The Accomplice by Joseph Kanon

Back in 2017 I reviewed Joseph Kanon’s 2015 historical thriller Leaving Berlin. While it didn’t blow me away, nevertheless I thought it wasn’t a bad piece of historical fiction, leaving me intrigued and wanting to read Kanon’s other novels like Istanbul Passage and Alibi. Feeling hopeful, I concluded “there’s a good chance you’ll see more of Kanon’s novels featured on my blog.” Sadly, three years would pass until I read anything else by Kanon. This time around it would be his most recent offering, The Accomplice published late last year. After stumbling across a copy on the New Books shelf at my public library I decided to take a chance. As luck would have it I discovered a decent page-turner and whipped through The Accomplice in no time.

Set in 1962 not long after the apprehension of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, Aaron Wiley travels to West Germany at the request of his uncle Max, a Holocaust survivor. While the two men chat at an outdoor cafe, Max spots who he swears is Dr. Otto Schramm, a camp doctor who worked with Mengele at Auschwitz and was responsible for sending Max’s family, including his young son to the gas chambers. The stress of seeing the Nazi war criminal gives Max a heart attack and after he’s rushed to the hospital he makes Aaron promise he’ll hunt down Schramm and bring him to justice.

Even though Schramm reportedly died in a car accident in Argentina, Aaron honors his ailing uncle’s request and begins his search. A talented Desk Officer for the CIA, he puts his skills and connections to work, following a trail of clues leading to him to Buenos Aires where a community of German expats now call home. Interesting enough, one of them is Schramm’s daughter, a beautiful but damaged divorcée who Aaron thinks is the key to finding the evil doctor. But is Max’s interest in her more than professional?

The Accomplice is a fast-paced entertaining novel with no shortage of plot twists. Once again, I’m left wanting to read more of Kanon’s fiction. Perhaps this time it won’t take me three years to do so.

20 Books of Summer: Empty Planet by John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker

For a relatively small country, population-wise Canada has produced some impressive writers, especially in the field of politics. Weighing in on opposite sides of the immigration debate are Bruce Bawer with While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within and Doug Saunders with The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? Back in 2011, before 4chan became a platform for QAnon’s absurd conspiracy theories Jonathan Kay explored and debunked the dark world of conspiracy theories in his book Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground. Lastly, even the ultra-conservative pundit Mark Steyn, author of a host of books including America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It is Canadian, even if he currently resides in the United States.

In that regard America’s neighbor to the North continues to punch above its weight. A few weeks ago at the public library I picked up a copy of Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline. With their 2019 book the two Canadians make a bold and compelling claim: In the near future the world’s population will not explode but precipitously decline.

After being told for years we’ve been sitting on a ticking population bomb at first it’s hard to take the two authors’ claim seriously. You ask why is global population going to decline within the next 40 to 50 years? The answer is everyday, the world is becoming more and more modern.

A key component of modernization is urbanization. The bulk of the world’s population resides or is  predicted to reside not on farms or in villages but in cities. Urban families aren’t engaged in labor intensive farm work, so families are smaller. Living in cities makes it’s harder for conservative elements like their parents and in-laws, churches and mosques to pressure them into having lots of children. It’s also easier for city-dwelling women to obtain reliable birth control and receive helpful family planning advice. Lastly, more and more cities around the world are joining the global economy, leading to an explosion of service sector “knowledge jobs” throughout the world, especially in South and East Asia. These jobs require an educated workforce, prompting more women to delay marriage in order to attend college. Once in the workforce, many women continue to delay marriage and with it motherhood since it’s seen as a career impediment. So, as the world urbanizes it starts having fewer children. Once a country dips below the birthrate of 2.1 children per couple its population begins to contract, then collapse.

According to Bricker and Ibbitson, there’s both good and bad things on the horizon. Lower population should put less pressure on the environment, resources and the global food supply. Potentially, it could also lead to lower unemployment, since there’d be less competion for jobs. With fewer global births, the population ages and the authors speculate this could lead to a “geriatric peace” since there’ll be fewer young hot-heads in positions of power.

On the other hand, without a huge pool of young workers it will be harder for countries, especially in Europe and East Asia to generate the taxes needed to pay for the retirement and medical expenses of a ballooning population of seniors. On a related note, the United States, Canada and the countries of Europe will no longer depend of young immigrants to replenish their employment rolls and help prop-up their birthrates. (This could get worse if today’s anti-immigration sentiment leaves a lasting legacy around the developed world.)

If, after reading Empty Planet you’d like to get another perspective on where the world might be going, I’d encourage you to read Ian Bremmer’s Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism. I suspect Empty Planet is one of those books that will be embraced, debated, attacked, and in the end highly influential. That alone is enough for me to recommend it.

20 Books of Summer: Dancing with the Devil in the City of God by Juliana Barbassa

When it comes to books about fascinating places, I’m a big fan of what I call insider/outsider’s perspectives. These are by former residents (almost always journalists or former journalists) who, after being away for significant periods of time, return home to write about everyday life in their place of origin . With a blend of familiarity and objectivity they serve as our personal tour guides to cities like Detroit or Mumbai, or countries such as Iran or Zimbabwe.

A few weeks ago I was in the mood for one of these books. Luckily for me, I spotted at the public library an available copy of Juliana Barbassa’s 2015 book Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink. I’m glad I read Dancing with the Devil because honestly, I didn’t know a lot about Rio or even Brazil before diving into her book. (My Latin American politics class in college covered Brazil, but that was a million years ago and I’ve pretty much forgotten everything I learned. On a more positive note, I have fond memories of the Brazilian movies City of God and Central Station. The Brazilian documentary Bus 174 is grim, but good.)

In 2010, not long after it was announced Rio would host the 2016 Summer Olympics Barbassa, a journalist and Brazilian national, after spending 20 years abroad moved back to her childhood home of Rio in order to cover the county’s run-up to the 2016 Games. Whenever a country is entrusted with hosting the Olympics, especially the Summer Games it’s a sign that country has joined the roster of elite nations. But was Rio and the rest of Brazil ready? And if it wasn’t did it have the political will and resources to address the nation’s lingering challenges like pollution, urban poverty, corruption, and drug-fueled gang violence before 2016? Besides needing a multitude of new sports arenas and Olympic-related facilities Rio’s fractured infrastructure was long overdue for a massive upgrade. (A higher percentage of Rio residents have access to cell phones than do clean water.) Oh, if that wasn’t enough, in 2014 Brazil is also hosting the World Cup.

So, with all that in mind Barbassa spent the next four years or so running around Rio interviewing countless people including hard-line police chiefs, low-level gang members, transgender prostitutes, political and social activists, and environmentalists to see if Brazil and the city of Rio is able to overcome the many deep-seated obstacles standing in the way of successfully hosting the upcoming Olympics. While doing so Barbassa explored Rio’s politics and society in depth,  addressing issues related to gender, sexuality, race and class. And perhaps above all, the nation’s obsession with soccer.

I’m happy to say I enjoyed Dancing with the Devil and came away with a deeper understanding of Rio and Brazil. If you follow my lead and end up reading this book I highly recommend you also check out the series of eight articles posted on the online news publication The Intercept dealing with Operation Car Wash, a high level Brazilian political scandal that sadly has been largely ignored by American media.

A Trio of Political Books

I enjoyed doing my post A Trio of Books About China so much I thought I’d do another one and feature three books of a similar nature. This time, instead of focusing on China I’d like to spotlight three recently published books that look at the world-wide rise in populist-fueled authoritarianism and the threat it posses to the established democratic order.

  • Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism by Ian Bremmer-  I’ve been fan of Bremmer for years. I loved his 2010 book The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and last February I reviewed his 2006 book  The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. He’s probably the only “thought leader” I follow on social media. I’ve reposted tons of his Facebook posts and retweeted more than a few of his Twitter offerings. As soon as I heard he’d written a new book I requested my public library purchase a digital copy for Kindle download. Luckily for me I was the first in line to read it. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer looks at the impacts of “globalism”: increased trade, (not just in goods and services but also knowledge and ideology) immigration, mass refugee migrations, and the rise of supranational organizations the EU but also the backlash they create leading sometimes to authoritarian regimes at home and abroad.
  • How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt – I couldn’t resist this one when I saw this one on the “New Books” shelf at my public library. Written by two Harvard professors, one an expert in European politics and the other Latin American, the authors take history and recent current events as their guides warning us of the risks facing democracy and how to protect it.
  • Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright – A good friend of mine was kind enough to loan me her AUTOGRAPHED copy, purchased the night she saw Albright speak on her recent speaking tour. This is the second book by Albright I’ve featured on my blog. Back in early 2013 I briefly reviewed her Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. Much like How Democracies Die it’s a warning that democracy is under attack in America and around the world and what to do about it.

So similar are these three books it’s probably easier to write about what they have in common as opposed to their differences. To these writers authoritarianism, or as Albright calls it fascism comes gradually and not overnight. It might begin with a tough-talking nationalist leader claiming to speak for the ignored and pure hearted, who might ban a rival political party but goes on to ban the others. The leader, calling a newspaper or a TV network a threat to the nation will force its shutdown or worse, make it a propaganda organ for the state. Judges are forced to retire and courts are packed with the leader’s hand-picked judicial replacements. A constitutions is rewritten and presidential term limits are abolished. Eventually, you wind up with a dictator for life unaccountable to no one.

There’s also the potential for things to get even worse in the future. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer predicts advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and 3D printing will lead to widespread unemployment in both the developed and developing world, causing unprecedented political and economic instability. Governments around the globe will be forced by their citizens to address crippling problems of unemployment, income disparities, public unrest and mass migrations.

Us vs. ThemHow Democracies Die and Fascism: A Warning are all good books and must reading for the civic-minded. Since they compliment each other so well I can’t encourage you enough to read all three. If, as these four writers claim democracy is under pressure, if not under attack around the world then it’s best to educate oneself. Reading these three books would be a great step in that direction.

Nonfiction November Week 4: Reads Like Fiction

Welcome to the fourth installment of Nonfiction November. Our host this week is Rennie who writes one of my favorite blogs, What’s Nonfiction. This week’s topic is Reads Like Fiction. When asked what this means, the creators of Nonfiction answered as such:

Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?

I did a lot of thinking about how I wanted to approach this topic. I first thought about doing a list of my favorite nonfiction books that best epitomized nonfiction that reads like fiction. But the more I thought I about it, the more I feared I’d just be talking about the same books as everyone else. Just like Julz at JulzReads, I too would suggest Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II and Douglas Preston’s The Monster of Florence and pretty much anything by Erik Larson. Just like Rennie at What’s Nonfiction, I’d rave about Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea and Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus.

Next I thought I would just discuss any nonfiction books I read this year that read like fiction. Then I suddenly remembered I’d already featured almost all of them in my Five Favorite Books of Summer post back in August. Therefore, to avoid being redundant, I figured it was best to focus on just one book. I chose Neal Bascomb’s Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi. It’s a page-turner from start to finish, filled with action, tension and memorable personalities.

By 1960 Nazi Germany’s most infamous war criminals were either dead, missing and presumed dead, tried and executed or serving prison sentences. But two were unaccounted for and thought to be alive: Josef Mengele, the evil doctor of Auschwitz and Adolf Eichmann, a high level SS officer and major architect of the Holocaust. One day out of the blue the Israeli Mossad caught wind of a rumor that Eichmann was alive and well and living under a false identity in Argentina. A team was sent to investigate and soon reported back the rumor was correct. Not trusting the Argentines to honor an extradition request the Israeli government instructed the Mossad to capture Eichmann so he could stand trial for his crimes.

It’s Bascomb’s description of the logistical aspects of this daring mission that impressed me the most. At the time Israel was a young nation, not even 15 years old with modest resources that led some decision makers to believe it was wiser to focus the spy agency’s attention on Israel’s Arab neighbors as opposed to hunting far-flung Nazi war criminals. The Israelis would need field agents fluent in Spanish as well as German and a network of Jewish Argentines was secretly recruited to assist in the operation. Multiple safe houses were secured in addition to several automobiles. Once it was decided to fly Eichmann out of Argentina after his apprehension arrangements were made to bring a special El Al-licensed airliner, aircrew and ground crew to Buenos Aires. (At the time there were no regularly scheduled flights between Israel and Argentina. Officially, the plane was there to ferry a group of dignitaries to Argentina in honor of  Argentina’s anniversary of independence.) Lastly, for the entire length of the mission Mossad director Isser Harel received reports and monitored it’s progress while posing as a patron in various cafes in the Argentine capital. (Imagine if the head of the CIA sat in a Starbucks with his laptop in Islamabad, Pakistan and oversaw the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s hideout.)

Not only is this book great example of nonfiction that reads like fiction, it’s a terrific book. Therefore, don’t be surprised next month when you learn Hunting Eichmann has made my Best Nonfiction List of 2018.

About Time I Read It: Strange Days Indeed by Francis Wheen

The President of the United States is an uncouth, unhinged bigot prone to late night diatribes against the media, minorities and political rivals. In the wake of his recent electoral victory, rumors are emerging members of his inner circle engaged in illegal activity against his challenger. Unbeknownst to all, he’s secretly engaged in top-level negotiations with a potentially hostile foreign nation. As result, America is a divided nation when it comes to the President. Many, like those in rural areas and especially the South see him as a straight-shooting, law and order savior who upholds time-honored values against unchecked liberalism and East Coast elitism. Others, see him as a despot and lout, and therefore a disgrace to the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, things aren’t much better as Prime Ministers come and go, scandals rear their ugly heads and the general consensus being the country’s best years are well behind it. Internationally, the proliferation of terrorist organizations has the world on edge. Headlines and newscasts are dominated by reports of bombings, assassinations, and mass killings. Try as they may, Western leaders are powerless to stop the carnage. Lastly, from Africa to Latin America brutal dictators rule with iron fists tolerating no dissent and committing countless human rights violations.

While this might well sum up the current state of the world it also describes an era from our not so distant past. Welcome to the 1970s as described by British journalist Francis Wheen in his 2010 book Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Days of Paranoia. Yet again another decent book I never knew existed until I stumbled across it at the public library.

Of course, to be realistic while similarities abound so do the differences when one compares today’s world to that of the 70s. While Nixon hated the media as much as Trump does, in Nixon’s day there was no Twitter. Therefore late at night when Tricky Dick spouted off against newspapers, Jews and everyone else he hated, he did so within the confines of the White House, ironically usually in the presence of his Jewish Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Instead of Russian computer hacking, Watergate was an old-fashioned burglary. And it was the People’s Republic of China, not Russia the President secretly reached out to, not to help win an election but enlist as a geopolitical ally against the Russian-dominated USSR. Looking back even terrorism was different in the 70s. 40 years ago it wasn’t Islamic-oriented organizations like ISIS or al-Qaeda grabbing headlines but more secular groups like the PLO or IRA, or the dozen or so now forgotten Marxist-inspired revolutionary cells active throughout Europe, Latin America and America.

Someday, if you end up reading Strange Days Indeed I’d strongly encourage you to follow it up with Rick Perlstein’s outstanding The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan as well as Bryan Burrough’s equally outstanding Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. Perhaps, after reading Strange Days plus one, or both of these recommended books it might look like history repeats itself, or to paraphrase the authors of How Democracies Dies at least possess familiar echoes. Just like the ancient author of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes you too might conclude there’s nothing new under the sun.

The Shadow of What We Were by Luis Sepúlveda

The Shadow of What We WereIf you’re been following my blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed over the last few years that I’ve been reading more fiction. You’ve also probably noticed a good chunk of that fiction has been international in flavor. Inspired by challenges like Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, Mysteries in Paradise’s Global Reading Challenge and Love Bites and Silk’s Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge I’ve read books set in a diverse collection of countries such as Albania, Afghanistan and Algeria. (In addition to other countries not starting with the letter A.) But for whatever reason, I’ve neglected Latin America. Even though the region has produced a ton of great novelists so far I’ve featured only one piece that could be considered Latin America fiction.

Alas, no more. The setting for Luis Sepúlveda’s novel The Shadow of What We Were is Santiago, Chile. His translated novel tells the story of a small group of aging revolutionaries who reunite after four decades for one last mission. Pinochet’s repressive regime has come and gone and in its place a democracy rules the land. However, due to the inexorable march of time, combined with the elite and powerful’s whitewashing of national history, younger generations of Chileans have little memory or knowledge of yesteryear’s brutality. With the gang’s familiar haunts transformed by the forces of globalization and gentrification, and their former comrades dead or living abroad, like a band of modern Rip Van Winkles they venture forth into an unfamiliar world. But of course, things don’t go 100 per cent according to plan. That’s what helps keep this story interesting.

I liked how Sepúlveda told this story using quirky characters and blending seriousness and humor, much like Algerian-Italian novelist Amara Lakhous. Seeing the contrasts between old Chile and new Chile also made for entertaining reading. Overall, I enjoyed  Sepúlveda’s novel and there’s a good chance it’s inspired me to read more Latin American fiction.