Library Loot

Same old story. Out running errands yesterday, dropped by the library to return a book. And walked out the door with four more. Even though I’m already up to my eyeballs with library books I couldn’t resist grabbing more reading material. Will I ever learn? No, of course not. 

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

Book Beginnings: We Heard the Heavens Then by Aria Minu-Sepehr

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, finally in 2022 I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

For as long as I could remember, my father had been a general. Growing up in the air force, around armed forces, I had become adept at recognizing ranks. One look at someone’s uniform, at their silver stripes, bronze asters, or gold stars, and I could tell exactly where they stood, who obeyed whom.

Last week I featured Matthew Gabriele and David Perry’s 2021 The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. Before that it was Johny Pitts’s 2019 Afropean: Notes from Black Europe.This week it’s Aria Minu-Sepehr’s 2012 We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of Iran.   

Some of you might remember We Heard the Heavens Then is one of the books, along with The Bright Ages I grabbed recently from the public library. Some of you might even remember I borrowed this book once before only to return it unread. This time I’d really like to read it. (If for no other reason the author lives in my former hometown.) Here’s what Amazon has to say about the book.

We Heard the Heavens Then is a deeply moving story told from two vantage points: a boy growing up faster than any child should, observing and recoiling in the moment, and the adult who is dedicated to a measured assessment of the events that shaped him. In this tightly focused memoir, Aria Minu- Sepehr takes us back through his explosive youth, into the heart of the revolution when a boy’s hero, held up as the nation’s pride, became a hunted man.

Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age by Robert D. Kaplan

I’ve been a fan of Robert D. Kaplan for over two decades, ever since that day at the library when I stumbled across a copy of The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War. His 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power is my favorite of his works, easily making that year’s list of Best Nonfiction. Later, in 2018 I read his acclaimed 2016 offering In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond. This time around Kaplan shifted his focus from the Indian Ocean region to a slice of Eastern Europe. Called “poetic” and “reflective” by Timothy Snyder in his review for The Washington Post, to me hinted a departure for Kaplan. After successfully tackling the wide with Monsoon, he shifted towards the deep with In Europe’s Shadow, augmenting his new approach with extra attention to historical background thanks to his research and personal experience.

His latest book, published this spring  Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age is a continuation of that approach. A fusion of travelogue, history, memoir and geopolitical analysis Adriatic is a leisurely yet learned journey down the Adriatic Coast. Making his way from Trieste to Corfu Kaplan travels geographically as well as chronologically. The erudite and well-traveled Kaplan concludes the key to predicting the region’s future is first understanding its past.

For much of the 20th century the lands of the former Yugoslavia was ravaged by war, begging with the first two Balkan Wars in the years before World War I. (A war that was sparked by Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia.) During World War II, German-occupied Yugoslavia descended into bloody civil war as various factions, both ethnic and ideological fought for control. Tito and his fellow Communists’ eventually victory in 1945 would lead to authoritarian, one-party rule but also a half century of peace. But with the fall of Communism the nation unravelled and the fighting returned. Today, a precarious peace prevails throughout a region populated by relatively small nation states. With many weak, both politically and economically, plagued by high degrees of corruption and ripe for border conflicts they’re easy prey for outside players ranging from organized crime syndicates to regional powers like Turkey and Russia. No surprise Kaplan and others feel the best chance for lasting stability is to bind the region into some sort of supranational entity. Possible candidates range from a kind of a neo-Yugoslavia to a more robust EU recast like a latter-day Hapsburg Empire or Holy Roman Empire.

For the last hundred years or so we’ve perceived the lands of the Adriatic, and for that matter Europe in general as geographically, culturally and politically distinct. But that always wasn’t the case. From Roman times to the early Middle Ages North Africa, together with Europe were seen as one region, anchored by the Mediterranean Sea. Only after the Arab conquests of North Africa and the Middle East did Europe did a sense of separateness sink in. 700 year later, after the Ottomans’s conquest of Byzantium and neighboring lands this notion of distinctness would only deepen.

But while Europe might have been hemmed in by Muslim forces, trade flourished. Their horizon’s broadened from the Crusades, Europeans soon developed a taste for fine fabrics and spices. Later, high end goods from China began to flow from East to West with the Adriatic a primary entry point. Not only would this greatly enrich Italian Genoa and Venice but in the process help bankroll the Renaissance.

Today, the Adriatic, along with the rest of Europe is being reconnected with the rest of the word. Wars, grinding poverty and oppression are driving refugees from across North Africa, the Middle East and beyond onto the shores of the Adriatic. Populations, for good, bad or otherwise are mixing and bringing Europe closer to its ancient neighbors. Throughout the Adriatic Kaplan noted evidence of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, a modern version of the storied Silk Road. Just like hundreds of years earlier, one wonders which parts of the Adriatic will once again profit handsomely from the increase in trans-Eurasian trade.

While the Middle East, the Taiwan Straights, North Korea and Ukraine might dominate our current headlines, Kaplan and others believe in the coming years major geopolitics will be playing out in the Adriatic. All the more reason to read Kaplan’s excellent book.

 

Book Beginnings: The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele and David Perry

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, finally in 2022 I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

Our story begins on the east coast of Italy on a sunny day sometime around the year 430 CE, when artisans entered a small chapel and turned the sky blue. The workers labored in the city of Ravenna at the behest, we think, of a woman by the name of Galla Placidia, sister of a Roman emperor, queen of the Visigoths, and eventually regent herself of the Western Roman Empire.

Last week I featured Johny Pitts’s 2019 Afropean: Notes from Black Europe. Before that it was Robert D. Kaplan’s 2022 Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age. This week it’s The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabriele and David Perry.

Some of you might remember The Bright Ages is one of the books I grabbed recently from the public library. Here’s what Amazon has to say about the book.

The word “medieval” conjures images of the “Dark Ages”—centuries of ignorance, superstition, stasis, savagery, and poor hygiene. But the myth of darkness obscures the truth; this was a remarkable period in human history. The Bright Ages recasts the European Middle Ages for what it was, capturing this 1,000-year era in all its complexity and fundamental humanity, bringing to light both its beauty and its horrors.

Nonfiction November Week 4: Worldview Changers

After taking last week off, I’m back with another post for Nonfiction November. This week our host is Rebekah of the blog She Seeks Nonfiction. Even though she’s been blogging since 2016 I discovered her blog only about a year ago. Since then I’ve been a huge fan, in no small part because I see her as a kindred spirit. Rebekah was raised in the “conservative Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod” even though she “never really believed in God”, and I’m an ex-evangelical Christian. If the books featured on Rebekah’s outstanding blog are any indication she’s a progressive individual who strongly embraces science, reason and intellectual honesty. With that in mind she’s the perfect book blogger to host our latest installment of Nonfiction November.

One of the greatest things about reading nonfiction is learning all kinds of things about our world which you never would have known without it. There’s the intriguing, the beautiful, the appalling, and the profound. What nonfiction book (or books) has impacted the way you see the world in a powerful way? Do you think there is one book that everyone needs to read for a better understanding of the world we live in?

When first introduced to this week’s topic I was excited to participate even though wasn’t sure where to begin. I thought about limiting the scope solely to books critical of Christianity, the Bible or religion in general. I also considered discussing just various political books that have impacted me over the years. Or significant history books that did the same. But in the end I decided to throw caution to the wind and feature as many books as possible that significantly shaped my view of the world. They did this by overthrowing my previous beliefs or assumptions, or in some way or another making me look at things with a different perspective. If this project wasn’t ambitious (or foolhardy) enough, I’d also like to approach things somewhat chronologically, starting with books that impacted me as a young man. (But I’ll still mix things up here and there.)

The Early Years

Christianity and the Bible: A New and Critical Look 

History: A Deeper Understanding 

Anti-Colonialism: At Home and Abroad 

Developing a Post-Religious Worldview

The Middle East: A Deeper Understanding

East vs West and Nations Rich and Poor: Competing Explanations 

Corruptions of Power

Animals: Smarter Than You Think

That’s all for now. Enjoy Nonfiction November!

Library Loot

Even though I’m making my way through several books right now I could not resist grabbing another sizable stack of reading material when I stopped by the public library yesterday while running errands. My modest small town library never ceases to surprise me with its impressive array of great books. Never underestimate your local public library! 

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

Book Beginnings: Afropean by Johny Pitts

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, finally in 2022 I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

When I first heard it, it encouraged me to think of myself as whole and unhyphenated: Afropean. Here was a space where blackness was taking part in shaping European identity at large. It suggested the possibility of living in and with more than one idea: Africa and Europe, or, by extension, the Global South and the West, without being mixed-this, half-that or black-other. That being black in Europe didn’t necessarily mean being an immigrant.

Last week I featured Robert D. Kaplan’s 2022 Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age. Before that it was the 2014 rerelease of Paul D’Amato’s 2006 The Meaning of Marxism. This week it’s Johny Pitts’s 2019 Afropean: Notes from Black Europe.

I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember which blogger recently introduced me to Afropean. (If it’s you, let me know in the comments section and I’ll give you a well-deserved shout-out.) Yesterday, I borrowed an ebook version through Overdrive and so far Afropean is shaping up to be an excellent read. Called a Best Book of 2019 by The Guardian, New Statesman and BBC History Magazine here’s what Amazon has to say.

Afropean is an on-the-ground documentary of areas where Europeans of African descent are juggling their multiple allegiances and forging new identities. Here is an alternative map of the continent, taking the reader to places like Cova Da Moura, the Cape Verdean shantytown on the outskirts of Lisbon with its own underground economy, and Rinkeby, the area of Stockholm that is eighty per cent Muslim. Johny Pitts visits the former Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, where West African students are still making the most of Cold War ties with the USSR, and Clichy Sous Bois in Paris, which gave birth to the 2005 riots, all the while presenting Afropeans as lead actors in their own story.

About Time I Read It: The Kidnap Years by David Stout

Even though I’m not a big true crime fan, I still wanted to read David Stout’s The Kidnap Years: The Astonishing True History of the Forgotten Kidnapping Epidemic That Shook Depression-Era America. Finding it harder and harder to resist during my weekend library visits I finally grabbed a copy back in September. Since I was already reading several other books it took me longer than usual to work my through it. In the end though I found The Kidnap Years to be one of those books that probably wont make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction but nevertheless is pretty good. Readable and entertaining, this modest page-turner did not disappoint me.

Today in the United States when someone’s been kidnapped a sophisticated and well-connected network of local, state and federal authorities swing into action. Highly trained law-enforcement officials using advanced technology follow up on every reasonable lead, with each uncovered clue bringing them closer and closer to rescuing the victim. Almost always if the motive is financial the victim is quickly rescued, with the kidnapper or kidnappers apprehended and eventually prosecuted.

But that wasn’t always the case. In the 1930s police departments were small,  underfunded and thanks to years of Prohibition frequently corrupt. Making this worse there was little, if any communication between various jurisdictions. Despite J. Edgar Hoover’s boasts otherwise the infant FBI was largely inept and staffed by poor performing agents who only recently began carrying weapons. Commonly, things were so bad loved ones of those kidnapped refused police assistance and simply paid the ransom. Others enlisted the help of criminal elements figuring they were better positioned to intervene in the inner workings of the underworld than local law enforcement. Lastly, in many states the crime wasn’t even a felony, and no statutes at the federal level prohibited kidnapping.

Between the end of Prohibition and the beginning of World War II America was plagued by seemingly endless parade of kidnappings. With millions of Americans out of work and destitute as a result of the Great Depression some decided to pursue less than legal means to make money. But with the repeal of Prohibition it became harder to make an illegal buck as even the most powerful criminal gangs could no longer profit in trafficking bootleg alcohol. Before long desperate (and frequently not that bright) individuals across America saw kidnapping as the latest get rich quick scheme. Newspapers across America sported frightening headlines whenever the wealthy, or the scions of the wealthy were kidnapped and held for ransom.

One of the many things I love about reading history books is discovering those little connections between notable individuals. Little did I know before reading The Kidnap Years revered US General Norman Schwarzkopf’s father Norman Schwarzkopf Senior was a superintendent with the New Jersey State Police and helped oversee the Lindbergh kidnapping investigation. Likewise, take Alvin Karpis, the reputed brains of the Ma Barker-led criminal gang. After his capture and conviction he spent years in several federal penitentiaries including Alcatraz. After the infamous San Francisco area prison’s closure in the early 1960s he was transferred to McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington. While at McNeil he took a liking to a young inmate who’d grown up an orphan, spending most his young life in and out of state institutions. Karpis befriended him, encouraging the youthful offender to pursue his interest in music. His name was Charles Manson.

Like I said at the onset The Kidnap Years is a decent page-turning that doesn’t cease to entertain. (It also goes well with a good beer or two.) I’m guessing if you’re a true crime fan it’s probably right up your alley.

Book Beginnings: Adriatic by Robert D. Kaplan

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, finally in 2022 I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

The geopolitical map of Europe has moved south, back to the Mediterranean, where Europe borders Africa and the Middle East. The Mediterranean has now begun to achieve a fluid classical coherence, uniting continents. But explaining this will take time. It involves philosophy, poetry, and landscape before I get to international relations. So bear with me.

Last week I featured the 2014 rerelease of Paul D’Amato’s 2006 The Meaning of Marxism. Before that it was John Connelly’s 2020  From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe. This week it’s Robert D. Kaplan’s 2022 Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age.

I’ve been a fan of Kaplan for over two decades, ever since that day at the library when I stumbled across a copy of The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War. His 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power is my favorite of his works, easily making that year’s list of Best Nonfiction. After reading the good news he’d written a new book, I placed a library hold on an ebook and before I knew was able to borrow a copy for my Kindle. Called a “multifaceted masterpiece” by The Wall Street Journal and one of the year’s best books by The New Yorker, here’s what Amazon has to say.

In this insightful travelogue, Robert D. Kaplan, geopolitical expert and bestselling author of Balkan Ghosts and The Revenge of Geography, turns his perceptive eye to a region that for centuries has been a meeting point of cultures, trade, and ideas. He undertakes a journey around the Adriatic Sea, through Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece, to reveal that far more is happening in the region than most news stories let on. Often overlooked, the Adriatic is in fact at the center of the most significant challenges of our time, including the rise of populist politics, the refugee crisis, and battles over the control of energy resources. And it is once again becoming a global trading hub that will determine Europe’s relationship with the rest of the world as China and Russia compete for dominance in its ports.

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings

Last week Katie from the blog Doing Dewey kicked off Nonfiction November. This week Rennie at What’s Nonfiction has agreed to host. She invites participants to share their favorite book pairings, and takes a pretty inclusive approach. It could be a pairing of nonfiction books with fiction, podcasts, documentaries, movies or even additional works of nonfiction.

In past years I’ve been straight-forward, just pairing up nonfiction books with works of fiction. However, last year I did something new and featured Michael David Lukas’s 2018 novel The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, pairing it with a half-dozen books about the ancient Cairo Geniza and Egypt’s Jewish community. This year I thought I’d return to my old ways. I’ll be looking back at what I read in 2022, both nonfiction and fiction and select 15 books. For every work of nonfiction I’ll suggest a piece of fiction and visa versa.

Considering my reading tastes it’s no surprise I’ve included lots of history and international politics kind of stuff. For the first time doing these pairings I’ve featured books by two siblings (Masha and Keith Gessen), a pair of books by the same author (Andrey Kurkov) and two works of nonfiction by the same author (Adam Hochschild). In other firsts, close to half were translated into English from another language, with three quarters of these books written by either immigrants, expats, refugees or children of immigrants. I hope you enjoyed my post and I look forward to reading all the others from Nonfiction November.