Library Loot

Two weeks ago another of my public libraries finally reopened, albeit with limited hours. Even though I’m in the middle of several great books right now I couldn’t resist grabbing yet another stack. As you can see, it’s all backlist stuff so there’s plenty of material for my “About Time I Read It” series.

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot pic and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Claire’s blog.

Sadly, when it comes to library books I have no self-control. I guess all I can do right now is get back to reading.

Soviet Spotlight: Red Famine by Anne Applebaum

Red Famine: Stalin's War on UkraineWhen it comes to Anne Applebaum I’m a huge fan. I fell in love with her writing in 2013 after reading Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956. A few years later finally read her 2004 Pulitzer-Prize winner Gulag: A History. Recently, just like other specialists in Russian and East European affairs and history like Masha Gessen and Timothy Snyder she’s become a vocal critic of the rising global tide of authoritarianism. Right before I read her most recent offering Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism I decided to read her 2017 follow-up to Iron Curtain Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. Detailed as hell and incredibly well researched Applebaum’s book did not disappoint me.

To understand not just how approximately 4 million Ukrainians starved to death during the 1930s but also why like any decent historian Applebaum looks to the past for answers. For centuries the rulers of Russia and many of their subjects saw Ukraine not as a separate entity but an integral part of Russia. The Ukrainian language and culture was denigrated and suppressed by Russian overlords and the Ukrainian speaking peasantry looked down upon. In Ukraine’s cities Russian was the dominant language of commerce and government along with Polish in Western cities like Lviv while urban-dwelling Jews preferring Yiddish and Russian. So ingrained was this anti-Ukrainian prejudice after the Bolshevik Revolution Russia’s new rulers refused to see Ukraine as a separate country, even after a group of Communists seized power in Kiev and declared Ukraine an independent socialist nation.

No, the ruling Communists believed, and with good reason the USSR could not survive without Ukraine. Long seen as Russia’s gateway to the West, any foreign power like Poland or any political rival be they anti-Bolshevik Whites or Ukrainian Nationalists could use Ukraine as a base of operations to challenge Russia. Traditionally, Ukraine had also been Russia’s breadbasket, a boundless supplier of wheat. Interrupting this flow would be catastrophic for the young Soviet Union. The Communists depended upon Ukrainian wheat to feed factory workers and urban dwellers across Russia, whose support the Communist regime desperately needed. Grain exports could also provide the Soviet Union with capital needed to finance its rapid industrialization. After solidifying its rule the Communists ruthlessly squashed Ukrainian independence and reincorporated it into the Russian-dominated USSR.

Under Stalin the USSR underwent not only rapid industrialization but also forced collectivization. Originally promised land redistribution by Lenin and the Bolsheviks peasants across the USSR were horrified after being remanded to government owned farming operations. Denied the fruits of their labors and thus any incentives to produce the collectives were a failure resulting in poor crop yields and food shortages. To make matters worse Stalin’s goons exported excessive amounts of grain to the West, in order to generate both hard currency and political good will. (Or as an act of economic sabotage, dumping it on the international market on the cheap in hopes of destabilizing the capitalist world.)

By 1933 things in Ukraine were grim. Food was scarce and needless to say, people were starving. Any reasonable head of state would have realized both forced collectivization and the USSR’s policy of massive grain exports were failures. But Stalin was no reasonable man. A bloodthirsty autocrat prone to paranoid delusions, he was hellbent on eliminating any and all perceived threats to his rule, realistic or not. Naturally since it was his idea, collectivization could never fail. Unless of course if it was sabotaged by treasonous Ukrainian apparatchiks, or more likely bourgeoisie-capitalist peasants loosely referred to as Kulaks. The more doctrinaire ruling Communists were more than willing to distrust Ukraine’s peasantry, since according to classical Marxism it was the working proletariat, not the ground-tilling peasants who would help usher in the age of utopian socialism.

Therefore, no matter how many people starved to death there would be no assistance from Moscow. Reports of mass starvation, hungry masses wandering the cities and countryside in search of food and even cannibalism were either fabrications or just examples of treasonous Ukrainian Kulaks suffering due to their own clumsy attempts to undermine the system. So-called underperforming collectives were blacklisted and denied material assistance. Produce and livestock were actually confiscated from impoverished families, hugely accelerating the Ukraine’s slide towards famine. The USSR’s public relations machine worked overtime to coverup the disaster, even enlisting credulous Western journalists including one from the New York Times. Outgoing mail to Ukrainian conscripts serving in the Red Army was intercepted, less they learn the scope of the tragedy. Later, the USSR allowed Ukrainians to write relatives living abroad to request hard currency with which they could purchase foodstuffs at special government run stores.

The human cost to Ukraine boggles the mind. A minimum of 4 million dead, with countless others wrecked physically and mentally, some permanently. During the famine’s reign there were few births and millions of children died in infancy or childhood. In just a few years Ukraine would loose an entire generation. After the official Soviet census later confirmed the demographic implosion Stalin executed its director. In response cowered bureaucrats issued a falsified final tally designed to cover-up the famine’s horrific impact. 

Red Famine is a grim book, but a powerful one. To say it’s well researched is an understatement. It should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. Please consider Red Famine highly recommended. 

About Time I Read It: Not All Bastards Are from Vienna by Andrea Molesini

Last year, by either accident or design Italy was a recurring topic when it came to my reading. In March I read James Carroll’s historical thriller Warburg in Rome following it up with Katherine Wilson’s Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law, Dianne Hales’s La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World and David Maranis’s Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World. Finally, as 2020 drew to a close I rounded it up with  Italy: An Outsider’s Perspective, a post I did for Nonfiction November.  

Whether or not this Mediterranean nation continues to be a focus of mine is anyone’s guess but one thing for certain. When it comes to my annual pursuit of the Jet Setter Prize for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I can now cross Italy off my list. Five years after spotting Andrea Molesini’s 2016 historical novel Not All Bastards Are from Vienna at the public library I recently secured a borrowable ebook version for my Kindle and gave it a try. After only a few pages I quickly realized I shouldn’t have waited half a decade. Not All Bastards Are from Vienna is an outstanding debut novel and should easily make my year-end list of favorite fiction.

Most Americans equate World War I solely with the Western Front: a largely static affair involving a network of opposing trenches, running hundreds of miles from the Swiss border to the North Sea in which each side tormented the other with relentless artillery barrages, machine gun fire and near suicidal infantry charges across no mans lands where conquered territory was measured in mere feet instead of miles. But even without counting Africa, East Asia/Pacific and the Middle East there were other fronts in the war. While Austro-Hungarians and their German allies battled the Russians in Eastern Europe they also fought the Italians for control of the Alpine region. As far as literature goes, while All Quiet on the Western Front depicted life on the Western Front and Doctor Zhivago the Eastern Front most, if not all American readers encounter this theater of conflict in fiction it’s through Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. Of course, thanks to Molesini we have another fictional look at the Italian side of this conflict.

By the fall of 1917 the war is going poorly for the Italians. After the poorly equipped and ill prepared Italian army is routed by its northern adversaries the tiny village of Refrontolo finds itself behind enemy lines and at the mercy of the occupying Austro-Hungarians and Germans. It is here, Paolo, a 17 year old orphan lives with his relatives and servants on his family’s estate. Like so many young men and women during wartime he’s forced into growing up quickly. One of the estate’s senior staff, an undercover operative for the Italian military, recruits Paolo for a series of covert missions. Despite the risk involved like so many young people who’ve gone before he feels a sense of pride and purpose in knowing he’s part of a greater struggle much larger than anything he’s previously experienced.

The youngster of the estate, Paolo is surrounded by a somewhat eccentric cast of aunts, uncles and grandparents as well as hired staff all whom are older, even if by only by a few years. His youthful naivete makes him a convenient foil for them, including a wannabe novelist grandfather with a mechanical typewriter nicknamed Beelzebub and a grandmother who openly cavorts with an elderly dandy commonly referred to as her “third paramour.” The more mature members of this clan see the war raging around them as nothing more than the playing out of old conflicts from the 19th century. It’s believed Italy entered the war on the side of Britain due to the debt owed to the British for assisting Garibaldi and his fellow nationalists in unifying Italy. The Austrians on the other hand are viewed as trying to reconquer portions of Italy that were once Hapsburg lands. Even an Austro-Hungarian and German march on Rome with the express purpose of overthrowing the Italian monarchy and restoring the Papal States is consistent with his relatives’ historical narrative.

One family member however fearfully confides with young Paolo the current conflict is more than the continuation of 19th century power plays. It will destroy the established order, even those aspects deemed decent and civilized he’s told. Like a later day Casandra, her warnings go unappreciated and within a generation the twin plagues of fascism and communism will arise from the ashes of war-torn Europe.

This is a wonderful novel and easily one the best I’ve read this year. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: My Accidental Jihad by Krista Bremer

My Accidental Jihad: A Love StoryI’m a sucker for a good memoir. In addition to highly publicized ones like Educated and Hillbilly Elegyover the years I’ve also stumbled across a number of lesser known ones that might not have received tons of press, but nevertheless were outstanding like Fleeing Fundamentalism, Undocumented and A Time to Betray, ones that made my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. More often then not I discovered them, as well as other decent yet off the radar memoirs simply but spotting them on the shelf at the public library. One I stumbled across six or seven years ago was Krista Bremer’s My Accidental Jihad: A Love Story. One of many books I borrowed, read several pages only to get distracted by something else before returning it to the library essentially unread. But last week at the public library I once again spied a copy of Bremer’s memoir and feeling I needed to take a break from Ramachandra Guha’s consuming yet out of this world 950 plus page India After Gandhi I once again borrowed a copy of My Accidental Jihad. This time, I’m happy to report I whipped though it in no time. 

Not long after graduating from college Bremer wanted more out of life. Her job at Planned Parenthood paid the bills, but that was all. Living near the Pacific Ocean in sunny California made for great surfing but sucked her ambition. Advised by her father “[I]f you want to do anything with your life you’ll need to move away from the ocean” she moved cross county to pursue a master’s degree in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Finding herself inland, far from the ocean and thus unable to surf she took to running along the area’s woodland trials, where she began crossing paths with another runner, an older, darker man of unknown ethnicity. After a chance encounter with him one weekend at a local farmers’ market she accepted his invitation to run together. Next morning she met Ismail, an expat from Libya, at the trailhead, and the two of them embarked on their run. Eventually their outing led to a romantic relationship, and Bremer pregnant. Unsure how to proceed, she’s was taken aback when Ismail proposed marriage, since marrying a man who’s older, foreign and poorer than her wasn’t exactly her original plan. Nevertheless it felt like the right thing and she accepted. After a quick trip to the appropriate civil authorities to process the requisite paperwork they were married. 

But like any marriage, not only do gain a spouse, but you also inherit a family. With Ismail having close to 10 brothers and sisters (not counting the several who didn’t survive to adulthood) back in Libya Bremer knows she’s in for a challenge when she agrees to fly halfway across the globe to visit her husband’s family. Despite being an oil-exporting member of OPEC, the Libya Bremer encounters comes off as a poor and broken land. Roads, even if paved are cratered by massive potholes. Garbage piles abound, open sewers run freely and even the most modest modern medical care amenities seem nonexistent. Compounding all this misery the country’s government, a regime as corrupt as it autocratic, solely dictated by the whims of its eccentric, homicidal despot. In a place largely untouched by Western concepts of gender equality while visiting with family members Bremer is routinely shunted off to the side with the rest of the women, segregated and unable to communicate due to her inability to speak Arabic. Needless to say in the end she’s happy when the time comes to leave Libya. 

Two decades ago, just prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 I attended a lecture by a visiting Islamic scholar at my local university. Even then the term jihad was perceived by many Americans in a negative light, frequently equated with barbaric holy wars, suicide bombings and other religiously motivated acts of violence. Our esteemed speaker that night earnestly reassured us in its original context jihad mean “struggle” and by that a personal one in which an individual strives to be decent and righteous. Raised in a nominal Christian home and later, as an adult Bremer adopted elements of Buddhist thought. After observing the sacrifices her husband made during his annual observance of Ramadan eventually led to her “own accidental jihad” “forcing me to wrestling with my own intolerance and self-absorption.” While always supportive of her husband’s religious faith and practice over the years help she began embracing an Islamic-inspired outlook on life in hopes it would provide her with purpose and meaning. However, at the same time I’m hesitant to call her a convert. (It’s interesting to note soon after her memoir was published it was republished under the potentially less polarizing title A Tender Struggle: Story of a Marriage). 

After having good success with My Accidental Jihad I’m now in the mood for a yet another lesser known, but still quality memoir. Perhaps if I’m lucky I can stumble across another at my next visit to the public library.

Books About Books: Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

Some of you might remember in 2019 I concluded my review of Margaret Leslie Davis’s The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book’s Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey by mentioning I needed to follow it up with Alix Christie’s 2014 debut novel Gutenberg’s Apprentice, a novel I purchased for my Kindle back in 2015. Needing something representing Germany for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge last week I finally made do on my promise. While I didn’t enjoy Christie’s debut novel as much as I’d hoped I must tip my hat to her for crafting such a well-researched novel. 

It’s the 1450s Peter Schoeffer, is a young German scribe in Paris more interested in the frequenting the city’s brothels than copying it’s holy scriptures when he’s recalled to his native Mainz by Johann Fust, his deep-pocketed foster father. As a successful merchant with an eye for the next big thing Fust has decided to underwrite a promising new book making operation headed up by craftsman Johann Gutenberg. In return for Fust’s financial backing, Gutenberg agrees to take on Fust’s adopted son as an apprentice. In the beginning Peter loathes his new assignment, chafing under Gutenberg’s tyrannical rule, ineptly fumbling his way around the workshop and hating what little life has to offer in the provincial backwater of Mainz. Eventually, as his skills improve and with it his confidence he takes more and more pride in his work. But more importantly, he begins to understand what Gutenberg and his fellow underlings are trying to do, if successful will revolutionize the world. 

A wise history professor once told me the Reformation couldn’t have happened without the printing press. Be that true or not by the time Gutenberg and his men began casting type Mainz and its surroundings was ripe for Reformation. The Catholic Church was seen by many locals as corrupt and oppressive, too often serving the interests of the capricious and repressive nobility. Locals resented the widespread selling of indulgences by Papal representatives seeing it as just another scheme to transfer wealth from German households to Roman coffers. But just as Gutenberg’s new invention could enrich the Church by supplying it with Bibles cheaply and quickly, in theory anyway, so could it with the laity. Any monopoly the Church had over God’s Holy Word could be challenged. Even more embolden critics could use the printing press to publish their own translations as well as partisan pamphlets and broadsheets. The world would never be the same.

Swimming in a Sea of Podcasts

Technologically speaking, I’m a late adopter. Even though I worship my Kindle, I didn’t acquire my first smart phone until just six years ago. I don’t own an Apple Watch or Fitbit and even the car I drive is 20 years old. So I guess it shouldn’t be surprising I didn’t become a regular listener of podcasts until less than a year ago. For the last several years I merely explored the medium, listening to a rare single episode once every few months or so. On those few occasions when I did, there were three I briefly explored.

Early Forays  – Not knowing where to start I began I first checked out these.

Making Sense with Sam Harris – I loved his award winning bestseller End of Faith as well as his short follow-up book Letter to a Christian Nation. Positioning himself as a thought leader and public intellectual, Harris regularly interviews subject matter experts in a diverse array of fields including politics, science and history.

Book Riot: The Podcast– I began listening to this one after meeting co-host Jeff O’Neil at the conclusion of a silent reading party I attended in June of 2017. A nice lively round-up of what’s new in the world of book publishing.

For Real: A Podcast About Nonfiction Books – 11 years ago, when I began blogging on WordPress Kim Ukura’s blog Sophisticated Dorkiness was one of the first blogs I discovered. When I heard she’d be co-hosting a podcast focusing on nonfiction I was thrilled. I was not disappointed.

Getting Started – More recently, needing guidance I looked to the recommendations of others. By spring I was listening to these podcasts.

More Perfect – After hearing tons of positive word of mouth about this RadioLab spin-off I had to give it a try. Wanna understand the US Supreme Court? Start here.

Believed – My sister recommended this one season podcast investigating the horrible crimes of serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar and the parade of decades-long institutional failings that allowed it all to happen.

Bundyville – Another one recommended by my sis. Remember when a bunch of armed anti-government crazies occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon? This is the perfect podcast to explore why and how it happened.

Longform Podcast – In depth interviews with writers, journalists, filmmakers, and podcasters on how they create their acclaimed content. Must listening for aspiring writers.

The Daily– Five days a week the New York Times devotes 20 minutes to one news story. Definitely not sound-bite journalism. Plus there’s slightly longer and more off-beat edition each Sunday.

Deconstructed– The Intercept in a left-leaning online publication proudly practicing what it calls “adversarial journalism.” Each week its podcast it hopes to “brings you one important or overlooked story from the political world.”

The Weeds – Much like Deconstructed, this is the twice-weekly podcast from the progressive news and opinion source Vox is an in-depth look at today’s important political issues. (This podcast, along with Deconstructed, The Daily and Longform Podcast were all recommended by the hosts of my global affairs discussion group.)

Murder in the Rain – When Portland alternative newsweekly Willamette Week declared Murder in the Rain runner-up for best local podcast I had to investigate. Hosts Emily and Alisha focus on murders in the Pacific Northwest, from Alaska to Oregon. I never considered myself a true crime fan until I began listening to their podcast.

Hopelessly Addicted – By the time fall rolled around I was up to my eyeballs in podcasts.

The New Abnormal – If you see me walking around with my headphones on laughing away chances are I’m listening to this not exactly safe for work political podcast. “Blunt truth and dark humor for a world in chaos.” Hosted by Rick Wilson of the Lincoln Project and writer Molly Jong-Fast who proudly proclaim “the world has gone haywire. Let’s talk it over.”

Deep State Radio – A roundtable format hosted by author and political commentator David Rothkopf with cast of regulars and semi-regulars serving up an insider’s perspective on American national security and foreign policy. One recent episode on foreign policy featured writers and democracy advocates Anne Applebaum and Garry Kasparov.

Talking Feds – Another roundtable political discussion, this one hosted by American lawyer, law professor and political commentator Harry Litman with a rotating cast of former government officials, journalists, and subject matter experts. Each week there’s also a sidebar presentation to explain a significant legal and political question read by a guest celebrity. Past guests have including Tina Louise aka Ginger from Gilligan’s Island and screen icon Robert De Niro.

GZero World with Ian Bremme‪r‬ – I was into this guy before it was cool. I was excited when he began taking a larger stage on social media. After stumbling across his Gzero TV show on PBS on Sunday afternoon I looked for a podcast version. Every week Ian Bremmer interviews world leaders and notable individuals (including Kim Ghattas, author of my favorite nonfiction book of 2020 Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East) shaping our GZERO World. And for those of you who don’t know it’s a world with no global policeman, “made volatile by an intensifying international battle for power and influence.”

Throughline – I stumbled across this one while looking for good NPR podcasts and so far it’s been great. If you’re a history buff like me you’ll eat it up. “The past is never past. Every headline has a history. Join us every week as we go back in time to understand the present.” The co-hosts have interviewed a number of authors whose books I featured on this blog including Masha Gessen, Eric H. Cline and Lesley Hazleton.

Rough Translation – Another cool NPR podcast, this one looks at stories from around the world, focusing on how people in other countries tackle some of the same problems we struggle with in the United States.

Vox Tablet – Just like you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy a great Jewish deli, you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy a great Jewish podcast. Even though it ended in 2016 there’s tons of great archive material. Courtesy of this podcast I learned Lucette Lagnado, author of the family memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World had written a follow-up book The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn.

Friendly Atheist – First time I listened to this podcast I was turned off by what I thought at the time was too much meaningless small talk between the two hosts. Deciding to give the show another chance it quickly grew on me. Instead of long, tendentious arguments for the nonexistence of God Hemant Mehta and Jessica Bluemke prefer to discuss selected news items from the week, almost always stories of religious conservatives, far-right idiots and the like acting mean and/or stupid. A typical exchange usually goes “Jessica, remember that mega-church pastor who refused to wear a face mask, said COVID was a liberal plot and proclaimed Jesus would protect him? He’s now in the hospital with COVID. And on a ventilator.”

The Thinking Atheist – Seth Andrews, a former Fox News watching Christian broadcaster now avowed atheist interviews fascinating guests like Michael Shermer, Peter Boghossian and Karen Garst. One of many reasons I like this podcast is Seth comes across as a sincere and friendly guy. Of course having a million dollar voice doesn’t hurt either.

In Our Time: History – For history buffs like myself this is a must listen. Each episode moderator Melvyn Bragg brings in three or four professors to discuss significant historical figures and events, from Lawrence of Arabia to the Congress of Vienna. Past guests have included Julia Lovell, author of Maoism: A Global History and Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. (An impressive looking tome that’s set unread on my shelf for way too long.)

Once Upon a Time… In the Valle‪y – Everyone needs a guilty pleasure. As far as podcasts go, this one’s mine. Newcomer (no pun intended) Traci Lords took the 80s porn world by storm. Young, beautiful, ambitious and sexually insatiable she was well on her way to becoming an adult movie icon. That is until the feds showed up at her door to arrest her. You see, Traci Lords wasn’t really Traci Lords. She was Nora Kuzma, who began working in the porn industry as a 15 year old high school drop out. Was she a victim? A villain? Both? Listen and then try to decide.

Checks and Balance – Host John Prideaux begins the Economist‘s podcast on American politics each week with a brief preamble exploring the historical context of one of the week’s major political developments. From there Prideaux, along with his colleagues Charlotte Howard, and Jon Fasman attempt to make sense of America’s chaotic political landscape. (By the way Prideaux is a Brit. What could be cooler than a dude with a British accent talking about American politics?)

The Intelligence – Also from the Economist, each weekday this podcast takes a deeper look at new stories around the world. Great way to start your day.

Axios Today – Another great way to start your day. Just 10 minutes long, host Niala Boodhoo (yep, that’s her name and it rhymes with voodoo) and a cast of guest journalists look at three news stories including their top story deemed “today’s one big thing.” Short, smart and to the point.

The World Next Week – Besides being a history buff I’m also into foreign relations and comparative politics. Co-hosts James M. Lindsay and Robert McMahon from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) take an in depth look at the major political developments at home and abroad shaping the coming week.

The President’s Inbox – Also from CFR and hosted the above mentioned James M. Lindsay each week a different subject matter expert is interviewed concerning a wide range of pressing concerns from international trade to nuclear proliferation.

Big World – This monthly international affairs podcast from the School of International Service at Washington, DC’s American University is a fresh and accessible look at complex global issues and a nice companion podcast to the two previously mentioned ones from CFR.

Inside the Hive – If you wanted to know what was going on within the Trump administration, there was no better source for palace intrigue like Vanity Fair. Every week cohosts Emily Jane Fox and Joe Hagan interview notable insiders from politics, business and journalism.

The New Yorker Radio Hour – I’ve been a fan of the New Yorker ever since that fateful day I picked up copy in a waiting room so many years ago. Host David Remnick does a fine job marshaling the resources of his venerable magazine to serve up a weekly podcast of informative interviews addressing a wide array of topics.

Ideas – Last but not least, this podcast of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s long running radio program of the same name is a feast for the intellectually engaged and curious. A three part series on Frank Zappa? No problem. No subject is off limits or deemed too esoteric, from obscure cult films to the history of conspiracy theories to Edward Said’s landmark book Orientalism. Definitely a thinking person’s podcast.

Recent Discoveries – Just when I thought I couldn’t subscribe to anymore podcasts I stumbled across these.

How it Happened – Trump’s lost the election but he’s leaving office in a few months so how much damage could he cause? Quite a lot. So says the latest podcast from Axios “based on multiple interviews with current and former White House, campaign, government and congressional officials as well as direct eyewitnesses and people close to President Trump. Sources have been granted anonymity to share sensitive observations or details they would not be formally authorized to disclose.”

The Lincoln Project – Founded by Rick Wilson and his happy band of anti-Trump Republicans, their new podcast is part of their mission to make Trump accountable for his countless high crimes and misdemeanors and make sure his legion of admirers and imitators don’t seize the reigns of our fragile democracy.

I Spy – After hearing former DEA agent Steve Murphy talk about the time he spent in Colombia hunting drug lord Pablo Escobar I was hooked.

The Librarian Is In– Once every two weeks New York Public Librarians Rhonda Evans and Frank Collerius discuss a book they’re read, interview a special guest and/or talk about bookish topics. So far so good.

Talking Politics: History of Ideas – Went looking for something from the London Review of Books and found this one. Each episode David Runciman does a deep drive into seminal political thinkers, important concepts or historical developments. Great companion podcast to Ideas and In Our Time.

That’s enough podcasts for now. Rest assured, I’ll be back before long with more you’ll wanna check out.

Empire of Lies by Raymond Khoury

Welcome to Paris in the Islamic year 1438 (2017 AD by Gregorian reckoning), one of many large and vibrant cities of an Ottoman Empire that’s ruled over most of Europe for the last 300 years. With the Papacy and its attendant lands long vanquished and Notre Dame repurposed as mosque European Christianity exits only in scattered pockets throughout the Continent, remnants of a once mighty and prevalent faith decimated by centuries of conversions. Though the Empire’s eastern flank stands firm against its traditional rival Tsarist Russia, new threats are emerging. Across the Atlantic, the upstart Christian Republic of America, a world leader in the promising field of renewable energy poses an existential threat to the Empire’s highly lucrative petroleum exporting monopoly. The resulting loss of revenue, and fears it will only get worse has shook the Empire to its core, driving its Arab subjects to Islamic militancy while the increasingly autocratic sultan turns to his state security apparatus to crush dissent and uphold the status quo. But after a mysterious tattooed man with a strange accent becomes a suspect in a local murder detective Kamal Arslan Agha slowly realizes he’s on the cusp of uncovering a dark secret so guarded those in power will stop at nothing to keep hidden.

Raymond Khoury’s 2019 Empire of Lies is many things. As you could probably guess both by my description and its eye-catching cover art (which I found it completely irresistible one Saturday at the public library) it’s an alternate reality novel. Time travel is also a key component along with elements of police procedural. Like any good thriller the action is fast paced with more than a few plot twists. There’s also no shortage of political commentary, most of it addressing the rise in authoritarian populism in America and abroad. (One Parisian newspaper editor is jailed by orders of the sultan for publishing “fabricated news.”) Compared favorably to both Fatherland and Man in the High Castle, based on the novel’s abundance of political commentary coupled with its Islamic setting makes it much akin to Matt Ruff’s incredibly clever and surprisingly funny 2012 novel The Mirage. All of course makes Empire of Lies a highly entertaining and inventive book and thus a great way to help kick off the new year.

From Jakarta to Mao via the Islamic Enlightenment

It doesn’t seem right to name three books to my year-end Favorite Nonfiction list without writing a word about them. Therefore, I’m going to spend just a little time telling you about a trio of history books I read in the final quarter of 2020. Luckily for me I was able to borrow all three through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Deeply researched, detailed and wide in scope they’re definitely a treat.

  • The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World by Vincent Bevins – After seeing this thing get included on just about every best book of 2020 list I knew I had to read it. Few people know at one time Indonesia had the third largest Communist party in the world after China and the USSR, and Indonesia, not North Vietnam was America’s chief policy concern in South East Asia. But after a US-backed military coup overthrew that nation’s president, leading to an extermination of perhaps a million Communists and suspected allies militantly anticommunist regimes would seize power over the next 10 years throughout the world, especially in Latin America. The aftershocks of this global authoritarian sweep can be felt decades later from Indonesia to Chile to Brazil. 
  • Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell – I have the good people at CBC’s Ideas for bringing this one to my attention. Lovell did a fine job detailing not just Mao’s rise to power and establishment of the People’s Republic of China but also how his ideas on leadership and armed struggle influenced movements around the world. From the jungles of Peru to the Black ghettos of America revolutionaries looked to Maoism for inspiration. 
  • The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times by Christopher de Bellaigue – I’m no stranger to de Bellaigue having read his books on Iran and Turkey. I was set to read this one after it was released in the spring of 2017 but did so only after my international affairs discussion group opted to read Hillel Ofek’s New Atlantis essay “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science.” Focusing on traditional Islamic power centers of Istanbul, Cairo, and Tehran de Bellaigue looks at the history of how Muslims in these areas responded to the challenges of Western imperialism. In order to check, and hopefully rollback European military and commercial exploitation of their lands armies would need to be modernized, industries created and scientific advances promoted. But to do so would require bold and uncompromising makeovers of Islamic societies across the region and with it overthrowing age old established traditions and beliefs. 

I’m glad I was able to read these three books back to back since they compliment each other well. As one might suspect there’s significant overlap between The Jakarta Method and Maoism with considerable attention paid to political movements in the developing world. Since one cannot look at life in the developing world without including the Greater Middle East The Islamic Enlightenment nicely completes our fine trio. 

About Time I Read It: God’s Harvard by Hanna Rosin

Back in 2005 I came across a New Yorker piece on Patrick Henry College, a small evangelical christian college in Northern Virginia. Founded only five years earlier by Constitutional lawyer, homeschooling political advocate, and unsuccessful Virginia lieutenant governor candidate Michael Farris as the college of choice for devout, homeschooled evangelical youth. Despite these students’ insular upbringing Patrick Henry, with a student body of only 300 boasts a world-class debate team, frequently besting rivals from the Ivy League to Oxford. All this with a strictly enforced ultra conservative code of conduct which, in addition to prohibiting drinking, recreational drug use, premarital sex and profanity strictly restricts an array of student activities ranging from dress code to musical tastes. Even dating is heavily frowned upon, instead prospective couples are encouraged to engage in archaic courtship rituals straight out of a Jane Austen novel.

Fast forward to late 2020 when I heard a discussion on one of my favorite podcasts, Friendly Atheist about Madison Cawthorn, a 25-year-old MAGA wackadoodle from North Carolina who was running for a seat in the US House of Representatives. According to news sources sited by podcast co-host Hemant Mehta, even though Cawthorn is a self-identifying conservative Christian, while attending Patrick Henry for a semester before leaving due to poor academic performance he apparently “earn[ed] a reputation for sexually predatory behavior, lying, and vandalism.” As a result, 176 current students, former students, and alumni of Patrick Henry signed a letter condemning Cawthorn’s past behavior and urging voters to reject him at the polls. Mehta also went on to mention a surprisingly large number of hyper conservative Republican staffers and interns in DC are Patrick Henry grads and interns. 

In the weeks following the Trump and his allies’ unsuccessful coup at the Capitol I found myself in the mood to read up on the world of conservative evangelicals and figured now was a good time to finally borrow an overdrive copy of the book spawned by Hanna Rosin’s original New Yorker article. Published in 2007 God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America is an intimate, detailed and even-handed look at life inside Patrick Henry College, the conservative Christian subculture that produced it and the America its students and graduates would like to build. 

If conservative Christians were to take back the reigns of power in a morally corrupt America they would need a generation of intelligent, driven and upstanding believers to do it. With the Ivy League and other elite colleges seen as dens of vice and atheism, as well as closed to the ranks of the homeschooled, the solution, according to founder Farris was to create their own Ivy League institution. While construction began creating a small campus that in the end would resemble as Rosin put it a “tiny, less like an Ivy League college than like a Hollywood set of an old Ivy League school” Farris criss-crossed the country speaking at homeschooling events and other evangelical get-togethers recruiting promising prospective students with an eye towards academic overachievers  (especially the “1600 club” or those with a perfect SAT score) debate superstars and teens active in conservative political causes. 

After reading Rosin’s outstanding look inside Patrick Henry I’m left wondering if the small Virginia college runs the risk of collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. Can a bastion of conservative Christian orthodoxy also promote intellectual freedom, allowing students to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake within the liberal arts? As challenging as this might be for any church-affiliated institution of higher learning a majority of the college’s professors, at least during Rosin’s visit loathed Farris’s puritanical micromanaging of the curriculum, demanding they put a deliberate evangelical spin on everything. Built on a commitment to biblical literalism, the college’s science courses refuse to acknowledge evolution as a bedrock foundation instead embracing religious-based pseudo theories like young earth creationism and intelligent design. 

On top of the above-mention questions of intellectual honesty, even the college’s raison d’être could be in jeopardy. Rosin encounters more than a few female students aspiring to work in positions of authority and responsibility in politics and government, but also feeling obligated to marry and have children after graduation, embracing the role of “helpmeet”, a more wholesome calling for Christian women. While many evangelicals take comfort in the biblical command “be in the world but not of it” how realistic is it expect young Patrick Henry graduates to maintain the courage of their convictions once they enter the messy, rough and tumble world of politics. In Washington DC, a mere 40 miles away social drinking is the norm, temptations of the flesh abound, and lying and political backstabbing are time honored practices. 

I thoroughly enjoyed God’s Harvard finding Rosin’s portrayal of life at Patrick Henry insightful and nuanced. It’s also the perfect follow-up read to Kevin Roose’s undercover adventure at Liberty University The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. Even though it’s the first week of February there’s strong likelihood God’s Harvard will make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction

2020 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. Each year I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, I find myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year I read and reviewed 23 books, and for my efforts earned the coveted Jet Setter Award. I wasn’t as productive in 2020 but still managed to read and review 20 books for the challenge. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Belgium, Switzerland and even the micro-state of Vatican City. This year for this first time I’ll be including books representing Slovakia and Norway

  1. An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist by Richard Dawkins (United Kingdom)
  2. The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. by Carole DeSanti (France)
  3. The Last Battle by Cornelius Ryan (Germany)
  4. Warburg in Rome by James Carroll (Italy) 
  5. The Last by Hanna Jameson (Switzerland) 
  6. The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (Russia)
  7. Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith (Ukraine) 
  8. 1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Åsbrin (Sweden)
  9. Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs by Greg King and Penny Wilson (Austria)
  10. Masquerade: Dancing Around Death in Nazi Occupied Hungary by Tivadar Soros (Hungary)
  11. Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin (Slovakia)
  12. The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt by Julian Borger (Bosnia) 
  13. The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Spain) 
  14. Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne (Greece)
  15. An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew by Annejet van der Zijl (The Netherlands) 
  16. From Bruges with Love by Peiter Aspe (Belgium)
  17. Guilty Wives by James Patterson and David Ellis (Monaco)
  18. Prague Spring by Simon Mawer (Czech Republic)
  19. The Vatican Cop by Shawn Raymond Poalillo (Vatican City)
  20. The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb by Neal Bascomb (Norway)

It was about a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction for this years’ challenge, with fiction tallying slightly more with 11 books. Five books were translated from other languages, including one, Masquerade from Esperanto. Both The Last Battle and The Future is History made my 2020 Favorite Nonfiction list while The Last, Beautiful Animals and The Angel’s Game made the Favorite Fiction list. I declared The Angel’s Game my favorite novel of 2020. 

As you can guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.