King effortlessly moves between the city's high points, like the booming grain trade in the lateth and midth centuries and urban development under the duc de Richelieu, and its desperate times, including the economic collapse associated with the Crimean War and the city's devastating Jewish holocaust at the hands of Romanian occupiers in the s.
King weaves into his history the lives of Alexander Pushkin, Isaac Babel, and Sergei Eisenstein, all of whom had connections to Odessa, a city still struggling to understand its place in the world. King's ability to lay bare the city's secrets both good and bad gives a fascinating prism through which to observe.
I expected a book about a city. What I got was the Jewish history of Odessa. While that might be an interesting book, it wasn't what I expected, and wasn't what I wanted to read about.
Furthermore, the book as a whole isn't very coherent; there's no clear theme organizing the story, and it makes it hard to really get a feeling for Odessa. But in the twentieth century, pogroms devastated the Jewish community; the Russian civil war brought refugees and new rulers, the Bolsheviks; and during the Second World War, Romanian occupiers killed tens of thousands of Jews in one of the untold episodes of the Holocaust.
Italian merchant, Greek freedom fighters, and Turkish seamen; a Russian empress and her favorite soldier-bureaucrats; Jewish tavern keepers, trader, and journalist—these and many others seeking fortune and adventure rubbed shoulders in Odessa, the greatest port on the Black Sea.
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Here a dream of cosmopolitan freedom inspired geniuses and innovators, from Alexander Pushkin and Isaac Babel to Zionist activist Vladimir Jabotinsky and immunologist Ilya Mechnikov. Odessa is both celebration and lament and equally impressive as both. A preposterously rich history—yet few Westerners have navigated this beguiling entrepot as ably as Charles King. This is a book to savor.