About Time I Read It: The Future Is History by Masha Gessen

After reading tons of great things about Masha Gessen’s 2017 book The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia I decided to buy a Kindle edition last March after Amazon, much to my joy drastically dropped the price. Months later and needing something about Russia for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I began reading it. Like many outstanding books The Future is History blew me away from the beginning. Not only will it make my 2020 list of favorite nonfiction it’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year.

We all know Russia has reverted back its totalitarian self of old. The question is how did this happen. According to Gessen, in her National Book Award winning work of biography, history and political analysis the Fall of Communism, as earth-shaking as it was, didn’t transform Russia into a functioning democratic society. After a decade of political and economic disfunction under Boris Yeltsin, as corrupt oligarchs and murderous mobsters ran roughshod over the nation, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer assumed the reigns of power. After imprisoning, forcibly coopting or assassinating his rivals, seizing their assets and media outlets Putin and his old intelligence service colleagues consolidated their hold on Russia. To some, perhaps even many Russians at first things looked promising. The troublesome oligarchs were neutralized, told to either play ball with Putin or else. The sinking economy was righted. Nationalists rejoiced as Russia adopted a more assertive foreign policy.

This was all made easier, Gessen asserts because Russia, at its core is an authoritarian society. Thanks to 80 years of Soviet rule (building on hundreds of years of Tsarist supremacy) Russians have been conditioned into believing only a dictatorial regime, like that of the Soviets could deliver them material comfort, stability and national pride. Flawed elections, harmful deregulations and weak democratic institutions became synonymous with rampant crime, widespread corruption and a Third Word-like chasm between rich and poor and. Only a return to Russia’s authoritarian past could save the country.

Gessen weaves together the oral histories of four different Russians to show how this  happened, beginning  with the hopefulness of perestroika to the chaos of the Yeltsin years to today’s Putin era. Despite their respective promising beginnings by the end all four Russians are trampled by the heavy-handed Russian state. One, Lyosha finds himself the victim of state-sponsored homophobic bullying after Putin and his allies enact anti-LGBTQ policies. (Supposedly drafted to protect Russia’s children from predatory gays and lesbians, the new laws were designed to please social conservatives and others alarmed at Russia’s plummeting birthrate.) With the deck seemingly stacked forever Putin’s favor, Russia’s future looks bleak.

The Future Is History is an outstanding book, and a must read for anyone wanting to understand Putin’s Russia. Like Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry it will definitely make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

If 2020 wasn’t bad enough, last month we lost the internationally acclaimed Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Back in 2014, after reading all kinds of great things about Ruiz Zafón I took a chance on his 2012 novel Prisoner of Heaven and was subsequently blown away. Saddened by the news of his untimely passing, I decided to read another book from his best-selling series Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Luckily for me, I was able to use my public library’s Overdrive portal to secure a Kindle version of his 2009 novel The Angel’s Game. After only a few pages I fell in love with The Angel’s Game and it’s almost certain to make my year-end list of Favorite Fiction.

Our story begins when David Martín, a young underling at a second-tier Barcelona newspaper is asked at the last minute by his editor to write a feuilleton for the paper. Nervous and eager to prove himself he quickly goes to work. Once completed, much to his surprise and that of his editor Martín’s inaugural piece is a hit. Many feuilletons later, he’s approached by a pair of sleaze ball publishers who commission him to write a series of low-brow penny dreadfuls. While thankful for the opportunity to write professionally, after a while Martín grows weary of spending every waking moment at his typewriter banging out lurid tales of murder, betrayal and illicit liaisons. He yearns to be a real writer, like his idols Charles Dickens and other 19th century greats. Tired, disillusioned and locked-in to an exclusive contract Martín fears his dreams of literary greatness will forever remain unfulfilled.

Then a mysterious stranger enters his life. Wealthy, sophisticated and charming as only the devil could be, Andreas Corelli begins courting Martín with offers of employment. To the princely Parisian money is no object, and troublesome barriers standing in the way of Martín writing for Corelli are vanquished with mephistophelian aplomb. Answering Corelli’s siren call, Martín agrees to write him a book but not just any book. Corelli wants him to create a holy text he’ll use to launch a new religion.

The Angel’s Game has been called everything from a gothic tale to a physiological thriller. Containing elements of horror, romance and crime noir the novel is near unclassifiable in terms of genre. With long philosophical and religious dialogs between characters akin to those of Russian masters like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, together with generous allusions to Great Expectations, The Angel’s Game is like a piece of 19th century literature successfully reimagined for modern readers.

Not only is The Angel’s Game almost certain to make my year-end list of Favorite Fiction it’s the best novel I’ve read this year. Please consider this wonderful work of fiction by the late Carlos Ruiz Zafón highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

As 2020 continues to live up to its annus horribilis reputation, I find myself turning to fiction, especially humorous fiction as a much-needed escape. To fulfill this need, last week I used Overdrive to download an ebook of Gary Shteyngart’s 2006 novel Absurdistan, a book I’d been itching to read for years, ever since I spotted a paperback edition shelved in the “librarian’s choice” section at my public library. Like so many backlisted books I’ve featured on this blog, I enjoyed the heck out of it and cursed myself for not reading sooner.

325-pound Misha Vainberg, aka Snack Daddy, son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, proud graduate of Accidental University and luxury loft-dwelling New York City resident finds himself stranded in Russia and unable to re-enter the United States after his mobster father offs a visiting Oklahoma businessman. Homesick for the Big Apple and missing his Dominican girlfriend, his desire to go home only grows stronger after a rival mobster assassinates Misha’s father by flinging a landmine at his Land Rover in full view of tourists in St. Petersburg. (Only to be followed by Misha recklessly bedding his late father’s 20-something widow.) With his best friend Alyosha-Bob (née Robert Lipshitz an American-born Jew from “the northern reaches of New York State”, who, after settling in “St. Leninsburg eight years ago and was transformed, by dint of alcoholism and inertia, into a successful Russian biznesman renamed Alyosha, the owner of ExcessHollywood, a riotously profitable DVD import-export business, and the swain of Svetlana, a young Petersburg hottie”) and loyal manservant Timofey in tow flies to the former Soviet Republic of Absurdistan to purchase an illicit Belgian passport courtesy of a debased local diplomat. Rechristened as Belgium’s newest citizen, Misha sets his sights on a future life somewhere in the EU and thus one step closer to America.

But then things get weirdly complicated – and comical. Before Misha and his companions can depart a civil war erupts sealing the borders and grounding international flights. Right after his girlfriend dumps him via email for her Russian emigre literature professor “Jerry Shteynfarb” (author of The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job and reputed lothario) he ends up falling in love with an American-educated local tourguide who Misha later learns is the cherished daughter of an Absurdistani strongman. Before he knows it he’s being feted like a future son-in-law and hired on as the war-torn country’s new Minister of Multicultural Affairs. Not bad for an obese, substance-abusing, anxiety-suffering, gangster rap-loving, $350-an-hour Park Avenue therapist-dependent son of a murdered Russian mobster.

The fictional, purportedly oil-rich Absurdistan Shteyngart has created bears a strong resemblance to Azerbaijan, with elements of Bosnia, Rwanda of the mid 1990s and Borat’s Kazakhstan. It probably resembles many former Soviet Republics bordering on Russia’s Southern flank, which after escaping Soviet domination, still hasn’t made the transition to full democracy and sadly, probably never will. Western consumer goods and other relatively luxurious amenities are available, but only to a small, largely corrupt well-to-do. Ruled by autocrats and plagued by perpetual ethnic conflict, life in the country resembles something akin to the Middle Ages as opposed the 21st century.

Absurdistan is funny as hell in a sick and wrong kind of way. Please consider it highly recommended.

Old Books Reading Project: The Age of Catherine de Medici by J.E. Neale

Can I learn something from a book I didn’t like? I asked myself that question right after I finished J.E. Neale’s The Age of Catherine de Medici. Published in 1962, it’s been in my personal library for who knows how long. One hot summer night two years ago I brought it to the pub to read but after just one page I lost interest. Upon returning home I exiled the vintage paperback to a hidden nook and cranny in my personal library and promptly forgot about it. Then a week ago I was once again craving stuff on European history and decided to give The Age of Catherine de Medici another chance. The good news is since it’s a short book just over 100 pages I read it in no time. The bad news is I still didn’t like it.

Part of the Harper Torchbook series of”quality paperbacks” specializing in fields like religion, philosophy, history and economics The Age of Catherine de Medici is a collection of four lectures the author gave at Alexandra College in Dublin in 1938 and four year later at University College of North Wales (now Bangor University). As one would guess, it covers the mid-1500s when Catherine was queen, and later queen mother to three sons, each of which would have a turn ruling France. I figured since they’re lectures, The Age of Catherine de Medici would make for light reading. Unfortunately,  I never warmed up to Neale’s writing style.

While being the queen mother to three sons might sound impressive, the reality was otherwise. All three kings were weak and ineffective rulers, with their respective reigns, in Hobbesian terms best described as nasty, brutish and short. Their mother Catherine, lacking the intelligence, political savvy and indomitable will when compared to say, England’s monarch Elizabeth was ill-equipped to hold the country together during this period of extreme civil and religious unrest. (She also had the added disadvantage of being Italian-born, and being a foreigner was therefore was seen by many as ill-suited to guide the nation.) Dubbed by historians as the Religious Wars, the series of conflicts which ravaged France were in effect a decades long civil war, as Catholics and Protestant Huguenots fought back and forth for control of France. (Although arguably, much of the time Catholics were the aggressors.)

Neale’s book confirmed for me our species’ bad reputation for communal violence, especially toward those seen as threats or worse, potential threats to our well-being. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, when Catholics in Paris and throughout France rose up and murdered thousands of Protestant men, women and children bears an eerie resemblance to such later large-scale atrocities as the   Indonesian mass killings of 1965–19966, the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 and the murderous “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia from 1992–1995. An unpleasant, but perhaps necessary reminder of what we’re capable of.

About Time I Read It: Twilight of Empire by Greg King and Penny Wilson

When I noticed Greg King and Penny Wilson ‘s 2017 book Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs in new the books section of the public library a few years ago it struck me as the kind of book I’d possibly read. Thanks to one of my late night ventures down the Wikipedia rabbit hole I was already somewhat familiar with the Mayerling Incident, in which the middle-aged heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne killed himself along with the 17 year old mistress at the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling in 1889. I also saw a fictionalized version of the tragic murder-suicide in the 2006 film The Illusionist and read of another in Elisabeth de Waal’s 2014 novel The Exiles Return. Then, a few weeks ago feeling the need to read something set in, or about Austria for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I secured an ebook edition through Overdrive.

Even though he was the Crown Prince of one of Europe’s grandest royal families by late 1888 Rudolf’s life was a mess. Open to progressive political ideas and willing to grant greater freedom to the empire’s diverse population of subjects his pleas for political liberalization were repeatedly dismissed by his father Emperor Franz Joseph, a reactionary autocrat. His marriage to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, after a brief happy beginning had long since turned sour with Stéphanie spending most her time living abroad while Rudolf frequented Vienna’s taverns and brothels. His body ravaged by gonorrhea as the result of his wayward behavior, he drowned himself in a sea of alcohol and morphine. Lamenting his largely estranged wife would never give him the son he desperately wanted Rudolf had no one to blame but himself. (He’d infected  Stéphanie with gonorrhea rendering her infertile.) Thanks to years of childhood trauma at the hands of his domineering father, or poor Hapsburg genetics or both, Rudolf was a troubled man, emotionally unstable and in all likelihood bipolar.

Enter Baroness Mary Vetsera, the young daughter of an Austrian diplomat. With the total blessing of her social-climbing mother Mary pursed the Crown Prince with reckless abandon. For the better part of a year their ongoing affair was an open secret  to both his parents and the kingdom’s insular aristocracy. Even to this day some speculate Rudolf, in a move to escape the overbearing shadow of his father, entertained thoughts of divorcing Stéphanie, marrying Mary and proclaiming himself King of Hungary. (At this time Austro-Hungary was a dual monarchy.) But as the months went by and the affair lost momentum, Rudolf’s depression worsened. Finally, in late January of 1889 Rudolf and Mary slipped away to the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling. Leaving specific instructions for those in attendance not to open his bedroom door “not even for the Emperor” Rudolf along with Mary retired for the evening. Early the next morning two gunshots rang out. After breaking down the door  Rudolf’s assistants discovered the blood-soaked  bodies of the two lovers sprawled on the bed.

The brutal royal murder-suicide scandalized polite Austrian society. Conspiracy theories abounded for decades with some pointing their fingers at Germany, accusing the Kaiser’s agents of assassinating Rudolf since he was seen by some as an impediment to closer German-Austrian military ties. Bad enough the future Emperor lay dead and without ever siring a male heir but to be found lying next to his dead mistress magnified the tragedy. Suicide, as well as murder considered mortal sins according to Catholic teaching Rudolf could be denied a Christian burial. (Interestingly, according to the book’s authors Vienna was already in the grips of a suicide epidemic with the newspapers filled with lurid accounts of the city’s residents killing themselves.) In the end the Crown Prince was ruled to have been in a state of “mental imbalance” at the time and was thus granted the proper royal funeral rites, much to the relief of his devout Catholic parents.

For the most part I enjoyed Twilight of Empire with my only complaint being I thought the authors might have spent a bit too much time discussing conspiracy theories. However, I can see how many Austrians, when confronted with the uncomfortable truth the Crown Prince murdered himself and his mistress might take solace in rumors that Rudolf was a victim and not a perpetrator. Ironically though, Rudolf’s actions prefigured that of his father’s. When the Emperor decided to invade Serbia in 1914 and in doing so launch the First World War, his actions would lead to the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Another act of murder-suicide, but on a much larger scale.

About Time I Read It: Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborn

In July 2017 Fresh Air’s pop culture and critic-at-large John Powers reviewed Lawrence Osborne’s latest novel Beautiful Animals. Describing it as “a seductively menacing new thriller” combining “Graham Greene’s fondness for foreign soil with Patricia Highsmith’s fascination with the nastier coils of the human psyche” I was intrigued.  I grew more intrigued after Powers mentioned the novel’s setting on the Greek island of Hydra and how things get horribly complicated after two young tourists stumble across a Middle Eastern refugee who’s washed ashore. Alas, like so many books I’ve heard reviewed or read reviews of I quickly forgot about it. That is, until recently when, in search of something set in Greece for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive. I’m happy to report Osborne’s dark novel is painful but at the same time nearly impossible to put down.

Naomi, a 28 year old Brit has been coming to Hydra with her family for years. A London-based lawyer, she’s opted to spend the summer with her wealthy art dealer father and Greek stepmother after being unceremoniously sacked by her employer. Attractive, intelligent, affluent and able to effortlessly manipulate others she spends her time days sunbathing and evenings drinking in local tavernas or partying with others her age. After becoming friends with Samantha, an American college student vacationing on Hydra with her mother, father and teenage brother it looks like the two young women have a promising summer ahead of them as besties.

But before they’ve had a chance to hit a party or two or experience a double date while out sunbathing one day they discover a bedraggled, long-haired man lying semiconscious at water’s edge. Feeling obligated to do something to address his plight they return later with food, water and other supplies. His name is Faoud and yes, as they assumed he’s a refugee from the Middle East. Fortunately for him, the two women are eager to help him, and thanks to Naomi’s easy access to her father’s wealth money is no object. But unfortunately, Naomi’s largess comes with a price. For too long she’s lived a life of privilege, gotten her way with people and never dealt with the consequences of her selfish actions. When her ill-conceived plan to help Faoud ends in disaster, it has the potential to wrecks the lives of her accomplices.

About Time I Read It: Rome 1960 by David Maraniss

Years ago, early one evening I stumbled across a documentary on HBO profiling great modern sports figures. Out of all the athletes shown, today I can only remember one. At the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in a Rome a previously unknown runner from Ethiopia captured the gold medal in the marathon. Held at night because of Rome’s triple digit summer heat and following a route illuminated by lines of torch-bearing Italian army soldiers Abebe Bikila, a member of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s Imperial Guard stunned the world. “It had taken Italy a million-man army to defeat Ethiopia, but only one lone Ethiopian soldier to conquer Rome” I can still remember the documentary’s announcer saying. Not only did Bikila take home the gold, but in doing so also set a new world’s record. And he did it barefoot.

As memorable a sports achievement that is, you’d thought I’d read David Maraniss’ 2008 book  Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World the first chance I got. Instead it’s been on my radar forever, and only recently, when I found myself in the mood for a little 20th century European history did I borrow an ebook version through Overdrive. I’m pleased to report Rome 1960 is one heck of a book.

At first glance the 1960 Summer Olympics resembled every other Olympics held in the post-World War II era. The US-Soviet rivalry played itself out as each side fought to take home the most medals. There were events the US lost which we felt we should have won, prompting the usual round of soul-searching and finger-pointing. On the other hand, there were competitions the US did surprisingly well in, and America as a nation relished in the victories. According to Maraniss however, while people might not have realized it at the time, in hindsight we can now see just how significant these Olympics were not just in the history of sports but also history in general.

After a Danish bicycler dropped dead while racing and his autopsy showed the presence of performance enhancing drugs in his bloodstream sports officials from now on would routinely be on the lookout for such substances. It would also mark the first use of steroids by both male and female athletes, a practice which would become widespread among those competing from the Eastern Bloc. There was also the first product endorsement controversy when a German track and field star snubbed his patron Adidas in favor of the upstart Puma. Lastly, the victory of the above-mentioned Ethiopian Bikila would be the first of many medal winning runners from Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Games also signaled a turning point for the United States. There was increased African American participation in the 1960 Olympics even though they faced wide-spread discrimination back home. Whether they liked it or not, prominent African American Olympians like decathlete Rafer Johnson (also selected to carry the American flag during the opening ceremony), sprinter Wilma Rudolph and boxer Cassius Clay found themselves in the spotlight as not just athletes but also goodwill ambassadors representing a nation, that as the Soviets and their allies were quick to point out, oppressed them because of their skin color. While in Rome, Clay was well on his way to coming the larger than life sports figure the world would know later as the charismatic, poetry quoting, outspoken professional boxing champion Muhammad Ali.

The Games in Rome were also the first commercially televised Summer Olympics. Today the Olympics are multibillion dollar television extravaganzas employing thousands of people world-wide using state of the art technology and a network of globe-circling satellites bringing us almost unlimited coverage, much of it in real-time. But in 1960 America’s coverage began with a small crew filming a selection of the day’s events after which the film was flown by commercial jet across the Atlantic to New York. There, in New York the film was developed and hand-spliced while Jim McKay, an up and coming sportscaster banged out a script on a typewriter, supplementing it with interesting facts and trivia mined from the Encyclopedia Britannica. That night on CBS news (in those days the network had no sports division) he briefly recounted the day’s Olympic highlights.

In the years to follow more and more countries began taking Olympic competition seriously.  Some nations, especially those in the Eastern Bloc, saw the Games as an extension of foreign policy. No longer were the Olympics the sole realm of amateurs. What first began as rumors the Italians were paying their boxers to stay home and practice were followed by reports based on interviews with defectors the Soviets were generously subsidizing their Olympians. From living expenses to training to luxuries not available to their fellow citizens the state paid the bills. Little wonder then in 1992 America would recapture the gold medal in men’s basketball only by using a handpicked team of affluent NBA superstars (plus one token college standout). A barefooted champion from an impoverished nation would now have to share the Olympic limelight with millionaire sports celebrities.

Soviet Spotlight: Journey into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg

I’m guessing it was my love of both prison memoirs and Soviet history that inspired me grab a copy of Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg’s memoir Journey into the Whirlwind I found lying in the street, quite possibly while walking to the bus stop after enjoying a few pints of beer with friends at a local pub. After letting it sit on my bookshelf ignored and unread for the last five or so years last week I finally I began reading it. Like other good books from my personal library I’d been reluctant to touch I wish I’d read it sooner.

In 1934 Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg was a college instructor and newspaper editor in Kazan, Russia where both her and her husband were loyal Communists and true believers in the Soviet dream. The same year, that Soviet dream would become a nightmare for millions afterJoseph Stalin used the murder of Politburo member Sergei Kirov as an excuse to launch his infamous purges. Within a few years Ginzburg was arrested, interrogated, stripped of her Party membership, tried on trumped-up charges of belonging to a “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist group”, and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. After spending several years in solitary confinement she was shipped to the wilds of the Soviet Far East to labor in the forests of the Kolyma Valley where she would have died of malnutrition and overwork had a camp doctor not took pity on her and made her one his nurses.

Like the French Revolution preceding it, or the Iranian one that followed, the new Soviet state, now under Stalin’s despotic control began devouring the children of the revolution. At first her fellow convicts were devoted Party members like her, along with a few members of rival revolutionary groups who’d lost out to the Bolsheviks. Later, as Stalin’s paranoia intensified it drove up arrest quotas and combined with the widespread use of torture causing more and more of the accused to wrongly implicate their friends, colleagues and even family members the camps swelled with not just elite members of society like former military officers, Party leaders, and ironically, defrocked members of the dreaded secret police but also everyday working people and simple peasants. Foreigners from Italy and Germany who’d moved to Russia in hopes of building a worker’s paradise also found themselves slaving away in the Gulag along with tons of common criminals. At first, Ginzburg and true believers like her thought it had all been some sort of mistake, figuring they’d soon be released. Later, as time went by and the horror of incarceration took their toll they stopped believing in the goodness and infallibility of the Communist Party and cared only for their individual survival.

As grim as things get in Journey into the Whirlwind, it’s still a vivid, well-written and fast-paced account of one of humanity’s darkest periods. Not only does it make great follow-up reading to Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn’s epic The Gulag Archipelago Volume 2: An Experiment in Literary Investigation but also Anne Applebaum’s outstanding Gulag: A History. Journey into the Whirlwind is a great book and I definitely should have read it sooner.

Soviet Spotlight: Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith

The day at the public library I picked up Martin Cruz Smith’s Wolves Eat Dogs I also grabbed his 1989 thriller Polar Star. Published decades ago, I can still remember when  it was released to much fanfare and touted as a sequel to Cruz Smith’s mammoth best seller Gorky Park.

Instead of set in Moscow and environs like its predecessor, Polar Star takes place in the Bearing Sea mostly aboard a giant factory ship. As part of an inaugural joint venture between the USSR and the United States a small fleet of American-owned fishing boats pass their fish-laden nets up to the Polar Star to be processed, frozen, stored and later sold with the two parties sharing the profits. With the USSR deep into glasnost and perestroika expectations are running high both teams can work together for the greater good.

Deep inside the bowels of the huge factory ship is former Moscow Militia Inspector Arkady Renko, knee deep in fish guts slaving away on the production line. When one of the Soviet crew is found dead, Renko is quietly pressed into service to determine how she died, and to do so as quickly and discreetly as possible lest her untimely demise derail the fragile commercial alliance. His task is daunting one, made even more difficult by those who would rather call it a suicide and cover things up. Before long he learns just about everyone onboard the small flotilla is shady, secretive and potentially criminal. Think of it as Murder on the Orient Express meets The Deadliest Catch.

Polar Star, while an older thriller still packs a punch. (Although thanks to its age it now reads like historical fiction.) I enjoyed it even more than Cruz Smith’s more recent Wolves Eat Dogs. After enjoying Polar Star I now wanna read the entire Arkady Renko series.

1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Åsbrink

As I pointed out three years ago when I reviewed Victor Sebestyen’s 1946: The Making of the Modern World I love books about a single year in history. Some of my favorites have been 1959, 1968 and 1973. A few years ago I read 1945 in addition to not one but two books titled 1913. The latest of these kind of books to catch my eye is Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: Where Now Begins. I’m not sure exactly when and how 1947 popped up on my radar but I’ve been wanting to read it, coming close to borrowing a copy from the library on several occasions. Two nights ago I found myself on Overdrive searching for a new book to read and saw a copy of 1947 was available. After downloading a borrowable copy I effortlessly burned through it in no time. Not only did this book greatly exceed my modest expectations there’s a good chance this lively and illuminating book will end up being one of my favorites of 2020.

Prior to reading this book if someone asked me if, and why 1947 could be a thought of as a seminal year in history my less than decent answer might mention India and Pakistan achieving independence or Arab and Jew battling for control of the soon to be former British Mandate of Palestine. If I’m lucky I might remember 1947 was the year the CIA was created and President Truman proclaimed the Truman Doctrine, pledging financial and military assistance to Greece and Turkey in hopes of blocking Soviet expansion into the Mediterranean. But really, that’s it.

Little did I know according to Åsbrink 1947 was one heck of a year. In arts, letters, entertainment and fashion ground-breaking things were going on throughout the year all over the world. Christian Dior would be both worshipped and hated by millions for revolutionizing the fashion world. George Orwell, disillusioned and haunted by totalitarianism in all its forms would pen 1984. Simone de Beauvoir, while on tour in the United States would fall madly in love with American author Nelson Algren, who in addition to showing her around the vice-filled bars of working class Chicago would introduce her to Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy providing  inspiration for her feminist classic The Second Sex. After hearing amazing things about an eccentric yet highly talented jazz pianist the founder of Blue Note Records Alfred Lion and his wife would pay visit to his apartment to hear him play. After he’s done Lion would award the musician, Thelonious Monk a record deal.

In science and technology, American computer scientist Grace Hopper would achieve lasting fame for not only pulling a short-circuiting moth out of an early mainframe (giving us the term “debugging”) but more importantly pioneer the concept of a machine-independent programming language, leading to  the development of COBOL, a language still used today. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union a self-taught small-arms designer by the name of Mikhail Kalashnikov would give the world a sturdy, reliable and lethally efficient machine gun and the weapon of choice for countless armies, terrorist groups and insurgents.

As I expected, in the realm of politics Åsbrink covers the run-up to India and Pakistan’s independence. (As for its bloody outcome, she blames the British. Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, in hopes of wrapping things up on a nice, tidy deadline rushed the partition process. The man he entrusted with drawing the new borders and putting millions at risk, Sir Cyril Radcliffe was a lawyer by trade and had never set foot in India prior to his arrival.) Again, as expected the author delves into the origins of the state of Israel, including what was happening among the Palestinians. ( Former Nazi collaborator and Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammad Amin al-Husayni steadfastly refused to negotiate over the future of Palestine and urged his countrymen to do the same. Opting instead fight they’d be routed by the newly independent Israelis the following year.)

Among the other political developments discussed in 1947 the most surprising was the birth of the Malmö Movement headed by Swedish Fascist Per Engdahl to create a pan-European organization of former Nazis and their sympathizers. Anti-communist, anti-semitic and anti-democratic they sought to promote their views of a “white Europe”, replacing master race with “civilization” in hopes of making their extremist views more palatable. Those and others like them were instrumental in helping Nazi war criminal secretly escape to South America, especially Argentina.  Fast forward to today and European’s far right continues to draw inspiration from this deep well of hate.

Common among the above-mentioned books chronicling a single year in history is their authors’ tendency to argue based on the presented evidence the particular year in question has almost epic significance. My cynical side says you can make that argument for just about any year in history. However, when it comes to 1947 Elisabeth Åsbrink makes a compelling case.