Category Archives: Memoir

Books About Books: The Pope’s Bookbinder by David Mason

The Pope's Book Binder: A MemoirDo any of you for one moment think I could ever resist a book entitled The Pope’s Bookbinder? Of course not. Once I discovered my public library had available copy of this cool sounding book I simply had to get my hands on it. As misleading as the title was, The Pope’s Book Binder did not disappoint me. I mean come on, how could not enjoy a memoir by a Canada’s premier dealer of rare and antique books?
In his memoir 2013, Mason recalls his life-long obsession with books, beginning with his adolescent obsession with cheap paperbacks. The ones that caught Mason’s eye were the ones with tawdry cover art, usually depicting some scantily clad woman or two in a sexy pose. Yielding to his youthful and prurient interests, he finally bought one of these nasty looking little editions. Later that night, as he lay in the bathtub reading it, Mason soon realized much to his disappointment it was not a piece of cheap smut but a copy of I Claudius. But to his surprise he fell in love with what he read, and soon after that reading and books in general. A rebellious but intellectually precocious  young man who loved reading but hated school, Mason dropped out at 15 and fled to Europe. After bumming around the Continent hippy-style he found employment in Spain in a book bindery. It was here he helped bind a high-end volume for the Pope. Returning to his native Canada he was able to broker his love of books and valuable work experience to land a job in the book industry. Eventually, after borrowing seed money from his father his started his own bookshop. From there he would go on to the that nation’s leading bookseller of first editions and rare Canadiana.
The Pope’s Book Binder was a glimpse into a world of books of which I knew little, including rare Canadiana but also foreign bootlegs of English language books. Thanks to the many anecdotes he shares throughout the book, (The Pope’s Bookbinder is nothing but wall to wall anecdotes) I also learned how close-knit and quirky the antiquarian book world tends to be. In a nutshell, it’s chockfull of eccentrics.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff on what it’s like to run a bookstore and all the adventures that go into stocking it. (Remember one of my earlier posts when I mentioned buying cheap books from carts outside the bookstore? According to Mason, those books tend to be leftovers from when a store has purchased a large collection of books from a private party.)
With my love of books about books I had no problem enjoying Mason’s memoir. I have a kind of personal cannon when it comes to books on the rare book trade. From time to time, I find myself recommending The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession, Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of BooksA Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict and The House of Twenty Thousand Books  Now, along with all those, I’ll also be recommending David Mason’s The Pope’s Bookbinder. 

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December 15, 2016 · 5:15 am

Middle Eastern Memoirs: And Then All Hell Broke Loose by Richard Engel

And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle EastAt one time memoirs about life in the Middle East were a regular feature on my blog. Seems like every time I turned around I was reviewing some book in which the author recalled the time he/she spent living in, or traveling through that particular part of the world. But over the last few years I found myself reading these kind of books less and less. As for exactly why I’m not sure, but probably it’s because I haven’t been reading books about the Middle East like I used to. Too bad. I think that needs to change.

One afternoon months ago I was strolling along the new books section of my local public library when I came across  Richard Engel’s recently published memoir And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East. As I stared at Engel’s book, I realized how long it’d been since I read a memoir like his. Thinking that spending two decades in the Middle East certainly should give an author something to write about I grabbed Engel’s memoir. Even though I  stopped reading it about half way through only to finish it several months later, it’s pretty good memoir and in the end, I’m glad I took a chance on it.

Engel’s memoir begins with him as a 23 year recent graduate of Stanford who ships off to Egypt to live his dream as a foreign correspondent. After honing his Arabic skills and immersing himself in the local culture (and getting to know members of the Muslim Brotherhood) he eventually finds work as a reporter. Working his way up the journalistic food chain, his career takes him throughout the region to Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Israel/Palestinian Territories and Syria. In addition to covering two Gulf Wars and the Arab Spring protests, he also reported from the frontline battles in Libya and Syria, where in Syria he was kidnapped.

This is breezy and succinctly written memoir. If you’re looking for a light but informative look at the world of the Middle East And Then All Hell Broke Loose is your book. Give it a shot and I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Islam, Memoir, Middle East/North Africa

Books About Books: The Maximum Security Book Club by Mikita Brottman

The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's PrisonBy now I think all of you know I’m a huge sucker for prison memoirs. I don’t care if they’re by former inmates, guards or even prison librarians just pass them my way ’cause I’ll read ’em all. You also probably know by now I’m also a huge sucker for books about books. Over the years I’ve featured books about bookstores, book collectors and even book thieves. So, when I discovered my public library had a book called The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison do you think I thought twice before grabbing it? Of course not.

Published in June of this year, Brottman’s memoir is a look back on the two years she spent leading a book club in a maximum-security men’s prison in Maryland. Her club consisted of 10 or so convicted felons, all of them from severely disadvantaged backgrounds and modestly educated at best. Assigned to read sophisticated works of literature like LolitaHeart of Darkness and Macbeth, the men in her group would share their thoughts of these great books and along the way, voice their opinions about life in prison, not to mention life in general. Like any good teacher, Brottman learned much from her experience, just as the men learned much from her. Perhaps most importantly, she learned in a prison those in power frequently exercise that power absolutely and arbitrarily.

I must have liked Brottman’s memoir because I whipped through it in what felt like no time. While I’m not sure if it will make my Best of List for 2016, it’s a strong honorable mention candidate. In no way did The Maximum Security Book Club leave me disappointed.

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Syrian Dust: Reporting from the Heart of the War by Francesca Borri

What happened to me? How come I don’t read stuff on the Middle East anymore? Seems like not that long ago I was forever reviewing some book about Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia or some other country or collection of counties from that part of the world. For several years I was an active participant in Helen’s Middle East Reading Challenge and one year I even hosted it. But over the last couple of years I’ve shied away from those kind of books. Who or what could I blame for this change in reading preference? Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge? My book club? My new-found love of the Kindle, and with it my feverish urge to read through my slight backlog of ebooks like Spillover and Bloodlands? What on earth could have caused this to happen?

One night I was fumbling my way through my public library’s online catalog when I came across a listing for Francesca Borri’s Syrian Dust: Reporting from the Heart of the War. With the ongoing carnage in Syria frequently featured in the news I figured such a book might help me greater understand the bloodfest I’ve been seen covered on CNN, the BBC and everywhere else. Plus, I could apply the book towards Introverted Reader’s Nonfiction Reading Challenge as well as her Books in Translation Reading Challenge, since Syrian Dust was translated from Italian. So, with those thoughts in mind I grabbed Borri’s book.

Perhaps like anyone else who’s read Syrian Dust, this is the first book on the Syrian Civil War I’ve read. Published in 2106, the book covers the period Borri spent in Syria as a freelance reporter covering the conflict. According to Borri, Syria is a giant soul-crushing mess. The opposition forces are hopelessly divided, fighting with each other when not battling Assad’s army. The only effective and organized rebels are the Islamists, and all they care about is setting up their own oppressive theocracy. The non-Islamist militias are relatively disorganized and underfunded and their corrupt leaders do nothing but live high on the hog and issue pious proclamations from the cozy confines of Istanbul, Paris and London. Meanwhile, either because of incompetence or sheer ruthlessness, Assad’s forces favor shelling and bombing civilian areas as opposed to columns of advancing rebels. Just like in any civil war, especially in the developing world, the civilians caught in the middle are diseased, displaced, maimed and starving.

This is a grim book, but a valuable one nevertheless because it shows what the hell is going on inside Syria. Perhaps for that reason alone Syrian Dust is worth reading.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Memoir, Middle East/North Africa

Books About Books: The House of Twenty Thousand Books

How can any true bibliophile resist a book called The House of Twenty Thousand Books? I mean come on, just look at that picture on the cover. If you’re a true book lover, who wouldn’t want to live a house like that, with books stacked floor to ceiling? So who could blame me for wanting to read Sasha Abramsky’s The House of Twenty Thousand Books when I discovered the book while surfing my public library’s online catalog. After leisurely making my way through it I’m happy to report The House of Twenty Thousand Books did not disappoint this lover of books, especially old books.

The House of Twenty Thousand Books is the story of Chimen Abramsky, Sasha’s grandfather. Born in 1916 near Minsk in the old Russian Empire,  later Chimen emigrated to England to escape Stalinist oppression. Even though Chimen’s father, an incredibly gifted and esteemed Rabbi suffered mightily at the hands of the Soviets, (he narrowly escaped being executed only to spend several years in the Gulag) nevertheless, not long after his arrival in England Chimen became a diehard Communist. So steadfast in his political beliefs that despite Stalin’s purges, show trails and legions of atrocities only in the late 50s would Chimen abandon Communism in favor of a less dogmatic and more liberal form of humanism.

But books was Chimen’s passion. His Communist zeal inspired him to collect rare books and manuscripts dealing with socialism, labor and Marxism. With some of his treasured editions containing handwritten margin notes by Karl Marx himself, Chimen’s personal library was the envy of Communists and leftists from around the world. Later in life, as he drifted away from Communism, Chimen began to collect rare and vintage Jewish books, many of them acquired from behind the Iron Curtain, thus saving them from obscurity and possible destruction. As he built his massive library, filling his home with books each room would be devoted to a certain subject, with the master bedroom serving as a kind of “holy of holies” of Chimen’s most precious volumes where only special guests could enter.

Published in 2015, The House of Twenty Thousand Books is one of those rare books that succeeds in being many things. On one level, it could be considered a memoir since Abramsky recounts his childhood growing up in London before he left for American to attend graduate school. It’s also a biography of his grandfather Chimen, the tireless bibliophile who over decades created the house of books. But it’s also a history book, chronicling not only the history of the Abramsky family, but that of England, with a focus on left and far left politics. It’s also a fine book of Jewish history. Therefore, with that all said I thoroughly enjoyed The House of Twenty Thousand Books and have no problem recommended this fine book to any bibliophile.

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Filed under History, Judaica, Memoir

The Ebony Exodus Project by Candace R. M. Gorham

The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion—and Others Should TooWith a massive personal library of overflowing with books I’ve yet to read and a huge stack of library books begging for my attention, one would think the last thing I should be doing is buying more books. Well, that’s how a normal human being would act. But if you’re me, every so often I can’t resist the urge to buy a book or two. So, with an Amazon gift certificate burning a hole in my pocket and two weeks vacation time looming ahead of me, I threw caution to the wind and bought a pair of books. Both books, Candace R. M. Gorham’s The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion—and Others Should Too and Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East have been on my list to read for a year or two.

Back in 2013 I read Betty Brogaard The Homemade Atheist: A Former Evangelical Woman’s Freethought Journey to HappinessAccording to all the fancy algorithms employed by Goodreads, based on my interest in The Homemade Atheist, one of the next books I needed to read was The Ebony Exodus Project. I was intrigued by the book’s description. With the atheist/skeptic/secular humanist/free thought communities dominated by white male voices, I wanted to get the perspective of an African-American woman. After finishing The Ebony Exodus Project last week, I’m happy to report thanks to Gorham (along with Ayaan Hirsi Ali), those communities have vocal proponents who are also women of color.

Published in 2013, Gorham’s book is part memoir, analysis and oral history. After spending time as a minister in the Black Church, she left to pursue an advanced degree in counseling. As a result of her studies, life experience and personal reflection, she drifted away from first the Church and then religion overall. As both a mental health professional and avowed atheist, Gorham feels the Black Church has been far from beneficial to blacks, especially women. According to Gorham, the only reasonable course of action is for blacks to leave the church. In The Ebony Exodus Project she also includes oral histories from a number of women who have left Christianity, including the various roads they took to get there.

If, after reading Gorham’s book you find yourself looking for great follow-up reads from a woman’s perspective, there’s several books I can recommend. In addition to Brogaard’s The Homemade Atheist and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, you might explore Christine Rosen’s 2005 memoir My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood. In addition, Kyria Abrahams’s I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness UpbringingVeronica Chater’s Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family and Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots are all great. Lastly, even though it’s not a memoir about leaving a religious community, Debra J. Dickerson’s 2004 book The End of Blackness should not be ignored either since it also addresses vital issues of importance to the African-American community.

This is a an excellent, thought-provoking book that should cause many people to ask some tough but necessary questions. With that in mind, even though I have a ton of stuff I need to read first, I feel my money was well spent on Gorham’s book.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Christianity, Memoir

Godless, Hallucinations, and Nothing to Envy

Last week I mentioned it’s been challenge keeping my blog up to date with all the books I’ve been reading. The good news is I’ve been reading some good stuff. The bad news is it’s been hard to blog about it. Therefore, I’ve resorted to doing mini-posts and wrap-up lists as ways of keeping you updated on what I’ve been reading. So, with that in mind, here’s a brief run-down on three books I recently finished.

After hearing good things about Dan Barker’s 2009 book Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists I decided to grab a copy from my public library. For those of you who don’t know, Barker is a former Pentacostal-ish minister and Christian musician/songwriter who, after a period of extensive reading, personal introspection and questioning his faith became an atheist. He’s now co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a frequent speaker on atheism and related topics. Since I have fondness for memoirs by individuals who left insular religious communities, it was hard for me not to like Godless. Being a former evangelical Christian myself, so much of what Barker said in his book struck a familiar, and in the end, reassuring chord with me.

Godless is both a memoir, and much like Peter Boghossian’s A Manuel for Creating Atheists, it’s also readable and informative guide to atheist thought. Personally, I liked the memoir sections of Godless a bit more than the other parts, but who cares ’cause it’s a very good book. I recommend Godless to any readers who are questioning their faith, curious about atheism or have already embraced a belief system similar to Barker’s.

In August of 2015 we lost the great Oliver Sacks. Through his books like Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat he showed readers the fascinating world of neurology. His use of accessible language made complex subjects not only comprehensible, but also enjoyable reading. Sacks’ inclusion of the human element in his case stories merged soul with science. With that in mind, when my book club opted to read Sacks’ 2012 book Hallucinations I was not disappointed.

Traditionally, people have always associated hallucinations with madness. According to Sacks, their origins can be legion, ranging from migraines, sensory deprivation, vision loss, epilepsy and severe stress. Far from always being a symptom of severe mental illness, hallucinations are far more common than people acknowledge. And yes, in case you were wondering, some recreational drugs do cause hallucinations. In his book Sacks details his experiences dabbling in these illicit substances. A bit to my surprise those passages ended up being my favorite parts of the book! This is classic Sacks and a worthy contribution to his sadly now closed cannon of work.

Five years ago I heard amazing things about Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Jo praised it on her blog as did Kim on hers, but it took some recent encouragement from one of my book club members to make me finally read it. My goodness I wished I’d read it sooner. Nothing to Envy is outstanding.  Luckily for me, the copy I was able to get from the public library included a new afterward from the author that covered recent developments in North Korea like Kim Jong-un’s accession to power and his subsequent purge of rivals. Demick’s detailed look inside the horrible train wreck that is North Korea is must reading for anyone wanting to understand the rogue nation. Even though it’s early in the year I can easily see Nothing to Envy making my year-end Best of List. Consider this book highly recommended.

In conclusion, it’s easy to assume these three very good books have nothing in common (other than being library books) but alas that’s not the case. According to Dan Barker, Oliver Sacks was both an enthusiastic atheist as well as a personal friend. In Godless, Barker recalls Sacks had been a speaker at at least one atheist convention. In turn, Sacks loved Baker’s book Godless, calling it “fabulous” and proclaiming “Godless may well become a classic in its genre.” Lastly, one of the ordinary North Koreans who Demick wrote about in Nothing to Envy likened his disillusionment with the oppressive regime to becoming an atheist. Once he stopped believing in the mythology of the overarching, all-powerful North Korean system his entire universe changed. Kinda cool when you see how many things in life are in some way connected?

 

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Memoir, Science