About Time I Read It: Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder

I can’t believe it’s been almost five years since the day I happened to catch Timothy Snyder speaking on Book TV about his then recently published book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. While watching Snyder deliver his lecture at New York City’s Ukrainian Institute of America I found myself completed captivated as he spoke at length of a region in Eastern Europe, when in the 30s and 40s, so many people died it boggles the imagination. So massive was this loss of life that Snyder dubbed it the “Bloodlands.”

According to Snyder, roughly speaking this area stretches East of Berlin to West of Moscow, comprising what is now Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia,  and the Baltic republics of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Within this region (closely corresponding to the border areas of pre-World War I Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary) approximately 14 million people were deliberately murdered from 1933 to 1945. Almost all of them civilians (and a huge proportion of them women, children and the aged), they were systemically killed as a result of Nazi and Soviet policies. Compounding the tragedy, since this massive eradication of human life left so few survivors able to testify to the magnitude of this horror, and since these crimes against humanity occurred behind what would later become “the Iron Curtain”, it would take over 50 years and the fall of Communism before those in the West could finally comprehend the full scope and depth of this unimaginable modern horror. But now, with Snyder’s 2010 book Boodlands, we can finally begin to learn what really happened.

I received this book as a Christmas present several years ago but I’m embarrassed to say that I finally got around to reading it only a few weeks ago. However, like any excellent book once I went to work on it, I was sucked in like nobody’s business.

Not only does Bloodlands give Westerners a detailed and vivid look at the hidden horrors of the Eastern Front and the Stalinist nightmare that preceded it, but it also makes us look at World War II in a whole new light. With the glance at a map, one can easily see that Germany and European Russia border the Bloodlands, yet are not part of it. During the 30s and 40s both powers were ruthless dictatorships hell-bent on radically remaking this region as dictated by each regimes’ overarching political-economic blueprint. Therefore, by treating these Nazi and Soviet atrocities in the Bloodlands as two aspects of one single bloody quest for domination, Snyder takes a novel and bold approach to how we understand World War II, the Holocaust and Stalinist Russia.

Not only is Bloodlands well-written and well-conceived, it’s insanely well-researched. (According to Wikipedia, Snyder reads and/or speaks 11 European languages. This undoubtably helped him as he poured over archive material from Germany, Russia and Central Europe in creating this excellent book.) It’s also ideal to read alongside books like Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 and Catherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945. Like I said, this is an excellent book. I can easily see it making my Best Nonfiction of 2015 list come December.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a very grim book. But that should stop no one from reading it. Perhaps one of my favorite book bloggers said it best. Jean, on her blog Howling Frog Books called Bloodlands “the most unremittingly grim and tragic book I’ve ever read. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it, because YOU SHOULD. But it won’t be fun.” Thanks, Jean. I could not agree more.

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Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright

Lawrence Wright’s best-seller Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief completely blew me away back when I read it back in 2013. So impressed I was with his book that it easily made my year-end list of Best Nonfiction and came very, very close to being chosen by me as the best overall nonfiction book of that year. (That singular distinction would go Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 which beat out Wright’s Going Clear by such a narrow margin it can only be described as a photo finish.) Like any superb book, I’ve recommended Going Clear to countless people. Of course, I was thrilled to learn that HBO had made a hard-hitting documentary of the same name based on Wright’s book. With all the buzz the documentary has generated, I’ve found myself recommending Wright’s book Going Clear even more.

Imagine my excitement, when in the later part of 2014 I learned that Wright had written a book about the 1978 Camp David Accords. Feeling optimistic that Wright would do a fantastic job writing about one of the late 20th century’s most important peace agreements I kept a sharp eye out for his book should I ever find a copy at my local public library. Then one day as luck would have it, I spotted a copy sitting on the shelf. And with no hesitation whatsoever I grabbed it.

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David is not just the story of the Camp David Accords. Wisely, in telling this story Wright vividly serves up an in-depth account and analysis of the three leaders who were the Accords’ signatories: President Carter of the United States, Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and their respective entourages. Wisely also, Wright provides no small amount of historical backstory which helps put everything within the larger context.

Reading Wright’s book, it was fascinating to see how the peace process evolved. Carter’s original idea was to simply bring Begin and Sadat together long enough for the two leaders to trust each other, find common ground and hammer out an agreement. Then, nearly halfway into the summit it become apparent to Carter that he would have to lean hard on both men, especially Begin in order to reach some sort of deal. And speaking of deal, Carter’s perhaps naive dream of a comprehensive deal involving not just a peace between Egypt and Israel and the return of the Sinai Peninsula but also permanent and equitable solution to the plight of the Palestinians as well as the status of Jerusalem and the West Bank, despite his best efforts would not come to fruition. But in the end a deal would be struck, resulting in peace between Egypt and Israel. And that peace has held for over 30 years.

I was also fascinating not just by Wright’s depictions of Carter, Begin and Sadat, but also by the men (and since this was 1978 they were all men) of their respective entourages. Sadat brought not only future United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali but also his Deputy Prime Minister Hassan al-Tohamy, who besides being a Sufi mystic was also an astrologer. (Calling him an eccentric would be too kind.) Besides larger than life Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan (even though by this time his sterling reputation had been tarnished considerably by the fiasco of the 1973 Yom Kippur War), Begin also brought Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, whose friendly relationship with Sadat stemming from his meeting with the Egyptian President the year before came in handy during the summit. Carter was blessed with having National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski (like Begin also of Polish extraction) and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance by his side.

This is an excellent book. It flows extremely well and reads darn near effortlessly. Thirteen Days in September is essential reading for anyone wanting to gain a deeper understand of today’s Middle East and should be read alongside books like Kai Bird’s Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978, Neil MacFarquhar’s The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle EastSaul Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account and Yaroslav Trofimov’s The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine. With all that in mindI’m quite confident come December Thirteen Days in September will be on my Best Nonfiction of 2015 List.

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Immigrant Stories: The Myth of the Muslim Tide by Doug Saunders

Ten years ago, even though America found itself fighting wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, many in this country cast their concerned eyes towards Europe. A number of political writers, usually of the more conservative persuasion, feared that Europe was well on its way to becoming the next Muslim stronghold. Plagued by declining native birthrates just as the continent was being swamped by a tide of Islamic immigrants from across North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, conservatives and even a few non conservatives feared it was the end of Western civilization. Only a few years removed from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the more recent bombings in London and Madrid, who could find fault with what these alarmed pundits had to say back in 2005 and 2006? Before we knew it, these same pundits had produced a robust crop of literature and many of us, myself included, found ourselves reading politically provocative books by the likes of Claire Berlinkski, Bruce Bawer, Mark Steyn and Christopher Caldwell.  To many, it looked Europe’s demise was well at hand.

Or was it? In 2007 Phillip Jenkins in his book God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crises saw things differently. According to the data available to him, while Europe was receiving a large number of Muslim immigrants, it was also receiving large numbers of Christian immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia. A closer look at the data also showed him that the birthrates of these Muslim immigrants were significantly lower than earlier feared – and was projected to go even lower. Perhaps this wasn’t the end of Western civilization after all.

As Americans began to put the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan behind them and the nation slowly emerged from the Great Recession, it seemed like our fears of a rising Muslim tide assaulting Europe had quickly faded away. I too hadn’t given Europe’s ultimate fate much thought until I heard Doug Saunders interviewed on the NPR program Fresh Air. Just as Jenkins did five years earlier, Saunders did not see Europe going radical Muslim in the coming years. Listening to his interview, I was intrigued by his reasoning and supporting evidence. So intrigued was I that I added his book The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? to my Amazon wish list. I soon received the book as a Christmas present but unfortunately, like I do with so many books, left it ignored and unread for several years.

Feeling curious, one day not long ago I decided to finally give The Myth of the Muslim Tide a shot. Once again, I found myself enjoying the heck out of a book that I should have read the moment I received it. Not only is Saunders’s book an intelligent and compelling rebuttal to the Muslim Tide argument, it’s succinct and well-written.

According to the above-mentioned conservative pundits, the Muslim Tide argument is built upon several assumptions. One is Muslim immigrants in Europe will retain the high birthrates representative of their mother countries. As Saunders interprets the data, this isn’t happening. As a result, the immigrants’ birthrates are starting to resemble those of native-born Europeans. The other assumption, that those immigrants are also retaining their high degree of Muslim religiosity, also doesn’t seem to be the case. (Already 20 percent of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants in France call themselves atheists.) While there have been problems in trying to integrate many of these immigrants into the larger European workforce, the problem is not their religious beliefs but the Europeans’ inability to provide beneficial educational resources, especially for young immigrant males during their formative years. Lastly, while only a small fraction of these immigrants turn to terrorism, Saunders claims these acts of terror should be seen as political acts and not necessarily religious ones. According to Saunders there’s an almost inverse relationship between personal religious devotion and violence. Taking a closer look at these terrorists’ proclamations one can see by their anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist and pro-oppressed peoples rhetoric many similarities to the Marxist-inspired terror groups that ravaged Europe in the 70s and 80s.

One of things I really enjoyed about this book was Saunders’s knack for putting everything within a larger historical context. According to Saunders, it wasn’t that long ago when America feared a rising tide of Catholic and Jewish immigration. Likewise, many Western Europeans feared a similar ravaging tide of Jews from Eastern Europe. Both immigrant groups were seen as being poor, violent, overly prolific and beholden to an alien religion. Although it took generations, eventually in America these two groups were welcomed into mainstream society. (Unfortunately though, the Jews of Europe suffered horribly in the Holocaust. According to Saunders this occurred because many European were unable and unwilling to see the Jews living around them as fellow citizens and equals.) We’ve feared immigrant tides before, and if the past is any indicator, we’ll survive this one just fine.

The Myth of the Muslim Tide is an excellent book. Even if you’re critical of what Saunders has to say, I believe in the end you will find his arguments compelling, if not convincing. I highly recommend this book.

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1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline

When most book clubs meet to discuss that month’s chosen book, they usually discuss some work of popular fiction. Not so with my particular book club. After I joined the club last fall, we’ve yet to a single piece of fiction. Instead, we’ve read an array of intellectually stimulating nonfiction books like David Quammen’s Spillover, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Think Like a Freak. Not long ago, our club met recently to discuss our latest book which happened to be Eric H. Cline’s 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Our happy band of intrepid readers found Cline’s 2014 book to be a concise, readable but nevertheless intelligent account of how and possibly why the great civilizations of the Late Bronze Age collapsed. With a book like that, needless to say we had much to talk about as we met over beers at a local brew pub. After all, when you’re talking about the decline and fall of the ancient world’s most powerful empires, how could it not make for an interesting discussion?

According to Cline, by the Late Bronze Age the ancient Levant and bordering region was home to a number of  flourishing and powerful kingdoms like the Egyptians, Hittites, Trojans, Minoans and Babylonians. Far being a collection of insular city-states, these ancient kingdoms were highly interconnected through trade, royal marriages, military alliances and tribute in the form of gold, jewels and other riches. Then, over a relatively short period of time all these great kingdoms collapsed, with the exception of the Egyptians. (They weathered the storm, but after surviving whatever decimated the kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age Egypt was never the same.) But what on earth could have caused this unparalleled unraveling of the ancient order?

For years historians have blamed this collapse on a group called the “Sea Peoples.” Thought to originate from some exotic location like Sicily or Sardinia, these marauders roared across the Levant burning, pillaging and killing everything in their path, much like the Vikings would do across much of Europe in the Middle Ages. In the end only Egypt was able to finally defeat these attackers and in doing so suffered a Pyrrhic victory from which the ancient kingdom never fully recovered. But is that really why things horribly fell apart at the end of Bronze Age?

Recently, a number of historians and archeologists have blamed this collapse on other factors. Some feel it was due to environmental disasters like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or droughts. Some feel it was due to extreme civil unrest or civil war. Or perhaps the region’s tightly interconnected trade networks somehow imploded and this resulted in havoc spreading throughout the kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age.

But according to Cline, none of these explanations fully explain why it all collapsed. Although he’s not 100 percent sure why it all fell apart, Cline thinks the reason has much to do with those kingdoms’  highly interrelated economies. For example, tin is essential in making bronze and at the time it was being mined in just one out-of-the-way place in the ancient world. Much like with today’s petroleum reserves, any interruption in its supply could have created widespread repercussions. In his book, Cline suggests that a series events and/or disasters occurring simultaneously or near simultaneously across the region could have caused a cascade of larger and more widespread failures. In short these “force multipliers” could have overwhelmed the established order, resulting in a kind of “systems collapse” of the Late Bronze Age civilizations.

While some readers will probably criticize Cline for not delivering a clear-cut answer to this ancient mystery, I on the other hand will not. If anything, I commend him for looking at the historical evidence carefully and having the intellectual honesty to not offer a definitive answer. After all, as my book club learned from reading Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Think Like a Freak, it’s very easy to give an answer. It takes a lot of courage to say that you really don’t know.

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About Time I Read It: The Skies Belong Us by Brendan I. Koerner

Each year, there’s about a dozen or so works of nonfiction that create an amazing amount of hype. These are the kind of books that get rave reviews and make notable year-end lists. Based on my experience, when a book generates a ton of positive buzz and propels its author on that much sought-after high-profile interview circuit, it’s usually worth reading. But no matter how popular and praised a newly published book might get, I frequently find myself skeptically wondering  just how good it is. Of course, understanding that everyone’s tastes are different, even though a particular book might be loved by millions, who’s to say I’ll still enjoy it? (As an example, I point to Katherine Boo’s 2012 book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity I found her writing a bit herky-jerky at times and the book’s pace not entirely to my liking. Obviously, I had no idea what I was talking about because her book went on to win every award on the planet and sold like hotcakes.) Therefore, I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to know just how good a book is I had to read it myself.

Back in 2013, Brendan I. Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking was one of those much talked about books. Not only was it featured on CNN and NPR, my local alternative newsweekly Willamette Week even did a feature on it. Viewers of Book TV were able to catch the book’s author delivering a promotional lecture. And lastly, esteemed book blogger Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness added it to her stack of that summer’s reading. The Skies Belong to Us was shaping up to be one popular book.

Like many books that become popular and then fade into the background as they’re replaced by the next big literary thing, I eventually forgot about The Skies Belong to Us. But of course once a book’s popularity cools off, it’s easier to find an available copy at the public library. So last weekend, during one of my regular trips to the public library I spotted a copy of The Skies Belong to Us. Thinking it would be a perfect opportunity to discover if Koerner’s 2013 book was worthy of all the high praise it elicited I eagerly grabbed it.

The Skies Belong to Us, as its subtitle declares, vividly recounts what could be called America’s golden age of hijacking, which lasted from about 1968 to 1973. Long before No Fly Lists, walk-through body scanners and TSA pat-downs, desperate individuals were hijacking commercials airliners at a furious pace. Although in today’s age we take for granted such simple security measures like pre-flight metal detectors and baggage X-rays. However, 40 years ago these, at least in the beginning of this early war on terror, were not utilized. (Their implementation was resisted strongly by both the airlines and the federal government as being too expensive to implement and too inconveniencing for air travelers.) Without these safeguards in place, political extremists of varying agendas, the psychologically unbalanced and even a few daring con men (let’s just say D.B. Cooper wasn’t the only one to parachute out of a jet with big wad of extorted cash) were hijacking planes one after another. Sometimes several jets would get hijacked in one week. On at least one occasion, two planes were hijacked in a single day.

While there’s many fascinating hijackers from this now largely forgotten era of modern American history, Koerner wisely elected to focus on the story of Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, a modern-day interracial Bonnie and Clyde who successfully hijacked an American airliner to Algiers. After being granted sanctuary by Algeria’s left-leaning authoritarian government, the couple joined a small expat community of African-American radicals. After growing tired of life under Algerian rule Holder and Kerkow fled to Paris. There in Paris, Kerkow, a former back-country girl from Coos Bay, Oregon became fluent in French and quickly remade herself into a stylish and sophisticated woman. Holder on the other hand, suffering from both a severe anxiety disorder and PTSD stemming from his multiple combat tours in Vietnam, drifted aimlessly.

The is an excellent book. I found it darn near impossible to put down. Not once while quickly burning through The Skies Belong to Us did I tire of it or encounter a dry stretch in the narrative. Easily, this is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read this year. (It also makes for fantastic follow-up reading to Andreas Killen’s 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America.) I Highly recommended this terrific piece of narrative nonfiction.

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Sacred Trash by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole

When it comes to nonfiction books, I’m a big fan of what I call “unofficial sequels.” These are books (usually in the field of history) that make great follow-up reading to an earlier published book dealing with the subject matter. Who cares if the two books are from different authors, it just feels like one book takes off where the earlier book ended. The first example that comes to mind is Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story. In my opinion it flows seamlessly from where Tony Horwitz’s A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World ends. Much in the same way,  Jeffery Toobin’s The Nine: Inside The Secret World of the Supreme Court is a great follow-up book to Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s 1979 expose The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court. Taking it one step further, Catherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945, Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II and Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 when combined together form a rather nice trilogy, even though they’re the work of three different authors.

I’d like to add one more title to my little list of unofficial sequels. A few years ago as a present I received a copy of Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. It’s the perfect unofficial sequel to Janet Soskice’s The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. Beginning almost at the point where The Sister of Sinai leaves off, Sacred Trash tells an amazing story.

In Sisters of Sinai, we learned of the discovery of a long forgotten trove of ancient manuscripts that spent centuries gathering dust in the hidden storage room or geniza of a Cairo synagogue. Thanks to the hard work of a pair of intrepid Scottish sisters and Cambridge’s Romanian-born community Rabbi, this priceless cache of Jewish documents was finally brought to light for all to study. In Sacred Trash, we learn just what was found in that dusty and decrepit storage room and how, over the years scholars were able to study the documents and as a result gain a greater understanding of the history of Jewish life in the Levant and neighboring areas.

As far as discoveries go, the Cairo Geniza was a historian’s jackpot. Imagine a huge pile of manuscripts representing a timeframe from the 11th century to the 19th. In among the worn-out Hebrew Bibles and other religious texts were also more commonplace artifacts like marriage contracts, divorce writs, wills, business records and personal letters. Ironically, it’s because of these more profane items found among the sacred ones that scholars now know what Jewish life was like in the region over the past centuries. Because of the invaluable light they’ve shed, the treasures of the Cairo Geniza have been dubbed by modern scholars as the “Living Sea Scrolls.”

Sacred Trash is a lot of fun. It serves up a nice slice of overlooked Jewish history and is readable, interesting and at times even a bit quirky. (After reading a few of the marriage and divorce documents quoted in Sacred Trash you will first chuckle and then agree with the author of Ecclesiastes that there’s nothing new under the sun.) I have no problem recommending Sacred Trash.

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His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro

One of the many cool things one can find on the site Book Riot is Rachel Cordasco’s monthly column “In Translation.” Each month her brief but informative piece spotlights three or four newly-released works of translated fiction. Since I’m participating in more and more reading challenges designed to inspire participants to read books about or set in other countries, I’ve found her columns full of promising recommendations. Back in September Cordasco featured a novel by the Brazilian author Edgard Telles Ribeiro. In her column, Cordasco described Ribeiro’s novel His Own Man as the story of a Brazilian diplomat named Max who spends several decades serving his nation’s autocratic military rulers. According to Cordasco, “the price this man pays is the trust and love of his family and friends, for Max has been both an informer and a spy.” Calling His Own Man “a fascinating read” a took Cordasco’s recommendation to heart and added Ribeiro’s novel to my growing list of things I wanna read.

Not long ago I was poking around the shelves at my public library when I spotted a copy of His Own Man. Remembering Cordasco’s praise of the novel, and knowing that I could count it towards a number of my reading challenges I eagerly grabbed it. After letting it sit unread for a few days a cracked it open one nice afternoon and went to work on it. Almost immediately I found myself sucked in this great piece of sophisticated and entertaining fiction.

The novel begins with our young and impressionable narrator busy at his job with the Brazilian foreign ministry. It’s here he meets Max and is immediately taken in by his charming, culturally sophisticated and slightly Bohemian manner. Within no time he’s quickly introduced to Max’s inner circle of young urban sophisticates. But soon after that, things begin to change. A conservative Brazilian cardinal pays a visit to the ministry, and in an obvious show of fealty Max kisses his ring. With this message telegraphed to the nation’s new ruling junta Max has shown he’s ready and willing to do their bidding. He quickly and effortlessly sheds his former left-leaning beliefs and begins toting the new conservative party line. Favored and supported by members of the junta, the reinvented Max rises up the ranks of Brazilian diplomatic corps, with prestigious postings throughout southern South America (and playing no small part in the region’s bloody “dirty wars”). Along the way Max also secretly supplies secret information to both the American and British intelligence services, making him a spy in the pay of not just one but three different nations.

This is a very good book and highly recommended for any readers who might be interested in South American politics and history, especially that of the last 50 years. On a personal note, it’s also the first Brazilian novel I’ve read. After enjoying it, I’d love to read more fiction from that South America nation. Therefore, kudos to Rachel Cordasco and the good people at Book Riot for bringing this fine novel to my attention.

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