Nonfiction November Week 4: Worldview Changers

After taking last week off, I’m back with another post for Nonfiction November. This week our host is Rebekah of the blog She Seeks Nonfiction. Even though she’s been blogging since 2016 I discovered her blog only about a year ago. Since then I’ve been a huge fan, in no small part because I see her as a kindred spirit. Rebekah was raised in the “conservative Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod” even though she “never really believed in God”, and I’m an ex-evangelical Christian. If the books featured on Rebekah’s outstanding blog are any indication she’s a progressive individual who strongly embraces science, reason and intellectual honesty. With that in mind she’s the perfect book blogger to host our latest installment of Nonfiction November.

One of the greatest things about reading nonfiction is learning all kinds of things about our world which you never would have known without it. There’s the intriguing, the beautiful, the appalling, and the profound. What nonfiction book (or books) has impacted the way you see the world in a powerful way? Do you think there is one book that everyone needs to read for a better understanding of the world we live in?

When first introduced to this week’s topic I was excited to participate even though wasn’t sure where to begin. I thought about limiting the scope solely to books critical of Christianity, the Bible or religion in general. I also considered discussing just various political books that have impacted me over the years. Or significant history books that did the same. But in the end I decided to throw caution to the wind and feature as many books as possible that significantly shaped my view of the world. They did this by overthrowing my previous beliefs or assumptions, or in some way or another making me look at things with a different perspective. If this project wasn’t ambitious (or foolhardy) enough, I’d also like to approach things somewhat chronologically, starting with books that impacted me as a young man. (But I’ll still mix things up here and there.)

The Early Years

Christianity and the Bible: A New and Critical Look 

History: A Deeper Understanding 

Anti-Colonialism: At Home and Abroad 

Developing a Post-Religious Worldview

The Middle East: A Deeper Understanding

East vs West and Nations Rich and Poor: Competing Explanations 

Corruptions of Power

Animals: Smarter Than You Think

That’s all for now. Enjoy Nonfiction November!

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings

Last week Katie from the blog Doing Dewey kicked off Nonfiction November. This week Rennie at What’s Nonfiction has agreed to host. She invites participants to share their favorite book pairings, and takes a pretty inclusive approach. It could be a pairing of nonfiction books with fiction, podcasts, documentaries, movies or even additional works of nonfiction.

In past years I’ve been straight-forward, just pairing up nonfiction books with works of fiction. However, last year I did something new and featured Michael David Lukas’s 2018 novel The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, pairing it with a half-dozen books about the ancient Cairo Geniza and Egypt’s Jewish community. This year I thought I’d return to my old ways. I’ll be looking back at what I read in 2022, both nonfiction and fiction and select 15 books. For every work of nonfiction I’ll suggest a piece of fiction and visa versa.

Considering my reading tastes it’s no surprise I’ve included lots of history and international politics kind of stuff. For the first time doing these pairings I’ve featured books by two siblings (Masha and Keith Gessen), a pair of books by the same author (Andrey Kurkov) and two works of nonfiction by the same author (Adam Hochschild). In other firsts, close to half were translated into English from another language, with three quarters of these books written by either immigrants, expats, refugees or children of immigrants. I hope you enjoyed my post and I look forward to reading all the others from Nonfiction November.

Immigrant Stories: The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine

Rabih Alameddine’s 2021 novel The Wrong End of the Telescope caught my eye back in June when I spotted a copy at the public library as part of its Pride Month display. Sucked in by its cool cover art, upon closer inspection I noticed it’s set on the Greek island of Lesbos. Even though I was all set to read James Angelos’s The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins to satisfy the Greece requirement for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I instead opted to give Alameddine’s novel a chance. After bringing it home I thought the author’s name looked familiar so I did some checking. Lo and behold he also wrote the short autobiographical piece “How to Bartend”, which was my favorite essay from The Best American Essays 2020. Eager to read more from Alameddine I dived into The Wrong End of the Telescope and was not disappointed.

Born and raised in Lebanon, Dr. Mina Simpson lived for decades in America. Aware Mina is a trained medial professional fluent in Arabic she’s recruited by her friend to help provide humanitarian assistance to Middle Eastern refugees who’ve sought sanctuary on the Greek island of Lesbos. Fleeing the horrors of war and Islamic terror countless multitudes now find themselves interned in the island’s infamous Moria refugee camp, now subject to disease and neglect. Among the dislocated is Sumaiya, a Syrian mother in the throes of late-stage liver cancer. Asked by Sumaiya to keep her illness a secret Mina complies, and with her limited resources does all she can to make the stricken woman’s last days as pleasant as possible.

Spliced into this large-scale tragedy is Mina’s own life story, told through a series of flashbacks. Married to the same women for over 30 years, nevertheless she’s been ostracized by her family for decades thanks to their refusal to accept her sexuality. Only her brother fully embraces who she is and respects the painful transition she’s made along the way. Ironically, she’s assisted in her humanitarian efforts by a member of the Red Crescent, who happens to be a gay Palestinian with a working knowledge of Farsi he learned from his bisexual Israeli lover over the course of their adulterous affair. (A presumed Mossad agent specializing in Iranian operations.)

The Wrong End of the Telescope puts a human face on suffering, both on a grand and individual scale. At the same time it artfully contrasts the journeys we’re forced to undertake, be they across land and sea or from one manifestation of ourselves to another. Please consider this novel highly recommended.

Sunday Salon

For over a month I’ve been taking part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I started and finished the 2021 novel The Wrong End of the Telescope by Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine. Currently I’m still reading Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons of Cyprus: Life on a Mediterranean Island and Dzevad Karahasan’s Sarajevo, Exodus of a CityLike I mentioned last week all three of these books are for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge

Articles. With my nose buried in several books last week I managed to read just two articles. This week I’ll try harder and hopefully read more. 

Listening. Like I’ve said before, with so many things going on in the world there’s no shortage of material for my favorite podcasts. 

Watching. Right now I’m watching just one TV show and it’s Mr. Robot. Like I’ve said before it just gets crazier and crazier thanks to insane plot twists, great writing and superb acting. It’s been one hell of a wild ride. Unfortunately for me, I have only two episodes left to watch. 

Everything else. Friday, instead of indulging in my weekly ritual of fine wine and conversation at my favorite local winery I drove up to Portland. After a quick trip to Powell’s Books I proceeded to my friends’ place for an evening of beers, fun and frivolity. Our wonderful hosts fired up the grill and put on the soccer game. After watching the home team come from behind to beat our hated rivals the Seattle Sounders a few of us stayed up past our bedtimes conversing on the porch. Saturday on my way home I hit a massive church yard sale and walked away with small stack of books, almost all of which were free. Among the treasures are Pulitzer-Prize winners American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. 

Book Beginnings: The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, only recently I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

He was my people—he and I kneaded by the same hands. He was on the shorter side, my height, not in the greatest of shape. His hair had less gray than mine but was the same shade of dark. We had similar facial features. I would have recognized that he was from the Levant even without the Palestine Red Crescent Society vest he sported.

Last week I featured the 2012 Kindle release of Lawrence Durrell’s 1960 travel memoir Bitter Lemons of Cyprus: Life on a Mediterranean Island. The week before it was Life of Pi author Yann Marte’s 2016 novel The High Mountains of Portugal. This week it’s the critically acclaimed 2021 novel The Wrong End of the Telescope by Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine.

Alameddine’s novel caught my eye back in June when I spotted a copy at the public library as part of its Pride Month display. Sucked in by its cool cover art, upon closer inspection I noticed it’s set on the Greek island of Lesbos during the 2015 -2016 refugee crises. Recently, I was in the mood for even more international fiction and remembering I could apply it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I grabbed the book during one of my library visits. Once again I’ve deviated from my original 20 Books of Summer but since the challenge is ending in less than a week who cares. LOL!

Earlier I was going to read James Angelos’s The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins to fulfill the Greece requirement for the European Reading Challenge but decided to go with The Wrong End of the Telescope and return The Full Catastrophe to the library unread. But a few days ago I learned Robert Kaplan has a new book out entitled Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age so I placed it on hold with the library. While I’m impatiently waiting my turn I’ll be reading additional books about this part of the world, including stuff on the former Yugoslavia, Greece and Italy. Because nothing takes the sting out of waiting for a good book than killing time reading other good books.

Like I mentioned earlier, The Wrong End of the Telescope received widespread critical acclaim, including winning the 2022 PEN/Faulkner Award. I didn’t remember until this morning the author also wrote my favorite essay from The Best American Essays 2020 entitled “How to Bartend.”  Instead of me blathering on, here’s what novel’s page on Amazon has to say:

By National Book Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award finalist for An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine, comes a transporting new novel about an Arab American trans woman’s journey among Syrian refugees on Lesbos island.

Mina Simpson, a Lebanese doctor, arrives at the infamous Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, Greece, after being urgently summoned for help by her friend who runs an NGO there. Alienated from her family except for her beloved brother, Mina has avoided being so close to her homeland for decades. But with a week off work and apart from her wife of thirty years, Mina hopes to accomplish something meaningful, among the abundance of Western volunteers who pose for selfies with beached dinghies and the camp’s children. Soon, a boat crosses bringing Sumaiya, a fiercely resolute Syrian matriarch with terminal liver cancer. Determined to protect her children and husband at all costs, Sumaiya refuses to alert her family to her diagnosis. Bonded together by Sumaiya’s secret, a deep connection sparks between the two women, and as Mina prepares a course of treatment with the limited resources on hand, she confronts the circumstances of the migrants’ displacement, as well as her own constraints in helping them.

20 Books of Summer: The Attack by Yasmina Khadra

I’ve mentioned from time to time I enjoy books on the Middle East or novels set in that part of the world. Therefore, it was hard to resist borrowing Yasmina Khadra’s 2006 novel The Attack when I came across a copy at the public library. After putting it aside for a couple of weeks I dived right back into it and whipped through it in no time. I’m happy to say it’s yet another pleasant surprise of 2022.

Like I mentioned in an earlier post, Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul. While serving as an officer in the Algerian military in the late 1980s, Moulessehoul adopted the the feminine pseudonym to keep his superiors from censoring his writing. Even though his true identity was revealed in 2001 he continues to write under the pen name. Just like his fellow Algerian novelist Amara Lakhous, he lives abroad in Europe. (Lakhous lives in Italy and writes in Italian. Moulessehoul lives in France and writes in French.)

All things considered, life’s been good to Amin Jaafari. A successful self-made man by any standard, the highly skilled Arab-Israeli surgeon is well-respected by his Jewish colleagues at the hospital in Tel Aviv where he practices. Happily married to Sihem, an intelligent and lovely woman, the two share a home in one the city’s poshest neighborhoods where their frequent get-togethers attract well-healed guests from across confessional lines. Bedouin by birth, he’s since embraced an urban, cosmopolitan lifestyle.  Both an Israeli citizen and non-practicing Muslim, his outlook is wholly secular with one his best friends a high-ranking Israeli police chief.

But then one day this comfortable world comes crashing down. Not long after a suicide bombing flooded his hospital with dozens of casualties he’s told the bomber was none other than his wife. Overnight his colleagues and neighbors no longer see him as a “good” Arab. At the very least he’s seen a clueless moron, negligently oblivious to his wife’s murderous intentions. (Much like the parents of America’s young mass shooters.) At worst, he’s some closeted radical who secretly assisted in his wife’s deadly act terrorism. Instead of mourning his deceased wife he’s forced to undergo humiliating interrogations, invasive home searches and police detentions.

Initially, in hopes of clearing her name he leaves his upscale Tel Aviv home in search of evidence to clear her name. Visits with his in laws eventually lead him to a radical imam and his acolytes. Slowly connecting the dots he begins to see how Sihem secretly evolved into to suicide bomber. At the same time, he’s gripped by feelings of betrayal, like a faithful husband confronted with the growing evidence of his wife’s infidelity. Feeling increasingly alienated by both Israelis and Arabs he begins questioning his religion, nationality and allegiance to the Jewish State.

Like I mentioned earlier this is a surprisingly good book, one of many I’ve stumbled across this year. Don’t be surprised if you see more novels by this talented author featured on this blog.

Sunday Salon

A few weeks ago for the first time I took part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I hope to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I finished up Kitty Veldis’s 2018 historical novel Not Our Kind  and like I mentioned earlier, if it doesn’t make Favorite Fiction list in December it’s a shoe-in for a future honorable mention. After putting A.C. Grayling’s Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius on pause I dived headfirst into The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko. Scott Stambach’s 2016 dark yet hilarious novel is set in Belarus at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children. Pleasantly sick and wrong, it’s great reading if you enjoy the twisted fiction of Chuck Palahniuk, Iain Banks or Gary Shteyngart. Currently, I’m about half-way through Alexander Münninghoff’s 2020 family memoir The Son and HeirAn alternate for my 20 Book of Summer reading challenge it’s applicable to a number of others including the European Reading Challenge. I also started two other novels and it’s too earlier to tell how much I’ll end up liking them. Yasmina Khadra’s 2006 The Attack shows early promise. Since I’ve yet to finish the introduction to Heda Margolius Kovály’s 2015 Czech crime novel Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street who knows if I’ll like it or not. 

Listening. With the The National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex proceedings (AKA the January 6 Commission) at last being televised I dived into some of my favorite podcasts for helpful insight and commentary. On Fresh Air Terry Gross interviewed New York Times Congressional reporter Luke Broadwater on the episode “The Jan. 6 Insurrection: Understanding The Big Picture.”  Another must listen is the recent Daily podcast “The Proud Boys’ Path to Jan. 6.” Recorded the morning after Thursday’s opening session, Charlie Sykes and guests Sarah Longwell, Tim Miller, and Bill Kristol did a fine job on The Bulwark breaking things down with the episode “This Is What Democracy Looks Like.” Deep State Radio’s “A Life or Death Moment in the History of US Democracy” with guests Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Harry Litman of the Talking Feds podcast is also a must listen. Speaking of Talking Feds, recorded a few days before Thursday night’s session the episode “At History’s Edge” with guests Julie Zebrak, Josh Marshall and Rep. Ted Lieu also makes for great listening. Lastly, Molly Jong Fast and Andy Levy on The New Abnormal as expected served up insightful and irreverent commentary on the opening session. But what helps makes the episode “Liz Cheney Is Ready to Follow Donald Trump to the Gates of Hell” a true gem are the interviews they did with Pod Save America co-host Dan Pfeiffer, and my favorite thought leader Ian Bremmer.  

Watching. Mr. Robot continues to entertain me and has been a fantastic find. As I mentioned early, Thursday night I watched the opening session of the January 6 Committee and I’m excited to see more. 

Everything else. Like last week I once again snuck out early on Friday and joined my buddy the semi-retired sociology professor for beers and some pizza at a local watering hole. Yesterday on Saturday there was a break in the rainy weather so I snuck out again for another beer. On Wednesday I took part in a weekly Facebook group chat with two librarians from the New York Public Library. I’ve been doing this for months and it’s a great way to get book recommendations as well as learn about new books months before they’re officially released. 

Library Loot

After returning a small stack of books to the public library I was ready for more. In recent Library Loots I’ve been featuring a lot of fiction, much of it by authors from outside the US. This week I’ve returned to my old ways with a nice selection of nonfiction. But much like before, two of these authors are from outside the US. Helen Rappaport is from the United Kingdom while Gianni Guadalupi hails from Italy. With the exception of Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution these books were published over 10 years ago. 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlene’s blog.  

About Time I Read It: The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon

I‘ve always been fascinated by the Middle East. During my early years as a blogger Helen hosted the Middle East Reading Challenge and I loved reading books about, or novels set in the region and linking my reviews to her blog. I still read those kind of books but honestly, I don’t think I read as many as I used to. Siobhan Fallon’s 2017 debut novel The Confusion of Languages is one of several library books I’ve brought home over the last few weeks ago I’ve managed to read in just a short time. I’m pleased to say besides being set in the Middle East it also exceeded my modest expectations.

In Amman, Jordan at the height of the tumultuous Arab Spring Cassie and Margaret are military wives whose respective husbands are officers tasked with gathering intelligence and working with local Arab forces in pursuit of common military objectives. At first Cassie wants nothing to do with the recently arrived Margaret. Put off immediately by her air-head demeanor, slim figure and blond hair its Margaret infant son however that triggers the deepest feelings of jealousy. For years, despite her and her husband’s best efforts Cassie is unable to conceive. The very sight of this shiny new, happy go lucky mother and child is a tough act to watch. But reluctantly, she puts those feelings aside and dutifully takes Margaret under her wing, helping her navigate her new surroundings. Soon the two women strike up an unlikely friendship, strengthened by Cassie’s growing understanding there’s more to Margaret than meets the eye.

In a culture that dictates strict separation between men and women, the reader can only guess Margaret’s bold, almost reckless approach of social interaction is bound to lead to misunderstandings and awkward situations. But as her circle of Arab acquaintances widen this boldness, if left unchecked, runs the risk of spawning consequences unintended or even catastrophic.

The Confusion of Languages is a well-written, gradually unfolding novel that builds in intensity like a slow moving forest fire. It reminds me of several excellent works of fiction I’ve enjoyed in the past. Like Chris Pavone’s The Expats it follows the lives, even the secret ones of Americans living abroad. Spousal intrigue and its impact on even the most innocent of bystanders are also key elements it shares with Sue Miller’s The Senator’s Wife. Lastly, I saw similarities to Alexander Maksik‘s You Deserve Nothing with its foreign setting, covert couplings and alternating perspectives of narrative. Considering all three novels made my year-end list of Favorite Fiction bodes well The Confusion of Languages. 

About Time I Read It: The Apartment by Greg Baxter

Mostly, it was a sense of nostalgia that prompted me to borrow a library copy of Greg Baxter’s 2013 debut novel The Apartment. I wanted to once again experience those pleasant evenings spent reading an enjoyable piece of contemporary fiction fresh from the public library. Even though they were books I’d never heard of prior to strolling into the library that day nevertheless their respective jacket blurbs made them difficult to resist. Thankfully, my boldness as a reader always seemed to pay off since I never chose a disappointing book. As a matter of fact, such novels dominated my 2014 year-end Favorite Fiction list. Had it not been my public library I might never have discovered André Aciman’s Harvard Square, Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen or Lauren Grodstein’s The Explanation for EverythingEven though nonfiction is my passion, there’s times I just wanna relax in pleasant surroundings with some light, yet satisfying fiction.

The Apartment is the first person account of a single day in the life of unnamed narrator attempting to rent an apartment in an unnamed city (maybe Prague) in an unnamed Central or possibly Eastern European country. Assisting him in this endeavor is his 20-something girlfriend, a local (although her mother, long since deceased was Spanish) acting as translator and go-between. He comes off as an enigma to those he encounters. Unmarried, in his early 40s and strangely awash in cash. His short hair and demeanor send a message to some he’s ex military or even a former intelligence operative.

But as much as he want to deny it, it’s true. His initial stint in the US Navy aboard a nuclear submarine was eventually followed by another tour of duty, this time as a “sand sailor” in occupied Iraq assigned to military intelligence. After completing this second tour he left the service but not the world of intelligence, returning to Iraq as a private contractor supplying American forces with intelligence data and making a good deal of money doing it.

But in the end he wanted out of not just military intelligence and Iraq but also America. Needing a place to reinvent himself, or at the very least lose himself in place that was more welcoming than war-torn Iraq while at the same time more foreign than America he moved to Old Europe. Not long after securing lodging in one of the city’s third-tier hotels he hit it off with an attractive young woman while taking in paintings at the local art museum. Thanks to her he would see the city through her eyes while slowly getting to know both her and this Mitteleuropean capital he desired to make his home.

Unlike Harvard Square or Prayers for the Stolen, The Apartment probably won’t make my year-end list of Favorite Fiction. But based on Baxter’s excellent writing it’s currently in the running for an honorable mention. And for a book I knew nothing about until cracking it open that’s never a bad thing.