About Time I Read It: Twilight of Empire by Greg King and Penny Wilson

When I noticed Greg King and Penny Wilson ‘s 2017 book Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs in new the books section of the public library a few years ago it struck me as the kind of book I’d possibly read. Thanks to one of my late night ventures down the Wikipedia rabbit hole I was already somewhat familiar with the Mayerling Incident, in which the middle-aged heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne killed himself along with the 17 year old mistress at the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling in 1889. I also saw a fictionalized version of the tragic murder-suicide in the 2006 film The Illusionist and read of another in Elisabeth de Waal’s 2014 novel The Exiles Return. Then, a few weeks ago feeling the need to read something set in, or about Austria for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I secured an ebook edition through Overdrive.

Even though he was the Crown Prince of one of Europe’s grandest royal families by late 1888 Rudolf’s life was a mess. Open to progressive political ideas and willing to grant greater freedom to the empire’s diverse population of subjects his pleas for political liberalization were repeatedly dismissed by his father Emperor Franz Joseph, a reactionary autocrat. His marriage to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, after a brief happy beginning had long since turned sour with Stéphanie spending most her time living abroad while Rudolf frequented Vienna’s taverns and brothels. His body ravaged by gonorrhea as the result of his wayward behavior, he drowned himself in a sea of alcohol and morphine. Lamenting his largely estranged wife would never give him the son he desperately wanted Rudolf had no one to blame but himself. (He’d infected  Stéphanie with gonorrhea rendering her infertile.) Thanks to years of childhood trauma at the hands of his domineering father, or poor Hapsburg genetics or both, Rudolf was a troubled man, emotionally unstable and in all likelihood bipolar.

Enter Baroness Mary Vetsera, the young daughter of an Austrian diplomat. With the total blessing of her social-climbing mother Mary pursed the Crown Prince with reckless abandon. For the better part of a year their ongoing affair was an open secret  to both his parents and the kingdom’s insular aristocracy. Even to this day some speculate Rudolf, in a move to escape the overbearing shadow of his father, entertained thoughts of divorcing Stéphanie, marrying Mary and proclaiming himself King of Hungary. (At this time Austro-Hungary was a dual monarchy.) But as the months went by and the affair lost momentum, Rudolf’s depression worsened. Finally, in late January of 1889 Rudolf and Mary slipped away to the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling. Leaving specific instructions for those in attendance not to open his bedroom door “not even for the Emperor” Rudolf along with Mary retired for the evening. Early the next morning two gunshots rang out. After breaking down the door  Rudolf’s assistants discovered the blood-soaked  bodies of the two lovers sprawled on the bed.

The brutal royal murder-suicide scandalized polite Austrian society. Conspiracy theories abounded for decades with some pointing their fingers at Germany, accusing the Kaiser’s agents of assassinating Rudolf since he was seen by some as an impediment to closer German-Austrian military ties. Bad enough the future Emperor lay dead and without ever siring a male heir but to be found lying next to his dead mistress magnified the tragedy. Suicide, as well as murder considered mortal sins according to Catholic teaching Rudolf could be denied a Christian burial. (Interestingly, according to the book’s authors Vienna was already in the grips of a suicide epidemic with the newspapers filled with lurid accounts of the city’s residents killing themselves.) In the end the Crown Prince was ruled to have been in a state of “mental imbalance” at the time and was thus granted the proper royal funeral rites, much to the relief of his devout Catholic parents.

For the most part I enjoyed Twilight of Empire with my only complaint being I thought the authors might have spent a bit too much time discussing conspiracy theories. However, I can see how many Austrians, when confronted with the uncomfortable truth the Crown Prince murdered himself and his mistress might take solace in rumors that Rudolf was a victim and not a perpetrator. Ironically though, Rudolf’s actions prefigured that of his father’s. When the Emperor decided to invade Serbia in 1914 and in doing so launch the First World War, his actions would lead to the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Another act of murder-suicide, but on a much larger scale.

About Time I Read It: Judas by Amos Oz

In late 2018 I was saddened by the news Israeli author Amos Oz had passed away. I’d only read Between Friends, his collection of eight interconnected short stories and short coming of age novel Panther in the Basement but longed to read more, especially his memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness. For some inexplicable reason earlier this week I found myself in the mood for more of his fiction so I borrowed an ebook version of his 2016 historical novel Judas. Of the three books of his I’ve read, I’m pleased to say I enjoyed this one the most. There’s even a good chance it will wind up making my year-end list of Favorite Fiction.

It’s 1959 and Jerusalem is a city divided between Israel and Jordan. Shmuel Ash, originally from Tel Aviv, is a young idealist who’s lost his way. His steady girlfriend recently dumped him to marry her boring ex-boyfriend. The socialist cell he’d been a member of, passionately debating in smoke-filled coffee shops the role of the enlightened proletariat collapsed under the weight of its idealogical differences. Bereft of funds after the bankruptcy of his family’s business he’s forced to quit his university studies, even though he’s on the cusp of graduating. Unmoored and with nothing to lose, he answers a help-wanted posting for a live-in caretaker for an elderly man. For a modest stipend plus room and board Shmuel stays up half the night bantering with Gershom Wald, a crutch-dependent invalid as cantankerous as he is erudite and brilliant. Sharing this eccentric household is Atalia Abarbanel, the beautiful 40-something widow of Gerhom’s dead son and daughter of Shealtiel Abravanel, onetime member of the Jewish National Council who, because of his opposition to making Israel a Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs was branded a traitor by his fellow Zionists and forced to resign in disgrace.

Surrounded by bookshelves stacked with dusty old tomes in a half-dozen languages Shmuel and Wald’s late-night arguments chiefly revolve around Israeli politics and, because Shmuel until recently was a religious scholar specializing in Jesus as viewed from a Jewish perspective, the role of Judas as betrayer. As they argue night after night, the reader begins to wonder if being a traitor is necessarily a bad thing. Fully aware “courageous people have appeared who were ahead of their time and were called traitors or eccentrics” Shmuel muses “anyone willing to change will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change and are scared to death of change and don’t understand it and loathe change.”

But no matter how much he debates Wald, nothing can take his mind off the beguiling Atalia. She drifts in and out of his presence, elusive yet nevertheless attentive. In spite of her aloofness, she invites him to share a series of chaste, though pleasant evenings on the town. During their conversations she regularly reminds him there’s been a series of admiring young men who preceded him as Wald’s caretaker and each one left broken hearted. But Shmuel is a young man in love and relishes their bittersweet relationship.

With its secluded alleyways, Hungarian restaurants, Romanian-born police officers and sizable first-generation immigrant citizenry, the Jerusalem of Amos Oz’s Judas feels more like the Jewish quarter of some pre-war European capital than a Middle Eastern city. Dark, wintery and possessing a distinct Mitteleuropa flavorJerusalem in essence becomes the novel’s fourth character.

Judas has been called a love story, coming of age novel, intellectual novel, historical novel, philosophical re-appraisal of the Biblical character of Judas and allegory for the modern state of Israel. Not only is it all of these things, it’s also a terrific novel. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: American Connections by James Burke

If I had to compile a list of the people I admire the most at the top of that list would be James Burke. I’ve been a fan of his year decades, ever since when, as a teenage, I stumbled across an episode of his landmark documentary television series Connections. I can remember, as an impressionable young man watching the show and being awestruck by Burke’s ability to show the interconnectedness of scientific discovery and technological development. Through his series Connections (and its two subsequent iterations), The Day the Universe Changed and stand alone productions like After the Warming Burke didn’t just teach how history unfolded (or in the case of the more speculative After the Warming, how it could unfold) but did so with passion, style and perhaps most of all, dry humor.

I’m embarrassed to say, as much as I idolize Burke, I’ve read only two of his books. It’s been years since I read Twin Tracks: The Unexpected Origins of the Modern World and The Day the Universe Changed. A 2000 paperback edition of The Knowledge Web : From Electronic Agents to Stonehenge and Back — And Other Journeys Through Knowledge has sat ignored and unread in my personal library for years . Last week, after staring at my copy of The Knowledge Web for the umpeenth million time I decided read something by Burke. Seeing a copy of his 2007 book American Connections: The Founding Fathers. Networked. happened to be available through Overdrive I opted to give it a shot before finally diving into The Knowledge Web.

Taking what I would call the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon approach to history, in American Connections Burke looks at each of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence and in true Burkean style traces their connections to each one’s present day respective namesake, including John Hancock (“He was an egomaniac and nobody liked him”), Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and even the illustrious Button Gwinnett.  Who would have thought what started with New Hampshire’s Josiah Bartlett would lead to John Paul Jones, then writerJames Fenimore’s father Judge William Cooper, then pioneering TV religious personality Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and finally ending with actor Martin Sheen and his West Wing character Josiah Betlett.

To pull this off, Burke utilizes a cast of thousands-mostly obscure-who for a variety of reasons are long  forgotten. Many failed horribly, were disgraced by scandal or enjoyed only the briefest of success. For those who would complain our current age is sinful as hell and yearn for the morally upright days of yesteryear, they’ll be shocked to learn a number of the Georgian‎, Victorian and Edwardian‎ era personalities to bask in Burke’s limelight were shamelessly infidelitous, (including a number of ménages à trois and even a ménage à quatre or two), incestual, and LGBTQ. (One of which was a woman who was accused of dressed like a man. Later, one prospective employer agreed to hire her but only if she agreed to wear a dress. She complied but years later it was learned she was really a man.)

A wise old history professor once described history to me as good people doing bad things and bad people doing good things. Of the countless individuals whose lives are on display in American Connections almost none were wholly good or evil. But all of them made contributions. And in the hands of James Burke, it all makes for entertaining reading.

Old Books Reading Project: Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng

Imagine you spent six and half years in solitary confinement. Over the course of your imprisonment you were beaten, tortured, verbally abused, denied decent medical and dental care and what little food you were fed was so bad it frequently made you ill. Falsely accused of being a traitor or spy for various foreign powers you were repeatedly ordered to confess your crimes. However, not once were you formally charged, let alone tried in court. During that time you were allowed no visitors, or for that matter any communication whatsoever with the outside world. But thanks to your indomitable spirit not once did you surrender and utter a false confession. After more than a half decade of torment you were released.

Right after you were freed someone tells you why you were imprisoned. You didn’t spend years in a hellish prison because of some bureaucratic mix-up or an official’s personal vendetta. No, it was all because of a power struggle between two rival factions within the government. You were one of thousands maybe even millions of others who were casualties of China’s Cultural Revolution.

Hoping to outflank his younger and more competent rivals in 1996 Chairman Mao Zedong urged the nation’s young people to attack what Mao and his cronies declared “capitalist”, “bourgeois” or “traditionalist” elements ruling China. For 10 years the nation was paralyzed by purges, political instability and factional violence. (Looking back later, Nien thought, “perhaps the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution should be more aptly renamed Cultural Annihilation.”)  Only after Mao’s death and his inner circle deposed could saner heads prevail and thus bring an end to the madness known as the Cultural Revolution.

I picked up a paperback copy of Nien Cheng’s 1986 memoir Life and Death in Shanghai years ago at used book sale only to let sit ignored in my personal library.  I might have kept ignoring it had not Paul French’s City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai put me in the mood to read more about Shanghai. So last week I dusted off my vintage copy of Life and Death in Shanghai and finally cracked it open. Like many good books in my personal library I should not have waited so long to read it.

College educated in the West and fluent in English, Nien, a widow, worked for Shell Oil until the company was expelled from China in 1966. After being questioned repeatedly by the authorities about her ties to not just Shell but also the United Kingdom, United States and Taiwan-based Republic of China she soon faced baseless accusations of espionage and class betrayal. Despite passionately and intelligently proclaiming her innocence she was thrown in prison. Much like Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, author of the previously reviewed Journey into the Whirlwind, she figured once the authorities realized they’d made a mistake and wrongfully imprisoned her she’d quickly be released. Since the Communists took power there’d been arrests and purges off and on. Confirming Tolstoy’s dictum “there are no conditions to which a man may not become accustomed, particularly if he sees that they are accepted by those about him” while imprisonment was terrible, it happened from time to time in Communist China.

Mao had once declared that 3-5 per cent of the population were enemies of socialism. To prove him correct, during the periodically launched political movements, 3-5 per cent of the members of every organization, whether it was a government department, a factory, a school or a university, must be found guilty of political crimes or heretical thoughts against socialism or Mao Tze-tung Thought. Among those found guilty, a number would be sent either to labour camps or prison.

Hopefully, Nien thought, soon it would all be rectified. But only after endearing six and half years of sheer hell, followed by a change in the political winds was Chien released. Allowed to return to her former residence she was placed under close government surveillance and left with the threat of re-arrest and re-imprisonment dangling over her head. Only with a more pragmatic regime in control of China that lead to friendlier relations with nations like the United States was she allowed to immigrate to the West where she could truly at last be free.

About Time I Read It: Rome 1960 by David Maraniss

Years ago, early one evening I stumbled across a documentary on HBO profiling great modern sports figures. Out of all the athletes shown, today I can only remember one. At the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in a Rome a previously unknown runner from Ethiopia captured the gold medal in the marathon. Held at night because of Rome’s triple digit summer heat and following a route illuminated by lines of torch-bearing Italian army soldiers Abebe Bikila, a member of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s Imperial Guard stunned the world. “It had taken Italy a million-man army to defeat Ethiopia, but only one lone Ethiopian soldier to conquer Rome” I can still remember the documentary’s announcer saying. Not only did Bikila take home the gold, but in doing so also set a new world’s record. And he did it barefoot.

As memorable a sports achievement that is, you’d thought I’d read David Maraniss’ 2008 book  Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World the first chance I got. Instead it’s been on my radar forever, and only recently, when I found myself in the mood for a little 20th century European history did I borrow an ebook version through Overdrive. I’m pleased to report Rome 1960 is one heck of a book.

At first glance the 1960 Summer Olympics resembled every other Olympics held in the post-World War II era. The US-Soviet rivalry played itself out as each side fought to take home the most medals. There were events the US lost which we felt we should have won, prompting the usual round of soul-searching and finger-pointing. On the other hand, there were competitions the US did surprisingly well in, and America as a nation relished in the victories. According to Maraniss however, while people might not have realized it at the time, in hindsight we can now see just how significant these Olympics were not just in the history of sports but also history in general.

After a Danish bicycler dropped dead while racing and his autopsy showed the presence of performance enhancing drugs in his bloodstream sports officials from now on would routinely be on the lookout for such substances. It would also mark the first use of steroids by both male and female athletes, a practice which would become widespread among those competing from the Eastern Bloc. There was also the first product endorsement controversy when a German track and field star snubbed his patron Adidas in favor of the upstart Puma. Lastly, the victory of the above-mentioned Ethiopian Bikila would be the first of many medal winning runners from Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Games also signaled a turning point for the United States. There was increased African American participation in the 1960 Olympics even though they faced wide-spread discrimination back home. Whether they liked it or not, prominent African American Olympians like decathlete Rafer Johnson (also selected to carry the American flag during the opening ceremony), sprinter Wilma Rudolph and boxer Cassius Clay found themselves in the spotlight as not just athletes but also goodwill ambassadors representing a nation, that as the Soviets and their allies were quick to point out, oppressed them because of their skin color. While in Rome, Clay was well on his way to coming the larger than life sports figure the world would know later as the charismatic, poetry quoting, outspoken professional boxing champion Muhammad Ali.

The Games in Rome were also the first commercially televised Summer Olympics. Today the Olympics are multibillion dollar television extravaganzas employing thousands of people world-wide using state of the art technology and a network of globe-circling satellites bringing us almost unlimited coverage, much of it in real-time. But in 1960 America’s coverage began with a small crew filming a selection of the day’s events after which the film was flown by commercial jet across the Atlantic to New York. There, in New York the film was developed and hand-spliced while Jim McKay, an up and coming sportscaster banged out a script on a typewriter, supplementing it with interesting facts and trivia mined from the Encyclopedia Britannica. That night on CBS news (in those days the network had no sports division) he briefly recounted the day’s Olympic highlights.

In the years to follow more and more countries began taking Olympic competition seriously.  Some nations, especially those in the Eastern Bloc, saw the Games as an extension of foreign policy. No longer were the Olympics the sole realm of amateurs. What first began as rumors the Italians were paying their boxers to stay home and practice were followed by reports based on interviews with defectors the Soviets were generously subsidizing their Olympians. From living expenses to training to luxuries not available to their fellow citizens the state paid the bills. Little wonder then in 1992 America would recapture the gold medal in men’s basketball only by using a handpicked team of affluent NBA superstars (plus one token college standout). A barefooted champion from an impoverished nation would now have to share the Olympic limelight with millionaire sports celebrities.

Soviet Spotlight: Journey into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg

I’m guessing it was my love of both prison memoirs and Soviet history that inspired me grab a copy of Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg’s memoir Journey into the Whirlwind I found lying in the street, quite possibly while walking to the bus stop after enjoying a few pints of beer with friends at a local pub. After letting it sit on my bookshelf ignored and unread for the last five or so years last week I finally I began reading it. Like other good books from my personal library I’d been reluctant to touch I wish I’d read it sooner.

In 1934 Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg was a college instructor and newspaper editor in Kazan, Russia where both her and her husband were loyal Communists and true believers in the Soviet dream. The same year, that Soviet dream would become a nightmare for millions afterJoseph Stalin used the murder of Politburo member Sergei Kirov as an excuse to launch his infamous purges. Within a few years Ginzburg was arrested, interrogated, stripped of her Party membership, tried on trumped-up charges of belonging to a “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist group”, and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. After spending several years in solitary confinement she was shipped to the wilds of the Soviet Far East to labor in the forests of the Kolyma Valley where she would have died of malnutrition and overwork had a camp doctor not took pity on her and made her one his nurses.

Like the French Revolution preceding it, or the Iranian one that followed, the new Soviet state, now under Stalin’s despotic control began devouring the children of the revolution. At first her fellow convicts were devoted Party members like her, along with a few members of rival revolutionary groups who’d lost out to the Bolsheviks. Later, as Stalin’s paranoia intensified it drove up arrest quotas and combined with the widespread use of torture causing more and more of the accused to wrongly implicate their friends, colleagues and even family members the camps swelled with not just elite members of society like former military officers, Party leaders, and ironically, defrocked members of the dreaded secret police but also everyday working people and simple peasants. Foreigners from Italy and Germany who’d moved to Russia in hopes of building a worker’s paradise also found themselves slaving away in the Gulag along with tons of common criminals. At first, Ginzburg and true believers like her thought it had all been some sort of mistake, figuring they’d soon be released. Later, as time went by and the horror of incarceration took their toll they stopped believing in the goodness and infallibility of the Communist Party and cared only for their individual survival.

As grim as things get in Journey into the Whirlwind, it’s still a vivid, well-written and fast-paced account of one of humanity’s darkest periods. Not only does it make great follow-up reading to Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn’s epic The Gulag Archipelago Volume 2: An Experiment in Literary Investigation but also Anne Applebaum’s outstanding Gulag: A History. Journey into the Whirlwind is a great book and I definitely should have read it sooner.

About Time I Read It: The Letter Writer by Dan Fesperman

I was in the mood for a little fiction after finishing “The Rest of Us” and Overdrive recommend I follow it up with Dan Fesperman’s The Letter Writer. How could I refuse a historical whodunnit set in New York City in the months following  Pearl Harbor in which a detective, newly arrived from North Carolina teams up with a mysterious “letter writer” who earns a living writing letters for the city’s illiterate immigrants, speaks five languages, has the manners and speech of a university professor, and possesses an almost supernatural ability to uncover priceless information? I mean come on, what’s not to like?

When a body is found floating in the Hudson River, Detective Woodrow Cain is sent to investigate. Through the assistance of Mr. Danziger, the above-mentioned letter writer he learns the murdered man was a recent German immigrant, likely Nazi sympathizer and a suspect in the recent fire of the ocean liner SS Normandie, which suspiciously caught fire while being converted to a troop ship. Proudly advertising himself as a dealer in “information” Danziger proves to be an invaluable guide to New York City’s diverse immigrant community, not to mention the city’s seedy underside. But no matter how helpful Danziger is to Cain’s investigation, nevertheless the detective suspects there’s more to Danziger than he lets on.

The Letter Writer has everything. There’s an out of his element detective with a tragic past who’s also a single dad to a young daughter. If trying to solve a series of murders wasn’t hard enough, his crooked, old-boy dominated police precinct thinks he’s either incompetent or an informant sent by higher ups to spy on them. There’s also action, romance, political intrigue and high level corruption. I was thoroughly entertained by The Letter Writer and have no reservations whatsoever recommending it.

About Time I Read It: “The Rest of Us” by Stephen Birmingham

I was in the mood for a little Jewish history so I used Overdrive to borrow an ebook of Stephen Birmingham’s “The Rest of Us”: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews. Originally published in 1984, a Kindle version was released in 2015 and for the last couple of years I’ve flirted with borrowing a copy but never got around to it. Not knowing much about Birmingham’s book I went in with modest expectations. I’m happy to report “The Rest of Us” impressed the heck out of me, so much so it’s almost certain to make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction.

Jews had been immigrating to the United States for years, even before America was a nation. These larger waves of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth like many immigrants were initially looked down upon by many Americans, including their fellow Jews who’d arrived decades earlier from Germany. Most were dirt poor, spoke no English and possessed few, if any marketable skills. (Thankfully most, if not all were at least literate.) However, after only a generation or two their contributions in fields as diverse as motion pictures, radio, beauty products and even organized crime were unrivaled.

One wonders how such a modern miracle could occur. While the crowded and impoverished tenements of New York City were no picnic, and anti-Jewish prejudice abounded, relatively speaking it was heaven when compared to Imperial Russian with its murderous pogroms, state-sponsored anti-semitism and grinding poverty. In a freer country like the United States creative and ambitious forces pent up for generations could be unleashed. While imperfect by today’s standards, institutions like public schools, welfare agencies and a fledgling third-tier City College of New York helped recent immigrants and their native-born children master English, receive public assistance and get an education. Lastly, timing could have been everything with the Jews of Eastern Europe arriving at the turn of the 20th century  and thus being in right place at the right time to explore new and promising technologies like motion pictures and radio. Those who’d established or helped establish flourishing organized crime syndicates were poised to enter the bootlegging  trade once Prohibition was established, with many of the same players instrumental into turning the once sleepy desert town of Las Vegas into a gambling and entertainment Mecca after the Second World War.

If you love rags to riches stories, this book is for you. David Sarnoff went from a teenager selling newspapers on the streets to New York to a young radio operator banging out morse code messages (legend has it he was at his post taking incoming messages from the Titanic when it went down) to the head of RCA. When a young Szmuel Gelbfisz left Warsaw he was so poor he couldn’t bribe the border guards to let him enter Germany. After escaping containment he swam the Oder River, made his way across Germany and eventually to America where he became a successful glove maker, then salesman and eventually VP of sales. With several of his co-religionists he decided to produce feature-length motion pictures. Years later the world would know him as movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. Israel Isidore Beilin, who came to America as a five years old would become Irving Berlin, and despite not knowing how to read sheet music was a huge contributor to the Great American Songbook with such hits as “White Christmas, “Easter Parade” and “God Bless America.” Lastly, when nine year old Meier Suchowlański arrived from Russia who would have thought years later as Meyer Lansky he would build a vast international criminal empire and be cool as hell while doing it.

“The Rest of Us” isn’t just great Jewish history, but also American history. Please consider it highly recommended.

City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai by Paul French

It only took me six years but in the summer of 2018 I finally got around to reading Paul French’s 2012 book Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. Not only did Midnight in Peking did make my Top Five Books of Summer but also my year-end list of Best Nonfiction. While I didn’t notice it at the time, that same summer another book by Paul French was released. City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai is another in-depth look at the seedy underside of a major Chinese city on the eve of World War II. Oddly enough, as much as I enjoyed Midnight in Peking I didn’t run out and get a copy of City of Devils. But I figured someday in the near future I’d read it.

Recently, I was bored, found myself searching Overdrive for something new to read and saw City of Devils was available to borrow. After downloading it to my Kindle I jumped into French’s 2018 book and never looked back. Just like Midnight in Peking there’s a good chance it make my year-end Best Nonfiction List.

Today we think of Shanghai as the ultra modern Paris of the Orient. China’s richest and largest city is blessed with a booming economy, futuristic skyline and a well deserved reputation as a global hub for international trade, finance and transportation. But in the decades prior to the Second World War Shanghai was a much different place. Thanks to a collection of unequal treaties imposed upon China by the Western powers and Japan, Shanghai, while technically a Chinese city, was home to several foreign settlements, each separately administered by British, French, American and Japanese authorities. Within these foreign enclaves Chinese sovereignty didn’t apply and a general sense of lawlessness prevailed. The city was home to thousands of Russian refugees who’d fled Communist rule as well as countless Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. Adding to this polyglot mix were a number of residents from Italy and the Philippines.

In its heyday, Shanghai, just like Mos Eisley on the planet Tatooine was a wretched hive of scum and villainy rife with gambling, prostitution, corruption, gun-running, drugs and alcohol. At the same time, coexisting with this vice was a lively world of wealth, opulence and sophistication as well-heeled crowds danced the night away in palatial ballrooms to the music of world-class orchestras. African American bands from Harlem served up cutting edge jazz to appreciative audiences on a nightly basis. Shanghai was a mixture of New York City, Paris, London and Roaring 20s mob-ruled Chicago with Russian and Yiddish overtones transported to the Orient.

Two self-made men, both of them foreigners, ruled free-wheeling Shanghai like modern royalty. One was “Lucky” Jack Riley,  U.S. Navy boxing champion and escaped convict, his introduction of slot machines to Shanghai revolutionized the city’s gambling scene. The other was “Dapper” Joe Farren, a Viennese Jew who went from professional ballroom dancer to nightclub mogul and with it Shanghai’s premier man about town. But, as history as shown us time and time again, impressive fortunes can fall as fast, or even faster than they rise and when it came to those of Lucky and Dapper there would be no exceptions.

I thoroughly enjoyed City of Devils. If you’re a fan of Erik Larson or anyone else who has the gift for writing nonfiction that reads like fiction this book is for you. I have no problem recommending this great book.

1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Åsbrink

As I pointed out three years ago when I reviewed Victor Sebestyen’s 1946: The Making of the Modern World I love books about a single year in history. Some of my favorites have been 1959, 1968 and 1973. A few years ago I read 1945 in addition to not one but two books titled 1913. The latest of these kind of books to catch my eye is Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: Where Now Begins. I’m not sure exactly when and how 1947 popped up on my radar but I’ve been wanting to read it, coming close to borrowing a copy from the library on several occasions. Two nights ago I found myself on Overdrive searching for a new book to read and saw a copy of 1947 was available. After downloading a borrowable copy I effortlessly burned through it in no time. Not only did this book greatly exceed my modest expectations there’s a good chance this lively and illuminating book will end up being one of my favorites of 2020.

Prior to reading this book if someone asked me if, and why 1947 could be a thought of as a seminal year in history my less than decent answer might mention India and Pakistan achieving independence or Arab and Jew battling for control of the soon to be former British Mandate of Palestine. If I’m lucky I might remember 1947 was the year the CIA was created and President Truman proclaimed the Truman Doctrine, pledging financial and military assistance to Greece and Turkey in hopes of blocking Soviet expansion into the Mediterranean. But really, that’s it.

Little did I know according to Åsbrink 1947 was one heck of a year. In arts, letters, entertainment and fashion ground-breaking things were going on throughout the year all over the world. Christian Dior would be both worshipped and hated by millions for revolutionizing the fashion world. George Orwell, disillusioned and haunted by totalitarianism in all its forms would pen 1984. Simone de Beauvoir, while on tour in the United States would fall madly in love with American author Nelson Algren, who in addition to showing her around the vice-filled bars of working class Chicago would introduce her to Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy providing  inspiration for her feminist classic The Second Sex. After hearing amazing things about an eccentric yet highly talented jazz pianist the founder of Blue Note Records Alfred Lion and his wife would pay visit to his apartment to hear him play. After he’s done Lion would award the musician, Thelonious Monk a record deal.

In science and technology, American computer scientist Grace Hopper would achieve lasting fame for not only pulling a short-circuiting moth out of an early mainframe (giving us the term “debugging”) but more importantly pioneer the concept of a machine-independent programming language, leading to  the development of COBOL, a language still used today. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union a self-taught small-arms designer by the name of Mikhail Kalashnikov would give the world a sturdy, reliable and lethally efficient machine gun and the weapon of choice for countless armies, terrorist groups and insurgents.

As I expected, in the realm of politics Åsbrink covers the run-up to India and Pakistan’s independence. (As for its bloody outcome, she blames the British. Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, in hopes of wrapping things up on a nice, tidy deadline rushed the partition process. The man he entrusted with drawing the new borders and putting millions at risk, Sir Cyril Radcliffe was a lawyer by trade and had never set foot in India prior to his arrival.) Again, as expected the author delves into the origins of the state of Israel, including what was happening among the Palestinians. ( Former Nazi collaborator and Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammad Amin al-Husayni steadfastly refused to negotiate over the future of Palestine and urged his countrymen to do the same. Opting instead fight they’d be routed by the newly independent Israelis the following year.)

Among the other political developments discussed in 1947 the most surprising was the birth of the Malmö Movement headed by Swedish Fascist Per Engdahl to create a pan-European organization of former Nazis and their sympathizers. Anti-communist, anti-semitic and anti-democratic they sought to promote their views of a “white Europe”, replacing master race with “civilization” in hopes of making their extremist views more palatable. Those and others like them were instrumental in helping Nazi war criminal secretly escape to South America, especially Argentina.  Fast forward to today and European’s far right continues to draw inspiration from this deep well of hate.

Common among the above-mentioned books chronicling a single year in history is their authors’ tendency to argue based on the presented evidence the particular year in question has almost epic significance. My cynical side says you can make that argument for just about any year in history. However, when it comes to 1947 Elisabeth Åsbrink makes a compelling case.