Category Archives: Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic

Heretics and How God Changes Your Brain

Sadly, once again I find myself falling behind in my blogging and needing to play a little catch-up. In the future if this happens, (and probably will) my guess is you’ll see me doing more of  these little catch-up posts in which I discuss multiple books. Even though it feels like I’m “cheating, it’s a great way to recover lost ground. Plus, it allows me to utilize the gallery feature, which it always fun to use and ideal when spotlighting a series of books.

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now by Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Back in December when I did my year-end catch-up post, one of the many books I briefly featured was Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. While I didn’t say a lot about her book, I did mention in my post my wish to read more of her stuff in the coming year. Not long after I wrote those words, I discovered Hirsi Ali had written another book. Much to my joy, I was soon able to secure a copy from my public library.

Seen by many as a controversial figure because of her highly critical views of the Islamic world, her latest book in my opinion doesn’t come off as being anti-Muslim per se, even though she is quite critical when it comes to many of the religion’s core beliefs and practices . Her call to reform is similar to that of Anouar Majid as outlined in his 2007 book A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America.

Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World by Thomas Cahill. Cahill has been a personal favorite of mine for years, ever since I read his  How the Irish Saved Civilization way back in 1995 . Since then, I’ve tried to read everything of his I can get my hands on, including his short biography of Pope John XXIII.

Honestly, I did not feel confident about Heretics and Heroes, since his last book in his Hinges of History series Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe left me a bit disappointed. So, with no small bit of trepidation, I grabbed a copy of Heretics and Heroes from my public library and gave it a shot. This time, much to my relief there was no disappointment.

Heretics and Heroes covers the Renaissance and Reformation eras from the late fourteenth to the early seventeenth century. Just as expected, Cahill hits all the pivotal events and major personalities. Much to my joy, he also takes time to discuss more than a few vital but overlooked historical contributions. I like Cahill because he makes history entertaining and accessible to readers who are not historians. It’s like having a lengthy but entertaining discussion about history over coffee with friendly and knowledgeable college professor. In so many ways reminded me of Tamin Ansary in his book  Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes.

How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist by Andrew Newberg M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman – This was my book group’s selection for the month of February and honestly, when the decision was announced I wasn’t excited to read it. But with a week to go until our meeting I said what the heck and a bought a copy from Amazon. Fortunately for me, it was a quick read. Even more fortunate for me, it was not the super new age/woo/misuse of neuroscience book I feared. How God Changes Your Brain could be seen as a kind of self-improvement book and touts the benefits of meditation and meditation-like practices to lower stress to improve physical and mental health. Instead of being turned off by the book it left me wanting to adopt some of its recommended practices. It also left me wanting to read Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.

In an earlier post in which I discussed three different books, I briefly touched on some of the similarities I saw between the three books. When looking at these particular three, both Hirsi Ali and Cahill in their respective books discuss religious reformations and how they’ve been initiated by “heretical” individuals. Newberg and Waldman in their book, extol spiritual exercises as form of healthy meditation, and gave the example of Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises as one example among many such exercises one could use to achieve greater health and well-being. Once again, I love finding commonalities in my reading material.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, History, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa, Science

The Ebony Exodus Project by Candace R. M. Gorham

The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion—and Others Should TooWith a massive personal library of overflowing with books I’ve yet to read and a huge stack of library books begging for my attention, one would think the last thing I should be doing is buying more books. Well, that’s how a normal human being would act. But if you’re me, every so often I can’t resist the urge to buy a book or two. So, with an Amazon gift certificate burning a hole in my pocket and two weeks vacation time looming ahead of me, I threw caution to the wind and bought a pair of books. Both books, Candace R. M. Gorham’s The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion—and Others Should Too and Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East have been on my list to read for a year or two.

Back in 2013 I read Betty Brogaard The Homemade Atheist: A Former Evangelical Woman’s Freethought Journey to HappinessAccording to all the fancy algorithms employed by Goodreads, based on my interest in The Homemade Atheist, one of the next books I needed to read was The Ebony Exodus Project. I was intrigued by the book’s description. With the atheist/skeptic/secular humanist/free thought communities dominated by white male voices, I wanted to get the perspective of an African-American woman. After finishing The Ebony Exodus Project last week, I’m happy to report thanks to Gorham (along with Ayaan Hirsi Ali), those communities have vocal proponents who are also women of color.

Published in 2013, Gorham’s book is part memoir, analysis and oral history. After spending time as a minister in the Black Church, she left to pursue an advanced degree in counseling. As a result of her studies, life experience and personal reflection, she drifted away from first the Church and then religion overall. As both a mental health professional and avowed atheist, Gorham feels the Black Church has been far from beneficial to blacks, especially women. According to Gorham, the only reasonable course of action is for blacks to leave the church. In The Ebony Exodus Project she also includes oral histories from a number of women who have left Christianity, including the various roads they took to get there.

If, after reading Gorham’s book you find yourself looking for great follow-up reads from a woman’s perspective, there’s several books I can recommend. In addition to Brogaard’s The Homemade Atheist and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, you might explore Christine Rosen’s 2005 memoir My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood. In addition, Kyria Abrahams’s I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness UpbringingVeronica Chater’s Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family and Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots are all great. Lastly, even though it’s not a memoir about leaving a religious community, Debra J. Dickerson’s 2004 book The End of Blackness should not be ignored either since it also addresses vital issues of importance to the African-American community.

This is a an excellent, thought-provoking book that should cause many people to ask some tough but necessary questions. With that in mind, even though I have a ton of stuff I need to read first, I feel my money was well spent on Gorham’s book.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Christianity, Memoir

Godless, Hallucinations, and Nothing to Envy

Last week I mentioned it’s been challenge keeping my blog up to date with all the books I’ve been reading. The good news is I’ve been reading some good stuff. The bad news is it’s been hard to blog about it. Therefore, I’ve resorted to doing mini-posts and wrap-up lists as ways of keeping you updated on what I’ve been reading. So, with that in mind, here’s a brief run-down on three books I recently finished.

After hearing good things about Dan Barker’s 2009 book Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists I decided to grab a copy from my public library. For those of you who don’t know, Barker is a former Pentacostal-ish minister and Christian musician/songwriter who, after a period of extensive reading, personal introspection and questioning his faith became an atheist. He’s now co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a frequent speaker on atheism and related topics. Since I have fondness for memoirs by individuals who left insular religious communities, it was hard for me not to like Godless. Being a former evangelical Christian myself, so much of what Barker said in his book struck a familiar, and in the end, reassuring chord with me.

Godless is both a memoir, and much like Peter Boghossian’s A Manuel for Creating Atheists, it’s also readable and informative guide to atheist thought. Personally, I liked the memoir sections of Godless a bit more than the other parts, but who cares ’cause it’s a very good book. I recommend Godless to any readers who are questioning their faith, curious about atheism or have already embraced a belief system similar to Barker’s.

In August of 2015 we lost the great Oliver Sacks. Through his books like Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat he showed readers the fascinating world of neurology. His use of accessible language made complex subjects not only comprehensible, but also enjoyable reading. Sacks’ inclusion of the human element in his case stories merged soul with science. With that in mind, when my book club opted to read Sacks’ 2012 book Hallucinations I was not disappointed.

Traditionally, people have always associated hallucinations with madness. According to Sacks, their origins can be legion, ranging from migraines, sensory deprivation, vision loss, epilepsy and severe stress. Far from always being a symptom of severe mental illness, hallucinations are far more common than people acknowledge. And yes, in case you were wondering, some recreational drugs do cause hallucinations. In his book Sacks details his experiences dabbling in these illicit substances. A bit to my surprise those passages ended up being my favorite parts of the book! This is classic Sacks and a worthy contribution to his sadly now closed cannon of work.

Five years ago I heard amazing things about Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Jo praised it on her blog as did Kim on hers, but it took some recent encouragement from one of my book club members to make me finally read it. My goodness I wished I’d read it sooner. Nothing to Envy is outstanding.  Luckily for me, the copy I was able to get from the public library included a new afterward from the author that covered recent developments in North Korea like Kim Jong-un’s accession to power and his subsequent purge of rivals. Demick’s detailed look inside the horrible train wreck that is North Korea is must reading for anyone wanting to understand the rogue nation. Even though it’s early in the year I can easily see Nothing to Envy making my year-end Best of List. Consider this book highly recommended.

In conclusion, it’s easy to assume these three very good books have nothing in common (other than being library books) but alas that’s not the case. According to Dan Barker, Oliver Sacks was both an enthusiastic atheist as well as a personal friend. In Godless, Barker recalls Sacks had been a speaker at at least one atheist convention. In turn, Sacks loved Baker’s book Godless, calling it “fabulous” and proclaiming “Godless may well become a classic in its genre.” Lastly, one of the ordinary North Koreans who Demick wrote about in Nothing to Envy likened his disillusionment with the oppressive regime to becoming an atheist. Once he stopped believing in the mythology of the overarching, all-powerful North Korean system his entire universe changed. Kinda cool when you see how many things in life are in some way connected?

 

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Memoir, Science

Memoirs of Faith: Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman

511w7EIzAhL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_I have a weakness for memoirs. I have a huge weakness for memoirs by individuals who have left insular religious communities. Decades ago, I read Paul Hendrickson’s 1983 memoir Seminary: A Search. After that I was hooked. More recently, over the last five years I’ve read and enjoyed Kyria Abrahams’s I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing, Veronica Chater’s Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family and Christine Rosen’s My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine GirlhoodThese first person accounts of growing up in closed-off and restrictive religious worlds and the frequently painful process of questioning, challenging and finally leaving these closed communities always makes for reading that’s both intellectually stimulating and personally inspiring. Because I love these kind of memoirs so much, I’m always on the lookout for more of them.

I’d seen reviews and mentionings of Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots floating around the Internet for the past several years. When I found an available copy through my public library I decided to take a chance on it, hoping it was one of those “leaving a religious community” kind of memoirs I love to read. After burning through Unorthodox in what must have been only a few days. I’m glad I did. Not only does Feldman write well, she does a fine job telling a unique and interesting story about religious community that few outsiders know anything about.

Even for someone brought up in an extreme Orthodox Jewish community, Feldman’s story is a unique one. Her parents met through an arranged marriage, with her English mother moving to America to marry the man who would end up being Feldman’s father. Not long after Feldman’s birth, her parents would divorce    resulting in her mother leaving both her religion and family behind. Also about the same time, her extended family came to the realization her father suffered from some sort of mental disability, making him reliant on the charity of others. Left essentially an orphan, Feldman would be raised by her relatives in a strict Satmar Orthodox community in New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood. At 17 she was married off in an arranged marriage and gave birth to a son a two years later. But soon she grew disillusioned with both her marriage and above all, life in the Satmar world. With little support and almost no secular education under her belt, she enrolled in college. Provided with a decent, secular education and surrounded by a wide range of intelligent and supporting individuals Feldman finally felt free and confident to live her life however she wanted to live it.

If you end up reading Feldman’s Unorthodox, (either because of, or in spite of what I’ve written here) and you too end up enjoying it, there’s two other books you should read. The first one, probably to no one’s surprise, is Chaim Potok’s classic American novel The Chosen. The other book, only slightly less well-known than Potok’s novel, is Warren Kozak’s The Rabbi of 84th Street: The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser.  Of course if that’s not enough and you want more, according to Amazon there’s whole batch of memoirs by former Orthodox Jews out there just waiting to be read, including Feldman’s follow-up memoir Exodus. So don’t be surprised if you see more of these kind of memoirs featured on my blog.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Judaica, Memoir

About Time I Read It: Forged by Bart Ehrman

I can’t believe it was just over 10 years ago that I discovered Bart Ehrman. Probably like most non-academics, my first introduction into Ehrman’s stuff was his 2003 book Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. I must have enjoyed it because after that, I went on to read just about everything by Ehrman I could get my hands on including Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer and Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Over the last 10 years I’ve seen his style evolve. Perhaps starting with God’s Problem, Ehrman’s approach has become more methodical, like he’s trying to make a powerful and convincing argument to  a reasonably intelligent, yet nevertheless nonacademic – and at the same time skeptical – audience. Therefore, I’ve admired his ability to take sophisticated and scholarly material and make it accessible and interesting to the rest of us.

Back in 2011, I’d read that Ehrman had written yet another book. As one might guess from the title,  Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are is Ehrman’s assertion that a surprising number of the books comprising the New Testament were not written by their purported authors. Of course, this assertion isn’t anything new or radical because most modern biblical scholars (not counting the more conservative ones) have been saying this for years. But I wanted to read Forged because I wanted to see how Ehrman approached the subject matter. Therefore, I made a mental note or two to read Ehrman’s book, should I ever come across a copy at the public library or second-hand book store. But then like so many other promising books I quickly forgot about it.

Funny thing is when you spend so many lazy weekends prowling the shelves at the public library  you come across all kinds of things, including books you’d forgotten that you once wanted to read. So when I spotted Forged, I thought to myself now’s a better time as any to finally read it. I grabbed Forged and added it to the small clutch of library books under my arm.

Just like with God’s Problem and Did Jesus Exist, Ehrman once again takes a methodical approach in making his claims, and in doing so, makes a compelling and easy to understand case that many of those New Testament books were not written by those we’ve always attributed them to. According to Ehrman, these disputed books break down into roughly two categories.

The first ones are books that judging by our earliest manuscripts were never explicitly attributed to an author. Even though they’re anonymous, the early Christians eventually associated them with authors in order to grant the books greater legitimacy. This list of books includes not just all four Gospels but also Acts and John’s three Epistles.

The second group of disputed New Testament books are those that have been attributed to an apostle or disciple, but in reality were not written by one of those venerable figures. This includes a number of Paul’s Epistles including Colossians and Ephesians. Included too are Epistles from James, Jude and Peter’s Second Epistle. According to Ehrman, these books were written years later by individuals within the early church who wanted to promote their particular religious agendas. By writing under the name of, say Paul or Peter they could grant authority to their writings and their words would be taken as scripture to be followed.

On top of this, in Forged Ehrman makes two additional claims that traditionalists will understandably dislike. One, in the Roman Empire literacy was restricted to minuscule minority. Chances are that a small group of Jewish fisherman and peasants could not only read and write Hebrew but also be fluent enough in Greek to compose sophisticated religious epistles and detailed histories are pretty slim. Therefore, it’s hard to believe men like Peter, John, Matthew and James wrote the stuff traditionally attributed to them. Second of all many conservative traditionalists say these misattributions should not disturb us because it was commonly accepted in the ancient world for one to “forge” his/her name to a document, as long as what was written still reflected the purported author’s ideas. However, according Ehrman a more careful examination of history shows otherwise. Forgery has always been forgery and it’s always been looked down on as being wrong.

I enjoyed Forged. With it, Ehrman continues to evolve as a writer and in all likelihood gain a wider audience. It is for this new audience of skeptical but nevertheless curious and engaged group of readers that I enthusiastically recommend his book Forged.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Christianity, History

2014 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

Over the last few years, my consumption of fiction has grown considerably compared to what it was only a few years ago. Heck, in January of 2009 I posted on my old Vox site that during the preceding year I’d read only two measly works of fiction. But as we all know, tastes change. So for whatever reason, nowadays I find myself reading a significant amount of fiction.

So much fiction that for the first time, I’m able to post a top ten list of my favorite fiction from 2014. This covers the best English language fiction I read over the course of the year.

  1. You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik – Dead Poets Society meets The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”
  2. Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst – I had a hard time deciding if Furst’s earlier novels The Spies of Warsaw, Mission to Paris or Spies of the Balkans were better books and therefore more deserving of being included on my list. But his Midnight in Europe made me wanna read everything in his Night Soldiers series. So Midnight in Europe it shall be.
  3. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow – Hard not like a great debut novel. Harder still to not like one that’s set in my hometown of Portland, Oregon.
  4. The Coffee Trader by David Liss – To quote a librarian at my public library “a Portuguese-Jewish trader partners with a sexy Dutch widow to corner the coffee market. Who knew 17th century commodities trading could be so suspenseful? ” What more could I want from a novel?
  5. Harvard Square by André Aciman – Two North African immigrants, one Jewish and the other Muslim could not be more different from each other. But their unlikely friendship helps make for a thoroughly enjoyable novel.
  6. The Expats by Chris Pavone – Who wants to read a novel about a bored, stay at home mom in Luxembourg? Probably no one. Make her an ex-CIA assassin and have her solve a mystery or two and you’ve got a winner.
  7. The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein – For me anyway, the conflict between science and faith has always made for fascinating reading. When you see that conflict played out in a novel it’s a very special thing.
  8. Border Angels by Anthony Quinn – If you told me I’d fall in love with a mass-marketed, paperback edition of a crime thriller set in Northern Ireland I would have called you crazy. Well, I did. Quinn’s novel is fast-paced, intelligent and entertaining.
  9. Jacob’s Oath by Martin Fletcher – Two young Holocaust survivors meet and fall in love amidst the ruins of postwar Germany. Perfect to read alongside Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent.
  10. Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement – A fictional account of the Mexican drug wars from the perspective of a young woman coming of age in the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico.

So what jumps out at me when I survey this list? Seven of these ten books are set abroad, with six out of the seven set in Europe. Education is a recurring theme with Harvard Square and The Explanation for Everything both set at universities on the American East Coast, while You Deserve Nothing taking place at an exclusive high school in Paris. Over half the novels on the list are set at least ten years in the past with The Coffee Trader reaching all they way back to the 17th century. Lastly, I find it surprising that The Expats, You Deserve Nothing and The Girl Who Fell from the Sky are all debut novels.

Trust me, it wasn’t easy proclaiming a winner. But after much consideration, my favorite piece of fiction from 2014 has to be Chris Pavone’s The Expats. His debut novel did not disappoint me. I have no problems recommending it, or any other novel on this list.

 

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Area Studies/International Relations, Europe, Fiction, History, International Crime, Latin America/Caribbean, Science

2014 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

As I sit here Christmas morning in my favorite neighborhood coffee shop, with John Denver’s Christmas album playing in the background the time has come for me to begin posting my year-end “best of” lists. Just like in past years I’ve compiled a list of my favorite nonfiction. Of course, just like in past years, it doesn’t matter when the books were published as long as they rocked my world. So in no particular order, here’s the list.

  1. Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff – Heard of failed states? Here’s a great book about a failed city. Detroit native son LeDuff pulls no punches.
  2. A Manuel for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian – Far from being just another atheist manifesto, it’s really an intelligent and incredibly accessible guidebook to critical thinking.
  3. Incognito: Lost and Found at Harvard Divinity School by Andrea Raynor – A truly charming and entertaining memoir about one woman’s search for meaning and purpose while attending one of America’s most prestigious universities.
  4. Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe – Think all the killing and suffering in continental Europe ended once Germany surrendered? Guess again. As ethnic cleansing, civil wars, smashed infrastructure and deprivation plagued the land much of Europe looked like something out of TV’s The Walking Dead.
  5. This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor by Susan Wicklund – A great memoir that explores the many shades of gray of what many Americans see as our nation’s foremost black and white issue.
  6. Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman – Sadly, I’ve yet to start watching the Netflix series this terrific memoir spawned. But if it’s half as good as Kerman’s book I should love it.
  7. Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945 by Catherine Merridale – The scale of conflict and human loss on the Eastern Front boggles the mind. Merridale’s excellent 2006 book does a fine job looking at it from the perspective of the men and women who did the fighting. And the dying.
  8. The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose – Living and studying undercover at Falwell’s Liberty University makes for fascinating reading. Not only is this Roose’s first book, looks like he wrote it before his 20th birthday. Yep, I was impressed.
  9. The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée – I love books about books. Books about banned books are even better. Books about banned books that took on an evil empire are the best.
  10. Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace by William Lobdell – Many people find faith and some of them lose it. But when one those people is the former religion reporter for the LA Times his memoir makes for very interesting reading.

There you have it. Looking at this list, I can see that five are memoirs with Le Duff’s Detroit being pretty darn close to one. Religion-related topics abound with two books by atheists, one by a Christian minister and one by a young man who immersed himself in a religious subculture. The rest is history books, each with a mid-twentieth century focus. Both Ivan’s War and The Zhivago Affair deal with the Soviet Union while much of Savage Continent addresses life in what later became the USSR’s satellite nations in Eastern Europe. Therefore, it looks like memoirs, religion and recent European history are favorites when it comes to my choices in reading material.

Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War IIAnd that brings me to my favorite nonfiction book of 2014. It was tough call, but I’m giving the nod to Savage Continent. From start to finish it impressed the heck out of me. It, like the nine other books on this list, I highly recommend.

 

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Christianity, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Memoir