Sunday Salon

A few weeks ago for the first time I took part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I hope to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I finished Alexander Münninghoff’s 2020 family memoir The Son and Heir. I’m happy to report I was able to apply it to a number of reading challenges including the European Reading Challenge and the Books in Translation Challenge. With the European Reading Challenge in mind I started two additional books, one fiction and the other nonfiction. Ruta Sepetys’s 2022 historical novel I Must Betray You is quickly shaping to be one this year’s best works of fiction. Frank Blaichman’s 2009 Rather Die Fighting: A Memoir of World War II is a rare first-hand account of the life of a Jewish partisan fighting in German-occupied Poland during the Second World War. With my nose currently buried in Ruta Sepetys’s and Blaichman’s books I’ve been neglecting Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack and Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street. But I hope to get back to them as soon as possible. 

Listening. With the The National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex proceedings (AKA the January 6 Commission) continuing to be televised I once again dived into some of my favorite podcasts for helpful insight and commentary. If you’re looking to follow my lead, start with recent Daily podcast “What the Jan. 6 Hearings Have Revealed So Far” and follow it up with The Bulwark’s episode “Mike Pence Must Testify.” The New Yorker: Politics and More episode “The Bombshell Moments at the Second Week of the January 6th Hearings” with Jane Mayer, Susan B. Glasser, and Evan Osnos serves up the great political insight you’d expect from that fine magazine. The Lincoln Project Podcast “The Second Hearing: The Rats are Leaving the Ship” with is worth it for the title alone. For an end of the week round-up with a panel of great journalists check out an audio version of last Friday’s Washington Week with the podcast episode “Jan. 6 Committee Lays Out Trump’s Efforts to Change 2020 Election Results.” Rounding things out, Molly Jong Fast and Andy Levy on The New Abnormal once again served up insightful and irreverent commentary on the hearings on the episode “Trump Lied, and Pence Could Have Died.” Lastly, for a great interview having absolutely nothing to do with the hearings check out Bulwark regular Tim Miller’s interview with Jamie Kirchick “When Homosexuality Was a National Security Threat” talking about his latest book Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington. I’ve owned a Kindle edition of Kirchick’s earlier book The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age for several years and maybe after hearing this interview I’ll finally read it. 

Watching. Mr. Robot continues to entertain, throwing head-spinning plot twists at me right and left. As I mentioned earlier, I’m knee deep into the January 6 Committee sessions and excited to see more. 

Everything else. With gas so damn expensive I’m trying to avoid driving into town but on Wednesday I traveled to an area winery to discuss a couple of chapters from Stuart Jeffries’s Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School with my impromptu book club. Of course just like last week I once again snuck out early on Friday and joined my buddy the semi-retired sociology professor for beers at a campus watering hole.

About Time I Read It: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild’s 1998 King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa until recently is one many highly praised books sitting in my personal library ignored and unread for years. Even though I’d included it in several TBR reading challenges over the years I never made an effort to read it. Then last week for some inexplicable reason I picked up my copy of King Leopold’s Ghost and gave it a shot. Like so many other great books in my personal library that went unread so long I kicked myself for not reading it sooner.

Until the 1998 publication of King Leopold’s Ghost the death of as many as 10 million Congolese at the hands of their Belgian colonial overlords and agents was a forgotten genocide, at most an obscure historical footnote. Mining the historical record of first hand accounts, newspaper articles, letters and the like Hochschild has bequeathed  to a new generation a detailed and accessible history of the horrors that were inflicted upon the innocent peoples of of late 19th century Central Africa. Hochschild also recalls the forgotten stories of those crusading individuals who frequently faced impossible odds to bring such atrocities to light. Called by many as a history book that reads like a novel, King Leopold’s Ghost is a vivid testimony to both the evil that men do and those committed to fighting it.

As the nations of Europe carved up Africa in search of colonies one monarch from the relatively small kingdom of Belgium sought the biggest prize of all. For the first third or so of his adult life King Leopold was seen by his royal peers as a shallow bore, nothing more than a petty monarch of a minor realm. Tired of being out-shadowed by grander heads of state like his first cousin Queen Victoria of Great Britain Leopold wanted a piece of colonial real estate he could call his own. Playing imperial powers like England and France against each other and enlisting the assistance of the upstart United States while also crafting a wily public relations game he was able to place a huge swath of Central Africa under his control, in effect making it his own personal territory to exploit as he saw fit.

Wealth first flowed from Congo into Leopold’s private purse in the form of Ivory. Before advances in field of petrochemicals ivory was the plastics of the 19th century, used in everything from billiard balls to false teeth. Elephants were slaughtered mercilessly for their tusks to keep up with demand. Later, advances in technology sparked a need for rubber and before long Leopold’s agents were transforming Congo into one, massive rubber plantation. But these extractive industries came a horrible price. Perversely billed as an African “Free State” Congo was little more than a nation of slaves. To enrich Leopold its inhabitants were beaten, mutilated, starved and murdered into submission.

This is a great book that succeeds in telling a grim story. I highly recommend you read it and if you do, I strongly suggest you go with the newer 2020 edition. Barbara Kingsolver, in her foreward recalls the impact the book had on her 20 years earlier around the time her novel The Poisonwood Bible was published. The book concludes with a personal afterword by Hochschild in which he looks back on the two decades since the King Leopold’s Ghost’s publication and how some, but not all in the West, including Belgium have come to grips with the genocide. In the half century following the nation’s independence from Belgium Congo has been plagued by civil wars, poverty and oppression. Almost like Leopold’s murderous ghost still haunts the tortured land.

About Time I Read It: Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

One fall Friday evening in 2013 while drinking with friends at the pub someone recommended Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Sadly, like many great book recommendations I’ve received over the years it took me forever to act on my friend’s advice. I even borrowed a copy from the public library not once but twice  only to later return it unread. Last week, just like I did with Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad I decided to give Command and Control another chance. I secured a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work reading Schlosser’s 2013 book. And just like I Was Told to Come Alone I kicked myself for not reading it sooner.

Schlosser made a name for himself with his best seller Fast Food Nation but could he tackle the high stakes and technical world of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons and the global arms race they spawned? Any doubts I might have had were quickly put to rest mere pages into this book. Command and Control isn’t just a history of that arms race. It’s also a detailed and fascinating history of the costly and sometimes deadly accidents that’s plagued the weapons’ history. Anchoring this history is Schlosser’s recalling of a routine maintenance operation gone horribly awry leading to the explosion of a Titan II ICBM outside Damascus, Arkansas in 1980.

I came away from this book shocked by the sheer number of serious accidents involving nuclear weapons that have occurred over the decades. More shocking than that, it feels miraculous none of them resulted in any warheads accidentally detonating. (Although in 1961, when a B-52 broke apart over rural North Carolina and accidentally released two thermonuclear bombs one of them narrowly escaped detention. Had it gone off, it would have spread a plume of radioactive fall-out as far north as Washington DC, and just in time for Kennedy’s inauguration ceremony.) Nor did any American military commander or his NATO counterpart go rogue and facilitate the unauthorized use of one of these weapons, even during the dark hours of the Cuban Missile Crises. Luckily still, the many false alarms experienced by our nation’s early warning systems did not mistakenly set off a nuclear holocaust.

Schlosser fears we might not be so lucky in the future. Since the 1970s more countries have developed their own nuclear weapons, or in the case of Iran are actively working toward one. Pakistan and India, neighbors with deep-seated rivalries, especially over contested territory, have come close to nuking each other several times over the last twenty plus years. It’s also assumed Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has been dispersed to undisclosed locations throughout the country in hopes of protecting it from an Indian first strike. However, this potentially creates more opportunities for Islamic terrorists or rogue elements within the military to commandeer a warhead. Overall, while some developing countries like India and Pakistan have been able to incorporate Western technology into their respective nuclear weapons programs Schlosser wonders if they have also successfully imported our culture of safety and associated protocols. With India, Pakistan and Iran all possessing significantly higher industrial accident rates than the United States perhaps we should be concerned.

I found Command and Control even better than I’d expected and easily makes my year-end list of favorite nonfiction. Please consider it highly recommended.

Old Books Reading Project: Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng

Imagine you spent six and half years in solitary confinement. Over the course of your imprisonment you were beaten, tortured, verbally abused, denied decent medical and dental care and what little food you were fed was so bad it frequently made you ill. Falsely accused of being a traitor or spy for various foreign powers you were repeatedly ordered to confess your crimes. However, not once were you formally charged, let alone tried in court. During that time you were allowed no visitors, or for that matter any communication whatsoever with the outside world. But thanks to your indomitable spirit not once did you surrender and utter a false confession. After more than a half decade of torment you were released.

Right after you were freed someone tells you why you were imprisoned. You didn’t spend years in a hellish prison because of some bureaucratic mix-up or an official’s personal vendetta. No, it was all because of a power struggle between two rival factions within the government. You were one of thousands maybe even millions of others who were casualties of China’s Cultural Revolution.

Hoping to outflank his younger and more competent rivals in 1996 Chairman Mao Zedong urged the nation’s young people to attack what Mao and his cronies declared “capitalist”, “bourgeois” or “traditionalist” elements ruling China. For 10 years the nation was paralyzed by purges, political instability and factional violence. (Looking back later, Nien thought, “perhaps the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution should be more aptly renamed Cultural Annihilation.”)  Only after Mao’s death and his inner circle deposed could saner heads prevail and thus bring an end to the madness known as the Cultural Revolution.

I picked up a paperback copy of Nien Cheng’s 1986 memoir Life and Death in Shanghai years ago at used book sale only to let sit ignored in my personal library.  I might have kept ignoring it had not Paul French’s City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai put me in the mood to read more about Shanghai. So last week I dusted off my vintage copy of Life and Death in Shanghai and finally cracked it open. Like many good books in my personal library I should not have waited so long to read it.

College educated in the West and fluent in English, Nien, a widow, worked for Shell Oil until the company was expelled from China in 1966. After being questioned repeatedly by the authorities about her ties to not just Shell but also the United Kingdom, United States and Taiwan-based Republic of China she soon faced baseless accusations of espionage and class betrayal. Despite passionately and intelligently proclaiming her innocence she was thrown in prison. Much like Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, author of the previously reviewed Journey into the Whirlwind, she figured once the authorities realized they’d made a mistake and wrongfully imprisoned her she’d quickly be released. Since the Communists took power there’d been arrests and purges off and on. Confirming Tolstoy’s dictum “there are no conditions to which a man may not become accustomed, particularly if he sees that they are accepted by those about him” while imprisonment was terrible, it happened from time to time in Communist China.

Mao had once declared that 3-5 per cent of the population were enemies of socialism. To prove him correct, during the periodically launched political movements, 3-5 per cent of the members of every organization, whether it was a government department, a factory, a school or a university, must be found guilty of political crimes or heretical thoughts against socialism or Mao Tze-tung Thought. Among those found guilty, a number would be sent either to labour camps or prison.

Hopefully, Nien thought, soon it would all be rectified. But only after endearing six and half years of sheer hell, followed by a change in the political winds was Chien released. Allowed to return to her former residence she was placed under close government surveillance and left with the threat of re-arrest and re-imprisonment dangling over her head. Only with a more pragmatic regime in control of China that lead to friendlier relations with nations like the United States was she allowed to immigrate to the West where she could truly at last be free.

Immigrant Stories: Undocumented by Dan-el Padilla Peralta

For weeks I kept noticing Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s 2015 memoir Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League when I passed through the memoirs, biographies and autobiographies section at my public library but I never felt the urge to borrow it. Then one Saturday, right before they closed all the public libraries I strolled past it but this time thought otherwise.  I finally realized this is a book I needed to read. Any guy who goes from a homeless shelter to an Ivy League university is smart as hell and full of ambition. And people like that can always teach you a thing or two. Inspired by my revelation I grabbed Padilla Peralta’s memoir and went to work reading it. Finding it damn near impossible to put down I’m pleased to say Undocumented did not disappoint me.

Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s life story bares little resemblance to the unflattering stereotype many Americans have of immigrants. He didn’t brazenly enter the US in a spirit of lawlessness seeking employment and public assistance. He was brought to America legally by his parents from the Dominican Republic, because his mother needed advanced medical care for her high-risk pregnancy. Not long after the birth of his brother Yando his father returned home, sick of trying to support his family working low-paying jobs. Over time Padilla Peralta’s parents grew estranged and even though Padilla Peralta and his mother’s visas expired they continued living in the US. Fearing deportation if their applications for legal residency was denied and seeing how well her oldest son was faring in school she opted to keep the family in the US, putting them in legal limbo and thus ineligible for most, if not all public assistance. (Fortunately, being born in America Yando was eligible for aid since he was a citizen.)

Forced to live in a New York City homeless shelter after losing their apartment, a young volunteer took the young Dan-el and his brother under his wing. Recognizing  Dan-el’s was a voracious reader with a budding intellect, he encouraged the boy to apply to Collegiate, the same prestigious prep school where JFK attended. At Collegiate he flourished where his hard work, ambition and smarts paved the way for his entrance to Princeton. After majoring in the classics of Greece and Rome he graduated with high honors, earning a scholarship to study at Oxford. But his undocumented status was always there, like a hidden stigma he fought to conceal.

This a great follow-up book to Tara Westover’s Educated, as well as other memoirs by first-generation college graduates like Carlene Cross’ Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Steve Pemberton’s  A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home.  It also deserves to be read alongside other Ivy League memoirs like Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever and Andrea Raynor’s Incognito: Lost and Found at Harvard Divinity School.

This memoir should be mandatory reading for any American with strong opinions about immigration, pro or con. It’s also a wonderful memoir and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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.