About Time I Read It: The Future Is History by Masha Gessen

After reading tons of great things about Masha Gessen’s 2017 book The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia I decided to buy a Kindle edition last March after Amazon, much to my joy drastically dropped the price. Months later and needing something about Russia for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I began reading it. Like many outstanding books The Future is History blew me away from the beginning. Not only will it make my 2020 list of favorite nonfiction it’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year.

We all know Russia has reverted back its totalitarian self of old. The question is how did this happen. According to Gessen, in her National Book Award winning work of biography, history and political analysis the Fall of Communism, as earth-shaking as it was, didn’t transform Russia into a functioning democratic society. After a decade of political and economic disfunction under Boris Yeltsin, as corrupt oligarchs and murderous mobsters ran roughshod over the nation, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer assumed the reigns of power. After imprisoning, forcibly coopting or assassinating his rivals, seizing their assets and media outlets Putin and his old intelligence service colleagues consolidated their hold on Russia. To some, perhaps even many Russians at first things looked promising. The troublesome oligarchs were neutralized, told to either play ball with Putin or else. The sinking economy was righted. Nationalists rejoiced as Russia adopted a more assertive foreign policy.

This was all made easier, Gessen asserts because Russia, at its core is an authoritarian society. Thanks to 80 years of Soviet rule (building on hundreds of years of Tsarist supremacy) Russians have been conditioned into believing only a dictatorial regime, like that of the Soviets could deliver them material comfort, stability and national pride. Flawed elections, harmful deregulations and weak democratic institutions became synonymous with rampant crime, widespread corruption and a Third Word-like chasm between rich and poor and. Only a return to Russia’s authoritarian past could save the country.

Gessen weaves together the oral histories of four different Russians to show how this  happened, beginning  with the hopefulness of perestroika to the chaos of the Yeltsin years to today’s Putin era. Despite their respective promising beginnings by the end all four Russians are trampled by the heavy-handed Russian state. One, Lyosha finds himself the victim of state-sponsored homophobic bullying after Putin and his allies enact anti-LGBTQ policies. (Supposedly drafted to protect Russia’s children from predatory gays and lesbians, the new laws were designed to please social conservatives and others alarmed at Russia’s plummeting birthrate.) With the deck seemingly stacked forever Putin’s favor, Russia’s future looks bleak.

The Future Is History is an outstanding book, and a must read for anyone wanting to understand Putin’s Russia. Like Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry it will definitely make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

If 2020 wasn’t bad enough, last month we lost the internationally acclaimed Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Back in 2014, after reading all kinds of great things about Ruiz Zafón I took a chance on his 2012 novel Prisoner of Heaven and was subsequently blown away. Saddened by the news of his untimely passing, I decided to read another book from his best-selling series Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Luckily for me, I was able to use my public library’s Overdrive portal to secure a Kindle version of his 2009 novel The Angel’s Game. After only a few pages I fell in love with The Angel’s Game and it’s almost certain to make my year-end list of Favorite Fiction.

Our story begins when David Martín, a young underling at a second-tier Barcelona newspaper is asked at the last minute by his editor to write a feuilleton for the paper. Nervous and eager to prove himself he quickly goes to work. Once completed, much to his surprise and that of his editor Martín’s inaugural piece is a hit. Many feuilletons later, he’s approached by a pair of sleaze ball publishers who commission him to write a series of low-brow penny dreadfuls. While thankful for the opportunity to write professionally, after a while Martín grows weary of spending every waking moment at his typewriter banging out lurid tales of murder, betrayal and illicit liaisons. He yearns to be a real writer, like his idols Charles Dickens and other 19th century greats. Tired, disillusioned and locked-in to an exclusive contract Martín fears his dreams of literary greatness will forever remain unfulfilled.

Then a mysterious stranger enters his life. Wealthy, sophisticated and charming as only the devil could be, Andreas Corelli begins courting Martín with offers of employment. To the princely Parisian money is no object, and troublesome barriers standing in the way of Martín writing for Corelli are vanquished with mephistophelian aplomb. Answering Corelli’s siren call, Martín agrees to write him a book but not just any book. Corelli wants him to create a holy text he’ll use to launch a new religion.

The Angel’s Game has been called everything from a gothic tale to a physiological thriller. Containing elements of horror, romance and crime noir the novel is near unclassifiable in terms of genre. With long philosophical and religious dialogs between characters akin to those of Russian masters like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, together with generous allusions to Great Expectations, The Angel’s Game is like a piece of 19th century literature successfully reimagined for modern readers.

Not only is The Angel’s Game almost certain to make my year-end list of Favorite Fiction it’s the best novel I’ve read this year. Please consider this wonderful work of fiction by the late Carlos Ruiz Zafón highly recommended.

Old Books Reading Project: The Age of Catherine de Medici by J.E. Neale

Can I learn something from a book I didn’t like? I asked myself that question right after I finished J.E. Neale’s The Age of Catherine de Medici. Published in 1962, it’s been in my personal library for who knows how long. One hot summer night two years ago I brought it to the pub to read but after just one page I lost interest. Upon returning home I exiled the vintage paperback to a hidden nook and cranny in my personal library and promptly forgot about it. Then a week ago I was once again craving stuff on European history and decided to give The Age of Catherine de Medici another chance. The good news is since it’s a short book just over 100 pages I read it in no time. The bad news is I still didn’t like it.

Part of the Harper Torchbook series of”quality paperbacks” specializing in fields like religion, philosophy, history and economics The Age of Catherine de Medici is a collection of four lectures the author gave at Alexandra College in Dublin in 1938 and four year later at University College of North Wales (now Bangor University). As one would guess, it covers the mid-1500s when Catherine was queen, and later queen mother to three sons, each of which would have a turn ruling France. I figured since they’re lectures, The Age of Catherine de Medici would make for light reading. Unfortunately,  I never warmed up to Neale’s writing style.

While being the queen mother to three sons might sound impressive, the reality was otherwise. All three kings were weak and ineffective rulers, with their respective reigns, in Hobbesian terms best described as nasty, brutish and short. Their mother Catherine, lacking the intelligence, political savvy and indomitable will when compared to say, England’s monarch Elizabeth was ill-equipped to hold the country together during this period of extreme civil and religious unrest. (She also had the added disadvantage of being Italian-born, and being a foreigner was therefore was seen by many as ill-suited to guide the nation.) Dubbed by historians as the Religious Wars, the series of conflicts which ravaged France were in effect a decades long civil war, as Catholics and Protestant Huguenots fought back and forth for control of France. (Although arguably, much of the time Catholics were the aggressors.)

Neale’s book confirmed for me our species’ bad reputation for communal violence, especially toward those seen as threats or worse, potential threats to our well-being. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, when Catholics in Paris and throughout France rose up and murdered thousands of Protestant men, women and children bears an eerie resemblance to such later large-scale atrocities as the   Indonesian mass killings of 1965–19966, the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 and the murderous “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia from 1992–1995. An unpleasant, but perhaps necessary reminder of what we’re capable of.

Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer

A month or so before the planet went on lockdown I happened to spot a copy of Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer’s 2019 book Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 during one of my Saturday visits to the public library. With a big stack of library books by my bed vying for my attention I declined to borrow it, even though the book looked promising. Then, not long ago I found myself in the mood for a little Fault Lines so I borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work reading it. A wise move on my part because Fault Lines provides an insightful explanation of how America became such a divided nation.

Kruse and Zelizer begin their book with a study in contrast. When Barack Obama bid farewell in early 2017 he warned our deeply divided nation was on the cusp of being irreparably ripped apart along economic, racial and political lines. On the other hand, from day one his successor Donald Trump his done everything in his power to exacerbate these deep fractures, as shown by his toxic rhetoric, questionable political appointments and polarizing policy moves. How, the authors of Fault Lines ask, did we as a country become so divided?

Like many answers to complex questions it’s a long story. According to Princeton professors Kruse and Zelizer these “fault lines” aren’t anything new and have been around for decades but a “robust federal government, a thriving middle-class economy and a powerful union movement” provided enough upward mobility and material well-being to ameliorate the harmfulness of these divisions. But then, by the early 1970s things started to change. An oil shock led to economic stagnation, or “stagflation” associated by a decline in purchasing power and real wages. America’s  industrial workers faced increased competition from both overseas factories as well as automation resulting in layoffs and lower wages. Service sector jobs began filling the void, but these tended to be lower paying, and more importantly non-union, with fewer and fewer workers enjoying generous benefits and protections.

After yet another oil shock and recession (on top of the Iranian Hostage Crises), in 1980 Ronald Reagan would take the Presidency from Jimmy Carter. Chanting the mantra that government *is* the problem Reagan would embark on a cascade of Neo-liberal moves promoting anti-regulation, anti-union, and anti-working class policies. Eight years of Reaganism would shift the American political landscape to the right, leading Bill Clinton to further dismantle the social welfare net or as he called it “end welfare as we know it.”

Up to the 1980s, as divided as the nation was, ironically, the world of radio, television and print media was surprisingly homogenous. For decades Americans got their national and international news from just three major TV networks, local newspaper, small handful of newsweeklies and to a much lesser degree newspaper of record like The New York Times or Wall Street Journal. With a relatively small assortment of news providers catering to a broad audience politically moderate viewpoints prevailed. Since radio and TV stations were seen as operating “for the public good” the FCC’s long-enshrined “Fairness Doctrine” mandated stations devote coverage to “controversial issues of public importance.” While not required to give equal time for opposing views, nevertheless stations had to present “contrasting viewpoints.”

As the middle class shrank and the divide widened between rich and poor technological advances and regulatory developments revolutionized the media landscape. The break-up of AT and T meant an end to the sweetheart deal which allowed  ABC, CBS and NBC to transmit content to their respective affiliates for local rebroadcast while at the same time blocking new rivals from entering the market. But even larger changes lay ahead as a growing constellation of communication satellites began circling the earth, allowing a multitude of upstart TV networks to entry the fray  utilizing the new medium of cable TV, made possible by advances in fiber optic technology. In 1987 the Fairness Doctrine was repealed, allowing broadcasters to supply highly partisan programming without contrasting viewpoints. This would lead to right wing talk radio by the 1990s and Fox News a decade later. By the 2000s the nation’s polarization would be complete as the Internet revolution allowed Americans to get their news, and perhaps more importantly opinion from tons of sources. However, with no shortage of news sources and social media platforms, individual Americans now had the ability to exist in a bubble, devoid of all contrary views. When reality, or perhaps more accurately, realities become tailor-made it’s hard to dialog, let-alone compromise with your political rivals.

I have a fondness for what I call recent history, that is the period from roughly the 1970s to the present. With that in mind Fault Lines didn’t disappoint me. It’s well-written, accessible and does a fine job showing in detail how America got in this horrible mess. In short, why we’re so divided.

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia by Christina Thompson

It’s nothing short of amazing how a group of people without metal tools or written language, let alone modern instruments like the compass or sextant were able to colonize the vast South Pacific spanning from Tahiti to Hawaii to New Zealand to Easter Island. So amazing is this achievement I couldn’t resist Christina’s Thompson’s 2019 book Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia when I spotted an available copy on my public library’s Overdrive portal. (Billed as “a blend of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Simon Winchester’s Pacific also made it hard to resist.) I took my time working through Sea People and by the time I was finished I came away with a deeper understanding of the South Pacific region as well as a greater respect for the brave and resourceful people who colonized it.

Over the centuries as Europeans gradually explored this sprawling maritime realm varying theories were offered up in hopes of explaining how the islands came to be populated. Some thought the Polynesians had inhabited the far-flung islands since the time of creation. Others believed they were the descended from the former residents of a once mighty continent of which nothing remained save a constellation of islands spread throughout the Pacific. As explorers, naturalists and those like them learned more they began to suspect the islands were colonized by groups originating outside the area, be it Asia, Australasia or even South America. But only relatively recently, thanks to discoveries in the fields of archeology, linguistics, anthropology and genetics has a consensus emerged explaining the Polynesians’ origins.

Even though I didn’t enjoy Sea People as much as I did Guns, Germs, and Steel or Pacific it’s still a pretty good book. Somewhere tucked away in my personal library I’ve got a battered copy of Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before. Now that Christina’s Thompson introduced me to fascinating world of Polynesia it’s high time I finally read it.

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.