About Time I Read It: Twilight of Empire by Greg King and Penny Wilson

When I noticed Greg King and Penny Wilson ‘s 2017 book Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs in new the books section of the public library a few years ago it struck me as the kind of book I’d possibly read. Thanks to one of my late night ventures down the Wikipedia rabbit hole I was already somewhat familiar with the Mayerling Incident, in which the middle-aged heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne killed himself along with the 17 year old mistress at the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling in 1889. I also saw a fictionalized version of the tragic murder-suicide in the 2006 film The Illusionist and read of another in Elisabeth de Waal’s 2014 novel The Exiles Return. Then, a few weeks ago feeling the need to read something set in, or about Austria for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I secured an ebook edition through Overdrive.

Even though he was the Crown Prince of one of Europe’s grandest royal families by late 1888 Rudolf’s life was a mess. Open to progressive political ideas and willing to grant greater freedom to the empire’s diverse population of subjects his pleas for political liberalization were repeatedly dismissed by his father Emperor Franz Joseph, a reactionary autocrat. His marriage to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, after a brief happy beginning had long since turned sour with Stéphanie spending most her time living abroad while Rudolf frequented Vienna’s taverns and brothels. His body ravaged by gonorrhea as the result of his wayward behavior, he drowned himself in a sea of alcohol and morphine. Lamenting his largely estranged wife would never give him the son he desperately wanted Rudolf had no one to blame but himself. (He’d infected  Stéphanie with gonorrhea rendering her infertile.) Thanks to years of childhood trauma at the hands of his domineering father, or poor Hapsburg genetics or both, Rudolf was a troubled man, emotionally unstable and in all likelihood bipolar.

Enter Baroness Mary Vetsera, the young daughter of an Austrian diplomat. With the total blessing of her social-climbing mother Mary pursed the Crown Prince with reckless abandon. For the better part of a year their ongoing affair was an open secret  to both his parents and the kingdom’s insular aristocracy. Even to this day some speculate Rudolf, in a move to escape the overbearing shadow of his father, entertained thoughts of divorcing Stéphanie, marrying Mary and proclaiming himself King of Hungary. (At this time Austro-Hungary was a dual monarchy.) But as the months went by and the affair lost momentum, Rudolf’s depression worsened. Finally, in late January of 1889 Rudolf and Mary slipped away to the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling. Leaving specific instructions for those in attendance not to open his bedroom door “not even for the Emperor” Rudolf along with Mary retired for the evening. Early the next morning two gunshots rang out. After breaking down the door  Rudolf’s assistants discovered the blood-soaked  bodies of the two lovers sprawled on the bed.

The brutal royal murder-suicide scandalized polite Austrian society. Conspiracy theories abounded for decades with some pointing their fingers at Germany, accusing the Kaiser’s agents of assassinating Rudolf since he was seen by some as an impediment to closer German-Austrian military ties. Bad enough the future Emperor lay dead and without ever siring a male heir but to be found lying next to his dead mistress magnified the tragedy. Suicide, as well as murder considered mortal sins according to Catholic teaching Rudolf could be denied a Christian burial. (Interestingly, according to the book’s authors Vienna was already in the grips of a suicide epidemic with the newspapers filled with lurid accounts of the city’s residents killing themselves.) In the end the Crown Prince was ruled to have been in a state of “mental imbalance” at the time and was thus granted the proper royal funeral rites, much to the relief of his devout Catholic parents.

For the most part I enjoyed Twilight of Empire with my only complaint being I thought the authors might have spent a bit too much time discussing conspiracy theories. However, I can see how many Austrians, when confronted with the uncomfortable truth the Crown Prince murdered himself and his mistress might take solace in rumors that Rudolf was a victim and not a perpetrator. Ironically though, Rudolf’s actions prefigured that of his father’s. When the Emperor decided to invade Serbia in 1914 and in doing so launch the First World War, his actions would lead to the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Another act of murder-suicide, but on a much larger scale.

About Time I Read It: Judas by Amos Oz

In late 2018 I was saddened by the news Israeli author Amos Oz had passed away. I’d only read Between Friends, his collection of eight interconnected short stories and short coming of age novel Panther in the Basement but longed to read more, especially his memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness. For some inexplicable reason earlier this week I found myself in the mood for more of his fiction so I borrowed an ebook version of his 2016 historical novel Judas. Of the three books of his I’ve read, I’m pleased to say I enjoyed this one the most. There’s even a good chance it will wind up making my year-end list of Favorite Fiction.

It’s 1959 and Jerusalem is a city divided between Israel and Jordan. Shmuel Ash, originally from Tel Aviv, is a young idealist who’s lost his way. His steady girlfriend recently dumped him to marry her boring ex-boyfriend. The socialist cell he’d been a member of, passionately debating in smoke-filled coffee shops the role of the enlightened proletariat collapsed under the weight of its idealogical differences. Bereft of funds after the bankruptcy of his family’s business he’s forced to quit his university studies, even though he’s on the cusp of graduating. Unmoored and with nothing to lose, he answers a help-wanted posting for a live-in caretaker for an elderly man. For a modest stipend plus room and board Shmuel stays up half the night bantering with Gershom Wald, a crutch-dependent invalid as cantankerous as he is erudite and brilliant. Sharing this eccentric household is Atalia Abarbanel, the beautiful 40-something widow of Gerhom’s dead son and daughter of Shealtiel Abravanel, onetime member of the Jewish National Council who, because of his opposition to making Israel a Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs was branded a traitor by his fellow Zionists and forced to resign in disgrace.

Surrounded by bookshelves stacked with dusty old tomes in a half-dozen languages Shmuel and Wald’s late-night arguments chiefly revolve around Israeli politics and, because Shmuel until recently was a religious scholar specializing in Jesus as viewed from a Jewish perspective, the role of Judas as betrayer. As they argue night after night, the reader begins to wonder if being a traitor is necessarily a bad thing. Fully aware “courageous people have appeared who were ahead of their time and were called traitors or eccentrics” Shmuel muses “anyone willing to change will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change and are scared to death of change and don’t understand it and loathe change.”

But no matter how much he debates Wald, nothing can take his mind off the beguiling Atalia. She drifts in and out of his presence, elusive yet nevertheless attentive. In spite of her aloofness, she invites him to share a series of chaste, though pleasant evenings on the town. During their conversations she regularly reminds him there’s been a series of admiring young men who preceded him as Wald’s caretaker and each one left broken hearted. But Shmuel is a young man in love and relishes their bittersweet relationship.

With its secluded alleyways, Hungarian restaurants, Romanian-born police officers and sizable first-generation immigrant citizenry, the Jerusalem of Amos Oz’s Judas feels more like the Jewish quarter of some pre-war European capital than a Middle Eastern city. Dark, wintery and possessing a distinct Mitteleuropa flavorJerusalem in essence becomes the novel’s fourth character.

Judas has been called a love story, coming of age novel, intellectual novel, historical novel, philosophical re-appraisal of the Biblical character of Judas and allegory for the modern state of Israel. Not only is it all of these things, it’s also a terrific novel. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley

The world is in the throes of a pandemic, the likes of which we haven’t experienced in a hundred years. Across the globe an endless parade of marchers fill the streets protesting police brutality and racial inequality. Either of these crises, let alone two at the same time would be a major headache for even the most capable of presidential administrations. But alas, with the current kakistocracy in Washington, DC overwhelmed and underbrained things look grim. If these are in fact, as Thomas Paine would say, times that try men’s souls, then it’s time for my soul to enjoy a some political humor. Specifically, it’s time for a little Christopher Buckley.

It’s been four years since I read his satire of Middle Eastern politics Florence of Arabia.  Not really sure which of his novels to read next I ultimately decided to borrow an ebook version of his 2008 offering Supreme Courtship, because it features a loquacious Joe Biden-esque senator from Connecticut. Plus, let’s face it, a humorous take on the United States Supreme Court is hard to pass up.

Tired of watching his two previous nominees to the nation’s highest court go down in flames at the hands of the by above-mentioned Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dexter Mitchell, President Donald P. Vanderdamp opts to take a different approach. Instead of nominating an up and coming federal judge or venerable legal scholar he selects Pepper Cartwright, star host of the reality TV series “Courtroom Six .” Cartwright, a pistol packing, straight-shooting Texas gal and former LA Superior Court judge is, to say the least, an odd choice for the nation’s highest court. (Made even odder once it’s learned her father – now the pastor of a mega-church with a private jet at his disposal – as a young Dallas police officer mistakenly allowed Jack Ruby to sneak into a parking garage to get a closer look at Lee Harvey Oswald. As they say, all the rest is history.) Coaching her through the nomination process is octogenarian Graydon Clenndennynn, a kind of Henry Kissinger figure and

 wisest of the Washington wise men, grayest of its eminences, adviser to seven—or was it eight?—presidents. Former Attorney General. Former Secretary of State. Former Secretary of the Exterior. Former Ambassador to France. Former everything.

Of course, being the wise man is he, instructs Pepper when asked question about abortion to say “little as possible in as many words as possible.”

Should Pepper survive this grueling process she will join an already colorful cast of justices. In addition to Silvio Santamaria (“Jesuit seminarian, father of 13 children, Knight of Malta, adviser to the Vatican”) as a thinly disguised Antonin Scalia there’s “den mother” Paige Plympton, (a nod to Sandra Day O’Conner) as well as Crispus Galavanter, a kindler, gentler and more intelligent version of Clarence Thomas. First among equals there’s Chief Justice Declan Hardwether, who, after casting the deciding vote to legalize gay marriage becomes the butt of the nation’s jokes after his wife leaves him for a woman.

With her unorthodox style, down-home wit and status as a political outsider, many saw Pepper Cartwright as a Sarah Palin figure when Supreme Courtship was released in the fall of 2008. Reading this in 2020, I’m left wondering if Buckley possesses the gift of precognition since his novel features, of all things, an infidelitous TV star who runs for president, several calamitous stock market crashes, and a Constitutional crises. (These days it feels like we’re always in the midst of a Constitutional crisis.)

Buckley has a gift for writing light, but clever prose. Above all, he makes you laugh and right now, that’s just what we need.

About Time I Read It: American Connections by James Burke

If I had to compile a list of the people I admire the most at the top of that list would be James Burke. I’ve been a fan of his year decades, ever since when, as a teenage, I stumbled across an episode of his landmark documentary television series Connections. I can remember, as an impressionable young man watching the show and being awestruck by Burke’s ability to show the interconnectedness of scientific discovery and technological development. Through his series Connections (and its two subsequent iterations), The Day the Universe Changed and stand alone productions like After the Warming Burke didn’t just teach how history unfolded (or in the case of the more speculative After the Warming, how it could unfold) but did so with passion, style and perhaps most of all, dry humor.

I’m embarrassed to say, as much as I idolize Burke, I’ve read only two of his books. It’s been years since I read Twin Tracks: The Unexpected Origins of the Modern World and The Day the Universe Changed. A 2000 paperback edition of The Knowledge Web : From Electronic Agents to Stonehenge and Back — And Other Journeys Through Knowledge has sat ignored and unread in my personal library for years . Last week, after staring at my copy of The Knowledge Web for the umpeenth million time I decided read something by Burke. Seeing a copy of his 2007 book American Connections: The Founding Fathers. Networked. happened to be available through Overdrive I opted to give it a shot before finally diving into The Knowledge Web.

Taking what I would call the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon approach to history, in American Connections Burke looks at each of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence and in true Burkean style traces their connections to each one’s present day respective namesake, including John Hancock (“He was an egomaniac and nobody liked him”), Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and even the illustrious Button Gwinnett.  Who would have thought what started with New Hampshire’s Josiah Bartlett would lead to John Paul Jones, then writerJames Fenimore’s father Judge William Cooper, then pioneering TV religious personality Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and finally ending with actor Martin Sheen and his West Wing character Josiah Betlett.

To pull this off, Burke utilizes a cast of thousands-mostly obscure-who for a variety of reasons are long  forgotten. Many failed horribly, were disgraced by scandal or enjoyed only the briefest of success. For those who would complain our current age is sinful as hell and yearn for the morally upright days of yesteryear, they’ll be shocked to learn a number of the Georgian‎, Victorian and Edwardian‎ era personalities to bask in Burke’s limelight were shamelessly infidelitous, (including a number of ménages à trois and even a ménage à quatre or two), incestual, and LGBTQ. (One of which was a woman who was accused of dressed like a man. Later, one prospective employer agreed to hire her but only if she agreed to wear a dress. She complied but years later it was learned she was really a man.)

A wise old history professor once described history to me as good people doing bad things and bad people doing good things. Of the countless individuals whose lives are on display in American Connections almost none were wholly good or evil. But all of them made contributions. And in the hands of James Burke, it all makes for entertaining reading.

About Time I Read It: Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborn

In July 2017 Fresh Air’s pop culture and critic-at-large John Powers reviewed Lawrence Osborne’s latest novel Beautiful Animals. Describing it as “a seductively menacing new thriller” combining “Graham Greene’s fondness for foreign soil with Patricia Highsmith’s fascination with the nastier coils of the human psyche” I was intrigued.  I grew more intrigued after Powers mentioned the novel’s setting on the Greek island of Hydra and how things get horribly complicated after two young tourists stumble across a Middle Eastern refugee who’s washed ashore. Alas, like so many books I’ve heard reviewed or read reviews of I quickly forgot about it. That is, until recently when, in search of something set in Greece for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive. I’m happy to report Osborne’s dark novel is painful but at the same time nearly impossible to put down.

Naomi, a 28 year old Brit has been coming to Hydra with her family for years. A London-based lawyer, she’s opted to spend the summer with her wealthy art dealer father and Greek stepmother after being unceremoniously sacked by her employer. Attractive, intelligent, affluent and able to effortlessly manipulate others she spends her time days sunbathing and evenings drinking in local tavernas or partying with others her age. After becoming friends with Samantha, an American college student vacationing on Hydra with her mother, father and teenage brother it looks like the two young women have a promising summer ahead of them as besties.

But before they’ve had a chance to hit a party or two or experience a double date while out sunbathing one day they discover a bedraggled, long-haired man lying semiconscious at water’s edge. Feeling obligated to do something to address his plight they return later with food, water and other supplies. His name is Faoud and yes, as they assumed he’s a refugee from the Middle East. Fortunately for him, the two women are eager to help him, and thanks to Naomi’s easy access to her father’s wealth money is no object. But unfortunately, Naomi’s largess comes with a price. For too long she’s lived a life of privilege, gotten her way with people and never dealt with the consequences of her selfish actions. When her ill-conceived plan to help Faoud ends in disaster, it has the potential to wrecks the lives of her accomplices.

Old Books Reading Project: Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng

Imagine you spent six and half years in solitary confinement. Over the course of your imprisonment you were beaten, tortured, verbally abused, denied decent medical and dental care and what little food you were fed was so bad it frequently made you ill. Falsely accused of being a traitor or spy for various foreign powers you were repeatedly ordered to confess your crimes. However, not once were you formally charged, let alone tried in court. During that time you were allowed no visitors, or for that matter any communication whatsoever with the outside world. But thanks to your indomitable spirit not once did you surrender and utter a false confession. After more than a half decade of torment you were released.

Right after you were freed someone tells you why you were imprisoned. You didn’t spend years in a hellish prison because of some bureaucratic mix-up or an official’s personal vendetta. No, it was all because of a power struggle between two rival factions within the government. You were one of thousands maybe even millions of others who were casualties of China’s Cultural Revolution.

Hoping to outflank his younger and more competent rivals in 1996 Chairman Mao Zedong urged the nation’s young people to attack what Mao and his cronies declared “capitalist”, “bourgeois” or “traditionalist” elements ruling China. For 10 years the nation was paralyzed by purges, political instability and factional violence. (Looking back later, Nien thought, “perhaps the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution should be more aptly renamed Cultural Annihilation.”)  Only after Mao’s death and his inner circle deposed could saner heads prevail and thus bring an end to the madness known as the Cultural Revolution.

I picked up a paperback copy of Nien Cheng’s 1986 memoir Life and Death in Shanghai years ago at used book sale only to let sit ignored in my personal library.  I might have kept ignoring it had not Paul French’s City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai put me in the mood to read more about Shanghai. So last week I dusted off my vintage copy of Life and Death in Shanghai and finally cracked it open. Like many good books in my personal library I should not have waited so long to read it.

College educated in the West and fluent in English, Nien, a widow, worked for Shell Oil until the company was expelled from China in 1966. After being questioned repeatedly by the authorities about her ties to not just Shell but also the United Kingdom, United States and Taiwan-based Republic of China she soon faced baseless accusations of espionage and class betrayal. Despite passionately and intelligently proclaiming her innocence she was thrown in prison. Much like Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, author of the previously reviewed Journey into the Whirlwind, she figured once the authorities realized they’d made a mistake and wrongfully imprisoned her she’d quickly be released. Since the Communists took power there’d been arrests and purges off and on. Confirming Tolstoy’s dictum “there are no conditions to which a man may not become accustomed, particularly if he sees that they are accepted by those about him” while imprisonment was terrible, it happened from time to time in Communist China.

Mao had once declared that 3-5 per cent of the population were enemies of socialism. To prove him correct, during the periodically launched political movements, 3-5 per cent of the members of every organization, whether it was a government department, a factory, a school or a university, must be found guilty of political crimes or heretical thoughts against socialism or Mao Tze-tung Thought. Among those found guilty, a number would be sent either to labour camps or prison.

Hopefully, Nien thought, soon it would all be rectified. But only after endearing six and half years of sheer hell, followed by a change in the political winds was Chien released. Allowed to return to her former residence she was placed under close government surveillance and left with the threat of re-arrest and re-imprisonment dangling over her head. Only with a more pragmatic regime in control of China that lead to friendlier relations with nations like the United States was she allowed to immigrate to the West where she could truly at last be free.

About Time I Read It: Rome 1960 by David Maraniss

Years ago, early one evening I stumbled across a documentary on HBO profiling great modern sports figures. Out of all the athletes shown, today I can only remember one. At the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in a Rome a previously unknown runner from Ethiopia captured the gold medal in the marathon. Held at night because of Rome’s triple digit summer heat and following a route illuminated by lines of torch-bearing Italian army soldiers Abebe Bikila, a member of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s Imperial Guard stunned the world. “It had taken Italy a million-man army to defeat Ethiopia, but only one lone Ethiopian soldier to conquer Rome” I can still remember the documentary’s announcer saying. Not only did Bikila take home the gold, but in doing so also set a new world’s record. And he did it barefoot.

As memorable a sports achievement that is, you’d thought I’d read David Maraniss’ 2008 book  Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World the first chance I got. Instead it’s been on my radar forever, and only recently, when I found myself in the mood for a little 20th century European history did I borrow an ebook version through Overdrive. I’m pleased to report Rome 1960 is one heck of a book.

At first glance the 1960 Summer Olympics resembled every other Olympics held in the post-World War II era. The US-Soviet rivalry played itself out as each side fought to take home the most medals. There were events the US lost which we felt we should have won, prompting the usual round of soul-searching and finger-pointing. On the other hand, there were competitions the US did surprisingly well in, and America as a nation relished in the victories. According to Maraniss however, while people might not have realized it at the time, in hindsight we can now see just how significant these Olympics were not just in the history of sports but also history in general.

After a Danish bicycler dropped dead while racing and his autopsy showed the presence of performance enhancing drugs in his bloodstream sports officials from now on would routinely be on the lookout for such substances. It would also mark the first use of steroids by both male and female athletes, a practice which would become widespread among those competing from the Eastern Bloc. There was also the first product endorsement controversy when a German track and field star snubbed his patron Adidas in favor of the upstart Puma. Lastly, the victory of the above-mentioned Ethiopian Bikila would be the first of many medal winning runners from Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Games also signaled a turning point for the United States. There was increased African American participation in the 1960 Olympics even though they faced wide-spread discrimination back home. Whether they liked it or not, prominent African American Olympians like decathlete Rafer Johnson (also selected to carry the American flag during the opening ceremony), sprinter Wilma Rudolph and boxer Cassius Clay found themselves in the spotlight as not just athletes but also goodwill ambassadors representing a nation, that as the Soviets and their allies were quick to point out, oppressed them because of their skin color. While in Rome, Clay was well on his way to coming the larger than life sports figure the world would know later as the charismatic, poetry quoting, outspoken professional boxing champion Muhammad Ali.

The Games in Rome were also the first commercially televised Summer Olympics. Today the Olympics are multibillion dollar television extravaganzas employing thousands of people world-wide using state of the art technology and a network of globe-circling satellites bringing us almost unlimited coverage, much of it in real-time. But in 1960 America’s coverage began with a small crew filming a selection of the day’s events after which the film was flown by commercial jet across the Atlantic to New York. There, in New York the film was developed and hand-spliced while Jim McKay, an up and coming sportscaster banged out a script on a typewriter, supplementing it with interesting facts and trivia mined from the Encyclopedia Britannica. That night on CBS news (in those days the network had no sports division) he briefly recounted the day’s Olympic highlights.

In the years to follow more and more countries began taking Olympic competition seriously.  Some nations, especially those in the Eastern Bloc, saw the Games as an extension of foreign policy. No longer were the Olympics the sole realm of amateurs. What first began as rumors the Italians were paying their boxers to stay home and practice were followed by reports based on interviews with defectors the Soviets were generously subsidizing their Olympians. From living expenses to training to luxuries not available to their fellow citizens the state paid the bills. Little wonder then in 1992 America would recapture the gold medal in men’s basketball only by using a handpicked team of affluent NBA superstars (plus one token college standout). A barefooted champion from an impoverished nation would now have to share the Olympic limelight with millionaire sports celebrities.

Soviet Spotlight: Journey into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg

I’m guessing it was my love of both prison memoirs and Soviet history that inspired me grab a copy of Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg’s memoir Journey into the Whirlwind I found lying in the street, quite possibly while walking to the bus stop after enjoying a few pints of beer with friends at a local pub. After letting it sit on my bookshelf ignored and unread for the last five or so years last week I finally I began reading it. Like other good books from my personal library I’d been reluctant to touch I wish I’d read it sooner.

In 1934 Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg was a college instructor and newspaper editor in Kazan, Russia where both her and her husband were loyal Communists and true believers in the Soviet dream. The same year, that Soviet dream would become a nightmare for millions afterJoseph Stalin used the murder of Politburo member Sergei Kirov as an excuse to launch his infamous purges. Within a few years Ginzburg was arrested, interrogated, stripped of her Party membership, tried on trumped-up charges of belonging to a “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist group”, and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. After spending several years in solitary confinement she was shipped to the wilds of the Soviet Far East to labor in the forests of the Kolyma Valley where she would have died of malnutrition and overwork had a camp doctor not took pity on her and made her one his nurses.

Like the French Revolution preceding it, or the Iranian one that followed, the new Soviet state, now under Stalin’s despotic control began devouring the children of the revolution. At first her fellow convicts were devoted Party members like her, along with a few members of rival revolutionary groups who’d lost out to the Bolsheviks. Later, as Stalin’s paranoia intensified it drove up arrest quotas and combined with the widespread use of torture causing more and more of the accused to wrongly implicate their friends, colleagues and even family members the camps swelled with not just elite members of society like former military officers, Party leaders, and ironically, defrocked members of the dreaded secret police but also everyday working people and simple peasants. Foreigners from Italy and Germany who’d moved to Russia in hopes of building a worker’s paradise also found themselves slaving away in the Gulag along with tons of common criminals. At first, Ginzburg and true believers like her thought it had all been some sort of mistake, figuring they’d soon be released. Later, as time went by and the horror of incarceration took their toll they stopped believing in the goodness and infallibility of the Communist Party and cared only for their individual survival.

As grim as things get in Journey into the Whirlwind, it’s still a vivid, well-written and fast-paced account of one of humanity’s darkest periods. Not only does it make great follow-up reading to Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn’s epic The Gulag Archipelago Volume 2: An Experiment in Literary Investigation but also Anne Applebaum’s outstanding Gulag: A History. Journey into the Whirlwind is a great book and I definitely should have read it sooner.

About Time I Read It: The Letter Writer by Dan Fesperman

I was in the mood for a little fiction after finishing “The Rest of Us” and Overdrive recommend I follow it up with Dan Fesperman’s The Letter Writer. How could I refuse a historical whodunnit set in New York City in the months following  Pearl Harbor in which a detective, newly arrived from North Carolina teams up with a mysterious “letter writer” who earns a living writing letters for the city’s illiterate immigrants, speaks five languages, has the manners and speech of a university professor, and possesses an almost supernatural ability to uncover priceless information? I mean come on, what’s not to like?

When a body is found floating in the Hudson River, Detective Woodrow Cain is sent to investigate. Through the assistance of Mr. Danziger, the above-mentioned letter writer he learns the murdered man was a recent German immigrant, likely Nazi sympathizer and a suspect in the recent fire of the ocean liner SS Normandie, which suspiciously caught fire while being converted to a troop ship. Proudly advertising himself as a dealer in “information” Danziger proves to be an invaluable guide to New York City’s diverse immigrant community, not to mention the city’s seedy underside. But no matter how helpful Danziger is to Cain’s investigation, nevertheless the detective suspects there’s more to Danziger than he lets on.

The Letter Writer has everything. There’s an out of his element detective with a tragic past who’s also a single dad to a young daughter. If trying to solve a series of murders wasn’t hard enough, his crooked, old-boy dominated police precinct thinks he’s either incompetent or an informant sent by higher ups to spy on them. There’s also action, romance, political intrigue and high level corruption. I was thoroughly entertained by The Letter Writer and have no reservations whatsoever recommending it.

About Time I Read It: “The Rest of Us” by Stephen Birmingham

I was in the mood for a little Jewish history so I used Overdrive to borrow an ebook of Stephen Birmingham’s “The Rest of Us”: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews. Originally published in 1984, a Kindle version was released in 2015 and for the last couple of years I’ve flirted with borrowing a copy but never got around to it. Not knowing much about Birmingham’s book I went in with modest expectations. I’m happy to report “The Rest of Us” impressed the heck out of me, so much so it’s almost certain to make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction.

Jews had been immigrating to the United States for years, even before America was a nation. These larger waves of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth like many immigrants were initially looked down upon by many Americans, including their fellow Jews who’d arrived decades earlier from Germany. Most were dirt poor, spoke no English and possessed few, if any marketable skills. (Thankfully most, if not all were at least literate.) However, after only a generation or two their contributions in fields as diverse as motion pictures, radio, beauty products and even organized crime were unrivaled.

One wonders how such a modern miracle could occur. While the crowded and impoverished tenements of New York City were no picnic, and anti-Jewish prejudice abounded, relatively speaking it was heaven when compared to Imperial Russian with its murderous pogroms, state-sponsored anti-semitism and grinding poverty. In a freer country like the United States creative and ambitious forces pent up for generations could be unleashed. While imperfect by today’s standards, institutions like public schools, welfare agencies and a fledgling third-tier City College of New York helped recent immigrants and their native-born children master English, receive public assistance and get an education. Lastly, timing could have been everything with the Jews of Eastern Europe arriving at the turn of the 20th century  and thus being in right place at the right time to explore new and promising technologies like motion pictures and radio. Those who’d established or helped establish flourishing organized crime syndicates were poised to enter the bootlegging  trade once Prohibition was established, with many of the same players instrumental into turning the once sleepy desert town of Las Vegas into a gambling and entertainment Mecca after the Second World War.

If you love rags to riches stories, this book is for you. David Sarnoff went from a teenager selling newspapers on the streets to New York to a young radio operator banging out morse code messages (legend has it he was at his post taking incoming messages from the Titanic when it went down) to the head of RCA. When a young Szmuel Gelbfisz left Warsaw he was so poor he couldn’t bribe the border guards to let him enter Germany. After escaping containment he swam the Oder River, made his way across Germany and eventually to America where he became a successful glove maker, then salesman and eventually VP of sales. With several of his co-religionists he decided to produce feature-length motion pictures. Years later the world would know him as movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. Israel Isidore Beilin, who came to America as a five years old would become Irving Berlin, and despite not knowing how to read sheet music was a huge contributor to the Great American Songbook with such hits as “White Christmas, “Easter Parade” and “God Bless America.” Lastly, when nine year old Meier Suchowlański arrived from Russia who would have thought years later as Meyer Lansky he would build a vast international criminal empire and be cool as hell while doing it.

“The Rest of Us” isn’t just great Jewish history, but also American history. Please consider it highly recommended.