Library Loot: February 10 to 16

library-lootI haven’t done a Library Loot posting since last summer. That of course means it is high time I did another. Even though over the last year I’ve been trying to cut-down on the number of books I grab from the library, today I kind of fell off the wagon and walked away with a sizable collection of books. Fortunately for me, even though I’m trying to work my way through several good books, the stuff I snagged looks quite promising. As always, I don’t know how many of these books I’ll be able to get through before I have to return them. But then again, they look like excellent so who cares?

The Madmen of Benghazi by Gérard de Villiers – I’ve been looking for something by this French spy novelist for the last few years, ever since I read a fascinating article about him in The New York Times Magazine. Only recently has his stuff been translated into English. Before he recently passed away he had been praised by those in the international intelligence community for his insider knowledge of the shadowy world of global espionage.

Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia by Emmanuel Carrère – Wow, with a subtitle like that, how could I resist? Just like The Madmen of Benghazi, this one’s been translated from French into English.

And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East by Richard Engel – According to the front cover, Engel was the Chief Foreign Correspondent for NBC News. I’m looking forward to what he has to say about his time in the Middle East.

Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Laura Drain with Lisa Pulitzer – I love memoirs by people who’ve left insular religious communities. I can’t wait to read her account of what life is like in that utter freak show known as the Westboro Baptist Church.

Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King – Reading the novels of Alan Furst has made me curious about life in Paris during the German occupation. Throw a serial killer into the mix and now I really wanna read King’s book!

Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World by Thomas Cahill- Cahill has been a favorite author of mine for years, starting with his 1995 smash hit How the Irish Saved Civilization. I hope I enjoy his most recent offering Heretics and Heroes.

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2015 European Reading Challenge Wrap Up

2015 ERC Button-1Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is one of my favorite reading challenges. Each year Gilion the host encourages participants to read at least one book by a European author or at least one book set in a European country. Because her challenge is a kind of “tour” each book must be by a different author and set in a different country. While the top participation level is the “Deluxe Entourage” of five books, each year she awards a prize to the participant who read the most qualifying books. In past years she’s also awarded honorable mentions to participants. I also like this challenge because the host and I live in the same city of Portland, Oregon USA. I’m probably the only book blogger who’s taken part in a reading challenge that’s hosted by a blogger who lives across town! (I keep thinking some day I might bump into her at a literary event.)

I’m proud to report that last year for the challenge I read and reviewed 20 books representing 21 different European countries. As a result I was deemed winner of the 2014 European Reading Challenge!

Sadly, this year I could only muster half that number. Having read and reviewed 10 books representing 10 different European counties I’m left feeling kind of blue. I had planned on making a final push during the last few months of the challenge, but I got wrapped up reading other kinds of books. I also suffered a bit of blogging burn-out.

Not to worry! I’ll be doing the 2016 European Reading Challenge. My goal is to read and review an impressive array of books and recapture the title!

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Godless, Hallucinations, and Nothing to Envy

Last week I mentioned it’s been challenge keeping my blog up to date with all the books I’ve been reading. The good news is I’ve been reading some good stuff. The bad news is it’s been hard to blog about it. Therefore, I’ve resorted to doing mini-posts and wrap-up lists as ways of keeping you updated on what I’ve been reading. So, with that in mind, here’s a brief run-down on three books I recently finished.

After hearing good things about Dan Barker’s 2009 book Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists I decided to grab a copy from my public library. For those of you who don’t know, Barker is a former Pentacostal-ish minister and Christian musician/songwriter who, after a period of extensive reading, personal introspection and questioning his faith became an atheist. He’s now co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a frequent speaker on atheism and related topics. Since I have fondness for memoirs by individuals who left insular religious communities, it was hard for me not to like Godless. Being a former evangelical Christian myself, so much of what Barker said in his book struck a familiar, and in the end, reassuring chord with me.

Godless is both a memoir, and much like Peter Boghossian’s A Manuel for Creating Atheists, it’s also readable and informative guide to atheist thought. Personally, I liked the memoir sections of Godless a bit more than the other parts, but who cares ’cause it’s a very good book. I recommend Godless to any readers who are questioning their faith, curious about atheism or have already embraced a belief system similar to Barker’s.

In August of 2015 we lost the great Oliver Sacks. Through his books like Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat he showed readers the fascinating world of neurology. His use of accessible language made complex subjects not only comprehensible, but also enjoyable reading. Sacks’ inclusion of the human element in his case stories merged soul with science. With that in mind, when my book club opted to read Sacks’ 2012 book Hallucinations I was not disappointed.

Traditionally, people have always associated hallucinations with madness. According to Sacks, their origins can be legion, ranging from migraines, sensory deprivation, vision loss, epilepsy and severe stress. Far from always being a symptom of severe mental illness, hallucinations are far more common than people acknowledge. And yes, in case you were wondering, some recreational drugs do cause hallucinations. In his book Sacks details his experiences dabbling in these illicit substances. A bit to my surprise those passages ended up being my favorite parts of the book! This is classic Sacks and a worthy contribution to his sadly now closed cannon of work.

Five years ago I heard amazing things about Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Jo praised it on her blog as did Kim on hers, but it took some recent encouragement from one of my book club members to make me finally read it. My goodness I wished I’d read it sooner. Nothing to Envy is outstanding.  Luckily for me, the copy I was able to get from the public library included a new afterward from the author that covered recent developments in North Korea like Kim Jong-un’s accession to power and his subsequent purge of rivals. Demick’s detailed look inside the horrible train wreck that is North Korea is must reading for anyone wanting to understand the rogue nation. Even though it’s early in the year I can easily see Nothing to Envy making my year-end Best of List. Consider this book highly recommended.

In conclusion, it’s easy to assume these three very good books have nothing in common (other than being library books) but alas that’s not the case. According to Dan Barker, Oliver Sacks was both an enthusiastic atheist as well as a personal friend. In Godless, Barker recalls Sacks had been a speaker at at least one atheist convention. In turn, Sacks loved Baker’s book Godless, calling it “fabulous” and proclaiming “Godless may well become a classic in its genre.” Lastly, one of the ordinary North Koreans who Demick wrote about in Nothing to Envy likened his disillusionment with the oppressive regime to becoming an atheist. Once he stopped believing in the mythology of the overarching, all-powerful North Korean system his entire universe changed. Kinda cool when you see how many things in life are in some way connected?

 

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Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

51DQRXZAvjL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_In a previous post back in November, I mentioned my fondness for history, international relations, comparative religion and memoirs. Reading this kind of material has prompted me to look for explanations into why things happen. Therefore, as part of my quest, in 2016 I see myself reading stuff that could be philosophical, metaphysical, theological and scientific. After reading Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped it’s become apparent if I wanna gain a deeper understanding of why things are the way the are, I better read more memoirs.

If anyone should be asking probing questions then it’s Jesmyn Ward. Over a period of just five years, five young men she’d grown up with in rural Mississippi all died. Just like Ward, all five were African-American, with one of them her brother. All five lived impoverished lives, or at the very best were barely scrapping by. All five died long before their time, victims of homicide, accident, drug overdose and suicide. Their deaths left a gaping hole in Ward’s soul, prompting her to ask why such things could happen. Her quest served as the inspiration for her well-received 2013 memoir The Men We Reaped. Even though the book generated a ton of praise (Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness included it in her 2014 year-end list of favorite nonfiction) for whatever reason, Ward’s memoir never made it to my reading list. So, because of praise it received, I could not resist grabbing a copy from my public library when the opportunity presented itself. After finishing it a few days ago, I’m happy to report Men We Reaped is worthy of that praise.

According to Ward, ultimately those men died because the odds were stacked against them. Their underfunded public school system in rural Mississippi cared little about them, probably preferring they drop out rather than complete their studies. A lack of living wage jobs would leave them few if any options for meaningful employment, causing some to turn to illegal drugs both as a means of personal escape as well as source of revenue. Long before these young man could achieve a sense of maturity, their lives were stripped of meaning and their chances of survival shrank as the years went by.

If you’re looking to read a great follow-up book to The Men We Reaped, I have three suggestions that immediately come to mind. I’d start with Isabel Wilkerson’s multiple award-winning 2010 book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. From there, Alex Koltowtiz’s modern nonfiction classic There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America is as powerful today as when it was published back in 1991. Lastly, Wes Moore’s 2010 memoir The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates also makes a great follow-up read.

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Virgins, Crime, and Florence of Arabia

Sorry folks, I just haven’t been in the mood to blog. Honestly, I’m not sure why I’ve been slacking off so much. Maybe after doing this blog for six years I’m starting to feel burned-out. Maybe age is catching up with me and I no longer possess the intellectual vigor I once had. Or maybe after working a long day at the office all I care to do during my free hours is just unwind and unplug. What I do know is I haven’t stopped reading. And that means regardless of any reluctance to blog, I need to do some writing. So, just as I’ve done in the recent past, let me do a little catch-up and get you all up to speed on what I’ve been reading, thanks to my local public library.

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay – McKay’s 2012 novel has been on my radar for a few years, ever since I read a favorable review on another book blog. It tells the story of Moth, an impoverished  young girl who winds up being sold into domestic servitude by her alcohol and drug addicted mother. After escaping the clutches of her employer, a physically abusive and emotionally unstable housewife trapped in a troubled marriage, she naively falls in with a group of girls residing in a local “infant school” or relatively upscale brothel specializing in providing fresh young girls (“near whores” as they call themselves) to older, well-healed men. While living in the brothel, she’s befriended by a crusading woman doctor who warns her of the “virgin cure”: the mistaken belief held by some syphilitic men that sex with a virgin girl will cleanse them of their diseased blood and thus cure them of the disease.

The Virgin Cure did not disappoint and like any good book that took me a few years to get around reading, I wished I’d read it sooner. I enjoyed McKay’s writing and especially enjoyed her depiction of New York City in 1871 with all its grinding poverty, violence and wide gap between rich and poor. So much did I enjoy The Virgin Cure I think I’d also like to read her 2006 multiple award-winning novel The Birth House.

The Best American Crime Reporting 2009 edited by Jeffrey Toobin – I used to totally dig on anthologies. I loved reading stuff like The Best American Science and Nature Writing, The Best American Essays and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. I have fond memories of sitting on the porch of a local brewpub one crisp early winter evening with a pint of beer in one hand and copy of The Best American Crime Writing: 2004 Edition: The Year’s Best True Crime Reporting in the other. And while I don’t consider myself a fan of true crime writing (or maybe I am and I just won’t admit it) I had an utterly enjoyable evening drinking great beer and reading engaging and well-written accounts of the human condition’s less savory manifestations. Therefore, with pleasant memories like these, I guess it’s no wonder when my public library offered me the opportunity to read The Best American Crime Reporting 2009 I seized it.

Even though the online reviews for The Best American Crime Reporting 2009 look a bit on the lukewarm side, I liked the book. Kudos to Toobin for choosing an interesting collection of diverse pieces covering a variety of stories, everything from Somali gang activity in Minneapolis-St. Paul to a Polish deconstructionist author who’s been accused of committing a murder that resembles something straight out of his own novel to the latest efforts in combating the ubiquitous scourge of shoplifting. While most anthologies tend to be uneven offerings, I enjoyed every one of Toobin’s selections.

Florence of Arabia by Christopher Buckley – I’ve been itching to read this one for close to a decade and just like with The Virgin Cure, I kicked myself for not reading it sooner. I expected great things from the man who wrote Thank You For Smoking and Buckley did not let me down. His 2004 novel is smart, fast-paced and funny as hell. When our heroine is sent to a Middle East emirate to start the region’s first Arabic language satellite TV station for women chaos and hilarity ensues. If you have any interest in the Arab world this novel is for you. If you’ve been closely following events in this part of the world for a long time then this novel is definitely for you.

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2015 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

Sorry, I’m a bit late with this post. I meant to do it a few days ago but I got wrapped-up watching college bowl games and just got plain lazy. But with snow falling outside and little else for me to do, I figured why not do a review of my favorite fiction from last year.

If you’ve been following my posts, you already know that in 2015 I started out reading fiction, but as the year progressed I found myself favoring nonfiction as my reading material of choice. As a result, my list is a short one. But rest assured, even though it’s a short list, each of these books made for enjoyable reading.

  1. Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe – Just like The Blood Telegram, I discovered this book thanks to Goodreads. Blending elements of romance, comedy, spy thriller and historical fiction, this one was entertaining and hard to put down. If you’re the kind of reader who enjoys watching well-written British dramas like you find on Masterpiece Theatre or BBC America then this novel is for you.
  2. Archive 17 by Sam Eastland – I’m always on the look-out for historical fiction that’s a lot like stuff by Alan Furst. Eastland’s thriller set in Stalinist Russia is fast-paced and entertaining.
  3. His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro – I have Book Riot’s Rachel Cordasco to thank for introducing me off to this sophisticated piece of Brazilian fiction. Great novel about opportunism and lust for personal power.
  4. The Day of Atonement by David Liss – I absolutely loved his 2003 novel The Coffee Trader so much it ended up making my Best of 2014 List. Since I liked Day of Atonement even more, there’s no way it’s not going to be on this year’s list.
  5. The Figaro Murders by Laura Lebow – It’s hard to write a first-time novel. Harder still to write a quality one. Hats off to Lebow for writing a charming, cleaver and light historical mystery staring real historical characters and setting it in Mozart’s Vienna.
  6. Night Soldiers by Alan Furst – Think I could do a list like this and NOT include at least one book by Alan Furst? This is the one that spawned Furst’s beloved Night Soldiers series. By far the most epic in style than the rest of the stuff in the series. Of the three Furst novels I read in 2015 I’m pretty sure I liked this one the most.

I think it’s interesting that all six novels are set outside the United States, whether it be in Europe or South America. In additional, all six could be considered historical fiction, with settings ranging from the 18th century to the late 1950s. Therefore, my selections reflect both my historical and geographic interests. Two of the above-listed novels, Night Soldiers and The Day of Atonement, are by authors whose stuff I’ve enjoyed in the past. Expo 58 and His Own Man I discovered thanks to online resources while The Figaro Murders and Archive 17 I simply stumbled across at my public library.

Looking back on these enjoyable six novels, it’s hard to declare one my favorite of 2015. But if I must assign one a winner based on how much I enjoyed it from start to finish, I’d have to give the nod to The Day of Atonement.

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2015 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

2015 will go down as the year I read a ton of outstanding nonfiction. So much outstanding nonfiction did I read over the course of the year that I now find it difficult to compile my annual year-end top 10 list. Even if I expand my list from 10 to 12, I’m still leaving off a few books that any other year would have surely made the cut. I guess this is happens when you read a lot of great books!

  1. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen – Interested in infectious diseases like AIDS, Ebola and SARS and how they “jump” from animals to humans? Then this is your book.
  2. The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? by Doug Saunders – Appalled and angered by the recent Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino? Sick of Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric? Saunders’ book is essential reading for anyone wanting to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges facing the modern secular West.
  3. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson – Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness brought this book to my attention four  years ago, but I needed my book club to make me read it. Fantastic book about America’s great African-American migration and its lasting impact.
  4. 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann – Just like  with The Warmth of Other Suns, it took my book club to make me finally read this excellent book. If you’re a Guns, Germs and Steel kind of reader, then this book is definitely for you.
  5. Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright – I expected great things from the author of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. His detailed, intimate and well-written account the Camp David Peace summit did not disappoint me.
  6. The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird – Yet another book I have Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness to thank for bringing to my attention. Calling it “one of the more comprehensive yet readable books” on the Middle East she’s encountered, I’d have to say the same thing. I found it a great follow-up to Bird’s 2010 book Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978If you can, read it alongside Wright’s Thirteen Days in September.
  7. The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler – Found this little gem last year at a church book sale. Just like Warmth of Other Suns it’s full of great social history.
  8. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder – Why oh why did I wait five years before reading this superb piece of nonfiction? 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.” No wonder it’s probably the best book on the Holocaust I’ve ever read.
  9. Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum- I loved Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 so much it wound up being my favorite nonfiction book of 2013. Guess what? I loved her 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winner Gulag: A History even more.
  10. The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan I. Koerner – Back in 2013 this book generated a lot of buzz. In 2015 I finally read it.  An entertaining, fast-paced and fascinating look at America during the turbulent early 70s, as seen through the lens of the era’s great “skyjacking” craze. More great social history.
  11. The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein –  After praising the hell out of this book back in early November I don’t think I can say anything else more repeating myself. Just go read it and thank me later.
  12. The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass – Thank you to Goodreads for introducing me to this Pulitzer Prize-finalist book. Ever wonder why maps from the 50s and 60s show Pakistan bordering India not just on the West but also on the East? Blood Telegram is the horrible, fascinating and now-forgotten story of how the nation of Bangladesh came to be. It’s also the story of how America looked the other way during one of the 20th century’s worst genocides.

Looking at this list, several things jump out at me. Foremost, it certainly reflects my interest in The Middle East, American social history, 20th century history and science. Several of these books are by authors who impressed me in the past and did not disappointment me this second time around. Also, several of these books won major awards or were finalists. Lastly, it looks like five books on this list each weigh in at over 500 pages in length. Perhaps with books, as it is with other things in life, bigger is better.

Since I read so many excellent books this year, it’s hard to say which is my favorite nonfiction book of 2015. After much consideration, the winner goes to Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge. His outstanding book beat out Gulag and Bloodlands by the narrowest of margins, with The Warmth of Other Suns, Thirteen Days in September and The Good Spy also strong finishers. But considering the overall quality of these 12 above-mentioned books, top to bottom it’s probably the best assortment of books I’ve read in a long, long time.

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