Category Archives: History

In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah

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.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History

Dark Money, Days of Rage and A Burglar’s Guide to the City

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.

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Filed under Current Affairs, History

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

Tribe: On Homecoming and BelongingOne 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.

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About Time I Read It: The Pity of It All by Amos Elon

The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933I can’t remember how long ago, but once a book popped up on my Goodreads page I simply had to read. Published in back 2002, Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 looked like one of those books that’s right up my alley. And not just any book on Jewish history, but one devoted to the history of Jews in Germany. Therefore, like many promising books I read or hear about, I vowed to someday read it. Then, like I’ve done so many times in the past promptly forgot about it. That is, until I was surfing my public library’s online catalog and was it was listed. I quickly placed a hold and before I knew it, a copy become available. Once again, I found myself kicking myself because I should not have waited so long to read Elon’s outstanding book.

The Pity of It All begins with Moses Mendelssohn’s arrival in Berlin. Not yet 15 years old but confident, purposeful and smart enough to trade his backwater Jewish community in Dessau for the brighter lights of Berlin. (This, in an age when the Prussian military’s presence in the city was so huge some joked that Prussia was an army in search of a state.) Even though the city’s gate masters were officially tasked with keeping itinerant Jews from entering the city, Mendelssohn nevertheless made it inside. Once settled, he went on to become not only one of the leading lights of the Enlightenment, but also an early advocate of Jewish assimilation and interfaith dialog. Much like their co-religionists the Rothschild’s, in time the Mendelssohn family name would be associated with fame and accomplishment, from banking to composing.

As one might expect, according to Elon the history of Jews in German is ultimately a tragic one, both in nature and irony. As German Jews embraced German culture, language and education and thus assimilated, like so many of their Christian neighbors Germany’s Jews became increasingly secular. Unfortunately, with many of Germany’s top positions in academia, the military and the like still closed to them, countless German Jews converted. Cynically, or depending how you look at it realistically, those like the poet Heine figured it was an easy transition from non-practicing Jew to non-practicing Christian. Fearing Jews would continue to convert and in great numbers, (one person wrote at the time it seemed like half of Berlin’s Jews were converts) a kind of Jewish Counter Reformation arose with its goal to preserve traditional Judaism while keeping it relevant in a modern secular age.

When it comes to tragedy and irony, during the 200 year history of Germany’s Jews the worst was saved for last. During the First World War and the run-up preceding it, some Germans accused the nation’s Jews of not being patriotic, and thus not German enough. However, in reality a number of influential Jews in academia and industry were solidly behind the Germany’s military endeavors, issuing supportive pronouncements and urging the nation to fight on. Later in the War, after four years of brutal trench warfare and Britain’s naval blockade left Germany hungry and bled white, antisemitic elements looking for scapegoats accused the nation’s Jewish soldiers of lacking bravery. A fact-finding report was issued and when completed, showed Jewish soldiers were fighting as hard as and taking as many casualties as the rest of the German army. (One crazy historical footnote I learned from Elon’s book is the German officer who went to bat for a young Adolf Hitler and made sure he was decorated for bravery was Jewish.) After Germany’s government collapsed at the end of WWI, the nation’s first democratically elected government arose from the political ashes. Also for the fist time in Germany’s history, many Jews held positions of responsibility in the new government. But that young government’s inability to effectively negotiate with the victorious Allies led to significant losses in German territory. (A war that right up to the end, the German people were told they were winning.) This would lead to a decade of widespread anger and resentment, and after the horrors of the Great Depression, opened the doors of power to the antisemitic Nazis in the early 30s.

The Pity of It All is an outstanding book and could easily make my year-end Best of List. It’s also a great companion book to Howard Sachar’s 2007 masterpiece A History of the Jews in the Modern World. Please consider The Pity of It All highly recommended.

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Filed under Europe, History, Judaica

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the LusitaniaI learned a long time ago when a bartender recommends a book, you follow that recommendation. Last winter, I joined an old buddy of mine for beers at a neighborhood watering hole. As the two of us sat at the bar catching up, he introduced me to the bartender, who in turn happened to be a buddy of his. As the three of us chatted away, I noticed our friendly barkeeper had a copy of Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Since I’ve read several of Larson’s books and enjoyed them all, I asked him what he thought of Dead Wake. He spoke highly of Larson’s recent offering, praising both his storytelling and his choice in subject matter. According to our good barkeeper one if the reasons he found the sinking of the Lusitania so fascinating was even though it happened a century ago, it nonetheless occurred during the modern age. Therefore, one can go to You Tube and watch old footage of American and British aristocracy boarding the ship for what would be its last, and sadly disastrous voyage. For me, that was all the recommending I needed to read this book.

But lo and behold, it took one more person to recommend this book to me before I read it. One of my book club buddies upon hearing me mention this book and set out to read it himself. Then, after finishing it and raving about it, I finally grabbed an available copy of my public library and got down to reading it. I’m happy to say just like Larson did with his early books In the Garden of BeastsThe Devil in the White City and Isaac’s Storm he did not disappoint me.

Perhaps there’s two reasons why Dead Wake works so well as book. One, Larson has a true talent writing about history and making it come alive. Second, in order to help make the past come alive in his writing, he focuses on the significant and fascinating personalities of the day. Not only does this put a human face on history, but it also makes it relatable to readers. Lastly, Larson looks at the Lusitania’s sinking with a panoramic lens, giving us the perspective from not just the British and American authorities but also from that of the German U-boat and its captain Walther Schwieger. But most interesting of all, it’s Larson’s look inside British intelligence and the author’s compelling argument the British military knew the Lusitania was in danger and yet did nothing to warn the ship. With the ocean liner’s sinking one of the major factors that later caused the United States to declare war on German and its allies, one wonders if America was set-up in some way.

Anyway, this is an outstanding book. Don’t be surprised if it ends up making my year-end Best of List. Please consider Dead Wake highly recommended.

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Books About Books: When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War IIBack in April when I reviewed Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East I mentioned how over the years NPR has introduced me to a ton of excellent books. I’m please to report I can add yet another book to that wonderful list. About two years ago Morning Edition interviewed Molly Guptill Manning, author of When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II . Listening to her amazing story of America sending books to its soldiers and sailors fighting in WWII entertained and intrigued me. Even though I consider myself pretty knowledgeable when it comes to the Second World War, I had no idea such a literary program existed. After listing to the program I vowed to read When Books Went to War. But instead of running out to read it right away it took me a couple of years and a bit of positive word of mouth from a co-worker before I made an effort to do so. My goodness I’m glad I finally read it. When Books Went to War is a wonderful book.

According to Guptill Manning, America saw the need to get books in the hands of its soldiers even before the nation entered the war. In the year or so preceding Pearl Harbor, America’s leaders saw the handwriting on the wall that war was imminent. As the ranks of the Armed Forces began to swell, these newly drafted men in uniform had few, if any avenues for rest and recreation. Books were soon seen as a solution, but supplies of them on Army, Navy and Marine Corps bases were woefully inadequate. Public book drives ensued but even those weren’t enough to supply the demand. Books needed to be both desirable to read and lightweight, since service men were shipping out to fight around the world. Eventually, America’s sailors and soldiers were supplied with light, cheap and durable (staples were substituted for glue, since glue got eaten by tropical insects) paperbacks. As far as desirable reading material, the gamut ran from ancient classics to popular fiction to history.  And then men couldn’t get enough of them.

Our efforts to supply our troops with books, especially light, portable editions had a lasting impact far beyond the War. It helped fuel America’s love of inexpensive, mass-produced paperbacks. It would also instill a desire to read among the nation’s returning soldiers. Years later, as these men entered colleges across the country thanks to the GI Bill, younger students would complain when these disciplined, studious and in many cases better read classmates excelled academically and as a result drove up the grading curve!

Entertaining, enlightening and a joy to read, this a great book. If you like American history or just books in general this book is for you.  Consider When Books Went to War highly recommend.

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The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land

The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land-A True Detective StoryI hate to admit it, but some books just take me forever to read. Whenever this happens, frequently it says less about the quality of the book and more about my inability to stay focused and not be distracted by the first interesting book to come my way. Take for instance Patrick Bishop’s The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land-A True Detective Story. Here’s a very good book that took me close to a year to read. Had it not been for my public library’s generous policy towards book renewals there’s no way I could have kept this book around without finally finishing it. Trust me, it’s not like I found the book’s subject matter boring. For most of my adult life I’ve loved reading about the Middle East, especially Israel. So when I learned my public library had a book on the old Stern Gang of course I had to grab it. I just didn’t think it would take me that long to read. And that’s a shame because it’s a pretty good book.

For those who might not know, out of all the groups in British Palestine striving to establish the modern State of Israel the Stern Gang was the most hardcore. Besides robbing banks, blowing off bombs and assassinating people, Avraham Stern and his crew were willing to do just about anything to drive out the British and the Arabs. So passionate was Stern’s hatred against the British rulers of Palestine that he even sought assistance from Fascist Italy, and later the Germans. Of course, that a Jew would be willing to enlist the forces of Nazism in his crusade to rid Palestine of British rule looks completely absurd and reckless when seen with the hindsight of history. But history is full of individuals whose narrow-minded interests and uncompromising agendas ultimately lead to their destruction.

Bishop’s book is well written and well researched. While I thought it lost a bit of punch towards the end it’s a pretty decent book overall. Shame on me for taking so long to read it.

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Filed under History, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa