Swimming in a Sea of Podcasts

Technologically speaking, I’m a late adopter. Even though I worship my Kindle, I didn’t acquire my first smart phone until just six years ago. I don’t own an Apple Watch or Fitbit and even the car I drive is 20 years old. So I guess it shouldn’t be surprising I didn’t become a regular listener of podcasts until less than a year ago. For the last several years I merely explored the medium, listening to a rare single episode once every few months or so. On those few occasions when I did, there were three I briefly explored.

Early Forays  – Not knowing where to start I began I first checked out these.

Making Sense with Sam Harris – I loved his award winning bestseller End of Faith as well as his short follow-up book Letter to a Christian Nation. Positioning himself as a thought leader and public intellectual, Harris regularly interviews subject matter experts in a diverse array of fields including politics, science and history.

Book Riot: The Podcast– I began listening to this one after meeting co-host Jeff O’Neil at the conclusion of a silent reading party I attended in June of 2017. A nice lively round-up of what’s new in the world of book publishing.

For Real: A Podcast About Nonfiction Books – 11 years ago, when I began blogging on WordPress Kim Ukura’s blog Sophisticated Dorkiness was one of the first blogs I discovered. When I heard she’d be co-hosting a podcast focusing on nonfiction I was thrilled. I was not disappointed.

Getting Started – More recently, needing guidance I looked to the recommendations of others. By spring I was listening to these podcasts.

More Perfect – After hearing tons of positive word of mouth about this RadioLab spin-off I had to give it a try. Wanna understand the US Supreme Court? Start here.

Believed – My sister recommended this one season podcast investigating the horrible crimes of serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar and the parade of decades-long institutional failings that allowed it all to happen.

Bundyville – Another one recommended by my sis. Remember when a bunch of armed anti-government crazies occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon? This is the perfect podcast to explore why and how it happened.

Longform Podcast – In depth interviews with writers, journalists, filmmakers, and podcasters on how they create their acclaimed content. Must listening for aspiring writers.

The Daily– Five days a week the New York Times devotes 20 minutes to one news story. Definitely not sound-bite journalism. Plus there’s slightly longer and more off-beat edition each Sunday.

Deconstructed– The Intercept in a left-leaning online publication proudly practicing what it calls “adversarial journalism.” Each week its podcast it hopes to “brings you one important or overlooked story from the political world.”

The Weeds – Much like Deconstructed, this is the twice-weekly podcast from the progressive news and opinion source Vox is an in-depth look at today’s important political issues. (This podcast, along with Deconstructed, The Daily and Longform Podcast were all recommended by the hosts of my global affairs discussion group.)

Murder in the Rain – When Portland alternative newsweekly Willamette Week declared Murder in the Rain runner-up for best local podcast I had to investigate. Hosts Emily and Alisha focus on murders in the Pacific Northwest, from Alaska to Oregon. I never considered myself a true crime fan until I began listening to their podcast.

Hopelessly Addicted – By the time fall rolled around I was up to my eyeballs in podcasts.

The New Abnormal – If you see me walking around with my headphones on laughing away chances are I’m listening to this not exactly safe for work political podcast. “Blunt truth and dark humor for a world in chaos.” Hosted by Rick Wilson of the Lincoln Project and writer Molly Jong-Fast who proudly proclaim “the world has gone haywire. Let’s talk it over.”

Deep State Radio – A roundtable format hosted by author and political commentator David Rothkopf with cast of regulars and semi-regulars serving up an insider’s perspective on American national security and foreign policy. One recent episode on foreign policy featured writers and democracy advocates Anne Applebaum and Garry Kasparov.

Talking Feds – Another roundtable political discussion, this one hosted by American lawyer, law professor and political commentator Harry Litman with a rotating cast of former government officials, journalists, and subject matter experts. Each week there’s also a sidebar presentation to explain a significant legal and political question read by a guest celebrity. Past guests have including Tina Louise aka Ginger from Gilligan’s Island and screen icon Robert De Niro.

GZero World with Ian Bremme‪r‬ – I was into this guy before it was cool. I was excited when he began taking a larger stage on social media. After stumbling across his Gzero TV show on PBS on Sunday afternoon I looked for a podcast version. Every week Ian Bremmer interviews world leaders and notable individuals (including Kim Ghattas, author of my favorite nonfiction book of 2020 Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East) shaping our GZERO World. And for those of you who don’t know it’s a world with no global policeman, “made volatile by an intensifying international battle for power and influence.”

Throughline – I stumbled across this one while looking for good NPR podcasts and so far it’s been great. If you’re a history buff like me you’ll eat it up. “The past is never past. Every headline has a history. Join us every week as we go back in time to understand the present.” The co-hosts have interviewed a number of authors whose books I featured on this blog including Masha Gessen, Eric H. Cline and Lesley Hazleton.

Rough Translation – Another cool NPR podcast, this one looks at stories from around the world, focusing on how people in other countries tackle some of the same problems we struggle with in the United States.

Vox Tablet – Just like you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy a great Jewish deli, you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy a great Jewish podcast. Even though it ended in 2016 there’s tons of great archive material. Courtesy of this podcast I learned Lucette Lagnado, author of the family memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World had written a follow-up book The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn.

Friendly Atheist – First time I listened to this podcast I was turned off by what I thought at the time was too much meaningless small talk between the two hosts. Deciding to give the show another chance it quickly grew on me. Instead of long, tendentious arguments for the nonexistence of God Hemant Mehta and Jessica Bluemke prefer to discuss selected news items from the week, almost always stories of religious conservatives, far-right idiots and the like acting mean and/or stupid. A typical exchange usually goes “Jessica, remember that mega-church pastor who refused to wear a face mask, said COVID was a liberal plot and proclaimed Jesus would protect him? He’s now in the hospital with COVID. And on a ventilator.”

The Thinking Atheist – Seth Andrews, a former Fox News watching Christian broadcaster now avowed atheist interviews fascinating guests like Michael Shermer, Peter Boghossian and Karen Garst. One of many reasons I like this podcast is Seth comes across as a sincere and friendly guy. Of course having a million dollar voice doesn’t hurt either.

In Our Time: History – For history buffs like myself this is a must listen. Each episode moderator Melvyn Bragg brings in three or four professors to discuss significant historical figures and events, from Lawrence of Arabia to the Congress of Vienna. Past guests have included Julia Lovell, author of Maoism: A Global History and Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. (An impressive looking tome that’s set unread on my shelf for way too long.)

Once Upon a Time… In the Valle‪y – Everyone needs a guilty pleasure. As far as podcasts go, this one’s mine. Newcomer (no pun intended) Traci Lords took the 80s porn world by storm. Young, beautiful, ambitious and sexually insatiable she was well on her way to becoming an adult movie icon. That is until the feds showed up at her door to arrest her. You see, Traci Lords wasn’t really Traci Lords. She was Nora Kuzma, who began working in the porn industry as a 15 year old high school drop out. Was she a victim? A villain? Both? Listen and then try to decide.

Checks and Balance – Host John Prideaux begins the Economist‘s podcast on American politics each week with a brief preamble exploring the historical context of one of the week’s major political developments. From there Prideaux, along with his colleagues Charlotte Howard, and Jon Fasman attempt to make sense of America’s chaotic political landscape. (By the way Prideaux is a Brit. What could be cooler than a dude with a British accent talking about American politics?)

The Intelligence – Also from the Economist, each weekday this podcast takes a deeper look at new stories around the world. Great way to start your day.

Axios Today – Another great way to start your day. Just 10 minutes long, host Niala Boodhoo (yep, that’s her name and it rhymes with voodoo) and a cast of guest journalists look at three news stories including their top story deemed “today’s one big thing.” Short, smart and to the point.

The World Next Week – Besides being a history buff I’m also into foreign relations and comparative politics. Co-hosts James M. Lindsay and Robert McMahon from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) take an in depth look at the major political developments at home and abroad shaping the coming week.

The President’s Inbox – Also from CFR and hosted the above mentioned James M. Lindsay each week a different subject matter expert is interviewed concerning a wide range of pressing concerns from international trade to nuclear proliferation.

Big World – This monthly international affairs podcast from the School of International Service at Washington, DC’s American University is a fresh and accessible look at complex global issues and a nice companion podcast to the two previously mentioned ones from CFR.

Inside the Hive – If you wanted to know what was going on within the Trump administration, there was no better source for palace intrigue like Vanity Fair. Every week cohosts Emily Jane Fox and Joe Hagan interview notable insiders from politics, business and journalism.

The New Yorker Radio Hour – I’ve been a fan of the New Yorker ever since that fateful day I picked up copy in a waiting room so many years ago. Host David Remnick does a fine job marshaling the resources of his venerable magazine to serve up a weekly podcast of informative interviews addressing a wide array of topics.

Ideas – Last but not least, this podcast of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s long running radio program of the same name is a feast for the intellectually engaged and curious. A three part series on Frank Zappa? No problem. No subject is off limits or deemed too esoteric, from obscure cult films to the history of conspiracy theories to Edward Said’s landmark book Orientalism. Definitely a thinking person’s podcast.

Recent Discoveries – Just when I thought I couldn’t subscribe to anymore podcasts I stumbled across these.

How it Happened – Trump’s lost the election but he’s leaving office in a few months so how much damage could he cause? Quite a lot. So says the latest podcast from Axios “based on multiple interviews with current and former White House, campaign, government and congressional officials as well as direct eyewitnesses and people close to President Trump. Sources have been granted anonymity to share sensitive observations or details they would not be formally authorized to disclose.”

The Lincoln Project – Founded by Rick Wilson and his happy band of anti-Trump Republicans, their new podcast is part of their mission to make Trump accountable for his countless high crimes and misdemeanors and make sure his legion of admirers and imitators don’t seize the reigns of our fragile democracy.

I Spy – After hearing former DEA agent Steve Murphy talk about the time he spent in Colombia hunting drug lord Pablo Escobar I was hooked.

The Librarian Is In– Once every two weeks New York Public Librarians Rhonda Evans and Frank Collerius discuss a book they’re read, interview a special guest and/or talk about bookish topics. So far so good.

Talking Politics: History of Ideas – Went looking for something from the London Review of Books and found this one. Each episode David Runciman does a deep drive into seminal political thinkers, important concepts or historical developments. Great companion podcast to Ideas and In Our Time.

That’s enough podcasts for now. Rest assured, I’ll be back before long with more you’ll wanna check out.

Empire of Lies by Raymond Khoury

Welcome to Paris in the Islamic year 1438 (2017 AD by Gregorian reckoning), one of many large and vibrant cities of an Ottoman Empire that’s ruled over most of Europe for the last 300 years. With the Papacy and its attendant lands long vanquished and Notre Dame repurposed as mosque European Christianity exits only in scattered pockets throughout the Continent, remnants of a once mighty and prevalent faith decimated by centuries of conversions. Though the Empire’s eastern flank stands firm against its traditional rival Tsarist Russia, new threats are emerging. Across the Atlantic, the upstart Christian Republic of America, a world leader in the promising field of renewable energy poses an existential threat to the Empire’s highly lucrative petroleum exporting monopoly. The resulting loss of revenue, and fears it will only get worse has shook the Empire to its core, driving its Arab subjects to Islamic militancy while the increasingly autocratic sultan turns to his state security apparatus to crush dissent and uphold the status quo. But after a mysterious tattooed man with a strange accent becomes a suspect in a local murder detective Kamal Arslan Agha slowly realizes he’s on the cusp of uncovering a dark secret so guarded those in power will stop at nothing to keep hidden.

Raymond Khoury’s 2019 Empire of Lies is many things. As you could probably guess both by my description and its eye-catching cover art (which I found it completely irresistible one Saturday at the public library) it’s an alternate reality novel. Time travel is also a key component along with elements of police procedural. Like any good thriller the action is fast paced with more than a few plot twists. There’s also no shortage of political commentary, most of it addressing the rise in authoritarian populism in America and abroad. (One Parisian newspaper editor is jailed by orders of the sultan for publishing “fabricated news.”) Compared favorably to both Fatherland and Man in the High Castle, based on the novel’s abundance of political commentary coupled with its Islamic setting makes it much akin to Matt Ruff’s incredibly clever and surprisingly funny 2012 novel The Mirage. All of course makes Empire of Lies a highly entertaining and inventive book and thus a great way to help kick off the new year.

From Jakarta to Mao via the Islamic Enlightenment

It doesn’t seem right to name three books to my year-end Favorite Nonfiction list without writing a word about them. Therefore, I’m going to spend just a little time telling you about a trio of history books I read in the final quarter of 2020. Luckily for me I was able to borrow all three through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Deeply researched, detailed and wide in scope they’re definitely a treat.

  • The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World by Vincent Bevins – After seeing this thing get included on just about every best book of 2020 list I knew I had to read it. Few people know at one time Indonesia had the third largest Communist party in the world after China and the USSR, and Indonesia, not North Vietnam was America’s chief policy concern in South East Asia. But after a US-backed military coup overthrew that nation’s president, leading to an extermination of perhaps a million Communists and suspected allies militantly anticommunist regimes would seize power over the next 10 years throughout the world, especially in Latin America. The aftershocks of this global authoritarian sweep can be felt decades later from Indonesia to Chile to Brazil. 
  • Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell – I have the good people at CBC’s Ideas for bringing this one to my attention. Lovell did a fine job detailing not just Mao’s rise to power and establishment of the People’s Republic of China but also how his ideas on leadership and armed struggle influenced movements around the world. From the jungles of Peru to the Black ghettos of America revolutionaries looked to Maoism for inspiration. 
  • The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times by Christopher de Bellaigue – I’m no stranger to de Bellaigue having read his books on Iran and Turkey. I was set to read this one after it was released in the spring of 2017 but did so only after my international affairs discussion group opted to read Hillel Ofek’s New Atlantis essay “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science.” Focusing on traditional Islamic power centers of Istanbul, Cairo, and Tehran de Bellaigue looks at the history of how Muslims in these areas responded to the challenges of Western imperialism. In order to check, and hopefully rollback European military and commercial exploitation of their lands armies would need to be modernized, industries created and scientific advances promoted. But to do so would require bold and uncompromising makeovers of Islamic societies across the region and with it overthrowing age old established traditions and beliefs. 

I’m glad I was able to read these three books back to back since they compliment each other well. As one might suspect there’s significant overlap between The Jakarta Method and Maoism with considerable attention paid to political movements in the developing world. Since one cannot look at life in the developing world without including the Greater Middle East The Islamic Enlightenment nicely completes our fine trio. 

About Time I Read It: God’s Harvard by Hanna Rosin

Back in 2005 I came across a New Yorker piece on Patrick Henry College, a small evangelical christian college in Northern Virginia. Founded only five years earlier by Constitutional lawyer, homeschooling political advocate, and unsuccessful Virginia lieutenant governor candidate Michael Farris as the college of choice for devout, homeschooled evangelical youth. Despite these students’ insular upbringing Patrick Henry, with a student body of only 300 boasts a world-class debate team, frequently besting rivals from the Ivy League to Oxford. All this with a strictly enforced ultra conservative code of conduct which, in addition to prohibiting drinking, recreational drug use, premarital sex and profanity strictly restricts an array of student activities ranging from dress code to musical tastes. Even dating is heavily frowned upon, instead prospective couples are encouraged to engage in archaic courtship rituals straight out of a Jane Austen novel.

Fast forward to late 2020 when I heard a discussion on one of my favorite podcasts, Friendly Atheist about Madison Cawthorn, a 25-year-old MAGA wackadoodle from North Carolina who was running for a seat in the US House of Representatives. According to news sources sited by podcast co-host Hemant Mehta, even though Cawthorn is a self-identifying conservative Christian, while attending Patrick Henry for a semester before leaving due to poor academic performance he apparently “earn[ed] a reputation for sexually predatory behavior, lying, and vandalism.” As a result, 176 current students, former students, and alumni of Patrick Henry signed a letter condemning Cawthorn’s past behavior and urging voters to reject him at the polls. Mehta also went on to mention a surprisingly large number of hyper conservative Republican staffers and interns in DC are Patrick Henry grads and interns. 

In the weeks following the Trump and his allies’ unsuccessful coup at the Capitol I found myself in the mood to read up on the world of conservative evangelicals and figured now was a good time to finally borrow an overdrive copy of the book spawned by Hanna Rosin’s original New Yorker article. Published in 2007 God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America is an intimate, detailed and even-handed look at life inside Patrick Henry College, the conservative Christian subculture that produced it and the America its students and graduates would like to build. 

If conservative Christians were to take back the reigns of power in a morally corrupt America they would need a generation of intelligent, driven and upstanding believers to do it. With the Ivy League and other elite colleges seen as dens of vice and atheism, as well as closed to the ranks of the homeschooled, the solution, according to founder Farris was to create their own Ivy League institution. While construction began creating a small campus that in the end would resemble as Rosin put it a “tiny, less like an Ivy League college than like a Hollywood set of an old Ivy League school” Farris criss-crossed the country speaking at homeschooling events and other evangelical get-togethers recruiting promising prospective students with an eye towards academic overachievers  (especially the “1600 club” or those with a perfect SAT score) debate superstars and teens active in conservative political causes. 

After reading Rosin’s outstanding look inside Patrick Henry I’m left wondering if the small Virginia college runs the risk of collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. Can a bastion of conservative Christian orthodoxy also promote intellectual freedom, allowing students to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake within the liberal arts? As challenging as this might be for any church-affiliated institution of higher learning a majority of the college’s professors, at least during Rosin’s visit loathed Farris’s puritanical micromanaging of the curriculum, demanding they put a deliberate evangelical spin on everything. Built on a commitment to biblical literalism, the college’s science courses refuse to acknowledge evolution as a bedrock foundation instead embracing religious-based pseudo theories like young earth creationism and intelligent design. 

On top of the above-mention questions of intellectual honesty, even the college’s raison d’être could be in jeopardy. Rosin encounters more than a few female students aspiring to work in positions of authority and responsibility in politics and government, but also feeling obligated to marry and have children after graduation, embracing the role of “helpmeet”, a more wholesome calling for Christian women. While many evangelicals take comfort in the biblical command “be in the world but not of it” how realistic is it expect young Patrick Henry graduates to maintain the courage of their convictions once they enter the messy, rough and tumble world of politics. In Washington DC, a mere 40 miles away social drinking is the norm, temptations of the flesh abound, and lying and political backstabbing are time honored practices. 

I thoroughly enjoyed God’s Harvard finding Rosin’s portrayal of life at Patrick Henry insightful and nuanced. It’s also the perfect follow-up read to Kevin Roose’s undercover adventure at Liberty University The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. Even though it’s the first week of February there’s strong likelihood God’s Harvard will make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction

2020 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. Each year I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, I find myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year I read and reviewed 23 books, and for my efforts earned the coveted Jet Setter Award. I wasn’t as productive in 2020 but still managed to read and review 20 books for the challenge. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Belgium, Switzerland and even the micro-state of Vatican City. This year for this first time I’ll be including books representing Slovakia and Norway

  1. An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist by Richard Dawkins (United Kingdom)
  2. The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. by Carole DeSanti (France)
  3. The Last Battle by Cornelius Ryan (Germany)
  4. Warburg in Rome by James Carroll (Italy) 
  5. The Last by Hanna Jameson (Switzerland) 
  6. The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (Russia)
  7. Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith (Ukraine) 
  8. 1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Åsbrin (Sweden)
  9. Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs by Greg King and Penny Wilson (Austria)
  10. Masquerade: Dancing Around Death in Nazi Occupied Hungary by Tivadar Soros (Hungary)
  11. Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin (Slovakia)
  12. The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt by Julian Borger (Bosnia) 
  13. The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Spain) 
  14. Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne (Greece)
  15. An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew by Annejet van der Zijl (The Netherlands) 
  16. From Bruges with Love by Peiter Aspe (Belgium)
  17. Guilty Wives by James Patterson and David Ellis (Monaco)
  18. Prague Spring by Simon Mawer (Czech Republic)
  19. The Vatican Cop by Shawn Raymond Poalillo (Vatican City)
  20. The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb by Neal Bascomb (Norway)

It was about a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction for this years’ challenge, with fiction tallying slightly more with 11 books. Five books were translated from other languages, including one, Masquerade from Esperanto. Both The Last Battle and The Future is History made my 2020 Favorite Nonfiction list while The Last, Beautiful Animals and The Angel’s Game made the Favorite Fiction list. I declared The Angel’s Game my favorite novel of 2020. 

As you can guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

About Time I Read It: The Winter Fortress by Neal Bascomb

In 2018 I read some outstanding nonfiction, including Neal Bascomb’s 2010 book Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi. Not only did it make my Favorite Nonfiction list for the year, but was also the subject of a Nonfiction November post in which I praised it as a fine example of nonfiction that reads like fiction. After thoroughly enjoying Hunting Eichmann I eagerly kept my eyes open for follow-up book, happy to read anything by Bascomb. Then, a year later during one of my weekend visits to the public library I discovered his 2016 book The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb. Even though I didn’t borrow a copy, nevertheless I made a mental note to do so down the road. Late last week in need of something representing Norway for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I borrowed an ebook copy for my Kindle. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy The Winter Fortress as much as I did his early Hunting Eichmann. But thanks to Bascomb’s top-notch research and attention to detail it’s still a heck of book.

I mistakenly approached The Winter Fortress expecting it was the story of a bold yet singular attack on a heavy water production facility in occupied Norway in hopes of derailing Nazi Germany’s nuclear weapons program. In reality, once the British, and later Americans learned the Germans were trying to weaponize the destructive forces of nuclear fission, thus creating a bomb powerful enough to pulverize an entire city the race was on to stop them at all costs. (As well as launching the Manhattan Project in hopes of building one before they did.) British forces, aided by both the Norwegian Army in Exile and the nation’s anti-German underground made not one but several attempts to wreck production at the Vemork hydroelectric power plant. In addition, the Americans launched a massive bombing raid on the facility. In response the Germans also stopped at nothing to prevent the Allies from hindering their efforts to produce enough heavy water needed for their nuclear weapons program. The result was a blood back and forth battle between those wanting to smash heavy water production and those striving to maintain it. And the civilian population, caught in the middle, frequently suffered.

This is a sweeping wartime saga involving an abundance of actors both major and minor with all of them playing consequential roles. In telling this story, Bascomb includes a ton of detail. But at the same time I’m left wondering if there’s so much detail it slows down the pace of the narrative. Maybe that’s why I preferred his earlier book Hunting Eichmann, to this one. Hard to say, but in the end I learned a hell of a lot about the fight to keep Nazi Germany from building an atomic bomb. 

The Vatican Cop by Shawn Raymond Poalillo

As you probably guessed from my last post I’m a sucker for Amazon Kindle freebies. Over the years I’ve helped myself to a ton of public domain books, mostly great works of literature but also vintage stuff in the fields of history, religion and philosophy. On top of that, from time to time I’ve downloaded a number of giveaways, one of which is Shawn Raymond Poalillo’s 2019 crime/action novel The Vatican Cop. Figuring I could apply it towards the European Reading Challenge, Clean Out Your E-Reader Challenge (COYER) and Cloak and Dagger Reading Challenge and with nothing to lose I gave it a shot. 

After a priceless holy artifact is stolen and the priest entrusted with its safety is brutally murdered U. S. Dept. of Homeland Security Special Agent Michael Poe is ordered by the White House to assist the Vatican in its recovery. Deputized as a temporary Gendarmerie of the Holy See by none other than Pope Francis, Poe and his stunningly gorgeous Vatican-assigned investigative partner Giada Ferrari search for answers. Refusing to be stonewalled by higher-ups, they doggedly pursue leads, risking life and limb battling a deadly team of well-armed American mercenaries. As more priests are murdered and the two investigators begin suspecting they’re being double-crossed signs point to a 75 year old shadowy cabal pulling the strings. First thinking  the Pope was overly dramatic when asked to solve the crime for the “sake of humanity” Poe soon realizes those behind the killings must be stopped at all costs. 

 A fast-paced thrilling tale featuring an American male lead character paired with a beautiful European female battling murderous adversaries, age old conspiracies and Vatican intrigue set mostly in Vatican City, Rome and environs could easily be called a Da Vinci Code knock off. (Even so, it wouldn’t be the first time somebody took Dan Brown’s formula and ran with it. Paul L. Maier’s 2011 The Constantine Codex immediately comes to mind.) But considering what I paid for this novel, I certainly can’t complain.  

An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew by Annejet van der Zijl

Starting spring of 2019 the good people at Amazon began giving away free Kindle downloads of a dozen or so books, recently translated into English from a myriad of languages. Representing a diverse assortment of languages and nations of origin, I eagerly helped myself to the offerings and did so again when Amazon did another giveaway the following year. As a result my Kindle is stocked with number of promising works translated from an array of languages including Hebrew, Afrikaans and Turkish.

One of those offerings I happened to download was Annejet van der Zijl’s 2018 biography An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew. Translated from Dutch, I could apply it towards a number of reading challenges, including the European Reading Challenge, 2021 Stacked Reviews Reading Challenge, Books in Translation Reading Challenge, Nonfiction Reader Challenge, and because it was a free download the Clean Out Your E-Reader Challenge (COYER). After a steady diet of heavy nonfiction I was in the mood for something on the lighter side so a few weeks ago I gave An American Princess a try. I enjoyed it and as far as free downloads go, I thought it was a heck of good deal.

Who would have thought when young woman from Upstate New York fell head over heels in love with the vacationing son of a wealthy Pittsburgh family it would lead to four more marriages and a life spanning two continents and membership in two royal families (and a close association with another) encompassing the Gilded Age, World Wars I and II, the Depression and concluding with the Cold War. While only one of her five husbands “genuinely loved her for herself” before he died and left her a widow, she outlived nearly all of them, even after those marriages ending in divorce. Family fortunes were lost, usually squandered away by reckless spouses but after every loss, personal and financial Allene always bounced back stronger than before. 

That 18 year old pregnant country girl who wedded a rich out of towner matured into a sophisticated New York society matron, sponsoring charity functions and living a life of refinement and privilege. Leaving America for Europe Allene made Paris her home, married a German prince, and after divorcing him married a Russian count 12 years her junior. She also helped broker the marriage of Princess Julianna of the Netherlands, who later would be crowned queen. In the years before she died Winston Churchill, retired from politics would paint landscapes near her French estate. In the words of the villainous archeologist Belloc from Raiders of the Lost Ark we are simply passing through history. Judging by Annejet van der Zijl’s biography Allene Tew *was* history.

About Time I Read It: Guilty Wives by James Patterson and David Ellis

When it comes to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge it’s been hard finding books set in, or about Monaco. Back in 2016 I lucked out with Mark Braude’s Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle. Recently I lucked out again when, thanks to the blog A Book Lover’s Adventures I learned James Patterson’s 2012 thriller/mystery Guilty Wives is set, partially anyway in the small Mediterranean principality. I’ve never had a desire to read anything by the prolific and best selling novelist but figuring I had nothing to lose I decided to give Guilty Wives a shot. After only few pages I knew I’d made the right choice. Much to my surprise I thoroughly enjoyed the popular page-turner, finding it clever and full of twists.

Leaving their husbands behind in Berne, Switzerland four expat housewives hop a private jet to Monaco in search of the ultimate girls weekend. With all expenses paid (courtesy of one of them, a former winter olympic athlete now trophy wife to a tech billionaire), the two Americans, a Brit and a South African check into their palatial presidential suite and hit the ground running. Each one gifted with an envelope stuffed with tens of thousands of Euros in gambling money (prompting one of them to wonder aloud if she should use it to buy a new car or private island) they gleefully descend upon Monte Carlo’s most opulent casino, heading straight to the VIP/high rollers area, where they take turns at the roulette wheel amidst a colorful cast of international jet-setters, kleptocrats and fat cats. (I learned guests must present passports upon entering casinos since gambling is forbidden to citizens of Monaco.) There’s also a trip to a private swimming pool catering to an exclusive clientele, allowing them to lounge in bikinis and soak up equal parts sun and male attention, welcomed by all four of them since their respective marriages are imploding. Capping everything off is an evening of drinking, dancing and shenanigans at one of the principality’s high-end nightclubs. Lubricated with alcohol in the hot, crowded, and pulsing club the women succumb to the charms of a small group of wheel-heeled gentlemen, including a George Clooney-esque A-list actor who immediately hits it off with Abbie, a diplomat’s wife. Open to further possibilities their small ensemble retires to a stately yacht anchored in the nearby harbor later that evening .

But then things go horribly wrong. In the hours before sunrise a horrific high-profile double murder has occurred and the four, despite their innocence are considered suspects and are charged with murder. Hounded mercilessly by French prosecutors to confess and wrongly convicted based on planted DNA evidence the four housewives are sentenced to lengthy terms in France’s most notorious women’s prison. But Abbie refuses to give up. Pressured to confess by a corrupt warden and tortured almost nightly by sadistic female guards she vows to uncover who set them up and why. 

It’s just January but I have a feeling Guilty Wives will probably go down as one of 2021’s pleasant surprises. Ghost written for Patterson or not, whoever put this thing together did a fine job. No loose ends were left untied and the action was exciting up to the novel’s end. This Orange Is the New Black meets Count of Monte Cristo is a fun ride.  

About Time I Read It: Prague Spring by Simon Mawer

2020 was a hell of a year. Future historians will undoubtably look back on the last twelve months and wonder just how and why things managed to unfold so horribly.  Closer to our current predicament, today’s historians view 1968 as a year like few others. Outrage over America’s involvement in the Vietnam War fueled widespread  political unrest both at home and abroad, compounded by escalating racial strife, two horrific political assassinations and a contentious presidential campaign. Overseas, a military offensive unleashed by the North Vietnamese and their Vietcong allies wounded America’s fighting resolve while half a world away violent protests rocked Paris, threatening the very existence of the modern French state. Meanwhile, in the Communist world China and the USSR eyed each other with warlike suspicion, the former convulsed in the throes of the Cultural Revolution as rival elites enlisted the nation’s youth in a chaotic and deadly battle for political supremacy. Lastly, in the midst of all this insanity the relatively small, landlocked nation of Czechoslovakia in Central Europe optimistically attempted to create “socialism with a human face” and plot a risky middle path between Western capitalism and Soviet-imposed Communist authoritarianism.

Simon Mawer’s 2018 historical novel Prague Spring is the story of two couples and the respective paths they took leading to their lives briefly but profoundly intersecting in Prague during this short-lived flowering of democracy and the Soviet-led onslaught that crushed it.

Oxford students James and Eleanor, bored and in search of more exotic locales agree in a pub one night to hitchhike across Europe. As they meander across the Continent the two mismatched friends soon find themselves mismatched lovers, and reap all the tension and complications associated with it. While traveling through West Germany they decide on a lark to make an unscheduled detour to Czechoslovakia, sensing from a pair of random interactions with musicians (one, a German classical performer and her nephew, and the others, an American rock band) Prague is on the cusp of something novel and amazing.

Not long after arriving in Prague they paths cross with Sam Wareham, a British diplomat assigned to his nation’s embassy in Prague and his Czech girlfriend Lenka. Just like James and Eleanor, their relationship is also in its early stages, with James meeting and consequently pursuing Lenka mere days after his previous girlfriend has left the county. Considering the potential security risks involved with a member of the diplomatic corp fraternizing with an attractive young woman from the Soviet Bloc their guarded romance, while perhaps not illicit, is nevertheless viewed as a bit on the taboo side by Sam’s embassy superiors, whom he butts heads with on a semi-regular basis. This is made all the more complicated once Sam learns of Lenka’s youthful indiscretions.

When, not if the armies of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact decide to cross the frontier and terminate Czechoslovakia’s experiment in democracy these two couples will need both good luck and timely assistance from well-placed friends and colleagues if they’re to survive.

Mawer is a damn good writer and I’m embarrassed to say despite his sizable body of work I’d never heard of him until now. After having great luck with Prague Spring I’m tempted go back on Overdrive and borrow more of his stuff. I have no problem recommending this well written historical thriller.