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.

20 Books of Summer: The Forever War by Dexter Filkins

As I pointed out in an early post, I’m a big fan of Dexter Filkins. His 2013 New Yorker piece on Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was top notch and became must reading after Soleimani’s 2019 assassination. But as much as I love his New Yorker stuff I still hadn’t read his highly praised 2008 book The Forever War. Lately however I’ve been craving books on the Middle East and the Islamic World so when I spotted a copy of The Forever War at the library I figured now was as good a time as any to finally read it. Filkins’s well-written book made for almost effortless reading and like so many back-listed books I’ve read over the years left me wishing I’d read it years ago.

During his years as a foreign correspondent Filkins spent time in Afghanistan and Iraq, battlegrounds in America’s War on Terror. His collection of dispatches begins in the late 1990s in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and ends in Iraq, roughly around the time of the “Surge”, necessitated by the escalating insurgency and corresponding Sunni-Shia civil war. In addition, Filkins also reports from Ground Zero in New York City in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks showing us the face of war on American soil.

To me the most memorable take away from Forever War is the everyday look of military occupation. Besides the endless ambushes, bloodshed and grabbing suspected insurgents for detention and questioning it’s also the blurred lines between friend and foe. The friendly face you meet today could kill you tomorrow. Yesterday’s sworn enemy may throw in his lot with you today should he find it politically and/or financially advantageous. Just the simple act of grabbing lunch in a local restaurant is a potential risk to life and limb as evident the moment you walk in, when regulars stop talking and begin staring at you, like some scene in an old western.

Thanks to Filkins’s direct, narrative style The Forever War is easy and entertaining reading. Even though it was published over 12 years ago in contains valuable insights into the bitterly contested countries of Afghanistan and Iraq. If you’re looking for good books to explain the bloody conflicts behind today’s news headlines, consider The Forever War.

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.

A Reader’s Guide to Eastern Europe

Photo Credit – Wikipedia

For several months I’ve been wanting to post a Reader’s Guide to Eastern Europe. It, along with the Middle East are two regions that have fascinated me for years, a fascination that’s inspired me to read who knows how many books over the years about this part of the world. As long as I’ve participated in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I’ve always included nonfiction works about Eastern Europe or works of fiction by Eastern European authors.

For over 200 years Eastern Europe has experienced a number of crucial inflection points that have changed the course of world history. Russia’s ability to withstand Napoleon’s invasion ended France’s attempt to dominate Eurasia. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914 sparked a world war that would kill millions and ultimately destroy the established European order, leading to the rise of authoritarian Communism and Fascism. Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland would in turn kick off another global war, this one even more horrific than the last. Lastly, decades later the Soviet Union’s inability to reinvigorate its failing political-economic system would lead to the collapse of both the USSR and Communist nations across the region once again remaking the world order.

More recent events in Eastern Europe have dominated headlines. Poland and Hungary, two decades after finally escaping the yoke of Communist tyranny continue their slide towards authoritarian rule. Meanwhile, seperatist militias backed by Russian troops battle government forces in Eastern Ukraine. All of this currently unfolding against the backdrop of an increasingly bellicose Russia rightfully accused of interfering in the affairs foreign and domestic of numerous countries including the United States. 

I can’t think of any better way to gain a deeper understand this important part of the world than by doing some reading. To help facilitate this I’ve compiled a list of recommended books specific to the different nations making up Eastern Europe. Keep in mind I’m only including books I’ve read. (If you find one of your favorites missing it’s probably because I’ve yet to read it, not that I didn’t like it.) Also keep in mind I’m not an academic and certainly no expert in this region so take my advice with a grain of salt. 

I’ve taken the liberty to define Eastern Europe as the following:

  • The European republics of the former USSR: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia 
  • The former Warsaw Pact member nations: Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia (Czechoslovakia before the country split in two) and Albania (before leaving the Pact in 1968) 
  • The successor states of Yugoslavia: Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina (Please note: Until Kosovo is officially recognized with a seat in the UN General Assembly for our purposes I’ll be treating it as an autonomous region of Serbia) 

Photo Credit – TripSavvy

Below you’ll find a mixture of fiction and nonfiction. You’ll also find a lot of obscure and backlisted stuff, which if you’ve been reading my blog shouldn’t surprise you. It also shouldn’t surprise you almost all of these books I found at my public library. That means they’re probably in yours as well, and if not certainly available through interlibrary loan. 

AlbaniaThe Fall of Stone City by Ismail Kadare 

Armenia, Azerbijian and GeorgiaThe Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus by Ross King

AzerbaijanAll Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Grjasnowa

BelarusThe 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 

Bosnia and HerzegovinaThe Wolf of Sarajevo by Matthew Palmer, The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt by Julian Borger, The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War by Tim Butcher, Sarajevo: A War Journal  by Zlatko Dizdarević or Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War by Peter Maass

BulgariaBorder: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova or The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova 

CroatiaThe Hired Man by Aminatta Forna, Marble Skin by Slavenka Drakulic or Girl at War by Sara Nović

Czech RepublicPrague Spring by Simon Mawer, Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr, The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House by Norman Eisen, The Devils Workshop by Jachym Topol, The Fifth Servant by Kenneth J. Wishnia or Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright 

HungaryMasquerade: Dancing Around Death in Nazi Occupied Hungary by Tivadar Soros, Budapest Noir by Vilmos Kondor, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, In the Darkroom by Susan Fuladi or The Bridge at Andau: The Compelling True Story of a Brave, Embattled People by James Michener

LatviaA Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile by Agate Nesaule, The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell or Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe by Inara Verzemnieks

LithuaniaThe Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David E. Fishman or The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism by Eliyahu Stern 

MoldovaPogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein 

PolandThe Train to Warsaw by Gwen Edelman, Isaac’s Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland by Matthew Brzezinski, A Secret Life: The Polish Colonel, His Covert Mission, And The Price He Paid To Save His Country by Benjamin Weiser, The Volunteer: One Man’s Mission to Lead an Underground Army Inside Auschwitz and Stop the Holocaust by Jack Fairweather or The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman

RomaniaUnder a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania by Haya Leah Molnar, In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond by Robert D. Kaplan or The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile’s Story of Return and Revolution by Andrei Codrescu 

RussiaOctober: The Story of a Revolution by China Miéville, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry by Gal Beckerman, City of Thieves by David Benioff, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945 by Catherine Merridale, The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat by Michael Jones, The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin by David Satter, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by David Remnick or Mutiny: The True Events That Inspired The Hunt For Red October by Boris Gindin and David Hagberg. 

SerbiaHunting the Tiger: The Fast Life and Violent Death of the Balkans’ Most Dangerous Man by Christopher S. Stewart or The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

SlovakiaSiren of the Waters by Michael Genelin 

UkraineRed Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum, In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah, Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov, Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith, A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel by Edmund Levin, An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History by Askold Krushnelnycky or Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King 

Books covering multiple countriesIron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum, Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment by Stephen Kotkin, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder, The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe by Marci Shore or Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters by Elie Wiesel 

Armenia, Georgia, Estonia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro I’m still looking for recommendations.

There you have it. Good luck and happy reading! 

 

About Time I Read It: The Future Is History by Masha Gessen

After reading tons of great things about Masha Gessen’s 2017 book The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia I decided to buy a Kindle edition last March after Amazon, much to my joy drastically dropped the price. Months later and needing something about Russia for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I began reading it. Like many outstanding books The Future is History blew me away from the beginning. Not only will it make my 2020 list of favorite nonfiction it’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year.

We all know Russia has reverted back its totalitarian self of old. The question is how did this happen. According to Gessen, in her National Book Award winning work of biography, history and political analysis the Fall of Communism, as earth-shaking as it was, didn’t transform Russia into a functioning democratic society. After a decade of political and economic disfunction under Boris Yeltsin, as corrupt oligarchs and murderous mobsters ran roughshod over the nation, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer assumed the reigns of power. After imprisoning, forcibly coopting or assassinating his rivals, seizing their assets and media outlets Putin and his old intelligence service colleagues consolidated their hold on Russia. To some, perhaps even many Russians at first things looked promising. The troublesome oligarchs were neutralized, told to either play ball with Putin or else. The sinking economy was righted. Nationalists rejoiced as Russia adopted a more assertive foreign policy.

This was all made easier, Gessen asserts because Russia, at its core is an authoritarian society. Thanks to 80 years of Soviet rule (building on hundreds of years of Tsarist supremacy) Russians have been conditioned into believing only a dictatorial regime, like that of the Soviets could deliver them material comfort, stability and national pride. Flawed elections, harmful deregulations and weak democratic institutions became synonymous with rampant crime, widespread corruption and a Third Word-like chasm between rich and poor and. Only a return to Russia’s authoritarian past could save the country.

Gessen weaves together the oral histories of four different Russians to show how this  happened, beginning  with the hopefulness of perestroika to the chaos of the Yeltsin years to today’s Putin era. Despite their respective promising beginnings by the end all four Russians are trampled by the heavy-handed Russian state. One, Lyosha finds himself the victim of state-sponsored homophobic bullying after Putin and his allies enact anti-LGBTQ policies. (Supposedly drafted to protect Russia’s children from predatory gays and lesbians, the new laws were designed to please social conservatives and others alarmed at Russia’s plummeting birthrate.) With the deck seemingly stacked forever Putin’s favor, Russia’s future looks bleak.

The Future Is History is an outstanding book, and a must read for anyone wanting to understand Putin’s Russia. Like Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry it will definitely make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction. Please consider it highly recommended.

The World: A Brief Introduction by Richard Haass

I’d been wanting to read Richard Haass’ 2017 book A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order but after seeing reviews of his newest book The World: A Brief Introduction in newspapers of record like  The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and hearing him interviewed on NPR and Ian Bremmer’s GZERO World podcast I figured I’d skip The World in Disarray and go straight to The World. Figuring a book by the longtime President of the Council on Foreign Relations and key player in both Bush administrations would make for insightful reading I borrowed a Kindle edition through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Touted as a “primer” on our increasingly complicated and interconnected world Haass’ book reads with ease.

Haass starts off by asserting America no longer constructively engages with the rest of the world. As a nation we’ve ceased taking an active role in global affairs and on those few occasions we’ve taken the initiative we’ve made things worse by making horrible decisions. Unfortunately, this double whammy of ineptitude is playing out in a world that grows more unstable and unpredictable by the day. The reason, Haass claims, is because most Americans are ignorant of the wider world. In our push to promote the STEM curriculum young Americans are graduating for colleges and universities with less exposure to global history, comparative politics and international relations. Older Americans, even if they’d taken such classes in college haven’t kept up with the monumental changes that have shaped and continue to shape our world since the Fall of Communism.  What Americans need is an accessible refresher course promoting “global literacy” which hopefully will allow us to function at some basic level in international affairs.

The World begins with a breezy, yet surprisingly comprehensive history of the world beginning with the 30 Years War, arguably considered the birth of the modern age. Once Haass has put everything in deeper historical context he serves up an equally breezy and comprehensive International Relations 101 introduction covering everything from NATO, the United Nations, global trade, diplomatic relations and everything in between. He concludes The World with a look where the planet might be heading, with special attention paid to such rising challenges as human-induced climate change, dwindling resources, authoritarian populism (frequently at the expense of democratic rule) and mass migration. Lastly, he includes a list of books, publications and the like recommended to be helpful for keeping abreast of international developments.

Even though much of The World was a review for me I highlighted the heck out of it, proving Haass did a fine job covering such an expansive topic and explaining things well. If you wanna understand today’s world, this book (in addition to others like Ian Bremmer’s Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism ) is an ideal place to start.

About Time I Read It: Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley

The world is in the throes of a pandemic, the likes of which we haven’t experienced in a hundred years. Across the globe an endless parade of marchers fill the streets protesting police brutality and racial inequality. Either of these crises, let alone two at the same time would be a major headache for even the most capable of presidential administrations. But alas, with the current kakistocracy in Washington, DC overwhelmed and underbrained things look grim. If these are in fact, as Thomas Paine would say, times that try men’s souls, then it’s time for my soul to enjoy a some political humor. Specifically, it’s time for a little Christopher Buckley.

It’s been four years since I read his satire of Middle Eastern politics Florence of Arabia.  Not really sure which of his novels to read next I ultimately decided to borrow an ebook version of his 2008 offering Supreme Courtship, because it features a loquacious Joe Biden-esque senator from Connecticut. Plus, let’s face it, a humorous take on the United States Supreme Court is hard to pass up.

Tired of watching his two previous nominees to the nation’s highest court go down in flames at the hands of the by above-mentioned Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dexter Mitchell, President Donald P. Vanderdamp opts to take a different approach. Instead of nominating an up and coming federal judge or venerable legal scholar he selects Pepper Cartwright, star host of the reality TV series “Courtroom Six .” Cartwright, a pistol packing, straight-shooting Texas gal and former LA Superior Court judge is, to say the least, an odd choice for the nation’s highest court. (Made even odder once it’s learned her father – now the pastor of a mega-church with a private jet at his disposal – as a young Dallas police officer mistakenly allowed Jack Ruby to sneak into a parking garage to get a closer look at Lee Harvey Oswald. As they say, all the rest is history.) Coaching her through the nomination process is octogenarian Graydon Clenndennynn, a kind of Henry Kissinger figure and

 wisest of the Washington wise men, grayest of its eminences, adviser to seven—or was it eight?—presidents. Former Attorney General. Former Secretary of State. Former Secretary of the Exterior. Former Ambassador to France. Former everything.

Of course, being the wise man is he, instructs Pepper when asked question about abortion to say “little as possible in as many words as possible.”

Should Pepper survive this grueling process she will join an already colorful cast of justices. In addition to Silvio Santamaria (“Jesuit seminarian, father of 13 children, Knight of Malta, adviser to the Vatican”) as a thinly disguised Antonin Scalia there’s “den mother” Paige Plympton, (a nod to Sandra Day O’Conner) as well as Crispus Galavanter, a kindler, gentler and more intelligent version of Clarence Thomas. First among equals there’s Chief Justice Declan Hardwether, who, after casting the deciding vote to legalize gay marriage becomes the butt of the nation’s jokes after his wife leaves him for a woman.

With her unorthodox style, down-home wit and status as a political outsider, many saw Pepper Cartwright as a Sarah Palin figure when Supreme Courtship was released in the fall of 2008. Reading this in 2020, I’m left wondering if Buckley possesses the gift of precognition since his novel features, of all things, an infidelitous TV star who runs for president, several calamitous stock market crashes, and a Constitutional crises. (These days it feels like we’re always in the midst of a Constitutional crisis.)

Buckley has a gift for writing light, but clever prose. Above all, he makes you laugh and right now, that’s just what we need.

Black Wave by Kim Ghattas

I’m going to make a bold prediction and say Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East by Kim Ghattas will be my favorite nonfiction book of 2020. I know it’s not yet May and I’ll have read plenty more books before the end of the year but Black Wave impressed the hell out of me. If I’ve learned just one thing from ten years of book blogging it’s I know an outstanding book when I’ve read one. And Black Wave is outstanding.

I don’t know remember how and when I first heard about Black Wave, but I recently borrowed a Kindle version through Overdrive. After a mere few pages I knew I’d found a winner.

Black Wave begins with snapshot of the not so distant past. The Islamic World of the 60s and 70s from Cairo to Kabul was full of promise. Arab intellectuals, be they Marxist, Pan-Arabist or Palestinian nationalist held court in Beirut’s bars discussing politics over drinks. Egypt was the Hollywood of the Middle East, producing an endless parade of movies featuring beautiful, uninhibited actresses not afraid to break conservative moral taboos. The Shah of Iran vowed to modernize his country,  making it socially and technologically on par with the West. With so many city-dwelling secular educated Muslim women embracing Western dress and high fashion, the streets of Karachi and Tehran began to resemble Paris, London and New York. Pakistan, created as a homeland for India’s Muslims was nevertheless seen by many who lived there as a modern, secular state that recognized the rights of all religious minorities. This commitment to religious freedom was enshrined in the nation’s constitution and was proudly proclaimed by Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah upon achieving independence in 1947.

So what happened? How did such a promising social and political trajectory end with ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia at each other’s throats? According to Ghattas in 1979 three monumental events occurred whose impact would be felt thought the region for decades. First came the Iranian Revolution, in which the Shah was overthrown only to be replaced by an even worse regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini and his army of theocrats. Next was an unsuccessful attempt by Saudi Islamic militants to capture the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Finally, just before year’s end the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, leading to decades of war involving guerrilla fighters from across the Muslim World including a wealthy young Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden.

All three were events unfolded independently yet occurred in such close proximity both geographically and chronologically they’d end up reshaping the Muslim World. After the Iranian Revolution, Iran would proclaim itself protector of the region’s downtradden Shia Muslims by creating ex nihilo militant groups like Hezbollah, as well as positioning itself as the sole rightful guardians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The ruling Saudis couldn’t drive the militants from the Grand Mosque without the blessing of the Kingdom’s conservative religious authorities, and that would require giving them carte blanche going forward. Luckily for the ruling Saudis, Afghanistan could serve as a convenient safety valve where militant young Saudis could fight holy wars abroad instead of at home. Awash in oil revenue the Saudi royals would repay the religious conservatives who blessed their retaking of the Grand Mosque by funding hardline Sunni causes through the Middle East and South Asia.

If you’re trying to understand the Greater Middle East this book is for you. Ghattas does a superb job delivering the big picture with the perfect amount of detail. Published in January of this year, it covers a number of recent developments including the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Iranian drone attack on the Aramco oil processing facilities. Black Wave is ideal follow-up reading to Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, Gregory Feifer’s The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan, Ronen Bergman’s The Secret War with Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power and Yaroslav Trofimov’s The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine. Consider Black Wave highly recommended.