Nonfiction November Week 3: Be the Expert

This week’s edition of Nonfiction November is Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert. Our host is Julie at JulzReads who happens to be one of my favorite bloggers in no small part thanks to her love of historical nonfiction. Here’s how it works:

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Last year when I did this, I assumed the mantle of expert and recommended six books about Iran by Iranian authors. This time around, I’m going to recommend books by women who’ve left their respective religions. I’ve always had a soft spot for these kind of books and over the years a number of them have been featured on my blog.

There seems to be no shortage of these books, (especially memoirs) by women who’ve walked away from churches, synagogues or mosques. While there’s similar stuff by men it feels like female authors dominate this genre. Not long ago a good friend and I chatted about this on a Facebook thread and wondered why. Perhaps women leave religions because they’re oppressed or lack adequate opportunities. Maybe women feel more comfortable as opposed to men when it comes to writing about these experiences. Honestly, I have no idea why so many of these dissenting voices are female.

Below you’ll find an array of books by women who’ve walked away from their respective faiths.

  • Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer – Drain spent her young adulthood protesting at funerals and engaging in hate speech before being tossed out of the wackadoodle WBC. Once out she never went back.
  • Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family by Veronica Chater –  Chater grew up with eight brothers and sisters in a Catholic fundamentalist (or “Trad” for traditionalist) household that rejected the Second Vatican Council and its spirit of inclusion and modernism.
  • Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith by Carlene’s Cross – After her marriage to an evangelical minister fell apart Cross was forced to strike out on her own. Once she did, she left her old religion behind her.
  • I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams – Raised in the Jehovah’s Witness faith and married off at 17, after she’d had enough Abrahams left both her husband and religion and became a successful slam poet.
  • My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood by Christine Rosen – I have a soft spot for Rosen’s memoir because both her and are former fundamentalists who came of age in the late 70s and 80s.
  • The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion—and Others Should Too by Candace R. M. Gorham – Part memoir, analysis and oral history, Gorham looks at why she left her post as a minister within the black church to pursue a career in counseling. Her books contain a number of interesting oral histories of African-American women who left Christianity and are now atheists.
  • Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life Without Religion edited by Karen Garst – Speaking of oral histories, Garst’s book is another great collection of them. The cool thing is I personally know one of the contributors!
  • Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman – Feldman grew up in strict Satmar Orthodox Jewish community in New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood. At 17 she was married off in an arranged marriage and gave birth to a son a two years later. Later, she became disillusioned with it all, got divorced enrolled in college and left the faith.
  • Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Hirsi Ali is a controversial figure, generating strong opinions about her both pro and con. In Infidel, she recalls her life growing up in Somalia, as well the time she spent living in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Germany, Holland and now the United States. She also discusses what made her start questioning Islamic culture, Islam and then later, religion in general.

 

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Nonfiction November Week 2: Nonfiction and Fiction Pairings

This week’s edition of Nonfiction November (hosted by Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves) asks book bloggers to pair up nonfiction books with works of fiction. In the words of  Nonfiction November’s creators:

“If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

Last year I had a lot of fun doing these pairings, so much so I posted a ton of them on my blog. This year I won’t be offering quite so many, but hopefully the ones I do suggest are good ones and will be well received.

The Soviet Gulag

Published in 2004, Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag: A History is not only outstanding, it’s one of the best books I’ve read over the last decade. It easily made my 2015 Best Nonfiction List which was a year I read a ton of great books like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of ReaganTo me the answer is obvious. One has to pair Gulag with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 classic One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Life in Nazi-occupied Europe

Peter Fritzsche’s An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler is one of those books I’d seen at the library a number of times yet never borrowed. When I finally did get around to reading it my goodness I was impressed. Utilizing primary source material like letters, diaries and the like, Fritzsche shows us what life was like for millions of Europeans who suffered under Nazi rule. If you’re looking for a novel to go along with An Iron Wind I’d suggest Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winner All the Light We Cannot See.

The Aftermath of World War II

Thank you Claire of The Captive Reader. A few years back she mentioned in her Library Loot post what was then a new book by Keith Lowe entitled Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II. I took her advice to heart and secured a copy of Lowe’s book from my public library and was not disappointed. Just like Applebaum’s GulagSavage Continent is another all-time favorite of mine. Lowe’s book opened my eyes to the degree and scope of destruction that plagued Europe during the immediate aftermath of WWII, as well as the bloody conflicts that raged even after Germany’s surrender. If you end up reading this fine book, follow it up with Martin Fletcher’s novel Jacob’s Oath.

Inside Saudi Arabia

Recently, I reviewed Robert Lacey’s 2009 book Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Over the years I’ve read  several good books about Saudi Arabia and this one might be the best. I think Kingdom of Strangers by Zoe Ferraris is worthy compliment.

Life Imitates Art

In my previous post, I mentioned I’ve been reading a lot of political books in hopes of understanding the current mess we’re in and how we got there. After reading my post, many commented they’re so broken-hearted and disgusted by our current situation they’ve found it difficult, if not impossible to read this kind of material. But if you’re able to read something like Luke Harding’s Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House, Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency or Garry Kasparov’s Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped please, by all means be sure to read Philip Roth’s 2004 alternate history novel The Plot Against America. If you follow my advice, depending on your ensuing mood you can thank, or blame me later.

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Nonfiction November Week 1: Your Year in Nonfiction

Once again it’s time for Nonfiction November. This year we kick things off by looking back on what we’ve read in 2018 and answering a few questions. So far this year my reading has been reasonably productive. According to Goodreads I’ve read 66 books with roughly 85 per cent of them nonfiction. Unlike the majority of book bloggers, I read mostly nonfiction. However, last year was an exception in that I read more than my usual fare of fiction. As a result, for the first time ever my year-end Best Fiction List was significantly stronger than the one for nonfiction. Also unlike most book bloggers, instead of reading just new releases and more recent stuff I avidly devour backlist books and older stuff.

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

As the years go by this question gets harder and harder to answer. Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics gets my vote for this year’s favorite. But let’s not hold the coronation too early because I’m halfway through Gal Beckerman’s masterful When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry and it has the potential to dethrone Playing with Fire and thus be awarded Best Nonfiction Book of 2018.

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

With each passing day the American White House becomes a larger dumpster fire. In hopes of gaining insight into this hideous mess I’ve been reading stuff like Allan J. Lichtman’s The Case for Impeachment, Luke Harding’s Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House and Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency. On a related note, I’ve also read a few books on Putin’s Russia, specifically Garry Kasparov’s Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped and David Satter’s The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

Again, thanks to our current Presidential Administration I’ve found myself recommend many if not all of the above-mentioned political books, as well as Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire. 

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

Just as in past years my mission is three-fold. One, pick up valuable nonfiction recommendations. Two, discover new book blogs. Three, if I’m lucky pick up a new subscriber or two.

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About Time I Read It: Inside the Kingdom by Robert Lacey

If you’re a longtime reader of my blog you probably know I enjoy books about the Middle East, especially Israel and Iran. In past posts I’ve elaborated on my fascination with these two countries, wondering if it’s because they’re outliers when compared to their neighbors in the region. (Israel, a Western-oriented democracy is the world’s only majority Jewish country. Iran, while overwhelming Muslim, is nevertheless roughly 80 percent Shia, a minority religion when compared to the rest of the Muslim world. In addition, it’s the only Persian majority country in the Middle East.) But if I had to choose a runner-up as far as my interests go when it comes to the countries of the Middle East it would have to be Saudi Arabia. Maybe because it’s home to not only massive oil deposits but also Islam’s holiest places. Or maybe because for decades it’s enjoyed a close relationship, politically and economically with the United States despite its puritanical interpretation of Islam, animosity towards America’s ally Israel, and over the last 20 years the birthplace of radical Islam’s most dangerous individuals, from Osama bin Laden to 15 of the 19 9-11 hijackers. All I know is it’s hard for me to resist a good book on Saudi Arabia when one comes my way.

I’ve known of Robert Lacey’s 2009 book Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia for several years but oddly enough I never made any effort to read it. Then recently my curiosity got the better of me so I borrowed an e-book version courtesy of my public library. Not only am I happy to report I wasn’t disappointed, so pleasantly surprised I was with Lacey’s book there’s a good chance it might wind up on my year-end Best Nonfiction List.

After reading Inside the Kingdom it’s impossible to walk away from this book without gaining a deeper understanding of Saudi Arabia. As hoped, Lacey hits all the pivotal historical events in Saudi history, like the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca (Yaroslav Trofimov’s 2007 book The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine is a must read if you wanna learn more), Gulf Wars I and II, America and Pakistan’s enlistment of Saudi Arabia in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the rise of bin Laden and al-Qaeda, 9-11, and lastly all various palace coups and power struggles within the country’s massive royal family. (Keep in mind Lacey’s book was published in 2009 so it won’t cover the more recent happenings. For that I’d strongly encourage you to read Time magazine’s interview with current Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as well as Karl Vick’s companion piece.) Impressive as this is, what impressed me more was Lacey’s inclusion of developments previously unknown to me, especially the Saudi’s secret acquisition of Chinese nuclear warhead capable medium-range missiles, a bold move that alarmed American and Israeli officials alike.

Inside the Kingdom is great. Let’s just say if I had to recommend just one book to someone wanting to understand Saudi Arabia this is the one.

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About Time I Read It: Strange Days Indeed by Francis Wheen

The President of the United States is an uncouth, unhinged bigot prone to late night diatribes against the media, minorities and political rivals. In the wake of his recent electoral victory, rumors are emerging members of his inner circle engaged in illegal activity against his challenger. Unbeknownst to all, he’s secretly engaged in top-level negotiations with a potentially hostile foreign nation. As result, America is a divided nation when it comes to the President. Many, like those in rural areas and especially the South see him as a straight-shooting, law and order savior who upholds time-honored values against unchecked liberalism and East Coast elitism. Others, see him as a despot and lout, and therefore a disgrace to the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, things aren’t much better as Prime Ministers come and go, scandals rear their ugly heads and the general consensus being the country’s best years are well behind it. Internationally, the proliferation of terrorist organizations has the world on edge. Headlines and newscasts are dominated by reports of bombings, assassinations, and mass killings. Try as they may, Western leaders are powerless to stop the carnage. Lastly, from Africa to Latin America brutal dictators rule with iron fists tolerating no dissent and committing countless human rights violations.

While this might well sum up the current state of the world it also describes an era from our not so distant past. Welcome to the 1970s as described by British journalist Francis Wheen in his 2010 book Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Days of Paranoia. Yet again another decent book I never knew existed until I stumbled across it at the public library.

Of course, to be realistic while similarities abound so do the differences when one compares today’s world to that of the 70s. While Nixon hated the media as much as Trump does, in Nixon’s day there was no Twitter. Therefore late at night when Tricky Dick spouted off against newspapers, Jews and everyone else he hated, he did so within the confines of the White House, ironically usually in the presence of his Jewish Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Instead of Russian computer hacking, Watergate was an old-fashioned burglary. And it was the People’s Republic of China, not Russia the President secretly reached out to, not to help win an election but enlist as a geopolitical ally against the Russian-dominated USSR. Looking back even terrorism was different in the 70s. 40 years ago it wasn’t Islamic-oriented organizations like ISIS or al-Qaeda grabbing headlines but more secular groups like the PLO or IRA, or the dozen or so now forgotten Marxist-inspired revolutionary cells active throughout Europe, Latin America and America.

Someday, if you end up reading Strange Days Indeed I’d strongly encourage you to follow it up with Rick Perlstein’s outstanding The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan as well as Bryan Burrough’s equally outstanding Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. Perhaps, after reading Strange Days plus one, or both of these recommended books it might look like history repeats itself, or to paraphrase the authors of How Democracies Dies at least possess familiar echoes. Just like the ancient author of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes you too might conclude there’s nothing new under the sun.

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September 19, 2018 · 1:51 pm

About Time I Read It: Banished by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer

I’m sure all of you know by now I have a huge fondness for memoirs from authors who’ve left their religious communities, whether they be Catholic, Protestant evangelical, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim or Jewish. (A good friend of mine pointed out just this morning it’s interesting with few exceptions they’re all by women. Why this is the case might make for a fascination future discussion.) I just can’t get enough of these kind of books and whenever I come across one at the public library it’s hard for me to pass them up. One such memoir I would see on the shelves was Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer. A few years back I borrowed a copy only to return it before I’d had a chance to begin reading it. However, it was always on my list to read someday, I just couldn’t exactly decide when that’d be. For whatever reason, last week I decided to download an e-book version through my public library. I’m pleased to say I burned through Banished in no time. And whenever that happens it’s never a bad thing.

I guess like anyone who’s been following the news for a while I already knew a few things about the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) prior to reading Drain’s 2013 memoir. They’re rabidly homophobic, infamously known for picketing funerals, especially those for fallen servicemen, loudly proclaiming God is punishing America for its acceptance of homosexuality. WBC isn’t affiliated with any particular Baptist denomination, or for that matter any other church. Instead it’s a cult almost entirely populated by the Phelps family from Topeka, Kansas.

I learned from Banished even though the WBC acts like a bunch of hateful crazies, they ain’t stupid. For years the Phelps family has driven its children to perform academically. Instead of being homeschooled like in many ultra-religious households, the Phelps children attend public school where academically they outpace their non-coreligionists in all subjects. Drilled by their parents and mentors in the importance of closely following current events, as well as speaking confidently and with authority, the Phelps teens not only earn the grudging respect of teacher and student alike, their ability to answer tough questions and deftly handle counter-protesters make them an army of capable public relations officials. 11 out the 13 children of the late WBC founder Fred Phelps are attorneys, providing the cult with its own law firm, a handy thing if you’re partaking in unpopular civil disobedience on a grand scale. One of the Phelps is even a published author of several college textbooks. Lastly, far from being clan of backwoods technological Luddites the WBC boasts a content-rich website and actively engages in email correspondence, even with its strongest detractors.

Just how Lauren Drain got mixed up with the strange group is almost an unbelievable story in itself. It all began when her father, a secular-minded, rock and roll playing atheist and aspiring film-maker flew to Topeka to make a documentary about the WBC. After doing extensive interviews and filming their protests, he found himself admiring the cult. Before long he was acting like a misogynistic religious zealot, eventually forcing Lauren, her mom and young sister to move cross-country to take up residence in one of the WBC’s rental homes. (With few exceptions the WBC members live on the same street near the church building, in essence a kind of religious compound.) Despite this all of this, Lauren embraced the WBC, its theology and odd sense of mission. But no matter how deep she believed or how strongly she protested at venues across the nation, after the better part of a decade she was cast out of both the WBC and her own family.

Once again, this is yet another book that exceeded my modest expectations. The writing duo of Drain and Pulitzer has produced an excellent memoir that easily holds its own when compared to other fine memoirs by those who’ve left their long-time faith.

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