Educated by Tara Westover

Tara Westover’s memoir Educated won, or was short-listed for just about every award and honor on the planet, but that’s not why I read it. I did so because two friends of mine, who’ve known me for years and are all well acquainted with my reading tastes highly recommended it to me. I’m happy to report they were right. Not only did I enjoy Educated, it easily made my year-end Favorite Nonfiction List.

Since many of you have read Educated or are familiar with Westover’s life story I’ll try not to rehash too much. (I’ll probably do so anyway since it’s such an amazing story.) Growing up in rural Idaho and attending the LDS (Mormon) church, Westover and her family were dominated by her extreme anti-government religious zealot father like it was his own personal religious sect. Because he saw human institutions as evil, corrupt and on the verge of collapse he forbid Westover and the rest of her family from seeking medical care, attending school, possessing a driver’s license, having insurance or taking part in any meaningful social activities outside her immediate family.

After an older brother told her BYU accepted home-schooled students, she made it her goal to do well enough on her college placement exam to attend  the Utah-based university even though she’d never set foot in a classroom in her life. Westover tested well, got it and after an understandably rough start flourished, growing leaps and bounds intellectually and socially. Encouraged and guided by mentors as wise as they were kind, her hard work and perseverance paid off, earning her admission to both Harvard and Cambridge.

I’m a huge fan of memoirs by women who’ve left oppressive religious communities as well as those by people who successfully overcame poverty or extreme hardship. No wonder I loved this book because on top of that, it’s wonderfully written. Trust me, it’s worthy of all those awards and honors.

Soviet Spotlight: Where the Jews Aren’t by Masha Gessen

Growing up I had a fondness for old atlases, almanacs, stamps, encyclopedias and the like. Probably because I had nothing else better to do I’d pour over these artifacts for hours on end, losing myself in a forgotten world of vanished countries, colonies, semi-idependent realms and puppet states like the Free City of DanzigTannu Tuva and Manchuku. One day while looking over an old map I came across an odd sounding place deep in Soviet Asia called the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. From what I could tell, it looked like at one time anyway the Jews of the USSR had their own designated homeland. Intrigued, I wondered how I could learn more about this strange place. Alas unfortunately, this was in age before the Internet. So, unless I wanted to hop a bus downtown to my city’s central library and enlist the services of a talented and helpful reference librarian I had few resources at my disposal. To me anyway, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast would remain a mystery.

But few things are able to remain a mystery forever. After hearing great things about the writing of Russian-American journalist and LGTBQ activist Masha Gessen I went searching for her books on Overdrive where I stumbled across an available Kindle edition of her 2016 book Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region. Here after all these years was entire book devoted to this place I’d heard of so long ago. Naturally, I borrowed a copy of Gessen’s book and quickly went to work reading it. I mean come on, what else am I supposed to do?

According to Gessen, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, (to makes things somewhat easier in her book she refers to it as Birobidzhan, after its capital) was born in an era when the newly proclaimed USSR, despite its many authoritarian excesses, instead of persecuting the Jews like its Tsarist predecessors had done, saw them as yet another nationality to be incorporated into the Soviet Union realm. For the greater socialist good Yiddish writers were encouraged to produce pro-Soviet literature while Yiddish theatre flourished thanks to Soviet patronage. Before long Communist leaders set aside a slice of territory in East Asia on the border with China to be the Jews’ new Soviet homeland. Despite its remote location, swampy terrain, and complete lack of infrastructure the Jews of the young USSR were strongly encouraged to make Birobidzhan their new home, with the government supplying one-way tickets and enlisting the services of Jewish writer David Bergelson to sing the praises of the new Jewish Socialist paradise. Later, after World War II with their villages destroyed and families wiped out many Soviet Jews who’d survived the Holocaust migrated East to Birobidzhan in hopes of rebuilding their shattered lives.

Sadly, once Stalin turned against the Jews in the twilight of his reign Birobidzhan became an empty dream. Jewish leaders were imprisoned with many, like Bergelson executed on bogus charges of treason or “rootless cosmopolitanism.” Eventually, Birobidzhan became a Jewish territory in name only.  Even after Stalin’s death in the early 1950s Soviet Jews saw little value in living in Birobidzhan. The modern state of Israel became the preferred Jewish national homeland as evident by the roughly one million Soviet Jews who immigrated to Israel once given the chance.

Where the Jews Aren’t is great book for people like me who love reading about those quirky and forgotten parts of history. It also makes great follow-up reading to Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry Lev Golinkin’s memoir, A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka and Paul Goldberg’s 2016 debut novel The Yid. I enjoyed Gessen’s book and look forward to reading more of what she’s written.

20 Books of Summer: The Radioactive Boy Scout by Ken Silverstein

Late last year when I reviewed Ken Silverstein’s 2008 book Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship I mentioned in passing his 2008 book The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor.  Over the years I’d heard rumors a Boy Scout managed to build a nuclear reactor in his backyard and someone had written a book about it. Reading Turkmeniscam put me in the mood to read The Radioactive Boy Scout and luckily for me, I was able to borrow a Kindle edition through Overdrive. Like Turkmeniscam, it’s a short book around 240 pages. But unlike Turkmeniscam, which isn’t bad, The Radioactive Boy Scout doesn’t feel like a magazine article that’s been padded into a book. I found it succinctly well-written and difficult to put down.

One of the major reasons I enjoyed The Radioactive Boy Scout is it’s hard not to root for David Hawn, the young man whose adventures Silverstein chronicles in the book. Here’s a guy with a crappy home life, complete with a mother battling mental illness and alcoholism. He’s socially awkward, but in spite of himself still manages to have a steady girlfriend. Academically, his grades are terrible. Outside of school however he’s a scientific prodigy. Hunkered down in his series of makeshift laboratories he spends his waking hours concocting his own energy drinks, self-tanning lotions and homemade fireworks. Using a 1950s era intro to chemistry book as his guide he created his own ether and conducted a number of experiments, many of them totally unsafe for an unsupervised teen working in an impromptu home lab.

Eventually, David’s obsession turned to nuclear energy. His dream was to create his own breeder reactor, that is a reactor that creates more fuel than it consumes. In the pre-Internet age of the 1990s he scoured libraries, hospitals, colleges and government agencies for helpful open source material, sometimes posing as a college professor. In his quest to obtain fissionable material he bought stuff through the mail, did his own prospecting and even told a hospital he needed a sample of a medical grade isotope to earn a Boy Scout merit badge. Without revealing too much let’s just say in the end his ambitious project would attract the attention of not just local law enforcement but also several government agencies.

The Radioactive Boy Scout is must reading for all you geeks and techies.

About Time I Read It: Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil by John Berendt

I’m sure by now all of you know the overwhelming majority of the books featured on this blog have been borrowed from the public library. What you probably didn’t know is believe it or not, I have a huge personal library. A few weeks ago I was in the mood to read one of my own books and not something checked out from the library. Craving something long ignored and unread I reached for my copy of John Berendt’s 90s mammoth best-seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. When I announced this to my favorite Facebook group Silent Book Club, joking I was one of 12 people left in North America who’d never read the book and figured it was high time for me to do so, my post generated over 500 comments and impressions, virtually all of them positive. Not surprisingly, several of my friends  chaimed in, praising  Berendt’s book. As for me, I quickly realized after only a few pages I’d made the right choice. Published 25 years ago, not only has Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil withstood the test of time it’s an outstanding book.

Since Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil been around forever, I won’t spend much time describing it. Back in the early 80s, John Berendt, a New York City-based writer relocated to  Savannah, Georgia and ended up rubbing elbows with a dizzing array of memorable eccentrics, ranging from a loveable con man with a heart of gold to an African American drag queen gifted with an almost preternatural ability to charm, ingratiate and mortify. (Frequently the same person during a single sitting. ) Much like the city of Tokyo became the third lead character in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Lost in Translation so Savannah and its colorful inhabitants serve as the focal point in Berendt’s book.

Of all the cities in the world, why is Savannah such a mecca for human oddities? Anticipating the reader’s question, Berendt looks to the world of horticulture to explain why.

For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world.

Even though it was published a quarter century ago, I found Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil surprisingly relevent since it touches on race relations, LGBTQ life, gentrification, old money versus new money, imperfectness of the criminal justice system and class conflict. These issues are as important today as they were when Berendt wrote about them decades ago.

But perhaps my biggest takeaway from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is good writing never goes out of style. It’s one thing for an author to move to a strange city and successfully identify its local eccentrics. It’s quite another to get them talking and to turn around tell their respective stories to the world. (According to Berendt, the key is “always stick around for one more drink. That’s when things happen. That’s when you find out everything you want to know.”) But the real challenge is to convey those tales with subtlety and sophistication. That is why come December you’ll probably see Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil included in my year-end list of favorite nonfiction books.

About Time I Read It: The Black Count by Tom Reiss

For over half a decade I’ve heard great things about Tom Reiss’s 2012 book The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. Robert, a former co-worker of mine raved about it. One of my favorite bloggers, Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness also had great things to say about it calling it “a great example of the sort of exciting and readable nonfiction that I love and try to recommend.” Another of my favorite bloggers, Jean from Howling Frog Books absolutely loved it calling The Black Count “a great read”, proclaiming “if you haven’t read it, put it on your list; you won’t be sorry.” Evidently, Robert, Kim and Jean weren’t the only ones who enjoyed The Black Count because it won of tons of praise, winning both the Pulitzer and the PEN awards for best biography. Knowing much of the book recalls life in France during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods and needing something to representing France for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I secured a digital edition through my library’s Overdrive portal. Just like all the other highly praised books that took me years to finally get around to reading I happily burned through it, only to curse myself for not reading it sooner.

It’s common knowledge Alexandre Dumas is the celebrated author of time-honored classics The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Unless you’ve read The Black Count, you’re probably unaware his father Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was the black son of a renegade minor nobleman and his Haitian slave girl. If you thought that was crazy, it only gets more incredible. Once Thomas-Alexandre Dumas’s father decided to leave Haiti and return to France, he sold his son into slavery to pay his passage. After arriving in France and settling his estate he purchased his son’s freedom and brought him to France where he was raised as a young French nobleman. Thomas-Alexandre received a education befitting a young man of his station, grew into a talented swordsman and embraced the life of an aristocrat.

After his father squandered the family fortune on his new wife, at the age of 24 Thomas-Alexandre enlisted in the army. This proved to be a wise decision because the young Thomas-Alexandre moved up the ranks with lightening speed thanks to his intelligence, bravery and swordsmanship. (Luckily for Thomas-Alexandre the revolutionary regime he served for all its shortcomings and excesses embraced a surprisingly high degree of racial egalitarianism.) He eventually rose to the rank of General, the highest of any black serving in a white army until the promotion of American General Colin Powell.

As we’ve seen time and time again throughout history, the wrath of a tyrant can derail even the most promising of careers. After challenging Napoleon over his decision to invade Egypt, he found himself a marked man in the eyes of the future French Emporer. Things then went from bad to worse. While en route back to France Thomas-Alexandre’s leaky ship had to make an emergency pit stop on the Italian coast and the hapless General and his shipmates were thrown in prison by the ruling locals. After surving two years of hellish imprisonment and nearly being poisoned to death he was released. (Years later, his son Alexander would find inspiration in his father’s wrongful imprisonment for his classic novel The Count of Monte Cristo.) With Napoleon on the throne France returned to its racist ways. Thomas-Alexandre’s services were no longer welcome and he died in his early 40s, his life cut short as a result of the cruelty he suffered at the hands of his Italian jailers.

The Black Count is a smart, swashbuckling romp through history. To those readers who yearn for a great piece of nonfiction that reads like fiction look no further than The Black Count. 

About Time I Read It: The Best American Essays 2015

A few months ago I started craving longform journalism. Luckily for me, I have a huge stack of cast-off New Yorker magazines I’ve managed to accumulate over the last couple of years so I have no shortage of available reading material. But as I began exploring this cache I found myself craving longform stuff in book form, preferable curated by a capable editor. Fortunately for me, my public library has a number of essay collections and last week I borrowed two, one of which happened to be The Best American Essays 2015. I burned through it quickly, which is always a good sign. It also left me wanting to read more essays, which also a good sign.

Within the pages of The Best American Essays 2015 I found stuff by familiar authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Anthony Doerr and David Sedaris but the rest of the contributors were new to me. New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy served as the guest editor for 2015’s edition and a good chunk of the pieces she selected dealt with the personal: aging, mortality, family and marriage. Had I known this was the case, I might not of decided to read her collection, fearing the essays were too sentimental or self-centered. Kudos to Levy though, there’s not a stinker in the bunch. (Although Zadie Smith’s “Find Your Beach” might not have been up to my liking.) Of these Justin Cronin’s “My Daughter and God” in which he recalls in detail the existential crises and religious quest resulting from his wife and daughter’s brush with death was a favorite of mine as was John Reed’s edgy piece “My Grandma, the Poisoner” about a dear grandmother who, in all likelihood was a serial poisoner. Kelly Sunderberg’s “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is probably the best account I’ve read on the complexity and pain of spousal abuse.

As for other memorable contributions in this collection, hats off to Philip Kennicott for his piece “Smuggler” on the perils and pitfalls of gay literature. Even as a non-gay male I found his essay fascinating and smart as hell without being dry and pretentious. As a cat lover, how could I not enjoy Tim Kreider’s “A Man and His Cat” about what it’s like to adopt (or perhaps more accurately, be adopted by) a stray cat. Lastly, Isiah Berlin’s “A Message to the Twenty-First Century” on the evils of totalitarianism was another of my favorites. Originally written in 1994 it wasn’t published until a decade later. Sadly, in this age of Internet-enabled bigotry and Donald Trump, Berlin’s warnings are sorely needed.

Soviet Spotlight: The Man with the Poison Gun by Serhii Plokhy

If you think Russia’s habit of poisoning its enemies is anything new, guess again. Decades before Russian agents used nerve gas, polonium and dioxin to eliminate troublesome individuals one of their agents used a poison spewing gun to murder not one but two political enemies who’d found refuge abroad. If this is news to you don’t be too hard on yourself. Until I read Serhii Plokhy’s 2016 book The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story I had no idea either.

I discovered Plokhy’s book just like I’ve discovered so many other intriguing backlist books of late. Just like Ken Silverstein’s Turkmeniscam, Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed and Michael Levy’s Kosher Chinese I just found it on the shelf at my local public library and simply had to have it. I’m glad I borrowed it because it’s pretty darn good.

In 1950 in Soviet Ukraine, Bogdan Stashinsk, a young student was arrested on a train for traveling without a ticket. Soviet authorities, knowing his family was in the anti-Soviet Ukrainian underground worked to “turn him” and enlist him in their struggle to break the resistance. The young man complied and after showing surprising promise was given additional training and sent abroad. Eventually, he was stationed in the West and ordered to assassinate a pair of Ukrainian nationalists who’d become thorns in the side of the USSR. The murders, and the resulting criminal trial that followed captured headlines and even inspired Ian Flemming to include a similar incident in his novel The Man with the Golden Gun.

I’ve decided to apply The Man with the Poison Gun towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge since much of this book takes place in or deals with Soviet Ukraine. Also, the author Plokhy is Ukrainian. Once again, I find myself indebted to my local public library for bringing a surprisingly good book to my attention. The Man with the Poison Gun could wind up on my year-end Best Nonfiction List, or at the very least an honorable mention.