Category Archives: History

2018 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.

As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.

As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Israel, Japan, Judaica, Latin America/Caribbean, Memoir, Science, Turkey

Soviet Spotlight: When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone by Gal Beckerman

Once again, it’s taken me way too long to write about an outstanding book. This time it’s Gal Beckerman’s 2010 masterpiece When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. I’ve been wanting to read it for years, ever since I saw it for sale at the Portland State University bookstore across from my old workplace. Two years ago today day I decided to splurge and buy a Kindle version of it only to ignore it for a few years until I included it as one of my 20 Books of Summer. Sadly, while I managed to read only three out of the 20, When They Come for Us was one of them. (The other two were Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe and Neal Bascomb’s Hunting Eichmann.)

When They Come for Us, just as its subtitle says, is in fact an epic story. It begins over a half-century ago in 1963 when a group of Soviet Jews began meeting in a secluded forest just outside Riga in the former Soviet Republic of Latvia. Their original plan was to honor the thousands of Latvian Jews who’d been murdered there during World War II by cleaning up the area and consecrating it as a holy memorial. Before long, other Jews joined them and together on a regular basis they studied Hebrew as well Jewish religious practices and beliefs. Eventually Jews around the USSR met quietly and covertly to do the same, sharing samizdat literature and even bootleg copies of the Leon Uris novel Exodus.

Later, as the 60s passed into the 70s, the Soviet Union’s Communist leadership took an antagonistic and strangely contradictory view of the nation’s Jews. Officially, all Soviet citizens were equal under the law, regardless of ethnic identity. Moreover, according to Communist doctrine, all religious affiliations were meaningless anyway, since they had no place in a classless Marxist society like the USSR. But in reality, things were much different. After Israeli won a surprising and resounding victory over its Arab enemies in 1967’s Six Day War, Soviet leaders ended up with egg on their faces since they’d backed Egypt and Syria and bragged to the world the Arabs would crush the small Jewish state should war ever break out. Embarrassed by their allies’ defeat, Kremlin leaders cast a paranoid eye towards the USSR’s Jews, seeing them as a potential fifth column. Soviet Jews also found themselves increasingly discriminated, whether it banned certain professions, locked out of prestigious universities or denied work promotions. Whenever Soviet Jews wished to leave it all behind and immigrate to Israel or America, their requests for exit visas were denied. No sane person would want to leave a perfect society like the USSR Jews were told. Other Jews who worked in highly technical fields like science or engineering were refused exit and told their knowledge and expertise was classified information and must not fall into the hands of the capitalist West.

When They Come for Us is not just a book about the Jews of the former Soviet Union. It’s also a book about America’s Jews, and how a small movement over the years grew into a large and multifaceted one, successfully enlisting the nation’s leaders in pressuring the USSR into allowing Jews to immigrate to Israel and the US. It’s also a detailed look at the foreign policy inner workings of every presidential administration from Kennedy to Reagan. Lastly, When They Come for Us shows over a 30 year period the inexorable decline and eventual collapse of the USSR.

When They Come for Us is outstanding and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. Please consider it highly recommended.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Israel, Judaica

2018 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

As the year known as 2018 finally draws to a close, it’s time for me to look back and announce to the world my favorite books of the year. Just like last year, I’ll start by talking about the outstanding fiction I read over the course of the year. Later, I’ll follow it up with another post dedicated to my favorite nonfiction. Of course, this year just like in previous ones, it doesn’t matter when the books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.

The bad news is I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year. As a result, there’s only six books on my list. The good news is I read some great stuff. So, in no specific order of preference here’s my favorite fiction from 2018.

As for declaring an overall winner, it wasn’t easy since all six are fantastic. In the end, City of Thieves narrowly edged out The Little Book my favorite. As high as my expectations were for this novel, I was not disappointed.

And a diverse collection of novels indeed. With The Gustav Sonata set in Switzerland, City of Thieves Russia and The Little Book Austria the armchair traveler in me was duly satisfied. So also was my inner historian, with all of them but The Senator’s Wife set wholly or partially during World War II or, in the case of The Little Book fin de siècle Vienna. Lastly, just like last year several of the above-mentioned titles are first time novels. Hats off to these authors for their outstanding inaugural efforts.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff

I’ve never read any Joseph Conrad, but like a lot of people I was unknowingly introduced to his writing thanks to the wonders of Hollywood. I was exposed to Heart of Darkness courtesy of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory Vietnam War epic. The sci-fi-fi movies Alien and Aliens served as preludes of sort to Conrad’s novel Nostromo, since the first film featured a spaceship of the same name while its sequel Aliens, stared a group of space marines from the U.S.S. Sulaco, named for the fictional Latin American town in the Conrad novel. But these cinematic borrowings never inspired me to read any Conrad, despite for years having a copy of Heart of Darkness a good friend gave me for my birthday.

About a year ago I came across several favorable reviews of a new biography of Conrad, namely The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff. The reviews mentioned he’d found literary success only later in life after he’d effectively retired as a merchant seaman. During those impressionable years at sea he not only visited countless exotic locales around the globe but did so during an era when the world experienced its first wave of globalization as foreign peoples were colonized, markets expanded and international trade exploded. Duly intrigued by what I’d read, I vowed to borrow a copy of The Dawn Watch from my public library. Who knows, maybe if I read it, I’d finally get off my butt and read some Conrad.

Last week my library obtained an e-book version of The Dawn Watch which I quickly borrowed. I have to say it’s quite good. And yes, it’s probably inspired me to finally read some Joseph Conrad.

The writer we know today as Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in what’s now Ukraine. His parents were minor Polish nobility and ardent Polish nationalists opposed to Russian subjugation of their homeland. As a young boy he was homeschooled in French, English as well as Polish romantic poetry. After losing both his parents to tuberculosis he was sent to live with his Francophile uncle. By the time Józef became conversant in French he’d also developed a yearning to sail the ocean. At the tender age of 16 at his uncle’s behalf he moved to Marseilles to sail on a French vessel. After a few years of sailing under a French flag he feared he’d be deported to Russia to serve in the Tsar’s army. To escape military conscription he signed on with British ship. In all he’d spend over two decades as a merchant seaman visiting every continent save Antarctica.

According to Jasanoff it was these travels that provided Conrad with the material for his books. Working on a steamship in SE Asia served as the inspiration for Lord Jim. The horrors he witnessed while chugging up the Congo in Belgian-held central Africa provided him the template for Heart of Darkness. A story about a stolen shipment of silver he heard during a brief foray into the Gulf of Mexico would eventually form the nucleus for Nostromo. Lastly, his experiences living in London living among the city’s huge Polish expat community would greatly shape The Secret Agent.

I walked away from The Dawn Watch feeling Conrad’s life was bookended by transition. When he began his maritime career, sail was gradually being phased out in favor of steam. The British led the world in this arena thanks to their then state of the art coal-powered steamships and extensive network of coaling stations spread throughout their empire. Later in his life, as an English-language writer living in his adopted country of England, he witnessed the rise of the United States as a world power, made evident by its continental expansion, acquisition of foreign territories like Guam and the Philippines, increasing economic might and blistering industrialization. Meanwhile, closer to home fear abounded that Great Britain was slipping into decline. As America’s stature rose, British assertiveness in Western Hemisphere became a thing of the past. A surprisingly costly Boer War and a rapidly growing German navy challenged the once universal belief the British Empire was invincible.

The Dawn Watch is a great book. It reads with ease and is well-researched. Don’t be surprised if it make my year-end list for Best Nonfiction.

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About Time I Read It: Day of Empire by Amy Chua

One Saturday afternoon while exploring the shelves of my public library I came across Amy Chua’s Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance–and Why They Fall. While most know Chua thanks to her controversial 2011 bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I was introduced to her writing in late 2016 when I read her perhaps only slightly less controversial book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. Being a sucker for history books I simply couldn’t resist Day of Empire. I added it to the small stack of library books in my arms and headed to the check-out desk.

Eager as I was to read Day of Empire I still approached it with a bit of skepticism, since Chua isn’t a trained historian. (But she is a distinguished law professor at Yale.) Be that as it may, I’m happy to say in the end I found her arguments compelling and her command of history impressive. Much to my surprise I find myself recommending this rather good book.

Published back in 2007, Day of Empire looks at history’s great “hyperpowers” (roughly described as empires and such that at their zenith had few, if any equals) and what made them great – and in end what brought them down. Looking at history’s great empires, from Persia to Rome to Britain to America and everything in between, according to Chua, the key successful element to hyperpowers both ancient and modern is tolerance. If they’re able to absorb diverse populations with relative harmony and harness their creative energies they’ll  prosper and succeed. But if they’re unable, or grow intolerant then imperial decline sets in, frequently ending with a partial or full collapse of the once mighty power.

For example, even though Rome conquered a diverse array of peoples ranging from Europe to North Africa to Near Asia, Roman citizenship was technically available to all. As a result many of Rome’s subjects had a stake in the empire’s well-being and responded accordingly. While many counties in Europe were absolute monarchies ruled by autocrats and their citizens enjoyed few, if any civil liberties Holland and Britain were free societies. Over the years persecuted minorities like Huguenots and Jews were drawn to these two realms bringing with them their expertise in fields like banking, commerce and textiles. On the other hand, imperial Spain’s persecution of especially Jews but also Muslims created an exodus of its Kingdom’s most talented subjects. (Many Jews found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, prompting the Sultan to publicly thank the Spanish monarchs for “helping enrich” his kingdom.) Within a generation or two Spain would find itself a shadow of its once great self.

Like I mentioned earlier, I found Day of Empire surprisingly good. Considering all the anti-immigrant and anti-muslim rhetoric emanating from today’s Oval Office, it might be wise for both power brokers and citizenry to take note of Chua’s words when it comes to the value of tolerance. If we don’t, America could find itself slipping into ruinous decline, like so many failed empires before us.

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A Trio of Political Books

I enjoyed doing my post A Trio of Books About China so much I thought I’d do another one and feature three books of a similar nature. This time, instead of focusing on China I’d like to spotlight three recently published books that look at the world-wide rise in populist-fueled authoritarianism and the threat it posses to the established democratic order.

  • Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism by Ian Bremmer-  I’ve been fan of Bremmer for years. I loved his 2010 book The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and last February I reviewed his 2006 book  The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. He’s probably the only “thought leader” I follow on social media. I’ve reposted tons of his Facebook posts and retweeted more than a few of his Twitter offerings. As soon as I heard he’d written a new book I requested my public library purchase a digital copy for Kindle download. Luckily for me I was the first in line to read it. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer looks at the impacts of “globalism”: increased trade, (not just in goods and services but also knowledge and ideology) immigration, mass refugee migrations, and the rise of supranational organizations the EU but also the backlash they create leading sometimes to authoritarian regimes at home and abroad.
  • How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt – I couldn’t resist this one when I saw this one on the “New Books” shelf at my public library. Written by two Harvard professors, one an expert in European politics and the other Latin American, the authors take history and recent current events as their guides warning us of the risks facing democracy and how to protect it.
  • Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright – A good friend of mine was kind enough to loan me her AUTOGRAPHED copy, purchased the night she saw Albright speak on her recent speaking tour. This is the second book by Albright I’ve featured on my blog. Back in early 2013 I briefly reviewed her Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. Much like How Democracies Die it’s a warning that democracy is under attack in America and around the world and what to do about it.

So similar are these three books it’s probably easier to write about what they have in common as opposed to their differences. To these writers authoritarianism, or as Albright calls it fascism comes gradually and not overnight. It might begin with a tough-talking nationalist leader claiming to speak for the ignored and pure hearted, who might ban a rival political party but goes on to ban the others. The leader, calling a newspaper or a TV network a threat to the nation will force its shutdown or worse, make it a propaganda organ for the state. Judges are forced to retire and courts are packed with the leader’s hand-picked judicial replacements. A constitutions is rewritten and presidential term limits are abolished. Eventually, you wind up with a dictator for life unaccountable to no one.

There’s also the potential for things to get even worse in the future. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer predicts advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and 3D printing will lead to widespread unemployment in both the developed and developing world, causing unprecedented political and economic instability. Governments around the globe will be forced by their citizens to address crippling problems of unemployment, income disparities, public unrest and mass migrations.

Us vs. ThemHow Democracies Die and Fascism: A Warning are all good books and must reading for the civic-minded. Since they compliment each other so well I can’t encourage you enough to read all three. If, as these four writers claim democracy is under pressure, if not under attack around the world then it’s best to educate oneself. Reading these three books would be a great step in that direction.

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Playing with Fire by Lawrence O’Donnell

It always takes me forever to write about outstanding books, probably because I feel my modest reviews can’t do these books justice. So, instead of just sitting down and trying to crank out an honest review I wind up procrastinating. In the end I usually wind up doing a rush job that leaves me feeling I’ve come up short. Well, with that in mind here’s another rush job!

When I spotted a copy of Lawrence O’Donnell’s 2017 book Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics in the “New Books” section at the public library eagerly I swiped it, not just because I’ve read time and time again just how a pivotal year in history 1968 was, but I vaguely remembered Playing with Fire had been favorably reviewed, although honestly I was unable to remember any details. Once I started reading it I found Playing with Fire impossible to put down, easily making it one of the best books I’ve read all year.

To risk being cliché, 1968 was a year like no other. To risk invoking another cliché, Tip O’Neill’s famous quote “all politics is local” felt meaningless as the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War dominated the political landscape. Only four years after his landslide electoral victory over Goldwater, President Johnson, the incumbent, stumbled out of the gate by barely beating his in-party rival Eugene McCarthy 50 to 42 percent in the New Hampshire primary. Supported by an army of young anti-war young activists (among them not only Hilary Clinton but an earnest press secretary by the name of  Seymour Hersh) McCarthy’s campaign turned the kick-off primary into a referendum on Vietnam. Johnson and his team, so overconfident they didn’t even place his name on the ballot until the last-minute were shocked by his unexpectedly poor showing. Before anyone knew it, Johnson would tell the nation he would not run for reelection, thus turning the race of the presidency on its head.

It’s hard to imagine in this day and age but in 1968 roughly only half the states held primaries. Instead, in reality nominees were chosen at party conventions by political bosses and power brokers. The primaries, while relatively important, mostly served to gauge voter popularity and political momentum. Robert F. Kennedy, emboldened by Johnson’s stumble could jump in during the middle of the presidential race and still be considered a viable candidate, just needing to win over the party bosses at the convention. After RFK’s  assassination the night he won the California primary the Democratic Party’s old guard ultimately selected Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a candidate who hadn’t participated in a single primary.

In 1968 O’Donnell argues this election would change forever how America chooses it presidents. Tired of the fears an unaccountable “smoke-filled room” picked party nominees and not America’s rank and file after 1968 all states would go on to hold deciding primaries and caucuses. (Adding to America’s collective disgust was the shock of seeing televised images of rioting in the streets of Chicago as the city hosted the Democratic Convention.) Long before he ran Fox News, a 26-year-old Roger Ailes would help transform Richard Nixon into a media savvy candidate and law-and order champion of Middle America. Lastly, a Republican Party outsider by the name of Ronald Reagan made a brief run for the presidency using the campaign slogan “Mark America Great Again.”

Playing with Fire is an outstanding book and easily makes my year-end Best Nonfiction List. Please consider it highly recommended.

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