Books About Books: The Maximum Security Book Club by Mikita Brottman

The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's PrisonBy 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 LolitaHeart 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.

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Midnight’s Furies by Nisid Hajari

Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's PartitionWhen 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.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, History, Indian Subcontinent

I’m back!

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.

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Books I’ve Desperately Wanted to Read

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.

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.

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Isaac’s Army by Matthew Brzezinski

Isaac's Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied PolandAlan 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.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Judaica

Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

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I’m probably not alone in assuming when people rebel against the establishment they’re usually thought of as progressives or modernizers. These individuals see the old order as being, well, old. Sick of dealing with antiquated governance and out of step leaders, such agents for change want to move forward by bringing about needed reforms or even wholesale revolutions. What then do you make of those who, when taking on those in power, look not to the future for inspiration but to the past?

That is the question asked and answered by Christian Caryl in his 2013 book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. It’s a book that’s been on my list to read for several years, ever since I read about it on Goodreads. I felt myself drawn to Strange Rebels because I came of age during this time. Of the many events he recalls, so many of them I watched unfold on the evening TV news. Not long ago my book group opted to read it and I couldn’t have been happier. I’m also happy to report it’s an excellent book.

To Caryl, 1979 was a pivotal year like few others. Britain elected its first female Prime Minister, an avowed conservative who moved the United Kingdom away kicking and screaming from a pro-union, Socialist-style system to free-market, Chicago School of Economics-oriented nation. On the other side of the globe, Deng Xiaoping sought to modernize China and raise living standards by bringing the nation into the global economy through embracing capitalism. In an age when many forward thinking intellectuals thought little of religion, especially conservative Catholicism, Pope John II believed the moral and intellectual strength of Christianity could bring about the end of Soviet oppression. Also in opposition to Soviet-sponsored oppression were the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, who had religious motivations of their own, drawing from their Islamic heritage. Lastly, in neighboring Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow revolutionaries established the world’s first Islamic Republic. By doing so they abruptly ended the Shah’s attempts to make Iran a modern, Westernized (albeit authoritarian) nation.

Through Caryl’s eyes these strange rebels share striking similarities. Thatcher and Deng felt the only way their respective nations could prosper was to embrace free market reforms and lessen the state’s role in the economy. Khomeini, the Mujahideen and John Paul II all had religious motivations to replace the old order with one more in line with those beliefs. Both John Paul II and Khomeini’s religious views were shaped by their philosophical studies: John Paul II augmented his Christian beliefs with modern European philosophy while Khomeini was heavily influenced by Platonic thought, as well as the writings of the Red Shia Ali Shariati. Even though they were Sunnis and not Shias, the Afghan Mujahideen fought to defeat the Soviets and their Afghan allies and eventually set up their own version of an Islamic Republic. And just like Khomeini and his like-minded ruling clerics took inspiration from the Red Shia Shariati, the Mujahideen modeled themselves after the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn shares similarities with Marxist vanguard parties.

It’s one thing to show what these leaders had in common, the hard thing is to convince the reader the things they did in 1979 in no small way shape our world. To his credit, Caryl pulls it off. Thanks to Deng’s reforms, China is now a world power, especially economically. The political/economic system of Britain looks nothing like the dark days of the early 1970s. (As an example, Tony Blair’s Labor Party was not your grandfather’s Labor Party.) ideological heirs to the Mujahideen like al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram fight to impose their will throughout the world as political Islam has become the dominant ideology for protest in the Muslim world, eclipsing Pan-Arabism, Arab Nationalism and Communism. Before 1979 Islamic Republic was an alien concept. Thanks to Khomeini, even many Sunnis find it an appealing one. (Even if they use the term Caliph.) An unwinnable war in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the USSR. It was the churches, both Protestant and Catholic, that provided safe places where dissidents and their allies could organize against the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Strange Rebels is an excellent book. Consider it highly recommended.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle by Mark Braude

In the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, young Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence begins his epic adventure by riding a camel into wilds of the Arabian desert while singing a little song called “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.” Written in the early 1890s, true to the spirit of any good rags to riches story it told the tale of a man of modest origins who struck it rich gambling at Monte Carlo’s world famous casino. According to historian Mark Braude in his 2016 book Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle so popular was this British ditty that during the late 19th and early 20th centuries some felt there wasn’t a place in the English-speaking world where people hadn’t heard the song.

While I’ll admit to having a few vices, gambling has never been one of them. Nor have I been fascinated by the sun-soaked and celebrity populated French Riviera. But perhaps Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is one of those vices since I’m always on the lookout for books I can read for her challenge. So, in keeping with my little addiction, when my public library granted me the opportunity to read a book about the European microstate of Monaco, of course I jumped on it.

As the both the book’s title and subtitle would lead us to believe, Making Monte Carlo is the story of how the tiny principality of Monaco successfully set aside a small cliff side section of its realm for entertainment purposes, chiefly gambling. In order to generate much-needed revenue for the cash-strapped royal coffers, the plan was to sell Monte Carlo as an exotic destination where Europe’s, and later America’s rich and powerful could live like royalty by wagering big money, lose with casual indifference (and by doing so show their just how wealthy and stately they were) and enjoy all the wonderful amenities Monte Carlo had to offer. Before long Monte Carlo also became a place where social climbers, professional gamblers and other aspirants from less regal backgrounds came to win big, find a wealthy spouse or even pitch a lucrative business deal. Legends abounded over the years of  broken-hearted losers who committed, or attempted suicide after crushing losses at the gambling tables. Such stories filled Europe’s somewhat tabloid press causing many to take a dim view of Monte Carlo, seeing it as a destroyer of decent men and women.

Braude strikes me as a good writing with a decent attention to detail. Much to my liking he tends to zero in on social history when telling his story. My only complaint is a minor one in that I wish the author would have covered the period up to the present. (The book ends in the 1930s with he first Monaco Grand Prix road race.) But since this is how Monte Carlo became Monte Carlo, I guess it’s a forgivable offense. Overall, I found myself liking Making Monte Carlo.

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Filed under Europe, History