Sunday Salon

About a month ago the first time I took part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I finished both Yasmina’s Khadra’s The Attack and Karlheinz Deschner’s God and the Fascists: The Vatican Alliance with Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, and Pavelic. Hopefully, I’ll get my reviews up and posted by the end of the week. Since both are translated works I’ll be applying them towards The Introverted Reader’s Books in Translation Reading Challenge

After putting aside Jay David’s anthology Growing Up Jewish I started Lea Ypi 2022 memoir Free: Coming of Age at the End of History.  Ypi’s recollection of life in Albania during the implosion of that country’s oppressive communist regime is shaping up to be a winner. I also went back to reading Frank Blaichman’s Rather Die Fighting as well as Stuart Jeffries’s 2016 Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School

Listening. With the The National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex proceedings (AKA the January 6 Commission) serving up a bombshell special session last Tuesday I once again dived into some of my favorite podcasts for helpful insight and commentary. With so much stuff out there it’s hard knowing where to begin but Deep State Radio’s “Showstopper” is a good place along with The Lincoln Project’s “The Emergency Hearing.” The Bulwark never ceases to satisfy so I’d recommend both “A Damning Witness” and “Mea culpa. Really.” Opening Arguments is a recent find of mine and the episode “Surprise Jan. 6 Hearing – Bombshells Within Smoking Guns Within More Bombshell” is definitely worth a listen. The Lawfare Podcast can get a bit dry and wonky but “The Jan. 6 Committee, Day Six” episode is good. During the Trump administration Vanity Fair’s Inside the Hive was my go-to source for place intrigue. I thoroughly enjoyed the recent episode “If You Bite the Head Off of the Snake, the Rest of the Snake Will Die”: Daniel Goldman on Prosecuting Trump.” If you wanna learn more about the assorted far-right militia groups in cahoots with Trump and his crones then check out the Fresh Air episode “Investigating The Far-Right Militia Groups Of Jan. 6.” Lastly, round things out with Talking Feds and “This is (Trump’s) America.”

Watching. Mr. Robot continues to entertain with its plot twists, great writing and superb acting. Last week we were treated to a special session of the January 6 Committee sessions which blew myself, and much of America, away. I look forward to watching more once they resume latter this month. I also caught an episode of Stranger Things. After a bit of a slow start it’s shaping up to be as dark and entertaining as I’d hoped. Like last week I checked out The Lincoln Project’s web series The Breakdown. Hosts Tara Setmayer and Rick Wilson (and special guest Harry Litman) did a fine job breaking down the last Tuesday’s bombshell January 6 hearing. It’s well worth your time. 

Everything else. Even though gas is damn expensive right now I did make a trip to my favorite area winery for some friendly discussion with my professor buddy. Weather-wise, after recently experiencing a mini heat wave temperatures have considerably moderated. 

Sunday Salon

A few weeks ago for the first time I took part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I finished Ruta Sepetys’s 2022 historical novel I Must Betray You.  While it’s only June I’m betting it makes my year-end list of Favorite Fiction. I put aside  Blaichman’s Rather Die Fighting, Khadra’s The Attack and Margolius Kovály’s Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street and started two new books. For Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge and Introverted Reader’s Books in Translation Reading Challenge I started Karlheinz Deschner’s God and the Fascists: The Vatican Alliance with Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, and Pavelic.  Originally published in 1966, it’s shaping up to be quite the polemic against both the Vatican and the Catholic Church in general. (Not sure if that’s what I originally bargained for. I’ll just have to see where the book goes.) The other is the 1969 anthology Growing Up Jewish edited by Jay David. One of my original 20 Books of Summer, since a number of the pieces are translated from Yiddish and German I’m hoping to apply this book as well to the Books in Translation Reading Challenge. 

Listening. With the The National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex proceedings (AKA the January 6 Commission) continuing to be televised I once again dived into some of my favorite podcasts for helpful insight and commentary. With so much stuff out there it’s hard knowing where to start but I would begin with The Economist’s Checks and Balance episode “Insurrection Retrospection.” From there it’s pretty wide open. Deep State Radio’s “The Trial of Donald J. Trump” is particularly good as is The New Yorker’s Politics and More episode “What the January 6th Committee Uncovered This Week.” I’d also recommend Angry Planet’s “Proud Boys, January 6, and When a U-Haul Is a Clown Car.” Lastly, round things up with The Lincoln Project’s “The DOJ is Watching” with guest David H. Laufman and from The Bulwark “How the 1/6 Committee Could Succeed” with Denver Riggleman and “Why We Were Alarmed” with Bill Kristol. 

Watching. Mr. Robot continues to entertain, throwing head-spinning plot twists at me right and left. As I mentioned earlier, I’m knee deep into the January 6 Committee sessions and look forward to watching more once they resume next month. At long last I started watching the much-anticipated season 4 of Stranger Things. After a bit of a slow start it’s shaping up to be as dark and entertaining as I’d hoped. Finally, I decided to check out The Lincoln Project’s web series The Breakdown. Hosts Tara Setmayer and Rick Wilson did a fine job breaking down the last January 6 hearing. It’s well worth your time. 

Everything else. Even though gas is damn expensive right now I did make a few trips into town. I returned to my favorite an area winery to for a bit of friendly discussion with a couple of my professor buddies. Yesterday, while out running errands I dropped by one of my favorite watering holes to have a beer and read my Kindle. Weather wise, we’ve been experiencing a mini heat wave but temperatures should drop starting tomorrow. 

Sunday Salon

A few weeks ago for the first time I took part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I hope to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I finished Alexander Münninghoff’s 2020 family memoir The Son and Heir. I’m happy to report I was able to apply it to a number of reading challenges including the European Reading Challenge and the Books in Translation Challenge. With the European Reading Challenge in mind I started two additional books, one fiction and the other nonfiction. Ruta Sepetys’s 2022 historical novel I Must Betray You is quickly shaping to be one this year’s best works of fiction. Frank Blaichman’s 2009 Rather Die Fighting: A Memoir of World War II is a rare first-hand account of the life of a Jewish partisan fighting in German-occupied Poland during the Second World War. With my nose currently buried in Ruta Sepetys’s and Blaichman’s books I’ve been neglecting Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack and Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street. But I hope to get back to them as soon as possible. 

Listening. With the The National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex proceedings (AKA the January 6 Commission) continuing to be televised I once again dived into some of my favorite podcasts for helpful insight and commentary. If you’re looking to follow my lead, start with recent Daily podcast “What the Jan. 6 Hearings Have Revealed So Far” and follow it up with The Bulwark’s episode “Mike Pence Must Testify.” The New Yorker: Politics and More episode “The Bombshell Moments at the Second Week of the January 6th Hearings” with Jane Mayer, Susan B. Glasser, and Evan Osnos serves up the great political insight you’d expect from that fine magazine. The Lincoln Project Podcast “The Second Hearing: The Rats are Leaving the Ship” with is worth it for the title alone. For an end of the week round-up with a panel of great journalists check out an audio version of last Friday’s Washington Week with the podcast episode “Jan. 6 Committee Lays Out Trump’s Efforts to Change 2020 Election Results.” Rounding things out, Molly Jong Fast and Andy Levy on The New Abnormal once again served up insightful and irreverent commentary on the hearings on the episode “Trump Lied, and Pence Could Have Died.” Lastly, for a great interview having absolutely nothing to do with the hearings check out Bulwark regular Tim Miller’s interview with Jamie Kirchick “When Homosexuality Was a National Security Threat” talking about his latest book Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington. I’ve owned a Kindle edition of Kirchick’s earlier book The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age for several years and maybe after hearing this interview I’ll finally read it. 

Watching. Mr. Robot continues to entertain, throwing head-spinning plot twists at me right and left. As I mentioned earlier, I’m knee deep into the January 6 Committee sessions and excited to see more. 

Everything else. With gas so damn expensive I’m trying to avoid driving into town but on Wednesday I traveled to an area winery to discuss a couple of chapters from Stuart Jeffries’s Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School with my impromptu book club. Of course just like last week I once again snuck out early on Friday and joined my buddy the semi-retired sociology professor for beers at a campus watering hole.

Library Loot

After returning a small stack of books to the public library I was ready for more. In recent Library Loots I’ve been featuring a lot of fiction, much of it by authors from outside the US. This week I’ve returned to my old ways with a nice selection of nonfiction. But much like before, two of these authors are from outside the US. Helen Rappaport is from the United Kingdom while Gianni Guadalupi hails from Italy. With the exception of Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution these books were published over 10 years ago. 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlene’s blog.  

About Time I Read It: Kings and Presidents by Bruce Riedel

I’ve mentioned from time to time of all the countries in the Middle East Iran and Israel intrigue me the most. But if I had to pick a runner-up it would probably be Saudi Arabia. A major oil exporter, home to the holiest sites in Islam and ruled since the early 1920s by the puritanical al-Saud family, Saudi Arabia has been a close American ally since the end of World War II. It might seem odd a representative democracy like the United States, a majority Christian nation with a deeply enshrined commitment to a separation of church and state would ally itself with one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies. Even when compared to its Arab neighbors the Islam practiced by most Saudis and heavily promoted by the kingdom’s ruling family is an austere, uncompromising interpretation easily at odds with more modern concepts of feminism, religious tolerance, scientific inquiry and freedom of sexual identity. While both the United States and Saudi Arabia see Iran as a threat to the region the Saudis have traditionally viewed Israel, a chief American ally, as a perennial thorn in their side hellbent on destabilizing an already volatile region.

So, why a long friendship between the two countries? That’s the question Bruce Riedel set out to answer with his 2017 book Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States since FDR. Considering my interest in the Middle East it was hard for me to pass up a borrowable Kindle edition of Riedel’s 2017 book. Knowing nothing about the book or its author I didn’t know what to expect. I’m happy to report Kings and Presidents exceeded my modest expectations and is one of 2022’s pleasant surprises.

While some reviewers complained the book was superficial I disagree. Riedel is no stranger to the Middle East. He spent 30 years in the CIA, served on the National Security Council for four different presidents, as well as a Special Advisor to NATO and is currently a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He covers a hundred or so years of major political and religious developments that helped pave the way for the founding of Saudi Arabia. From there Riedel draws from his decades of foreign policy experience supplemented by memoirs and official documents to craft a detailed and readable history of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia

Even after reading John R. Bradley’s Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crises and Karen Elliott House’s On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future this book taught me more than a few things about Saudi Arabia. I knew the Saudi monarchy, together with the American CIA worked with Pakistan’s intelligence agency the ISI to arm and train Afghan and Islamic resistance groups to fight the Soviets and their Afghan puppet army during the 1980s. But I had no idea military ties between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan go much deeper. For years starting in the 1982 Pakistan stationed a “reinforced armored brigade” of 20,000 troops in Tabuk near the Jordanian border to serve as a both a deterrent to Israel as well as a “loyal Pretorian guard” for the royal family in case of a palace coup or popular uprising. (During the run-up to the first Gulf War the brigade was quietly redeployed across the kingdom along the border with Iraq in case it was needed to counter an Iraqi invasion.) I’ve read the Chinese supplied the Saudis with medium-range ballistic missiles, which, due to their inaccuracy are suitable only for carrying nuclear warheads. Why the Saudis would purchase such missiles while lacking a nuclear arsenal for years has been a mystery. But Riedel plausibly speculates as part of this long and shadowy military alliance the Saudis feel the Pakistanis will provide them with deliverable nukes should the Kingdom be sufficiently threatened by one of its regional rivals like Israel or Iran.

In the end, the US-Saudi alliance is based not upon shared values or long-standing institutions but common interests. Affordable and plentiful oil runs our economy and in turn keeps the Saudis afloat financially. While our leaders disagree over Israel, for decades our two countries have allied with each other against various powers in the Middle East be they Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq or Iran under the Ayatollah or his successors. It’s a marriage of convenience that’s lasted since the spring of 1945 when FDR met with the founding king Saudi Arabia on an American battleship near the Suez Canal and hashed out a deal to both parties’ liking.

About Time I Read It: Ukraine Diaries by Andrey Kurkov

With war raging in Ukraine, I went looking for something by Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov. Figuring if anyone could help me understand what’s going on it would be Kurkov, since I enjoyed his 2011 dark comedic novel Death and the Penguin. Even though about a dozen of his books have been translated into English little is available for me to borrow either through my local public libraries or electronically but as luck would have it I was able to secure through Overdrive a copy of his 2015 Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches From Kiev.

As advertised, the book is a collection of diary entries spanning late November 2013 to April 2014. Beginning with pro-European protests in November, Kurkov then recalls the violent clashes of the Maidan Uprisings leading to the removal of pro-Russian President Yanukovcyh. From there, his daily entries discuss Russian land-grabs in Crimea and Russia’s subsequent orchestration of separatist uprisings in the eastern Donbas region. Of course like anyone’s diary, there’s no shortage of occurrences more mundane like family birthdays, business trips and pleasant evenings with good friends.

One might possibly think a guy like Kurkov, who was born in what’s now called St. Petersburg and writes in Russian might be sympathetic to Russian interference in Ukrainian politics. Not a chance. He completely rejects any Russian attempts to dictate Ukraine’s future, let alone seize its territory.

As I read Ukraine Diaries I was struck how much it reminded me of an old, dog-eared mass marketed paperback I read decades ago one summer during my college years. Kurkov’s collection of mostly short entries, many of discussing Russian acts of political interference and armed aggression I found eerily reminiscent of The Czech Black Book. Originally published in 1969, it was an attempt by the members of the Institute of History at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences to document and publicize evidence of the USSR and its Warsaw Pact vassal states’ 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia to squash that country’s attempts at “Socialism with a human face.”

Right after finishing Ukraine Diaries I learned Kurkov now hosts a radio program on the BBC in which as an internally displaced person in Ukraine, “gives a personal account of daily life in war-torn Ukraine.” Even though I’m up to my eyeballs in podcasts and close to reaching my own personal saturation point when it comes to news about Ukraine I think I’ll give his Radio 4 program a chance.

The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China by Jonathan Kaufman

Whether it’s Nien Cheng’s 1986 memoir Life and Death in Shanghai or Paul French’s 2018 offering City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai I can’t resist a good book about, or set in Shanghai. It’s no wonder it was hard to resist The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China when I came across a copy during a visit to the public library. Thanks to French’s above-mentioned City of Devils I already knew Shanghai was home to a vibrant Jewish community in the decades preceding the Second World War and was looking forward learning more courtesy of The Last Kings of Shanghai.

Jonathan Kaufman’s 2020 book tells the story of the Sassoon and Kadoorie families and how they were instrumental in transforming Shanghai from a sleepy coastal trading outpost into not just China’s premier city but a city of global significance. Thanks to the two families’ respective contributions by the end of the 1930s it was the fourth largest city in the world. According to Kaufman “Shanghai became China’s New York, the capital of finance, commerce, and industry. It also became China’s Los Angeles, the capital of popular culture.” The Sassoon’s and Kadoorie’s world-class hotels, restaurants, horse racing venues and country clubs drew in the rich and famous from around the world: movie stars like Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and his wife Mary Pickford; playwright Noel Coward and American socialite Wallis Simpson, “who reportedly learned in Shanghai the sexual techniques that would entice a king to leave his throne a few years later.” Jet-setters in an era before jets, silver-age glitterati flocked to the city in search of luxurious Western indulgence amidst a backdrop of Asian mystique.

The Sassoon and Kadoories families hailed not from Central or Eastern Europe but instead Bagdad. It was here the patriarch of the Sassoon family beginning in the 1700s served as “Nasi,” or “Prince of the Jews” blessing marriages and resolving religious disputes” and also acting as a liaison between the Arab city’s ruling Ottoman officials and Bagdad’s Jewish community. But after falling out of favor with corrupt local rulers the talented and multi-lingual David Sassoon relocated to British India, where his international connections, strong business acumen, and admiration of the British and their imperial ways served him well. Eventually,  the commercial enterprise he founded would establish deep and lucrative roots into China making him and the Sassoon family wealthy.

But as Balzac once wrote, behind every great fortune lies a great crime. Opium was the Sassoon clan’s great moneymaker. After incorporating the latest technological innovations like the telegraph and streamlining business practices before long the Sassoons had vanquished their rivals and controlled 70 per cent of China’s opium trade. Flush with resources, the Sassoons founded a network of schools and internships to educate, train and instill loyalty into legions of young Jewish men throughout the Ottoman Empire. Seizing the opportunity, a young Jewish youth from the Kadoorie family threw in his lost with the Sassoons. Years later, he left his employer and benefactor and struck out on his own, eventually founding his own business dynasty in Shanghai and would go on to rival his former masters.

But all great empires, be they commercial or geopolitical eventually fade with time. World War II brought an end to Western dominance of Shanghai, and the city’s Japanese overlords had no use for the Sassoons and Kadoories. (Although Shanghai became a sanctuary for European Jews fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust.) Although the Japanese were defeated in 1945 before the end of the decade the Communists had taken control of China and with it Shanghai. Seen as Western rapacious capitalists, the Sassoons and Kadoories were driven out and their properties, like all other businesses in China nationalized. Long associated with the Western powers and viewed as an imperialist beachhead Mao and the ruling Communist Party favored Peking (Beijing) as China’s premier city. Only after the death of Mao and the rise of Deng Xiaoping, and revolutionary changes he unleashed transforming the formerly Communist nation into a capitalist dynamo did the city reclaim its former glory. And would do so with a vengeance.

Just like First Principles, The Last Kings of Shanghai is one of the pleasant surprises of 2022. If you’re looking for books on how to understand modern China, it’s a great one to add to your list.

2021 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. Each year I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, I found myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year I read and reviewed 20 books, and for my efforts once again earned the coveted Jet Setter Award. Compared to past years my performance in 2021 was pretty lackluster with just 10 books read and reviewed for the challenge. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Switzerland. This year for this first time I’ll be including something by a Norwegian author. 

  1. Becket or the Honor of God by Jean Anouilh (United Kingdom)
  2. Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan by Erika Fatland (Norway)
  3. Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money by Diccon Bewes (Switzerland)
  4. Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer- The True Story of the Man Who Recruited Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames by Victor Cherkashin and Gregory Feifer (Russia)
  5. The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo (Spain)
  6. Not All Bastards Are from Vienna by Andrea Molesini (Italy)
  7. Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie (Germany) 
  8. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum (Ukraine)
  9. Empire of Lies by Raymond Khoury (France)
  10. Family History of Fear by Agata Tuszyńska (Poland)

Much like last year it was a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction with five books apiece. Four are translations from other languages, including Polish. Red Famine easily made my Favorite Nonfiction list for 2021 while Swiss Watching was a runner-up. Both The Invisible Guardian and Empire of Lies made my year’s Favorite Fiction list with Not All Bastards Are from Vienna along with There There as my favorite novels of the year.  

As you can guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

About Time I Read It: Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

One fall Friday evening in 2013 while drinking with friends at the pub someone recommended Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Sadly, like many great book recommendations I’ve received over the years it took me forever to act on my friend’s advice. I even borrowed a copy from the public library not once but twice  only to later return it unread. Last week, just like I did with Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad I decided to give Command and Control another chance. I secured a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work reading Schlosser’s 2013 book. And just like I Was Told to Come Alone I kicked myself for not reading it sooner.

Schlosser made a name for himself with his best seller Fast Food Nation but could he tackle the high stakes and technical world of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons and the global arms race they spawned? Any doubts I might have had were quickly put to rest mere pages into this book. Command and Control isn’t just a history of that arms race. It’s also a detailed and fascinating history of the costly and sometimes deadly accidents that’s plagued the weapons’ history. Anchoring this history is Schlosser’s recalling of a routine maintenance operation gone horribly awry leading to the explosion of a Titan II ICBM outside Damascus, Arkansas in 1980.

I came away from this book shocked by the sheer number of serious accidents involving nuclear weapons that have occurred over the decades. More shocking than that, it feels miraculous none of them resulted in any warheads accidentally detonating. (Although in 1961, when a B-52 broke apart over rural North Carolina and accidentally released two thermonuclear bombs one of them narrowly escaped detention. Had it gone off, it would have spread a plume of radioactive fall-out as far north as Washington DC, and just in time for Kennedy’s inauguration ceremony.) Nor did any American military commander or his NATO counterpart go rogue and facilitate the unauthorized use of one of these weapons, even during the dark hours of the Cuban Missile Crises. Luckily still, the many false alarms experienced by our nation’s early warning systems did not mistakenly set off a nuclear holocaust.

Schlosser fears we might not be so lucky in the future. Since the 1970s more countries have developed their own nuclear weapons, or in the case of Iran are actively working toward one. Pakistan and India, neighbors with deep-seated rivalries, especially over contested territory, have come close to nuking each other several times over the last twenty plus years. It’s also assumed Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has been dispersed to undisclosed locations throughout the country in hopes of protecting it from an Indian first strike. However, this potentially creates more opportunities for Islamic terrorists or rogue elements within the military to commandeer a warhead. Overall, while some developing countries like India and Pakistan have been able to incorporate Western technology into their respective nuclear weapons programs Schlosser wonders if they have also successfully imported our culture of safety and associated protocols. With India, Pakistan and Iran all possessing significantly higher industrial accident rates than the United States perhaps we should be concerned.

I found Command and Control even better than I’d expected and easily makes my year-end list of favorite nonfiction. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet

As you’ve probably guessed, while I’m always borrowing books from the library I don’t manage to read them all. Some books I end up returning without even cracking them open, and more than a few I’ve started only to return to the library unfinished. But even if I don’t finish a book, if it shows promise I’ll borrow it again later and try harder to finish it. Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad is one of those books. I started it back in August only to return it unfinished to the library three weeks later. Recently, I wanted to give Mekhennet’s 2017 book another chance so I borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work. I’m glad I gave it another chance because I Was Told to Come Alone is a well-written, first hand account of life growing up in Germany as the daughter of Muslim immigrants and her rise to prominence as a world-class foreign correspondent.

Besides a talent for writing well, bravery and a dogged ability to uncover the truth, one could argue for a foreign correspondent to be successful such an individual should also be even handed, multilingual, and possess a keen understanding of other cultures. With that in mind this is the career Mekhennet was destined to pursue. Her father a Sunni Moroccan and her mother an ethnic Arab Shia from Turkey, Mekhennet’s parents met as guest workers in Germany. Underclass and a cultural outsider who experienced more than her share of prejudice, the young Mekhennet nevertheless applied herself. Intellectually curious, ambitious, and a desire to write, she began interviewing German political figures while still in high school. Later, as a college student she worked as an entry level journalist. Raised Muslim and fluent in Arabic, she quickly proved to be an invulnerable asset to her more seasoned colleagues as they interviewed Muslim immigrants and perused leads throughout Europe in the wake of 9/11.

In a career that’s spanned the better part of two decades Mekhennet’s travels have taken her across three continents, conducting interviews and investigating stories across Europe, North Africa, Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. During her tenure she’s reported on Al-Qaeda, the rise of ISIS, (including helping uncover the true identity of the infamous terrorist Jihadi John) Arab Spring, Syrian Civil War, 2015 Paris Terrorist Attacks and European Migrant Crises of the same year.

I Was Told to Come Alone is well written and considering English is her third or fourth language makes this even more impressive. What’s also impressive is her sense of fairness. As a Muslim from Germany, she’s experienced discrimination and as a result is sympathetic to the plights of her co-religionists living as immigrants or the children of immigrants in Europe. On the other hand, she takes to task Islamic extremists for their misogyny and refusal to respect the basic rights of others.

Admirable as well is her honesty and insightfulness when assessing the 2015 European Migrant Crises. Unlike some European leaders and aid officials she wisely pointed out while many of those seeking refuge were fleeing conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, many were also economic migrants from across North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. In addition, a sizable portion of them were not highly educated professionals but laborers conversant only in their respective native languages. Based on her observations she also revealed a few hailed from ISIS’s Islamic State. While not terrorists bent on wrecking havoc, nevertheless their sympathies for the Islamic State were apparent.

I Was Told to Come Alone is easily one of this year’s pleasant surprises. It deserves to stand beside other outstanding books by respected journalists about political developments in the Islamic world like Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS and Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War. Just like Black Flags and The Forever War there’s a strong likelihood it will make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction.