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.

About Time I Read It: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

Immediately after Donald’s Trump electoral victory lists began to appear of books to read if one wanted to understand just how such an unlikely candidate was able to capture the White House. Over the next year or so one of those books, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance generated a lot of buzz. After several people recommended it to me I added Hillbilly Elegy to my list of books to read, making a mental note to do so should I stumble across an available copy at my public library. As luck might have it, while exploring the shelves one Saturday morning I found not one but three available copies. Figuring this was the perfect time to give Vance’s book a chance I grabbed one. I’m happy to say Hillbilly Elegy is worthy of all the praise.

In his 2016 memoir Vance recalls his life, starting with troubled childhood in Ohio being raised by his alcohol and drug abusing train wreck of a mother. (Technically, Vance isn’t from Appalachia but descended from relatives who hail from there and later migrated to the Rustbelt of Ohio where he grew up.) After being being tossed back and forth between grandparents, relatives, step parents and the like after graduating from high school Vance joined the Marines. Despite being deployed to Iraq serving in the Marines was probably the best thing that could have happened to him. He ate a healthy diet, got plenty of exercise and as a result lost a ton of weight. Most importantly, the discipline of military life instilled in him a much-needed sense of purpose and self-confidence. After leaving the Marines he earned a bachelor’s degree at Ohio State University and later a law degree from Yale. Considering Vance’s humble roots one marvels at what he’s accomplished.

In Hillbilly Elegy Vance takes a critical view of the working class whites he encountered during his childhood and young adulthood, chiding them for their poor work ethic, tendency to abuse alcohol and drugs, inability to resolve conflicts peacefully without violence or verbal abuse abuse and their reluctance to relocate from areas with high unemployment and rampant poverty to places with better employment prospects. Ironically, I found echoes of these sentiments in Debra Dickerson’s 2004 book The End of Blackness, where, as an African-American writer attempting to tackle the many negative challenges affecting the black community sees the solution in greater self-reliance and adoption of more beneficial social behaviors.

In side note, in his memoir Vance mentions two mentors having a positive impact on him: Yale law professor Amy Chua and political commentator David Frum. Last December I reviewed Chua’s 2007 book Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance–and Why They Fall and in late 2016 I featured her 2014 book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.  Over a decade ago, back in my pre-Wordpress days blogging on Vox I reviewed Frum’s 2007 book Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again.

Not only did Hillbilly Elegy measure up to all the hype I enjoyed the heck out of it, finding it insightful and compelling. There’s a good chance it will make my Favorite Nonfiction list come the end of the year.

About Time I Read It: The Italians by John Hooper

For as long as I’ve been done the European Reading Challenge I’ve included a book about Italy. Last year it was Tobias Jones’s The Dark Heart of Italy and in previous years I spotlighted works of historical fiction like Tariq Ali’s A Sultan in Palermo and Dasa Drndic’s Trieste to nonfiction fare like Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi’s The Monster of Florence and John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels. In 2014 it was In the Sea There are Crocodiles, Italian writer Fabio Geda’s novelization of Afghan refugee Enaiatollah Akbar’s five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy. Chances are, if I’m doing the European Reading Challenge, I’m gonna read a book about Italy.

John Hooper’s 2015 The Italians had been on my radar for the last three or four years before I borrowed a Kindle copy through Overdrive. Like Tobias Jones, Hooper is also a British journalist, having worked for both the Guardian and Observer newspapers and now covers Italy and the Vatican for the Economist. Also like Jones, Hooper has written a book that paints Italy in broad yet nevertheless revealing strokes – and entertaining ones.

According to Hooper, Italy is nation of contradictions. Proudly Catholic and home to the Vatican, it’s also fiercely anticlerical. Judging by the country’s declining birthrate many Italians are ignoring the Church’s prohibition on birth control. For a nation that fought long and hard to unify itself in the 19th century, the wealthy and industrialized North still can’t stand the impoverished South and visa versa. Organized crime syndicates like the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and Neapolitan Camorra plague the country but also generate 10 percent of Italy’s GDP, and yet a 2009 European Commission report revealed the United Kingdom’s violent crime rate was eight times that of Italy.

No other example from The Italians sums up both Italy’s reputation for bureaucratic lunacy as well as its national pastime for fantasia, a word Hooper translates as meaning “somewhere on the permeable frontier between imagination and creativity” like the case of the Italian army battalion Terzo Corpo designato d’Armata. In 1950 with the Cold War in full gear and Stalin’s armies firmly in control of Eastern Europe many feared the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact would soon invade America’s NATO allies like Italy. To deter them, the Italian high command secretly created an army of 300,000 troops based in Padova. However, even with a real commander-in-chief this army existed only on paper. Over the years tons of paperwork was generated in the form of promotions, payroll records, procurements and the like. If any Soviet spies operating in Italy picked up even snippets of this information they’d report back to Moscow the existence of a 300,000 man army and perhaps think twice about invading.

If any of you plan on traveling to Italy for your next vacation, do yourself a huge favor and read Hooper’s The Italians before you leave. You’ll be glad you did.

 

20 Books of Summer: Empty Planet by John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker

For a relatively small country, population-wise Canada has produced some impressive writers, especially in the field of politics. Weighing in on opposite sides of the immigration debate are Bruce Bawer with While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within and Doug Saunders with The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? Back in 2011, before 4chan became a platform for QAnon’s absurd conspiracy theories Jonathan Kay explored and debunked the dark world of conspiracy theories in his book Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground. Lastly, even the ultra-conservative pundit Mark Steyn, author of a host of books including America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It is Canadian, even if he currently resides in the United States.

In that regard America’s neighbor to the North continues to punch above its weight. A few weeks ago at the public library I picked up a copy of Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline. With their 2019 book the two Canadians make a bold and compelling claim: In the near future the world’s population will not explode but precipitously decline.

After being told for years we’ve been sitting on a ticking population bomb at first it’s hard to take the two authors’ claim seriously. You ask why is global population going to decline within the next 40 to 50 years? The answer is everyday, the world is becoming more and more modern.

A key component of modernization is urbanization. The bulk of the world’s population resides or is  predicted to reside not on farms or in villages but in cities. Urban families aren’t engaged in labor intensive farm work, so families are smaller. Living in cities makes it’s harder for conservative elements like their parents and in-laws, churches and mosques to pressure them into having lots of children. It’s also easier for city-dwelling women to obtain reliable birth control and receive helpful family planning advice. Lastly, more and more cities around the world are joining the global economy, leading to an explosion of service sector “knowledge jobs” throughout the world, especially in South and East Asia. These jobs require an educated workforce, prompting more women to delay marriage in order to attend college. Once in the workforce, many women continue to delay marriage and with it motherhood since it’s seen as a career impediment. So, as the world urbanizes it starts having fewer children. Once a country dips below the birthrate of 2.1 children per couple its population begins to contract, then collapse.

According to Bricker and Ibbitson, there’s both good and bad things on the horizon. Lower population should put less pressure on the environment, resources and the global food supply. Potentially, it could also lead to lower unemployment, since there’d be less competion for jobs. With fewer global births, the population ages and the authors speculate this could lead to a “geriatric peace” since there’ll be fewer young hot-heads in positions of power.

On the other hand, without a huge pool of young workers it will be harder for countries, especially in Europe and East Asia to generate the taxes needed to pay for the retirement and medical expenses of a ballooning population of seniors. On a related note, the United States, Canada and the countries of Europe will no longer depend of young immigrants to replenish their employment rolls and help prop-up their birthrates. (This could get worse if today’s anti-immigration sentiment leaves a lasting legacy around the developed world.)

If, after reading Empty Planet you’d like to get another perspective on where the world might be going, I’d encourage you to read Ian Bremmer’s Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism. I suspect Empty Planet is one of those books that will be embraced, debated, attacked, and in the end highly influential. That alone is enough for me to recommend it.

20 Books of Summer: Dancing with the Devil in the City of God by Juliana Barbassa

When it comes to books about fascinating places, I’m a big fan of what I call insider/outsider’s perspectives. These are by former residents (almost always journalists or former journalists) who, after being away for significant periods of time, return home to write about everyday life in their place of origin . With a blend of familiarity and objectivity they serve as our personal tour guides to cities like Detroit or Mumbai, or countries such as Iran or Zimbabwe.

A few weeks ago I was in the mood for one of these books. Luckily for me, I spotted at the public library an available copy of Juliana Barbassa’s 2015 book Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink. I’m glad I read Dancing with the Devil because honestly, I didn’t know a lot about Rio or even Brazil before diving into her book. (My Latin American politics class in college covered Brazil, but that was a million years ago and I’ve pretty much forgotten everything I learned. On a more positive note, I have fond memories of the Brazilian movies City of God and Central Station. The Brazilian documentary Bus 174 is grim, but good.)

In 2010, not long after it was announced Rio would host the 2016 Summer Olympics Barbassa, a journalist and Brazilian national, after spending 20 years abroad moved back to her childhood home of Rio in order to cover the county’s run-up to the 2016 Games. Whenever a country is entrusted with hosting the Olympics, especially the Summer Games it’s a sign that country has joined the roster of elite nations. But was Rio and the rest of Brazil ready? And if it wasn’t did it have the political will and resources to address the nation’s lingering challenges like pollution, urban poverty, corruption, and drug-fueled gang violence before 2016? Besides needing a multitude of new sports arenas and Olympic-related facilities Rio’s fractured infrastructure was long overdue for a massive upgrade. (A higher percentage of Rio residents have access to cell phones than do clean water.) Oh, if that wasn’t enough, in 2014 Brazil is also hosting the World Cup.

So, with all that in mind Barbassa spent the next four years or so running around Rio interviewing countless people including hard-line police chiefs, low-level gang members, transgender prostitutes, political and social activists, and environmentalists to see if Brazil and the city of Rio is able to overcome the many deep-seated obstacles standing in the way of successfully hosting the upcoming Olympics. While doing so Barbassa explored Rio’s politics and society in depth,  addressing issues related to gender, sexuality, race and class. And perhaps above all, the nation’s obsession with soccer.

I’m happy to say I enjoyed Dancing with the Devil and came away with a deeper understanding of Rio and Brazil. If you follow my lead and end up reading this book I highly recommend you also check out the series of eight articles posted on the online news publication The Intercept dealing with Operation Car Wash, a high level Brazilian political scandal that sadly has been largely ignored by American media.