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.
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
Once again, it’s taken me way too long to write about an outstanding book. This time it’s Gal Beckerman’s 2010 masterpiece When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. I’ve been wanting to read it for years, ever since I saw it for sale at the Portland State University bookstore across from my old workplace. Two years ago today day I decided to splurge and buy a Kindle version of it only to ignore it for a few years until I included it as one of my 20 Books of Summer. Sadly, while I managed to read only three out of the 20, When They Come for Us was one of them. (The other two were Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe and Neal Bascomb’s Hunting Eichmann.)
When They Come for Us, just as its subtitle says, is in fact an epic story. It begins over a half-century ago in 1963 when a group of Soviet Jews began meeting in a secluded forest just outside Riga in the former Soviet Republic of Latvia. Their original plan was to honor the thousands of Latvian Jews who’d been murdered there during World War II by cleaning up the area and consecrating it as a holy memorial. Before long, other Jews joined them and together on a regular basis they studied Hebrew as well Jewish religious practices and beliefs. Eventually Jews around the USSR met quietly and covertly to do the same, sharing samizdat literature and even bootleg copies of the Leon Uris novel Exodus.
Later, as the 60s passed into the 70s, the Soviet Union’s Communist leadership took an antagonistic and strangely contradictory view of the nation’s Jews. Officially, all Soviet citizens were equal under the law, regardless of ethnic identity. Moreover, according to Communist doctrine, all religious affiliations were meaningless anyway, since they had no place in a classless Marxist society like the USSR. But in reality, things were much different. After Israeli won a surprising and resounding victory over its Arab enemies in 1967’s Six Day War, Soviet leaders ended up with egg on their faces since they’d backed Egypt and Syria and bragged to the world the Arabs would crush the small Jewish state should war ever break out. Embarrassed by their allies’ defeat, Kremlin leaders cast a paranoid eye towards the USSR’s Jews, seeing them as a potential fifth column. Soviet Jews also found themselves increasingly discriminated, whether it banned certain professions, locked out of prestigious universities or denied work promotions. Whenever Soviet Jews wished to leave it all behind and immigrate to Israel or America, their requests for exit visas were denied. No sane person would want to leave a perfect society like the USSR Jews were told. Other Jews who worked in highly technical fields like science or engineering were refused exit and told their knowledge and expertise was classified information and must not fall into the hands of the capitalist West.
When They Come for Us is not just a book about the Jews of the former Soviet Union. It’s also a book about America’s Jews, and how a small movement over the years grew into a large and multifaceted one, successfully enlisting the nation’s leaders in pressuring the USSR into allowing Jews to immigrate to Israel and the US. It’s also a detailed look at the foreign policy inner workings of every presidential administration from Kennedy to Reagan. Lastly, When They Come for Us shows over a 30 year period the inexorable decline and eventual collapse of the USSR.
When They Come for Us is outstanding and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. Please consider it highly recommended.
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. Them, How 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.
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
Some of you might remember from an earlier post that appeared last September in which I spotlighted a half-dozen books borrowed from my public library. On of those books happened to be Aharon Appelfeld’s 2017 novel The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping. In that post, I claimed I’d never read anything by Appelfeld. Later, after I remembered I’d read one of Appelfeld’s earlier novels specifically his Badenheim 1939. But alas, as much as I wanted to read it The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping, I had return it a few weeks later ignored and unread. But after reading awhile back in the New York Times Appelfeld passed away I once again borrowed a copy from my public library. Unlike last time, this time I managed to read it.
The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping is an odd kind of novel. World War II has come to an end and Erwin, a young Holocaust survivor from Eastern Europe has been brought to a displaced persons camp in Naples. He remembers little of his journey across Europe since he’s been asleep the whole time, carried along by his fellow survivors. Eventually, he makes his way to British-ruled Palestine where after statehood he’s absorbed into the Israeli army. During a military operation he’s gravely wounded in his legs which earns him a long recovery period and a series of medical procedures designed to get him walking once again. While convalescing Erwin begins flexing his young literary muscles by deepening his understanding of Hebrew, his new language in hopes of becoming the writer his father always dreamed to be.
If I place Badenheim 1939 side by side with Appelfeld’s final novel The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping they form a pair of bookends encapsulating modern Judaism. Badenheim 1939 depicts the beginnings of the Holocaust, which would lead to the destruction of much of European Jewish Civilization. In The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping Jewish civilization is painfully reborn, not in Europe but in Israel. If that’s the case then perhaps it’s only appropriate The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping was Appelfeld’s last novel.
For years I’ve a had soft spot for Reza Aslan, ever since I read his 2005 book No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Five years ago I read another of his books Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and while I didn’t enjoy it much as No God but God nevertheless I found it satisfying and thought-provoking. Not counting his recently published God: A Human History there was one more of his books out there I’d yet to read. His 2009 book How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror had eluded me for close to a decade. That is until I spotted a copy on the shelf at the library and decided to give it a try.
Aslan’s argues in How to Win a Cosmic War (when released in paperback the next year it was retitled Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization) that Jihadist groups, when attacking Western targets and other perceived enemies are not fighting a holy war but instead a cosmic war, one that’s like “a ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens.” With no distinctions between sacred and profane or secular and spiritual the goals aren’t material like the conquest of territory or control of scarce resources. One could think of it as an earthy reflection of a greater metaphysical struggle, and with no middle ground or neutral parties making it Manichean in nature. (Which also makes negotiation impossible.) Like a verse lifted from the Lord’s Prayer, these holy warriors are killing and dying for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
How then should Western nations like America successfully respond to groups like these? According to Aslan, it’s not by using terms like “crusade” or religiously charged rhetoric since this just validates their cosmic world view. The best solution Aslan recommends is to encourage democratic reforms in Islamic world. “Throughout the Middle East, whenever moderate Islamist parties have been allowed to participate in the political process, popular support for more extremist groups has diminished.”
Understandably, since How to Win a Cosmic War was published almost a decade ago it doesn’t feel fresh. But that’s OK. Aslan writes well and makes many a compelling point. If nothing else, his book, no matter when it was published provides greater depth and commentary to the ongoing conflict between armed Islamic groups and the West.
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.
If you’re a longtime reader of my blog you probably know I enjoy books about the Middle East, especially Israel and Iran. In past posts I’ve elaborated on my fascination with these two countries, wondering if it’s because they’re outliers when compared to their neighbors in the region. (Israel, a Western-oriented democracy is the world’s only majority Jewish country. Iran, while overwhelming Muslim, is nevertheless roughly 80 percent Shia, a minority religion when compared to the rest of the Muslim world. In addition, it’s the only Persian majority country in the Middle East.) But if I had to choose a runner-up as far as my interests go when it comes to the countries of the Middle East it would have to be Saudi Arabia. Maybe because it’s home to not only massive oil deposits but also Islam’s holiest places. Or maybe because for decades it’s enjoyed a close relationship, politically and economically with the United States despite its puritanical interpretation of Islam, animosity towards America’s ally Israel, and over the last 20 years the birthplace of radical Islam’s most dangerous individuals, from Osama bin Laden to 15 of the 19 9-11 hijackers. All I know is it’s hard for me to resist a good book on Saudi Arabia when one comes my way.
I’ve known of Robert Lacey’s 2009 book Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia for several years but oddly enough I never made any effort to read it. Then recently my curiosity got the better of me so I borrowed an e-book version courtesy of my public library. Not only am I happy to report I wasn’t disappointed, so pleasantly surprised I was with Lacey’s book there’s a good chance it might wind up on my year-end Best Nonfiction List.
After reading Inside the Kingdom it’s impossible to walk away from this book without gaining a deeper understanding of Saudi Arabia. As hoped, Lacey hits all the pivotal historical events in Saudi history, like the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca (Yaroslav Trofimov’s 2007 book The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine is a must read if you wanna learn more), Gulf Wars I and II, America and Pakistan’s enlistment of Saudi Arabia in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the rise of bin Laden and al-Qaeda, 9-11, and lastly all various palace coups and power struggles within the country’s massive royal family. (Keep in mind Lacey’s book was published in 2009 so it won’t cover the more recent happenings. For that I’d strongly encourage you to read Time magazine’s interview with current Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as well as Karl Vick’s companion piece.) Impressive as this is, what impressed me more was Lacey’s inclusion of developments previously unknown to me, especially the Saudi’s secret acquisition of Chinese nuclear warhead capable medium-range missiles, a bold move that alarmed American and Israeli officials alike.
Inside the Kingdom is great. Let’s just say if I had to recommend just one book to someone wanting to understand Saudi Arabia this is the one.