Some of you might remember at the beginning of this year I vowed to read more long-form writing. Immediately afterwards I posted my reviews of The Best American Essays 2015 and The Best American Essays 2013 but since then my zeal for such collections has cooled. Fortunately, I’ve been reading some great individual stuff here and there and even joined a long-form discussion group that meets every two weeks to discuss articles dealing with international politics and related topics. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit I’ve read only one additional essay collection since February. Through Overdrive I dowloaded a Kindle edition of The Best American Essays 2106, more or less to see what kind of essays editor Jonathan Franzen would assemble for 2016’s offering. Like just every essay collection there’s stuff in here I loved, stuff I thought was OK and stuff that made me wonder why in the world was it included in the first place.
Some are by familiar writers like Oliver Sacks, Joyce Carol Oates and Sebastian Junger but the rest were unknowns which is perfect because I was introduced to new voices and that’s why I read collections like these. Of these unknowns, Jaquira Diaz’s “Ordinary Girls” in which she recalls her turbulent childhood raised by an abusive, schizophrenic mother was a favorite piece of mine, as was Francisco Cantu’s “Bajadas”, his firsthand account of life as a border agent. In previous essay collections featured on my blog it was the LGTBQ-themed essays that made for surprisingly good reading. This time around it was Alexander Chee’s “Girl” recalling his maiden experience in drag one Halloween evening in San Francisco’s Castro District, and Mason Stokes “Namesake” in which he looked back on the life of his beloved uncle, a life-long bachelor and saw many a striking similarity between his uncle and himself, a gay man. Both pieces were among the best in the bunch.
Before the end of the year I’d like to round things out with a few more collections like this one, perhaps one or two focusing on crime or science and nature. We’ll just have to wait and see.
For as long as I’ve been done the European Reading Challenge I’ve included a book about Italy. Last year it was Tobias Jones’s The Dark Heart of Italy and in previous years I spotlighted works of historical fiction like Tariq Ali’s A Sultan in Palermo and Dasa Drndic’s Trieste to nonfiction fare like Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi’s The Monster of Florence and John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels. In 2014 it was In the Sea There are Crocodiles, Italian writer Fabio Geda’s novelization of Afghan refugee Enaiatollah Akbar’s five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy. Chances are, if I’m doing the European Reading Challenge, I’m gonna read a book about Italy.
John Hooper’s 2015 The Italians had been on my radar for the last three or four years before I borrowed a Kindle copy through Overdrive. Like Tobias Jones, Hooper is also a British journalist, having worked for both the Guardian and Observer newspapers and now covers Italy and the Vatican for the Economist. Also like Jones, Hooper has written a book that paints Italy in broad yet nevertheless revealing strokes – and entertaining ones.
According to Hooper, Italy is nation of contradictions. Proudly Catholic and home to the Vatican, it’s also fiercely anticlerical. Judging by the country’s declining birthrate many Italians are ignoring the Church’s prohibition on birth control. For a nation that fought long and hard to unify itself in the 19th century, the wealthy and industrialized North still can’t stand the impoverished South and visa versa. Organized crime syndicates like the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and Neapolitan Camorra plague the country but also generate 10 percent of Italy’s GDP, and yet a 2009 European Commission report revealed the United Kingdom’s violent crime rate was eight times that of Italy.
No other example from The Italians sums up both Italy’s reputation for bureaucratic lunacy as well as its national pastime for fantasia, a word Hooper translates as meaning “somewhere on the permeable frontier between imagination and creativity” like the case of the Italian army battalion Terzo Corpo designato d’Armata. In 1950 with the Cold War in full gear and Stalin’s armies firmly in control of Eastern Europe many feared the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact would soon invade America’s NATO allies like Italy. To deter them, the Italian high command secretly created an army of 300,000 troops based in Padova. However, even with a real commander-in-chief this army existed only on paper. Over the years tons of paperwork was generated in the form of promotions, payroll records, procurements and the like. If any Soviet spies operating in Italy picked up even snippets of this information they’d report back to Moscow the existence of a 300,000 man army and perhaps think twice about invading.
If any of you plan on traveling to Italy for your next vacation, do yourself a huge favor and read Hooper’s The Italians before you leave. You’ll be glad you did.
Last November I mentioned how lucky I am to have access to a great rural public library with a surprisingly large collection of books, many of which I’ve never heard of. Funny, no matter how much time I spend on Goodreads, Amazon and other cool bookish sites, there’s some books I’ve only been able to discover by meandering through the shelves of a book store or library. That of course is how I became acquainted with Nathan Miller’s New World Coming : The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. Even with the book’s no-frills cover art I still could not resist its allure. Later one, as I leisurely made my way through Miller’s 2003 book my modest exceptions were slowly but surely exceeded. There’s nothing flashy about New World Coming but nevertheless it taught me a heck of a lot about the 1920s.
I’ll start with the book’s subtitle Making of Modern America. The 20s saw the proliferation of automobile ownership giving Americans unprecedented mobility. This of course let to greater autonomy. Instead of spending Sundays in church mom, dad and the kids could pile into family car and embark upon leisurely drives throughout the country. As regular church attendance declined more and more Americans adopted a secularist outlook. By decade’s end movie theaters were in every midsize town and countless smaller ones. Radio stations blanketed the country giving even the most isolated Americans access to the latest news, music and consumer developments. Lastly, a growing number of picture-laden magazines with national readerships brought Americans up to speed on the latest fashions, celebrity gossip, news and opinion. Thanks to these new forms of media regional trends became nationwide trends. America became faster, more connected and increasingly homogenous.
One can’t write a book about the 20s and not mention Prohibition. According to Miller, yes there were glamorous speakeasies, but because they were so expensive most Americans if they drank at all avoided them preferring to drink at home. The rich and powerful just kept drinking. (Warren Harding, the first president of the Prohibition era held regular booze-fueled poker games in the White House.) With many Catholic and Jewish Americans seeing Prohibition as a Protestant creation New York City leaders didn’t lift a finger to fight illegal alcohol and all enforcement was done by the federal government, not local authorities.
Politically, the 20s belonged to the Republicans, certainly at the presidential level. (Even though Miller portrays the Republican Warren Harding as an underachieving glad-hander.) The Democrats were a fractious party, bitterly divided between conservative white Southerners and urban dwellers in Boston, New York and other cities in the North East. Every four years knock down drag out fights among delegates would erupt at Democratic Party conventions. Not until 1932 with the election of FDR would the Democrats put a president in the White House.
The third rate cover art of New World Coming belies the content that lies within. Never judge a book by its cover.
Back in May I reviewed Jenny White’s The Abyssinian Proof, a novel that takes place during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. This time I’d like feature something on the Byzantine Empire’s predecessor. One Saturday at the public library I came across a copy of Lars Brownworth’s 2009 book Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization. Over the years I’ve had a minor fascination with the Byzantine Empire, inspiring me to read books like Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World. Giving in to that fascination I grabbed the library’s copy of Lost to the West and went to work reading it.
Some will say the central message Lost to the West is how the Byzantine Empire kept alive Greek-infused Roman culture and civilization for well over a thousand years before succumbing to the Ottoman onslaught in 1453. During this time Byzantium served as a treasure house and beacon of enlightenment to the rest of Europe. After falling to the Turks its scholars became refuges, fanning out across the Continent and passing on the intellectual heritage of the Classical world. This transmission of lost knowledge helped jump-start the Renaissance, putting Europe on a path eventually leading to the modern world.
While it’s hard to argue with some or even all that, to me Lost to the West hammered home several what I might call universal truths. One, even the mightiest kingdoms wax and wane. Also, when authoritarian leaders act out of selfish self-interest, be that greed, jealousy or vindictiveness frequently the results are disastrous. Lastly, battles are sometimes won or lost not due to skill or strength but stupidity.
Once upon a time, before Bill Clinton was getting it on with Monica Lewinsky and Donald Trump was having sex with porn stars and grabbing women by the you-know-whats there was a handsome, charismatic, brilliantly-forward looking presidential candidate named Gary Hart. With a substantial lead in the polls over his Republican rival it was generally acknowledged he’d win the Democratic nomination, beat George Bush in the upcoming general election and become America’s next President. Once elected, many thought he’d help usher in a host of revolutionary changes including a stronger, leaner and more technologically advanced military, friendlier relations with the USSR, and help shift the nation’s economy from heavy industry to high technology, made possible by a nationwide workforce training program.
But then something happened. News reports began surfacing of an extramarital affair with Donna Rice, a former beauty queen turned pharmaceutical rep turned minor TV actress. Rumors of Hart being a adulterer, while not widely publicized, had persisted for years among Washington DC insiders and members of the press. When asked by a reporter if there was any truth to those years of rumors Hart answered he had nothing to hide and issued a bold challenge to the nation’s press. “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.” Almost immediately after uttering those words a photograph appeared in newspapers and magazine across the country of Heart with Rice sitting seductively atop his lap. In the photo’s background was the yacht Hart, his entourage and Rice had been galavanting around in the Caribbean. In plain view for all to see was the yacht’s name: Monkey Business.
Even though he was presidential front-runner, Hart quickly dropped out of the race. Though he later re-entered the primaries his campaign never regained momentum. Once seen as a shoe-in for president Hart quietly retired from politics and faded into anonymity.
For over a year I kept seeing Matt Bai’s 2014 book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid sitting on the shelf at the library and never grabbed it. Then one day my curiosity got the better of me and I scooped it up, along with a few other books. I moved through All the Truth Is Out quickly, enjoying it and picking up new factoids about the Gary Hart story right and left.
I thought I knew all there was about Gary Hart and his abortive run for the presidency. In retrospect, thanks to All the Truth Is Out I learned just how ignorant I was. I had no idea Hart was raised in the Church of the Nazarene and earned Bachelor’s of Divinity from Yale. Nor was I aware he was George McGovern’s national campaign director in 1972. I remember him being touted as a youthful candidate with the ability to connect to younger voters, but unbeknownst to me Hart was in his early 50s when the Donna Rice scandal hit. Lastly, Hart and his wife never divorced after the scandal and are still together.
All the Truth Is Out is surprisingly good book and I’m still scratching my head as to how it slipped under my radar.
I’ve always been fascinated by the interwar period. With the old Eurasian powers Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire vanquished a host of new countries and territories emerged from the aftermath. Many across Europe rejected the old monarchial order blaming it for starting the Great War. Other went further, loudly proclaiming the challenges of widespread unemployment, political instability and ethnic tension called for new styles of authoritarianism like Communism and Fascism. In Germany, conservatives and reactionaries seethed, blaming the nation’s Jews, socialists and liberals for stabbing their once mighty nation in the back by surrendering too easily and signing the Treaty of Versailles. One of these bitter malcontents, an impoverished army veteran by the name of Adolf Hitler found comfort in a small, radical group called the Nazis, rising quickly within the organization before becoming its leader.
Thinking the German people deserved a better form of government, Hitler and his fellow Nazi’s believed it was time to take over. After failing in their attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government, march to Berlin and seize control of the fledgling German state he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to five years in Landsberg Prison. Languishing in prison and his treasonous movement crushed, Hitler should have faded into oblivion just like any other failed political figure. But as we all know, he didn’t.
I’d been thinking about borrowing an Overdrive copy of Peter Ross Range’s 1924: The Year That Made Hitler for the last few years and only recently got around to doing so. Like so many books, I kicked myself for not reading it sooner.
According to Ross Range, failing to overthrowing the German state was the best thing that could have happened to Hitler. At his trial, he unleashed his oratory skills on those in attendance, winning admiration from friend and foe alike, resulting in a relatively light sentence which included the possibility of parole after one year. During his time in prison Hitler flourished. He read extensively, wrote the first volume of Mein Kampf, and engaged in endless rounds of political discussion with his imprisoned fellow Nazis. Landsberg Prison became in essence a Nazi Party training facility as Hitler and his men dined together (with Hitler at the head of the table) and conducted themselves with military like discipline. By the time he was released after just nine months, Hitler had formulated a new plan. Instead of violently taking power the Nazis would work within the political system, using legal means to become masters of Germany. Sadly for Germany, Europe and the rest of the world it worked.
1924 is one of those great history books that’s a pleasure to read. Don’t be surprised if it makes my year-end list of favorite nonfiction.
When I signed up for the 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge I figured on two things. One, as much as I’d like to read 20 books over the course of summer I probably wasn’t going to read that many. While I fell short of my goal of 20 books at least I read 16 and really, that’s nothing to complain about. Two, I knew I wouldn’t stick to my original selection of 20 books and four alternates and holy cow, I sure didn’t. Of those books I read only six. The other 10 I either borrowed from the library, downloaded from Overdrive, or in the case of one book (Roger Scruton’s Kant: A Very Short Introduction) I bought for my Kindle off Amazon.