condescension–until the book expands way beyond what you might expect when we learn the meaning of the title.  That’s when the book plunges deep into an alternate, hair-raising reality that’s a spoof conspiracy theorizing.  The  register becomes fantasy-horror and it’s a dazzling switch. I was glad that I put everything aside this weekend to read the book straight through.  The Other Black Girl is a knockout debut.  ★★★★★ 

Lev Raphael, author, editor, and teacher, is a prize-winning publishing veteran.  His 27 books span genres from memoir to mystery.

A Vivid Spy Story

This is the biography of a wildly improbable life: born into wealth and privilege, Margaret Harrison changed careers from society news reporter to spy. That’s right, fluent in German, she was a spy for American military intelligence in post-WWI Germany. Harrison was tasked with taking the mood of the country from top to bottom. She did so, moving through a country filled with violence and practically dodging bullets in Berlin as various factions fought each other for control.

When she was assigned to discover what was really going on in Bolshevik Russia, Harrison learned Russian and sneaked into that country of vast convulsions, which was at war with Poland. She had no permission, but she had charm and wit and could think fast.  Harrison was totally clear-headed about the risk of crossing over from Poland:

She was aware that once she reached the Russian side, she would have no one to turn to for help: no American diplomats had stayed in the country, no foreign embassies remained to represent her; she had no way to send a message out, and no one she knew to receive a message inside. She would be at the mercy of a dangerous adversary.

Hobnobbing with the literati and enjoying Moscow’s cultural richness amid the shortages of food and just about everything else didn’t last. She was forced to spy for the Cheka, the secret police–but that didn’t last, either. The book tips over into a sort of horror story when she’s arrested and imprisoned for well over a year in shocking, grotesque conditions that severely undermined her health–but didn’t diminish her spirit. 

Multilingual, she was praised by spymasters for the best intelligence from Russia any agent was supplying, and as a media sensation, Harrison became a successful lecturer about Russian reality and her prison experiences. She left out being a double agent. Craving “hardships and adventures,” she went on to get more than her share as a reporter and occasional spy in Japan, Siberia, China, Korea, and Mongolia. Her energy is almost exhausting to contemplate, and the most astonishing episodes are worthy of an Indiana Jones reboot: a film she helped finance and starred in was set in an extremely remote part of Persia. 

Flirting with Danger is filled with a blizzard of famous figures: politicians, artists, and writers from Winston Churchill to Emma Goldman and Maxim Gorky. The author is a supremely confidant storyteller, but she deserved a careful copyeditor who, for instance, was aware that German nouns are capitalized and knew that Germany was not “under authoritarian rule” in 1924. She also needed an editor who could have reined in the profusion of adjectives, many over-long sentences, excessive attention to meals, and florid phrases like this one: “her eyes danced like clouds in a blazing sky.”

It’s also disturbing that the author twice labels gays and lesbians in 1919 Berlin as “sinister” when this was a time of unprecedented freedom and openness for that community. The portrait of Berlin seems skewed, perhaps reflecting Harrison’s own apparent prudishness, and readers will find a much more nuanced assessment of the city right after WWI in Claire McKay’s Life and Death in Berlin.

All the same, Flirting with Danger is a memorable book about an unforgettable woman.  ★★★

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for the Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post and other publications.  Biography is one of his favorite genres and he recently reviewed The Art Thief.