Nonfiction November Week 4: Stranger than Fiction

Last week Veronica at The Thousand Book Project hosted Nonfiction November and this week another great blogger, Christopher at Plucked from the Stacks has agreed to host. 

This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that *almost* don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic.

When I first read Rennie’s post announcing Nonfiction November I thought I’d sit this week out. While I might be able to think of a book or two that might possibly fit the bill I wasn’t sure I could recommend enough books worthy of a post. Even if I could, what one considers stranger than fiction is definitely in the eye of the beholder. But the more I thought about it, the more I began remembering books that might be perfect for a post like this.   

Science and Nature

True Tales of Survival

True Crime 

Incredible Lives 

Incredible Iranian Lives 

  • A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran by Reza Kahlili – Disillusioned with Iran’s theocratic regime, Kahlili put his life on the line to become an American agent. 
  • A Mirror Garden by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian – Like a real life Forest Gump, over the course of her rich and adventurous life Farmanfarmaian rubbed shoulders with long parade of celebrities. From Andy Warhol to Warren Beaty to Prince Charles the tales of her charmed life make for great reading. She even played Twister with the Shah of Iran and his royal entourage. 
  • Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat – Moments before she was about to be executed for opposing Iran’s revolutionary regime, Nemat agreed to marry one of her prison guards and convert to Islam. She was just 16 years old. 


Cults and Leaving Religion 


And to think I was worried I couldn’t come up with enough books for this post. Happy reading and enjoy Nonfiction November! 

Nonfiction November Week 3: Be the Expert

Last week Katie at Doing Dewey hosted Nonfiction November and this week another great blogger, Veronica at The Thousand Book Project has agreed to host. Just like in past years we’ve been inspired to lend our expertise, request expertise or announce our willingness to learn more.

You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

In 2017 I discussed books about Iran by Iranian authors. The following year in 2018 I wrote about women leaving religion, featuring seven memoirs by, and two anthologies about women who’d left various versions of Christianity, Judaism or Islam. In 2019 it was prison memoirs. Last year, in 2020 I featured books about Italy by non-Italians.

The inspiration for this year’s topic came from a friend of mine who texted me back in September looking for book recommendations. She wanted to learn about the Middle Ages and asked if I could recommend any helpful reading material. After racking my brain for a bit I emailed her a list of 10 books I thought might do the trick. Later, I decided the list I’d concocted might make a good “Ask the Expert” post for Nonfiction November.

I revised my original list ever so slightly and added two additional titles to make it an even dozen. Remember, as with all of my so-called “expert” posts, I only included books I’ve read. Therefore, in no way is this list definitive. I trust me, I ain’t no expert.

Just like the prof you had in college who always suggested supplementary texts that no one ever read, I’m going to throw out a few more books. While they might not deal directly with the Middle Ages, they help provide valuable context and/or previously overlooked or unappreciated narratives.

If you end up reading these books I promise you’ll know more about the Middle Ages than the person on the street (unless that person has a masters in Medieval Studies). You’ll also be totally primed if you encounter any historical novels set in those centuries like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.

With all that in mind, good luck and happy reading!

Nonfiction November Week 1: Your Year in Nonfiction

Once again it’s time for Nonfiction November, that time of year when book bloggers around the globe come together to celebrate the wonderful world of nonfiction. As a life-long nonfiction fan, I always look forward to seeing participants’ posts and learning what outstanding works of nonfiction everyone has been reading. Year after year I come away with great book recommendations as I’m introduced to new book blogs. Some years I even manage to pick up an additional subscriber or two.

For Week 1 our host Rennie at one of my favorite blogs What’s Nonfiction kicks it all off by inviting us to look back on 2011 and ask

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

As for this year’s favorite, six books come to mind. Both on my blog and in conversations with others I’ve praised these works of nonfiction. Look for each one of them to make my year-end Favorite Nonfiction List.

2021, as far as nonfiction goes was also a year of pleasant surprises. I decided to take a chance on these four books, knowing little, if anything about them. Each one exceeded expectations.

It was also a year for old books. As part of my 20 Books of Summer series I read two books published in the 1970s.

As far as particular topics I’ve been attracted to in 2021 as part of my ongoing research project I continue to read books on the Middle East as well as 20th century European history. In addition to those already mentioned above, I was inspired to read these six books.

This year, just like in past years I’ve recommended a number of books. With the exception of Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family those recommended address democracy under threat, and the rise of anti-science and anti-reason.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for right now. But throughout this month I’ll be sharing more posts celebrating Nonfiction November.

20 Books of Summer

After taking last summer off, this year I’ll once again be participating in the 20 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy on her blog 746 Books. After a great deal of hemming and hawing I’ve selected 20 books. 

  1. Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 by Ratta Mitter (2013)
  2. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2008)
  3. The Unexpected Universe by Loren Eiseley (1969)
  4. The Time of the Uprooted by Elie Wiesel (2007)
  5. Becket or The Honor of God by Jean Anouilh (1960)
  6. Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff (2014)
  7. God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 by David Levering Lewis (2008)
  8. Encounters with the Archdruid: Narratives About a Conservationist and Three of His Natural Enemies by John McPhee (1971)
  9. The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson (2013)
  10. Early Modern Europe: From About 1450 to About 1720 by Sir George Clark (1962)
  11. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson (2014)
  12. 5 Ideas That Changed the World by Barbara Ward (1959)
  13. A Nation Rising: Untold Tales from America’s Hidden History by Kenneth C. Davis (2011)
  14. The Jews in America: The Roots and Destiny of American Jews by Max Dimont (1978) 
  15. Europe Between Revolutions 1815-1848 by Jacques Droz (1967)
  16. There There by Tommy Orange (2018)
  17. The Fear and the Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us by Keith Lowe (2017)
  18. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor by David S. Landes (1999)
  19. The Dragon and the Foreign Devils: China and the World, 1100 B.C. to the Present by Harry G. Gelber (2007)
  20. The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age by James Kirchick (2017)

In 2018 and 2019 I began each summer with high hopes I’d make it through all my books only to come up short. Both summers I deviated substantially from my original list of books, frequently just reading whatever the heck I happened to be in mood for at the time. I also fell short of my target of 20 books. (For instance, in 2019 I read only 16.) Fortunately, Cathy is a kind and flexible host, reminding all of us to simply read as many books as we’d like and freely substitute as we go along.

I’m hoping to use this as an opportunity to also tackle a chunk of my to be read pile (TBR) while at the same time also participating in other reading challenges like the European Reading Challenge, What’s in a Name Challenge, Mount TBR Reading Challenge, and Books in Translation Reading Challenge. With roughly a third of these books published prior to 1978 this is also a great chance to spotlight my Old Books Reading Project.

About Time I Read It: The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo

For years Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has inspired me to read novels set in Europe. Some of these have been works of crime fiction, a genre frequently associated with Scandinavia. While I’ve only read a handful of these offerings from the Nordic lands (one of which, Peter Høeg’s 90s runaway hit Smilla’s Sense of Snow, I loved) I’ve also enjoyed stuff from other parts of Europe like Peiter Aspe’s Pieter Van In series set in the Belgian city of Bruges, as well as Vilmos Kondor’s historical thriller Budapest Noir. On more than one occasion, when needing to take a break from my usual diet of heavy nonfiction I’ll grab a piece of entertaining crime fiction set somewhere in Europe. A week or so ago while surfing Overdrive I once again found myself in such a mood and decided to grab something of that genre, this time from Spain. Originally published in 2015 with an American English-language version released the following year, Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian has been a terrific introduction into the world of Spanish crime fiction. 

In the Basque village of Baztan a serial killer has been murdering teen girls and ritualistically arranging their denuded bodies in the woods with their makeup removed, hair carefully arranged and pubic region shaved and topped with a txantxigorri, a local Basque pastry. Inspector Amaia Salazar is called in from Pamplona to investigate and finds no evidence of rape or molestation. Instead it appears the killer is making twisted attempts to erase the girls’ budding sexuality, turning them back into innocent children by removing the accoutrements of womanhood, even posing them to resemble holy Madonnas. Stranger still, animal hairs belonging to a large mammal, possibly a bear are found at the crime scenes. This prompts the locals to speculate a mythical creature known as a Basajaún, a kind of Basque Bigfoot might somehow be involved. Naturally, Inspector Salazar is the ideal person to catch the killer, having grown up in Baztan and possessing first hand knowledge of its inhabitants and close-knit culture. But in doing so must face the demons of her childhood, and deal with other long-simmering tensions within her family. 

Reading The Invisible Guardian I was struck by the degree in which Amaia is forever occupying opposing worlds simultaneously. She’s both Basque and a Spanish citizen. Raised in a rural environment she also a resident of urban Pamplona. She’s a criminal investigator in the male-dominated field of law enforcement, and a Spaniard trained by the American FBI. She uses the latest technology in hopes of catching the killer yet is not opposed to using her childhood tarot deck to divine his identity.

Even her family is a study in contrast. Married to an American, her marriage is a happy one but the marriages of her two sisters are disasters, as was that of her parents. Emotionally and physically abused by her mentally ill mother, she carries the scars from a woman who claimed to love her, but instead sought to kill her. 

All of this, plus a serial killer targeting females who, because of their youth resemble girls and women at the same time gives this contemporary thriller set against a forested backdrop of otherworldly mythology an almost quantum state of being, setting it apart from others of this genre. I thoroughly enjoyed The Invisible Guardian and can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy. 

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum

Last week I mentioned in my review of on Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine I’d also read her most recent book Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. As a huge fan of her work, I was excited to read what she had to say about the global creep of right-wing authoritarianism and how it threatened democracy in America and around the world. Imagine how pleased I was when I spotted a copy of her 2020 book at my public library. Grabbing it with zero hesitation I soon added it to the small stack of library books by my bed. Later that weekend I went to work reading Twilight of Democracy and once again Applebaum did not disappointed me. 

As bad as this global threat to democracy is, at least it’s inspired a number of intelligent and talented to people to speak out against this trend. There’s been some excellent concise but hard-hitting books over the last several years by Masha Gessen, Timothy Snyder, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Even somewhat more higher profile figures like Ian Bremmer and Madeleine Albright have gotten in on the act, weighing in the risks faced by our democracies and the established international order. Applebaum, together with Gessen and Snyder approach this challenge through the lens of their professional experience. All three are historians and/or journalists specializing in the ravages wrought by authoritarianism in Eastern Europe and the lands of the former USSR and therefore more than qualified to defend democracy.

Applebaum, author of Gulag, Iron Curtain and Red Famine is no stranger to the horrors of tyranny. She’s also experienced the rise of authoritarianism first hand in her adopted Poland where she holds dual citizenship and is married to the country’s former foreign minister. For years a proud and active Republican she renounced her membership afterJohn McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. While living in the United Kingdom and working as a journalist she identified with the Conservatives, but by 2015 found herself disillusioned with the party, a disillusionment which only grew worse after Brexit. 

Twilight of Democracy marks a departure for Applebaum in that it’s a personal account based on her experiences and not a history book like its predecessors. It begins with a housewarming party on New Year’s Eve in 1999 Applebaum and her husband held at their rustic farmhouse in western Poland. In attendance was a lively mix not just from Poland but also the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom. (So lively in fact one guest, a Pole “pulled a pistol from her handbag and shot blanks into the air out of sheer exuberance.”) This polyglot gathering, while culturally diverse nevertheless possessed surprisingly political uniformity. Those in attendance saw themselves as following in the footsteps of Reagan and Thatcher and after witnessing the implosion of the Communist Bloc were optimistic believers in democracy and elections free and fair. They were also globalists, lovers of both free trade and international bodies like NATO and the EU. While Francis Fukuyama might have declared the end of history to them to future looked rosy and the path to freedom and prosperity clear and unobstructed. 

But over time Applebaum and her husband would grow estranged with many of those who’d attended their winter soiree. In varying degrees and in different countries bitter feuds materialized with their former friends and political associates not over personal matters, but political ones. Some of their Polish friends grew enamored with the country’s Law and Justice Party, cheering heartily after it turned both Poland’s independent judiciary and nonpartisan state media into its lackeys. Conservative Brits she rubbed friendly elbows with for years became cheerleaders for Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán while others threw in their lot with Boris Johnson, despite his boorish nature, allegations of Islamophobia and racism, extreme English nationalism and enthusiastic support of Brexit. As for their conservative American friends, after leaving the Republican Party 2008 over its inclusion of Sarah Palin on the ticket, Applebaum’s dislike of her former party deepened exponentially after Donald Trump secured the Presidential nomination eight years later, a man who would make the above-mentioned Boris Johnson look like an urbane and sophisticated statesman. 

Applebaum eventually realized these fallings out with her former idealogical soulmates were merely symptoms of something much larger. From Warsaw to London to Washington, DC a civil war was raging for control of center-right political parties around the globe. On one side were traditionalists committed to governing, respectful of established institutions and norms and willing to compromise with political rivals from across the aisle. Opposed to them were upstart culture warriors angry over immigration, increasing LBGTQ acceptance and perceived threats to national sovereignty. They saw their struggle as an existential one, making political compromises with opposition parties impossible. With the entire system seen as broken and corrupt independent judiciaries were either ignored, abolished or packed with subservient justices. Similar measures were taken against media outlets with any critical stories ridiculed as “fake news.” Election results were doctored, or if unsatisfactory declared bogus thus robbing them of legitimacy. 

According to Applebaum this internecine battle for the soul of conservatism has been driving the global rise of authoritarianism. As party elites battle for control, each side strives to enlist plebeian foot soldiers promising them a share of the spoils, with culture warriors appealing more to religious conservatives and xenophobes. If this is the case, Applebaum’s schema is similar to that of evolutionary anthropologist Peter Turchin, who believes when societies begin running out of resources rival elites will fight for control. In the United States, this rivalry between elites was won by the upstarts when the Trump White House became a haven for Ivy League educated but nevertheless second and third tier administrators, none of which could have served in similar capacities in Democratic or even past Republican administrations. Referred by Applebaum as clercs (from the early 20th century works of French philosopher and novelist Julien Benda) these intellectuals and specialists hitch their wagons to the authoritarian train in hopes of advancing their careers. Conservative pundit Laura Ingraham was a middling media personality until she sang Trump’s praises, denouncing immigration in all its forms (even though all three of her children are adoptees from abroad, including one from Guatemala) and was rewarded with a prime-time slot on Fox News. Across the Atlantic Conservatives within Boris Johnson’s inner circle continue to back Brexit even though they know deep down it will damage the UK in the long run, the price they’re willing to pay for being close to the corridors of power.

Of course one can’t put the blame solely on a bunch of upstart conservative elites seeking to overthrow the old guard. Other factors have helped put democracy on the defensive. In the past our political discussions took place in person in our churches, bowling leagues, fraternal organizations and community get-togethers. Forced to interact with our friends, neighbors and friendly acquaintances our discussions were civil, frequently finding common ground even in our disagreements. Today those discussions have migrated online, where trolling and vitriol are the norms instead of civility and politeness. Social media platforms like Facebook have replaced newspapers and broadcast television as the primary sources for news. This explosion of often contradictory sources robs us of a common narrative, promoting even more divisiveness. In addition, online platforms are easy prey for those seeking to spread disinformation, a tactic the Russians employed with considerable success beginning with their adventures in Ukraine around 2014. European far right groups soon began their own targeted disinformation campaigns with those in American soon afterward. Both the Brexit referendum and the 2016 American presidential election would be plagued by online disinformation campaigns orchestrated by authoritarian elements. Lastly, as many Americans have retreated from politics, seeing it as hopelessly corrupt and controlled by unaccountable elites, it becomes easier to accept authoritarian leaders who trash accepted norms and institutions and refuse to honor free elections. 

Applebaum makes it clear democracy isn’t necessarily permanent, even in places like America and the United Kingdom. More than jealously appreciated it must be actively defended. Perhaps a good way to start is by simply reading Twilight of Democracy. 

Soviet Spotlight: Red Famine by Anne Applebaum

Red Famine: Stalin's War on UkraineWhen it comes to Anne Applebaum I’m a huge fan. I fell in love with her writing in 2013 after reading Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956. A few years later finally read her 2004 Pulitzer-Prize winner Gulag: A History. Recently, just like other specialists in Russian and East European affairs and history like Masha Gessen and Timothy Snyder she’s become a vocal critic of the rising global tide of authoritarianism. Right before I read her most recent offering Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism I decided to read her 2017 follow-up to Iron Curtain Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. Detailed as hell and incredibly well researched Applebaum’s book did not disappoint me.

To understand not just how approximately 4 million Ukrainians starved to death during the 1930s but also why like any decent historian Applebaum looks to the past for answers. For centuries the rulers of Russia and many of their subjects saw Ukraine not as a separate entity but an integral part of Russia. The Ukrainian language and culture was denigrated and suppressed by Russian overlords and the Ukrainian speaking peasantry looked down upon. In Ukraine’s cities Russian was the dominant language of commerce and government along with Polish in Western cities like Lviv while urban-dwelling Jews preferring Yiddish and Russian. So ingrained was this anti-Ukrainian prejudice after the Bolshevik Revolution Russia’s new rulers refused to see Ukraine as a separate country, even after a group of Communists seized power in Kiev and declared Ukraine an independent socialist nation.

No, the ruling Communists believed, and with good reason the USSR could not survive without Ukraine. Long seen as Russia’s gateway to the West, any foreign power like Poland or any political rival be they anti-Bolshevik Whites or Ukrainian Nationalists could use Ukraine as a base of operations to challenge Russia. Traditionally, Ukraine had also been Russia’s breadbasket, a boundless supplier of wheat. Interrupting this flow would be catastrophic for the young Soviet Union. The Communists depended upon Ukrainian wheat to feed factory workers and urban dwellers across Russia, whose support the Communist regime desperately needed. Grain exports could also provide the Soviet Union with capital needed to finance its rapid industrialization. After solidifying its rule the Communists ruthlessly squashed Ukrainian independence and reincorporated it into the Russian-dominated USSR.

Under Stalin the USSR underwent not only rapid industrialization but also forced collectivization. Originally promised land redistribution by Lenin and the Bolsheviks peasants across the USSR were horrified after being remanded to government owned farming operations. Denied the fruits of their labors and thus any incentives to produce the collectives were a failure resulting in poor crop yields and food shortages. To make matters worse Stalin’s goons exported excessive amounts of grain to the West, in order to generate both hard currency and political good will. (Or as an act of economic sabotage, dumping it on the international market on the cheap in hopes of destabilizing the capitalist world.)

By 1933 things in Ukraine were grim. Food was scarce and needless to say, people were starving. Any reasonable head of state would have realized both forced collectivization and the USSR’s policy of massive grain exports were failures. But Stalin was no reasonable man. A bloodthirsty autocrat prone to paranoid delusions, he was hellbent on eliminating any and all perceived threats to his rule, realistic or not. Naturally since it was his idea, collectivization could never fail. Unless of course if it was sabotaged by treasonous Ukrainian apparatchiks, or more likely bourgeoisie-capitalist peasants loosely referred to as Kulaks. The more doctrinaire ruling Communists were more than willing to distrust Ukraine’s peasantry, since according to classical Marxism it was the working proletariat, not the ground-tilling peasants who would help usher in the age of utopian socialism.

Therefore, no matter how many people starved to death there would be no assistance from Moscow. Reports of mass starvation, hungry masses wandering the cities and countryside in search of food and even cannibalism were either fabrications or just examples of treasonous Ukrainian Kulaks suffering due to their own clumsy attempts to undermine the system. So-called underperforming collectives were blacklisted and denied material assistance. Produce and livestock were actually confiscated from impoverished families, hugely accelerating the Ukraine’s slide towards famine. The USSR’s public relations machine worked overtime to coverup the disaster, even enlisting credulous Western journalists including one from the New York Times. Outgoing mail to Ukrainian conscripts serving in the Red Army was intercepted, less they learn the scope of the tragedy. Later, the USSR allowed Ukrainians to write relatives living abroad to request hard currency with which they could purchase foodstuffs at special government run stores.

The human cost to Ukraine boggles the mind. A minimum of 4 million dead, with countless others wrecked physically and mentally, some permanently. During the famine’s reign there were few births and millions of children died in infancy or childhood. In just a few years Ukraine would loose an entire generation. After the official Soviet census later confirmed the demographic implosion Stalin executed its director. In response cowered bureaucrats issued a falsified final tally designed to cover-up the famine’s horrific impact. 

Red Famine is a grim book, but a powerful one. To say it’s well researched is an understatement. It should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. Please consider Red Famine highly recommended. 

About Time I Read It: Not All Bastards Are from Vienna by Andrea Molesini

Last year, by either accident or design Italy was a recurring topic when it came to my reading. In March I read James Carroll’s historical thriller Warburg in Rome following it up with Katherine Wilson’s Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law, Dianne Hales’s La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World and David Maranis’s Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World. Finally, as 2020 drew to a close I rounded it up with  Italy: An Outsider’s Perspective, a post I did for Nonfiction November.  

Whether or not this Mediterranean nation continues to be a focus of mine is anyone’s guess but one thing for certain. When it comes to my annual pursuit of the Jet Setter Prize for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I can now cross Italy off my list. Five years after spotting Andrea Molesini’s 2016 historical novel Not All Bastards Are from Vienna at the public library I recently secured a borrowable ebook version for my Kindle and gave it a try. After only a few pages I quickly realized I shouldn’t have waited half a decade. Not All Bastards Are from Vienna is an outstanding debut novel and should easily make my year-end list of favorite fiction.

Most Americans equate World War I solely with the Western Front: a largely static affair involving a network of opposing trenches, running hundreds of miles from the Swiss border to the North Sea in which each side tormented the other with relentless artillery barrages, machine gun fire and near suicidal infantry charges across no mans lands where conquered territory was measured in mere feet instead of miles. But even without counting Africa, East Asia/Pacific and the Middle East there were other fronts in the war. While Austro-Hungarians and their German allies battled the Russians in Eastern Europe they also fought the Italians for control of the Alpine region. As far as literature goes, while All Quiet on the Western Front depicted life on the Western Front and Doctor Zhivago the Eastern Front most, if not all American readers encounter this theater of conflict in fiction it’s through Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. Of course, thanks to Molesini we have another fictional look at the Italian side of this conflict.

By the fall of 1917 the war is going poorly for the Italians. After the poorly equipped and ill prepared Italian army is routed by its northern adversaries the tiny village of Refrontolo finds itself behind enemy lines and at the mercy of the occupying Austro-Hungarians and Germans. It is here, Paolo, a 17 year old orphan lives with his relatives and servants on his family’s estate. Like so many young men and women during wartime he’s forced into growing up quickly. One of the estate’s senior staff, an undercover operative for the Italian military, recruits Paolo for a series of covert missions. Despite the risk involved like so many young people who’ve gone before he feels a sense of pride and purpose in knowing he’s part of a greater struggle much larger than anything he’s previously experienced.

The youngster of the estate, Paolo is surrounded by a somewhat eccentric cast of aunts, uncles and grandparents as well as hired staff all whom are older, even if by only by a few years. His youthful naivete makes him a convenient foil for them, including a wannabe novelist grandfather with a mechanical typewriter nicknamed Beelzebub and a grandmother who openly cavorts with an elderly dandy commonly referred to as her “third paramour.” The more mature members of this clan see the war raging around them as nothing more than the playing out of old conflicts from the 19th century. It’s believed Italy entered the war on the side of Britain due to the debt owed to the British for assisting Garibaldi and his fellow nationalists in unifying Italy. The Austrians on the other hand are viewed as trying to reconquer portions of Italy that were once Hapsburg lands. Even an Austro-Hungarian and German march on Rome with the express purpose of overthrowing the Italian monarchy and restoring the Papal States is consistent with his relatives’ historical narrative.

One family member however fearfully confides with young Paolo the current conflict is more than the continuation of 19th century power plays. It will destroy the established order, even those aspects deemed decent and civilized he’s told. Like a later day Casandra, her warnings go unappreciated and within a generation the twin plagues of fascism and communism will arise from the ashes of war-torn Europe.

This is a wonderful novel and easily one the best I’ve read this year. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: My Accidental Jihad by Krista Bremer

My Accidental Jihad: A Love StoryI’m a sucker for a good memoir. In addition to highly publicized ones like Educated and Hillbilly Elegyover the years I’ve also stumbled across a number of lesser known ones that might not have received tons of press, but nevertheless were outstanding like Fleeing Fundamentalism, Undocumented and A Time to Betray, ones that made my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. More often then not I discovered them, as well as other decent yet off the radar memoirs simply but spotting them on the shelf at the public library. One I stumbled across six or seven years ago was Krista Bremer’s My Accidental Jihad: A Love Story. One of many books I borrowed, read several pages only to get distracted by something else before returning it to the library essentially unread. But last week at the public library I once again spied a copy of Bremer’s memoir and feeling I needed to take a break from Ramachandra Guha’s consuming yet out of this world 950 plus page India After Gandhi I once again borrowed a copy of My Accidental Jihad. This time, I’m happy to report I whipped though it in no time. 

Not long after graduating from college Bremer wanted more out of life. Her job at Planned Parenthood paid the bills, but that was all. Living near the Pacific Ocean in sunny California made for great surfing but sucked her ambition. Advised by her father “[I]f you want to do anything with your life you’ll need to move away from the ocean” she moved cross county to pursue a master’s degree in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Finding herself inland, far from the ocean and thus unable to surf she took to running along the area’s woodland trials, where she began crossing paths with another runner, an older, darker man of unknown ethnicity. After a chance encounter with him one weekend at a local farmers’ market she accepted his invitation to run together. Next morning she met Ismail, an expat from Libya, at the trailhead, and the two of them embarked on their run. Eventually their outing led to a romantic relationship, and Bremer pregnant. Unsure how to proceed, she’s was taken aback when Ismail proposed marriage, since marrying a man who’s older, foreign and poorer than her wasn’t exactly her original plan. Nevertheless it felt like the right thing and she accepted. After a quick trip to the appropriate civil authorities to process the requisite paperwork they were married. 

But like any marriage, not only do gain a spouse, but you also inherit a family. With Ismail having close to 10 brothers and sisters (not counting the several who didn’t survive to adulthood) back in Libya Bremer knows she’s in for a challenge when she agrees to fly halfway across the globe to visit her husband’s family. Despite being an oil-exporting member of OPEC, the Libya Bremer encounters comes off as a poor and broken land. Roads, even if paved are cratered by massive potholes. Garbage piles abound, open sewers run freely and even the most modest modern medical care amenities seem nonexistent. Compounding all this misery the country’s government, a regime as corrupt as it autocratic, solely dictated by the whims of its eccentric, homicidal despot. In a place largely untouched by Western concepts of gender equality while visiting with family members Bremer is routinely shunted off to the side with the rest of the women, segregated and unable to communicate due to her inability to speak Arabic. Needless to say in the end she’s happy when the time comes to leave Libya. 

Two decades ago, just prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 I attended a lecture by a visiting Islamic scholar at my local university. Even then the term jihad was perceived by many Americans in a negative light, frequently equated with barbaric holy wars, suicide bombings and other religiously motivated acts of violence. Our esteemed speaker that night earnestly reassured us in its original context jihad mean “struggle” and by that a personal one in which an individual strives to be decent and righteous. Raised in a nominal Christian home and later, as an adult Bremer adopted elements of Buddhist thought. After observing the sacrifices her husband made during his annual observance of Ramadan eventually led to her “own accidental jihad” “forcing me to wrestling with my own intolerance and self-absorption.” While always supportive of her husband’s religious faith and practice over the years help she began embracing an Islamic-inspired outlook on life in hopes it would provide her with purpose and meaning. However, at the same time I’m hesitant to call her a convert. (It’s interesting to note soon after her memoir was published it was republished under the potentially less polarizing title A Tender Struggle: Story of a Marriage). 

After having good success with My Accidental Jihad I’m now in the mood for a yet another lesser known, but still quality memoir. Perhaps if I’m lucky I can stumble across another at my next visit to the public library.

Books About Books: Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

Some of you might remember in 2019 I concluded my review of Margaret Leslie Davis’s The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book’s Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey by mentioning I needed to follow it up with Alix Christie’s 2014 debut novel Gutenberg’s Apprentice, a novel I purchased for my Kindle back in 2015. Needing something representing Germany for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge last week I finally made do on my promise. While I didn’t enjoy Christie’s debut novel as much as I’d hoped I must tip my hat to her for crafting such a well-researched novel. 

It’s the 1450s Peter Schoeffer, is a young German scribe in Paris more interested in the frequenting the city’s brothels than copying it’s holy scriptures when he’s recalled to his native Mainz by Johann Fust, his deep-pocketed foster father. As a successful merchant with an eye for the next big thing Fust has decided to underwrite a promising new book making operation headed up by craftsman Johann Gutenberg. In return for Fust’s financial backing, Gutenberg agrees to take on Fust’s adopted son as an apprentice. In the beginning Peter loathes his new assignment, chafing under Gutenberg’s tyrannical rule, ineptly fumbling his way around the workshop and hating what little life has to offer in the provincial backwater of Mainz. Eventually, as his skills improve and with it his confidence he takes more and more pride in his work. But more importantly, he begins to understand what Gutenberg and his fellow underlings are trying to do, if successful will revolutionize the world. 

A wise history professor once told me the Reformation couldn’t have happened without the printing press. Be that true or not by the time Gutenberg and his men began casting type Mainz and its surroundings was ripe for Reformation. The Catholic Church was seen by many locals as corrupt and oppressive, too often serving the interests of the capricious and repressive nobility. Locals resented the widespread selling of indulgences by Papal representatives seeing it as just another scheme to transfer wealth from German households to Roman coffers. But just as Gutenberg’s new invention could enrich the Church by supplying it with Bibles cheaply and quickly, in theory anyway, so could it with the laity. Any monopoly the Church had over God’s Holy Word could be challenged. Even more embolden critics could use the printing press to publish their own translations as well as partisan pamphlets and broadsheets. The world would never be the same.