20 Books of Summer: Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee

Like a lot of people I was introduced to the writing of John McPhee through the New Yorker. I loved how he could write so beautifully about, well, anything. From geology to political figures, no matter how obscure the subject after finishing an article you couldn’t wait until his next one. Not only an accomplished writer, for decades he taught nonfiction writing at his alma matter Princeton, inspiring a number of his former students to become accomplished writers themselves. (David Remnick, Robert Wright and Dan-el Padilla Peralta are but a few.) Over the years I’ve acquired several of his books yet sadly made no effort to read them.

As part of my 20 Books of Summer series I decided remedy this by including a little something by McPhee. Published back in 1971 his Encounters with the Archdruid: Narratives About a Conservationist and Three of His Natural Enemies explores three (four, if you count a side trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota) beautiful, yet radically different parts of the United States and the memorable individuals strongly associated with them. From North Cascades National Park in Washington State to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina to the Colorado River in Arizona and Utah McPhee explores the areas’ natural beauty while introducing us to a pioneering conservationist and his three political rivals.

First and perhaps foremost of these is David Brower, at the time Executive Director of the Sierra Club and a life-long conservationist. Contrasted with him are his ideological adversaries: Charles Park, a mineral engineer and mining advocate; Charles Fraser, a resort developer from Hilton Head; and Floyd Dominy, a high-level government official responsible for the creation of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. Like a geologist descending through layers of accumulated strata McPhee reveals bit by bit the interesting depths of these complex individuals, showing no matter how aesthetically pleasing and majestic these places might be they’ll never completely overshadow the four remarkable personalities forever responsible for their preservation or alteration.

20 Books of Summer: Family History of Fear by Agata Tuszyńska

Well, it didn’t take me long to deviate from my original 20 Books of Summer. Right after finishing There There I dived into Agata Tuszyńska’s Family History of Fear, casting aside any hope I’d stick to my carefully pre-arranged shelf of summer reading material. And why not? I need something representing Poland for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Plus, I’ve had pretty good luck with family memoirs with Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s A Mirror Garden, Marina Benjamin’s Last Days in Babylon: The History of a Family, the Story of a Nation and Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World as well as its follow-up The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn all being enjoyable reads.

When Polish poet and cultural historian Agata Tuszyńska was 19 years old her mother surprisingly confided to her they were Jewish. Tuszyńska, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, mines the depths of this secretive family history for her 2016 memoir sharing with the world stories kept untold for far too long.

With her grandfather languishing in a POW camp Tuszyńska’s grandmother and mother were packed into the crowded Warsaw Ghetto and subjected along with thousands of other Jews to the horrors of disease, malnutrition and abuse. The two would eventually escape, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the Nazis while avoiding betrayal by their fellow Poles, be they cruel opportunists or hateful antisemites. For days on end the two hid in secret rooms or backs of closets. (Bored with nothing to do her eight year old mother read in the dim light to pass the time. As a result after the war she frequently squinted, eliciting puzzled comments from her schoolmates.) Later, she grew up and married a college classmate who went on to be one of Poland’s premier sportscasters.

In Family History of Fear Tuszyńska shares stories of both sides of her family, Jew and Gentile. Her style leans towards nonlinear, jumping back and forth chronologically and familial.  Unfortunately, by the time I reached the final third of the book I found myself losing interest. Fortunately, my interest rekindled at the end. Her memoir closes with the ruling Communists’ antisemitic campaign against the nation’s few remaining Jews, ostensibly taken to combat “Zionism” in response to Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. (For additional insight into one of the darker and more obscure periods of late-stage Soviet Communism I highly recommend both Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: The Year That Rocked the World and Gal Beckerman’s outstanding When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.)

I borrowed Family History of Fear from the library because I wanted not just a book about Poland, but also the Poland of years gone by. Today’s Poland is religiously and linguistically homogenous but a hundred years ago it was a diverse land. Before World War II 3 million Jews lived in Poland, more than anywhere including the USSR. Overall, Jews made up 10 percent of the country’s population including roughly of third of Warsaw. For many, especially in the countryside Yiddish, not Polish was their primary if not exclusive language. (Even in the capital Warsaw intermarriage was rare, and those who did were usually Communists.) Along its eastern borders were sizable communities of Ukrainians, almost all practicing Orthodox. But due to the ravages of war, genocide and Communist oppression that pre-war world of Poland has passed into history. Tuszyńska’s Family History of Fear is an elegy for both a family and a nation.

About Time I Read It: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

I love books that make me fundamentally rethink how I understand the world, specifically how we got here and even where we’re going. The first of these kind of books I read was probably Europe: A History by Norman Davies. (20 years after I read it I still remember him wisely pointing out Europe, for all its glory, geographically speaking is nevertheless a peninsula of Asia. He also boldly claimed events and developments in the 19th century had a greater impact on today’s modern world than those of the 20th.) As I read more over the years I discovered other powerful and expansive books like Guns, Germs and Steel, Carnage and Culture, Why Nations Fail and 1493. More recently, last year I had the pleasure of reading The Jakarta Method, Maoism: A Global History and The Islamic Enlightenment all of which fell into this category.

When my book club announced we were reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, another of these kind of books I quickly borrowed an ebook copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Sweeping and detailed, I nevertheless made quick work of the readable Silk Roads in roughly a week. This fine book should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

Based on Frankopan’s extensive research, for thousands of years Central Asia and its adjacent lands (roughly the Persian Empire at greatest extent, give or take a bit) has played a decisive role shaping world history. Over the centuries armies, plagues, riches and religions have traveled time honored trade routes commonly referred as the Silk Road across South Central Eurasia. This new interpretation shifts our attention east making Central Asia history’s prime mover as opposed to Europe, and upending our traditional Eurocentric view of world history.

While it’s undeniable Greece and Rome left an indelible imprints on Western thought one must remember all the world’s major religions originated somewhere in Asia, with the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all developing in relatively close proximity to each other. (Helping make cross-pollination between them in varying degrees possible.) While Greek ideas and imagery traveled east with Alexander’s armies leaving a lasting influence from Asia Minor to India Buddhist and Zoroastrian concepts flowed in the opposite direction doing much the same. (Buddhist missionaries in the Levant might have been responsible for introducing the dualistic concepts which would form the core of Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy. Hundreds of years later, it’s possible the first Islamic madrasahs were modeled on Buddhist teaching communities.)

During the Middle Ages, armies of an assertive Christian Europe flush with new-found sense of purpose invaded the western shores of Central Asia in a series of conflicts known as the Crusades. Exposed to the region’s higher standard of living Crusaders and their descendants developed tastes for the finer things in life, leading to an explosion in first regional, and then intercontinental commerce. Even though the Latin Kingdoms they founded on the shores of the Mediterranean were eventually vanquished it spawned lasting trade between Europe and Asia, with the Italian maritime city states profiting handsomely.

Later in the Middle Ages, these same trade routes would also bring plague to Europe, decimating the continent’s population. This die off would make labor scarce, drive up wages and lead to wealth redistribution. Overall, incomes rose  and demand increased for goods from Asia. Feeling cut out of the lucrative international trade business, Iberian powers Portugal and Spain saw sailing east as the solution. By doing so they not only found another route to India around Africa, but more importantly discovered the New World.

Then later, the discovery, and subsequent conquest of the Americas changed everything once again. Instead of European inhabitants dying by the millions this time it was Americans. Their kingdoms destroyed and their royal coffers looted, silver and gold by the ship full flowed from the New World to Iberia. As these riches and the ones that followed percolated across Europe and began enriching England and the Low Countries it created demand for even more high value goods from Asia. As living standards rose it lead to an intellectual awakening known as the Enlightenment. Sadly, the Age of Reason could not have happened without the theft of America’s gold and silver and the slaughter and subjugation of its natives.

The centrality of Central Eurasia extends well into the modern age. For the later half of the 19th century Russia and Great Britain were bitter rivals in the Great Game for control of the gateway to India. Happy to see Tsarist Russia turn its attention elsewhere Britain did everything it could to encourage Russian animosity towards Germany, setting the stage for World War I. 20 years later Hitler justified Germany’s invasion of the USSR as a means to secure Ukraine’s wheat. At the turn of the 20th century it was the British who first saw the potential for oil to replace coal to fuel navies and later, trains and automobiles. Throughout much of the 20th century and into the 21st, pipelines and tanker routes would criss-cross the globe bringing oil from the lands of the former Persian Empire to the industrialized West.

By the end of the book we have come full circle. Once again China is the world’s premier exporter. Instead supplying the world with silk and porcelain today it’s everything from consumer electronics to household goods to steel. Flexing its newfound economic and political might the country launched its Belt and Road Initiative: the creation of land and rail routes from China to Western Eurasia, Africa and beyond closely following the trade routes of old crisscrossing Central Asia. Think of this massive international infrastructure development strategy as 21st century’s answer to the Silk Road – on steroids. All while the region’s former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, blessed with almost limitless petroleum reserves, have become major players on the world stage.

Frankopan makes a compelling, if not convincing case the lands of Central Eurasia, and not Europe was key in the rise of Western civilization. Please consider his book The Silk Roads highly recommended.

20 Books of Summer: There There by Tommy Orange

After sitting out last summer, I’m once again participating in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer, hosted on her blog 746 Books. As you might have seen in an earlier post, for this year I’ve selected an odd ball assortment of library books, older stuff, history, fiction and even a play.

Among the several novels I chose are Tommy Orange’s There There and Mitchell S. Jackson’s The Residue Years, both past selections of Multnomah County Library’s annual Everybody’s Reads program. After letting my copies sit ignored for the last couple of years I figured now was a good time to include them in my 20 Books of Summer.

On the eve of the recent three day weekend I cracked open There There and give it a shot, hoping my favorite public library once again selected a goodie for Everybody Reads. After reading a mere few pages I was hooked. With the year roughly half over, I’m predicting right now this novel will make my year-end list of Favorite Fiction.

Published in 2018, Orange’s debut novel was proclaimed one of the best books of the year by publications far and wide, won a ton of awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer. Shifting back and forth between first and third person it tells the story of 12 Oakland, California area Native Americans and their interconnected lives leading up to an outdoor pow wow at the city’s sports stadium. Early in the novel you learn someone is being pressured to commit an armed robbery at the large festival. But like a runaway train careening towards disaster you know it’s all going to end tragically, you just don’t know how horrific it will all look when it’s all over.

There There has everything you would want in a killer debut novel. The writing is taut and vivid and features an ensemble cast of Native American characters which might have the appearance of racial homogeneity but based on age, temperament and life experience is strikingly diverse. The novel also touches on a host of relevant issues like gentrification, substance abuse, mental health, poverty and as expected racial identity.

Please consider There There highly recommended.

Library Loot

With the weather improving and COVID restrictions in my area easing up a bit I drove into town today to run a few errands and drop by my favorite public library to maybe grab a book or two. (Because after all, I can’t have too many library books at my immediate disposal can I?) Of course by doing so I’ve completely wrecked any hope I’d stick to my intended 20 books of summer. But seriously, did anyone really think I’d really read all the books on my list? 

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.

With COVID restrictions beginning to lessen, weather improving and more people able to interact because they’ve been vaccinated I look forwards to once again being able to sit in a pub with a pint of beer and a big ole stack of books and read until my heart is content. And with a three day weekend coming up next week I think that’s exactly what I will do. 

A Reader’s Guide to Eastern Europe

Photo Credit – Wikipedia

For several months I’ve been wanting to post a Reader’s Guide to Eastern Europe. It, along with the Middle East are two regions that have fascinated me for years, a fascination that’s inspired me to read who knows how many books over the years about this part of the world. As long as I’ve participated in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I’ve always included nonfiction works about Eastern Europe or works of fiction by Eastern European authors.

For over 200 years Eastern Europe has experienced a number of crucial inflection points that have changed the course of world history. Russia’s ability to withstand Napoleon’s invasion ended France’s attempt to dominate Eurasia. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914 sparked a world war that would kill millions and ultimately destroy the established European order, leading to the rise of authoritarian Communism and Fascism. Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland would in turn kick off another global war, this one even more horrific than the last. Lastly, decades later the Soviet Union’s inability to reinvigorate its failing political-economic system would lead to the collapse of both the USSR and Communist nations across the region once again remaking the world order.

More recent events in Eastern Europe have dominated headlines. Poland and Hungary, two decades after finally escaping the yoke of Communist tyranny continue their slide towards authoritarian rule. Meanwhile, seperatist militias backed by Russian troops battle government forces in Eastern Ukraine. All of this currently unfolding against the backdrop of an increasingly bellicose Russia rightfully accused of interfering in the affairs foreign and domestic of numerous countries including the United States. 

I can’t think of any better way to gain a deeper understand this important part of the world than by doing some reading. To help facilitate this I’ve compiled a list of recommended books specific to the different nations making up Eastern Europe. Keep in mind I’m only including books I’ve read. (If you find one of your favorites missing it’s probably because I’ve yet to read it, not that I didn’t like it.) Also keep in mind I’m not an academic and certainly no expert in this region so take my advice with a grain of salt. 

I’ve taken the liberty to define Eastern Europe as the following:

  • The European republics of the former USSR: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia 
  • The former Warsaw Pact member nations: Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia (Czechoslovakia before the country split in two) and Albania (before leaving the Pact in 1968) 
  • The successor states of Yugoslavia: Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina (Please note: Until Kosovo is officially recognized with a seat in the UN General Assembly for our purposes I’ll be treating it as an autonomous region of Serbia) 

Photo Credit – TripSavvy

Below you’ll find a mixture of fiction and nonfiction. You’ll also find a lot of obscure and backlisted stuff, which if you’ve been reading my blog shouldn’t surprise you. It also shouldn’t surprise you almost all of these books I found at my public library. That means they’re probably in yours as well, and if not certainly available through interlibrary loan. 

AlbaniaThe Fall of Stone City by Ismail Kadare 

Armenia, Azerbijian and GeorgiaThe Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus by Ross King

AzerbaijanAll Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Grjasnowa

BelarusThe Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest by Peter Duffy 

Bosnia and HerzegovinaThe Wolf of Sarajevo by Matthew Palmer, The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt by Julian Borger, The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War by Tim Butcher, Sarajevo: A War Journal  by Zlatko Dizdarević or Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War by Peter Maass

BulgariaBorder: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova or The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova 

CroatiaThe Hired Man by Aminatta Forna, Marble Skin by Slavenka Drakulic or Girl at War by Sara Nović

Czech RepublicPrague Spring by Simon Mawer, Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr, The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House by Norman Eisen, The Devils Workshop by Jachym Topol, The Fifth Servant by Kenneth J. Wishnia or Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright 

HungaryMasquerade: Dancing Around Death in Nazi Occupied Hungary by Tivadar Soros, Budapest Noir by Vilmos Kondor, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, In the Darkroom by Susan Fuladi or The Bridge at Andau: The Compelling True Story of a Brave, Embattled People by James Michener

LatviaA Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile by Agate Nesaule, The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell or Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe by Inara Verzemnieks

LithuaniaThe Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David E. Fishman or The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism by Eliyahu Stern 

MoldovaPogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein 

PolandThe Train to Warsaw by Gwen Edelman, Isaac’s Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland by Matthew Brzezinski, A Secret Life: The Polish Colonel, His Covert Mission, And The Price He Paid To Save His Country by Benjamin Weiser, The Volunteer: One Man’s Mission to Lead an Underground Army Inside Auschwitz and Stop the Holocaust by Jack Fairweather or The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman

RomaniaUnder a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania by Haya Leah Molnar, In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond by Robert D. Kaplan or The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile’s Story of Return and Revolution by Andrei Codrescu 

RussiaOctober: The Story of a Revolution by China Miéville, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry by Gal Beckerman, City of Thieves by David Benioff, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945 by Catherine Merridale, The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat by Michael Jones, The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin by David Satter, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by David Remnick or Mutiny: The True Events That Inspired The Hunt For Red October by Boris Gindin and David Hagberg. 

SerbiaHunting the Tiger: The Fast Life and Violent Death of the Balkans’ Most Dangerous Man by Christopher S. Stewart or The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

SlovakiaSiren of the Waters by Michael Genelin 

UkraineRed Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum, In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah, Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov, Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith, A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel by Edmund Levin, An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History by Askold Krushnelnycky or Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King 

Books covering multiple countriesIron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum, Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment by Stephen Kotkin, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder, The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe by Marci Shore or Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters by Elie Wiesel 

Armenia, Georgia, Estonia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro I’m still looking for recommendations.

There you have it. Good luck and happy reading! 

 

20 Books of Summer

After taking last summer off, this year I’ll once again be participating in the 20 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy on her blog 746 Books. After a great deal of hemming and hawing I’ve selected 20 books. 

  1. Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 by Ratta Mitter (2013)
  2. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2008)
  3. The Unexpected Universe by Loren Eiseley (1969)
  4. The Time of the Uprooted by Elie Wiesel (2007)
  5. Becket or The Honor of God by Jean Anouilh (1960)
  6. Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff (2014)
  7. God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 by David Levering Lewis (2008)
  8. Encounters with the Archdruid: Narratives About a Conservationist and Three of His Natural Enemies by John McPhee (1971)
  9. The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson (2013)
  10. Early Modern Europe: From About 1450 to About 1720 by Sir George Clark (1962)
  11. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson (2014)
  12. 5 Ideas That Changed the World by Barbara Ward (1959)
  13. A Nation Rising: Untold Tales from America’s Hidden History by Kenneth C. Davis (2011)
  14. The Jews in America: The Roots and Destiny of American Jews by Max Dimont (1978) 
  15. Europe Between Revolutions 1815-1848 by Jacques Droz (1967)
  16. There There by Tommy Orange (2018)
  17. The Fear and the Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us by Keith Lowe (2017)
  18. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor by David S. Landes (1999)
  19. The Dragon and the Foreign Devils: China and the World, 1100 B.C. to the Present by Harry G. Gelber (2007)
  20. The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age by James Kirchick (2017)

In 2018 and 2019 I began each summer with high hopes I’d make it through all my books only to come up short. Both summers I deviated substantially from my original list of books, frequently just reading whatever the heck I happened to be in mood for at the time. I also fell short of my target of 20 books. (For instance, in 2019 I read only 16.) Fortunately, Cathy is a kind and flexible host, reminding all of us to simply read as many books as we’d like and freely substitute as we go along.

I’m hoping to use this as an opportunity to also tackle a chunk of my to be read pile (TBR) while at the same time also participating in other reading challenges like the European Reading Challenge, What’s in a Name Challenge, Mount TBR Reading Challenge, and Books in Translation Reading Challenge. With roughly a third of these books published prior to 1978 this is also a great chance to spotlight my Old Books Reading Project.

About Time I Read It: Spy Handler by Victor Cherkashin and Gregory Feifer

Another book I picked up at the library along with Hitlerland and A Mirror Garden was Victor Cherkashin and Gregory Feifer’s Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer- The True Story of the Man Who Recruited Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames. Since I’ve always enjoyed good cloak and dagger stuff it was hard to resist borrowing this 2004 book, especially since I loved Feifer’s 2009 book The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan. (It easily made my Favorite Nonfiction list back in 2017.) Even though Spy Handler is fairly light it still took me awhile to read because I kept getting distracted by other books. To be honest, I’m not sure just how much I really liked it. I will say however it gave me an inside at the shadowy world of International espionage from the perspective of a former KGB officer. And that is never a bad thing.

Victor Cherkashin spent a lifetime as a KGB officer around the world in India, Australia, Lebanon, West Germany and finally Washington, DC in the United States. Over the course of his career he was tasked with keeping an eye of Soviet citizens abroad as well as obtaining valuable information on foreign intelligence services and their operations. Eventually, his highest priority was the recruitment of foreign agents, and if needed, rooting out of spies within his own agency. Most importantly of all, Cherkashin was instrumental in facilitating two of the KGB’s biggest espionage coups: the recruitment of agents Aldrich Ames (CIA) and Robert Hanssen (FBI). 

In the movies, James Bond and Jason Bourne are forever battling their enemies with gunfire and brutal hand to hand combat but in reality most spy craft is conducted nonviolently. Like high level corporate sales reps spies approach their adversaries with charm and guile in hopes of getting them to switch their allegiances, or at least cooperate in some way, usually by supplying valuable information. Since their intended targets have similar goals, the result is an almost gentlemanly fraternity of rival intelligence agents, each side surprisingly cordial to the other. (In hopes of maintaining friendly relations spies have taken their counterparts and their families to sporting events or out fishing.) 

Ironically, when agents become traitors frequently it’s not because of this glad-handing. Even during the Cold War as the two sides squared off at each other personal, not ideological reasons motivated agents to betray their respective countries. For many it was simply financial, be it the need to pay off gambling debts, live a lavish lifestyle or support an expensive mistress. Passed over for promotions, demoted or simply feeling not valued by their employer some agents were motivated by revenge. (After the seriously ill son of a KGB agent died after being denied permission to seek medical care in the West the agent later agreed to spy for the United  States.) 

But despite all the niceties, spying is a risky game. More often than not spies are exposed not caught. All it takes is one well-placed turncoat with access to high-level information to blow the covers of countless agents. Some who approach foreign operatives with tantalizing information are double agents, hoping to keep their rival agency off balance with bogus or misleading intelligence. Some spies, if they do manage to get caught, agree to secretly do the bidding of their original employer in hopes of leniency. These triple agents can string their handlers along for years and in the process do all kinds of damage. With human foibles trumping even the most sophisticated technology a spy agency is only as strong as its weakest agents. 

About Time I Read It: Hitlerland by Andrew Nagorski

I can’t remember how I leaned about Andrew Nagorski’s Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power but its been on my to be read list for a long time. After one of my local public libraries recently reopened to patron traffic I paid a visit and in the course of things helped myself to a nice stack of books, one of which was a copy of Hitlerland. After finishing the memoir A Mirror Garden  I decided to give Hitlerland a shot. While maybe not as an enjoyable as Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts or Peter Ross Range’s 1924 I still found it a detailed and reveling look at Hitler and his fellow Nazi’s rise to power as seen through the eyes of those Americans who witnessed it firsthand. 

From the early 1920s right up to the United States’s entry into World War II a number of Americans lived in, or spent time in Germany. Most worked in the foreign service, assigned to the US embassy in Berlin or assorted consulates scattered throughout the country. Others were correspondents for newspapers or the emerging medium of radio. The rest were business representatives, military attachés , students, tourists and athletes. (Berlin was the site of the 1936 Olympics.) Others were American expats married to German spouses and to them Germany was not a tourist destination or a temporary employment gig but home.

According to Nagorksi some Americans who called Germany home, especially women, were zealous supporters of the Nazis. During his early days as a rabble rouser in Munich Hitler had an obsessive crush on the American wife of one of his co-conspirators. Disconsolate after the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch and contemplating suicide, in what would ultimately change the course of history she talked him out of taking his own life, believing if he did it would bring an end to his nascent political movement.

Americans who witnessed the rise of Nazi Germany first-hand in a myriad of ways. Many, upon arriving in the early days of Hitler’s Reich were impressed by the nation’s rebound from economic ruin and political chaos by marveling at the cleanliness of German cities and its peoples’ newly restored confidence and sense of purpose. (As an early sign of disturbing things to come, while this was going on American diplomats were spending more of their time investigating cases of Americans beaten up by Nazi thugs.) But as the years went by more and more visitors grew alarmed by the rise in militarism, antisemitic violence and clampdowns on freedom as arrests, imprisonments and murders of dissidents and political rivals skyrocketed. These concerns deepened by the end of the 1930s as German forces marched first into the Rhineland and then Austria, Czechoslovakia, and finally Poland triggering World War II.

A number of the Americans Nagorski writes about were high profile individuals. United States Ambassador Dodd and his free-spirited adult daughter (whose amorous adventures are worthy of a Hollywood period piece) I knew from Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts. I was also aware American aviator Charles Lindbergh’s visits to Germany and his cozy relationship with its Nazi leadership. What I didn’t know is according to Nagorski Lindbergh was secretly enlisted by America’s military attaché in Berlin to gather intelligence on Germany’s air force. (Specifically, by requesting a tour of one the country’s aircraft manufacturing plants, which were being shielding from the prying eyes of foreigners.) Known to history as the father of the containment approach to US-Soviet relations, diplomat George Kennan was briefly assigned to Germany, only to be detained and later expelled after Germany declared war on the United States. Decades before Howard K. Smith anchored the nightly news he spent time as a young reporter in Germany, one of the last Americans to file report from the county before the United States entered the war.

 Throughout the ages there has been individuals, who by accident or design, have occupied ringside seats at history’s unfolding. Tragically, all too often their letters, journals and dispatches warn of something hideous on the horizon. Yet more often than not their warnings fall upon deaf ears. Hitlerland should remind us that evil seldom arrives unannounced. 

About Time I Read It: The Witness Wore Red by Rebecca Musser and M. Bridget Cook

Long before the days of COVID, while drinking with friends one evening at the pub I mentioned I’d picked up a half dozen or so books at used book sale, one of them David Ebershoff’s best-selling novel The 19th Wife. Upon hearing this a friend suggested I also read Rebecca Musser’s memoir The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice. I took her advice to heart and made a note to someday read it, should the opportunity ever arise. During a recent visit to the public library that day finally came, when I spotted a copy on the shelf nestled with the other memoirs. After finishing it a few days ago I’m happy to report my friend did not steer me wrong. 

Published in 2013, Musser and her co-author M. Bridget Cook recall the years Musser spent growing up in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, her arranged marriage at 19 to octogenarian cult leader Rulon Jeffs, departure and eventual cooperation with law enforcement and legal officials to bring the cult and its leaders to justice for their numerous crimes, chief of which was orchestrating forced marriages and sexual abuse of the cult’s teen girls. This firsthand account of surviving a horribly oppressive and insular community and the long road to finding ones freedom and personhood in a larger world makes for sobering yet inspirational reading.  

A repressively puritanical community ruled by an authoritarian theocrat where girls are forced into polygamous marriages to men decades older than them could easily describe some ISIS-controlled enclave of the Middle East or Afghanistan under the Taliban. But instead of some faraway place this dystopian nightmare occurred much closer to home. After the LDS church renounced polygamy in the late 19th century those who wished to continue the practice formed their own communities in the American Southwest and on the cult’s satellite property in British Columbia, Canada. Musser was raised in this environment and as a young adult after growing disillusioned with life under the cult’s new leader bolted to safety. 

In 2002, after maneuvering himself into the office of “President and Prophet, Seer and Revelator” upon the death of his father Rulon Warren Jeffs quickly amassed dozens of underage wives, eliminated his rivals, made the cult’s already strict moral even stricter and forced his followers to obey his every whim. (One of which was to prohibit the wearing of the color red, declaring it immoral.) Originally promised by Warren Jeff she could remain single, or marry again, this time to a man of her choosing Jeffs quickly changed his mind. Ordering Messer to instead marry him he threatened to “break her” or worse if she refused. Seeing the not so subtle handwriting on the wall she fled the cult’s compound in the predawn hours along with Ben, a fellow young cult member she’d grown close to first personally then romantically. The couple settled in Coos Bay on the Oregon Coast where Musser’s brother lived after being excommunicated and began building a life of their own, free of FLDS control. Unfortunately as the years went by their marriage began to sour and the two divorced, about the same time Musser would be called upon by state and federal authorities to assist them in their efforts to apprehend Warren Jeffs and his accomplices for their crimes and provide courtroom testimony to convict them.

It’s hard for most Americans to believe a cult like the one ran by Warren Jeffs could exist in 21st century America. According to Musser and Cook this was possible because Warren Jeffs commandeered a close-knit religious community built on one man rule, in which the cult’s president was also prophet and high priest. With every rule and pronouncement ordained by God nothing could be questioned. Outsiders were seen as apostates or heathens destined for eternal damnation and not to be trusted. Most, if not all contemporary art, music and literature were deemed unwholesome. The cult’s theology enshrined polygamy, female subservience, puritanical morally and religious separatism. Warren Jeffs could do as he pleased and none of his congregants could stop him.

In 2018 for Nonfiction November’s Be the Expert series I posted a piece on memoirs by women who’d walked away from their respective religious communities. I’m pleased to say The Witness Wore Red would make a worthy addition to that list of fine books.