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.

About Time I Read It: Kings and Presidents by Bruce Riedel

I’ve mentioned from time to time of all the countries in the Middle East Iran and Israel intrigue me the most. But if I had to pick a runner-up it would probably be Saudi Arabia. A major oil exporter, home to the holiest sites in Islam and ruled since the early 1920s by the puritanical al-Saud family, Saudi Arabia has been a close American ally since the end of World War II. It might seem odd a representative democracy like the United States, a majority Christian nation with a deeply enshrined commitment to a separation of church and state would ally itself with one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies. Even when compared to its Arab neighbors the Islam practiced by most Saudis and heavily promoted by the kingdom’s ruling family is an austere, uncompromising interpretation easily at odds with more modern concepts of feminism, religious tolerance, scientific inquiry and freedom of sexual identity. While both the United States and Saudi Arabia see Iran as a threat to the region the Saudis have traditionally viewed Israel, a chief American ally, as a perennial thorn in their side hellbent on destabilizing an already volatile region.

So, why a long friendship between the two countries? That’s the question Bruce Riedel set out to answer with his 2017 book Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States since FDR. Considering my interest in the Middle East it was hard for me to pass up a borrowable Kindle edition of Riedel’s 2017 book. Knowing nothing about the book or its author I didn’t know what to expect. I’m happy to report Kings and Presidents exceeded my modest expectations and is one of 2022’s pleasant surprises.

While some reviewers complained the book was superficial I disagree. Riedel is no stranger to the Middle East. He spent 30 years in the CIA, served on the National Security Council for four different presidents, as well as a Special Advisor to NATO and is currently a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He covers a hundred or so years of major political and religious developments that helped pave the way for the founding of Saudi Arabia. From there Riedel draws from his decades of foreign policy experience supplemented by memoirs and official documents to craft a detailed and readable history of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia

Even after reading John R. Bradley’s Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crises and Karen Elliott House’s On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future this book taught me more than a few things about Saudi Arabia. I knew the Saudi monarchy, together with the American CIA worked with Pakistan’s intelligence agency the ISI to arm and train Afghan and Islamic resistance groups to fight the Soviets and their Afghan puppet army during the 1980s. But I had no idea military ties between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan go much deeper. For years starting in the 1982 Pakistan stationed a “reinforced armored brigade” of 20,000 troops in Tabuk near the Jordanian border to serve as a both a deterrent to Israel as well as a “loyal Pretorian guard” for the royal family in case of a palace coup or popular uprising. (During the run-up to the first Gulf War the brigade was quietly redeployed across the kingdom along the border with Iraq in case it was needed to counter an Iraqi invasion.) I’ve read the Chinese supplied the Saudis with medium-range ballistic missiles, which, due to their inaccuracy are suitable only for carrying nuclear warheads. Why the Saudis would purchase such missiles while lacking a nuclear arsenal for years has been a mystery. But Riedel plausibly speculates as part of this long and shadowy military alliance the Saudis feel the Pakistanis will provide them with deliverable nukes should the Kingdom be sufficiently threatened by one of its regional rivals like Israel or Iran.

In the end, the US-Saudi alliance is based not upon shared values or long-standing institutions but common interests. Affordable and plentiful oil runs our economy and in turn keeps the Saudis afloat financially. While our leaders disagree over Israel, for decades our two countries have allied with each other against various powers in the Middle East be they Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq or Iran under the Ayatollah or his successors. It’s a marriage of convenience that’s lasted since the spring of 1945 when FDR met with the founding king Saudi Arabia on an American battleship near the Suez Canal and hashed out a deal to both parties’ liking.

About Time I Read It: I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet

As you’ve probably guessed, while I’m always borrowing books from the library I don’t manage to read them all. Some books I end up returning without even cracking them open, and more than a few I’ve started only to return to the library unfinished. But even if I don’t finish a book, if it shows promise I’ll borrow it again later and try harder to finish it. Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad is one of those books. I started it back in August only to return it unfinished to the library three weeks later. Recently, I wanted to give Mekhennet’s 2017 book another chance so I borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work. I’m glad I gave it another chance because I Was Told to Come Alone is a well-written, first hand account of life growing up in Germany as the daughter of Muslim immigrants and her rise to prominence as a world-class foreign correspondent.

Besides a talent for writing well, bravery and a dogged ability to uncover the truth, one could argue for a foreign correspondent to be successful such an individual should also be even handed, multilingual, and possess a keen understanding of other cultures. With that in mind this is the career Mekhennet was destined to pursue. Her father a Sunni Moroccan and her mother an ethnic Arab Shia from Turkey, Mekhennet’s parents met as guest workers in Germany. Underclass and a cultural outsider who experienced more than her share of prejudice, the young Mekhennet nevertheless applied herself. Intellectually curious, ambitious, and a desire to write, she began interviewing German political figures while still in high school. Later, as a college student she worked as an entry level journalist. Raised Muslim and fluent in Arabic, she quickly proved to be an invulnerable asset to her more seasoned colleagues as they interviewed Muslim immigrants and perused leads throughout Europe in the wake of 9/11.

In a career that’s spanned the better part of two decades Mekhennet’s travels have taken her across three continents, conducting interviews and investigating stories across Europe, North Africa, Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. During her tenure she’s reported on Al-Qaeda, the rise of ISIS, (including helping uncover the true identity of the infamous terrorist Jihadi John) Arab Spring, Syrian Civil War, 2015 Paris Terrorist Attacks and European Migrant Crises of the same year.

I Was Told to Come Alone is well written and considering English is her third or fourth language makes this even more impressive. What’s also impressive is her sense of fairness. As a Muslim from Germany, she’s experienced discrimination and as a result is sympathetic to the plights of her co-religionists living as immigrants or the children of immigrants in Europe. On the other hand, she takes to task Islamic extremists for their misogyny and refusal to respect the basic rights of others.

Admirable as well is her honesty and insightfulness when assessing the 2015 European Migrant Crises. Unlike some European leaders and aid officials she wisely pointed out while many of those seeking refuge were fleeing conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, many were also economic migrants from across North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. In addition, a sizable portion of them were not highly educated professionals but laborers conversant only in their respective native languages. Based on her observations she also revealed a few hailed from ISIS’s Islamic State. While not terrorists bent on wrecking havoc, nevertheless their sympathies for the Islamic State were apparent.

I Was Told to Come Alone is easily one of this year’s pleasant surprises. It deserves to stand beside other outstanding books by respected journalists about political developments in the Islamic world like Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS and Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War. Just like Black Flags and The Forever War there’s a strong likelihood it will make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction.

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings

Last week Rennie at What’s Nonfiction  hosted Nonfiction November and this week another great blogger, Katie at Doing Dewey has agreed to host. In her post she enlists us to offer up our recommendations.

This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

In previous years I’ve approached this by discussing an extensive collection of nonfiction/fiction pairings but this time I’d like to do something different. I’ll be featuring an historical novel I recently read along with several works of nonfiction that make for wonderful follow-up reading.

Published in 2018, Michael David Lukas’s The Last Watchman of Old Cairo jumps back and forth between the early 2000s, 1897 and the 11th century. Joseph, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, is puzzled when a strange package from Egypt arrives in the mail one day. Intrigued by its cryptic contents, the son of a Jewish mother and an estranged, now-deceased Muslim father decides to put his university studies on hold and visit the land of his ancestors in search of answers.

The heart of the novel is Cairo’s Ibn Ezra Synagogue, for centuries center of the city’s vibrant Jewish community until a series of the mass exoduses starting in 1956 spurred by Egyptian President Nasser’s anti-Jewish and anti-western measures drove them from the country. In the late 1890s the synagogue would achieve worldwide notoriety after its repository of ancient documents or Geniza was mined and catalogued by a visiting Cambridge scholar, his young female assistant and a pair of brilliant middle aged Scottish twin sisters. Also, legend had it the synagogue was the secret home of the Ezra Scroll, written by the great Lawgiver himself 2,500 years ago and purported to possess powerful supernatural properties.

This multiple award-winning historical novel is an enjoyable mix of intrigue, romance and a touch of magic. If you take my recommendation and end up reading it, I can’t encourage you enough to follow it up with a few other books, all nonfiction.

Start with Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. Published in 2011, this National Jewish Book Award finalist is a detailed look at the history of the Geniza, its treasured contents and the intrepid individuals who helped bring it all to light. Located in an out of the way annex of the synagogue, the Geniza was kind of hallowed dumping ground for old letters, business records, marriage contracts, divorce writs, holy scriptures and everything in between. Dubbed by some scholars as the “living Sea Scrolls” they provided a highly detailed look at centuries of everyday Jewish life in the region and beyond.

Proceed next to Janet Soskice’s 2009 The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. Here you will learn more about two of the late-Victorian era’s most fascinating, and under-appreciated women. Denied higher educations thanks to the sexism of the day, the pair nevertheless went on to master Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac plus a host of other languages (between the two of them close to a dozen) and traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and the Levant where they were instrumental in locating and acquiring a number of ancient Christian manuscripts. Later, the sisters, together with Solomon Schechter would transport the contents of the Ibn Ezra Geniza back to Cambridge where it could be secured safely and extensively studied.

As the old TV pitchman used to say, “but wait, there’s more.” For great looks into the lost world of Egypt’s Jewish community I highly recommend a quartet of great family memoirs. Lucette Lagnado’s 2007 The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, her 2011 follow-up The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, André Aciman’s 1994 Out of Egypt and Gini Alhadeff’s 1997 The Sun at Midday: Tales of a Mediterranean Family all provide vivid portraits of an exotic yet cultured place that managed to be Middle Eastern, European, Muslim and Jewish all at the same time. But sadly is no more.

About Time I Read It: Black Flags by Joby Warrick

Next time you’re at the library, do yourself a favor. If you see a book displayed as a staff recommendation grab it. I’ve been doing this for years and it’s led me to excellent books like David Liss’s historical novel The Coffee Trader or Warren Kozak’s The Rabbi of 84th Street: The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser or Julie Holland’s memoir Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER.

Recently, one of my local public libraries decided showcase a number of staff recommendations. Following their sagely advice I borrowed two, one which happened to be Joby Warrick’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS. I couldn’t put it down and theres’s a strong likelihood it will make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

In the early 2000s, al-Qaeda was seen as America’s most feared scourge. But in just a few years a rival terrorist organization materialized out of Iraq’s Sunni heartland. Founded by a semi-literate Jordanian street thug turned Islamic militant the group attacked US occupation forces, beheaded captives and bombed Shia holy sites throughout Iraq, pushing the already chaotic and wounded nation into a state of civil war.  For the next decade its fortunes would wax and wane but within 10 years its fighters would accomplish what al-Qaeda could never achieve: conquer a swath of the Arab World and impose Islamic rule. Proclaimed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (rendered into English as ISIS) its vengeful leaders reigned with an iron hand, committing a host of atrocities including genocide, sexual enslavement and wholesale destruction of hallowed archeological sites. It took the concerted military effort by both Western and Arab nations to break the group’s hold on the area. But not before ISIS could wreck havoc on the Arab World and even Paris.

In chronicling the evolution of ISIS Warrick expertly conveys the group’s rise to prominence. Most fascinating of all, he shows how this was inadvertently facilitated by the actions of others, even those committed to fighting Islamic terrorism.

  • Founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would have lived out his life as a low-level criminal had his parents not remanded him to his local mosque for religious instruction where he soon became radicalized. Reinventing himself, he fled to Afghanistan and enlisted in the Mujahideen. Later, he returned to Jordan and emboldened by his experience embarked on his own holy war, this time against his native Jordanians. Eventually, he was captured and sentenced to a lengthy prison term.
  • Al-Zarqawi would have languished in prison for years, even decades and eventually forgotten, like so many other imprisoned Islamic radicals had he not benefited from a stroke of good luck. In 1999 Jordan’s King Hussein succumbed to cancer and was succeeded by his son Abdullah II. In keeping with Jordanian custom the newly crowned king authorized the release of a number of prisoners, one of which happened to be al-Zarqawi. Later, once al-Zarqawi earned a reputation as a terrorist mastermind (orchestrating attacks in Iraq and later Jordan) Abdullah was furious security officials deemed al-Zarqawi worthy of early release.
  • Sold to the American public and the world at large as an essential undertaking in the fight against terrorism, Bush and his inner circle orchestrated the armed invasion of Iraq. After toppling Saddam’s regime and driving the country’s Sunni-dominated Baathists from positions of authority a chaotic power vacuum soon ensued. This provided the perfect environment for al-Zarqawi and his followers (including a number of Sunni military officers) to attack US forces and Shia holy sites.
  • Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was an Iraqi graduate student studying Islamic theology when he was swept up in a raid by US forces while visiting an old college friend. After thrown in a detention camp by the Americans the “civilian internee” so impressed his fellow detainees with his command of Islamic jurisprudence he quickly gained a following among the camp’s militant elements. In 2004 after deemed “low level” he was released. Thanks to his reputation as a gifted Islamic scholar he was soon brought into the ISIS fold as its chief Sharia lawgiver. After holding the number three position in the organization he eventually became its leader after an American military strike took out ISIS’s top two men.
  • After the last US forces left Iraq in late 2011, Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began taking a harder line against the country’s Sunnis. His purging of prominent Sunnis from his administration and crushing Sunni protests would drive many of them into the welcoming arms of ISIS. Reinvigorated with a new sense of purpose the group would out-battle the poorly led, demoralized Iraqi National Army and capture a huge chunk of Iraqi territory.
  • In the early 2010s as the Arab Spring spread throughout the Middle East thousands in Syria protested the autocratic rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Refusing to step down or make any concessions whatsoever Assad instead ordered his security forced to fire on demonstrators, sparking a civil war that would tear the country apart. Before long a huge contested zone opened up  in the country’s interior where a myriad of anti-government rebels fought against Assad’s forces, his assorted foreign allies and each other. Taking advantage of the situation, ISIS fighters carved out their own Islamic caliphate to rule puritanically and use as a base from which to launch operations throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Taking advantage of a long series of unforced errors and miscalculations ISIS leaders were able to grow their terrorist organization. No wonder Napoleon said never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

This is an outstanding book, well deserved of all the praise. Readable, insightful and comprehensive, it should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. Please consider Black Flags highly recommended.

The Best American Essays 2020 edited by André Aciman

I’m no stranger to André Aciman. In the summer of 2009 I read his 1996 memoir Out of Egypt, which had been sitting on my shelf unread for who knows how long. Five summers later it was his semi autobiographical novel Harvard Square I spent several warm evenings reading on my front step while watching the comings and goings of my fellow apartment dwellers. Even though I’d read just two of his books I considered myself a fan of his writing and looked forward to reading more of it.

Finding myself in the mood for a decent essay collection I discovered through Overdrive a borrowable Kindle edition of The Best American Essays 2020 edited by none other than André Aciman. Eager to see which essays Aciman deemed worthy of inclusion I downloaded it and went to work reading. I’m happy to say after finishing it Aciman’s choices did not disappoint me.

Annual anthologies like these are always a crap shoot. While some years better than others, on average each offering has one to three of outstanding pieces, with the bulk being pretty good while the remaining two or three selections not so hot. Fortunately, none of the essays Aciman selected are duds. Even my least favorite inclusions  had their moments. So hats off to Aciman.

Over the years I’ve read close to a dozen of these anthologies and Aciman’s introduction to this edition easily ranks as one of the best. Drawing from his deep well of erudition he explains what makes a great essay, serving up examples from Montaigne, Machiavelli and Proust. (If you’re looking for an impressive reading list, check out his interview 2015 interview on the Vox Tablet podcast.)

My favorites essays in the collection were ones with sharply focused narratives and specific topics in mind, akin to the long form pieces you’d find in Harpers, the New Yorker or Atlantic. While considered essays, they easily could be included in anthologies featuring outstanding writing in the fields of science and nature  or crime. Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece of prehistoric cave painting “The Humanoid Stain”,  Clinton Crockett Peters’s “A Thing About Cancer” – a novel look at the dreaded disease seen through the lens of the 1982 John Carpenter horror film The Thing  were two such pieces. Susan Fox Rogers’s essay on infamous 1920’s child murder Nathan Leopold and his love of birding was a fine science and nature feature as well as a crime one.

Much to my surprise just as it was with Jonathan Franzen’s edited Best American Essays 2016, a couple of my favorite essays touched on LGTBQ themes. Probably my favorite of these was the lead essay “How to Bartend” by Lebanese-American painter and writer Rabih Alameddine.  After being diagnosed with HIV he moved back to his native Lebanon to attend graduate school and pursue a “third worthless degree.” Needing cash he picked up a gig tending bar at an upstairs “faux upscale taproom with an English private club motif” complete with “pretentiously bound hardcovers in fake bookshelves.” Here half heartedly went about his job, pouring occasional drinks but preferring to be left alone to read novels during his normally slow workdays. Instead of a primer on good bartending his essay is a darkly humorous look at the difficult but ultimately satisfying process of finding ones tribe.

Instead of finding one’s tribe Alex Marzano-Lesnevish’s “Body Language” the focus is the long, painful process of discovering one’s gender, or if it be, non-gender. Even Peter Scheldahl’s life journey from midwestern bumpkin to NYC-dwelling art critic and mildly reckless aesthete recalls a passing gay affair, despite being an admittedly straight man with at least two heterosexual marriages and countless liaisons under his belt. (A degree sexual fluidity also rumored to be shared by Aciman himself.)

It feels like every annual essay collection contains more than a few contributions by authors looking back and reflecting on their long lives or the long lives of loved ones. As I grow older and slowly come to grips with my own mortality, and those around me I dislike these kind of pieces less and less, no longer complaining they’re products of an unwanted cottage industry. Instead, when I encounter such writing I grudgingly welcome whatever words of wisdom they offer while at the same time yearning for younger days.

But before I succumb to the ravages of old age, I’ll treat myself to a few more enjoyable anthologies. And as I do I’ll happily share my impressions of them with all of you.

20 Books of Summer: Reopening Muslim Minds by Mustafa Akyol

I can’t remember how and when I first heard of Mustafa Akyol’s Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance but when a Kindle edition became available through my public library’s Overdrive portal I immediately downloaded it. Published in April of this year, Akyol asks why the Muslim world lags so behind the West in such key areas as democracy, civil liberties and scientific and technological achievement and what can be done to address these disparities?

In search of answers Akyol-a Turkish journalist, New York Times contributing opinion writer and current senior fellow at the Cato Institute- explores Islamic history and concludes in the Middle Ages, when Muslim theologians and ruling powers elevated blind religious faith over reason and refused to incorporate valuable concepts and principles from communities and traditions outside Islam it effectively closed the door on further development.  Intellectually hamstrung and closed to novel and foreign ideas, the Islamic world, unlike the Christian West never experienced the Enlightenment nor its subsequent developments: the scientific and industrial revolutions, democracy, human rights and religious pluralism.

The motivation for this medieval closing of the Islamic mind was more than just theological. According to Akyol, the insistence on believing tenants of faith solely on Islamic scripture and tradition instead through more open-ended processes like philosophical reasoning gave weight to those who believed the Caliphs and those like them should be simply obeyed because God said so. More flexible and less slavishly literal interpretations of Islam might lead to Muslims questioning the rule of an oppressive or incompetent ruler. Putting the emphasis on “what” a person should believe instead of the “why” would hinder deeper explorations into the nature of truth, promoting an overall rigid faith leaving it unable to modernize as times changed.

Reopening Muslim Minds reminds me of other books that have appeared over the last decade and a half, in many ways a response to the rise of Islamic terrorism. Khaled Abou El Fadl’s The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, Anouar Majid’s A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America, Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now all ask in varying ways what went wrong in the Islamic world and how could it be fixed.

Reopening Muslim Minds is no doubt controversial, perhaps even downright offensive to some. But he makes countless compelling, if not convincing arguments. I enjoyed Akyol’s book and look forward to reading what else he’s written on the Islamic world.