Category Archives: Area Studies/International Relations

In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah

Probably the coolest thing about Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is it makes a person read books set in, or about countries all over Europe. That’s always been fine with me. Over the years it’s discovered a ton of great books that who knows, had it not been for the European Reading Challenge I might never had read. And trust me, when is that ever a bad thing?

My quest to find yet another book to read for the challenge led me to Tim Judah’s 2015 book In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine. Until it was overshadowed by the tumultuous American election, the conflict in Ukraine seemed to always be in the news. So, when I found an available copy at my public library I helped myself. After a few fits and starts I eventually made my way through it, finishing it last night just before bed.  While perhaps not a page-turning, nevertheless it’s probably the best book out there when it comes to showing just how complex and, well, horribly messed-up the situation has been in Ukraine. Judah travels from one end of the country to another interviewing an almost endless series of people who’ve been involved in, or at least significantly impacted by the ongoing conflict. Like many wars, civil wars and combinations of both, the roots of today’s conflict go deep into the past. As Ukraine struggles define itself as a distinct nation state and plot a political trajectory somewhere between East and West, it must deal with a restive eastern population as well as a resurgent Putinist Russia that sees Ukraine as traditionally part of it homeland.

I’m a sucker for good, on the ground reporting like this. In Wartime reminded me of other books written about Easter Europe like Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War, Lawrence Scott Sheets’ 8 Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Former Soviet Union and last but not least Askold Krushnelnycky’s An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History. Of course, since I am a sucker for this kind of writing, you’ll be sure to see a more books like this featured on my blog in the coming year.

5 Comments

Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History

About Time I Read It: The Pity of It All by Amos Elon

The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933I can’t remember how long ago, but once a book popped up on my Goodreads page I simply had to read. Published in back 2002, Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 looked like one of those books that’s right up my alley. And not just any book on Jewish history, but one devoted to the history of Jews in Germany. Therefore, like many promising books I read or hear about, I vowed to someday read it. Then, like I’ve done so many times in the past promptly forgot about it. That is, until I was surfing my public library’s online catalog and was it was listed. I quickly placed a hold and before I knew it, a copy become available. Once again, I found myself kicking myself because I should not have waited so long to read Elon’s outstanding book.

The Pity of It All begins with Moses Mendelssohn’s arrival in Berlin. Not yet 15 years old but confident, purposeful and smart enough to trade his backwater Jewish community in Dessau for the brighter lights of Berlin. (This, in an age when the Prussian military’s presence in the city was so huge some joked that Prussia was an army in search of a state.) Even though the city’s gate masters were officially tasked with keeping itinerant Jews from entering the city, Mendelssohn nevertheless made it inside. Once settled, he went on to become not only one of the leading lights of the Enlightenment, but also an early advocate of Jewish assimilation and interfaith dialog. Much like their co-religionists the Rothschild’s, in time the Mendelssohn family name would be associated with fame and accomplishment, from banking to composing.

As one might expect, according to Elon the history of Jews in German is ultimately a tragic one, both in nature and irony. As German Jews embraced German culture, language and education and thus assimilated, like so many of their Christian neighbors Germany’s Jews became increasingly secular. Unfortunately, with many of Germany’s top positions in academia, the military and the like still closed to them, countless German Jews converted. Cynically, or depending how you look at it realistically, those like the poet Heine figured it was an easy transition from non-practicing Jew to non-practicing Christian. Fearing Jews would continue to convert and in great numbers, (one person wrote at the time it seemed like half of Berlin’s Jews were converts) a kind of Jewish Counter Reformation arose with its goal to preserve traditional Judaism while keeping it relevant in a modern secular age.

When it comes to tragedy and irony, during the 200 year history of Germany’s Jews the worst was saved for last. During the First World War and the run-up preceding it, some Germans accused the nation’s Jews of not being patriotic, and thus not German enough. However, in reality a number of influential Jews in academia and industry were solidly behind the Germany’s military endeavors, issuing supportive pronouncements and urging the nation to fight on. Later in the War, after four years of brutal trench warfare and Britain’s naval blockade left Germany hungry and bled white, antisemitic elements looking for scapegoats accused the nation’s Jewish soldiers of lacking bravery. A fact-finding report was issued and when completed, showed Jewish soldiers were fighting as hard as and taking as many casualties as the rest of the German army. (One crazy historical footnote I learned from Elon’s book is the German officer who went to bat for a young Adolf Hitler and made sure he was decorated for bravery was Jewish.) After Germany’s government collapsed at the end of WWI, the nation’s first democratically elected government arose from the political ashes. Also for the fist time in Germany’s history, many Jews held positions of responsibility in the new government. But that young government’s inability to effectively negotiate with the victorious Allies led to significant losses in German territory. (A war that right up to the end, the German people were told they were winning.) This would lead to a decade of widespread anger and resentment, and after the horrors of the Great Depression, opened the doors of power to the antisemitic Nazis in the early 30s.

The Pity of It All is an outstanding book and could easily make my year-end Best of List. It’s also a great companion book to Howard Sachar’s 2007 masterpiece A History of the Jews in the Modern World. Please consider The Pity of It All highly recommended.

1 Comment

Filed under Europe, History, Judaica

The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land

The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land-A True Detective StoryI hate to admit it, but some books just take me forever to read. Whenever this happens, frequently it says less about the quality of the book and more about my inability to stay focused and not be distracted by the first interesting book to come my way. Take for instance Patrick Bishop’s The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land-A True Detective Story. Here’s a very good book that took me close to a year to read. Had it not been for my public library’s generous policy towards book renewals there’s no way I could have kept this book around without finally finishing it. Trust me, it’s not like I found the book’s subject matter boring. For most of my adult life I’ve loved reading about the Middle East, especially Israel. So when I learned my public library had a book on the old Stern Gang of course I had to grab it. I just didn’t think it would take me that long to read. And that’s a shame because it’s a pretty good book.

For those who might not know, out of all the groups in British Palestine striving to establish the modern State of Israel the Stern Gang was the most hardcore. Besides robbing banks, blowing off bombs and assassinating people, Avraham Stern and his crew were willing to do just about anything to drive out the British and the Arabs. So passionate was Stern’s hatred against the British rulers of Palestine that he even sought assistance from Fascist Italy, and later the Germans. Of course, that a Jew would be willing to enlist the forces of Nazism in his crusade to rid Palestine of British rule looks completely absurd and reckless when seen with the hindsight of history. But history is full of individuals whose narrow-minded interests and uncompromising agendas ultimately lead to their destruction.

Bishop’s book is well written and well researched. While I thought it lost a bit of punch towards the end it’s a pretty decent book overall. Shame on me for taking so long to read it.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

Middle Eastern Memoirs: And Then All Hell Broke Loose by Richard Engel

And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle EastAt one time memoirs about life in the Middle East were a regular feature on my blog. Seems like every time I turned around I was reviewing some book in which the author recalled the time he/she spent living in, or traveling through that particular part of the world. But over the last few years I found myself reading these kind of books less and less. As for exactly why I’m not sure, but probably it’s because I haven’t been reading books about the Middle East like I used to. Too bad. I think that needs to change.

One afternoon months ago I was strolling along the new books section of my local public library when I came across  Richard Engel’s recently published memoir And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East. As I stared at Engel’s book, I realized how long it’d been since I read a memoir like his. Thinking that spending two decades in the Middle East certainly should give an author something to write about I grabbed Engel’s memoir. Even though I  stopped reading it about half way through only to finish it several months later, it’s pretty good memoir and in the end, I’m glad I took a chance on it.

Engel’s memoir begins with him as a 23 year recent graduate of Stanford who ships off to Egypt to live his dream as a foreign correspondent. After honing his Arabic skills and immersing himself in the local culture (and getting to know members of the Muslim Brotherhood) he eventually finds work as a reporter. Working his way up the journalistic food chain, his career takes him throughout the region to Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Israel/Palestinian Territories and Syria. In addition to covering two Gulf Wars and the Arab Spring protests, he also reported from the frontline battles in Libya and Syria, where in Syria he was kidnapped.

This is breezy and succinctly written memoir. If you’re looking for a light but informative look at the world of the Middle East And Then All Hell Broke Loose is your book. Give it a shot and I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Islam, Memoir, Middle East/North Africa

Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization by Paul Kriwaczek

Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of CivilizationYears ago on my way home from work I used to walk by a funky old bookstore whose name has long escaped me. On nice days when it wasn’t raining, in front of the store there was a wheeled cart stacked with used books. Priced at 35 cents each or three for a dollar, 99 per cent of the time everything on the cart was pure garbage: old romance novels, obsolete technical manuals and out of date textbooks. But every once in a while, I could find a real gem or two. Over a stretch of a few week I found five or six 1960s era paperbacks devoted to ancient history. Priced down to close to nothing, how could I not resist picking up books like Leonard Cottrell’s The Anvil of Civilization and Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way or some other battered, frequently cover less vintage paperback that recalled the ancient glories of Babylon, Greece, Persia or Egypt. Before long I found myself reading one of these old paperbacks at home or in some coffee shop absorbed in the wonders of the ancient world.

Perhaps it nostalgic reasons that eagerly made me want to Paul Kriwaczek’s Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization when my book club chose it as our monthly selection. My eagerness grew once I discovered Kriwaczek also wrote Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation, a book I reviewed a few years ago. So, ready to once again immerse myself in the forgotten worlds of the Near East, I bought a copy of Babylon off Amazon and went to work. I’m happy to report that reading Kriwaczek’s book brought me back to the good old days of reading ancient history. Plus, it’s a good book too.

I walked away from this book with a deeper appreciation of Mesopotamia’s history. It boggles my mind that Mesopotamian had a flourishing civilization for 2,500 years BEFORE the Persian conquest in BC 500. That’s like 200 years before Alexander the Great and 500 years before the dawn of the Roman Empire. And much like Rome Mesopotamia left a lasting legacy. Not only is it home to the world’s first cities but also irrigation projections, state-sponsored religion, taxation, socialist-style planned economies, beer brewing and mathematics (base 60 for both time keeping and geometry). Through a series of historical twists and turns Mesopotamian cuneiform would eventually lead to today’s written alphabets. In mythology, legends of baby Sargon’s rescue from the river find echoes in the life of Moses, just as the Gilgamesh flood myth narrative also finds parallel in the Torah, and with it the West’s Abrahamic faiths.

Kriwaczek writes well, makes ancient history accessible and interesting to a lay audience. If you’re in the market for a good book on ancient history book, then look no further then Kriwaczek’s Babylon.

1 Comment

Filed under Arab World, History, Middle East/North Africa

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin WallYet another book published well over 10 years ago I discovered only recently is Anna Funder’s 2003 book Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. Even though it won the Samuel Johnson Prize and was shortlisted for several others I’d never heard of Stasiland until just recently when I found a copy through my public library. With my longtime interest in the former Soviet Bloc I could not resist Funder’s book. In the end, I’m glad I yielded to temptation. Stasiland is one of those books that took me forever to read, not because it’s boring but one I kept putting to down in order to read other things. However, slowly but surely I made my way through it. And even it took me a long time to read it didn’t leave me disappointed.

Instead of merely discussing the political system of the old German Democratic Republic (GDR) and how it collapsed, Funder spent time interviewing individual former East Germans and simply letting then tell their life stories. By doing so, she made the historical intimate and personal, and thus put a human face on history. I’m glad she was able to interview former Stasi agents and see how they’ve fared ten years after the Fall of the Berlin wall. (According to Funder, many Stasi agents, trained and well-practiced in the arts of persuasion and intimidating now spend their days not spying and harassing dissidents but selling insurance and financial services.)

Stasiland is also a sad book. Sad because even though many in the West thought East Germany was the most humane nation of the old Soviet Bloc, those living in the GDR lived under an oppressive and unforgiving regime. Individual hopes and dreams were severely attenuated and when that happens lives becoming meaningless. In some cases, perceived enemies of the state who were imprisoned and later died under mysterious circumstances had their bodies quickly cremated to hide the truth from their loved ones. It was also a regime that until the bitter end refused to step aside, even though its aging inner circle was so old some leaders disparately underwent experimental treatments in hopes of forestalling the aging process.

Stasiland is an excellent companion read to Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 and Stephen Kotkin’s Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment.

11 Comments

Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History

The ISIS Apocalypse by William McCants

The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic StateAfter spending a quiet evening watching a pair of Frontline episodes on the rise of ISIS I found myself wanting to learn more about the feared Islamist organization. Later on, I happened to see my public library had an available copy of William McCants’ The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. Figuring now is as good as any other time to read up on the organization that’s dominated the headlines over the last couple of years I grabbed it. Fortunately for me, like almost all of the library books I’ve borrowed of late McCants’ book is pretty darn good.

Published in 2015, McCants’ book I suspect is unique among books about ISIS and al-Qaeda. McCants, in order to explain how ISIS came to be, recruits followers and strives to build an Islamic state shows how the organization took and continues to take inspiration and guidance from not just the Quran and the Hadith (the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad) but especially medieval Islamic apocalyptic literature. Traditionally, most Sunni Muslims shied away from these esoteric writings, deeming them inspiration for crackpots or worse, the kind of holy scriptures dreaded Shia would follow. But in the hands of ISIS, they serve as a priceless playbook.

According to McCants the ISIS break from al-Qaeda was a major paradigm shift. Al-Qaeda wanted to draw Western, especially American military forces into the Middle East in hopes of inflicting a crippling defeat, eventually resulting in America’s decline. (After all, it worked it worked against the USSR in Afghanistan.) With America and its Western allies no longer able to support its client states in the Middle East al-Qaeda could resurrect the Caliph of old. While attacks on Western targets were fine, al-Qaeda ideologues stressed the necessity of Arab unity and that meant being careful not to inflict Arab civilian casualties.

But ISIS had a different game plan. Instead of fighting the West, ISIS preferred to seize territory within Arab world and begin the Caliph now, not sometime in the distant future. It’s had its best success in places like Syria, where President al-Assad has been willing to largely leave the group alone (as long as it doesn’t attack Damascus and is more interested in fighting other rebel groups) and Iraq where the country’s Shia-dominated government has limited influence in the Sunni regions. And as far as limiting Arab casualties, ISIS took the opposite approach. The more public beheadings, genocide and suicide bombings the better.

What impressed me the most with The ISIS Apocalypse is McCants’ scholarship. Besides being fluent in Arabic, his knowledge of the above-mentioned medieval Islamic writings is impressive. I was pleased with The ISIS Apocalypse and like any good book it’s left me wanting to read more. Therefore, get ready to see more books on ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Middle East featured on this blog.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arab World, Current Affairs, History, Islam, Middle East/North Africa