Books About Books: Syria’s Secret Library by Mike Thomson

Lemme see, a book about a secret library in the middle of war-torn Syria. How on earth could I resist ? So of course I helped myself to a copy of Mike Thomson’s Syria’s Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege when I spotted it on the “New Books” shelf at my public library. Seriously, who could blame me?

Like many towns in Syria, Daraya, located just outside the capital Damascus found itself on the front lines of a bloody civil war. On one side were the forces of  Syria’s dictatorial President Bashar al-Assad and the regime’s Iranian, Lebanese (Hezbollah) and Russian allies. Pitted against them was a cacophony of rebel groups with affiliations ranging from ISIS to the West. Besieged by Assad’s forces and suffering under a constant rain of bombs, artillery shells and rockets the city lay in ruins. Despite being isolated and cut-off not just from the rest of Syria but the world, rumors circulated of a secret library safe beneath the city. Here residents could escape the horrible carnage around them and seek comfort within the pages of a good book, if only for a few fleeting hours. When BBC reporter Mike Thomson heard these rumors, he traveled to Syria to investigate. His 2019 book Syria’s Secret Library is the result of his investigation.

Much like we saw in The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu Syria’s Secret Library is the story of ordinary people, when confronted with horrible circumstances doing extra ordinary things. Refusing to see the city’s books go up in flames or whither away from the elements young men from the area risked their lives rescuing books from bombed out buildings, frequently while dodging snipers’ bullets. Eventually, each book was labeled, inventoried and carefully stored on a shelf in a makeshift library hidden in the basement of one of Daraya’s war-ravaged structures. Here students resumed their studies, intellectual discussions flourished and the ambitious and hopeful researched ways to improve their lives and rebuild their country should the fighting ever come to an end.

Since I don’t like revealing spoilers, all I’ll say is this story, no matter how inspiring has a bittersweet ending. I hate to admit it, but I’m not sure why I didn’t enjoy Syria’s Secret Library as much as I expected to. But that’s OK since it’s a one heck of a story.

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: War on Peace by Ronan Farrow

When chosing a book to read I usually take backcover praise with a grain of salt. But when Ian Bremmer says it’s a “must-read” I take notice. That’s all it took for me to grab a copy of Ronan Farrow 2018 insider’s look at the State Department War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence when I spotted a copy at the public library.

Over the course of his career, Farrow has worn at least two hats, one as a State Department Iawyer and the other as an investigative journalist. Thanks to the author’s diverse background War on Peace could be seen as two books in one. As a former State Department official Farrow recalls the time he spent at the agency, much of it working for veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke. (Through Farrow’s eyes anyway, the late Holbrooke comes off as an overly driven figure so eccentric I suspect he resided somewhere on the Autism spectrum.) Utilizing his talents as an investigative journalist allowed Farrow to serve up a no-holds barred look at the messy world of international diplomacy. To pull off this feat he interviewed every living former State Department head. Farrow must have some serious street cred becuase he’s able to sit down with Kissinger, Albright, Clinton, Kerry and Tillerson.

Overall, War on Peace is pretty good. I especially enjoyed what Farrow had to say about Afghanistan, Pakistan and those countries’ role in the “War on Terror.” (Regarding Pakistan’s level of dedication in fighting al-Queda and the Taliban, let’s just say it’s no coincidence Osama bin Laden lived comfortably for years in a fortified compound a stone’s throw away from the nation’s top military academy.) The behind the scenes look at the Iranian nuclear deal was another favorite of mine. Lastly, while it angered and depressed me, Farrow’s depiction of the State Department being gutted by the Trump administration made for excellent reading.

20 Books of Summer: Laughing Without an Accent by Firoozeh Dumas

Leave it to me to lead off the 20 Books of Summer with an alternate. Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad ranked dead last on my list, weighing it at 24 out of 20. But by God, I was going to read it no matter what. I have a fondness for her writing, (and for that matter, Iranian writers in general) dating back five years ago when I discovered her 2004 memoir Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America.  Knowing she’d written at least one follow-up piece I figured someday I’d read more of her stuff but never made any effort. Then one day I noticed my local public library had a copy of her 2008 offering Laughing Without an Accent.  A few weekends ago I finally made good on my vow and borrowed it. While Funny in Farsi might be a better book, surprisingly Laughing Without an Accent might be funnier and thus more entertaining.

It’s a collection of vignettes, all of them humorous to one degree or another.  Dumas serves up a lifetime of annectdotes including her early childhood in pre-Revolutionary Iran, (I liked how she contrasted life, from a child’s persepctive, in rural bordertown Abadan versus cosmopolitan Tehran) her upbringing in Southern California during the 70s and early 80s, college years at UC Berley, mother trying to raise her two young children as well as daughter to a pair of aging immigrant parents, and wife of a techie in boom and bust Silicon Valley.

My favorite chapters are those in which she recalls how her world changed after Funny in Farsi became a bestsellerEven the ruling theocrats of Iran permitted her memoir to be translated and published, but without the part in which her father declares the traditional Islamic prohibition on eating pork should no longer apply, thanks to modern advances in food safety and sanitation. I chuckled as she recalled her adventures as the 7 AM guest speaker for a group of New-Agey entrepreneurs. (Her parents, tagging along for moral support and blissfully unaware of the group’s intentions, thought those in attendance were sweet and wonderfully polite, and hearilty enjoyed the provided buffet breakfast.) Dumas also includes the text of one the graduation speeches she’s been asked to give. (Frequently because Kite Runner novelist Khaled Hosseini wasn’t available.) Speaking to the assembled graduates, she dispensed her wisdom and much to my joy, encouraged them to read books.

Laughing Without an Accent left me with a desire to read more memoirs. And with a nearby public library chock full of them, chances are you’ll see more of these featured on my blog.

About Time I Read It: Pirates of Barbary by Adrian Tinniswood

I’ve been saying for years a good book will make you read more. Speaking for myself anyway, that usually means after finishing an enjoyable book I’d like to follow it up with something similar. Maybe it’s another book by the same author or a piece of related subject matter. To me there’s nothing like a good follow-up read.

That’s why I borrowed Adrian Tinniswood’s Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean when I found a copy at my public library. Think of Pirates of Barbary as a follow-up read to not just one but two books, both of which I read over ten years ago. The first, Giles Milton’s 2005 White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam’s One Million White Slaves and the second, Linda Colley’s 2003 Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850. Milton and Colley showed me throughout the 17th and 18th centurues multitudes of Europeans, especially British were captured and enslaved by North Africans. This was new informaton to me and made for interesting reading. So, when I discovered my library possessed a copy of Pirates of Barbary I found it hard to resist.

We tend to associate pirates with the Caribbean. (I blame Disney.) But for over 100 years North African-based pirates were the scourge of the Mediterranean, raiding European shipping and pillaging coastal villages as far North as Iceland. Those unluckly enough to be captured were taken back the Barbary and either sold into slavery or ransomed for a hefty price. Some with maritime experience were forced to serve on pirate ships, thus perpetuating the cycle of capture and enslavement. According to Tinniswood, countless British, French and Italian captives after sold in the slave markets of Tunisia, Morrocco and Libya vanished into the Barbary never to be sceen by or heard from their families again.

I was surprised to learn some of the most ruthless and feared pirate captains were actually Europeans. Either after captured or going rogue and piloting their vessells to North Africa some European captains defected, with a surprising number converting to Islam and adopting Arabic names.

For over a century the Barbary Cosairs pilaged with impunity the high seas and coastal communites of the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. Beset by political rivalries and inter-European warfare, it took decades for the kingdoms of Europe to coordinate a untied front against their common enemy. England suffered horribly from pirate attacks, but beset by civil war and politcal instability could do nothing. Only after Restoration Period and the nation grew stronger could England begin putting an end to the pirates’ reign of terror.

Pirates of Barbary is a decent book. Thanks to Tinniswood’s good writing and excellent research I learned a lot and was entertained along the way. It’s hard to ask for anything more.

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.

Soviet Spotlight: When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone by Gal Beckerman

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.