I hate to admit it, but some books just take me forever to read. Whenever this happens, frequently it says less about the quality of the book and more about my inability to stay focused and not be distracted by the first interesting book to come my way. Take for instance Patrick Bishop’s The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land-A True Detective Story. Here’s a very good book that took me close to a year to read. Had it not been for my public library’s generous policy towards book renewals there’s no way I could have kept this book around without finally finishing it. Trust me, it’s not like I found the book’s subject matter boring. For most of my adult life I’ve loved reading about the Middle East, especially Israel. So when I learned my public library had a book on the old Stern Gang of course I had to grab it. I just didn’t think it would take me that long to read. And that’s a shame because it’s a pretty good book.
For those who might not know, out of all the groups in British Palestine striving to establish the modern State of Israel the Stern Gang was the most hardcore. Besides robbing banks, blowing off bombs and assassinating people, Avraham Stern and his crew were willing to do just about anything to drive out the British and the Arabs. So passionate was Stern’s hatred against the British rulers of Palestine that he even sought assistance from Fascist Italy, and later the Germans. Of course, that a Jew would be willing to enlist the forces of Nazism in his crusade to rid Palestine of British rule looks completely absurd and reckless when seen with the hindsight of history. But history is full of individuals whose narrow-minded interests and uncompromising agendas ultimately lead to their destruction.
Bishop’s book is well written and well researched. While I thought it lost a bit of punch towards the end it’s a pretty decent book overall. Shame on me for taking so long to read it.
Three years ago I saw a book listed on Goodreads that completed intrigued me. Published in 2006 and entitled The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery, D.T. Max’s book tells the tragic story of an Italian family cursed with a rare genetic disorder that renders its victims completely sleepless. Labeled Fatal Familial Insomnia or FFI and affecting roughly 1 out of 30 million people, victims of the incredibly rare inherited disorder exhibit no symptoms until the onset of early middle age. Then, one day out of the blue suffers begin experiencing fever, pinpoint pupils, anxiety, rapid sexual decline (menopause in women, impotence in men) and insomnia. Unable to sleep for months or even several years, victims gradually descend into madness, thrashing about in a weird twilight state neither fully conscious nor awake with death their only release.
When I saw my public library had an available copy of The Family That Couldn’t Sleep I immediately grabbed it. Max’s book made for interesting reading, because it’s not just a book about FFI, but also about prion-causing diseases in general. Discovered by scientists only in the last decade or so, prions are rogue proteins that for reasons little understood, cause bodily proteins to misshape. These nonliving infectious agents are what cause the dreaded animal diseases bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or more commonly mad cow disease) and scrapie in sheep. In humans, it’s the causative agent in kuru, a transmissible and eventually fatal brain disease found among the Fore community on the island of New Guinea. It’s also what causes rare disorders like FFI and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. When compared to our understanding of other disease-causing agent like viruses, bacteria and parasites, our knowledge of prions is considerably limited. But we’re learning more each day. So another cool thing about The Family That Couldn’t Sleep is you can see how our knowledge has increased over the last few years. Considering this book was published a decade ago, I’ll be keeping my eyes open for a more recently published book on the subject. It should make for some fascinating reading,
At one time memoirs about life in the Middle East were a regular feature on my blog. Seems like every time I turned around I was reviewing some book in which the author recalled the time he/she spent living in, or traveling through that particular part of the world. But over the last few years I found myself reading these kind of books less and less. As for exactly why I’m not sure, but probably it’s because I haven’t been reading books about the Middle East like I used to. Too bad. I think that needs to change.
One afternoon months ago I was strolling along the new books section of my local public library when I came across Richard Engel’s recently published memoir And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East. As I stared at Engel’s book, I realized how long it’d been since I read a memoir like his. Thinking that spending two decades in the Middle East certainly should give an author something to write about I grabbed Engel’s memoir. Even though I stopped reading it about half way through only to finish it several months later, it’s pretty good memoir and in the end, I’m glad I took a chance on it.
Engel’s memoir begins with him as a 23 year recent graduate of Stanford who ships off to Egypt to live his dream as a foreign correspondent. After honing his Arabic skills and immersing himself in the local culture (and getting to know members of the Muslim Brotherhood) he eventually finds work as a reporter. Working his way up the journalistic food chain, his career takes him throughout the region to Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Israel/Palestinian Territories and Syria. In addition to covering two Gulf Wars and the Arab Spring protests, he also reported from the frontline battles in Libya and Syria, where in Syria he was kidnapped.
This is breezy and succinctly written memoir. If you’re looking for a light but informative look at the world of the Middle East And Then All Hell Broke Loose is your book. Give it a shot and I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Years ago on my way home from work I used to walk by a funky old bookstore whose name has long escaped me. On nice days when it wasn’t raining, in front of the store there was a wheeled cart stacked with used books. Priced at 35 cents each or three for a dollar, 99 per cent of the time everything on the cart was pure garbage: old romance novels, obsolete technical manuals and out of date textbooks. But every once in a while, I could find a real gem or two. Over a stretch of a few week I found five or six 1960s era paperbacks devoted to ancient history. Priced down to close to nothing, how could I not resist picking up books like Leonard Cottrell’s The Anvil of Civilization and Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way or some other battered, frequently cover less vintage paperback that recalled the ancient glories of Babylon, Greece, Persia or Egypt. Before long I found myself reading one of these old paperbacks at home or in some coffee shop absorbed in the wonders of the ancient world.
Perhaps it nostalgic reasons that eagerly made me want to Paul Kriwaczek’s Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization when my book club chose it as our monthly selection. My eagerness grew once I discovered Kriwaczek also wrote Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation, a book I reviewed a few years ago. So, ready to once again immerse myself in the forgotten worlds of the Near East, I bought a copy of Babylon off Amazon and went to work. I’m happy to report that reading Kriwaczek’s book brought me back to the good old days of reading ancient history. Plus, it’s a good book too.
I walked away from this book with a deeper appreciation of Mesopotamia’s history. It boggles my mind that Mesopotamian had a flourishing civilization for 2,500 years BEFORE the Persian conquest in BC 500. That’s like 200 years before Alexander the Great and 500 years before the dawn of the Roman Empire. And much like Rome Mesopotamia left a lasting legacy. Not only is it home to the world’s first cities but also irrigation projections, state-sponsored religion, taxation, socialist-style planned economies, beer brewing and mathematics (base 60 for both time keeping and geometry). Through a series of historical twists and turns Mesopotamian cuneiform would eventually lead to today’s written alphabets. In mythology, legends of baby Sargon’s rescue from the river find echoes in the life of Moses, just as the Gilgamesh flood myth narrative also finds parallel in the Torah, and with it the West’s Abrahamic faiths.
Kriwaczek writes well, makes ancient history accessible and interesting to a lay audience. If you’re in the market for a good book on ancient history book, then look no further then Kriwaczek’s Babylon.
Yet another book published well over 10 years ago I discovered only recently is Anna Funder’s 2003 book Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. Even though it won the Samuel Johnson Prize and was shortlisted for several others I’d never heard of Stasiland until just recently when I found a copy through my public library. With my longtime interest in the former Soviet Bloc I could not resist Funder’s book. In the end, I’m glad I yielded to temptation. Stasiland is one of those books that took me forever to read, not because it’s boring but one I kept putting to down in order to read other things. However, slowly but surely I made my way through it. And even it took me a long time to read it didn’t leave me disappointed.
Instead of merely discussing the political system of the old German Democratic Republic (GDR) and how it collapsed, Funder spent time interviewing individual former East Germans and simply letting then tell their life stories. By doing so, she made the historical intimate and personal, and thus put a human face on history. I’m glad she was able to interview former Stasi agents and see how they’ve fared ten years after the Fall of the Berlin wall. (According to Funder, many Stasi agents, trained and well-practiced in the arts of persuasion and intimidating now spend their days not spying and harassing dissidents but selling insurance and financial services.)
Stasiland is also a sad book. Sad because even though many in the West thought East Germany was the most humane nation of the old Soviet Bloc, those living in the GDR lived under an oppressive and unforgiving regime. Individual hopes and dreams were severely attenuated and when that happens lives becoming meaningless. In some cases, perceived enemies of the state who were imprisoned and later died under mysterious circumstances had their bodies quickly cremated to hide the truth from their loved ones. It was also a regime that until the bitter end refused to step aside, even though its aging inner circle was so old some leaders disparately underwent experimental treatments in hopes of forestalling the aging process.
Stasiland is an excellent companion read to Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 and Stephen Kotkin’s Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment.
One of the many cool things about a book club is it makes you read good books that for whatever reason, were off your radar. Take for instance Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson’s book Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History. Even though it was published way back in 2004 I’d never heard of the thing until the leader of our book club suggested we read it. After whipping through it in what felt like no time I sat asking myself why on earth did take me over a decade to encounter this book? It’s pretty darn good.
Both a science book and a history book, each chapter of Napoleon’s Buttons is devoted to a specific molecule that revolutionized the world. The molecules cellulose and sucrose, the main molecules in cotton and sugar respectively, would transform the economies and societies of both the New and Old Worlds. Nitric compounds in the forms of gun powder and other high explosives would be harnessed by the industrialized West to subjugate the globe, blast railway and highway tunnels and crack open the earth for mining purposes. As well as kill millions in two devastating world wars.
With Napoleon’s Buttons I enjoyed the authors’ scientific approach to world history. But I also came away from this book with a host of interesting factoids. For instance, I had no idea Europe was first introduced to caffeine not through coffee or tea but chocolate. Also, I knew the vitamin C deficiency scurvy plagued the European’s early attempts to explore and colonize the world, but I was unaware it was such a widespread and horrific scourge, sometimes killing off over half a ship’s crew. (I also didn’t know once the British finally learned supplementing their seagoing diet with vitamin C-rich foods could ward off scurvy it took over 50 years for them and other Europeans to make the practice widespread.) I also didn’t know the first nitroglycerine manufacturing plants kept blowing up and this lead to the development of the more stable and less dangerous explosive dynamite.
If you follow my lead and end up reading Napoleon’s Buttons I’d encourage you to follow it up with Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements and Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. Published in 2010, both books make science not just readable but fascinating and entertaining as well.
Filed under History, Science
No, I haven’t died. I haven’t suffered any horrible tragedies either. But when you combine a busy social calendar with a mentally taxing workday frequently the last thing I wanna do is blog. This of course breaks my heart because over the better part of a decade I’ve thoroughly enjoyed blogging about books. Fortunately for me, I’ve picked up a number of new readers of late, especially in my local area. That means I feel I’m letting them down by not blogging. So, it for them, and any of my other readers that I’m dragging myself over to the laptop in hopes of resurrecting Maphead’s Book Blog!
In hopes of getting the creative juices flowing again, I’ve decided to do another one of those massive catch-up/preview posts like I did at the end of August. For one, it’ll show you no matter how busy and tired I’ve been over the last several months I’ve still been reading. As you can see below I’ve been reading some pretty decent stuff. Two, I’m keeping my fingers crossed it’ll inspire me enough to finally blog about these books and in the end break me out of this blogging slump.