20 Books of Summer: War on Peace by Ronan Farrow

When chosing a book to read I usually take backcover praise with a grain of salt. But when Ian Bremmer says it’s a “must-read” I take notice. That’s all it took for me to grab a copy of Ronan Farrow 2018 insider’s look at the State Department War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence when I spotted a copy at the public library.

Over the course of his career, Farrow has worn at least two hats, one as a State Department Iawyer and the other as an investigative journalist. Thanks to the author’s diverse background War on Peace could be seen as two books in one. As a former State Department official Farrow recalls the time he spent at the agency, much of it working for veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke. (Through Farrow’s eyes anyway, the late Holbrooke comes off as an overly driven figure so eccentric I suspect he resided somewhere on the Autism spectrum.) Utilizing his talents as an investigative journalist allowed Farrow to serve up a no-holds barred look at the messy world of international diplomacy. To pull off this feat he interviewed every living former State Department head. Farrow must have some serious street cred becuase he’s able to sit down with Kissinger, Albright, Clinton, Kerry and Tillerson.

Overall, War on Peace is pretty good. I especially enjoyed what Farrow had to say about Afghanistan, Pakistan and those countries’ role in the “War on Terror.” (Regarding Pakistan’s level of dedication in fighting al-Queda and the Taliban, let’s just say it’s no coincidence Osama bin Laden lived comfortably for years in a fortified compound a stone’s throw away from the nation’s top military academy.) The behind the scenes look at the Iranian nuclear deal was another favorite of mine. Lastly, while it angered and depressed me, Farrow’s depiction of the State Department being gutted by the Trump administration made for excellent reading.

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20 Books of Summer: Their Promised Land by Ian Buruma

I’m no stranger to Ian Buruma. Thanks to my public library I was introduced to the work of this Dutch-born historian well over a decade ago when I stumbled across a copy of his 2006 book Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. More recently, back in 2015, again thanks to my public library I read his Year Zero: A History of 1945. For years I’ve been wanting to read his 2004 book Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies but sadly I’ve been unsuccessful. Then, a few years ago I learned Buruma had written a new book, based on a huge cache of vintage personal letters Buruma enherited and a departure of sorts from his usual fare of history and politics entitled Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War. After passing it up on the library shelf week after week for over a year and a half I recently took a chance and borrowed a copy. I found it a somewhat uneven, yet not unsatisfying read.

As the subtitle would lead us to believe Their Promised Land is the story of Buruma’s grandparents, from their respective childhoods growing up in England as the children of German Jewish émigrés, to their courtship leading to their lives as a married couple. Sadly, like many Europeans of their generation those lives were profoundly impacted by two wars. After surviving the horrors of the World War I, 20 years later Buruma’s grandfather Bernard served as an army physician in India. Tragically, at the War’s end Bernard and Winifred learned virtually all of their relatives who remained in Germany perished in the Holocaust. With few exceptions only those relatives who emmigrated to Great Britian before 1939 survived.

Like I mentioned at the onset, Their Promised Land felt uneven and by that I mean there were portions I enjoyed and some well, maybe not so much. After a strong opening chapter I thought Buruma’s book lost momentum. Fortunately, the second half of the book was a bit more to my liking. Whatever mixed feeling I have about Their Promised Land it hasn’t soured me on his writing and if anything has inspired me to read more of his stuff.

20 Books of Summer: Laughing Without an Accent by Firoozeh Dumas

Leave it to me to lead off the 20 Books of Summer with an alternate. Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad ranked dead last on my list, weighing it at 24 out of 20. But by God, I was going to read it no matter what. I have a fondness for her writing, (and for that matter, Iranian writers in general) dating back five years ago when I discovered her 2004 memoir Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America.  Knowing she’d written at least one follow-up piece I figured someday I’d read more of her stuff but never made any effort. Then one day I noticed my local public library had a copy of her 2008 offering Laughing Without an Accent.  A few weekends ago I finally made good on my vow and borrowed it. While Funny in Farsi might be a better book, surprisingly Laughing Without an Accent might be funnier and thus more entertaining.

It’s a collection of vignettes, all of them humorous to one degree or another.  Dumas serves up a lifetime of annectdotes including her early childhood in pre-Revolutionary Iran, (I liked how she contrasted life, from a child’s persepctive, in rural bordertown Abadan versus cosmopolitan Tehran) her upbringing in Southern California during the 70s and early 80s, college years at UC Berley, mother trying to raise her two young children as well as daughter to a pair of aging immigrant parents, and wife of a techie in boom and bust Silicon Valley.

My favorite chapters are those in which she recalls how her world changed after Funny in Farsi became a bestsellerEven the ruling theocrats of Iran permitted her memoir to be translated and published, but without the part in which her father declares the traditional Islamic prohibition on eating pork should no longer apply, thanks to modern advances in food safety and sanitation. I chuckled as she recalled her adventures as the 7 AM guest speaker for a group of New-Agey entrepreneurs. (Her parents, tagging along for moral support and blissfully unaware of the group’s intentions, thought those in attendance were sweet and wonderfully polite, and hearilty enjoyed the provided buffet breakfast.) Dumas also includes the text of one the graduation speeches she’s been asked to give. (Frequently because Kite Runner novelist Khaled Hosseini wasn’t available.) Speaking to the assembled graduates, she dispensed her wisdom and much to my joy, encouraged them to read books.

Laughing Without an Accent left me with a desire to read more memoirs. And with a nearby public library chock full of them, chances are you’ll see more of these featured on my blog.

20 Books of Summer

Last week I learned Cathy, of 746 Books is once again hosting her annual 20 Books of Summer Challenge. The rules are simple and there’s no pressure. Just choose 20 books to read between June 3 and September 3. Nothing is set in stone. You can swap out a book for different one, skip a book or two or even fail to read all the books on your list. You can even cut your list down to 10 or 15.  I’ve selected 20 books plus four alternates in case I end up tossing a few aside. Truth be told, I’d love nothing better than to read all 24 of these before the end of summer.

  1. Assault in Norway by Thomas Gallagher  – Published in 1981, I’ll be reading this vintage paperback for the European Reading Challenge.
  2. What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank – I’ve been itching to get my hands on this book for years. Now is my chance!
  3. Five Ideas That Change the World by Barbara Ward – This one is for my Old Book Reading Project, since it was published way back in 1959.
  4. Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich by Robert Frank – We all know the rich are different. But just HOW different?
  5. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner – One of several books I’ve selected for my 20 Books of Summer I picked up at a Friends of the Library book sale.
  6. War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence by Ronan Farrow  – I keep seeing this at the library and it’s about time I read it.
  7. The Knowledge Web: From Electronic Agents to Stonehenge and Back — And Other Journeys Through Knowledge by James Burke – One of several carryover books from last year’s list. Maybe this year I’ll finally read it.
  8. Women, Race, & Class by Angela Davis – Another one for my Old Books Reading Project.
  9. The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal – The sole novel on my list. I’m hoping to apply this one to the European Reading Challange.
  10. A Nation Rising: Untold Tales from America’s Hidden History by Kenneth C. Davis – I bought this one from the old Quality Paperback Club and never got around to reading it. Better late than never!
  11. Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War by Ian Buruma- I’ve had pretty good luck with Buruma in the past.
  12. The Case for God by Karen Armstrong – Another holdover from last year.  It’s been too long since I’ve read anything by Armstrong.
  13. The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone – Published in 1989, this one has been sitting on my shelf forever.
  14. The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath by Kevin P. Phillips- Yet another book that’s been ignored and finally needs to be read.
  15. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by Picked up this National Book Award winner at a Friends of the Library book sale.
  16. The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East by Olivier Roy – I grabbed this from one of those Little Free Libraries you see all over the place.
  17. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor by David S. Landes -It was on last year’s list and maybe this year I’ll finally read it!
  18. An introduction to Contemporary History by Geoffrey Barraclough –  Another for the Old Books Reading Project.
  19. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America by Juan Gonzalez – When I picked up this book at the Friends of the Library Book sale it just “felt right.” We’ll see if my intuition has led me to a good book.
  20. The Evolution of God by Robert Wright – No matter what happens I will finally read this!
  21. (Alternate) Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond – Just like The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East I found my copy in a Little Free Library.
  22. (Alternate) The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi – I’ve heard good things about Taibbi’s writing. Can’t wait to find out for myself.
  23. (Alternate) Is Latin America Turning Protestant?: The Politics of Evangelical Growth by David Still – I’m hoping this one makes a nice companion read to Harvest of Empire.
  24. (Alternate) Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad by Firoozeh Dumas – If I’m lucky I’ll enjoy this one as much as her earlier book Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America.

About Time I Read It: A Child of Christian Blood by Edmund Levin

I must have a weakness for books about Ukraine. From Andrey Kurkov’s novel Death and the Penguin to Askold Krushnelnycky’s An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History to Tim Judah’s In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine I’ve featured a number of these books on my blog. Succumbing to my weakness for books about Europe’s second largest country I borrowed through Overdrive a copy of Edmund Levin’s 2014 book A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel.

A Child of Christian Blood is the tragic story of Mendel Beilis. A non-practicing Jew, father of five, and clerk at a Kiev brick factory lived an uneventful life until a young neighbor boy was found murdered. Like something out of Kafka’s The Trial, a few months later without a shred of evidence Beilis was sent to prison for two years (under Russian law, a prisoner had no right to legal counsel until he was charged) before being formally charged with blood libel, the impossible crime of killing a Christian boy by draining his blood for the purpose of making Passover matzos.

Unfortunately for Beilis, the deck was horribly stacked against him. According to Levin, the reactionary and rather dim-witted Tsar Nicholas II was a notorious anti-semite, who saw Beilis’s trial as the perfect opportunity to bolster his decrepid  monarchy by scapegoating the country’s Jews. In hopes of pleasing the Tsar the Empire’s resources were marshalled against Beilis. Promises were made should Beilis be found guilty judge and prosecution alike would receive generous promotions. An array of “expert witnesses” (one of which, Alexeevich Sikorsky was the father of aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky) were enlisted to testify blood libel was practiced by Russia’s Jews and therefore Beilis was the murderer. Tsarist officials selected a jury composed solely of rural residents, fearing one made up of educated, Kiev urbanites would likely vote for acquittal.

To risk sounding alarmist I saw a few similarities between Tsarist Russian and today’s America. The societies of early 20th century Imperial Russian and Ukraine were starkly divided between conservatives and liberals, much like that of early 21 century America. Today in our country we see a divided media with right wing cable news, websites and talk radio promoting conservative views while print media and politicized late night talk shows lean liberal. A hundred years ago the only news media Russia and Ukraine had were newspapers but those too were a cacochany of conservative and liberal voices. (Covering the Beilis trial for one liberal Russian newspaper was Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, father of Lolita author Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov.) But probably my most disturbing takeaway from A Child of Christian Blood was seeing just how many ambitious officials bought into the Tsar’s antisemitc agenda in hopes of advancing their careers. Like the Sarah Sanders Huckabees of the world who parrot Trump’s lies they forget whenever autocrats are dethroned their toadies fall with them.

About Time I Read It: Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil by John Berendt

I’m sure by now all of you know the overwhelming majority of the books featured on this blog have been borrowed from the public library. What you probably didn’t know is believe it or not, I have a huge personal library. A few weeks ago I was in the mood to read one of my own books and not something checked out from the library. Craving something long ignored and unread I reached for my copy of John Berendt’s 90s mammoth best-seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. When I announced this to my favorite Facebook group Silent Book Club, joking I was one of 12 people left in North America who’d never read the book and figured it was high time for me to do so, my post generated over 500 comments and impressions, virtually all of them positive. Not surprisingly, several of my friends  chaimed in, praising  Berendt’s book. As for me, I quickly realized after only a few pages I’d made the right choice. Published 25 years ago, not only has Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil withstood the test of time it’s an outstanding book.

Since Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil been around forever, I won’t spend much time describing it. Back in the early 80s, John Berendt, a New York City-based writer relocated to  Savannah, Georgia and ended up rubbing elbows with a dizzing array of memorable eccentrics, ranging from a loveable con man with a heart of gold to an African American drag queen gifted with an almost preternatural ability to charm, ingratiate and mortify. (Frequently the same person during a single sitting. ) Much like the city of Tokyo became the third lead character in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Lost in Translation so Savannah and its colorful inhabitants serve as the focal point in Berendt’s book.

Of all the cities in the world, why is Savannah such a mecca for human oddities? Anticipating the reader’s question, Berendt looks to the world of horticulture to explain why.

For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world.

Even though it was published a quarter century ago, I found Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil surprisingly relevent since it touches on race relations, LGBTQ life, gentrification, old money versus new money, imperfectness of the criminal justice system and class conflict. These issues are as important today as they were when Berendt wrote about them decades ago.

But perhaps my biggest takeaway from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is good writing never goes out of style. It’s one thing for an author to move to a strange city and successfully identify its local eccentrics. It’s quite another to get them talking and to turn around tell their respective stories to the world. (According to Berendt, the key is “always stick around for one more drink. That’s when things happen. That’s when you find out everything you want to know.”) But the real challenge is to convey those tales with subtlety and sophistication. That is why come December you’ll probably see Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil included in my year-end list of favorite nonfiction books.

About Time I Read It: The Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White

Back in 2015 when I reviewed Jenny White’s 2006 historical novel The Sultan’s Seal I mentioned the novel “sucked me in” and how much I liked its protagonist, Kemil Pasha, a British-educated, professionally trained magistrate tasked with solving crimes in 19th century Istanbul. However, like so many other debut novels I found The Sultan’s Seal “a bit rushed” with a few loose ends leading to an abrupt ending. But for all my grousing I remained optimistic I’d enjoy her subsequent novels.

Not long ago I received notification her 2007 follow-up to The Sultan’s Seal, The Abyssinian Proof  was now available through Overdrive. After downloading a copy to my Kindle I soon found myself engrossed in it. I quickly realized my faith in White was not wasted. When compared to its predecessor The Abyssinian Proof is a big improvement.

Early one morning Kamil Pasha is summonded before his imperious boss and ordered to solve a mystery. Holy relics sacred to the empire’s Muslim and  Christian communities are being stolen and it’s feared the objects are being sold overseas to wealthy British collectors. With the thefts spawning tension between the empire’s major religious communities it’s imperative the culprits are apprehended and as many of the relics as posssible are returned to their rightful owners. Just to complicate things even more, involved in this somehow is a shadowy religous sect based in an abandoned cistern beneth the city of Istanbul.

The Abyssinian Proof is a lot of fun. It’s a great companion read to a guity pleasure of mine, Paul L. Maier‘s 2011 novel The Constantine Codex, a kind of Christian Da Vinci Code. Like I said at the begining, my faith in Jenny White remains unshaken.