Category Archives: Turkey

1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen

1946: The Making of the Modern WorldI’m a huge sucker for books about a single year in history. Some of my favorites have been 1959, 1968 and 1973. Last year I read 1945 in addition to not one but two books titled 1913. Over the last year or so, I kept seeing a book at my public library called 1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen. However, despite my love for these single year books I never felt compelled to grab a copy. Sadly, I’m embarrassed to say I never did so because I disliked the book’s cover. Then one afternoon I came to my senses, put my petty prejudices behind me and helped myself to an available copy. I’m sure glad I did.

1946, while it might not make my year-end Best of List, could very well end up being one of my pleasant surprises of 2017. Made up of short chapters and employing a direct writing style, Sebestyen’s informative book makes for quick, but fascinating reading. Structured chronologically, it skips around the globe, largely ignoring Africa and the Americas and spending the bulk of time discussing seminal events and developments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Sebestyen’s 1946 chronicles a world in transition. With Nazi German and much of Europe in ruins, the United States and the Soviet Union have emerged as superpowers and their ensuing rivalry would eventually morph into the Cold War. On the other side of the world, Imperial Japan lies defeated, occupied and no longer able to impose its will on East Asia. In Japan’s place is a regional power vacuum with America to a degree the USSR to a slightly lesser degree rushing to fill the void. On a related note, with Japan vanquished Chinese Communists and Nationalists could now be freely fight each other for mastery of the country. Also in Asia, the sun began setting on the British Empire as India/Pakistan moved towards independence and in the Middle East armed Zionists intensified their fight for a modern State of Israel born from the ashes of the Holocaust. Lastly, Britain’s eclipse as a colonial power was part of a larger global trend in anti-colonialism that would in the coming years drive France from Indochina and Holland from Indonesia.

If you end up reading 1946 and would like follow-up books to read let me offer the following suggestions. I would start with Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945. From there I would proceed directly to Keith Lowe’s masterpiece Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II and then to Anne Applebaum’s outstanding book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956

Oh, and one last thing. Don’t me like me. Try not to judge a book by its cover.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Japan, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

About Time I Read It: The J Curve by Ian Bremmer

The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and FallBack in 2010 while TV channel surfing I happened to land on PBS in the middle of Charlie Rose interviewing a geopolitical thinker/writer named Ian Bremmer. Bremmer had just written a book called The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and the two of them discussed recent global economic developments and China’s rise as an international power. As I sat watching the interview I found myself intrigued by Bremmer’s insights and vowed to read his recently published book. Later that year I did. But sadly, as much as I valued Bremmer’s take on the state of the world I never got around to reading more of his stuff.

Fast forward to this past summer, I happened to stumble across Bremmer’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Watching his posted videos and reading his tweets rekindled my appreciation of him. (He’s also probably the only international mover and shaker with a muppet created in his own likeness.) So much so when I discovered my public library had an available copy of his book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall I snatched it up. Unfortunately, it took me a bit longer than it should had for me to make it through his book because I kept getting distracted by other books I was reading at the time. Eventually, I  made my way through it. Overall, I enjoyed it even though I did have one minor problem with it.

That problem, which believe me isn’t a fault of Bremmer’s. The J Curve was published in 2006, making it a decade old. Therefore, the whole time I was reading the J Curve I kept asking myself how relevant his book could be. After all, much has changed since 2006. We’ve seen both the Arab Spring and the coming of ISIS. Dictators like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il have all passed away. (Chavez and Castro’s deaths could lead to greater openness in their respective countries. On the other hand, it looks like Kim Jong-il’s death has led to even more oppression and insanity.) Lastly, in recent years we’ve experienced a global rise in old school nationalism with the passing of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But in spite of all this, happily, I can say yes, The J Curve is still relevant to today’s world.

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The J Curve – Stability versus Openness

Bremmer, in his book The J Curve addresses that age-old question we, especially those involved in the fields of international politics and diplomacy have been asking for years: how does an authoritarian regime liberalize without becoming so unstable it descends into chaos resulting in political fragmentation or worse, yet another authoritarian regime. According to Bremmer, it’s no easy challenge. (Throughout the book he refers to this relationship between political stability and openness as something that can be plotted on a graph, hence the term “J Curve.”)  Over the years, Western nations like the United States has preferred to isolate authoritarian regimes like Iran, Cuba and North Korea with sanctions and censure in hopes of promoting regime change. In Bremmer’s opinion such measures end up being counter productive because the more isolated and impoverished the citizens are in these countries become, the easier it is for those running these regimes to manipulate the masses and thus stay in power. In The J Curve Bremmer looks at different authoritarian countries which succesful liberalized like South Africa, imploded like Yugoslavia and Iraq, and liberalized, imploded and then returned to authoritarianism like the Soviet Union/Russia.

My only knock on this book, really in reality is an unfair one in that it’s 10 years old. But like I said earlier, for a book a book that was published a decade ago it still feels relevant. The portions discussing challenges facing Saudi Arabia, Israel, and especially China look spot on even 10 years after he wrote them. Perhaps because of it’s relevancy after reading the J Curve I’m now inspired to read more of Bremmer’s stuff. So with that in mind, don’t be surprised if you see more of his stuff like Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World and Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World reviewed on my blog.

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Biographies of Faith: Pope John XXIII by Christian Feldman

9780824526535_p0_v1_s260x420To paraphrase what I wrote last fall, one of the cool things about the European Reading Challenge is it forces you to spread things around a bit when it comes to your reading. Specifically, according to the rules of the challenge you can’t just read a bunch of books set in, or about one single country, or small group of countries. To have any chance of winning the challenge you must to read a wide array of books representing an array of European countries. Of course, for the larger countries nations like the United Kingdom, France or Russia it’s pretty easy finding the applicable books. But what do you do about the smaller countries of Europe? And what about the micro state of Vatican City? Since I’ve already read The Vatican Diaries (it’s excellent, by the way) and have no desire to read anything by Dan Brown, my options are somewhat limited. However, after thinking it over a bit I came up with a solution: read something about a Pope. Even if I restrict it to Popes from the post-Lateran Treaty era (the agreement the Vatican signed with Italy which established Vatican City as a sovereign state) there’s probably at least seven or eight Popes to choose from. No matter if the last three Popes, including the current one Francis were born outside Italy, all Popes spend their careers presiding in the Vatican.

In 2013 I featured Thomas Cahill’s short biography of Pope John XXIII entitled Pope John XXII. Since I found Cahill’s account of John XXIII’s life fascinating and definitely worth reading about, I vowed to someday read more stuff on the revered Pope, should I ever get the opportunity.  Then, over the last year during my weekend visits to the public library I kept noticing another John XXIII biography, this one by the German theologian and journalist Christian Feldman. Finally, one weekend afternoon I decided to stop ignoring it and grabbed that copy of Feldman’s Pope John XXIII: A Spiritual Biography.

Published in 2000, Feldman’s biography begins with the birth of Angelo Roncalli, the man who would become John XXII.  Born to a family of impoverished sharecroppers in rural Lombardy, the young Roncalli eventually entered seminary. After his graduation and priestly ordination he served in several administrative roles as well as seminary lecturer. With the outbreak of World War One he was conscripted into the Italian army, and served as a stretcher-bearer and chaplain where he ministered to the wounded and dying from both the Italian side and those from the enemy Austrians.

For the next 30 years Roncalli was posted to several overseas in assignments in Bulgaria, Turkey and later France. During these years he assisted refugees (including many Jews), encountered Islam and after the Second World War II ended helped reconcile former enemies. His last post before being elected Pope was Patriarch of Venice.

In the end, it was these supposed weaknesses that in the end, were his greatest strengths. His backwater postings in Turkey and Bulgaria not only enlarged his horizons politically, socially and religiously but also  led to his deeper understanding and appreciation of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Thanks to his humble roots, Roncalli’s simple, peasant-like charm could disarm even his harshest adversaries. Even though he came from rural Lombardy, his intellectual curiosity and openness to new ideas would make him the perfect Pope to convene the Second Vatican Council with the purpose of  bringing the Church into the modern age.

I would probably consider this slim book a modest biography of the beloved Pope, but an informative one. Should you decide to read it, I would encourage you to read it alongside Cahill’s above-mentioned biography. A combination of both books should give readers a decent picture of one of modern history’s most interesting and perhaps revered Pope.

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About Time I Read It: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

9780609809648_p0_v1_s260x420If you’re like me, there’s nothing like finally reading a book that for years you’ve been wanting to read. And if you’re like me, the only thing better than that is when you finally do read it, it’s even better than you had hoped. That, my friends is how I felt when I finally got around to reading Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

I’ve been wanting to read Weatherford’s book for over decade, ever since it was published back in 2004. Sadly, I never got around to doing so, even after I received a copy as a Christmas present several years ago. Even with this prized book in my possession I’m embarrassed to say it just sat on my desk gathering dust. But with 2015 shaping up to be the year I tackle the many ignored and unread books of my personal library perhaps it’s no surprise I finally picked up Weatherford’s book and read it.

As the book’s title hints, this isn’t just the story of Genghis Khan. Yes, his incredible rise from impoverished Mongol horseman to emperor of Eurasia is all here. But Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is much more than that. If any leader could be called an enlightened despot than Weatherford’s Genghis Khan would be him. Under his rule religious toleration abounded, ethnic communities and local customs were respected and international trade flourished. His empire was also the first to promote such modern concepts like universal literacy, paper money and diplomatic immunity for ambassadors and envoys. With an empire stretching two continents and served by a meritocracy-based civil service, state-run postal service and rule of law (not to mention an aversion to torture as a tool for justice and means of state control) Genghis Khan’s kingdom was not only impressive but by today’s standards much a head of its time.

Some have criticized Weatherford for painting too rosy of picture of Genghis and his empire. Others have questioned his book’s historical accuracy. Frankly, I don’t care. It’s well-written and fun to read. Much like Thomas Cahill did with his books How the Irish Saved Civilization and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea:Why the Greeks Matter Weatherford has the ability to make  history enjoyable and fascinating. Therefore, I highly recommend Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

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Turkish Delights: The Sultan’s Seal by Jenny White

A few years ago I mentioned on my blog that I’ve had a long time interest in the Ottoman Empire and its modern successor the Republic of Turkey. I’m not exactly sure when and how I developed this fascination, but it might have something to do with a book I found in the public library almost two decades ago. Besides serving up a very readable and straight-up history of the Ottoman Empire, I remember few additional details except it was published back in the 80s or even 70s by a British author. Sadly, both the title of book and its author I’ve long since forgotten. But my interest in Turkey remains, and as a result I’m always on the lookout for good books about Turkey and the Ottoman Empire.

A few weeks ago I was back at the public library combing the shelves for who knows what when I came across a copy of Jenny White’s 2006 novel The Sultan’s Seal. Even though I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, its beautiful cover art sucked me in. So as you could probably guess, I grabbed it.

Set in the late nineteenth century, The Sultan’s Seal begins with the discovery of the naked body of a young Englishwoman. Upon inspection, a special pendant is found around her neck linking her to the deposed sultan. Soon magistrate Kemil Pasha is called upon to solve her murder and before long he begins to find similarities between it and an earlier murder that was never solved. As his investigation progresses, he begins to suspect both murders are part of a larger conspiracy, a conspiracy involving those at the highest levels of government. Will justice ultimately be served or will powerful forces much greater than Kemil squash his investigation?

At first I loved The Sultan’s Seal. I was immediately sucked in by the novel’s premise and quickly grew to like its protagonist Kemil Pasha. Set during a period of history when the Ottoman Empire was painfully coming to grips with both its fading power and the pressures and challenges of the modern age I couldn’t have asked for more from a novel about Turkey. Unfortunately however, Jenny’s White’s debut novel feels a bit, well, like a debut novel. Things sometimes felt a bit rushed and I thought there were a few loose ends that were not wrapped up. It also ends abruptly, or at least too abruptly for my tastes anyway. Fortunately, her knowledge of Turkish history and culture felt impressive and it shows throughout her novel.

But I’m willing to give her another chance. She has two additional novels in this series and I’m willing to read both The Abyssinian Proof and The Winter Thief. If I’ve learned anything over the last half decade of blogging about books it’s that writers can improve with time and experience. (Case in point, I’ve enjoyed Alan Furst’s later novels more than his earlier ones. And he’s quickly become one of my favorite novelists.) So with that in mind, don’t be surprised if you see more novels by Jenny White featured on this blog.

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Immigrant Stories Challenge: In the Sea There are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

From time to time we hear of memoirs and other nonfiction books that were supposedly true, but after closer scrutiny turned out to be mere fabrications. While those literary incidents occasionally make headlines, we seldom hear about works of fiction that are closely based on real events. Recently, I discovered one of these relatively rare books during one of my library visits when I stumbled across a copy of Fabio Geda’s In the Sea There are Crocodiles. Geda’s slim but satisfying book is a novelized account of young Enaiatollah Akbar’s five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy.

The story begins in pre-9/11 Afghanistan when Akbar and his mother are forced to flee their impoverished village by the ruling Taliban. Members of the persecuted Hazara ethnic group, Akbar’s mother eventually realizes that life under the murderous Taliban is no longer an option and the two of them flee to Pakistan. After his mother leaves him, he risks his life traveling across Southwest Asia and the Balkans until finding sanctuary in Italy. Along the way he encounters human traffickers, desperate migrants, corrupt officials and more hardship and death than any boy should ever experience.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt that Geda’s book embodies a number of paradoxes. Billed as a novel, it’s based on the true life account of Akbar’s harrowing journey across five countries and two continents. (Interspersed throughout In the Sea There are Crocodiles are fragments of interviews between Akbar and Geda.) Told in the third person, nevertheless the world is seen through the eyes of the novel’s tween protagonist. While some have labeled the novel a piece of young adult literature, I found it more than suitable for a grown up audience. Lastly, in spite of the misery, injustice and horror Akbar suffered on his long journey, he never seems to lose his youthful optimism and trust in humanity. It is for primarily for these reasons that I have no problem recommending this surprisingly good book.

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Pan-European Lives: Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst

Spies of the BalkansI’ve never considered myself a “series” reader. You know, the kind of person who likes to read novels by a particular author that are part of an extend series of books. Frequently, these books share common characters, locations and/or historical settings. While many readers love this kind of thing, traditionally, it’s never been my cup of tea. That is, until now.

Enter Alan Furst. A few months ago during one of my weekend library visits I stumbled on a copy of his 2014 novel Midnight in Europe. After enjoying the heck out of it, I was happy to discover it’s actually the latest book in his Night Soldiers series. According to Wikipedia, there’s 13 books in the series, all set in Europe during World War Two or the interwar period of the 1930s. Armed with this knowledge I later returned to the public library and grabbed The Spies of Warsaw. After finishing that one I went back to the library looking for more. After rummaging through what was available on the shelf I settled on his Spies of the Balkans, probably because that part of the world has always fascinated me.

Just like I did with Midnight in Europe and The Spies of Europe I whipped through Spies of the Balkans quickly, enjoying it as I went along. Although I’ve read only three of the Night Soldiers novels. already I’m starting to pick out a number of similarities.

  • War on the horizon: With Midnight in Europe and The Spies of the Warsaw set in the late 30s, WWII is only a few years away. Spies of the Balkans begins in 1940 with the repulsed Italian invasion of Greece. Even though Greece is safe for the moment, everyone knows the Germans are on their way.
  • A single, mature (but not terribly older) male protagonist: Old enough to be in a position of responsibility but not too old to be a daring man of action when needed. Being single allows him a  romantic adventure. (However, unlike the vintage James Bond character, he doesn’t use women and toss them aside. He’s refreshingly honorable and romantic.)
  • A wide spectrum of supporting characters from across Europe.
  • One Continental city serves as home base, but the action takes place throughout Europe: In Midnight in Europe it was Paris. In The Spies of Warsaw it was Warsaw. With Spies of the Balkans it’s Salonica, Greece. And just like the two previously mentioned novels, all of Europe serves host to Furst’s adventures.
  • Lastly, no matter where the novel is set, there’s always a side trip to Paris.

Like I mentioned at the start, I enjoyed Spies of the Balkans. Of the three Furst novels I’ve read so far, Midnight in Europe is still my favorite. I’d probably rank this one neck and neck with The Spies of Warsaw.

With another one of Alan Furst’s novels under by belt, what’s up next? Will it be Mission to Paris? Or how about Red Gold or Kingdom of Shadows? I guess you’ll have to stick around to find out.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, Turkey