Probably the coolest thing about Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is it makes a person read books set in, or about countries all over Europe. That’s always been fine with me. Over the years it’s discovered a ton of great books that who knows, had it not been for the European Reading Challenge I might never had read. And trust me, when is that ever a bad thing?
My quest to find yet another book to read for the challenge led me to Tim Judah’s 2015 book In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine. Until it was overshadowed by the tumultuous American election, the conflict in Ukraine seemed to always be in the news. So, when I found an available copy at my public library I helped myself. After a few fits and starts I eventually made my way through it, finishing it last night just before bed. While perhaps not a page-turning, nevertheless it’s probably the best book out there when it comes to showing just how complex and, well, horribly messed-up the situation has been in Ukraine. Judah travels from one end of the country to another interviewing an almost endless series of people who’ve been involved in, or at least significantly impacted by the ongoing conflict. Like many wars, civil wars and combinations of both, the roots of today’s conflict go deep into the past. As Ukraine struggles define itself as a distinct nation state and plot a political trajectory somewhere between East and West, it must deal with a restive eastern population as well as a resurgent Putinist Russia that sees Ukraine as traditionally part of it homeland.
I’m a sucker for good, on the ground reporting like this. In Wartime reminded me of other books written about Easter Europe like Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War, Lawrence Scott Sheets’ 8 Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Former Soviet Union and last but not least Askold Krushnelnycky’s An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History. Of course, since I am a sucker for this kind of writing, you’ll be sure to see a more books like this featured on my blog in the coming year.
I hate doing catch-up posts but with 2016 almost over, I gotta start wrapping things up. Thankfully, the three books I’m featuring in this post are all excellent. Please consider them highly recommend.
- Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer – After listening to Jane Mayer’s interview on NPR and hearing one of my good friends rave about this book, I figured with 2016 an election year I better get my hands on a copy as soon as possible. Once one became available through my public library I snapped it up. Not only is Mayer’s book a detailed expose of the Koch family’s shadowy empire, but it’s probably the best book around that shows how rich uber-conservatives use their vast resources to manipulate the political process. From backing far-right think tanks and policy institutes to funneling massive amounts of campaign money into state congressional and gubernatorial races to funding ultra-conservative “law and economics” departments at the nation’s premier law schools, these powerful right-wing billionaires and their allies cast a deep shadow across America and its institutions. Beyond a doubt, reading Dark Money will forever change how you look at the nation’s political system.
- Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough – Last April in the Books supplement in the Sunday New York Times I read a review of Burrough’s Days of Rage. Intrigued by what I read, I made a mental note of the book and hoped to eventually read it someday down the road. That day finally came a few weeks ago, when cruising through my public library’s online catalog I saw there was an available copy of Days of Rage. I took a chance on Burrough’s 2015 book and my goodness I’m glad I did. Today, when we think of domestic terrorism we think of extremely reactionary groups: Islamist, anti-government, white supremacist or Christian Identity. But from the early 1970s through as late as the mid 80s those doing the bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and other acts of politically motivated violence were all on the far left: Weather Underground, Symbionese Liberation Army, Black Liberation Front and the Puerto Rican separatist organization FALN. All of them detested the current state of the world and saw violence as the preferred means of bringing about the changes they so desired. In the end, they achieved nothing and wound up being little more than historical footnotes. (Ironically, these groups’ only legacy was an indirect one. The FBI would come under fire for how it battled groups like the Weather Underground. As a result the Bureau would have to play nice and be respectful of civil liberties when investigating suspected terrorist organizations.) This is a terrific book and compliments well other books that touch on this era like Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Andreas Killen’s 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America and Brendan I. Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking.
- A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh- When a good buddy recommended this book with the incredibly cool title of A Burglar’s Guide to the City I simply had to take notice. As soon as a library copy became available I grabbed one. I burned through it in no time because it’s fun as hell to read. Just as Dark Money will forever change how you look at America’s political system, this book will forever change how you look at building security. You’ll lean the best burglars are incredibly resourceful and will stop at nothing. This book is full of great stories like the bandit who liked to rob McDonald’s restaurants just after closing time by entering through the roof; a 19th century architect who hobnobbed with New York City’s rich and famous, asked to see the blueprints of banks and then painstakingly concocted elaborate plans to rob them late at night; and the 14-year-old boy in Lodz, Poland who hacked the city’s tram network. Manaugh also shows how the criminally inclined are using social media to find the best time to burglarize a home (just wait until the owners post their vacation pics on Facebook) as well feeding erroneous data to Waze in order to create traffic-free getaway routes. Trust me, this book is a lot of fun.
One Sunday morning two decades ago while channel surfing on a cable-less TV I stumbled upon an episode of CBS Sunday Morning. Either out of curiosity or boredom, I found myself drawn into one of the show’s news stories, specifically that of a young up and coming writer enjoying his first taste of literary success after his first book was recently published. The more I watched, the more I started to learn his book told of an unlucky crew of fisherman tragically overwhelmed by a monstrous Atlantic storm.
That book was The Perfect Storm and that young up and coming author was Sebastian Junger. Fast forward 20 years, and even though I own two of his books I’ve never read a word of his stuff. That is until now.
Recently, my book club voted to read his latest book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Why we voted for Tribe is beyond me, although I suspect both the author’s reputation and the book’s short length of 200 pages might have been contributing factors. Luckily for me, I found an available library edition and quickly went to work on it. Because it’s so short I finished it off in no time. Even though Junger’s book didn’t rock my world, it still made for stimulating reading. To me anyway, I saw Tribe as Junger’s opportunity to weigh in on the current state of American society. Taking examples not only from history but also from other fields like psychology, Junger examined the challenges we in America face in trying to maintaining a strong sense of community, as well as keeping the rich and powerful accountable to the rest of us (think of the recent financial crises). Lastly, in a significant portion of the book which to me seemed only marginally related to rest of it, Junger asks how do we in America effectively and compassionately help re-integrate our nation’s war veterans back into society.
I saw the book as a kind of extended op-ed piece. While some book club members railed against it, I thought it was OK and welcomed the authors sermonizing on community, war and accountability. In spite of the book’s shortness, I still managed to learn a thing or two. All the stuff about white settlers preferring to live among Indians, even after being captured was new to me. (Although I suspect Junger might have romanticized things a bit. For a fuller and I suspect more historically accurate handing of this subject I highly recommend Linda Colley’s Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850.) In discussing the deadly Springhill coal mine collapse in Nova Scotia in 1958, during the course of their underground ordeal different types of leaders emerged among the trapped men. Depending on the circumstances sometimes macho, take-charge kind of leaders would assert their leadership while other times it was the more nurturing and supportive ones.
Again, I saw this as a kind of extended op-ed piece. I found Tribe, both in style and perhaps in purpose reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell’s stuff like Outliers and David and Goliath. I also found similarities with other books I’ve read, specifically War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges, Dark Age Ahead by the late Jane Jacobs, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right by Thomas Frank and lastly Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future by Neil Postman.
Besides being a sucker for prison memoirs, books about books and Jewish history, I’m also a sucker for books on disease. So it shouldn’t be anyone’s surprise when I heard a book was soon to be released called The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind’s Gravest Dangers I keenly kept my ears and eyes open, hoping an available copy would soon magically appear at my public library. Then, as luck would have it, in what seemed like no time thanks to the good people at my public library I was able to secure a copy of Ali S. Khan’s newly published book. After letting it set unread for a week or so I finally dived into it and before I knew it, found myself engrossed in Khan’s globetrotting adventures battling outbreaks of Ebola, anthrax, SARS and other nasty plagues. When it comes to reading about disease the nastier the disease the better. So with that in mind, Khan’s book was a hit with me.
It’s one thing to write a book on emerging diseases. It’s another to recall ones career traveling the world fighting those diseases. But Khan’s book takes it one more steep. Throughout his book Khan shows us not just the science of the outbreaks but the human element impacted by them, and in some cases contributing to them (case in point the Chinese government’s early refusal to acknowledge the SARS outbreak, not to mention America’s slow and inadequate response at the start of the global AIDS pandemic). With the overwhelming number of these new diseases emerging from developing world locations in Africa and East Asia, it’s crucial those in the developed world work closely and on an ongoing basis with health workers on the front lines, not ignoring them until the horrible disease of the month starts making headlines back in the United States and suddenly Americans start feeling threatened by a possible epidemic on their doorstep.
The Next Pandemic makes a great companion book to David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, Nathan Wolfe’s The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age and Sonia Shah’s Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond. With yet another book on nasty diseases under my belt, don’t be surprised if I go in search of another one. Of course when I find my next one, you’ll all read about it on my blog.
At one time memoirs about life in the Middle East were a regular feature on my blog. Seems like every time I turned around I was reviewing some book in which the author recalled the time he/she spent living in, or traveling through that particular part of the world. But over the last few years I found myself reading these kind of books less and less. As for exactly why I’m not sure, but probably it’s because I haven’t been reading books about the Middle East like I used to. Too bad. I think that needs to change.
One afternoon months ago I was strolling along the new books section of my local public library when I came across Richard Engel’s recently published memoir And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East. As I stared at Engel’s book, I realized how long it’d been since I read a memoir like his. Thinking that spending two decades in the Middle East certainly should give an author something to write about I grabbed Engel’s memoir. Even though I stopped reading it about half way through only to finish it several months later, it’s pretty good memoir and in the end, I’m glad I took a chance on it.
Engel’s memoir begins with him as a 23 year recent graduate of Stanford who ships off to Egypt to live his dream as a foreign correspondent. After honing his Arabic skills and immersing himself in the local culture (and getting to know members of the Muslim Brotherhood) he eventually finds work as a reporter. Working his way up the journalistic food chain, his career takes him throughout the region to Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Israel/Palestinian Territories and Syria. In addition to covering two Gulf Wars and the Arab Spring protests, he also reported from the frontline battles in Libya and Syria, where in Syria he was kidnapped.
This is breezy and succinctly written memoir. If you’re looking for a light but informative look at the world of the Middle East And Then All Hell Broke Loose is your book. Give it a shot and I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Yet another book published well over 10 years ago I discovered only recently is Anna Funder’s 2003 book Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. Even though it won the Samuel Johnson Prize and was shortlisted for several others I’d never heard of Stasiland until just recently when I found a copy through my public library. With my longtime interest in the former Soviet Bloc I could not resist Funder’s book. In the end, I’m glad I yielded to temptation. Stasiland is one of those books that took me forever to read, not because it’s boring but one I kept putting to down in order to read other things. However, slowly but surely I made my way through it. And even it took me a long time to read it didn’t leave me disappointed.
Instead of merely discussing the political system of the old German Democratic Republic (GDR) and how it collapsed, Funder spent time interviewing individual former East Germans and simply letting then tell their life stories. By doing so, she made the historical intimate and personal, and thus put a human face on history. I’m glad she was able to interview former Stasi agents and see how they’ve fared ten years after the Fall of the Berlin wall. (According to Funder, many Stasi agents, trained and well-practiced in the arts of persuasion and intimidating now spend their days not spying and harassing dissidents but selling insurance and financial services.)
Stasiland is also a sad book. Sad because even though many in the West thought East Germany was the most humane nation of the old Soviet Bloc, those living in the GDR lived under an oppressive and unforgiving regime. Individual hopes and dreams were severely attenuated and when that happens lives becoming meaningless. In some cases, perceived enemies of the state who were imprisoned and later died under mysterious circumstances had their bodies quickly cremated to hide the truth from their loved ones. It was also a regime that until the bitter end refused to step aside, even though its aging inner circle was so old some leaders disparately underwent experimental treatments in hopes of forestalling the aging process.
Stasiland is an excellent companion read to Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 and Stephen Kotkin’s Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment.
After spending a quiet evening watching a pair of Frontline episodes on the rise of ISIS I found myself wanting to learn more about the feared Islamist organization. Later on, I happened to see my public library had an available copy of William McCants’ The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. Figuring now is as good as any other time to read up on the organization that’s dominated the headlines over the last couple of years I grabbed it. Fortunately for me, like almost all of the library books I’ve borrowed of late McCants’ book is pretty darn good.
Published in 2015, McCants’ book I suspect is unique among books about ISIS and al-Qaeda. McCants, in order to explain how ISIS came to be, recruits followers and strives to build an Islamic state shows how the organization took and continues to take inspiration and guidance from not just the Quran and the Hadith (the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad) but especially medieval Islamic apocalyptic literature. Traditionally, most Sunni Muslims shied away from these esoteric writings, deeming them inspiration for crackpots or worse, the kind of holy scriptures dreaded Shia would follow. But in the hands of ISIS, they serve as a priceless playbook.
According to McCants the ISIS break from al-Qaeda was a major paradigm shift. Al-Qaeda wanted to draw Western, especially American military forces into the Middle East in hopes of inflicting a crippling defeat, eventually resulting in America’s decline. (After all, it worked it worked against the USSR in Afghanistan.) With America and its Western allies no longer able to support its client states in the Middle East al-Qaeda could resurrect the Caliph of old. While attacks on Western targets were fine, al-Qaeda ideologues stressed the necessity of Arab unity and that meant being careful not to inflict Arab civilian casualties.
But ISIS had a different game plan. Instead of fighting the West, ISIS preferred to seize territory within Arab world and begin the Caliph now, not sometime in the distant future. It’s had its best success in places like Syria, where President al-Assad has been willing to largely leave the group alone (as long as it doesn’t attack Damascus and is more interested in fighting other rebel groups) and Iraq where the country’s Shia-dominated government has limited influence in the Sunni regions. And as far as limiting Arab casualties, ISIS took the opposite approach. The more public beheadings, genocide and suicide bombings the better.
What impressed me the most with The ISIS Apocalypse is McCants’ scholarship. Besides being fluent in Arabic, his knowledge of the above-mentioned medieval Islamic writings is impressive. I was pleased with The ISIS Apocalypse and like any good book it’s left me wanting to read more. Therefore, get ready to see more books on ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Middle East featured on this blog.