About Time I Read It: The Best American Essays 2015

A few months ago I started craving longform journalism. Luckily for me, I have a huge stack of cast-off New Yorker magazines I’ve managed to accumulate over the last couple of years so I have no shortage of available reading material. But as I began exploring this cache I found myself craving longform stuff in book form, preferable curated by a capable editor. Fortunately for me, my public library has a number of essay collections and last week I borrowed two, one of which happened to be The Best American Essays 2015. I burned through it quickly, which is always a good sign. It also left me wanting to read more essays, which also a good sign.

Within the pages of The Best American Essays 2015 I found stuff by familiar authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Anthony Doerr and David Sedaris but the rest of the contributors were new to me. New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy served as the guest editor for 2015’s edition and a good chunk of the pieces she selected dealt with the personal: aging, mortality, family and marriage. Had I known this was the case, I might not of decided to read her collection, fearing the essays were too sentimental or self-centered. Kudos to Levy though, there’s not a stinker in the bunch. (Although Zadie Smith’s “Find Your Beach” might not have been up to my liking.) Of these Justin Cronin’s “My Daughter and God” in which he recalls in detail the existential crises and religious quest resulting from his wife and daughter’s brush with death was a favorite of mine as was John Reed’s edgy piece “My Grandma, the Poisoner” about a dear grandmother who, in all likelihood was a serial poisoner. Kelly Sunderberg’s “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is probably the best account I’ve read on the complexity and pain of spousal abuse.

As for other memorable contributions in this collection, hats off to Philip Kennicott for his piece “Smuggler” on the perils and pitfalls of gay literature. Even as a non-gay male I found his essay fascinating and smart as hell without being dry and pretentious. As a cat lover, how could I not enjoy Tim Kreider’s “A Man and His Cat” about what it’s like to adopt (or perhaps more accurately, be adopted by) a stray cat. Lastly, Isiah Berlin’s “A Message to the Twenty-First Century” on the evils of totalitarianism was another of my favorites. Originally written in 1994 it wasn’t published until a decade later. Sadly, in this age of Internet-enabled bigotry and Donald Trump, Berlin’s warnings are sorely needed.

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Filed under Christianity, Current Affairs, Memoir, Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

2018 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.

As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.

As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Israel, Japan, Judaica, Latin America/Caribbean, Memoir, Science, Turkey

Soviet Spotlight: When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone by Gal Beckerman

Once again, it’s taken me way too long to write about an outstanding book. This time it’s Gal Beckerman’s 2010 masterpiece When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. I’ve been wanting to read it for years, ever since I saw it for sale at the Portland State University bookstore across from my old workplace. Two years ago today day I decided to splurge and buy a Kindle version of it only to ignore it for a few years until I included it as one of my 20 Books of Summer. Sadly, while I managed to read only three out of the 20, When They Come for Us was one of them. (The other two were Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe and Neal Bascomb’s Hunting Eichmann.)

When They Come for Us, just as its subtitle says, is in fact an epic story. It begins over a half-century ago in 1963 when a group of Soviet Jews began meeting in a secluded forest just outside Riga in the former Soviet Republic of Latvia. Their original plan was to honor the thousands of Latvian Jews who’d been murdered there during World War II by cleaning up the area and consecrating it as a holy memorial. Before long, other Jews joined them and together on a regular basis they studied Hebrew as well Jewish religious practices and beliefs. Eventually Jews around the USSR met quietly and covertly to do the same, sharing samizdat literature and even bootleg copies of the Leon Uris novel Exodus.

Later, as the 60s passed into the 70s, the Soviet Union’s Communist leadership took an antagonistic and strangely contradictory view of the nation’s Jews. Officially, all Soviet citizens were equal under the law, regardless of ethnic identity. Moreover, according to Communist doctrine, all religious affiliations were meaningless anyway, since they had no place in a classless Marxist society like the USSR. But in reality, things were much different. After Israeli won a surprising and resounding victory over its Arab enemies in 1967’s Six Day War, Soviet leaders ended up with egg on their faces since they’d backed Egypt and Syria and bragged to the world the Arabs would crush the small Jewish state should war ever break out. Embarrassed by their allies’ defeat, Kremlin leaders cast a paranoid eye towards the USSR’s Jews, seeing them as a potential fifth column. Soviet Jews also found themselves increasingly discriminated, whether it banned certain professions, locked out of prestigious universities or denied work promotions. Whenever Soviet Jews wished to leave it all behind and immigrate to Israel or America, their requests for exit visas were denied. No sane person would want to leave a perfect society like the USSR Jews were told. Other Jews who worked in highly technical fields like science or engineering were refused exit and told their knowledge and expertise was classified information and must not fall into the hands of the capitalist West.

When They Come for Us is not just a book about the Jews of the former Soviet Union. It’s also a book about America’s Jews, and how a small movement over the years grew into a large and multifaceted one, successfully enlisting the nation’s leaders in pressuring the USSR into allowing Jews to immigrate to Israel and the US. It’s also a detailed look at the foreign policy inner workings of every presidential administration from Kennedy to Reagan. Lastly, When They Come for Us shows over a 30 year period the inexorable decline and eventual collapse of the USSR.

When They Come for Us is outstanding and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. Please consider it highly recommended.

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2018 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

As the year known as 2018 finally draws to a close, it’s time for me to look back and announce to the world my favorite books of the year. Just like last year, I’ll start by talking about the outstanding fiction I read over the course of the year. Later, I’ll follow it up with another post dedicated to my favorite nonfiction. Of course, this year just like in previous ones, it doesn’t matter when the books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.

The bad news is I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year. As a result, there’s only six books on my list. The good news is I read some great stuff. So, in no specific order of preference here’s my favorite fiction from 2018.

As for declaring an overall winner, it wasn’t easy since all six are fantastic. In the end, City of Thieves narrowly edged out The Little Book my favorite. As high as my expectations were for this novel, I was not disappointed.

And a diverse collection of novels indeed. With The Gustav Sonata set in Switzerland, City of Thieves Russia and The Little Book Austria the armchair traveler in me was duly satisfied. So also was my inner historian, with all of them but The Senator’s Wife set wholly or partially during World War II or, in the case of The Little Book fin de siècle Vienna. Lastly, just like last year several of the above-mentioned titles are first time novels. Hats off to these authors for their outstanding inaugural efforts.

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About Time I Read It: The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller

It’s been 10 years since I heard Sue Miller, the author of the novel The Senator’s Wife interviewed on NPR. As Miller and program host Linda Wertheimer discussed the novel, much to my surprise I found myself intrigued. So intrigued was I that I vowed to read The Senator’s Wife someday. Well, after all those years I’m happy to say a few weeks ago I borrowed a copy from my public library. After waiting so long to read, naturally I was afraid I’d experience a let-down. But alas, there was none since The Senator’s Wife did not disappoint me.

After a newly married couple purchase one half of a double town house in New England the two of them discover their neighbor, a retired age woman with a stately demeanor is the wife of a former US Senator. While the two households share identical floor plans, their respective inhabitants live in completely different worlds. Nathan, a young political science professor is married to Meri, a reporter for a local NPR station. While not exactly honeymooners, their marriage is fresh and on an uncertain yet hopeful trajectory. Next door is Delia, aloof at first but soon becomes a mother figure to Meri. Beneath Delia’s calm facade however lie a lifetime of painful wounds thanks to her senator husband’s years of infidelities.

I credit Sue Miller for taking what could have been an average novel at best with a ho-hum storyline and turning it into something greater. I consider The Senator’s Wife one of this year’s pleasant surprises and could very well make my year-end Best Fiction List.

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The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff

I’ve never read any Joseph Conrad, but like a lot of people I was unknowingly introduced to his writing thanks to the wonders of Hollywood. I was exposed to Heart of Darkness courtesy of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory Vietnam War epic. The sci-fi-fi movies Alien and Aliens served as preludes of sort to Conrad’s novel Nostromo, since the first film featured a spaceship of the same name while its sequel Aliens, stared a group of space marines from the U.S.S. Sulaco, named for the fictional Latin American town in the Conrad novel. But these cinematic borrowings never inspired me to read any Conrad, despite for years having a copy of Heart of Darkness a good friend gave me for my birthday.

About a year ago I came across several favorable reviews of a new biography of Conrad, namely The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff. The reviews mentioned he’d found literary success only later in life after he’d effectively retired as a merchant seaman. During those impressionable years at sea he not only visited countless exotic locales around the globe but did so during an era when the world experienced its first wave of globalization as foreign peoples were colonized, markets expanded and international trade exploded. Duly intrigued by what I’d read, I vowed to borrow a copy of The Dawn Watch from my public library. Who knows, maybe if I read it, I’d finally get off my butt and read some Conrad.

Last week my library obtained an e-book version of The Dawn Watch which I quickly borrowed. I have to say it’s quite good. And yes, it’s probably inspired me to finally read some Joseph Conrad.

The writer we know today as Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in what’s now Ukraine. His parents were minor Polish nobility and ardent Polish nationalists opposed to Russian subjugation of their homeland. As a young boy he was homeschooled in French, English as well as Polish romantic poetry. After losing both his parents to tuberculosis he was sent to live with his Francophile uncle. By the time Józef became conversant in French he’d also developed a yearning to sail the ocean. At the tender age of 16 at his uncle’s behalf he moved to Marseilles to sail on a French vessel. After a few years of sailing under a French flag he feared he’d be deported to Russia to serve in the Tsar’s army. To escape military conscription he signed on with British ship. In all he’d spend over two decades as a merchant seaman visiting every continent save Antarctica.

According to Jasanoff it was these travels that provided Conrad with the material for his books. Working on a steamship in SE Asia served as the inspiration for Lord Jim. The horrors he witnessed while chugging up the Congo in Belgian-held central Africa provided him the template for Heart of Darkness. A story about a stolen shipment of silver he heard during a brief foray into the Gulf of Mexico would eventually form the nucleus for Nostromo. Lastly, his experiences living in London living among the city’s huge Polish expat community would greatly shape The Secret Agent.

I walked away from The Dawn Watch feeling Conrad’s life was bookended by transition. When he began his maritime career, sail was gradually being phased out in favor of steam. The British led the world in this arena thanks to their then state of the art coal-powered steamships and extensive network of coaling stations spread throughout their empire. Later in his life, as an English-language writer living in his adopted country of England, he witnessed the rise of the United States as a world power, made evident by its continental expansion, acquisition of foreign territories like Guam and the Philippines, increasing economic might and blistering industrialization. Meanwhile, closer to home fear abounded that Great Britain was slipping into decline. As America’s stature rose, British assertiveness in Western Hemisphere became a thing of the past. A surprisingly costly Boer War and a rapidly growing German navy challenged the once universal belief the British Empire was invincible.

The Dawn Watch is a great book. It reads with ease and is well-researched. Don’t be surprised if it make my year-end list for Best Nonfiction.

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About Time I Read It: Day of Empire by Amy Chua

One Saturday afternoon while exploring the shelves of my public library I came across Amy Chua’s Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance–and Why They Fall. While most know Chua thanks to her controversial 2011 bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I was introduced to her writing in late 2016 when I read her perhaps only slightly less controversial book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. Being a sucker for history books I simply couldn’t resist Day of Empire. I added it to the small stack of library books in my arms and headed to the check-out desk.

Eager as I was to read Day of Empire I still approached it with a bit of skepticism, since Chua isn’t a trained historian. (But she is a distinguished law professor at Yale.) Be that as it may, I’m happy to say in the end I found her arguments compelling and her command of history impressive. Much to my surprise I find myself recommending this rather good book.

Published back in 2007, Day of Empire looks at history’s great “hyperpowers” (roughly described as empires and such that at their zenith had few, if any equals) and what made them great – and in end what brought them down. Looking at history’s great empires, from Persia to Rome to Britain to America and everything in between, according to Chua, the key successful element to hyperpowers both ancient and modern is tolerance. If they’re able to absorb diverse populations with relative harmony and harness their creative energies they’ll  prosper and succeed. But if they’re unable, or grow intolerant then imperial decline sets in, frequently ending with a partial or full collapse of the once mighty power.

For example, even though Rome conquered a diverse array of peoples ranging from Europe to North Africa to Near Asia, Roman citizenship was technically available to all. As a result many of Rome’s subjects had a stake in the empire’s well-being and responded accordingly. While many counties in Europe were absolute monarchies ruled by autocrats and their citizens enjoyed few, if any civil liberties Holland and Britain were free societies. Over the years persecuted minorities like Huguenots and Jews were drawn to these two realms bringing with them their expertise in fields like banking, commerce and textiles. On the other hand, imperial Spain’s persecution of especially Jews but also Muslims created an exodus of its Kingdom’s most talented subjects. (Many Jews found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, prompting the Sultan to publicly thank the Spanish monarchs for “helping enrich” his kingdom.) Within a generation or two Spain would find itself a shadow of its once great self.

Like I mentioned earlier, I found Day of Empire surprisingly good. Considering all the anti-immigrant and anti-muslim rhetoric emanating from today’s Oval Office, it might be wise for both power brokers and citizenry to take note of Chua’s words when it comes to the value of tolerance. If we don’t, America could find itself slipping into ruinous decline, like so many failed empires before us.

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