A few months ago I started craving longform journalism. Luckily for me, I have a huge stack of cast-off New Yorker magazines I’ve managed to accumulate over the last couple of years so I have no shortage of available reading material. But as I began exploring this cache I found myself craving longform stuff in book form, preferable curated by a capable editor. Fortunately for me, my public library has a number of essay collections and last week I borrowed two, one of which happened to be The Best American Essays 2015. I burned through it quickly, which is always a good sign. It also left me wanting to read more essays, which also a good sign.
Within the pages of The Best American Essays 2015 I found stuff by familiar authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Anthony Doerr and David Sedaris but the rest of the contributors were new to me. New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy served as the guest editor for 2015’s edition and a good chunk of the pieces she selected dealt with the personal: aging, mortality, family and marriage. Had I known this was the case, I might not of decided to read her collection, fearing the essays were too sentimental or self-centered. Kudos to Levy though, there’s not a stinker in the bunch. (Although Zadie Smith’s “Find Your Beach” might not have been up to my liking.) Of these Justin Cronin’s “My Daughter and God” in which he recalls in detail the existential crises and religious quest resulting from his wife and daughter’s brush with death was a favorite of mine as was John Reed’s edgy piece “My Grandma, the Poisoner” about a dear grandmother who, in all likelihood was a serial poisoner. Kelly Sunderberg’s “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is probably the best account I’ve read on the complexity and pain of spousal abuse.
As for other memorable contributions in this collection, hats off to Philip Kennicott for his piece “Smuggler” on the perils and pitfalls of gay literature. Even as a non-gay male I found his essay fascinating and smart as hell without being dry and pretentious. As a cat lover, how could I not enjoy Tim Kreider’s “A Man and His Cat” about what it’s like to adopt (or perhaps more accurately, be adopted by) a stray cat. Lastly, Isiah Berlin’s “A Message to the Twenty-First Century” on the evils of totalitarianism was another of my favorites. Originally written in 1994 it wasn’t published until a decade later. Sadly, in this age of Internet-enabled bigotry and Donald Trump, Berlin’s warnings are sorely needed.
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.
Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Israel, Japan, Judaica, Latin America/Caribbean, Memoir, Science, Turkey
I enjoyed doing my post A Trio of Books About China so much I thought I’d do another one and feature three books of a similar nature. This time, instead of focusing on China I’d like to spotlight three recently published books that look at the world-wide rise in populist-fueled authoritarianism and the threat it posses to the established democratic order.
- Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism by Ian Bremmer- I’ve been fan of Bremmer for years. I loved his 2010 book The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and last February I reviewed his 2006 book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. He’s probably the only “thought leader” I follow on social media. I’ve reposted tons of his Facebook posts and retweeted more than a few of his Twitter offerings. As soon as I heard he’d written a new book I requested my public library purchase a digital copy for Kindle download. Luckily for me I was the first in line to read it. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer looks at the impacts of “globalism”: increased trade, (not just in goods and services but also knowledge and ideology) immigration, mass refugee migrations, and the rise of supranational organizations the EU but also the backlash they create leading sometimes to authoritarian regimes at home and abroad.
- How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt – I couldn’t resist this one when I saw this one on the “New Books” shelf at my public library. Written by two Harvard professors, one an expert in European politics and the other Latin American, the authors take history and recent current events as their guides warning us of the risks facing democracy and how to protect it.
- Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright – A good friend of mine was kind enough to loan me her AUTOGRAPHED copy, purchased the night she saw Albright speak on her recent speaking tour. This is the second book by Albright I’ve featured on my blog. Back in early 2013 I briefly reviewed her Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. Much like How Democracies Die it’s a warning that democracy is under attack in America and around the world and what to do about it.
So similar are these three books it’s probably easier to write about what they have in common as opposed to their differences. To these writers authoritarianism, or as Albright calls it fascism comes gradually and not overnight. It might begin with a tough-talking nationalist leader claiming to speak for the ignored and pure hearted, who might ban a rival political party but goes on to ban the others. The leader, calling a newspaper or a TV network a threat to the nation will force its shutdown or worse, make it a propaganda organ for the state. Judges are forced to retire and courts are packed with the leader’s hand-picked judicial replacements. A constitutions is rewritten and presidential term limits are abolished. Eventually, you wind up with a dictator for life unaccountable to no one.
There’s also the potential for things to get even worse in the future. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer predicts advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and 3D printing will lead to widespread unemployment in both the developed and developing world, causing unprecedented political and economic instability. Governments around the globe will be forced by their citizens to address crippling problems of unemployment, income disparities, public unrest and mass migrations.
Us vs. Them, How Democracies Die and Fascism: A Warning are all good books and must reading for the civic-minded. Since they compliment each other so well I can’t encourage you enough to read all three. If, as these four writers claim democracy is under pressure, if not under attack around the world then it’s best to educate oneself. Reading these three books would be a great step in that direction.
Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Economics, Europe, History, Latin America, Latin America/Caribbean, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey
As the year draws to a close and I frantically try to review, no matter how briefly, as many books as possible I noticed three of the books I’ve been wanting to write about deal with China. All three are backlist titles and I found them at my public library. The first one, Fortunate Sons, deals with China’s past while the second, Michael Levy’s memoir Kosher Chinese deals with everyday life as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in China’s interior region during the mid 2000s, while the third Age of Ambition is a collection of interviews with a wide array of Chinese individuals and their ambitions to succeed in today’s ascendant China. If I group these books together to me it begins to resemble a play in three acts: China’s past, it’s transition and it’s present.
- Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization by Liel Leibowitz and Matthew Miller – I’ve been wanting to read this one since 2011 when it was published. For centuries China was the richest and most powerful kingdom on earth. But by the 19th century, China found itself eclipsed by the industrializing powers of Europe. In hopes of catching up, China needed to learn from the West. Dozens of young Chinese men were sent to American high schools and top-flight universities like Harvard and Yale to learn science, engineering, mathematics and such in hopes of returning China educated men who could jump-start the backwards country. This is a pretty good book and it taught me more than a few things. (For instance, I learned in China’s Taiping Rebellion, waged roughly around the time of the American Civil War, close to 30 million died.)
- Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion by Michael Levy – Like Ken Silverstein’s Turkmeniscam and Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy this is a backlist title I’d never heard of till I saw it at on a library shelf. Levy was teaching in America in the early 2000s when, in the wake of 9-11 he wanted to do something significant with his life. His solution was to join the Peace Corps, earning him a stint teaching English at a third tier college in Guiyang, an out-of-the-way town deep in China’s interior. I was pleasantly surprised by this memoir and found its combination of humor, honesty and slice of Chinese life a light and enjoyable read.
- Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos -This book won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer AND an Economist magazine’s best book of the year. It deserves all the awards. Osnos spent close to a decade interviewing Chinese citizens and learning their hopes and dreams. (Who knew there’s a thing in China called “Crazy English” in which you learn English by yelling it.) Not only is this one of the best books I’ve read this year it’s one of the best books about China I’ve read.
In retrospect, for me 2018 has been a year for reading about China. In addition to the three above-mentioned books I also read Paul French’s Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China as well as Robert Kaplan’s East Asia-centric Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. After getting a taste of these kind of books I think in 2019 I’d like to read more.
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.
In an earlier post I praised my local public library for having such a great collection of backlist titles even though it’s located in a small town and serves an overwhelming rural clientele. Yet another one of these backlist books like Walter Kirn’s memoir Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever I picked up not long ago was Ken Silverstein’s Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship. Every time I visited the library I’d seen it on the shelf. While I’d never heard of it, I was vaguely familiar with his 2004 book The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor. So, one day my curiosity got the better of me and I borrowed it.
Published back in 2008, Turkmeniscam grew out of piece of investigative reporting Silverstein did for Harper’s magazine. Wondering just how far a Washington DC-based lobby firm would go to promote the interests of a truly despicable client he thought he’s try and see. With his employer’s blessing and assistance he whipped up a batch of bogus business cards with a fake name, secured a cell phone with a London, England number and shopped himself around as a representative of the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan. Before long four DC lobby firms were falling over themselves offering to lobby and provide extensive PR work on behalf of a dictator so megalomaniacal his decrees looked like The Onion headlines had they not been true. (He once renamed several months of the calendar in praise of himself.) For the right price firms were willing to recruit think tanks and policy institutes to plant favorable op-ed pieces in major newspapers, wine and dine potentially receptive Congressional reps, burnish the dictatorship’s image through conferences and speaking engagements and lastly, heaven forbid should the brutal Central Asian regime commit some kind of Tiananmen Square-level mass atrocity provide on-call spin doctoring 24/7.
Just like Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy, Turkmeniscam is a short book and not a bad one. Once again I’m in debt to my modest, rural public library for introducing me to yet another interesting book.
I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But holy cow, with cover at like this how could I NOT resist grabbing Stephen O’ Shea’s 2017 book The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond during my recent trip to the public library? Seduced by its beautiful cover art of course I checked it out. Before I knew it I was hanging out in one of my usual reading lairs with my mind happily transported to the picturesque Alps.
The Alps recalls O’ Shea’s 500 mile journey behind the wheel of a high-end European sports car across the Alpine regions of seven countries: France, Italy, Switzerland (roughly half the book, more or less), Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Austria and Germany. Traveling through this breathtaking heart of Europe O’ Shea reflects on the region’s natural beauty, lectures on its history and serves up humorous commentary on those he encounters, whether they be natives and tourists. The end product is one of those intelligent yet entertaining kind of travel books you might expect from writers like Bill Bryson or Tony Horwitz.
Perhaps because I’m a historian at heart I enjoyed O’ Shea’s little history lessons. My favorite of these was the Battle of Caporetto. It was here in World War I the Italian Army was completely routed by the Austro-Hungarians and Germans. Just to add insult to injury, Italy’s supreme military commander was Marshall Luigi Cadorna, who according to O’ Shea was as cruel as he was incompetent. After the Battle of Caporetto he ordered the execution of officers whose units retreated. His refusal to send food supplies to captured Italians held in enemy POW camps resulted in the starvation of thousands of his own troops. Lastly, while never proven by historians legend has it Cadorna resurrected the ancient Roman practice of decimation—the killing of every tenth man from units that retreated or underperformed.
Figuring the cover art might end up being the best part of this book, I went in with low expectations. Lo and behold, while The Alps isn’t the best piece of nonfiction I’ve read this year I was entertained and leaned more than a few things. (For example, I had no idea the children’s novel Heidi had so many religious overtones.) And that my friends is never a bad thing.