20 Books of Summer: Black Against Empire by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin

When I learned my book club was reading Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party I was intrigued. Like most Americans I knew very little about the Black Panthers. All I had was a vague sense it was powerful political organization, if only for a relatively short time. Much to my surprise I was able to borrow a Kindle edition of Black against Empire through Overdrive and once it was in my possession I went to work reading it almost immediately. I’m happy to report I couldn’t put it down.

By the late 1960s the Civil Rights movement had won significant victories for Black Americans. Businesses as well as public institutions such as schools and universities were finally being desegregated. For the first time in nearly a century the right to vote was restored in the South by the rollback of Jim Crow, thanks to sweeping Voting Rights legislation. When it came to race relations to many it looks liked America had finally turned the corner and a more harmonious and equitable future loomed on the horizon.

Sadly, despite these gains life for most, if not all Black Americans was less than ideal. In cities throughout America Blacks were relegated to ghettos where poverty, unemployment and inadequate or even nonexistent social services were the norm. All white police departments patrolled Black neighborhoods like occupying armies, ruling with iron hands. Meanwhile the escalating ground war in Vietnam sucked up increasing numbers of young Black men into the draft. While Black America had won the vote, politically and economically it remained powerless. Assassinations of Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. only made things worse.

Frustrated by this sense of powerlessness, a group of Black activists in Oakland decided to take matters into the own hands, starting with conducting armed patrols of their neighborhoods. By shadowing police officers as they patrolled the streets early Panthers sought to put a brake on the cops’ racist brutality. Believing substantive change was impossible without possessing true political power, the activists modeled their struggle after the liberation movements sweeping the developing world. The ruling white power structures were seen as colonial overlords to be overthrown and armed self defense, not integration the Panthers’ goal. After adopting this liberationist stance before long the Black Panthers were being warmly received by revolutionary regimes in China, North Vietnam, Cuba and Algeria.

Like any successful liberation movement the Panthers competed for the hearts and minds of those they wished to liberate. Neighborhood children received free breakfasts and the curious were treated to lectures and study sessions designed to raise consciousness and promote the Panthers’ ideology. Inroads were built with sympathetic whites leading to instances of positive press as well as successful fundraisers. Panther candidates ran for political offices in local races. Seen by many Americans as controversial to say the least, and despite the authorities’ attempts to crush and discredit them the future looked bright for the Black Panthers.

But the Panther’s bright star would eventually supernova. Reasons why are many, and still debated but the Black Panthers were victims of forces from outside as well as within. Its relevance as a force for change began eroding when the many of the injustices it fought against finally began being addressed. The Nixon administration, hoping to wind down the Vietnam War began ratcheting back the draft. Taking advantage of new legislation and changing societal attitudes more Blacks were getting elected to offices at local, state and federal levels. Social programs like Head Start improved the lives of inner city children. Police departments slowly added Black officers and began addressing racist brutality. Affirmative action programs increased hiring at federal entities.

On the global front, countries like China and Algeria that supported the Panthers as a people’s liberation organization, began distancing themselves from them in hopes of improving relations with the United States. Realpolitik would take precedence over revolutionary ideals.

Government persecution, which at its zenith occurred when the Panthers were flourishing eventually began taking its toll, unfortunately just when the organization was beset by internal power struggles and vicious infighting.

The most fatal wounds the Panthers received sadly were self-inflicted. Like so many revolutionary movements it was riven by competing factions and personality cults. Deep divisions materialized between those who wished to make the Panthers America’s armed liberation front and those wanting to pursue less violent means. Realists among the Panthers knew armed struggles might work in the jungles of Africa or SE Asia when pitted against colonial forces or a weak national government but was ill-suited for urban warfare in a place like the United States. Power struggles and competing ideologies led to denouncements, infighting and even murder. Huey Newton, once it’s revered founding member, degenerated into a mess of untreated mental illness, drug abuse and criminality before dying like a street punk in 1989.

Black Against Empire is a great book. If you take my advice to heart and end up reading it, I’d also encourage you to follow it up with Isabel Wilkerson’s multiple award-winning 2010 book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration and Bryan Burrough’s 2015 Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. Black against Empire is a strong candidate to make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. Please consider it highly recommended.

Library Loot

Thankfully, it’s not going to be a million degrees this weekend. But I still wanna find a spot that’s cool, grab an adult beverage and read a book. So yesterday while I was in town running errands I dropped by the public library a grabbed some books because, well I could. 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot pic and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlene’s Blog.

With COVID restrictions in my state finally lifted I can now sit at the bar, drink a pint or two and read until my heart is content. Let the good times roll. 

20 Books of Summer: A Nation Rising by Kenneth C. Davis

A Nation Rising: Untold Tales from America’s Hidden History by Kenneth C. Davis is one of countless books in my personal library that’s sat ignored and unread for far too long. As part of my off and on mission to books I own I selected it as one of my 20 Books of Summer. Last weekend with nothing to do but swelter during an unprecedented heat wave I finally read A Nation Rising. With most the reviews I’d read ranging from negative to lukewarm, I went in with low expectations. I’m pleased to report while it won’t make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction I still enjoyed it.

Published in 2010, A Nation Rising looks at America’s first 50 years as an independent nation. Roughly bookended between the Revolutionary War and Civil War, this arguably overlooked period probably most known for the War of 1812 and Mexican American War, (with the War of 1812 being one of those “what was THAT all about?”), also gave us the Louisiana Purchase, Manifest Destiny and the California Gold Rush. But perhaps most of all, according to Davis during the last half of the 19th century the young United States asserted itself by consolidating power and expanding across North America. Unfortunately though, this came at the expense of the continent’s original inhabitants, the enslaved and citizens of its rivals Spain and Mexico.

The United States might have lucked out when Napoleon, needing cash to finance his military adventures, unloaded Louisiana. Other territorial acquisitions, on the other hand weren’t as noble. Slave owning Americans cast covetous eyes towards Spanish Florida, an area covering not just the current state of Florida but also big chunk of what’s now Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Tired of seeing it as a haven for runaway slaves living in relative harmony with Native Americans the United States launched a bloody war of conquest, annexing the colony and forcibly uprooting its inhabitants.

The practice of slavery, and how the nation as a whole should address it was a pressing problem throughout this period, ultimately ripping it apart in the Civil War. According to Davis there were slave revolts but sadly all were failures. Some Black freedom fighters took inspiration from the Haitian revolution, the first successful slave revolt and just the second nation in the Western Hemisphere to achieve independence.

Lastly, if you think today’s cultural wars are a new phenomena then guess again. Mid 19th century America was wracked by religious strife. Anti-Catholic “Bible Riots” erupted in Philadelphia as nativist Protestants lashed out at Catholics for pushing back against the use of the King James Bible in public schools. Mobs burned churches and convents, assaulted Catholics yet in the end rioters were acquitted by Protestant juries. One Presidential candidate was called a crypto Catholic in the partisan press, a precursor to the birtherist lies thrown at former President Obama by right wing media and Donald Trump.

A Nation Rising reminded me a bit of another book published the same year, specifically Martin W. Sander’s Lost to Time: Unforgettable Stories that History Forgot in that it’s a readable account of some of history’s overlooked or forgotten highlights. While maybe not top-tier history books they nevertheless make helpful supplementary texts.

It’s inspired me to read Daniel Walker Howe’s Pulitzer Prize winner What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 as well as more stuff on the 19th century. Fortunately for me, I have Jacques Droz’s Europe Between Revolutions 1815-1848 set aside as another of my 20 Books of Summer. With A Nation Rising fresh in my mind, perhaps Droz’s 1967 book should be next.

Kirkus Reviews called A Nation Rising “history-lite, misleading to those who know too little, harmless to those who know enough.”  To a non historian like myself just looking for something to read while I suffered triple digits temperatures maybe it was just what the doctor ordered.

Library Loot

It’s going to be a million degrees this weekend. (Ok not a million but 112° F or 44° C. ) So I might as well find a spot that’s reasonably cool, grab an adult beverage and read. So yesterday I drove into town to run a few errands and dropped by my favorite public library to grab a book or two. Because if it’s gonna be hot, I gotta have enough stuff to read. 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot pic and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlene’s Blog.

With COVID restrictions in my county continuing to be rolled back maybe I’ll find a nice air conditioned pub, drink a few pints of beer read until my heart is content. Let’s just hope when I do eventually step outside I don’t melt.

20 Books of Summer: Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn by Jamie Maslin

I’ve mentioned before of all the countries in the Middle East the two that intrigue me the most are probably the region’s biggest outliers: Iran and Israel. Modern heirs to ancient kingdoms, unlike the rest of the countries in the region neither is majority Arab or Sunni Muslim. Also unlike their neighbors neither is ruled by an absolute monarch or military strongman. At one time close allies today Israel and Iran are bitter enemies, each eying the other with grave concern, despite being a thousand miles apart and sharing no common border.

Maybe that’s why I’m more apt to grab a book on Iran or Israel as opposed to another Middle Eastern country like Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Not long ago at the public library I did just that, helping myself to a copy of Jamie Maslin’s Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn: A Hitchhiker’s Adventures in the New Iran. In his travel memoir published in 2009 Maslin recounts his adventures traveling throughout Iran, visiting its attractions and perhaps above all interacting with its citizens.

Originally, Maslin’s plan was to cross Southern Eurasia overland ending with a visit to his brother in Shanghai.  Unfortunately, financial difficulties nixed the possibility of such an extensive trip. Instead, he opted to follow just a portion of the old hippie trail, making Iran his intended destination entering the country from neighboring Turkey. Seen by most Westerners as a horrible place run by an oppressive theocratic dictatorship Maslin’s fellow Brits thought he was crazy to visit Iran and even he too was fearful some wild-eyed mullah might sentence him to having a hand chopped off or eye gouged out for some perceived petty crime. But to his pleasant surprise he found the overwhelming majority of those he met friendly and hospitable.

Even as a visitor from the United Kingdom, a country Iranians revile, along with the United States for helping engineer the coup that toppled Iran’s reformist Prime Minister and installed despotic Shah Maslin was showered with hospitality almost from the moment he arrived. Whisked away countless times for lunches and dinners as an honored guest, later he’d find himself hosted in their homes like a beloved relative. Complete strangers acted as helpful translators and go-betweens, assisting him with travel plans and even paying for his bus tickets and such. He frequently received gifts, and before long mastered the Iranian custom of politely refusing three times before graciously accepting.

While Iran might be ruled by a bunch of religious zealots hell-bent on ruling with an iron hand its citizenry aren’t automatons cursed with sheep-like mentality. Throughout his travels Maslin encountered taxi drivers who rolled down the window to shout obscenities at clerics on the street and shopkeepers who saluted prominently displayed Ayatollah Khomeini wall portraits with throat slitting gestures. Alcohol, while illegal could still be acquired with little effort, reminiscent of America during Prohibition. (Maslin recalls imbibing several times in the company of friendly Iranians.) Even though there’s strict sexual segregation in almost all facets of public life (the only place where men and women mix in public is on Tehran’s crowded subway) young Iranian singles of both sexes, especially in urban areas mingle in secretive parties from time to time. Puritanical as Iranian society is, it’s common for some couples to practice sigheh, an officially sanctioned form of temporary marriage.

I found myself drawn to Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn because I wanted an intimate look at Iran that was light yet informative. With those expectations met I have no complaints.

20 Books of Summer: Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee

Like a lot of people I was introduced to the writing of John McPhee through the New Yorker. I loved how he could write so beautifully about, well, anything. From geology to political figures, no matter how obscure the subject after finishing an article you couldn’t wait until his next one. Not only an accomplished writer, for decades he taught nonfiction writing at his alma matter Princeton, inspiring a number of his former students to become accomplished writers themselves. (David Remnick, Robert Wright and Dan-el Padilla Peralta are but a few.) Over the years I’ve acquired several of his books yet sadly made no effort to read them.

As part of my 20 Books of Summer series I decided remedy this by including a little something by McPhee. Published back in 1971 his Encounters with the Archdruid: Narratives About a Conservationist and Three of His Natural Enemies explores three (four, if you count a side trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota) beautiful, yet radically different parts of the United States and the memorable individuals strongly associated with them. From North Cascades National Park in Washington State to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina to the Colorado River in Arizona and Utah McPhee explores the areas’ natural beauty while introducing us to a pioneering conservationist and his three political rivals.

First and perhaps foremost of these is David Brower, at the time Executive Director of the Sierra Club and a life-long conservationist. Contrasted with him are his ideological adversaries: Charles Park, a mineral engineer and mining advocate; Charles Fraser, a resort developer from Hilton Head; and Floyd Dominy, a high-level government official responsible for the creation of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. Like a geologist descending through layers of accumulated strata McPhee reveals bit by bit the interesting depths of these complex individuals, showing no matter how aesthetically pleasing and majestic these places might be they’ll never completely overshadow the four remarkable personalities forever responsible for their preservation or alteration.

20 Books of Summer: Family History of Fear by Agata Tuszyńska

Well, it didn’t take me long to deviate from my original 20 Books of Summer. Right after finishing There There I dived into Agata Tuszyńska’s Family History of Fear, casting aside any hope I’d stick to my carefully pre-arranged shelf of summer reading material. And why not? I need something representing Poland for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Plus, I’ve had pretty good luck with family memoirs with Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s A Mirror Garden, Marina Benjamin’s Last Days in Babylon: The History of a Family, the Story of a Nation and Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World as well as its follow-up The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn all being enjoyable reads.

When Polish poet and cultural historian Agata Tuszyńska was 19 years old her mother surprisingly confided to her they were Jewish. Tuszyńska, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, mines the depths of this secretive family history for her 2016 memoir sharing with the world stories kept untold for far too long.

With her grandfather languishing in a POW camp Tuszyńska’s grandmother and mother were packed into the crowded Warsaw Ghetto and subjected along with thousands of other Jews to the horrors of disease, malnutrition and abuse. The two would eventually escape, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the Nazis while avoiding betrayal by their fellow Poles, be they cruel opportunists or hateful antisemites. For days on end the two hid in secret rooms or backs of closets. (Bored with nothing to do her eight year old mother read in the dim light to pass the time. As a result after the war she frequently squinted, eliciting puzzled comments from her schoolmates.) Later, she grew up and married a college classmate who went on to be one of Poland’s premier sportscasters.

In Family History of Fear Tuszyńska shares stories of both sides of her family, Jew and Gentile. Her style leans towards nonlinear, jumping back and forth chronologically and familial.  Unfortunately, by the time I reached the final third of the book I found myself losing interest. Fortunately, my interest rekindled at the end. Her memoir closes with the ruling Communists’ antisemitic campaign against the nation’s few remaining Jews, ostensibly taken to combat “Zionism” in response to Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. (For additional insight into one of the darker and more obscure periods of late-stage Soviet Communism I highly recommend both Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: The Year That Rocked the World and Gal Beckerman’s outstanding When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.)

I borrowed Family History of Fear from the library because I wanted not just a book about Poland, but also the Poland of years gone by. Today’s Poland is religiously and linguistically homogenous but a hundred years ago it was a diverse land. Before World War II 3 million Jews lived in Poland, more than anywhere including the USSR. Overall, Jews made up 10 percent of the country’s population including roughly of third of Warsaw. For many, especially in the countryside Yiddish, not Polish was their primary if not exclusive language. (Even in the capital Warsaw intermarriage was rare, and those who did were usually Communists.) Along its eastern borders were sizable communities of Ukrainians, almost all practicing Orthodox. But due to the ravages of war, genocide and Communist oppression that pre-war world of Poland has passed into history. Tuszyńska’s Family History of Fear is an elegy for both a family and a nation.

About Time I Read It: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

I love books that make me fundamentally rethink how I understand the world, specifically how we got here and even where we’re going. The first of these kind of books I read was probably Europe: A History by Norman Davies. (20 years after I read it I still remember him wisely pointing out Europe, for all its glory, geographically speaking is nevertheless a peninsula of Asia. He also boldly claimed events and developments in the 19th century had a greater impact on today’s modern world than those of the 20th.) As I read more over the years I discovered other powerful and expansive books like Guns, Germs and Steel, Carnage and Culture, Why Nations Fail and 1493. More recently, last year I had the pleasure of reading The Jakarta Method, Maoism: A Global History and The Islamic Enlightenment all of which fell into this category.

When my book club announced we were reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, another of these kind of books I quickly borrowed an ebook copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Sweeping and detailed, I nevertheless made quick work of the readable Silk Roads in roughly a week. This fine book should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

Based on Frankopan’s extensive research, for thousands of years Central Asia and its adjacent lands (roughly the Persian Empire at greatest extent, give or take a bit) has played a decisive role shaping world history. Over the centuries armies, plagues, riches and religions have traveled time honored trade routes commonly referred as the Silk Road across South Central Eurasia. This new interpretation shifts our attention east making Central Asia history’s prime mover as opposed to Europe, and upending our traditional Eurocentric view of world history.

While it’s undeniable Greece and Rome left an indelible imprints on Western thought one must remember all the world’s major religions originated somewhere in Asia, with the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all developing in relatively close proximity to each other. (Helping make cross-pollination between them in varying degrees possible.) While Greek ideas and imagery traveled east with Alexander’s armies leaving a lasting influence from Asia Minor to India Buddhist and Zoroastrian concepts flowed in the opposite direction doing much the same. (Buddhist missionaries in the Levant might have been responsible for introducing the dualistic concepts which would form the core of Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy. Hundreds of years later, it’s possible the first Islamic madrasahs were modeled on Buddhist teaching communities.)

During the Middle Ages, armies of an assertive Christian Europe flush with new-found sense of purpose invaded the western shores of Central Asia in a series of conflicts known as the Crusades. Exposed to the region’s higher standard of living Crusaders and their descendants developed tastes for the finer things in life, leading to an explosion in first regional, and then intercontinental commerce. Even though the Latin Kingdoms they founded on the shores of the Mediterranean were eventually vanquished it spawned lasting trade between Europe and Asia, with the Italian maritime city states profiting handsomely.

Later in the Middle Ages, these same trade routes would also bring plague to Europe, decimating the continent’s population. This die off would make labor scarce, drive up wages and lead to wealth redistribution. Overall, incomes rose  and demand increased for goods from Asia. Feeling cut out of the lucrative international trade business, Iberian powers Portugal and Spain saw sailing east as the solution. By doing so they not only found another route to India around Africa, but more importantly discovered the New World.

Then later, the discovery, and subsequent conquest of the Americas changed everything once again. Instead of European inhabitants dying by the millions this time it was Americans. Their kingdoms destroyed and their royal coffers looted, silver and gold by the ship full flowed from the New World to Iberia. As these riches and the ones that followed percolated across Europe and began enriching England and the Low Countries it created demand for even more high value goods from Asia. As living standards rose it lead to an intellectual awakening known as the Enlightenment. Sadly, the Age of Reason could not have happened without the theft of America’s gold and silver and the slaughter and subjugation of its natives.

The centrality of Central Eurasia extends well into the modern age. For the later half of the 19th century Russia and Great Britain were bitter rivals in the Great Game for control of the gateway to India. Happy to see Tsarist Russia turn its attention elsewhere Britain did everything it could to encourage Russian animosity towards Germany, setting the stage for World War I. 20 years later Hitler justified Germany’s invasion of the USSR as a means to secure Ukraine’s wheat. At the turn of the 20th century it was the British who first saw the potential for oil to replace coal to fuel navies and later, trains and automobiles. Throughout much of the 20th century and into the 21st, pipelines and tanker routes would criss-cross the globe bringing oil from the lands of the former Persian Empire to the industrialized West.

By the end of the book we have come full circle. Once again China is the world’s premier exporter. Instead supplying the world with silk and porcelain today it’s everything from consumer electronics to household goods to steel. Flexing its newfound economic and political might the country launched its Belt and Road Initiative: the creation of land and rail routes from China to Western Eurasia, Africa and beyond closely following the trade routes of old crisscrossing Central Asia. Think of this massive international infrastructure development strategy as 21st century’s answer to the Silk Road – on steroids. All while the region’s former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, blessed with almost limitless petroleum reserves, have become major players on the world stage.

Frankopan makes a compelling, if not convincing case the lands of Central Eurasia, and not Europe was key in the rise of Western civilization. Please consider his book The Silk Roads highly recommended.

20 Books of Summer: There There by Tommy Orange

After sitting out last summer, I’m once again participating in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer, hosted on her blog 746 Books. As you might have seen in an earlier post, for this year I’ve selected an odd ball assortment of library books, older stuff, history, fiction and even a play.

Among the several novels I chose are Tommy Orange’s There There and Mitchell S. Jackson’s The Residue Years, both past selections of Multnomah County Library’s annual Everybody’s Reads program. After letting my copies sit ignored for the last couple of years I figured now was a good time to include them in my 20 Books of Summer.

On the eve of the recent three day weekend I cracked open There There and give it a shot, hoping my favorite public library once again selected a goodie for Everybody Reads. After reading a mere few pages I was hooked. With the year roughly half over, I’m predicting right now this novel will make my year-end list of Favorite Fiction.

Published in 2018, Orange’s debut novel was proclaimed one of the best books of the year by publications far and wide, won a ton of awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer. Shifting back and forth between first and third person it tells the story of 12 Oakland, California area Native Americans and their interconnected lives leading up to an outdoor pow wow at the city’s sports stadium. Early in the novel you learn someone is being pressured to commit an armed robbery at the large festival. But like a runaway train careening towards disaster you know it’s all going to end tragically, you just don’t know how horrific it will all look when it’s all over.

There There has everything you would want in a killer debut novel. The writing is taut and vivid and features an ensemble cast of Native American characters which might have the appearance of racial homogeneity but based on age, temperament and life experience is strikingly diverse. The novel also touches on a host of relevant issues like gentrification, substance abuse, mental health, poverty and as expected racial identity.

Please consider There There highly recommended.

Library Loot

With the weather improving and COVID restrictions in my area easing up a bit I drove into town today to run a few errands and drop by my favorite public library to maybe grab a book or two. (Because after all, I can’t have too many library books at my immediate disposal can I?) Of course by doing so I’ve completely wrecked any hope I’d stick to my intended 20 books of summer. But seriously, did anyone really think I’d really read all the books on my list? 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot pic and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Claire’s blog.

With COVID restrictions beginning to lessen, weather improving and more people able to interact because they’ve been vaccinated I look forwards to once again being able to sit in a pub with a pint of beer and a big ole stack of books and read until my heart is content. And with a three day weekend coming up next week I think that’s exactly what I will do.