2018 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

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

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

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

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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.

The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping by Aharon Appelfeld

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.

About Time I Read It: How to Win a Cosmic War by Reza Aslan

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.

Nonfiction November Week 4: Reads Like Fiction

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.

About Time I Read It: Strange Days Indeed by Francis Wheen

The President of the United States is an uncouth, unhinged bigot prone to late night diatribes against the media, minorities and political rivals. In the wake of his recent electoral victory, rumors are emerging members of his inner circle engaged in illegal activity against his challenger. Unbeknownst to all, he’s secretly engaged in top-level negotiations with a potentially hostile foreign nation. As result, America is a divided nation when it comes to the President. Many, like those in rural areas and especially the South see him as a straight-shooting, law and order savior who upholds time-honored values against unchecked liberalism and East Coast elitism. Others, see him as a despot and lout, and therefore a disgrace to the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, things aren’t much better as Prime Ministers come and go, scandals rear their ugly heads and the general consensus being the country’s best years are well behind it. Internationally, the proliferation of terrorist organizations has the world on edge. Headlines and newscasts are dominated by reports of bombings, assassinations, and mass killings. Try as they may, Western leaders are powerless to stop the carnage. Lastly, from Africa to Latin America brutal dictators rule with iron fists tolerating no dissent and committing countless human rights violations.

While this might well sum up the current state of the world it also describes an era from our not so distant past. Welcome to the 1970s as described by British journalist Francis Wheen in his 2010 book Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Days of Paranoia. Yet again another decent book I never knew existed until I stumbled across it at the public library.

Of course, to be realistic while similarities abound so do the differences when one compares today’s world to that of the 70s. While Nixon hated the media as much as Trump does, in Nixon’s day there was no Twitter. Therefore late at night when Tricky Dick spouted off against newspapers, Jews and everyone else he hated, he did so within the confines of the White House, ironically usually in the presence of his Jewish Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Instead of Russian computer hacking, Watergate was an old-fashioned burglary. And it was the People’s Republic of China, not Russia the President secretly reached out to, not to help win an election but enlist as a geopolitical ally against the Russian-dominated USSR. Looking back even terrorism was different in the 70s. 40 years ago it wasn’t Islamic-oriented organizations like ISIS or al-Qaeda grabbing headlines but more secular groups like the PLO or IRA, or the dozen or so now forgotten Marxist-inspired revolutionary cells active throughout Europe, Latin America and America.

Someday, if you end up reading Strange Days Indeed I’d strongly encourage you to follow it up with Rick Perlstein’s outstanding The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan as well as Bryan Burrough’s equally outstanding Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. Perhaps, after reading Strange Days plus one, or both of these recommended books it might look like history repeats itself, or to paraphrase the authors of How Democracies Dies at least possess familiar echoes. Just like the ancient author of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes you too might conclude there’s nothing new under the sun.

About Time I Read It: Devil’s Game by Robert Dreyfuss

It might be hard to believe there was a time, not long ago when radical Islam, political Islam, Jihadism or call it what you will wasn’t seen as the enemy of Western civilization. During the last half of the 20th century there were other ideological movements, both secular and nationalist successfully competing for hearts and minds throughout the Middle East and Islamic world. Instead of al-Qaeda and ISIS  it was Pan-Arab regimes in Egypt and Syria, nationalist groups like the PLO and Communist entities like Iran’s underground Tudeh Party and the Soviet-backed rulers in Afghanistan dominating the news and giving Western leaders headaches. Seen as threats to America and its allies, over the years Western intelligence services gave covert support to the ideological rivals of the above-mentioned groups. These rivals were anything but secular, preaching “Islam is the solution” and advocating a reordering of society based solely on religious lines. Decades later, after the decline of both Arab nationalism and Pan-Arab nationalism, collapse of Communism, and Iran’s bloody transformation from pro-Western absolute monarchy to Islamic theocracy the region’s political landscape has changed dramatically. Now the heirs of our one-time Islamist allies are now our enemies.

The story of how this all unfolded can be found in Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam by Robert Dreyfuss. Published in 2005, Devil’s Game takes a long and detailed look at decades of secretive intelligence operations that in most cases in the long run ended up doing more bad than good. While it might have taken me a while to get into this book, once I did I couldn’t stop. Dreyfuss writes well and from what I can tell did a lot of research in writing his book.

I think at the end of the year I need to do a post featuring the year’s surprisingly good books. When I spied Devil’s Game at the library I had no idea I’d enjoy it as much as I did. So, even though it was published well over ten years ago, Devil’s Game is an intelligent and informative book and therefore essential when it comes to understanding today’s Islamic world.