About Time I Read It: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

I love books that make me fundamentally rethink how I understand the world, specifically how we got here and even where we’re going. The first of these kind of books I read was probably Europe: A History by Norman Davies. (20 years after I read it I still remember him wisely pointing out Europe, for all its glory, geographically speaking is nevertheless a peninsula of Asia. He also boldly claimed events and developments in the 19th century had a greater impact on today’s modern world than those of the 20th.) As I read more over the years I discovered other powerful and expansive books like Guns, Germs and Steel, Carnage and Culture, Why Nations Fail and 1493. More recently, last year I had the pleasure of reading The Jakarta Method, Maoism: A Global History and The Islamic Enlightenment all of which fell into this category.

When my book club announced we were reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, another of these kind of books I quickly borrowed an ebook copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Sweeping and detailed, I nevertheless made quick work of the readable Silk Roads in roughly a week. This fine book should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

Based on Frankopan’s extensive research, for thousands of years Central Asia and its adjacent lands (roughly the Persian Empire at greatest extent, give or take a bit) has played a decisive role shaping world history. Over the centuries armies, plagues, riches and religions have traveled time honored trade routes commonly referred as the Silk Road across South Central Eurasia. This new interpretation shifts our attention east making Central Asia history’s prime mover as opposed to Europe, and upending our traditional Eurocentric view of world history.

While it’s undeniable Greece and Rome left an indelible imprints on Western thought one must remember all the world’s major religions originated somewhere in Asia, with the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all developing in relatively close proximity to each other. (Helping make cross-pollination between them in varying degrees possible.) While Greek ideas and imagery traveled east with Alexander’s armies leaving a lasting influence from Asia Minor to India Buddhist and Zoroastrian concepts flowed in the opposite direction doing much the same. (Buddhist missionaries in the Levant might have been responsible for introducing the dualistic concepts which would form the core of Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy. Hundreds of years later, it’s possible the first Islamic madrasahs were modeled on Buddhist teaching communities.)

During the Middle Ages, armies of an assertive Christian Europe flush with new-found sense of purpose invaded the western shores of Central Asia in a series of conflicts known as the Crusades. Exposed to the region’s higher standard of living Crusaders and their descendants developed tastes for the finer things in life, leading to an explosion in first regional, and then intercontinental commerce. Even though the Latin Kingdoms they founded on the shores of the Mediterranean were eventually vanquished it spawned lasting trade between Europe and Asia, with the Italian maritime city states profiting handsomely.

Later in the Middle Ages, these same trade routes would also bring plague to Europe, decimating the continent’s population. This die off would make labor scarce, drive up wages and lead to wealth redistribution. Overall, incomes rose  and demand increased for goods from Asia. Feeling cut out of the lucrative international trade business, Iberian powers Portugal and Spain saw sailing east as the solution. By doing so they not only found another route to India around Africa, but more importantly discovered the New World.

Then later, the discovery, and subsequent conquest of the Americas changed everything once again. Instead of European inhabitants dying by the millions this time it was Americans. Their kingdoms destroyed and their royal coffers looted, silver and gold by the ship full flowed from the New World to Iberia. As these riches and the ones that followed percolated across Europe and began enriching England and the Low Countries it created demand for even more high value goods from Asia. As living standards rose it lead to an intellectual awakening known as the Enlightenment. Sadly, the Age of Reason could not have happened without the theft of America’s gold and silver and the slaughter and subjugation of its natives.

The centrality of Central Eurasia extends well into the modern age. For the later half of the 19th century Russia and Great Britain were bitter rivals in the Great Game for control of the gateway to India. Happy to see Tsarist Russia turn its attention elsewhere Britain did everything it could to encourage Russian animosity towards Germany, setting the stage for World War I. 20 years later Hitler justified Germany’s invasion of the USSR as a means to secure Ukraine’s wheat. At the turn of the 20th century it was the British who first saw the potential for oil to replace coal to fuel navies and later, trains and automobiles. Throughout much of the 20th century and into the 21st, pipelines and tanker routes would criss-cross the globe bringing oil from the lands of the former Persian Empire to the industrialized West.

By the end of the book we have come full circle. Once again China is the world’s premier exporter. Instead supplying the world with silk and porcelain today it’s everything from consumer electronics to household goods to steel. Flexing its newfound economic and political might the country launched its Belt and Road Initiative: the creation of land and rail routes from China to Western Eurasia, Africa and beyond closely following the trade routes of old crisscrossing Central Asia. Think of this massive international infrastructure development strategy as 21st century’s answer to the Silk Road – on steroids. All while the region’s former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, blessed with almost limitless petroleum reserves, have become major players on the world stage.

Frankopan makes a compelling, if not convincing case the lands of Central Eurasia, and not Europe was key in the rise of Western civilization. Please consider his book The Silk Roads highly recommended.

Old Books Reading Project: The Age of Catherine de Medici by J.E. Neale

Can I learn something from a book I didn’t like? I asked myself that question right after I finished J.E. Neale’s The Age of Catherine de Medici. Published in 1962, it’s been in my personal library for who knows how long. One hot summer night two years ago I brought it to the pub to read but after just one page I lost interest. Upon returning home I exiled the vintage paperback to a hidden nook and cranny in my personal library and promptly forgot about it. Then a week ago I was once again craving stuff on European history and decided to give The Age of Catherine de Medici another chance. The good news is since it’s a short book just over 100 pages I read it in no time. The bad news is I still didn’t like it.

Part of the Harper Torchbook series of”quality paperbacks” specializing in fields like religion, philosophy, history and economics The Age of Catherine de Medici is a collection of four lectures the author gave at Alexandra College in Dublin in 1938 and four year later at University College of North Wales (now Bangor University). As one would guess, it covers the mid-1500s when Catherine was queen, and later queen mother to three sons, each of which would have a turn ruling France. I figured since they’re lectures, The Age of Catherine de Medici would make for light reading. Unfortunately,  I never warmed up to Neale’s writing style.

While being the queen mother to three sons might sound impressive, the reality was otherwise. All three kings were weak and ineffective rulers, with their respective reigns, in Hobbesian terms best described as nasty, brutish and short. Their mother Catherine, lacking the intelligence, political savvy and indomitable will when compared to say, England’s monarch Elizabeth was ill-equipped to hold the country together during this period of extreme civil and religious unrest. (She also had the added disadvantage of being Italian-born, and being a foreigner was therefore was seen by many as ill-suited to guide the nation.) Dubbed by historians as the Religious Wars, the series of conflicts which ravaged France were in effect a decades long civil war, as Catholics and Protestant Huguenots fought back and forth for control of France. (Although arguably, much of the time Catholics were the aggressors.)

Neale’s book confirmed for me our species’ bad reputation for communal violence, especially toward those seen as threats or worse, potential threats to our well-being. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, when Catholics in Paris and throughout France rose up and murdered thousands of Protestant men, women and children bears an eerie resemblance to such later large-scale atrocities as the   Indonesian mass killings of 1965–19966, the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 and the murderous “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia from 1992–1995. An unpleasant, but perhaps necessary reminder of what we’re capable of.

Why Religion?: A Personal Story by Elaine Pagels

I’m no stranger to Elaine Pagels. Years ago I was so intrigued by what she had to say in a New Yorker article about early Christianity I borrowed a friend’s copy of Pagels’ breakout book The Gnostic Gospels and followed it up a few years later with The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics. (One morning before work I happened to be reading it at the neighboring Starbucks when one of our vice presidents, a practicing Catholic, wandered by and asked me what I was reading. After telling him I could tell he regretted asking because he quickly excused himself and hurried back across the street to our office. Poor guy probably thought I was a member of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan.) Happy to see another of her books hit the stands, not long after that I read Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of ThomasLastly, almost seven years ago I read Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation after spotting a copy on the New Books shelf at my public library.

You might remember from an earlier post I’ve been spending time in the memoirs, biographies and autobiographies section at the public library. While grabbing memoirs by Trevor Noah and Maxine Kumin one Saturday afternoon I stumbled across Elaine Pagels’ 2018 memoir Why Religion?: A Personal Story. Figuring this was as good a time as any to read a memoir by one of my favorite religion writers I added Why Religion to my small stack of library books and headed to the check-out desk.

Like I said at the beginning, I’m no stranger to Pagels. Over the years I’ve enjoyed her books and heard her interviewed more than once on NPR. Based on that, I guessed I knew everything there was to know about one of America’s premier experts on early Christianity. But perhaps like you can be married to someone for years and not know everything about them, Why Religion? showed me there’s a whole lot to Elaine Pagels I didn’t know.

For instance, I shouldn’t have assumed just because she teaches at Princeton she’s originally from the East Coast. I was surprised to learn she was born in Palo Alto, CA, home to Stanford University where her dad taught botany. After getting “saved” at a Billy Graham crusade at 13 she began joined a local evangelical congregation but left a few years later when she was told a Jewish friend of hers who had been killed in a car crash had gone to hell because he wasn’t a “born again” Christian. While attending Stanford and hanging out at Kepler’s Books and Coffee in nearby Menlo Park she made friends with a scruffy former Army private turned musician by the name of Jerry Garcia. Not long after that Jerry started his new band The Grateful Dead and Elaine was a guest at his wedding.

Sadly, like too many young women pursuing graduate degrees she was sexually assaulted by a professor from her department. (Without revealing too much his actions were premeditated and predatory and couldn’t be blamed on alcohol, social ineptitude and/or “mixed signals.”) Also sadly, like too many young women in academia her bold, ground breaking work in her discipline was initially rejected by the old guard. Eventually, her novel work began getting noticed and as it did she racked up awards and lucrative grants. This paved the way for her to produce intelligent yet accessible books for a mainstream audience, as opposed to a solely academic one. (I also didn’t know before she began her Ph.D. she briefly studied dance at Martha Graham’s famous dance studio.) In a brave move as a memoirist, or just being an honest and inclusive person Pagels also admits experiencing a same-sex attraction to one of her female friends.

I’d forgotten Pagels suffered two horrible tragedies, both within a year of each other. First, her young son died of an incredibly rare pulmonary disorder and then her husband, a physicist died in a freak mountaineering accident. (Adding insult to injury, suddenly bereft of her husband’s income she was forced to vacate her condo in NYC.) Pagels was devastated. Her recovery took years and drove her to seek comfort and understanding in the religious texts and traditions she’d devoted her life studying and teaching.

While I enjoyed Why Religion? for the excellent writing perhaps it taught me a bigger lesson. There’s nothing better than learning there’s more to one of your favorite writers than you ever imagined.

Books About Books: In the Beginning by Alister McGrath

In the early 2000s three books were published, all within a year or two of each other dealing with the creation of the King James Bible. The first one of these I read, Benson Bobrick’s  Wide As the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired, I secured from my public library a month or two after it was published. It would take me almost two decades to get around to reading the second one, Adam Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible after a copy sat ignored in my personal library for years. The third book, Alister McGrath’s In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture I attempted to read right after it was published but only got 30-40 pages read before I had to return it to the library.  As interested as I’ve always been in this subject matter I never took another crack at In the Beginning. (Although in 2007 I did read The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, a book he co-authored with his wife Joanna Collicutt McGrath.)

After relocating from the big city to my current rural surroundings two years ago I noticed one of the three public library serving my county does in fact have a copy of In the Beginning. Out of the blue a few weeks ago I decided to borrow it and finally give it another shot.

For good, bad or otherwise McGrath doesn’t begin talking about the teams of learned English scholars and ecclesiastics gathered together to translate the Bible from ancient Hebrew, Greek and smatterings of Aramaic until the last third of the book. Before that, in the first two-thirds of In the Beginning he discusses the pertinent historical developments leading up to arguably history’s most unrivaled translation project. Starting with the Renaissance, he proceeds to the Reformation (both of which resulted in a greater sense of personhood, increased literacy, expanded availability of printed material and renewed appreciation of ancient texts and languages of antiquity), followed by England’s evolution from a middling kingdom on the European periphery to a rising power to be reckoned with, and ending with his thoughts on the English language. According to McGrath, after five centuries of taking a back seat to Classical Latin and Norman-imposed French English was at last coming into its own. No longer the crude patois of serfs and peasants, it had evolved into a sophisticated language capable of expressing greatness, nuance and beauty, and therefore worthy enough for the works of Shakespeare and the Holy Scriptures.

The King James Bible was intended to replace earlier English language Bibles, chief of which was as the Geneva Bible, which had achieved considerable popularity, especially among the country’s Puritans. But regardless of its popularity, the Geneva Bible was detested by England’s King James because he felt threatened by the anti monarchial tone of its margin notes. With all the translators of the King James Bible hailing from Oxford, Cambridge, London and environs, the final product would reflect the English spoken in Southeast England, as opposed to other regions of the realm. (In addition, according to McGrath after examining written records from this era historians have concluded the English people were starting to move away from the style and vocabulary of English utilized in the King James Bible.) Lastly, since those same luminaries were schooled in the Classical Greek of Homer, Aristotle and Herodotus they interpreted the New Testament’s country cousin-quality Koine Greek as loftier than it was. (On the other hand, those tasked with translating what Christians refer to as the Old Testament left many of its Hebrew idioms intact. As a result phrases like “rise and shine”, “under the sun”, “fly in the ointment” and “by the skin of my teeth” entered the English language. ) Like any work of art, be it visual, musical or literary, the King James Bible is very much a product of its time and place.

With McGrath’s In the Beginning finally under my belt, I’d like to tackle a few other books I’d consider to be in a similar vein. Brian Moynahan’s God’s Bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible—A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal has been on my to be read list forever and should make a great follow-up to In the Beginning. This would also be a good time to read Alix Christie’s novel Gutenberg’s Apprentice since I’ve owned a copy for close to five years and never once touched it. Come to think of it, I should also finally read my copy of Nicholas Ostler’s Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin. Hopefully, in the not too distant future you’ll read about all three of these books on this blog.

Books About Books: The Lost Gutenberg by Margaret Leslie Davis

When your friends know how much you love books they’re always giving you recommendations. Not long ago an old buddy of mine forwarded me a review NPR did of a book he thought would be right up my alley. He must know me well because The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book’s Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey by Margaret Leslie Davis did indeed sound like something I’d want to read. After only a short wait I was able to secure a Kindle edition through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Once it was in my possession I proceeded to burn through The Lost Gutenberg at a rapid pace, happily enjoying it as I did.

According to Margaret Leslie Davis, the author of The Lost Gutenberg there are just under 50 Gutenberg Bibles left in existence. Her book focuses on one of those, known as Number 45. Over the course of 500 years we follow Number 45’s parade of owners, including interestingly enough the heir of the famous Worcestershire sauce. (I was surprised to learn its ingredients for years had been a closely guarded secret.)

Of all these owners, Estelle Doheny takes center stage and rightfully so since her part in this long saga is by far the most fascinating. Doheny, a wealthy petroleum heiress, philanthropist and devout Catholic from Los Angeles attempted through an intermediary to buy Number 45 at auction but was unsuccessful. However, when opportunity afforded her another chance she once again bid on it and this time was successful. Upon her death Number 45 was willed to St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo, California where it was supposed to reside forever. However, the local Archdiocese exercised an ethically questionable loophole in the endowment and sold the cherished Bible to the highest bidder in hopes of raising funds needed for the recruitment and education of new priests. Sadly, in the end most the money went to remodel the Archbishop’s residence.

After enjoying The Lost Gutenberg I’d like to follow it up  with Alix Christie’s 2014 debut novel Gutenberg’s Apprentice. For that matter, I’d like to follow it up with more books about books, especially old books. When I do, you’ll be sure to read about it on my bog.

About Time I Read It: Angels and Demons by Dan Brown

I can’t remember how many years I’ve been reading books for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge but each year I’ve tried to include one dealing with Vatican City, Europe’s smallest nation. In 2013 it was Thomas Cahill’s biography of Pope John XXII. Two years later I featured a similar book, this time Pope John XXIII: A Spiritual Biography by Christian Feldman. Back in January, I reviewed another Papal biography, the ever so hagiographic Shepherd of Mankind: A Biography of Pope Paul VI by William E. Barrett. Lastly, in 2017 perhaps hankering for a little fiction I read and reviewed Conclave by Robert Harris.

Believe it or not, I’m picky when it comes to which books I’ll read for the Vatican City part of the European Reading Challenge. Since officially Vatican City didn’t become a sovereign state until the Lateran Treaty of 1929 I’m restricted to Papal biographies of Popes who reigned after that date. Likewise, any novels set in the Vatican also need to   reflect its status as a independent country, albeit a tiny one. While there aren’t too many novels like this for me to chose from, luckily for me a guy named Dan Brown wrote two mammoth best sellers that fit the bill. Recently, I decided to give his 2000 offering Angels and Demons a try.  Fearing I’d encounter an over-hyped piece of passé crap I went in with low expectations. What I got was an entertaining novel that despite it’s criticisms, valid or otherwise, was hard to put it down.

Just like the above-mentioned novel by Robert Harris, Angels and Demons is set during a holy conclave, a time when the Church’s cardinals have been locked away and tasked with electing a new Pope. If that wasn’t hard enough, four cardinals who are consensus favorites to replace the recently deceased Pope have gone missing. Things quickly go from bad to worse when it’s discovered a newly-created weapon of mass destruction powered by anti-matter lies hidden somewhere in the Vatican set to explode at midnight. Claiming responsibility for both the missing cardinals and the ticking time bomb is the ancient order of the Illuminati, a shadowy group bent on revenge and world domination and thought to have gone extinct hundreds of years ago. Brought in to save the day is Robert Langdon, Harvard professor and expert in art and religious symbols. Assisting him in his efforts is the beautiful and brilliant Vittoria Vetra, an Italian scientist specializing in biology and physics.

Kudos to Dan Brown for writing a fairly decent page-turner that kept me up reading past my self-imposed bedtime on several evenings. Hats off to him as well for including a number of plot twists, none of which I saw coming.  As a result, not only were my low expectations exceeded I’m embarrassed to admit I now wanna read The Da Vinci Code.

About Time I Read It: Lost to the West by Lars Brownworth

Back in May I reviewed Jenny White’s The Abyssinian Proof, a novel that takes place during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. This time I’d like feature something on the Byzantine Empire’s predecessor. One Saturday at the public library I came across a copy of Lars Brownworth’s 2009 book  Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization. Over the years I’ve had a minor fascination with the Byzantine Empire, inspiring me to read books like Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World.  Giving in to that fascination I grabbed the library’s copy of Lost to the West and went to work reading it.

Some will say the central message Lost to the West is how the Byzantine Empire kept alive Greek-infused Roman culture and civilization for well over a thousand years before succumbing to the Ottoman onslaught in 1453. During this time Byzantium served as a treasure house and beacon of enlightenment to the rest of Europe. After falling to the Turks its scholars became refuges, fanning out across the Continent and passing on the intellectual heritage of the Classical world. This transmission of lost knowledge helped jump-start the Renaissance, putting Europe on a path eventually leading to the modern world.

While it’s hard to argue with some or even all that, to me Lost to the West hammered home several what I might call universal truths. One, even the mightiest kingdoms wax and wane. Also, when authoritarian leaders act out of selfish self-interest, be that greed, jealousy or vindictiveness frequently the results are disastrous. Lastly, battles are sometimes won or lost not due to skill or strength but stupidity.

20 Books of Summer: The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey

I’m a huge fan of the website The Reading Lists. Every few days or so the site’s producer, Phil, a self-identifying book nerd in the United Kingdom, interviews a successful academic, business leader, writer or artist and gets that notable person talking about books. An interviewee might share a list of his/her favorite books, or a particular book that was inspiring or even life-changing. Some will mention books they’re forever recommending or what they’re currently reading. If you’re the kind of person who loves book recommendations I highly recommend The Reading Lists.

Back in March Phil interviewed theoretical physicist and bestselling author Lawrence Krauss. When asked what Krauss was currently reading and what made him want to read it he said the book was Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. It was recommended to him by his friend Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist, social critic and political theorist because “we were discussing the evils of modern religion. It describes in harrowing detail how Christianity in the first few centuries AD makes ISIS look like a kindergarten bully.” Well, with a provocative statement like that how could I not take a chance on The Darkening Age? I immediately borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work reading it. I was not disappointed.

In The Darkening Age, Nixey clearly and vividly makes a compelling case the early Christians mercilessly and at times violently worked to suppress classical civilization. According to Nixey, it was a centuries long all out assault on pagan art, literature, philosophy and religion. So successful was this zealous crusade only a fraction, perhaps estimated between 5 to 10 per cent of the ancient world’s body of knowledge exists today.

Once Christianity went from being a offbeat cult practiced by small number of unlettered, uncultured lower class believers to the dominant religion of Rome’s high and mighty the war on pre-Christian classical heritage began. Church leaders encouraged their flock to rat out their nonbeliever or backslidden neighbors and relatives suspected of exhibiting pagan tendencies. One Egyptian abbot ordered his goons to break into the homes of those he deemed insufficiently Christian and destroy any offending works of art or written texts. Temples were invaded and desecrated, beautiful statues smashed or wrecked and entire libraries were put to the torch. Great luminaries like Hypatia of Alexandria, one of the most brilliant women in ancient history (a world-class expert in philosophy, mathematics and astronomy) was brutally murdered in 415 at the hands of a mob acting on behalf of the local Bishop.

According to Nixey, attacks like these and countless others throughout the old Roman Empire arrested intellectual and cultural growth and thus changed the course of history. Gone, suppressed or ignored were works of brilliant satirists who poked fun at the established order and the foibles of the rich and powerful. So also was a cacophony of philosophical writings from a diverse multitude of deep thinkers, some critical of religion, and some who couldn’t care one way or another about it. Last but not least so were the works of Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius whose views on atomic theory and the physical universe were long before their time. One wonders what the world would look like today had the early Christians not been so inimical to classical culture.

The Darkening Age is a great book to read alongside Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, Mary Beard’s SPQR and Jonathan Kirsch’s God Against the Gods. Consider it highly recommended.

2018 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a huge fan of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Over the years she’s encouraged us to read as many books as possible that are set in, or about different European countries or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, over the course of the year participants find ourselves moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year was a pretty good year for me since I read and reviewed 18 books. Unfortunately, this year I didn’t do as well with only 15. Just like in past years, a variety of countries are represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, but also smaller ones like Croatia, Lithuania and even the micro-state of Vatican City. Unlike last year, this year’s selection is almost exclusively nonfiction with only The Hired Man, The Lady and the Unicorn and The Little Book being works of fiction. As for the nonfiction, a lion’s share of the books deal with World War II and the Holocaust or the Cold War or both. Lastly, The Little Book made my year-end Favorite Fiction list while The Book Smugglers and God’s Secretaries made the Favorite Nonfiction one. Overall, from top to bottom it’s a great assortment of quality books.

  1. The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David E. Fishman (Lithuania)
  2. The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country by Tobias Jones (Italy)
  3. The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House by Norman Eisen (Czech Republic)
  4. Shepherd of Mankind: A Biography of Pope Paul VI by William E. Barrett (Vatican City)
  5. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia)
  6. In the Darkroom by Susan Fuladi (Hungary)
  7. The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy (Ukraine)
  8. The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (Belgium)
  9. The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest by Peter Duffy (Belarus)
  10. God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson (United Kingdom)
  11. The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn Beer (Germany)
  12. The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat by Michael Jones (Russia)
  13. The Little Book by Selden Edwards (Austria)
  14. The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond by Stephen O’ Shea (Switzerland)
  15. A Secret Life: The Polish Colonel, His Covert Mission, And The Price He Paid To Save His Country by Benjamin Weiser (Poland)

Like I said at the start, I’m a huge fan of this challenge and encourage all you book bloggers to sign up. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Old Books Reading Project: Shepherd of Mankind by Willam E. Barrett

Like I mentioned in my previous post, when it comes to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge it’s easy to find books representing large countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia. But what about the small ones? And the really small ones? How about the smallest one of all? By that I mean Vatican City. My solution over the last few years has been to read a biography of a pope. Both times I did they were short biographies of Pope John XXIII, one by Christian Feldman and the other by Thomas Cahill. Lucky for me, I happen to possess in my personal library a biography of Pope Paul VI. For good, bad or otherwise it’s been gathering dust for years. Not long ago I decided to finally crack it open and give it a read.

Published in 1964, William E. Barrett’s Shepherd of Mankind: A Biography of Pope Paul VI is definitely a product of its time. Written by a devout Catholic, Barrett’s biography is adorned with an official Vatican imprimatur. While I’m hesitant to deem it a hagiography, nevertheless I was hard pressed to find anything critical or highly unflattering in this book about Pope Paul VI or, before his election Giovanni Montini. But hey, I knew that going in so no big deal.

What I did like about Shepherd of Mankind, when compared to the two above-mentioned papal biographies is the portion of the biography that focuses on the workings of the Vatican. (This is of course to be expected, before he became Pope John XXIII, Angelo Roncalli spent much of his career outside the Vatican, serving in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and France.) For years Montini was Pope Pius XII’s right hand man in charge of Vatican domestic affairs. In 1954, Pius appointed Montini Archbishop of Milan, in a move Barrett hints was to get him out of the Pope’s hair. (According to Barrett, Pius, plagued with escalating health issues and growing cranky with age began seeing Montini’s interruptions as bothersome. Employing the age-old tactic of Promoveatur ut amoveatur or promote him to remove him, he exiled him to Milan.)

But to Montini’s credit, during his four years in Milan he flourished. While serving as Archbishop he raised funds to build new churches, and actively engaged in dialog with artists, intellectuals and non-catholics like atheists, Protestants, Muslims and ex-Catholics. Despite seeing Communism as a false god and enemy of the Church, Montini was strongly pro-labor, regularly visiting the city’s factories and chatting with workers. He strove hard to bring dispirited ex-Catholics back to the fold and narrowly survived an attempt on his life when a would be assassin threw a bomb into his residence. (He had left the room only moments before it went off.)

Since it was published in 1964 the book pretty much ends when Montini becomes Pope. Sadly, much to my disappointment Barrett spends little time discussing the Second Vatican Council. Who knows, perhaps a book solely devoted to that episode of Church history I could end up read ing for the European Reading Challenge.