Nonfiction November: New To My TBR

Once again another annual Nonfiction November celebration has come to an end. This year, just as in past years I’m left with a ton of suggestions to add to my ever expanding to be read (TBR) list. This year Katie at Doing Dewey has been kind enough to host the final week of Nonfiction November.

New to My TBR : It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!

With so many talented bloggers participating in this year’s festivities there’s no shortage of recommendations available. I’m pleased to say I discovered an abundance of promising books, as well as a half dozen or so book blogs I’ll now be actively following.  As a result my TBR has exploded with new titles and who knows when I’ll get around to reading any of these intriguing works of nonfiction. But since they all look great who cares. 

Nonfiction November: Be the Expert

Last week Julie of Julz Reads hosted Nonfiction November and this week another favorite blogger of mine, Rennie of What’s Nonfiction has agreed to host. Keeping with tradition, she’s begins with the following invitation:

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Last year I discussed prison memoirs. The year before that it was books by or about women who’d forgone religion, be it Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Three year ago I recommended books about Iran by Iranian authors and for 2020 I’ve decided to take a similar approach, but with a slight twist. Instead of focusing on books about a particular country written by citizens or former citizens of that county I’d like to recommend books about a country written by outsiders, be they visitors or foreign residents. Specifically, I’ll be discussing books about Italy by non-Italians. If I had to give my post a tittle I might call it Italy: An Outsider’s Perspective.  

  • The City of Falling Angels by John Barendt – Anyone who’s read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil knows Berendt has a gift for discovering quirky, memorable people and bringing their stories to life. In 1996, after a suspicious fire destroys Venice’s historic La Fenice opera house, Berendt emereses himself among the city’s eccentric and unique characters, many of them expatriates. 
  • The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi – Lots of authors write books about serial killings. But when the local authorities start to suspect the author could be murder, then things get weird. The Monster of Florence is biting expose of Italian society, from its chaotic politics, corrupt and capricious legal system, regional antagonisms and national love of wild conspiracy theories. According to Preston and Spezi, Italy resembles less a modern European democracy and longtime NATO member and more like fractious banana republic
  • La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World by Dianne Hales – Hales adores Italy for the things it’s given the world like opera, cuisine, wine, high fashion, fast cars and cinema.
  • Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law by Katherine Wilson – After graduation, Wilson accepted an internship in Naples where, almost upon arrival she was taken under the wing by a welcoming, supportive Italian family. Falling in love with the family’s son, she would marry, raise a family and over time appreciate the joys of living in Italy.
  • The Italians by John Hooper- Hooper paints Italy in broad yet nevertheless revealing strokes. To him it’s a nation of stark contradictions. Proudly Catholic and home to the Vatican, it’s also fiercely anticlerical. For a nation that fought long and hard to unify itself in the 19th century, the wealthy, 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.
  • The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country by Tobias Jones – Jones, a Brit, taught in Italy and spent over four years traveling around the country trying to understand his new home. Jones weighs in on Italy’s second religion, soccer He also looked at the deep scars stemming from the Years of Lead, a period of far left and far right perpetrated violence lasting from the late 60s into the 80s, as well as country’s suffocating bureaucracy. 

While recommending books about Italy by non-Italians, I’d like to bend the rules a bit and mention two novels, both by the same author that offer up entertaining and insightful insights into life in Italy as seen from an outsider’s perspective. Amara Lakhous, an Algerian, was a radio journalist who fled to Italy after receiving death threats from Islamic terrorists. Fluent in Italian, he’s written several Italian novels focusing on immigrant life. (Published in the USA by Europa Editions and translated by Anna Goldstein, who also translated Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet.) I’ve read two and I feel I’d be doing you a disservice by not mentioning them. They are Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio and Divorce Islamic Style.

About Time I Read It: The Arrogant Years by Lucette Lagnado

Back in 2011 I shared my thoughts on Lucette Lagnado’s 2007 family memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. I loved how she took me inside the long-vanished world of Old Cairo, a diverse and enchanting universe where a tapestry of cultures and religions existed side by side creating a place that was both European and Middle Eastern. For a book that didn’t make my year-end Favorite Nonfiction list The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit must have made a lasting impression on me. I say that because when I recently stumbled across a series of podcasts produced by Tablet magazine and saw one featuring an interview with Lagnado I immediately listed to it. I was delighted to learn she’d written a follow-up book called The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn which focused on the life of her mother. A few weeks later I borrowed an ebook of The Arrogant Years through my public library’s Overdrive portal. I’m pleased to say I found The Arrogant Years hard to put down, burning through it in a mere few days.

The Arrogant Years is the memoir of a family, as well as two very different worlds. The first of these long vanished worlds is that of old Cairo. Before General Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in 1954 Egypt was a place where Muslims, Jews and Christians easily coexisted. (For another great look at this forgotten time I can’t recommend enough Andre Aciman’s 1994 memoir Out of Egypt.) In a society that saw itself as more Levantine than Arab, conversant in French and culturally and intellectually akin to Europe Lagnado wistfully writes “it was possible to be Jewish and a pasha … Jewish and an aristocrat, Jewish and a friend to ministers and kings.” Living in such a cosmopolitan capital, it’s little wonder her mother, a young woman as beautiful as she was intelligent, would catch the eye of the Pasha’s wife. Knowing a gifted bibliophile when she saw one, she hired the gifted teen to oversee her husband’s massive library. (Perhaps the perfect role for someone who’d read the collected works of Proust in the original French by the age of 15.) Later, she’d catch another’s eye, that of a dashing Jewish boulevardier, who, despite being over two decades her senior proposed marriage after a whirlwind courtship.

The second of these vanished worlds is mid-century America, specifically the provincial and segregated Jewish communities of New York City. Many synagogues were ethnically segregated, with North African and Middle Eastern Jews (many recent arrivals like Lagnado’s family) confined to one synagogue while those from Eastern Europe electing to worship in those of their own. Some synagogues, like the one favored by the Lagnados took a more traditional approach to worship by strictly segregating men and women, much to the displeasure of the young Lucette. Inspired by Emma Peel from the sixties British adventure TV series The Avengers she believed it was her heroic duty to overcome this injustice by slowly inching her chair week after week into the mens’ section. Keeping in mind the old-world sensitivities prevalent in her congregation one can only assume her modest fight for gender equality didn’t go exactly as she’d hoped.

While the Lagnados might have lived a charmed life in pre-Nasserite Egypt, in America things weren’t so easy. Her father never regained his stature as a wildly successful man about town. Her mother, forced to give up her dream job as the Pasha’s librarian, ultimately found a somewhat similar but perhaps not as glamorous job working for the Brooklyn Public Library. Lastly, if adjusting to life in America wasn’t tough enough, while in high school Lucette had win a life or death battle with cancer.

The Arrogant Years reminds me of other great memoirs I’ve read over the last several years like Carlene Cross’ Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith, and Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League. Memoirs like these might not get as much hype as say Tara Westover’s Educated but because they’re so well written and tell such amazing and unique stories need to be appreciated more. Consider The Arrogant Years more than a worthy follow-up to The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.

Nonfiction November: Book Pairings

Last week Leanne at Shelf Aware kicked off Nonfiction November and this week one of my favorite book bloggers Julie of Julz Reads has agreed to host.  To get things rolling she’s served up the following prompt:

This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

Just like last year, I’d like to feature two outstanding books, one fiction and one nonfiction I feel not only compliment each other but are dear favorites of mine. 

When a presidential election pitting a loquacious East Coast senator against an incumbent president goes unexpectedly wrong resulting in a constitutional crises needing to be settled by the Supreme Court, which now includes a young up and coming female justice recently appointed by the sitting president sounds like a scenario ripped from today’s headlines. But Christopher Buckley, with the gift of prescience featured this predicament 12 years ago in his 2008 humorous political novel Supreme Courtship. As America painfully emerges from one of the closest and most contested president elections in decades (made worse by its narcissistic despotic and chief’s refusal to abide by the rules of American democracy) some good laughs are much needed. For these trying times Supreme Courtship is the perfect remedy. 

Published the preceding year, Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine: Inside The Secret World of the Supreme Court is a fascinating, insightful and expertly written look at the mysterious world of America’s highest court. (If the author’s name sounds familiar it’s because he was recently in the news for committing a lewd act during a work-related Zoom chat.) Even though a number of justices have left the court since it was published in 2007 The Nine is still considered one of the best out there when it comes to books about the Supreme Court. Therefore it’s perfect to read alongside Supreme Courtship. 

So there you go. Even if America’s increasingly fragile democracy degenerates into authoritarianism you’ll still have a pair of book recommendations. 

About Time I Read It: Beyond The Call by Lee Trimble and Jeremy Dronfield

Back in 2015 I was meeting a buddy of mine at Powell’s Books. (At the time I lived in Portland.) While surveying the new books one in particular caught my eye. Lee Trimble and Jeremy Dronfield’s Beyond the Call: The True Story of One World War II Pilot’s Covert Mission to Rescue POWs on the Eastern Front looked like a heck of a good book. How on earth could I resist a book with a such an exciting subtitle? But like many promising books I’ve encountered over the years I soon forgot about it. But as luck would have it I recently saw Beyond the Call was available for digital download via Overdrive and eagerly helped myself to a borrowable copy, hoping it would alleviate a case of COVID-related existential angst I was battling at the time. A forgotten tale of true adventure set during the closing stages of World War II was just what the doctor ordered.

 In the last year and half of the Second World War, the Red Army juggernaut inexorably rolled across Europe, liberating POW and concentration camps one after another. The Western Allies, while delighted to see Nazi Germany’s  domination of the Continent finally coming to an end, nevertheless grew increasingly concerned. Specifically, they feared for the safety and well being of countless freed Allied POWs stranded behind Soviet lines. Even though the Russians had pledged to provide humanitarian aid to any and all liberated Allied prisoners of war and assist in their speedy repatriation they knew Stalin loathed POWs. (Especially his own, declaring them “cowards” and “traitors” and even going as far as arresting the family members of those taken prisoner during the war.) Based on intelligence trickling out of Soviet-occupied Europe, his dreaded intelligence service the NKVD combed the region for perceived enemies of the state, be they recently liberated POWs, concentration camp inmates or forced laborers, or even local civilians. Knowing the wartime alliance between the USSR and the Western Allies was shaky at best, something had to be done as soon as possible to help those stuck behind Russian lines. 

Recruited by America’s wartime cloak and dagger agency the OSS, bomber pilot Captain Robert Trimble was flown via Tehran (where, one evening he was asked to join the Shah and wife for dinner) to a joint American-Soviet airbase in Ukraine. Officially, he was there to assist in the recovery and repair of damaged American aircraft but secretly Trimble was tasked with safely shepherding American, British and Canadian POWs out of the USSR. With limited resources he contended with hostile Red Army soldiers, malevolent NVKD agents and treacherous spies and informants to bring home as many men as possible. And just as the book’s title would lead you to believe he went well beyond his authority to save human lives, be they solider or civilian. 

Beyond the Call is the well-written, fast paced account of one of the 20th century’s little known rescue operations. Consider it must reading for anyone interested in World War II, or a thrilling rescue story.

Nonfiction November: My Year in Nonfiction

Once again, it’s that time of year when book bloggers around the globe come together to celebrate the wonderful world of nonfiction. As a life-long nonfiction fan, I always look forward to seeing participants’ posts and learning what outstanding works of nonfiction everyone has been reading. I always come away from this collaboration with yet more books I wanna read, in addition to discovering new blogs and even picking up a new subscriber or two.

Week 1: (November 2-6) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Leann @ Shelf Aware): Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

As for favorites from this year, four books immediately come to mind. Both on my blog and in conversations with others I’ve recommended all of them. Look for each one of them to make my year-end Favorite Nonfiction List.

In 2020 I read a trio of excellent older books. Two were memoirs by women wrongly imprisoned by Communist leaders, and the other a vivid account of the Battle of Berlin. Reading older books like these reminds me just how important it is to never judge a book by its publication date.

  • Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng (1986) – Imagine spending six and half horrible years in solitary confinement as an innocent casualty of a power struggle between two rival government factions. 
  • Journey into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg (1967 reprinted 2002) – After years of loyal service to USSR and its ruling Communist Party college instructor Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg was condemned to years of suffering in the Gulag.
  • The Last Battle by Cornelius Ryan (1966) – One of the best books on the Eastern Front I’ve read in years. 

Lastly, 2020 is the year I dived into the writing of Russian-American author, New Yorker contributor, LGBTQ advocate and authoritarian critic Masha Gessen. Last year I enjoyed her 2016 book Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region and so I thought this year I’ll explore more of her stuff. I was not disappointed. 

Well, that’s all I’ve got for now. But over the next few weeks I hope to share more thoughts about what I’ve read in 2020. 

La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World by Dianne Hales

 

Thanks to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge it’s pretty much a given every year I’ll be reading a book about or set in Italy. So far in 2020 I’ve read four, motivated I’m sure in no small part by my minor to moderate life-long fascination with the country. The fourth book, Dianne Hales’s 2019 La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World intrigued me for well over a year as I kept walking past it at the public library. Then, not long ago my curiosity finally got the better of me and I borrowed it. After a quick start, I put La Passione aside for a few weeks as I read other stuff only restart it in hopes of finishing it before I had to return the book to the library. While I found the middle portion kind of OK, I’m happy to day La Passione finished strong as I enjoyed the last third of the book. And just other books I’ve read in past years, an outsider gave me an insightful perspective on life in Italy.

Much like Katherine Wilson’s 2016 memoir Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law La Passione dishes up what I would call the softer side of Italy. Whereas Tobias Jones, a Brit, in his The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country explained Italy through lens of political scandals, violence, and organized crime Hales prefers to look at it’s sensual and artistic aspects. She adores Italy for the things it’s given the world. Who doesn’t love the nation’s opera, cuisine, wine, high fashion, fast cars and cinema? As uncultured as I am, I had fun reading about the finer things of Italian life. Even being a dude, her chapter on Italian fashion made for pretty good reading. While I’m not a car guy by any stretch, much to my surprise her history of Italian car racing was one of my favorite parts of the book. (I had no idea the sport, at least during its golden age of the 60s was so dangerous and was shocked to learn how only a handful of professional drivers, like the gladiators of old lived to retire.)

With only a few months left of 2020, it’s doubtful I’ll be reading more books about Italy before year’s end. But come 2021 I can assure you I’ll be reading more books like La Passione or Dark Heart of Italy. For some strange reason, even though I’ve never visited Italy, I too have a love for this place.

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

Tolstoy once said all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. To many, at first glance the Galvins must have looked like the happiest family on earth. Don, the father, charming and handsome was an accomplished academic with a lifetime of distinguished military service. (An avid falconer, he’s credited with convincing the then newly established US Air Force Academy to adopt the falcon as its official mascot.) His wife, Mimi was an indefatigable homemaker, as cultured as she was talented, patient and resourceful. Thankfully, Don and Mimi were generously blessed with such fine attributes because this was no ordinary family. Devout Catholics living in an age of post-World War II fecundity, by 1965 the Galvins would boast 12 children, 10 of which were boys.  

But beneath this veneer of domestic tranquility and professional accomplishment something was horribly wrong. One by one, six of the Galvin boys would succumb to the ravages of schizophrenia. While the rest of the family might escape contracting the horrible disease, nevertheless they too suffered, watching the lives of their afflicted family members spin out of control while serving as their unwilling recipients of physical, emotional and even sexual abuse. This is the heart-breaking yet fascinating decades-spanning story Robert Kolker recounts in his outstanding 2020 book Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family.

I learned of Kolker’s fine book thanks to What’s Nonfiction, one of my favorite book blogs. After reading the glowing review I made a mental note to someday read Hidden Valley Road. This summer I finally reserved a copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal and after a short wait a downloadable copy became available. Only a few pages into it I knew I’d end up loving it.

Hidden Valley Road isn’t just a history of a family. It’s also a history of the disease that made the lives of the Galvins a living hell. In the beginning, when doctors began to see schizophrenia as a distinct disorder rather than some manifestation of overall madness they suspected environmental factors were to blame. Initially, many thought years of childhood abuse sparked the disease but by the mid-20th century medical professionals saw poor maternal parenting as the likely cause. Unfortunately, this dead-end not only did nothing to address the diseases’s true origins (and with it any chances of an effective cure) but shifted the spotlight to innocent mothers like Mimi, unfairly scapegoating them.

Even with our advances in genetics, neurology and medical technology schizophrenia remains a mysterious disease. Some unknown confluence of genetics and a myriad of environmental factors are suspected as being responsible, but with the disease’s ultimate origins unknown, the best we can do is treat its symptoms with the appropriate medications, all of which have serious side-effects and limitations.

Hidden Valley Road is an outstanding book and should easily make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction. Please consider it highly recommended.

Three More Coming Attractions

The bad news is it’s been well over a week since my Coming Attractions post and I’ve yet to post a single book review. The good news is I recently finished three books. Taking solace that even if I’m not writing at least I’m still reading here’s a brief preview of three more books I hope to review in the near future.

Coming Attractions

Blame it on writer’s block or maybe a lack inspiration but for the last few months I’ve been unable to blog. Heck, even my reading has dropped off. But here I am, struggling with WordPress’s new editing platform and trying to bang out a new post. In hopes of getting things rolling once again I’ll begin with a brief overview of the books I’ve read of late. Hopefully, in the near future I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these six books on my blog.