Nonfiction November Week 4: Stranger than Fiction

Last week Veronica at The Thousand Book Project hosted Nonfiction November and this week another great blogger, Christopher at Plucked from the Stacks has agreed to host. 

This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that *almost* don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic.

When I first read Rennie’s post announcing Nonfiction November I thought I’d sit this week out. While I might be able to think of a book or two that might possibly fit the bill I wasn’t sure I could recommend enough books worthy of a post. Even if I could, what one considers stranger than fiction is definitely in the eye of the beholder. But the more I thought about it, the more I began remembering books that might be perfect for a post like this.   

Science and Nature

True Tales of Survival

True Crime 

Incredible Lives 

Incredible Iranian Lives 

  • A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran by Reza Kahlili – Disillusioned with Iran’s theocratic regime, Kahlili put his life on the line to become an American agent. 
  • A Mirror Garden by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian – Like a real life Forest Gump, over the course of her rich and adventurous life Farmanfarmaian rubbed shoulders with long parade of celebrities. From Andy Warhol to Warren Beaty to Prince Charles the tales of her charmed life make for great reading. She even played Twister with the Shah of Iran and his royal entourage. 
  • Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat – Moments before she was about to be executed for opposing Iran’s revolutionary regime, Nemat agreed to marry one of her prison guards and convert to Islam. She was just 16 years old. 

History

Cults and Leaving Religion 

 

And to think I was worried I couldn’t come up with enough books for this post. Happy reading and enjoy Nonfiction November! 

Library Loot

All I took was Clair’s recent Library Loot post to inspire me to grab a few more books. Foolish, since I still have a towering stack of previously borrowed books next to my bed. Just like I said last week, when will I ever learn? Probably never. 

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

Nonfiction November Week 3: Be the Expert

Last week Katie at Doing Dewey hosted Nonfiction November and this week another great blogger, Veronica at The Thousand Book Project has agreed to host. Just like in past years we’ve been inspired to lend our expertise, request expertise or announce our willingness to learn more.

You can either share three 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).

In 2017 I discussed books about Iran by Iranian authors. The following year in 2018 I wrote about women leaving religion, featuring seven memoirs by, and two anthologies about women who’d left various versions of Christianity, Judaism or Islam. In 2019 it was prison memoirs. Last year, in 2020 I featured books about Italy by non-Italians.

The inspiration for this year’s topic came from a friend of mine who texted me back in September looking for book recommendations. She wanted to learn about the Middle Ages and asked if I could recommend any helpful reading material. After racking my brain for a bit I emailed her a list of 10 books I thought might do the trick. Later, I decided the list I’d concocted might make a good “Ask the Expert” post for Nonfiction November.

I revised my original list ever so slightly and added two additional titles to make it an even dozen. Remember, as with all of my so-called “expert” posts, I only included books I’ve read. Therefore, in no way is this list definitive. I trust me, I ain’t no expert.

Just like the prof you had in college who always suggested supplementary texts that no one ever read, I’m going to throw out a few more books. While they might not deal directly with the Middle Ages, they help provide valuable context and/or previously overlooked or unappreciated narratives.

If you end up reading these books I promise you’ll know more about the Middle Ages than the person on the street (unless that person has a masters in Medieval Studies). You’ll also be totally primed if you encounter any historical novels set in those centuries like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.

With all that in mind, good luck and happy reading!

Library Loot

Even though I’ve been enjoying Erika Fatland’s Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan I felt I needed a break. But instead of just reading something from the stack of previously borrowed stuff next to my bed I grabbed more library books. Once again, I have more library books on my hands than I know what to do with. When will I ever learn? 

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 Sharlene’s blog

  • Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street by Heda Margolius Kovály – Needing something representing the Czech Republic for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge made this one hard to resist. A murder mystery set during the early years of the Communist regime also made it hard to turn down. 
  • The Snows of Yesteryear by Gregor von Rezzori – Born in a part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire that’s now Ukraine, Rezzori’s novel of family drama during the first decades of the 20th century looks like an entertaining glimpse into a world undergoing unprecedented political and societal change. 
  • Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School by Stuart Jeffries – 20th century intellectual giants Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, and Herbert Marcuse are all associated with this highly progressive and intellectually bold department at Goethe University in interwar Frankfurt. One of my buddies who’s a professor at the local university is always talking about the Frankfort School. Maybe if I read this book I’ll finally understand what the heck he’s talking about.
  • A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez – A novel featuring a protagonist with a Chinese-Panamanian father and a German mother set in the housing projects in the 1950s and 1960s sounds like a fun adventure. 
  • Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging by Alex Wagner – The daughter of a Burmese mother and a white American father traveling around the world in search of answers regarding her ethnic identity is the perfect companion book to Nunez’s above-mentioned novel. 
  • Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin by Ann Patty – After working thirty-five years as a book editor in New York City, Ann Patty said no more and moved to the country. After getting bored with living out in the woods she started studying Latin at the local college. Sounds eerily similar to my life. (Other than I never spent 35 years as a book editor in New York, and I’m not studying Latin at the local college.) 

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings

Last week Rennie at What’s Nonfiction  hosted Nonfiction November and this week another great blogger, Katie at Doing Dewey has agreed to host. In her post she enlists us to offer up our recommendations.

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.

In previous years I’ve approached this by discussing an extensive collection of nonfiction/fiction pairings but this time I’d like to do something different. I’ll be featuring an historical novel I recently read along with several works of nonfiction that make for wonderful follow-up reading.

Published in 2018, Michael David Lukas’s The Last Watchman of Old Cairo jumps back and forth between the early 2000s, 1897 and the 11th century. Joseph, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, is puzzled when a strange package from Egypt arrives in the mail one day. Intrigued by its cryptic contents, the son of a Jewish mother and an estranged, now-deceased Muslim father decides to put his university studies on hold and visit the land of his ancestors in search of answers.

The heart of the novel is Cairo’s Ibn Ezra Synagogue, for centuries center of the city’s vibrant Jewish community until a series of the mass exoduses starting in 1956 spurred by Egyptian President Nasser’s anti-Jewish and anti-western measures drove them from the country. In the late 1890s the synagogue would achieve worldwide notoriety after its repository of ancient documents or Geniza was mined and catalogued by a visiting Cambridge scholar, his young female assistant and a pair of brilliant middle aged Scottish twin sisters. Also, legend had it the synagogue was the secret home of the Ezra Scroll, written by the great Lawgiver himself 2,500 years ago and purported to possess powerful supernatural properties.

This multiple award-winning historical novel is an enjoyable mix of intrigue, romance and a touch of magic. If you take my recommendation and end up reading it, I can’t encourage you enough to follow it up with a few other books, all nonfiction.

Start with Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. Published in 2011, this National Jewish Book Award finalist is a detailed look at the history of the Geniza, its treasured contents and the intrepid individuals who helped bring it all to light. Located in an out of the way annex of the synagogue, the Geniza was kind of hallowed dumping ground for old letters, business records, marriage contracts, divorce writs, holy scriptures and everything in between. Dubbed by some scholars as the “living Sea Scrolls” they provided a highly detailed look at centuries of everyday Jewish life in the region and beyond.

Proceed next to Janet Soskice’s 2009 The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. Here you will learn more about two of the late-Victorian era’s most fascinating, and under-appreciated women. Denied higher educations thanks to the sexism of the day, the pair nevertheless went on to master Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac plus a host of other languages (between the two of them close to a dozen) and traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and the Levant where they were instrumental in locating and acquiring a number of ancient Christian manuscripts. Later, the sisters, together with Solomon Schechter would transport the contents of the Ibn Ezra Geniza back to Cambridge where it could be secured safely and extensively studied.

As the old TV pitchman used to say, “but wait, there’s more.” For great looks into the lost world of Egypt’s Jewish community I highly recommend a quartet of great family memoirs. Lucette Lagnado’s 2007 The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, her 2011 follow-up The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, André Aciman’s 1994 Out of Egypt and Gini Alhadeff’s 1997 The Sun at Midday: Tales of a Mediterranean Family all provide vivid portraits of an exotic yet cultured place that managed to be Middle Eastern, European, Muslim and Jewish all at the same time. But sadly is no more.

About Time I Read It: To Hell and Back by Ian Kershaw

As part of an ongoing research project I’ve been reading books on European history, especially that of 20th century. Back in September I read Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century and recently I borrowed through Overdrive Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949.  In 2019 I read its sequel The Global Age: Europe 1950-2017 and was duly impressed. I’m happy to report Kershaw did not disappoint me.

Like some cataclysmic three act play, the first half of the 20th century brought to the European continent World War I, the Depression and World War II. 50 years later Europe emerged from this bloody third act impoverished and broken. While Nazism and Italian Fascism had been vanquished, the exhausted Continent was left almost equally divided between East and West, and would remain so for another half century.

In To Hell and Back Kershaw addresses in detail everything I’d hoped: the run-up to World War I and its significant battles; the Paris Peace Conference and the new European order it spawned, including the punitive reparations imposed upon the young Weiner Republic of Germany; the rise of new forms of revolutionary totalitarianism in the USSR, Italy and Germany as well as a concomitant slide from democracy to conservative authoritarianism throughout much of Europe with the exception of Great Britain, France, the Low Countries and Scandinavia (in addition to other outliers Czechoslovakia and Eire); the Depression: and the Second World War’s origins, horrors and aftermath. He also discusses the period’s significant social, economic, technological and artistic developments.

Perhaps my most memorable take away from Kershaw’s book are the of destabilizing effects of ethnic tensions in Central and Eastern Europe. Restive nationalities yearning for independence or union with their neighbors, and long-oppressed ethnic groups perceived to be standing the way of national homogeneity would help spark not one but two world wars during the first half of the 20th century.

Meant as a blow against Austro-Hungarian rule over the region’s southern Slavs, in 1914 a Serb nationalist assassinated the Austrian Archduke and his wife. Backed with a blank check by its increasingly bellicose ally Germany, Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia to punish and reassert dominate over its southern neighbors (and given the dual empire’s own multi-ethic composition, reassert dominance domestically as well). Russia, in turn would come to the aid of its junior ally Serbia and respond with force. Germany, coming to defense of Austria-Hungary would declare war on Russia also hoping to carve off a slice of its neighbor’s territory. Thus began the First World War.

By the 1930s the Nazis, a party that elevated race above state, would take control of a divided and dysfunctional Germany. Chief among the demands of Hitler and his cronies was the incorporation of neighboring ethnic Germans into the Reich. After annexing Austria he demanded, and was awarded the Sudetenland, home to a sizable German population. But after the German army occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia Great Britain and France learned they’d reached the limits of appeasement. Once Hitler began calling for the Polish Corridor and Danzig (technically a “free city” under League of Nations protection, overwhelming ethnic German but closely administered by  Poland) war looked likely. In 1939 when Germany signed a non-aggression pact with the USSR to secure its Eastern flank war was inevitable. Poland was invaded from both West and East. Just like 20 years earlier, military aggression in Eastern Europe would spark a continent-wide conflict with devastating consequences.

This makes superb follow-up reading to other faves of mine, especially MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World , Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, Ross Range’s 1924: The Year That Made Hitler and Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II.

Speaking of follow-up books, I’m hoping To Hell and Back will inspire me to read both Keith Lowe’s The Fear and the Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us and Tony Judt’s tour de force Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945.

Please consider To Hell and Back highly recommended.

Nonfiction November Week 1: Your Year in Nonfiction

Once again it’s time for Nonfiction November, 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. Year after year I come away with great book recommendations as I’m introduced to new book blogs. Some years I even manage to pick up an additional subscriber or two.

For Week 1 our host Rennie at one of my favorite blogs What’s Nonfiction kicks it all off by inviting us to look back on 2011 and ask

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 this year’s favorite, six books come to mind. Both on my blog and in conversations with others I’ve praised these works of nonfiction. Look for each one of them to make my year-end Favorite Nonfiction List.

2021, as far as nonfiction goes was also a year of pleasant surprises. I decided to take a chance on these four books, knowing little, if anything about them. Each one exceeded expectations.

It was also a year for old books. As part of my 20 Books of Summer series I read two books published in the 1970s.

As far as particular topics I’ve been attracted to in 2021 as part of my ongoing research project I continue to read books on the Middle East as well as 20th century European history. In addition to those already mentioned above, I was inspired to read these six books.

This year, just like in past years I’ve recommended a number of books. With the exception of Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family those recommended address democracy under threat, and the rise of anti-science and anti-reason.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for right now. But throughout this month I’ll be sharing more posts celebrating Nonfiction November.

Library Loot

After finishing Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 I was feeling adventurous and decided to grab a few more library books. With a towering stack of previously borrowed stuff next to my bed begging to be read one could argue this was a foolish move. But, as well all know I have no self-control whatsoever when it comes to library books. So I might as well make the best of the situation and just keep reading. 

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 Sharlene’s blog

Library Loot

I’m still making my way through Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 and have barely touched Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad. Even though I borrowed a big ole stack of library books just last week you wouldn’t think I wanted anymore. Well, I stopped at the library the other day and grabbed four more.

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 Sharlene’s blog

About Time I Read It: Black Flags by Joby Warrick

Next time you’re at the library, do yourself a favor. If you see a book displayed as a staff recommendation grab it. I’ve been doing this for years and it’s led me to excellent books like David Liss’s historical novel The Coffee Trader or Warren Kozak’s The Rabbi of 84th Street: The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser or Julie Holland’s memoir Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER.

Recently, one of my local public libraries decided showcase a number of staff recommendations. Following their sagely advice I borrowed two, one which happened to be Joby Warrick’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS. I couldn’t put it down and theres’s a strong likelihood it will make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

In the early 2000s, al-Qaeda was seen as America’s most feared scourge. But in just a few years a rival terrorist organization materialized out of Iraq’s Sunni heartland. Founded by a semi-literate Jordanian street thug turned Islamic militant the group attacked US occupation forces, beheaded captives and bombed Shia holy sites throughout Iraq, pushing the already chaotic and wounded nation into a state of civil war.  For the next decade its fortunes would wax and wane but within 10 years its fighters would accomplish what al-Qaeda could never achieve: conquer a swath of the Arab World and impose Islamic rule. Proclaimed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (rendered into English as ISIS) its vengeful leaders reigned with an iron hand, committing a host of atrocities including genocide, sexual enslavement and wholesale destruction of hallowed archeological sites. It took the concerted military effort by both Western and Arab nations to break the group’s hold on the area. But not before ISIS could wreck havoc on the Arab World and even Paris.

In chronicling the evolution of ISIS Warrick expertly conveys the group’s rise to prominence. Most fascinating of all, he shows how this was inadvertently facilitated by the actions of others, even those committed to fighting Islamic terrorism.

  • Founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would have lived out his life as a low-level criminal had his parents not remanded him to his local mosque for religious instruction where he soon became radicalized. Reinventing himself, he fled to Afghanistan and enlisted in the Mujahideen. Later, he returned to Jordan and emboldened by his experience embarked on his own holy war, this time against his native Jordanians. Eventually, he was captured and sentenced to a lengthy prison term.
  • Al-Zarqawi would have languished in prison for years, even decades and eventually forgotten, like so many other imprisoned Islamic radicals had he not benefited from a stroke of good luck. In 1999 Jordan’s King Hussein succumbed to cancer and was succeeded by his son Abdullah II. In keeping with Jordanian custom the newly crowned king authorized the release of a number of prisoners, one of which happened to be al-Zarqawi. Later, once al-Zarqawi earned a reputation as a terrorist mastermind (orchestrating attacks in Iraq and later Jordan) Abdullah was furious security officials deemed al-Zarqawi worthy of early release.
  • Sold to the American public and the world at large as an essential undertaking in the fight against terrorism, Bush and his inner circle orchestrated the armed invasion of Iraq. After toppling Saddam’s regime and driving the country’s Sunni-dominated Baathists from positions of authority a chaotic power vacuum soon ensued. This provided the perfect environment for al-Zarqawi and his followers (including a number of Sunni military officers) to attack US forces and Shia holy sites.
  • Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was an Iraqi graduate student studying Islamic theology when he was swept up in a raid by US forces while visiting an old college friend. After thrown in a detention camp by the Americans the “civilian internee” so impressed his fellow detainees with his command of Islamic jurisprudence he quickly gained a following among the camp’s militant elements. In 2004 after deemed “low level” he was released. Thanks to his reputation as a gifted Islamic scholar he was soon brought into the ISIS fold as its chief Sharia lawgiver. After holding the number three position in the organization he eventually became its leader after an American military strike took out ISIS’s top two men.
  • After the last US forces left Iraq in late 2011, Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began taking a harder line against the country’s Sunnis. His purging of prominent Sunnis from his administration and crushing Sunni protests would drive many of them into the welcoming arms of ISIS. Reinvigorated with a new sense of purpose the group would out-battle the poorly led, demoralized Iraqi National Army and capture a huge chunk of Iraqi territory.
  • In the early 2010s as the Arab Spring spread throughout the Middle East thousands in Syria protested the autocratic rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Refusing to step down or make any concessions whatsoever Assad instead ordered his security forced to fire on demonstrators, sparking a civil war that would tear the country apart. Before long a huge contested zone opened up  in the country’s interior where a myriad of anti-government rebels fought against Assad’s forces, his assorted foreign allies and each other. Taking advantage of the situation, ISIS fighters carved out their own Islamic caliphate to rule puritanically and use as a base from which to launch operations throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Taking advantage of a long series of unforced errors and miscalculations ISIS leaders were able to grow their terrorist organization. No wonder Napoleon said never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

This is an outstanding book, well deserved of all the praise. Readable, insightful and comprehensive, it should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. Please consider Black Flags highly recommended.