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.
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
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.
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.
Some of you might remember from an earlier post that appeared last September in which I spotlighted a half-dozen books borrowed from my public library. On of those books happened to be Aharon Appelfeld’s 2017 novel The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping. In that post, I claimed I’d never read anything by Appelfeld. Later, after I remembered I’d read one of Appelfeld’s earlier novels specifically his Badenheim 1939. But alas, as much as I wanted to read it The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping, I had return it a few weeks later ignored and unread. But after reading awhile back in the New York Times Appelfeld passed away I once again borrowed a copy from my public library. Unlike last time, this time I managed to read it.
The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping is an odd kind of novel. World War II has come to an end and Erwin, a young Holocaust survivor from Eastern Europe has been brought to a displaced persons camp in Naples. He remembers little of his journey across Europe since he’s been asleep the whole time, carried along by his fellow survivors. Eventually, he makes his way to British-ruled Palestine where after statehood he’s absorbed into the Israeli army. During a military operation he’s gravely wounded in his legs which earns him a long recovery period and a series of medical procedures designed to get him walking once again. While convalescing Erwin begins flexing his young literary muscles by deepening his understanding of Hebrew, his new language in hopes of becoming the writer his father always dreamed to be.
If I place Badenheim 1939 side by side with Appelfeld’s final novel The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping they form a pair of bookends encapsulating modern Judaism. Badenheim 1939 depicts the beginnings of the Holocaust, which would lead to the destruction of much of European Jewish Civilization. In The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping Jewish civilization is painfully reborn, not in Europe but in Israel. If that’s the case then perhaps it’s only appropriate The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping was Appelfeld’s last novel.
When I spied Stuart Rojstaczer 2014 novel The Mathematician’s Shiva first the title caught my eye. After that, it was its cool cover art. In the end however, it was it the premise that sold me. It’s horrible enough Alexander “Sasha” Karnokovitch has to deal with the recent death of his mother Rachela, a famous Polish émigré mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin. But when word gets out she’s possibly solved the million-dollar, Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem (imagine the Nobel Prize for mathematics) mathematicians from around the world descend upon the late Rachela’s home, hoping against hope she left notes proving she solved it as opposed to taking its secrets to the grave. So much for a quiet, dignified, private Shiva with family in frigid Madison, Wisconsin.
The Mathematician’s Shiva is another of 2018’s pleasant surprises. It’s funny in a dark, train wreck kind of way. Just because a family might be highly educated and accomplished, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s happy. If Tolstoy taught us taught anything, it’s that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. And the Karnokovitchs are no exception.
I gotta hand it to Rojstaczer, he’s written a heck of a debut novel. No wonder it won a half-dozen or so awards including National Jewish Book Award for Outstanding Debut Fiction. There’s a strong likelihood you’ll see it included in my year-end Best Fiction List in a couple of weeks.
Filed under Fiction, Judaica
Welcome to the fourth installment of Nonfiction November. Our host this week is Rennie who writes one of my favorite blogs, What’s Nonfiction. This week’s topic is Reads Like Fiction. When asked what this means, the creators of Nonfiction answered as such:
Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?
I did a lot of thinking about how I wanted to approach this topic. I first thought about doing a list of my favorite nonfiction books that best epitomized nonfiction that reads like fiction. But the more I thought I about it, the more I feared I’d just be talking about the same books as everyone else. Just like Julz at JulzReads, I too would suggest Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II and Douglas Preston’s The Monster of Florence and pretty much anything by Erik Larson. Just like Rennie at What’s Nonfiction, I’d rave about Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea and Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus.
Next I thought I would just discuss any nonfiction books I read this year that read like fiction. Then I suddenly remembered I’d already featured almost all of them in my Five Favorite Books of Summer post back in August. Therefore, to avoid being redundant, I figured it was best to focus on just one book. I chose Neal Bascomb’s Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi. It’s a page-turner from start to finish, filled with action, tension and memorable personalities.
By 1960 Nazi Germany’s most infamous war criminals were either dead, missing and presumed dead, tried and executed or serving prison sentences. But two were unaccounted for and thought to be alive: Josef Mengele, the evil doctor of Auschwitz and Adolf Eichmann, a high level SS officer and major architect of the Holocaust. One day out of the blue the Israeli Mossad caught wind of a rumor that Eichmann was alive and well and living under a false identity in Argentina. A team was sent to investigate and soon reported back the rumor was correct. Not trusting the Argentines to honor an extradition request the Israeli government instructed the Mossad to capture Eichmann so he could stand trial for his crimes.
It’s Bascomb’s description of the logistical aspects of this daring mission that impressed me the most. At the time Israel was a young nation, not even 15 years old with modest resources that led some decision makers to believe it was wiser to focus the spy agency’s attention on Israel’s Arab neighbors as opposed to hunting far-flung Nazi war criminals. The Israelis would need field agents fluent in Spanish as well as German and a network of Jewish Argentines was secretly recruited to assist in the operation. Multiple safe houses were secured in addition to several automobiles. Once it was decided to fly Eichmann out of Argentina after his apprehension arrangements were made to bring a special El Al-licensed airliner, aircrew and ground crew to Buenos Aires. (At the time there were no regularly scheduled flights between Israel and Argentina. Officially, the plane was there to ferry a group of dignitaries to Argentina in honor of Argentina’s anniversary of independence.) Lastly, for the entire length of the mission Mossad director Isser Harel received reports and monitored it’s progress while posing as a patron in various cafes in the Argentine capital. (Imagine if the head of the CIA sat in a Starbucks with his laptop in Islamabad, Pakistan and oversaw the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s hideout.)
Not only is this book great example of nonfiction that reads like fiction, it’s a terrific book. Therefore, don’t be surprised next month when you learn Hunting Eichmann has made my Best Nonfiction List of 2018.
I’ve been wanting to read David Benioff’s 2008 novel City of Thieves since it came out in paperback, but just never got around to it. Promoted as a staff recommendation at Powell’s Books, I’ve walked by copies of it several times only to purchase something else. Then not long ago, I noticed it was available through my public library. So with much gusto I borrowed a copy. The danger is there’s frequently a let-down whenever you read a book you’ve been wanting to read for years. However, I’m happy to report with City of Thieves there was no let-down. So much did I enjoy Benioff’s novel there’s a strong likelihood it’s the best novel I’ve read all year.
It’s World War II and city of Leningrad is besieged by the Germans and their Finnish allies. As supplies of food and fuel run out the city’s residents succumb one by one to hunger and cold. One evening Lev Beniov, a local teenager accused of looting finds himself sharing a jail cell with Kolya Vlasov, a young Red Army soldier charged with desertion. Fully expecting to be shot for their crimes they’re taken to meet Colonel Grechko, the commanding NKVD officer. His daughter is getting married in a few days and the mother of the bride believes it’s bad luck to celebrate the girl’s wedding without a wedding cake. So, with the city starving to death Lev and Kolya are given a choice: come back before the wedding with a dozen eggs for his daughter’s cake or be executed. With their lives on the line the two embark on a desperate search for the needed eggs and encounter a host of dangers including cannibals, enemy soldiers and desperate Russians.
City of Thieves is a great novel. Not only can Benioff flat-out write he’s a hell of storyteller. (No wonder he’s co-creator and show runner of the HBO series Game of Thrones.) Reading it I experienced a spectrum of emotions from humor to sadness to anger. Like I mentioned at the beginning, don’t be surprised if City of Thieves is declared my favorite novel of 2018. Please consider it highly recommended.