Nonfiction November Week 1: My Year in Nonfiction

Nonfiction-November-2015-300x300After taking last year off, I’m pleased to announce my triumphant return to Nonfiction November. Ha ha! I’m baaaaaaaaaack!

Ok, enough of my silliness.  Since I’m feeling tired and lazy, I’m going to rip-off Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness and use her recent post as a template. So let’s get things kicked off by me asking the same question that last year’s Nonfiction November participants were asked: look back on the year and share some thoughts on my reading life:

Your Year in Nonfiction: Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

If I had to describe my reading year, I’d say this is year I finally read so many of those books I’ve been wanting to read for soooo long. Usually, these books end up being featured in my ongoing About Time I Read It series. While some of my readers might be slightly disappointed to read about a book that was published, 2, 5 or even 10 years ago, who cares. A quality book is still a quality book, no matter when it was published!

Again, copying Kim’s template I’m also approaching this week’s topic in survey style:

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

In 2015 I read a ton of terrific nonfiction, probably more than in any previous year. Therefore, it’s going to be difficult to select just one book as my favorite nonfiction book of the year. Right there’s a host of likely candidates up for consideration. There’s Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David and Doug Saunders’s The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?  But as fantastic as all those books happen to be, Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan is probably the most outstanding piece of nonfiction I’ve read so far in 2015.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

Again, another tough question. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been raving about The Invisible Bridge. Of course, taking a longer view of 2015, I can remember recommending several of my favorites to anyone willing to listen. Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the DarkMichael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time and Aaron Lansky’s Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books I’m sure have all been mentioned by me at one time or another. There’s probably more than a few other nonfiction books I’ve sung the praises of but right now I just can remember.

What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet?

I like to read a lot of history, international relations, comparative religion and memoirs. Read enough of this stuff and you start asking questions not just what or how something happened in history but also why it happened. As part of my quest to know why things happened, in 2016 I see myself reading stuff that could be philosophical, metaphysical, theological and scientific.

I’m also toying with the idea of reading important and notable books that were published in a specific year, like the year I was born or turned 10 years old or graduated from high school. I’m thinking this could end up being a fun little exercise in intellectual nostalgia.

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

Ahh, a good question. One, I wanna get more book recommendations. Not every excellent book gets reviewed in the New York Times, talked about on NPR or featured on Book Riot. There’s a lot of quality stuff that unfortunately stays under the radar. With that in mind, I’m looking to my fellow book bloggers to enlighten me when it comes to great works of nonfiction that aren’t well-known.  Two, I wanna discover new book blogs. I mean come on, the Internet is a pretty big place. I’m sure there’s some great book blogs out there I’ve never visited. Nonfiction November could bring these wonderful blogs to my attention.


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The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein

51IHs1aaTML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been blogging about books for over half a decade. During that time, I hopefully I’ve learned a thing or two. Beyond a doubt, one of the things I’ve learned is it’s painfully hard for me for me to write about a book I truly enjoyed. Let’s face it, if it’s a book you hated or even didn’t care much for, your job is easy. You just write anything, not caring or feeling obligated in any way. But if it’s one of those rare books that grabbed you from the start and never let go, then you have a problem.

How then, can my review do any justice to Rick Perlstein’s outstanding 2014 book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan? This 800-plus page book I found myself reading every spare moment. This is a book as deep as it is wide. While devouring it not once did I find myself bored or overwhelmed. I easily found it readable, fascinating, revealing and entertaining. Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge is all things almost at once: a Reagan biography, an expose of the morally bankrupt Nixon administration, a detailed look at American politics in the years following the Vietnam War and lastly, a comprehensive survey of pertinent American social history. Since I’ve always felt outstanding books demand outstanding reviews, I’m not sure I’m up to the task to adequately reviewing The Invisible Bridge. But alas, I must. Therefore, I’m left with no other choice but to follow Jedi Master Yoda’s advice of “do not try, only do” and proceed.

I have the good people at Real Clear Books to thank for bringing this outstanding book to my attention. After following their posted link and reading the featured review, I was intrigued enough to put the book on my to be read list. Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me so I placed a hold on the book with my public library. Once a copy became available I dived in. As you can guess Perlstein’s book did not disappoint.

Perlstein’s book spans the years, roughly speaking, from 1972 to 1976. Employing a kind of framing, The Invisible Bridge is bookended at the beginning with the release of American POWs in early 1973 and ends with the Republican Party political convention. Perlstein’s choice in doing so seems fitting not only because of the events’ significance, (one symbolizing the end to US  military involvement in SE Asia and the other a restart of America’s political order in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate) but also how both events were utilized as political theater, since Nixon spent a year parading the former POWs around to bolster his sagging popularity.

While no small part of this book is a Reagan biography, Perlstein in no way ignores the other major personalities of this era. True to the book’s subtitle, Perlstein traces Nixon’s slow, painful implosion. Taking into account Nixon’s reckless demagoguery, morose nature and poor company that he kept (Google Spiro Agnew and G. Gordon Liddy sometime and you’ll see what I mean), in addition to his paranoia, antisemitic rants, drunkenness and deep-seated hatred of East Coast elites one wonders how in the world the man got elected not once but twice. Perlstein also recalls the brief administration of Gerald Ford , a man perhaps a bit forgotten to history. With his pro-choice, pro-ERA wife Betty as First Lady, it’s doubtful by today’s Republican Party standards he could win his party’s nomination.

The Democrat’s Jimmy Carter is here as well. Perlstein charts in detail his rise from obscurity to presidential nominee and all of it made for interesting reading. While liberals reading this book will relish in Reagan’s shortcomings like his messed up family, (Nancy sounds completely awful) his almost pathological pro-big business stance and the like, Carter also takes some hits. Even during is early days running as an anti-Washington, dark horse reform candidate he quickly earned a reputation for speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He also drew scrutiny for having a cozy relationship with segregationist George Wallace. Yes, tales of his “born again” experience might have won over many of America’s devout voters, leaving pundits and journalists intrigued. However, this conversion did not occur within the respectable confines of his local Baptist Church. Oddly enough, it was his sister, portrayed as Perlstein as a kind of religious eccentric who was instrumental in bringing about this spiritual re-awakening.

After reading The Invisible Bridge you get a pretty good idea just how seminal an era this was. As Watergate dominated the news a young Karl Rove enlisted Republican college students in supporting the beleaguered President Nixon. Although Ford’s time in the White House didn’t last very long, it nevertheless jumped started the careers of both Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Modern political fundraising through direct mail was also born. Watergate, the Church Commission on CIA abuses, New York City’s bankruptcy, and windfall profits made by Big Oil during the energy crises would all help erode America’s confidence in traditional institutions. The first 1970s energy crises, was the result of an Arab oil embargo protesting America’s support of Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Bloodied but emboldened from the war, several years later Egypt would make peace overtures to Israel. These first steps would lead to the Camp David Accords and with it Egypt’s separate peace with Israel. But Camp David did not resolve the Palestinian problem. And that problem is with us to this day.

Each year, in late December I post my list of the year’s best nonfiction. Right now the question isn’t whether The Invisible Bridge makes that list or not. The question is whether or not it ends up being my favorite book of 2015. Like I mentioned at the beginning, this is an outstanding book. Consider it highly recommended.

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Pan-European Lives: Night Soldiers by Alan Furst

51WN712VYPL._SX305_BO1,204,203,200_Back in July I featured Alan Furst’s 1996 novel The World at Night. In my post, I came to the conclusion that even though I was happy to read another of one Furst’s Night Soldiers novels I didn’t enjoy The World at Night nearly as much as I had his other novels. But hey, as far as I’m concerned even a so-so Alan Furst novel is better than a lot of stuff out there out currently being passed off as quality fiction.

Of course, I wasn’t going to let one minor disappointment stand in my way of reading the rest of Furst’s stuff. So, when I learned my public library had an available copy of Night Soldiers, I jumped at the opportunity to borrow it. And why shouldn’t I? After all, this is the novel that kicked off the 13 book long Night Soldiers series. A series that I’ve fallen head over heels for.

Published back in 1988, Night Soldiers begins in 1934 in an out-of-the-way, one-horse town in Bulgaria. Young local boy Khristo Stoianev winds up being recruited by a Soviet intelligence agent after Stoianev’s brother is beaten to death by fascist thugs. After being trained in the USSR in the finer points of spy craft and guerrilla warfare, (and seeing firsthand people around him vanish one by one, thanks to Stalin’s reign of terror) he’s off the Spain to fight the fascist Nationalists. From there it’s off to France and then Hungary.

Much of what can be found within the pages of Night Soldiers I would consider to be classic Alan Furst. It’s set on the European Continent. Action jumps from one county to another. There’s a dashing male protagonist who finds himself somewhat reluctantly pressed into the role of secret agent. Lastly, just like any Night Soldiers novels there’s time spent in Paris, including the obligatory visit to the Furst’s favorite restaurant the Brasserie Heninger.

But along with those similarities, there are differences as well. Night Soldiers is a more sweeping, chronologically speaking when compared to other books in this series, since it covers a time period of about six years. The protagonist in Night Soldiers, is younger than the 30-40 year old hero found in the rest of Furst’s novels. Lastly, it’s definitely the longest Alan Furst novel I’ve read so far, weighing in at just over 500 pages.

In conclusion, I’m pretty sure I enjoyed Night Soldiers more than I enjoyed The World at Night. I’m entirely sure why, but my guess is when compared to The World at Night, Night Soldiers felt like it had more of everything: action, intrigue, history and scope. Hard to go wrong when an international thriller has all of that.

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Memoirs of Faith: Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman

511w7EIzAhL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_I have a weakness for memoirs. I have a huge weakness for memoirs by individuals who have left insular religious communities. Decades ago, I read Paul Hendrickson’s 1983 memoir Seminary: A Search. After that I was hooked. More recently, over the last five years I’ve read and enjoyed Kyria Abrahams’s I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing, Veronica Chater’s Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family and Christine Rosen’s My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine GirlhoodThese first person accounts of growing up in closed-off and restrictive religious worlds and the frequently painful process of questioning, challenging and finally leaving these closed communities always makes for reading that’s both intellectually stimulating and personally inspiring. Because I love these kind of memoirs so much, I’m always on the lookout for more of them.

I’d seen reviews and mentionings of Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots floating around the Internet for the past several years. When I found an available copy through my public library I decided to take a chance on it, hoping it was one of those “leaving a religious community” kind of memoirs I love to read. After burning through Unorthodox in what must have been only a few days. I’m glad I did. Not only does Feldman write well, she does a fine job telling a unique and interesting story about religious community that few outsiders know anything about.

Even for someone brought up in an extreme Orthodox Jewish community, Feldman’s story is a unique one. Her parents met through an arranged marriage, with her English mother moving to America to marry the man who would end up being Feldman’s father. Not long after Feldman’s birth, her parents would divorce    resulting in her mother leaving both her religion and family behind. Also about the same time, her extended family came to the realization her father suffered from some sort of mental disability, making him reliant on the charity of others. Left essentially an orphan, Feldman would be raised by her relatives in a strict Satmar Orthodox community in New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood. At 17 she was married off in an arranged marriage and gave birth to a son a two years later. But soon she grew disillusioned with both her marriage and above all, life in the Satmar world. With little support and almost no secular education under her belt, she enrolled in college. Provided with a decent, secular education and surrounded by a wide range of intelligent and supporting individuals Feldman finally felt free and confident to live her life however she wanted to live it.

If you end up reading Feldman’s Unorthodox, (either because of, or in spite of what I’ve written here) and you too end up enjoying it, there’s two other books you should read. The first one, probably to no one’s surprise, is Chaim Potok’s classic American novel The Chosen. The other book, only slightly less well-known than Potok’s novel, is Warren Kozak’s The Rabbi of 84th Street: The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser.  Of course if that’s not enough and you want more, according to Amazon there’s whole batch of memoirs by former Orthodox Jews out there just waiting to be read, including Feldman’s follow-up memoir Exodus. So don’t be surprised if you see more of these kind of memoirs featured on my blog.

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The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley

51P4EvCSryL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_When I discovered my public library had an available copy of James Bradley’s 2009 book The Imperial Cruise: A Short History I didn’t grab it because I’d read his previous books Flags of Our Fathers or Flyboys. I grabbed it because after reading two books on the year 1913, (one by Charles Emmerson and the other by Florian Illies) I was in the mood to read another book about the pre-First World War world. Since Imperial Cruise is Bradley’s examination of the geopolitical power plays and secret diplomacy in the year 1905 I thought it would make the perfect follow-up read.

However, The Imperial Cruise turned out to be one of those books I didn’t expect it to be. The thought of a luxury cruise liner packed full of American politicians in addition to President Teddy Roosevelt’s slightly scandalous 21-year-old daughter and her congressman suitor (a man considerably older, not to mention a notorious womanizer and frequent customer of Washington’s brothels) crossing the Pacific Ocean on a secret mission to remake North Asia’s political landscape sounded like it might be another In the Garden of Beasts. But alas, it was not to be. Mostly, the book is Bradley’s attempt to explain US foreign policy as product of America’s imperialistic desires, desires rooted in white Anglo-Saxon racial superiority. Once the American West was conquered and its native population either killed off or subjugated, America turned its hungry eyes towards Hawaii, Cuba, Guam and the Philippines.

According to Bradley, the Japanese were secretly given a green light by Teddy Roosevelt to flex their new-found military muscle in North Asia. (It had to be secret because any treaty signed by the President needs to be ratified by Congress.) This would lead to Korea being annexed, Russia’s army and navy bested in battle and vast stretches of China conquered and occupied. Four decades later this American-approved Japanese blueprint for imperial expansion would eventually lead to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and four years of bloody conflict in Asia and the Pacific.

I found The Imperial Cruise a fast-paced read and learned a lot about America’s overthrow of Hawaii and its bloody pacification of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. The stuff on the Russo-Japanese War was interesting too. But overall, how much did I enjoy the book? Well, I felt some parts were very good while some parts were kind of just OK. Perhaps like a lot of readers, I’m not sure I bought everything Bradley served up, but it made for an interesting book. (He’s taken a lot of hits on Amazon with many, if not most readers being highly critical of his historical analysis.) With all that in mind, I think I’d like to give his latest book The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia a shot. It looks promising.

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About Time I Read It: Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden

Why oh why did I wait so long to read Black Hawk Down? Published in 1999, Mark Bowden’s book received critical praise and was a commercial success, in addition to inspiring a 2001 motion picture adaptation that was highly successful in its own right, winning two Oscars and performing robustly at the box office. Hitting a literary home run with Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War,  Bowden built on his success with a parade of well-received nonfiction offerings like Killing Pablo, Guests of the Ayatollah and Worm. Yet, despite all of this, I never read his 15-year-old book until just recently.

By now, I’m sure most of you are familiar with what the book is about. In 1993 an elite American military team invaded a hostile Somali neighborhood in hopes of capturing agents of a local warlord who’d been coordinating attacks on the international peacekeeping forces assigned to the area. After encountering surprisingly strong and well-coordinated resistance from local Somali fighters several American helicopters were shot down.  (Assisted in no small part by al-Qaeda operatives well-versed in the art of bringing down helicopters thanks to their years of experience fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.) Pinned down by hostile fire and surrounded by enemy forces, the numbers of American dead and wounded began to climb rapidly. What started as a quick, surgical “snatch mission” soon degenerated into a bloody fight for survival.

This book did not disappoint. Like many readers, I enjoyed Bowden’s ability to vividly describe events on the ground as they unfolded, especially from the perspectives of both US and opposing Somali forces. I also enjoyed the Bowden’s account of how the international peacekeeping forces went from being seen by many Somalis as benevolent humanitarians to hated occupiers, thanks to the peacekeepers’ political missteps and heavy-handedness. Probably the biggest surprise for me anyway was the degree of rivalry and animosity between Delta Force and Rangers. During their time in Somalia the more elite Delta Force soldiers saw the Rangers as inferior fighters, lacking in ambition, intelligence and ability. On the other hand, the Rangers saw their Delta Force compatriots as arrogant and over privileged. Of course, once the bullets began to fly and the blood flowed, these bitter frenemies would have no choice but to depend upon each other for survival.

I’ve heard Black Hawk Down is *the* book to read when it comes to modern urban combat in a developing country. After finally getting around to reading it, I could not agree more.


Filed under Africa, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, History

1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson

51bHWpRHiSL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Well, after reading one excellent book about the year 1913 why not read another? As soon as I discovered my public library had an available copy of Charles Emmerson’s 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War I immediately grabbed it. And why not? When life gives you the opportunity read the perfect follow-up to a book you jump on it. So I did.

While Illies took an almost exclusively Continental European focus when he looked at the year 1913, Emmerson’s 1913 takes a more sweeping global approach. Yes, the goings on in great European cities like London, Vienna, Berlin and Paris are all here. But unlike Illies, Emmerson widens his lens to include New World cities like New York, Washington and Los Angeles, not to mention up and coming places like Winnipeg, Detroit and Buenos Aires. Mexico City, plagued by civil war and general anarchy, was more akin to present-day Somalia and not the sophisticated Latin American capital it is today.

Also in his book, Emmerson divides the globe into the declining world, touring Istanbul, Peking, Shanghai, Durban, Bombay (beside being British Empire have their own connection. Hint: think Gandhi) and the up and coming part of the world like vibrant Tokyo. 1913 concludes with another look at London, which in Emmerson’s estimation may or may not be on the decline. Yes, London is the capital of one the world’s richest and most powerful nations on earth. However, on the international stage the nation’s been badly bruised by the brief but costly Boer War. Domestically, labor unrest grips Britain while women battle in the streets for the right to vote. Economically, the nation that was once considered the world’s leading powerhouse has slipped to second place with America taking the lead. And Germany is closing fast.

Reading his 1913, it’s hard to believe that World War I is around the corner. Just like with Illes book, the world of 1913 seems as interconnected as today. Thousands of German men are working in Great Britain while Russian and Germany are major trade partners. It was also the golden age of international travel, thanks to steamships, railways, widespread travel guides and professional travel agencies like Britain’s Thomas Cooke. Countless artists, both visual and literary prefer to live as expats far from the nations of their birth, embracing a kind of early post-modern cosmopolitanism.

Not only is this a great “how the world became modern” kind of books but also one that shows how the fortunes of nations rise and fall, or at least wax and wane. According to Emmerson, in 1913 Detroit was on the brink of being a world-class industrial powerhouse while on the opposite side of the world Shanghai was poor, broken and decrepit. Today the fortunes of those two cities have completely reversed. After two devastating World Wars Berlin, St. Petersburg and Tokyo and risen and fallen and then risen back again.

Emmerson’s 1913 is a very good book. Of course, if you can read both 1913 books back to back I doubt you’ll be disappointed. I had a good time doing so and my guess is you will too.


Filed under History