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. 

About Time I Read It: Border by Kapka Kassabova

Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has been one my favorite reading challenges. Over the years it’s been easy finding books set in places like the United Kingdom, France and Germany. I’ve even managed to find books set in smaller countries like Bosnia, Austria and even tiny Vatican City. When it comes to Bulgaria however it’s been tough. In all the years I’ve been participating I’ve found just two books I could apply toward the challenge. In 2015 I reviewed Zachary Karabashliev’s novel 18% Gray and last January it was Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land. Based on my track record, I figured the odds of me finding another book set in or about Bulgaria were pretty slim.

That is until I saw a review of Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe posted on one of my favorite book blogs What’s Nonfiction. Not only was the book about Bulgaria, but also the region where, in the author’s words

Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey converge and diverge, borders being what they are. It is also where something like Europe begins and something else ends which isn’t quite Asia.

The author of What’s Nonfiction had nothing but praise for Border, calling Kassabova’s prose “breathtaking” as well as “eloquent” and “sophisticated” adding “it gave me goosebumps.” Encouraged by her glowing review I went in search of an available copy on Overdrive and much to my surprise I was able to download one.  Yes, the above-mentioned review is spot-on and Border is worthy of the praise.

Unbeknownst to us in the West, until the Fall of Communism countless refugees from Eastern Bloc countries passed through this section of Bulgaria in hopes of reaching Greece orTurkey. Sadly, they were seldom, if ever successful. The Bulgarian border guards patrolling the frontier were authorized to shoot to kill anyone caught crossing the border and many did, preferring to bury to victims secretly in unmarked graves. The Communists even constructed bogus fences in advance of the real ones in hopes of deceiving those attempting to escape. Even the maps they used betrayed them, purposely falsified by the Communist intelligence services.

Ironically, today there’s desperate people crossing the same border but they flowing into Bulgaria from Greece and Turkey and not away from it. Today’s refugees aren’t fleeing Communism but civil war, unrest and extreme deprivation from a host of countries including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the past, Bulgaria’s rulers feared a departure of its citizens would lead to a collapse of the Communist system. Now they fear the they’ll lose their national identity if the country is overwhelmed by Muslim refugees.

Like a shaman who’s able to commune with ancient spirits Kassabova spends much time commenting on the region’s past. Considering its long and storied history perhaps the hollowed ground Kassabova walks upon in some Faulknerian sense the past is never dead and not even past. Border is one of those rare books that defies genre. Kassabova artfully weaves memoir, history, travelogue and reportage into one outstanding book, assisted by her intimate knowledge of the Bulgaria’s language and culture. Border a must read for anyone trying to understand the past, present and perhaps even the future of this corner of the Balkans.

Ten Drugs by Thomas Hager

When I heard the news science writer Thomas Hager would be at my public library promoting his latest book Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine I couldn’t wait to attend. I’ve been a fan of Hagers for years, ever since I read his 2006 book The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug.

So a few weeks after hearing this good news, I showed up at my small town library, grabbed a seat and much to my surprise watched the room gradually fill with attendees. At  the appointed time, or a few minutes past it, our guest of honor took the podium and treated us to a selection of short passages from his latest book. He concluded things with an obligatory bit of Q and A  followed by an equally obligatory session of book signings, and I used this as an opportunity for him to autograph my paperback copy of The Demon Under the Microscope. I’m happy to say Hager is a cool guy and it was a please to meet him! Later, I was able to secure a copy of Ten Drugs from the library and eagerly went to work reading it.

Some of Ten Drugs, especially the chapter on the origins of bacteria-fighting sulfa drugs  was a review for me since it was the inspiration for Hager’s much earlier book The Demon Under the Microscope. But the chapter on first antipsychotic drug was not, and I was amazed to learn the how this drug it came to be, and more importantly how it was such a game-changer when used to treat the mentally ill. I also enjoyed learning the origins of pain-killers and Viagra.

The Demon Under the Microscope is a great book and therefore a tough act to follow. As  a result, I enjoyed Ten Drugs, but maybe not as much as The Demon Under the Microscope. But to say this feels unfair, because a book, just like any other created work should stand or fall on its own merits and not those of its predecessor. So go read Ten Drugs, and in doing so learn about all the drugs that have changed history.

Books About Books: Syria’s Secret Library by Mike Thomson

Lemme see, a book about a secret library in the middle of war-torn Syria. How on earth could I resist ? So of course I helped myself to a copy of Mike Thomson’s Syria’s Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege when I spotted it on the “New Books” shelf at my public library. Seriously, who could blame me?

Like many towns in Syria, Daraya, located just outside the capital Damascus found itself on the front lines of a bloody civil war. On one side were the forces of  Syria’s dictatorial President Bashar al-Assad and the regime’s Iranian, Lebanese (Hezbollah) and Russian allies. Pitted against them was a cacophony of rebel groups with affiliations ranging from ISIS to the West. Besieged by Assad’s forces and suffering under a constant rain of bombs, artillery shells and rockets the city lay in ruins. Despite being isolated and cut-off not just from the rest of Syria but the world, rumors circulated of a secret library safe beneath the city. Here residents could escape the horrible carnage around them and seek comfort within the pages of a good book, if only for a few fleeting hours. When BBC reporter Mike Thomson heard these rumors, he traveled to Syria to investigate. His 2019 book Syria’s Secret Library is the result of his investigation.

Much like we saw in The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu Syria’s Secret Library is the story of ordinary people, when confronted with horrible circumstances doing extra ordinary things. Refusing to see the city’s books go up in flames or whither away from the elements young men from the area risked their lives rescuing books from bombed out buildings, frequently while dodging snipers’ bullets. Eventually, each book was labeled, inventoried and carefully stored on a shelf in a makeshift library hidden in the basement of one of Daraya’s war-ravaged structures. Here students resumed their studies, intellectual discussions flourished and the ambitious and hopeful researched ways to improve their lives and rebuild their country should the fighting ever come to an end.

Since I don’t like revealing spoilers, all I’ll say is this story, no matter how inspiring has a bittersweet ending. I hate to admit it, but I’m not sure why I didn’t enjoy Syria’s Secret Library as much as I expected to. But that’s OK since it’s a one heck of a story.

Books About Books: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

After seeing Susan Orlean’s 2018 book The Library Book make every year-end best of list on the planet, I figured it was high time to read it. Just like I did with The Lost Gutenberg I was able to secure a Kindle edition through my library’s Overdrive portal after only a short wait. Luckily for me, any worries I might have had about The Library Book not living up to all the hype were quickly put to rest since I couldn’t put it down.

Thanks to a New Yorker article I read years ago, I knew the Los Angeles Central Library suffered a catastrophic fire, but couldn’t remember a single detail. According to Orlean, on a fateful day on April 29, 1987 what started as a few wisps of smoke rising from a shelf of fiction swiftly morphed into a raging inferno, engulfing the library. As far as fire prevention goes, Southern California’s flagship public library was living on borrowed time. Short of funding and fearful of the damage water inflicts on books, over the years library officials refused to authorize a network of fire-suppression sprinklers. (In one of history’s cruel ironies, that very morning a representative of the LA Fire Department was meeting with library staff to formulate a long overdo plan to retrofit the library with sprinklers.) Its fire alarm system was broken beyond repair, triggering so many false alarms over the years when it did go off both library staff and responding firefighters assumed it was a false alarm. By the end of day the library was a smoldering ruin and its mammoth collection of books and materials incinerated, scorched or water damaged.

As staff and volunteers worked heroically to rebuild  the library, restore the restorable books and replenish what was lost, as well as secure the necessary funding, investigators searched for the fire’s origins. Once signs pointed towards arson, a likely suspect emerged. However, as compelling the circumstantial evidence might have been even stronger doubts lingered as to his guilt.

This isn’t just a book about the fire, or even the Los Angeles Central Library. It’s also a book about the history of libraries, their current state and what their futures might hold. The Library Book is great reading for lovers of books as well as libraries. Please consider it highly recommended.