Category Archives: Area Studies/International Relations

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville

When my book club chose China Miéville’s October: The Story of a Revolution as our November selection I was a bit surprised. You see, our club only reads nonfiction. Miéville’s body of work encompasses science fiction, fantasy and graphic novels.(His writing has been labeled by some as “New Weird”) He’s definitely a writer of fiction. But when I went to buy a copy of October I was surprised to learn it’s not a work of fiction but nonfiction. Yes, the multiple award-winning author of Perdido Street Station and Scar has truly branched out.

Published in May of this year, October is a month by month account of the tumultuous events of 1917, beginning in February when an unlikely alliance of workers, soldiers and women (many of them war widows) drove out the Romanovs and ending in November when the shaky Provisional Government was overthrown by Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks.

I thought I knew more than the average person when it came to the Russian Revolution but after reading October I learned the surprising degree of my ignorance. Heck, the stuff about Lenin alone could make for an interesting book in the hands of a gifted writer like Miéville. Perhaps most important of all, as several member of my book club pointed out how quickly these events unfolded and considering the contingent nature of those developments how easy it could had been for someone other than the triumphant Bolsheviks to have seized lasting control of Russia. General Kornilov and his conservatives, the Mensheviks or the teetering Provisional Government with only a lucky break or two could have wound up masters of Russia. All while the German Imperial Army stood a stone’s throw from Petrograd poised to deliver the final knock-out blow.

As I mentioned earlier, of all the historical figures portrayed in October, I found Lenin the most fascinating. (Provisional Government leader Alexander Kerensky could be a close second.) Fortunately for me, on this 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution two books about Lenin recently hit the bookstores, both by talented authors. Some of you might remember a few years back when I reviewed Catherine Merridale’s 2006 book  Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945. Her new book is Lenin on the TrainLast March I reviewed Tariq Ali’s novel A Sultan in Palermo. His latest book The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution was also released this spring. After reading October I can’t wait to get a crack at these two new books.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History

The Magdalen Girls by V. S. Alexander

I know I’ve said it a million times but Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is one of my favorite reading challenges. Because the rules of the challenge state each book must be by a different author and set in a different country it inspires participants to read books set in countries from across Europe. I don’t know about you but I think that’s pretty cool.

I’ve made pretty good progress up to this point, reading and reviewing about a dozen books representing countries from the United Kingdom to Russia and everything in between. However, there’s still plenty of work to be done before the challenge wraps up on January 31, 2018. Last weekend, while searching my library for books to apply towards the challenge I came across a novel set in Ireland. Published late last year, The Magdalen Girls looked like a nice departure from the “deep thinker” diet of books like Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present and Peter Watson’s The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century I’ve been reading of late.

The year is 1962 and the place is Dublin, Ireland. After 16-year-old Teagan Tiernan is wrongly accused of having improper relations with a young Catholic priest she’s promptly sent away to the Sisters of the Holy Redemption’s laundry house. Forced to work in the laundry as “penance” for her “sins” she and the other imprisoned girls endure malnourishment, back-breaking labor, and physical and emotional abuse. Teagan soon realizes she needs to escape before she’s reduced to a broken shell of a human being like the rest of girls in the laundry. Passionately proclaiming her innocence she secretly conspires with two of the girls to escape.

Sad and maybe a tad melodramatic at times, nevertheless I enjoyed The Magdalen Girls. I found it fast-paced, decently written and possessing a few plot twists that I never saw coming. I needed something light and entertaining and The Magdalen Girls did not disappointment me.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History

The Girl from the Garden by Parnaz Foroutan

You can probably tell from one of my earlier posts, I have weakness for Iranian writers. The crazy thing is even though I’ve read lots of Iranian writers, I’ve read few who write fiction. Clearly, if I’m to widen my exposure to Iranian writers I need to read more Iranian fiction. Therefore, when I came across Parnaz Foroutan’s novel The Girl from the Garden at the public library I figured it was an excellent opportunity to read some Iranian fiction.

Parnaz Foroutan was born in Iran. After spending her childhood there her and her family immigrated to the United States, where she currently resides in LA. Her debut novel is set in the Iranian town of Kermanshah sometime in the first third of the 20th century and follows the lives of family of Iranian Jews. It’s told from the perspective of the sole surviving daughter Mahboubeh, now an elderly woman living in LA.

As much as I wanted to love The Girl in the Garden for whatever reason(s) it just wasn’t my cup of tea. This is a shame because I was excited to read a novel about a family of Iranian Jews living in pre-Revolutionary Iran. (In all fairness while reading The Girl in the Garden I was also reading several other books. Based on my personal experience a distracted reader is frequently an unfulfilled one. It wouldn’t surprise me if those literary distractions adversely impacted my ability to truly appreciate Foroutan’s novel.) But this first time novel shows considerable promise. I’m confident before I know it I’ll be reading one of her future novels and enjoying the heck out of it.

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Filed under Fiction, History, Iran, Middle East/North Africa

Nonfiction November: Be the Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert

I can’t believe it’s already the third week of Nonfiction November. This week it’s hosted by Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness, one of my long-time favorite book bloggers. Our theme is Be the Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert.

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

If you’ve been following my blog, especially for a long time you know I enjoy books about the Middle East. Of all the countries in the region, there’s two that interest me the most. One is Israel, and the other is Iran. Perhaps this is because Iran is so different when compared to the rest of the nations of the Middle East. Geographically, it sits on the periphery of the Middle East at the gateway to Central Asia. While most of the Middle Eastern’s nations are overwhelming Arab Iran’s population is heavily Persian, both in ethnicity and language. With 85 per cent of the world’s Muslims Sunni, Iran is majority Shia. Lastly, its complex political system is bewildering mix of theocratic authoritarianism and limited representational democracy, even if the country’s ballot box is subject to the whim of the ruling Mullahs.

I also suspect my fascination with Iran is also a personal one. Being a “man of certain age” I can remember when events in Iran dominated our newspaper headlines and evening newscasts. Perhaps my coming of age during this period has had a lasting effect on me, resulting in my life-long fascination with this country.

Let’s say you’ve read Reading Lolita in Tehran and Lipstick Jihad and you wanna learn more about Iran. If that’s the case here’s six additional books I’d like to recommend. While there’s probably no shortage of great books on Iran, I’ve restricted my list to Iranian authors. Americans have a nasty habit of imposing their views on others. With that in mind perhaps it’s best to let the Iranians speak for themselves.

The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasr – I read this gem of a book not long after it was published in 2006. It’s an outstanding big picture analysis of not just Iran’s rising influence in the region but also its Shia allies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd –  This  2008 book was recommended by a young college student I met one morning in a neighborhood coffee shop. She called it the best book on Iran she’d ever read. I feel the same way about it.

Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope by Shirin Ebadi – If her name looks familiar it’s probably because she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.

The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution by Amir Taheri – A passionate, detailed and insightful critique of the Iranian regime.

Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival

A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran by Reza Kahlili – One of my all-time favorite books by an Iranian émigré. His thrilling true story reads like a spy novel.

 

 

If, after reading these half-dozen books you’re inspired to read more there’s other books on Iran I can recommend. One of my personal favorites is The Secret War with Iran: Israel and the West’s 30-Year Clandestine Struggle by Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman. If you’re looking for a fresh look at US-Iran relations from the perspective of former career CIA officer, I’d recommend Robert Baer’s The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian SuperpowerOn a similar note, I’d also recommend Stephen Kinzer’s Reset: Iran, Turkey and America’s Future. Lastly, although he can be a bit dry and verbose, Christopher de Bellaigue’s In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran and The Struggle for Iran are also worth the effort. 

But alas, there’s a ton of books on Iran I still have yet to read and want to. I’m embarrassed to admit, but I’ve never read Reading Lolita in Tehran or Lipstick Jihad. Elaine Sciolino’s Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran has been on my TBR forever, along with Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs. As for more recent offerings, I’d love to read Laura Secor’s Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran, Andrew Scott’s The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran and Barry Meier’s Missing Man: The American Spy Who Vanished in Iran. With a list of books like this it looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Iran

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War

Some of you might remember one of my Five Bookish Links posts in which I posted a link to a piece that appeared in Small Wars Journal. In the article, James King asked members of INTELST forum, a group of almost 4000 current and former Military Intelligence professionals what they thought are the best books for intelligence analysts. What I neglected to mention in my post is according to King “while the list is composed of mostly non-fiction there are a few fiction books.  One of these fiction books, Ghost Fleet, was nominated more than any other book on the list.”

If there’s a consensus among 4000 military intelligence experts the novel Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War should be required reading then this is a novel I need to read. Luckily for me, I was able to borrow a downloadable copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Inspired by King’s recommendation I quickly went to work on the Ghost Fleet and because it’s such a page-turner I blew through it in only a few days.

Ghost Fleet takes place approximately 10 years in the future. China is ruled by the Directorate, a junta of military strong men and civilian business leaders. Believing the United States stands in the way of China’s continued ascendency as a world power, and confident in their nation’s technological and military prowess the Directorate authorizes a sneak attack on American forces in East Asia and the Pacific. Just as the Germans enlisted the declining power of Austria-Hungary as their junior partner in World War I, the Directorate adds Russia as its junior partner attacking US bases in Japan, Guam and Hawaii. Before long America’s Pacific-based Aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines have been destroyed, its spy and GPS satellites have been shot to pieces and Hawaii is under Chinese occupation.

Alas, this is not your grandfather’s World War III novel. When the call goes out for assistance at America’s hour of need it’s answered by a diverse cast of heroes. A former Sudanese “Lost Boy” now Silicon Valley mogul recruits the best and brightest minds in the business to take down China’s IT infrastructure. A flamboyant Aussie biotech billionaire (a kind of ethnic Indian version of Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban rolled into one) who, styling himself a modern-day privateer, seeks America’s blessing for his efforts to pillage Chinese military assets. A  university-based Chinese-American female scientist whose expertise in designing massive batteries is a potential military game changer. As Hawaii  suffers under Chinese occupation a gang of American servicemen and servicewomen calling themselves the North Shore Mujahideen engage in high-tech assisted hit and run attacks on the Islands’ occupiers. Lastly, a female serial killer, as beautiful as she is emotionally damaged, has been haunting the bars and beaches of Honolulu brutally murdering Chinese occupiers one by one.

To dismiss Ghost Fleet by saying it’s not high-class literature misses the point. Not only is it an exciting page-turner but those in the know have praised the book to high heaven. When an American Admiral proclaims the book is “a startling blueprint for the wars of the future and therefore needs to be read now!” if for that reason alone I’ll recommend Ghost Fleet.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, China, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, Japan, Science

About Time I Read It: Reappraisals by Tony Judt

Tony Judt is one of those writers I’ve wanted to read, yet never have. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always wanted start with his multiple prize-wining Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 but I’ve been scared to do so since it’s well over 800 pages. Even my attempts to read his shorter books like The Memory Chalet and Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century ended in failure because I had to return both books to the library before even starting them.

As you might remember from my previous post, I’ve been hankering to read some quality 20th century history. Therefore, during my recent flurry of book borrowing I decided to once again give Judt a try. In my quest to greater understand the 20th century a few weeks ago I secured a copy of Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century from my public library.

Instead of a conventional history book devoted to a selected time period that proceeds in tidy chronological order Reappraisals is a collection of essays, mostly in the form of book reviews for publications like the New York Review of Books and New Republic. Rest assured, these are not puff pieces but thoughtful and intelligent reflections on the notable personalities and key events of the last century.

Reappraisals isn’t light reading. Judt was erudite as hell and his writing reflects a rich and sophisticated vocabulary. While one might expect to find chapters on Pope John Paul II, Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair in a book like this, perhaps only the extremely well read weren’t surprised to see lengthy essays on the life and significance of French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, Austrian-French novelist Manès Sperber and Polish philosopher and intellectual dissident Leszek Kołakowski. But for readers who want to learn and be intellectually challenged this book is ideal. Judt’s chapter length discussions on pivotal events like the Cuban Missile Crises, Six Day War or Fall of France are done with considerable depth and opinion. Reappraisals is definitely the thinking person’s guide to the 20th century.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Europe, History, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

Immigrant Stories: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

Since 2003 my local public library has sponsored an annual Everybody Reads program. Even though I’ve never attended any of the related events like the discussion groups or lectures nevertheless I’ve read and enjoyed the different books my library has selected over the years, be it The Kite Runner, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World or The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. While it might have taken me a few years to get around to reading some of the selections like The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier and Midnight at the Dragon Cafe none of these books left me disappointed.

In early 2016 the library went with Cristina Henríquez’s novel The Book of Unknown Americans for its annual Everybody Reads selection. Last year, upon hearing that news I had every intention of reading it but I was probably up to my eyeballs in other books so I soon forgot. Then last week I found myself at the library and came across a slightly dog-eared paperback copy of The Book of Unknown Americans. Feeling this was as good a time as any to finally read it, I helped myself to it. After burning through Henríquez’s novel in mere days I’m happy to say once again, my local public library chose a fine piece of fiction for its Everybody Reads program.

The Book of Unknown Americans is set in an apartment complex in Delaware that’s populated almost exclusively by immigrants from across Latin America. The main story revolves around two teenagers. One is 15-year-old Maribel Rivera, newly arrived from Mexico and strikingly beautiful, her struggle adjusting to life in America is made worse thanks to a traumatic brain injury. The other youth is Mayor Toro, originally from Panama and the son of a family whose middle class origins belies its current predicament of working immigrant poor. The first time Mayor spies Maribel in a neighborhood discount shop it’s love at first sight. Later, as he gets to know Maribel and witnesses her vulnerability the more protective he becomes of her. But beauty can be a curse as well as a blessing, as the guileless Maribel catches the eye of a local young ne’erdo-well. Their brief encounter will set in motion of chain of events that in the end will profoundly impact all their lives.

The Book of Unknown Americans has inspired me to read other novels dealing with the immigrant experience. Specifically, I’m thinking Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents as well as Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. My guess is in the future you’ll be seeing these novels as well as others like them featured on my blog.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Fiction, Latin America/Caribbean