A 17-year-old semi-educated boy from a podunk town in Germany lands in America with a bogus visa and almost no money. 30 years later he’s standing trial in an American courtroom accused of not just of kidnapping and custodial interference, but more importantly spending three decades deceiving countless people into believing he was everything from a British royal, Hollywood producer, Wall Street wiz kid, and at the end of his fantastic run of deception a wealthy member of the Rockefeller clan. Several years after his convictions for those crimes, he would be convicted once again, this time for a double murder he committed while living in one of Southern California’s most exclusive communities. The amazing life of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, as portrayed by Mark Seal in his 2011 book The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter makes the Talented Mr. Ripley look like a mere amateur.
Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness, back in 2011 might have been the first blogger to bring this book to my attention. Even though the book generated a decent amount of buzz I never got around to reading it. Whenever I’d visit the public library and see The Man in the Rockefeller Suit on the shelf I’d be tempted to check in out, but never did. Then not long ago I found myself in the mood for a book like The Man in the Rockefeller Suit and was luckily for me my public library happened to have an available copy. Lucky indeed was I because I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Like all good books I waiting too long to read I kicked myself for not reading it sooner.
When it comes to The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, two things struck me. Number one, the sad irony is Gerhartsreiter for all his crimes and faults is a highly intelligent, charming and industrious individual. Had he applied himself to any number of legitimate endeavors he would have lived a successful and prosperous life. Number two, while those of a cynical bent might shrug their shoulders and say the real reason Gerhartsreiter had so much success as a con artist is all people, no matter how sophisticated they are, have some sort of deep-seated need to be deceived. I on the other hand think the reason Gerhartsreiter was able to fool so many people is all of us, in some way or another yearn to enter the world of the rich and famous. By telling folks he was a Rockefeller or British aristocrat people believed him because they enjoyed basking in his glamour. In short, just like the UFO poster in Fox Mulder’s office from TV’s The X-Files they believed because they wanted to believe.
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit is one heck of a page-turner and easily one of those most enjoyable books I’ve read this year. Consider it highly recommended.
After spending a quiet evening watching a pair of Frontline episodes on the rise of ISIS I found myself wanting to learn more about the feared Islamist organization. Later on, I happened to see my public library had an available copy of William McCants’ The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. Figuring now is as good as any other time to read up on the organization that’s dominated the headlines over the last couple of years I grabbed it. Fortunately for me, like almost all of the library books I’ve borrowed of late McCants’ book is pretty darn good.
Published in 2015, McCants’ book I suspect is unique among books about ISIS and al-Qaeda. McCants, in order to explain how ISIS came to be, recruits followers and strives to build an Islamic state shows how the organization took and continues to take inspiration and guidance from not just the Quran and the Hadith (the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad) but especially medieval Islamic apocalyptic literature. Traditionally, most Sunni Muslims shied away from these esoteric writings, deeming them inspiration for crackpots or worse, the kind of holy scriptures dreaded Shia would follow. But in the hands of ISIS, they serve as a priceless playbook.
According to McCants the ISIS break from al-Qaeda was a major paradigm shift. Al-Qaeda wanted to draw Western, especially American military forces into the Middle East in hopes of inflicting a crippling defeat, eventually resulting in America’s decline. (After all, it worked it worked against the USSR in Afghanistan.) With America and its Western allies no longer able to support its client states in the Middle East al-Qaeda could resurrect the Caliph of old. While attacks on Western targets were fine, al-Qaeda ideologues stressed the necessity of Arab unity and that meant being careful not to inflict Arab civilian casualties.
But ISIS had a different game plan. Instead of fighting the West, ISIS preferred to seize territory within Arab world and begin the Caliph now, not sometime in the distant future. It’s had its best success in places like Syria, where President al-Assad has been willing to largely leave the group alone (as long as it doesn’t attack Damascus and is more interested in fighting other rebel groups) and Iraq where the country’s Shia-dominated government has limited influence in the Sunni regions. And as far as limiting Arab casualties, ISIS took the opposite approach. The more public beheadings, genocide and suicide bombings the better.
What impressed me the most with The ISIS Apocalypse is McCants’ scholarship. Besides being fluent in Arabic, his knowledge of the above-mentioned medieval Islamic writings is impressive. I was pleased with The ISIS Apocalypse and like any good book it’s left me wanting to read more. Therefore, get ready to see more books on ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Middle East featured on this blog.
By now I think all of you know I’m a huge sucker for prison memoirs. I don’t care if they’re by former inmates, guards or even prison librarians just pass them my way ’cause I’ll read ’em all. You also probably know by now I’m also a huge sucker for books about books. Over the years I’ve featured books about bookstores, book collectors and even book thieves. So, when I discovered my public library had a book called The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison do you think I thought twice before grabbing it? Of course not.
Published in June of this year, Brottman’s memoir is a look back on the two years she spent leading a book club in a maximum-security men’s prison in Maryland. Her club consisted of 10 or so convicted felons, all of them from severely disadvantaged backgrounds and modestly educated at best. Assigned to read sophisticated works of literature like Lolita, Heart of Darkness and Macbeth, the men in her group would share their thoughts of these great books and along the way, voice their opinions about life in prison, not to mention life in general. Like any good teacher, Brottman learned much from her experience, just as the men learned much from her. Perhaps most importantly, she learned in a prison those in power frequently exercise that power absolutely and arbitrarily.
I must have liked Brottman’s memoir because I whipped through it in what felt like no time. While I’m not sure if it will make my Best of List for 2016, it’s a strong honorable mention candidate. In no way did The Maximum Security Book Club leave me disappointed.
When it comes to the world of nonfiction, I think every author wants to write a book that’s well-written, well-researched and filled with fascinating details. I’m sure many of those authors as they strive to incorporate as much detail as possible into their books have to make sure they don’t include too much information. Even though I appreciate great research and strong scholarship, the inclusion of too much detail can mar a promising work of nonfiction. While many praised Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital I was not one of them. Impressed as I was by project she undertook, I thought she included too many details and her book could have used a little editing. On a related note, I’m starting to feel the same way about Mark Molesky’s This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason. (It’s taken me forever to work my way through Molesky’s 2015 book.) The trick is to include just the right amount of detail without overloading the reader.
Nisid Hajari, with his 2015 book Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition pulls this off with flying colors. Not only is Midnight’s Furies well-written and well-researched it has a ton of detail. But not too much detail. That my friends, is the beauty of a book like Midnight’s Furies.
Midnight’s Furies is one of those books I saw featured on Amazon or Goodreads and vowed to someday read. When I found an available copy thanks to my public library I grabbed it. Despite making the mistake of trying to read it while I was reading several other books I eventually powered my way through it. In the end was not disappointed.
After reading several books, both fiction and nonfiction dealing with the Indian Partition, I considered myself pretty knowledgeable when it came to one of modern history’s bloodiest ethnic exchanges. I’m pleased to say Hajari’s book taught me much and helped give me a deeper understanding of not just how the Partition unfolded but what caused it. And all of it made for excellent reading.
According to Hajari, if British India was going to be split into two nations, it was going to be one hell of a mess. Mohammad Ali Jinnah and his followers knew Pakistan could not exist as a viable state without the major population regions of Punjab and Bengal. Even splitting both regions between India and Pakistan would leave huge numbers of Muslims in India and Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan. These sizable minorities would need to be protected or relocated peacefully. (In the end, neither happened and the result was horrific.) With huge numbers of Sikhs forced from their homes in East Punjab many felt cheated by Pakistan, but also by India for not allowing them to set up their own independent Sikhistan. Angry but also well-armed, well-organized and possessing a long martial tradition, the Sikh community’s ability to project deadly force added to the bloodbath. On top of it all, both Pakistan and India coveted the lovely Kashmir. India would outmaneuver Pakistan for the lion’s share of this prize. But by doing so would sow the seeds of an ongoing conflict that plagues India to this day.
Midnight’s Furies is an excellent book and must reading for anyone wanting to understand today’s rivalry between Pakistan and India. Consider this book highly recommended.
Greetings everyone! Sorry for my lack of posts. Don’t worry, everything is fine. No, I haven’t fallen off the edge of the earth. It’s been a busy, but enjoyable summer. With the nice weather, full social calendar and Sunday morning urban hikes I haven’t been able to blog like I have in the past. But while that might be bad news for my blog, the good news is I’ve read a ton of excellent nonfiction.
In the past whenever I would get behind in my blogging I’d do a massive catch-up post in which I’d briefly list all the books I’ve read with a few comments about each book. This time around, while I’d love to do that, I just can’t. These are quality books and quality books deserve their due. They need to be praised, or at the very least written about in some length. Therefore, I’ve decided to do a kind of preview post in which I tell you what I’ve read, with the expectation that I’ll write about these book in the coming days. Hopefully, this will not only tell you what I’ve been reading, but also inspire me to blog. So, with all that in mind, here’s what I’ve read this summer.
Julie from Smiling Shelves has an excellent blog. Back in March, she did a post called “Books I Desperately Want to Read “ in which she listed the top 10 books currently on her to be read list (TBR). Not only did I enjoy reading her post and learning what was on the horizon for her, reading-wise but it also inspired me to do a similar kind of post. I can’t speak for all book bloggers, but it seems like you get so wrapped up in trying to review all the books you’re been reading that you never take time to reflect on the stuff you want to read. Sometimes it feels like all work and no dreaming. And I’ve always felt if you take away a person’s dreams, then what do you have left?
With all that in mind, I’ve decided follow Julie’s lead and blog about some of the books I’ve been wanting to read. I’ve also decided to put my own kind of twist on things and tell you about some books I’ve been wanting to read for a long. long time. None of these books are currently in my possession, so that means I’ll need to buy, beg, borrow or steal them. (One of them, Cross X, isn’t even in my public library.) I’ve restricted this list to nonfiction, not because I dislike fiction but because I’m saving that stuff for another posting. Keeping in mind there’s millions of books out there I wanna read, these are at the top of a very special list.
- 1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport – It feels wrong to include a book I actually checked out once from the library only to later return it unread, but there’s something about this book that refuses to let me not read it. It’s hard to imagine in today’s world that over 150 years ago a wave of violent uprisings swept across the Continent from the English Channel to the borders of Russia. This was 19th century Europe’s “Arab Spring.”
- Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire by Simon Winchester – I’ve always had a fascination with the British Empire’s far-flung possessions like the Falklands, Ascension Island and St. Helena. Before I dive into Winchester’s more recent offerings Pacific and Atlantic I wanna read this little forgotten treat from 1985.
- Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings – Five years ago when I saw Max Hastings interviewed on Book TV about this book I was blown away. Sounds like this is a book like no other when it comes describing the scope and depth of World War II’s massive cost in human life.
- Cross-X: The Amazing True Story of How the Most Unlikely Team from the Most Unlikely of Places Overcame Staggering Obstacles at Home and at School to Challenge the Debate Community on Race, Power, and Education by Joe Miller – It’s not the book’s incredible long subtitle that’s been making me want to read this for 10 years. I wanna see how an inner-city high school’s built a world-class debate team. Bring it!
- The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914 by Philipp Blom – I’ve always been fascinated by the decade leading up to World War I. Years ago I had a chance to grab a copy of The Vertigo Years during one of my visits to the public library and passed on it. I’m still kicking myself.
- Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future by Will Bunch – Just like 1848, I borrowed a copy from my library only to return it unread. Reading Rick Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge last year rekindled my interest in Bunch’s book.
- Resurrecting Hebrew by Ilan Stavans – I’ve had great luck over the years with the Jewish Encounters Series. I’m hoping with Resurrecting Hebrew my luck will continue to hold.
- James Dobson’s War on America by Gil Alexander-Moegerle – This one has been on my list to read since 1997. Perhaps 2016 is the year I finally read it.
- When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry by Gal Beckerman – Soviet Jews trying to flee the Soviet Union was a huge deal in the 70s and early 80s and it’s always fascinated me. After coming across Beckerman’s book a few years ago at Portland State University’s bookstore I’ve been wanting to read it ever since.
- The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded American is Tearing Us Apart by Bill Bishop – Ever notice that conservatives prefer living in places like Texas and Mississippi while liberals seek out big cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles? As a long time resident of Portland, OR my city’s political and social landscape has changed considerably thanks in no small part to the large number of young progressives who’ve moved here over the last few decades. With that in mind, The Big Sort has been on my radar for a long, long time.
- Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus by Thomas Cahill – I’ve read all of Cahill’s Hinges of History books except this one. Will this be the year I finally read it? I hope so.
- The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan by Gregory Feifer – I’ve been wanting to read this one ever since I saw it for sale in the History Book Club’s monthly catalog. After recently reading Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century in which he discusses what led up to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan I really wanna read The Great Gamble.
- The Passion Of The Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World Views by Richard Tarnas – I’ve wanted to read this book for years, but I have no idea how I found out about it. I keep thinking I might have seen a guy reading it at the bus stop. Honestly though, I’m really not sure how I first learned about this book. But who cares, I’ll just read it.
- Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan – I think I have Amy from Amy Reads to thank for bringing this book to my attention. With this being the hundred year anniversary of the First World War there’s no time like now to get started on this book.
- The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped the Cold War by John V. Fleming – I’ve been itching to read this since 2011 when I read the classic 1949 anthology The God That Failed: Six Studies in Communism. Since I have a soft spot for anti-totalitarianism I have a hunch I’ll enjoy Fleming’s 2009 book.
While I’d love to you I’m going to read all of these by year’s end we all know that’s not going to happen. But I would like to slowly but surely begin to make my way through this list of books since I’ve wanted to read them for years. I would also like to believe just as a person could be defined by the books he/she reads, a person could also be defined by the books he/she has been wanting to read. If that is indeed the case, then this is a list worth sharing.
Alan Furst is one of my favorite contemporary fiction writers and when he highly recommends a book, I take notice. One night while searching my public library’s online database I noticed there was an available copy of Matthew Brzezinski’s Isaac’s Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland. Since I already had a ton of library books in my possession I was a bit hesitant to borrow one more. But with Alan Furst giving Isaac’s Army a glowing recommendation, calling the book “a riveting account of the Jewish resistance in wartime Poland” how could I say no. After making my way through Isaac’s Army I can happily say Mr. Furst did not steer me wrong. Isaac’s Army is a superb book and probably one the best books on the Holocaust I’ve ever read.
Published in 2012, Brzezinski’s (yes, he’s related to President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski since he’s his nephew) book begins with Warsaw on the eve of German invasion. Cursed with having Nazi Germany on the West and Stalin’s USSR on the East, the country’s leaders nervously and with overconfidence look to Britain and France to hold back the invading tide. Even though Poland’s right-wing authoritarian regime has been showing its antisemitic stripes of late, overall, the Jews of Warsaw are doing well. With half a million Jews calling Warsaw home, the Polish capital isn’t just one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Eastern Europe, it’s a vibrant and populous Jewish mecca.
But then came the Nazi and Soviet onslaughts. After Poland’s crushing defeat Warsaw’s Jews were eventually exiled to the city’s newly created ghetto. Behind the Warsaw Ghetto’s walls parallel power structures and factions materialized, and some of its residence acting out of desperation, venality or naivety became informers, or even collaborators. Before the final round of deportations to the Death Camps, the ghetto’s last residents staged a furious uprising. Believing the Jews were cowardly and too timid to fight back, the Nazi’s were completely taken off guard. Although the rising was ultimately crushed, a number of brave, resourceful and lucky souls escaped death through the sewers. Some of these fighters went on to take part in another failed insurrection a year later, when the Polish Underground rose up against the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising.
What separates Isaac’s Army from your typical books on WWII is this a book about individuals, not armies and generals. Through Brzezinski’s eyes you see their day-to-day struggles over a six-year period. Since they are presented as real people fighting a merciless and powerful enemy of demonic proportions, readers of Isaac’s Army are able to see them as flesh and blood individuals. Contrary to what Stalin would have liked the world to believe, they are human beings, not statistics.
Brzezinski’s book is incredibly researched and contains tons of detail without feeling dry or tedious. So impressed was I with Isaac’s Army that I’m pretty confident it’ll make my year-end Best of List. Just like I did in my previous post with Christian Caryl book Strange Rebels, consider this book highly recommended.