Books I’ve Desperately Wanted to Read

Julie from Smiling Shelves has an excellent blog. Back in March, she did a post called “Books I Desperately Want to Read “ in which she listed the top 10 books currently on her to be read list (TBR). Not only did I enjoy reading her post and learning what was on the horizon for her, reading-wise but it also inspired me to do a similar kind of post. I can’t speak for all book bloggers, but it seems like you get so wrapped up in trying to review all the books you’re been reading that you never take time to reflect on the stuff you want to read. Sometimes it feels like all work and no dreaming. And I’ve always felt if you take away a person’s dreams, then what do you have left?

With all that in mind, I’ve decided follow Julie’s lead and blog about some of the books I’ve been wanting to read. I’ve also decided to put my own kind of twist on things and tell you about some books I’ve been wanting to read for a long. long time. None of these books are currently in my possession, so that means I’ll need to buy, beg, borrow or steal them. (One of them, Cross X, isn’t even in my public library.) I’ve restricted this list to nonfiction, not because I dislike fiction but because I’m saving that stuff for another posting. Keeping in mind there’s millions of books out there I wanna read, these are at the top of a very special list.

While I’d love to you I’m going to read all of these by year’s end we all know that’s not going to happen. But I would like to slowly but surely begin to make my way through this list of books since I’ve wanted to read them for years. I would also like to believe just as a person could be defined by the books he/she reads, a person could also be defined by the books he/she has been wanting to read. If that is indeed the case, then this is a list worth sharing.

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Isaac’s Army by Matthew Brzezinski

Isaac's Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied PolandAlan Furst is one of my favorite contemporary fiction writers and when he highly recommends a book, I take notice. One night while searching my public library’s online database I noticed there was an available copy of Matthew Brzezinski’s Isaac’s Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland. Since I already had a ton of library books in my possession I was a bit hesitant to borrow one more. But with Alan Furst giving Isaac’s Army a glowing recommendation, calling the book “a riveting account of the Jewish resistance in wartime Poland” how could I say no. After making my way through Isaac’s Army I can happily say Mr. Furst did not steer me wrong. Isaac’s Army is a superb book and probably one the best books on the Holocaust I’ve ever read.

Published in 2012, Brzezinski’s (yes, he’s related to President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski since he’s his nephew) book begins with Warsaw on the eve of German invasion. Cursed with having Nazi Germany on the West and Stalin’s USSR on the East, the country’s leaders  nervously and with overconfidence look to Britain and France to hold back the invading tide. Even though Poland’s right-wing authoritarian regime has been showing its antisemitic stripes of late, overall, the Jews of Warsaw are doing well. With half a million Jews calling Warsaw home, the Polish capital isn’t just one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Eastern Europe, it’s a vibrant and populous Jewish mecca.

But then came the Nazi and Soviet onslaughts. After Poland’s crushing defeat Warsaw’s Jews were eventually exiled to the city’s newly created ghetto. Behind the Warsaw Ghetto’s walls parallel power structures and factions materialized, and some of its residence acting out of desperation, venality or naivety became informers, or even collaborators. Before the final round of deportations to the Death Camps, the ghetto’s last residents staged a furious uprising. Believing the Jews were cowardly and too timid to fight back, the Nazi’s were completely taken off guard. Although the rising was ultimately crushed, a number of brave, resourceful and lucky souls escaped death through the sewers. Some of these fighters went on to take part in another failed insurrection a year later, when the Polish Underground rose up against the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising.

What separates Isaac’s Army from your typical books on WWII is this a book about individuals, not armies and generals. Through Brzezinski’s eyes you see their day-to-day struggles over a six-year period. Since they are presented as real people fighting a merciless and powerful enemy of demonic proportions, readers of Isaac’s Army are able to see them as flesh and blood individuals. Contrary to what Stalin would have liked the world to believe, they are human beings, not statistics.

Brzezinski’s book is incredibly researched and contains tons of detail without feeling dry or tedious. So impressed was I with Isaac’s Army that I’m pretty confident it’ll make my year-end Best of List. Just like I did in my previous post with Christian Caryl book Strange Rebels, consider this book highly recommended.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Judaica

Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

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I’m probably not alone in assuming when people rebel against the establishment they’re usually thought of as progressives or modernizers. These individuals see the old order as being, well, old. Sick of dealing with antiquated governance and out of step leaders, such agents for change want to move forward by bringing about needed reforms or even wholesale revolutions. What then do you make of those who, when taking on those in power, look not to the future for inspiration but to the past?

That is the question asked and answered by Christian Caryl in his 2013 book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. It’s a book that’s been on my list to read for several years, ever since I read about it on Goodreads. I felt myself drawn to Strange Rebels because I came of age during this time. Of the many events he recalls, so many of them I watched unfold on the evening TV news. Not long ago my book group opted to read it and I couldn’t have been happier. I’m also happy to report it’s an excellent book.

To Caryl, 1979 was a pivotal year like few others. Britain elected its first female Prime Minister, an avowed conservative who moved the United Kingdom away kicking and screaming from a pro-union, Socialist-style system to free-market, Chicago School of Economics-oriented nation. On the other side of the globe, Deng Xiaoping sought to modernize China and raise living standards by bringing the nation into the global economy through embracing capitalism. In an age when many forward thinking intellectuals thought little of religion, especially conservative Catholicism, Pope John II believed the moral and intellectual strength of Christianity could bring about the end of Soviet oppression. Also in opposition to Soviet-sponsored oppression were the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, who had religious motivations of their own, drawing from their Islamic heritage. Lastly, in neighboring Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow revolutionaries established the world’s first Islamic Republic. By doing so they abruptly ended the Shah’s attempts to make Iran a modern, Westernized (albeit authoritarian) nation.

Through Caryl’s eyes these strange rebels share striking similarities. Thatcher and Deng felt the only way their respective nations could prosper was to embrace free market reforms and lessen the state’s role in the economy. Khomeini, the Mujahideen and John Paul II all had religious motivations to replace the old order with one more in line with those beliefs. Both John Paul II and Khomeini’s religious views were shaped by their philosophical studies: John Paul II augmented his Christian beliefs with modern European philosophy while Khomeini was heavily influenced by Platonic thought, as well as the writings of the Red Shia Ali Shariati. Even though they were Sunnis and not Shias, the Afghan Mujahideen fought to defeat the Soviets and their Afghan allies and eventually set up their own version of an Islamic Republic. And just like Khomeini and his like-minded ruling clerics took inspiration from the Red Shia Shariati, the Mujahideen modeled themselves after the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn shares similarities with Marxist vanguard parties.

It’s one thing to show what these leaders had in common, the hard thing is to convince the reader the things they did in 1979 in no small way shape our world. To his credit, Caryl pulls it off. Thanks to Deng’s reforms, China is now a world power, especially economically. The political/economic system of Britain looks nothing like the dark days of the early 1970s. (As an example, Tony Blair’s Labor Party was not your grandfather’s Labor Party.) ideological heirs to the Mujahideen like al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram fight to impose their will throughout the world as political Islam has become the dominant ideology for protest in the Muslim world, eclipsing Pan-Arabism, Arab Nationalism and Communism. Before 1979 Islamic Republic was an alien concept. Thanks to Khomeini, even many Sunnis find it an appealing one. (Even if they use the term Caliph.) An unwinnable war in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the USSR. It was the churches, both Protestant and Catholic, that provided safe places where dissidents and their allies could organize against the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Strange Rebels is an excellent book. Consider it highly recommended.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle by Mark Braude

In the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, young Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence begins his epic adventure by riding a camel into wilds of the Arabian desert while singing a little song called “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.” Written in the early 1890s, true to the spirit of any good rags to riches story it told the tale of a man of modest origins who struck it rich gambling at Monte Carlo’s world famous casino. According to historian Mark Braude in his 2016 book Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle so popular was this British ditty that during the late 19th and early 20th centuries some felt there wasn’t a place in the English-speaking world where people hadn’t heard the song.

While I’ll admit to having a few vices, gambling has never been one of them. Nor have I been fascinated by the sun-soaked and celebrity populated French Riviera. But perhaps Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is one of those vices since I’m always on the lookout for books I can read for her challenge. So, in keeping with my little addiction, when my public library granted me the opportunity to read a book about the European microstate of Monaco, of course I jumped on it.

As the both the book’s title and subtitle would lead us to believe, Making Monte Carlo is the story of how the tiny principality of Monaco successfully set aside a small cliff side section of its realm for entertainment purposes, chiefly gambling. In order to generate much-needed revenue for the cash-strapped royal coffers, the plan was to sell Monte Carlo as an exotic destination where Europe’s, and later America’s rich and powerful could live like royalty by wagering big money, lose with casual indifference (and by doing so show their just how wealthy and stately they were) and enjoy all the wonderful amenities Monte Carlo had to offer. Before long Monte Carlo also became a place where social climbers, professional gamblers and other aspirants from less regal backgrounds came to win big, find a wealthy spouse or even pitch a lucrative business deal. Legends abounded over the years of  broken-hearted losers who committed, or attempted suicide after crushing losses at the gambling tables. Such stories filled Europe’s somewhat tabloid press causing many to take a dim view of Monte Carlo, seeing it as a destroyer of decent men and women.

Braude strikes me as a good writing with a decent attention to detail. Much to my liking he tends to zero in on social history when telling his story. My only complaint is a minor one in that I wish the author would have covered the period up to the present. (The book ends in the 1930s with he first Monaco Grand Prix road race.) But since this is how Monte Carlo became Monte Carlo, I guess it’s a forgivable offense. Overall, I found myself liking Making Monte Carlo.

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Syrian Dust: Reporting from the Heart of the War by Francesca Borri

What happened to me? How come I don’t read stuff on the Middle East anymore? Seems like not that long ago I was forever reviewing some book about Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia or some other country or collection of counties from that part of the world. For several years I was an active participant in Helen’s Middle East Reading Challenge and one year I even hosted it. But over the last couple of years I’ve shied away from those kind of books. Who or what could I blame for this change in reading preference? Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge? My book club? My new-found love of the Kindle, and with it my feverish urge to read through my slight backlog of ebooks like Spillover and Bloodlands? What on earth could have caused this to happen?

One night I was fumbling my way through my public library’s online catalog when I came across a listing for Francesca Borri’s Syrian Dust: Reporting from the Heart of the War. With the ongoing carnage in Syria frequently featured in the news I figured such a book might help me greater understand the bloodfest I’ve been seen covered on CNN, the BBC and everywhere else. Plus, I could apply the book towards Introverted Reader’s Nonfiction Reading Challenge as well as her Books in Translation Reading Challenge, since Syrian Dust was translated from Italian. So, with those thoughts in mind I grabbed Borri’s book.

Perhaps like anyone else who’s read Syrian Dust, this is the first book on the Syrian Civil War I’ve read. Published in 2106, the book covers the period Borri spent in Syria as a freelance reporter covering the conflict. According to Borri, Syria is a giant soul-crushing mess. The opposition forces are hopelessly divided, fighting with each other when not battling Assad’s army. The only effective and organized rebels are the Islamists, and all they care about is setting up their own oppressive theocracy. The non-Islamist militias are relatively disorganized and underfunded and their corrupt leaders do nothing but live high on the hog and issue pious proclamations from the cozy confines of Istanbul, Paris and London. Meanwhile, either because of incompetence or sheer ruthlessness, Assad’s forces favor shelling and bombing civilian areas as opposed to columns of advancing rebels. Just like in any civil war, especially in the developing world, the civilians caught in the middle are diseased, displaced, maimed and starving.

This is a grim book, but a valuable one nevertheless because it shows what the hell is going on inside Syria. Perhaps for that reason alone Syrian Dust is worth reading.

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Patience and Fortitude, Red Gold and Pandemic

Once again, I’ve fallen behind in my blogging so I gotta do another catch-up post. I don’t enjoy doing this because it feels like cheating. But hey, what, can I guy do? I got books to write about. So, as they say in the entertainment world, the show must go on.

Of the three books I’ve chosen to briefly spotlight, two are nonfiction and one is fiction. Two are from authors I’m familiar with and one is by an author who’s new to me. As far as subject matter goes, we’re dealing with one of the world’s largest and revered public libraries, life during the German Occupation of France and humanity’s battle against infectious disease.

Scott Sherman’s Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library is another one of those books that was completely off my radar and until I spotted a copy on display at my local public library. Published in 2015, Sherman’s book is an expose of just how close an alliance of real estate developers, NYC power brokers and library big-wigs came to selling off the NYPL’s local branches, gutting the main branch’s iconic reading rooms and relocating the library’s millions of books to an off-site storage facility in New Jersey. The planned overhaul shocked not just NYC’s scholars, intelligentsia and bibliophiles, but many of the world’s famous novelists. The result was a public battle to save the library.

Sherman’s book was an eye opener for me. One, I had no idea this fight to save the NYPL ever happened. Two, I had no idea the NYPL is a nonprofit corporation. All these years I just assumed it was a municipal solely entity owned and operated by NYC.

I was afraid Sherman’s wouldn’t have enough material to devote an entire book to the NYPL controversy and in the end I was relieved he could pull it off. Sometimes these kind of investigative pieces make great lengthy pieces in publications like the New Yorker or the Atlantic but go flat when stretched out and padded to book length. Fortunately, that didn’t feel the case here. Not once while reading Patience and Fortitude was I bored. My favorite parts of Patience and Fortititude were those dealing with the library’s history. (I remember reading in Why the West is the Best the first book checked out of the NYPL was not in English, but in Russian.)

With Alan Furst’s latest novel A Hero of France being released just last week, I figured the time was right to grab one of Furst’s earlier books from the library before they all got snatched up. With only a handful of his Night Soldiers series I haven’t read, I opted for his 1999 offering Red Gold because it’s set mostly in Paris during the German Occupation.  For me anyway, it’s also been tough to find an available copy at the library. Therefore, when given this chance I grabbed Red Gold.

The good news is, even though it’s a sequel of sorts to The World at Night, which to me is the weakest novel of the Night Soldiers series, I enjoyed it a bit more than it’s predecessor. The bad news is just like with The World at Night, I’d have to say it’s one of my least favorite novels of Furst’s But I still like his stuff and I can’t wait to read A Hero of France.

Even though I was slightly disappointed by Sonia Shah’s The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years I could not resist giving her latest book Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond a shot when a copy became available at my public library. After all, I’ve never been able to resist a good book on nasty diseases.

Shah’s book looks not just at the horrible pandemics of year’s past, but how also how some of these like cholera have recently come back with a vengeance to once again haunt us. She also fears in this age of worldwide jet travel, massive factory farms of antibiotic fed chickens, increasing deforestation and the rapid rate in which microorganisms mutate, are we due for another deadly pandemic? Perhaps only time will tell.

While I didn’t love it as much as David Quammen Spillover or Viral Storm, I enjoyed it more than Fever. As a result I have no reservations recommending Pandemic to anyone wanting to read a good book on horrible diseases.

There you have it, three books that in their own ways managed to exceed my slightly low expectations.

 

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About Time I Read It: The Bridge at Andau by James Michener

After a failed popular uprising against an oppressive regime, nightly newscasts and newspaper articles tell of 200,000 refugees flooding across borders and nearly overwhelming Europe’s ability to care for and house the desperate masses. Despite priding itself on being a nation of immigrants, as well as beacon onto the world of freedom and democracy, the United States agrees to accept a relative handful of refuges, fearing there are spies and evil doers secretly embedded among the displaced. Many ask why on earth America is so resistant in granting sanctuary to theses refugees since they are the creme de la creme of any modern society: the young, the educated, the highly skilled, the artistically gifted and the athletically talented. To any country willing to accept them, these displaced persons would be a huge boon, potentially enriching their new host nations beyond measure. But as the world’s leaders half heartedly debate, or even ignore the situation, the human crises in Europe drags on.

No, I’m not describing the current plight of Syrian refugees in Europe. Something similar happened once before in history. Back in 1956, after a decade of Communist tyranny the people of Hungary rose up against their Soviet-backed oppressors. Unfortunately, their freedom lasted only a week before the revolt was brutally crushed by Russian troops. For a brief period before the Communists were able to completely seal the borders, approximately 200,000 refuges made their way to neighboring Austria, leaving by way of a forgotten country bridge near the Austrian border village of Andau. During this crises, a Pulitzer-prize winning American author named James Michener happened to be living in Austria. Being relatively close to the action, he was able to interview a number of the Hungarian refugees, some of which actively participated in the attempted uprising. Those interviews served as the source material for Michener’s 1957 book The Bridge at Andau: The Compelling True Story of a Brave, Embattled People.

Like many readers of my generation, I’m no stranger to Michener. In high school, I was assigned to read two of his tomes, The Source and Centennial, and around the same time, on my own I read Caravans. But only recently have I read anything else by this once popular American author. Looking for something I could read for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, I found myself cruising my public library’s online catalog when out of the blue I remembered Michener had written a book decades ago on the failed 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Seeing copy of this book happened to be available I grabbed one. I’m happy to report a bit to my surprise I was not disappointed.

The Bridge at Andau is a very good book. At first I was scared it wouldn’t hold up well over the years but lo and behold it has, and as a result still makes for enjoyable and intelligent reading. The accounts of heroism and tragedy Michener chronicles in The Bridge at Andau will stick with a person long after reading this book. Pleasantly surprised by this sixty year old piece of nonfiction writing, I now find myself wanting to read more stuff by Michener. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you see a few more of his books featured on my blog.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History