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.

About Time I Read It: Swiss Watching by Diccon Bewes

In the 2006 franchise reboot Casino Royal, James Bond meets his MI 6 contact Vesper Lynde on the train to Montenegro to be briefed on the details of his mission. After dinner they spar conversationally, each trying to size up the other. (And from an operational and sexual standpoint battle to impose their respective dominance.) Lynde wonders aloud if Bond is little more than a former SAS type with an easy smile and expensive watch. “Rolex?” she asks. Bond replies “Omega.” Both esteemed brands made only in Switzerland, a country long associated with high-end watches.

One wonders how a small, mountainous, landlocked country with few natural resources could be a global leader in quality wristwatches but also secure (and secretive) banking as well as delectable milk chocolates, all while enjoying centuries of political neutrality. Add to this a premier tourist destination, especially for the world’s rich and famous.

Over the years Claire of the book blog The Captive Reader has been one of my go to sources when it comes to books about Europe. (As well as the Interwar Period.) Last December in one of her Library Loot posts she mentioned Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money by Diccon Bewes. Needing something representing Switzerland for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I went looking for a borrowable copy of Bewes’s book and secured one through Overdrive. One of Financial Times’s books of the year Swiss Watching didn’t disappoint me. Like Bruce Henderson’s Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler is one of the year’s pleasant surprises.

Bewes, after falling in love decided to leave his native England and move to Switzerland to be with his boyfriend. Traveling from one end of the country to another his book is an intimate, intelligent and candid perspective on Switzerland’s history, culture and geography, similar to what his fellow Brits John Hooper and Tobias Jones did for Italy in their respective books The Italians  and The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country

Through Bewes’s eyes you see Switzerland as a land of contradictions, starting with the nation’s longstanding practice of political neutrality. For hundreds of years, even through two world wars Switzerland has avoided belligerency. Neutral but not pacifist, Switzerland is a leading exporter of military hardware, on occasion even selling arms to both warring sides. Traditionally, all Swiss all males are required to serve in the military. (Only recently was a nonmilitary service option added.) After released from active duty each reservist is required to keep a service rifle in his home, leading to Switzerland having more gun-related suicides than anywhere in Europe. (In hopes of addressing this disturbing distinction, the ammo is now safely secured in Swiss armories.) Lastly, the nation is crawling with fallout shelters, even apartments have a basement location where Swiss can ride out a nuclear exchange.

Politically, Switzerland is probably one of the most democratic nations on earth. Like most European nations it has an elected bicameral parliament but Switzerland boasts no president or prime minister with executive powers. The closest the Swiss have is the seven member Federal Council which serves as a collective head of state with a rotating Presidency that’s chiefly ceremonial. Almost all important legislation is decided by referendum, both at the national and local level. However, despite being one of the world’s few, if only direct democracies voter participation is surprisingly low. Because Switzerland’s path to citizenship is heavily skewed against immigrants and their children close to 20 percent of the population are non citizens and thus ineligible to vote. Another rarity among the world’s democracies, Swiss women didn’t earn the right to vote in national elections until 1971. Not until 1992 did the last Swiss federal state or Canton grant women the vote in a local election.

Landlocked and bereft of natural resources the Swiss would need to be creative if they were to be successful. Beginning in the 19th century the Swiss built a network of railways crisscrossing the country, connecting it to its larger, more resource and sea port blessed neighbors. High value products easily transported via rail, products like premium time pieces, cheeses and milk chocolates became lucrative exports. Calvinistic Geneva with its orderly, literate and industrious culture combined with a healthy respect for thrift and privacy would make the city, and the nation as a whole a banking Mecca. Innovation would be key to Switzerland’s success,  whether it be crafting a better cheeses, making chocolate more delectable by adding milk or manufacturing sexier wristwatches.  Like a determined prize fighter punching above its weight no wonder the small alpine country ranks 8th in the world for Nobel Prize laureates.

Originally published in 2010 and updated in 2018, like I said at the beginning Swiss Watching is one of this year’s pleasant surprises. It might even make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

The Best American Essays 2020 edited by André Aciman

I’m no stranger to André Aciman. In the summer of 2009 I read his 1996 memoir Out of Egypt, which had been sitting on my shelf unread for who knows how long. Five summers later it was his semi autobiographical novel Harvard Square I spent several warm evenings reading on my front step while watching the comings and goings of my fellow apartment dwellers. Even though I’d read just two of his books I considered myself a fan of his writing and looked forward to reading more of it.

Finding myself in the mood for a decent essay collection I discovered through Overdrive a borrowable Kindle edition of The Best American Essays 2020 edited by none other than André Aciman. Eager to see which essays Aciman deemed worthy of inclusion I downloaded it and went to work reading. I’m happy to say after finishing it Aciman’s choices did not disappoint me.

Annual anthologies like these are always a crap shoot. While some years better than others, on average each offering has one to three of outstanding pieces, with the bulk being pretty good while the remaining two or three selections not so hot. Fortunately, none of the essays Aciman selected are duds. Even my least favorite inclusions  had their moments. So hats off to Aciman.

Over the years I’ve read close to a dozen of these anthologies and Aciman’s introduction to this edition easily ranks as one of the best. Drawing from his deep well of erudition he explains what makes a great essay, serving up examples from Montaigne, Machiavelli and Proust. (If you’re looking for an impressive reading list, check out his interview 2015 interview on the Vox Tablet podcast.)

My favorites essays in the collection were ones with sharply focused narratives and specific topics in mind, akin to the long form pieces you’d find in Harpers, the New Yorker or Atlantic. While considered essays, they easily could be included in anthologies featuring outstanding writing in the fields of science and nature  or crime. Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece of prehistoric cave painting “The Humanoid Stain”,  Clinton Crockett Peters’s “A Thing About Cancer” – a novel look at the dreaded disease seen through the lens of the 1982 John Carpenter horror film The Thing  were two such pieces. Susan Fox Rogers’s essay on infamous 1920’s child murder Nathan Leopold and his love of birding was a fine science and nature feature as well as a crime one.

Much to my surprise just as it was with Jonathan Franzen’s edited Best American Essays 2016, a couple of my favorite essays touched on LGTBQ themes. Probably my favorite of these was the lead essay “How to Bartend” by Lebanese-American painter and writer Rabih Alameddine.  After being diagnosed with HIV he moved back to his native Lebanon to attend graduate school and pursue a “third worthless degree.” Needing cash he picked up a gig tending bar at an upstairs “faux upscale taproom with an English private club motif” complete with “pretentiously bound hardcovers in fake bookshelves.” Here half heartedly went about his job, pouring occasional drinks but preferring to be left alone to read novels during his normally slow workdays. Instead of a primer on good bartending his essay is a darkly humorous look at the difficult but ultimately satisfying process of finding ones tribe.

Instead of finding one’s tribe Alex Marzano-Lesnevish’s “Body Language” the focus is the long, painful process of discovering one’s gender, or if it be, non-gender. Even Peter Scheldahl’s life journey from midwestern bumpkin to NYC-dwelling art critic and mildly reckless aesthete recalls a passing gay affair, despite being an admittedly straight man with at least two heterosexual marriages and countless liaisons under his belt. (A degree sexual fluidity also rumored to be shared by Aciman himself.)

It feels like every annual essay collection contains more than a few contributions by authors looking back and reflecting on their long lives or the long lives of loved ones. As I grow older and slowly come to grips with my own mortality, and those around me I dislike these kind of pieces less and less, no longer complaining they’re products of an unwanted cottage industry. Instead, when I encounter such writing I grudgingly welcome whatever words of wisdom they offer while at the same time yearning for younger days.

But before I succumb to the ravages of old age, I’ll treat myself to a few more enjoyable anthologies. And as I do I’ll happily share my impressions of them with all of you.

20 Books of Summer: Dark Continent by Mark Mazower

A couple of years ago I was rummaging through one of those Little Free Libraries/public bookcases you find in so many neighborhoods when I came across a copy of Mark  Mazower’s 1998 book Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century. Happy to come across a book I’d been wanting to read, I eagerly helped myself.

Dark Continent is more than just a history of Europe in the 20th century. It’s also a deep dive into how and why democracy waxed and waned across the Continent during the 75 or so years following the end of World War I.

By the War’s end the great European land-based empires had collapsed and spawned a host of successor states across Central and Eastern Europe including the Balkans. In the beginning almost all were parliamentary democracies, complete with competing political parties representing constituencies across the spectrum. But by the eve of the Second World War democracy in Europe was a rare commodity. Authoritarian regimes were the norm be they the USSR, Germany, Italy or Spain. Even newly independent states like Hungary and Poland, while not overtly Fascist or Communist were run by hard-right strongmen.  According to Mazower these fledgling democracies inherited parliamentary traditions and structures evolved from years of battling autocratic monarchs. With parliaments powerful but cumbersome and prone to deadlock, and presidents and prime ministers unable to govern effectively they were ill-equipped to handle the challenges facing the states of interwar Europe: the Great Depression, sizable communities of ethnic minorities complicating the notion of a unified nation sate, specter of Communist takeover from home or abroad and newfound power of mass organizations of populist or reactionary nature to affect political change.

Complicating all of this was the decline of birthrates across the Continent beginning around the turn of the century. Although the killing ended with the cessation of hostilities a generation of young men had been slaughtered and would not be returning home to raise families. Therefore, unlike the period following World War II there was no baby boom and populations in the former belligerents either plateaued or continued to decline. Leaders and policy makers in countries across Europe feared a demographic implosion would prevent them from sustaining the standing armies and industrial output needed to compete against their rivals. Prefiguring today’s rising anti-immigrants sentiment in Europe and America many in interwar Europe thought it only a matter of time before they were swamped by their more populous neighbors either through immigration or military invasion.

Just 20 years after the last colossal European war another would engulf the Continent. While the democracies of Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, it was the authoritarian states of Germany, Italy and Russia’s successor state the USSR that shoulder the blame for restarting hostilities. According to Mazower the reasons are rooted in each of the three authoritarian states’ ruling ideology: German Nazis saw race as the only legitimate institution and the most Central and Eastern Europe states as artificial and illegitimate created by the Treaty of Versailles; Italy’s Fascists yearned for the glory days of the Roman Empire and coveted the lands of North Africa and the Balkans; Stalin and his fellow Soviets saw the modern state as a capitalist construct meant to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie and the sooner the USSR’s armies conquered its rivals, the sooner it could help spread the dictatorship of the proletariat.

By 1945 Germany’s dreams of colonizing Europe and Italy’s attempts to resurrect the Roman Empire lay in ruins. Five years of war, occupation, and genocide left the Continent impoverished and in shambles. Within five years an “Iron Curtain” had descended upon Europe, dividing the the Continent between two rival blocs. The West was home to an alliance of more or less democratic nations, allied with the United States and opposed to Communist expansion. To the East lie a collection of Soviet-imposed authoritarian states, collectively isolated and inward-looking. The dynamics of the stark division and the tensions it spawned would dictate European politics, foreign and domestic for the next 70 years.

In the West, once the cities and factories were rebuilt the region entered an unprecedented era of economic growth. With industrialization growing at a breakneck pace the ensuing labor shortages forced many countries to import workers from abroad. At first workers from Europe’s periphery like Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Communist outlier Yugoslavia migrated to the factories of West Germany, France and the like. Later, the call for workers went answered in more distant lands including Turkey, North Africa, and in the case of the United Kingdom the Caribbean and South Asia. Giving the Western economies a much needed boost, it would create long term questions over the nature of citizenship and limits of multiculturalism.

This time, in the West anyway, democracy did not wither up and die in the decades following WWII as it did after the previous world war. Learning from their past mistakes and traumatized by the horrors of authoritarian rule and foreign occupation constitutions were rewritten or retooled to prevent parliamentary gridlock. Structural changes were enacted to protect human rights and promote functioning and responsible governments. In hopes of preventing another Great Depression governments took a more active role in economic planning and enlarged the social safety net. (Ironically, both measures were first introduced by the authoritarian states of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Communist USSR.) A movement to foster closer political and economic cooperation among European nations would eventually give birth to the European Common Market and later European Union. (Again ironically, according to Mazower eerily similar to a concept floated by Nazi Minister of Industry and Production Adolf Speer.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain things weren’t so rosy. After Stalin’s death the reigns of power did loosed somewhat, but those in the Eastern Bloc enjoyed few of the civil and economic liberties enjoyed by those in the West. Forced industrialization promoted almost full employment, but wages were relatively low and desirable consumer goods scarce. Attempts to reform the systems from within were crushed in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1981. In hopes of propping up their failing economies Communist leaders in places like Hungary and Poland borrowed heavily from the West. In Romania, efforts to pay off these mounting debts led to crippling austerity measures resulting in a rapid plunge in living standards.

The 1970s and the decade following it would bring new challenges to Europe, both East and West. The oil shocks that bookended the 1970s spawned simultaneous inflation and economic stagnation, long believed impossible according to the rules of classical economics. Quickly dubbed “stagflation” the nations of Western Europe saw their economies contract and state coffers weaken and with it the ability to support social safety nets. Worse yet, European industries faced greater competition from East Asia in an array of product lines including automobiles and consumer electronics. In some countries the unemployed and underemployed cast unfriendly eyes towards local guest workers with nervous governments like West Germany’s offering to help repatriate them.

Meanwhile, at the far end of the Eastern Bloc, the once mighty colossus of the USSR began to stagnate and teeter. Unable to reform a doomed system, make it economically competitive and politically relevant on a global stage without inadvertently causing its demise Gorbachev’s USSR finally collapsed. During the last year or so of its death spiral, one by one the captive nations of Eastern Europe shed their authoritarian regimes, long since seen as illegitimate, incompetent and oppressive.

Dark Continent covers a lot of ground. Mazower’s prose can be a bit dense but he’s one hell of a researcher. A challenging read perhaps, but nevertheless informative. He’s left me with a deeper understanding of modern European history and a desire to learn more.

20 Books of Summer: Reopening Muslim Minds by Mustafa Akyol

I can’t remember how and when I first heard of Mustafa Akyol’s Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance but when a Kindle edition became available through my public library’s Overdrive portal I immediately downloaded it. Published in April of this year, Akyol asks why the Muslim world lags so behind the West in such key areas as democracy, civil liberties and scientific and technological achievement and what can be done to address these disparities?

In search of answers Akyol-a Turkish journalist, New York Times contributing opinion writer and current senior fellow at the Cato Institute- explores Islamic history and concludes in the Middle Ages, when Muslim theologians and ruling powers elevated blind religious faith over reason and refused to incorporate valuable concepts and principles from communities and traditions outside Islam it effectively closed the door on further development.  Intellectually hamstrung and closed to novel and foreign ideas, the Islamic world, unlike the Christian West never experienced the Enlightenment nor its subsequent developments: the scientific and industrial revolutions, democracy, human rights and religious pluralism.

The motivation for this medieval closing of the Islamic mind was more than just theological. According to Akyol, the insistence on believing tenants of faith solely on Islamic scripture and tradition instead through more open-ended processes like philosophical reasoning gave weight to those who believed the Caliphs and those like them should be simply obeyed because God said so. More flexible and less slavishly literal interpretations of Islam might lead to Muslims questioning the rule of an oppressive or incompetent ruler. Putting the emphasis on “what” a person should believe instead of the “why” would hinder deeper explorations into the nature of truth, promoting an overall rigid faith leaving it unable to modernize as times changed.

Reopening Muslim Minds reminds me of other books that have appeared over the last decade and a half, in many ways a response to the rise of Islamic terrorism. Khaled Abou El Fadl’s The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, Anouar Majid’s A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America, Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now all ask in varying ways what went wrong in the Islamic world and how could it be fixed.

Reopening Muslim Minds is no doubt controversial, perhaps even downright offensive to some. But he makes countless compelling, if not convincing arguments. I enjoyed Akyol’s book and look forward to reading what else he’s written on the Islamic world.

20 Books of Summer: Sons and Soldiers by Bruce Henderson

With a ton of library books already in my possession and no shortage of World War II-related stuff in my personal library it seemed foolish to borrow one more library book about the Second World War. But after watching an excellent PBS documentary on Jewish American GIs in World War II I found it hard to resist a copy of Bruce Henderson’s Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler. Encouraged also by the many favorable reviews it received I put aside the rest of my reading material and gave Sons and Soldiers a chance. I found Henderson’s 2017 book hard as hell to put down and one of the most pleasant surprises of 2021.

Tragically, only a relative handful of Jews made it out of Germany before the Nazis fully unleashed the horrors of the Holocaust. Of those who made it to America, many were boys and young men forced to leave their families behind in Germany to face unsettling futures. After the US entered the war these same young men joined the US Army to fight the foe who’d treated them and fellow Jews as enemies of the state.

As soon as the Army realized the newly inducted men were fluent in German they were sent to  Ft. Ritchie in Maryland to become interrogators and military intelligence personnel. After taught German military structure and protocols, map reading, orienteering, parachuting and how to operate behind enemy lines each soldier was later sworn in as a US citizen, in part to reduce the risk of being executed as a German traitor in case of capture. In addition, as an extra precaution many carried special dog tags to conceal their religion, fearful of being killed for being Jews should they become POWs.

According to Henderson these brave young men provided the US military with mountains of invaluable intelligence, much of it timely, that wound up being instrumental in defeating Nazi Germany. That a group of people the Nazis worked so hard to murder would play such a crucial role in bringing about their destruction is truly ironic justice.

Just like The Forever War, Sons and Soldiers made for effortless reading and I whipped through it in no time. Definitely one of the pleasant surprises of 2021.

20 Books of Summer: The Forever War by Dexter Filkins

As I pointed out in an early post, I’m a big fan of Dexter Filkins. His 2013 New Yorker piece on Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was top notch and became must reading after Soleimani’s 2019 assassination. But as much as I love his New Yorker stuff I still hadn’t read his highly praised 2008 book The Forever War. Lately however I’ve been craving books on the Middle East and the Islamic World so when I spotted a copy of The Forever War at the library I figured now was as good a time as any to finally read it. Filkins’s well-written book made for almost effortless reading and like so many back-listed books I’ve read over the years left me wishing I’d read it years ago.

During his years as a foreign correspondent Filkins spent time in Afghanistan and Iraq, battlegrounds in America’s War on Terror. His collection of dispatches begins in the late 1990s in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and ends in Iraq, roughly around the time of the “Surge”, necessitated by the escalating insurgency and corresponding Sunni-Shia civil war. In addition, Filkins also reports from Ground Zero in New York City in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks showing us the face of war on American soil.

To me the most memorable take away from Forever War is the everyday look of military occupation. Besides the endless ambushes, bloodshed and grabbing suspected insurgents for detention and questioning it’s also the blurred lines between friend and foe. The friendly face you meet today could kill you tomorrow. Yesterday’s sworn enemy may throw in his lot with you today should he find it politically and/or financially advantageous. Just the simple act of grabbing lunch in a local restaurant is a potential risk to life and limb as evident the moment you walk in, when regulars stop talking and begin staring at you, like some scene in an old western.

Thanks to Filkins’s direct, narrative style The Forever War is easy and entertaining reading. Even though it was published over 12 years ago in contains valuable insights into the bitterly contested countries of Afghanistan and Iraq. If you’re looking for good books to explain the bloody conflicts behind today’s news headlines, consider The Forever War.

20 Books of Summer: Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn by Jamie Maslin

I’ve mentioned before of all the countries in the Middle East the two that intrigue me the most are probably the region’s biggest outliers: Iran and Israel. Modern heirs to ancient kingdoms, unlike the rest of the countries in the region neither is majority Arab or Sunni Muslim. Also unlike their neighbors neither is ruled by an absolute monarch or military strongman. At one time close allies today Israel and Iran are bitter enemies, each eying the other with grave concern, despite being a thousand miles apart and sharing no common border.

Maybe that’s why I’m more apt to grab a book on Iran or Israel as opposed to another Middle Eastern country like Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Not long ago at the public library I did just that, helping myself to a copy of Jamie Maslin’s Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn: A Hitchhiker’s Adventures in the New Iran. In his travel memoir published in 2009 Maslin recounts his adventures traveling throughout Iran, visiting its attractions and perhaps above all interacting with its citizens.

Originally, Maslin’s plan was to cross Southern Eurasia overland ending with a visit to his brother in Shanghai.  Unfortunately, financial difficulties nixed the possibility of such an extensive trip. Instead, he opted to follow just a portion of the old hippie trail, making Iran his intended destination entering the country from neighboring Turkey. Seen by most Westerners as a horrible place run by an oppressive theocratic dictatorship Maslin’s fellow Brits thought he was crazy to visit Iran and even he too was fearful some wild-eyed mullah might sentence him to having a hand chopped off or eye gouged out for some perceived petty crime. But to his pleasant surprise he found the overwhelming majority of those he met friendly and hospitable.

Even as a visitor from the United Kingdom, a country Iranians revile, along with the United States for helping engineer the coup that toppled Iran’s reformist Prime Minister and installed despotic Shah Maslin was showered with hospitality almost from the moment he arrived. Whisked away countless times for lunches and dinners as an honored guest, later he’d find himself hosted in their homes like a beloved relative. Complete strangers acted as helpful translators and go-betweens, assisting him with travel plans and even paying for his bus tickets and such. He frequently received gifts, and before long mastered the Iranian custom of politely refusing three times before graciously accepting.

While Iran might be ruled by a bunch of religious zealots hell-bent on ruling with an iron hand its citizenry aren’t automatons cursed with sheep-like mentality. Throughout his travels Maslin encountered taxi drivers who rolled down the window to shout obscenities at clerics on the street and shopkeepers who saluted prominently displayed Ayatollah Khomeini wall portraits with throat slitting gestures. Alcohol, while illegal could still be acquired with little effort, reminiscent of America during Prohibition. (Maslin recalls imbibing several times in the company of friendly Iranians.) Even though there’s strict sexual segregation in almost all facets of public life (the only place where men and women mix in public is on Tehran’s crowded subway) young Iranian singles of both sexes, especially in urban areas mingle in secretive parties from time to time. Puritanical as Iranian society is, it’s common for some couples to practice sigheh, an officially sanctioned form of temporary marriage.

I found myself drawn to Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn because I wanted an intimate look at Iran that was light yet informative. With those expectations met I have no complaints.

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.