One of my Christmas presents from my father this year was one of those page-a-day calendars. But instead of cartoons or a new German phrase each day (last year’s gift, which was awesome because instead of normal, touristy phrases, it included things like, “The sword was sharp and dangerous.”) this one recommends a book each day. If you’re wondering how this calendar could possibly appeal to everyone, the answer is that is throws in a little of everything. So far, it has recommended that I read Howard’s End, that Andre Agassi autobiography, and a non-fiction book about maps. I suspect that if you read all its books you would have an impressively wide array of knowledge and would be a killer Jeopardy player. I have no intention of reading all of these random books because I am super-picky about what I read (see also: why I am not in any book clubs), but each week there’s usually one thing interesting enough that I pin that day to my bulletin board, which is becoming a sort of messy to-read list. The first of the page-a-day books I have finished so far is Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin.
Siren of the Waters is the first book in the Jana Matinova detective series. Jana is a detective in Slovakia, but she started her career in the police force in communist Czechoslovakia. While there is a traditional murder mystery driving the plot, the real heart of the book is in the descriptions of life under communist rule. The story is set in the modern day but features extensive flashbacks that show how the communist state dictated Jana’s professional life and crushed her family, and how only the well-timed fall of the Czechoslovakian government allowed her to continue in her career. The book is not touchy-feely in any way, so it doesn’t get into Jana’s emotions about all of this, but it does show the incredible level of change that ordinary people had to deal with as Iron Curtain fell. Part of the book also takes place in France, so there’s also some discussion of the tensions in the European Union as the poorer, more corrupt former communist states try to integrate themselves into the European community. I’m afraid that I’ve made this sound like an especially dull issue of The Economist, and it’s not at all. There is plenty of murder and intrigue to keep things moving along, but the book also shows how people’s everyday lives continue to be affected by the country’s political history
I found Siren of the Waters a little too bleak for me. Mystery is a genre that is so finely divided into sub-genres that you can pinpoint exactly what level of gore and darkeness you’d like to read about, and while I am not quite at the level of reading about mysteries solved by knitting circles (totally a thing), I prefer something a little less soul-crushing than this. But sometimes mystery series pick up the pace once all the scene-setting of the first book is done, so I might check out the second Jana Matinova book. It’s definitely an interesting way to learn some Eastern European history.
I LOVE your one-a-day calendar! I also agree that the best way to learn history is to have it framed in a murder mystery – The Hangman’s Daughter made learning about Bavaria in the middle ages somewhat more palatable.
There have definitely been mysteries I’ve read for the settings at least as much as the mysteries, if not more–The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series (set in modern day Botswana) and the Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox (set in ancient China) immediately leap to mind.
I do find history lessons a great deal more entertaining when there is character and plot (and happy endings!) involved.