Category Archives: Latin America/Caribbean

2018 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.

As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.

As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Israel, Japan, Judaica, Latin America/Caribbean, Memoir, Science, Turkey

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff

I’ve never read any Joseph Conrad, but like a lot of people I was unknowingly introduced to his writing thanks to the wonders of Hollywood. I was exposed to Heart of Darkness courtesy of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory Vietnam War epic. The sci-fi-fi movies Alien and Aliens served as preludes of sort to Conrad’s novel Nostromo, since the first film featured a spaceship of the same name while its sequel Aliens, stared a group of space marines from the U.S.S. Sulaco, named for the fictional Latin American town in the Conrad novel. But these cinematic borrowings never inspired me to read any Conrad, despite for years having a copy of Heart of Darkness a good friend gave me for my birthday.

About a year ago I came across several favorable reviews of a new biography of Conrad, namely The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff. The reviews mentioned he’d found literary success only later in life after he’d effectively retired as a merchant seaman. During those impressionable years at sea he not only visited countless exotic locales around the globe but did so during an era when the world experienced its first wave of globalization as foreign peoples were colonized, markets expanded and international trade exploded. Duly intrigued by what I’d read, I vowed to borrow a copy of The Dawn Watch from my public library. Who knows, maybe if I read it, I’d finally get off my butt and read some Conrad.

Last week my library obtained an e-book version of The Dawn Watch which I quickly borrowed. I have to say it’s quite good. And yes, it’s probably inspired me to finally read some Joseph Conrad.

The writer we know today as Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in what’s now Ukraine. His parents were minor Polish nobility and ardent Polish nationalists opposed to Russian subjugation of their homeland. As a young boy he was homeschooled in French, English as well as Polish romantic poetry. After losing both his parents to tuberculosis he was sent to live with his Francophile uncle. By the time Józef became conversant in French he’d also developed a yearning to sail the ocean. At the tender age of 16 at his uncle’s behalf he moved to Marseilles to sail on a French vessel. After a few years of sailing under a French flag he feared he’d be deported to Russia to serve in the Tsar’s army. To escape military conscription he signed on with British ship. In all he’d spend over two decades as a merchant seaman visiting every continent save Antarctica.

According to Jasanoff it was these travels that provided Conrad with the material for his books. Working on a steamship in SE Asia served as the inspiration for Lord Jim. The horrors he witnessed while chugging up the Congo in Belgian-held central Africa provided him the template for Heart of Darkness. A story about a stolen shipment of silver he heard during a brief foray into the Gulf of Mexico would eventually form the nucleus for Nostromo. Lastly, his experiences living in London living among the city’s huge Polish expat community would greatly shape The Secret Agent.

I walked away from The Dawn Watch feeling Conrad’s life was bookended by transition. When he began his maritime career, sail was gradually being phased out in favor of steam. The British led the world in this arena thanks to their then state of the art coal-powered steamships and extensive network of coaling stations spread throughout their empire. Later in his life, as an English-language writer living in his adopted country of England, he witnessed the rise of the United States as a world power, made evident by its continental expansion, acquisition of foreign territories like Guam and the Philippines, increasing economic might and blistering industrialization. Meanwhile, closer to home fear abounded that Great Britain was slipping into decline. As America’s stature rose, British assertiveness in Western Hemisphere became a thing of the past. A surprisingly costly Boer War and a rapidly growing German navy challenged the once universal belief the British Empire was invincible.

The Dawn Watch is a great book. It reads with ease and is well-researched. Don’t be surprised if it make my year-end list for Best Nonfiction.

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Filed under Africa, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Latin America/Caribbean

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.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Economics, Europe, History, Latin America, Latin America/Caribbean, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

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.

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Filed under Africa, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Iran, Israel, Latin America, Latin America/Caribbean, Middle East/North Africa

Immigrant Stories: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

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

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

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

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

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About Time I Read It: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

I’ve been thinking about reading Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon off and on for well over half a decade. For years whenever I saw a copy of it at the library I’d always waltz right by it without even giving the book a second look. Even after seeing Grann interviewed on The Charlie Rose Show about his then recently published collection of New Yorker pieces The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession I still didn’t run out and read Grann’s bestseller The Lost City of Z. I guess when you wanna read so many books you just can’t get to everything,  Then one day, I finally grabbed a copy from the library and read it. Luckily for me I thought it was pretty darn good.

To me, The Lost City of Z seemed like two books woven into one. One book told the story of Percy Stewart, one of those intrepid yet slightly crazed Brits who loved traveling to exotic and inhospitable places. After years journeying around the globe in search of adventure and scientific discovery Stewart turned his sights to the Amazon, where legend had it an ancient city once stood. Convinced he could locate the ruins of this great settlement, Stewart and his son entered the dense Amazonian rainforest and were never seen again.

The other book chronicles city-slicker, New York resident Grann’s mission to discover what exactly happened to Stewart. Realizing he can’t solve the mystery of Stewart’s disappearance from the cozy confines of the Big Apple, Grann travels to the Brazilian hinterland. Provisioned and equipped with the all the modern world can supply, Grann nevertheless feels like he’s risking life and limb. Will he find out what really happened to Stewart, or will he end up like so many others before him who went searching for Stewart only to succumb to disease, killed by natives or emerge from the jungle physically and psychologically broken.

I’m glad I read 1491 and 1493 before I read The Lost City of Z because both books provide excellent background material to Grann’s book. Fortunately for me, last year or so I was given a copy of Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey which looks like a terrific follow-up to The Lost City of Z. Therefore, don’t be surprised in the near or not so near future if you see The River of Doubt featured on this blog.

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Old Books Reading Project: Love in the Time of Cholera

When one of my book clubs chose to read the modern classic Love in the Time of Cholera I was pleased as punch. For well over a decade, a copy has sat ignored in my personal library taunting me to read it. Now that my book club would be reading García Márquez’s grand work of fiction no longer would this book of mine remain unread. A few nights after meeting with my book club I grabbed it from the shelf began reading it.

So, after such a long wait how did I enjoy Love in the Time of Cholera? And how did it fare with my book club? While some members liked it more than others, I think overall the general consensus was pretty much in line with my opinion of the novel. We liked it, but we enjoyed the second half of the novel more than the first part. But few, if any of my fellow readers were left disappointed.

Love in the Time of Cholera, as its title would lead us to believe is a novel of love. It’s about youthful love and all its innocence and idealism as we see young lovers Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza defy rigid societal expectations in hopes of being together. It’s also about marriage and everything good, bad and otherwise that comes with it. It’s also about careless and carefree lovemaking as well as its consequences. It’s also a novel of how love is understood by older adults, when love matures and acceptance is the norm.

Whatever shortcomings this novel might possibly possess, it has some great things going for it. For one, García Márquez’s vocabulary is rich as hell and kudos to his translator for expertly putting those wonderful words into English. Secondly, while love at times can be sad, sometimes unbearably sad, like anything in life there are humorous moments and Love in the Time of Cholera has its share. (My favorite was the time Florentino and one his lovers spend a session so absorbed in their lovemaking they neglect to notice the house around them being burglarized. Their passion spent and relishing the afterglow, they look up to see an empty bedroom with a note declaring “this is what you get for fucking around.”) Lastly, thanks to García Márquez’s skillful writing I felt transported to an unnamed Colombian town somewhere on the nation’s Caribbean coast as events unfolded and characters developed over half a century spanning the 1880s to 1930s.

García Márquez was a prolific writer and authored a number of works, fiction and nonfiction before his death in 2014. I think before it’s all said and done, I’d like to read more of his stuff. Naturally, should I do so, you’ll read all about it on my blog.

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