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.

Swimming in a Sea of Podcasts

Technologically speaking, I’m a late adopter. Even though I worship my Kindle, I didn’t acquire my first smart phone until just six years ago. I don’t own an Apple Watch or Fitbit and even the car I drive is 20 years old. So I guess it shouldn’t be surprising I didn’t become a regular listener of podcasts until less than a year ago. For the last several years I merely explored the medium, listening to a rare single episode once every few months or so. On those few occasions when I did, there were three I briefly explored.

Early Forays  – Not knowing where to start I began I first checked out these.

Making Sense with Sam Harris – I loved his award winning bestseller End of Faith as well as his short follow-up book Letter to a Christian Nation. Positioning himself as a thought leader and public intellectual, Harris regularly interviews subject matter experts in a diverse array of fields including politics, science and history.

Book Riot: The Podcast– I began listening to this one after meeting co-host Jeff O’Neil at the conclusion of a silent reading party I attended in June of 2017. A nice lively round-up of what’s new in the world of book publishing.

For Real: A Podcast About Nonfiction Books – 11 years ago, when I began blogging on WordPress Kim Ukura’s blog Sophisticated Dorkiness was one of the first blogs I discovered. When I heard she’d be co-hosting a podcast focusing on nonfiction I was thrilled. I was not disappointed.

Getting Started – More recently, needing guidance I looked to the recommendations of others. By spring I was listening to these podcasts.

More Perfect – After hearing tons of positive word of mouth about this RadioLab spin-off I had to give it a try. Wanna understand the US Supreme Court? Start here.

Believed – My sister recommended this one season podcast investigating the horrible crimes of serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar and the parade of decades-long institutional failings that allowed it all to happen.

Bundyville – Another one recommended by my sis. Remember when a bunch of armed anti-government crazies occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon? This is the perfect podcast to explore why and how it happened.

Longform Podcast – In depth interviews with writers, journalists, filmmakers, and podcasters on how they create their acclaimed content. Must listening for aspiring writers.

The Daily– Five days a week the New York Times devotes 20 minutes to one news story. Definitely not sound-bite journalism. Plus there’s slightly longer and more off-beat edition each Sunday.

Deconstructed– The Intercept in a left-leaning online publication proudly practicing what it calls “adversarial journalism.” Each week its podcast it hopes to “brings you one important or overlooked story from the political world.”

The Weeds – Much like Deconstructed, this is the twice-weekly podcast from the progressive news and opinion source Vox is an in-depth look at today’s important political issues. (This podcast, along with Deconstructed, The Daily and Longform Podcast were all recommended by the hosts of my global affairs discussion group.)

Murder in the Rain – When Portland alternative newsweekly Willamette Week declared Murder in the Rain runner-up for best local podcast I had to investigate. Hosts Emily and Alisha focus on murders in the Pacific Northwest, from Alaska to Oregon. I never considered myself a true crime fan until I began listening to their podcast.

Hopelessly Addicted – By the time fall rolled around I was up to my eyeballs in podcasts.

The New Abnormal – If you see me walking around with my headphones on laughing away chances are I’m listening to this not exactly safe for work political podcast. “Blunt truth and dark humor for a world in chaos.” Hosted by Rick Wilson of the Lincoln Project and writer Molly Jong-Fast who proudly proclaim “the world has gone haywire. Let’s talk it over.”

Deep State Radio – A roundtable format hosted by author and political commentator David Rothkopf with cast of regulars and semi-regulars serving up an insider’s perspective on American national security and foreign policy. One recent episode on foreign policy featured writers and democracy advocates Anne Applebaum and Garry Kasparov.

Talking Feds – Another roundtable political discussion, this one hosted by American lawyer, law professor and political commentator Harry Litman with a rotating cast of former government officials, journalists, and subject matter experts. Each week there’s also a sidebar presentation to explain a significant legal and political question read by a guest celebrity. Past guests have including Tina Louise aka Ginger from Gilligan’s Island and screen icon Robert De Niro.

GZero World with Ian Bremme‪r‬ – I was into this guy before it was cool. I was excited when he began taking a larger stage on social media. After stumbling across his Gzero TV show on PBS on Sunday afternoon I looked for a podcast version. Every week Ian Bremmer interviews world leaders and notable individuals (including Kim Ghattas, author of my favorite nonfiction book of 2020 Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East) shaping our GZERO World. And for those of you who don’t know it’s a world with no global policeman, “made volatile by an intensifying international battle for power and influence.”

Throughline – I stumbled across this one while looking for good NPR podcasts and so far it’s been great. If you’re a history buff like me you’ll eat it up. “The past is never past. Every headline has a history. Join us every week as we go back in time to understand the present.” The co-hosts have interviewed a number of authors whose books I featured on this blog including Masha Gessen, Eric H. Cline and Lesley Hazleton.

Rough Translation – Another cool NPR podcast, this one looks at stories from around the world, focusing on how people in other countries tackle some of the same problems we struggle with in the United States.

Vox Tablet – Just like you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy a great Jewish deli, you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy a great Jewish podcast. Even though it ended in 2016 there’s tons of great archive material. Courtesy of this podcast I learned Lucette Lagnado, author of the family memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World had written a follow-up book The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn.

Friendly Atheist – First time I listened to this podcast I was turned off by what I thought at the time was too much meaningless small talk between the two hosts. Deciding to give the show another chance it quickly grew on me. Instead of long, tendentious arguments for the nonexistence of God Hemant Mehta and Jessica Bluemke prefer to discuss selected news items from the week, almost always stories of religious conservatives, far-right idiots and the like acting mean and/or stupid. A typical exchange usually goes “Jessica, remember that mega-church pastor who refused to wear a face mask, said COVID was a liberal plot and proclaimed Jesus would protect him? He’s now in the hospital with COVID. And on a ventilator.”

The Thinking Atheist – Seth Andrews, a former Fox News watching Christian broadcaster now avowed atheist interviews fascinating guests like Michael Shermer, Peter Boghossian and Karen Garst. One of many reasons I like this podcast is Seth comes across as a sincere and friendly guy. Of course having a million dollar voice doesn’t hurt either.

In Our Time: History – For history buffs like myself this is a must listen. Each episode moderator Melvyn Bragg brings in three or four professors to discuss significant historical figures and events, from Lawrence of Arabia to the Congress of Vienna. Past guests have included Julia Lovell, author of Maoism: A Global History and Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. (An impressive looking tome that’s set unread on my shelf for way too long.)

Once Upon a Time… In the Valle‪y – Everyone needs a guilty pleasure. As far as podcasts go, this one’s mine. Newcomer (no pun intended) Traci Lords took the 80s porn world by storm. Young, beautiful, ambitious and sexually insatiable she was well on her way to becoming an adult movie icon. That is until the feds showed up at her door to arrest her. You see, Traci Lords wasn’t really Traci Lords. She was Nora Kuzma, who began working in the porn industry as a 15 year old high school drop out. Was she a victim? A villain? Both? Listen and then try to decide.

Checks and Balance – Host John Prideaux begins the Economist‘s podcast on American politics each week with a brief preamble exploring the historical context of one of the week’s major political developments. From there Prideaux, along with his colleagues Charlotte Howard, and Jon Fasman attempt to make sense of America’s chaotic political landscape. (By the way Prideaux is a Brit. What could be cooler than a dude with a British accent talking about American politics?)

The Intelligence – Also from the Economist, each weekday this podcast takes a deeper look at new stories around the world. Great way to start your day.

Axios Today – Another great way to start your day. Just 10 minutes long, host Niala Boodhoo (yep, that’s her name and it rhymes with voodoo) and a cast of guest journalists look at three news stories including their top story deemed “today’s one big thing.” Short, smart and to the point.

The World Next Week – Besides being a history buff I’m also into foreign relations and comparative politics. Co-hosts James M. Lindsay and Robert McMahon from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) take an in depth look at the major political developments at home and abroad shaping the coming week.

The President’s Inbox – Also from CFR and hosted the above mentioned James M. Lindsay each week a different subject matter expert is interviewed concerning a wide range of pressing concerns from international trade to nuclear proliferation.

Big World – This monthly international affairs podcast from the School of International Service at Washington, DC’s American University is a fresh and accessible look at complex global issues and a nice companion podcast to the two previously mentioned ones from CFR.

Inside the Hive – If you wanted to know what was going on within the Trump administration, there was no better source for palace intrigue like Vanity Fair. Every week cohosts Emily Jane Fox and Joe Hagan interview notable insiders from politics, business and journalism.

The New Yorker Radio Hour – I’ve been a fan of the New Yorker ever since that fateful day I picked up copy in a waiting room so many years ago. Host David Remnick does a fine job marshaling the resources of his venerable magazine to serve up a weekly podcast of informative interviews addressing a wide array of topics.

Ideas – Last but not least, this podcast of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s long running radio program of the same name is a feast for the intellectually engaged and curious. A three part series on Frank Zappa? No problem. No subject is off limits or deemed too esoteric, from obscure cult films to the history of conspiracy theories to Edward Said’s landmark book Orientalism. Definitely a thinking person’s podcast.

Recent Discoveries – Just when I thought I couldn’t subscribe to anymore podcasts I stumbled across these.

How it Happened – Trump’s lost the election but he’s leaving office in a few months so how much damage could he cause? Quite a lot. So says the latest podcast from Axios “based on multiple interviews with current and former White House, campaign, government and congressional officials as well as direct eyewitnesses and people close to President Trump. Sources have been granted anonymity to share sensitive observations or details they would not be formally authorized to disclose.”

The Lincoln Project – Founded by Rick Wilson and his happy band of anti-Trump Republicans, their new podcast is part of their mission to make Trump accountable for his countless high crimes and misdemeanors and make sure his legion of admirers and imitators don’t seize the reigns of our fragile democracy.

I Spy – After hearing former DEA agent Steve Murphy talk about the time he spent in Colombia hunting drug lord Pablo Escobar I was hooked.

The Librarian Is In– Once every two weeks New York Public Librarians Rhonda Evans and Frank Collerius discuss a book they’re read, interview a special guest and/or talk about bookish topics. So far so good.

Talking Politics: History of Ideas – Went looking for something from the London Review of Books and found this one. Each episode David Runciman does a deep drive into seminal political thinkers, important concepts or historical developments. Great companion podcast to Ideas and In Our Time.

That’s enough podcasts for now. Rest assured, I’ll be back before long with more you’ll wanna check out.

Empire of Lies by Raymond Khoury

Welcome to Paris in the Islamic year 1438 (2017 AD by Gregorian reckoning), one of many large and vibrant cities of an Ottoman Empire that’s ruled over most of Europe for the last 300 years. With the Papacy and its attendant lands long vanquished and Notre Dame repurposed as mosque European Christianity exits only in scattered pockets throughout the Continent, remnants of a once mighty and prevalent faith decimated by centuries of conversions. Though the Empire’s eastern flank stands firm against its traditional rival Tsarist Russia, new threats are emerging. Across the Atlantic, the upstart Christian Republic of America, a world leader in the promising field of renewable energy poses an existential threat to the Empire’s highly lucrative petroleum exporting monopoly. The resulting loss of revenue, and fears it will only get worse has shook the Empire to its core, driving its Arab subjects to Islamic militancy while the increasingly autocratic sultan turns to his state security apparatus to crush dissent and uphold the status quo. But after a mysterious tattooed man with a strange accent becomes a suspect in a local murder detective Kamal Arslan Agha slowly realizes he’s on the cusp of uncovering a dark secret so guarded those in power will stop at nothing to keep hidden.

Raymond Khoury’s 2019 Empire of Lies is many things. As you could probably guess both by my description and its eye-catching cover art (which I found it completely irresistible one Saturday at the public library) it’s an alternate reality novel. Time travel is also a key component along with elements of police procedural. Like any good thriller the action is fast paced with more than a few plot twists. There’s also no shortage of political commentary, most of it addressing the rise in authoritarian populism in America and abroad. (One Parisian newspaper editor is jailed by orders of the sultan for publishing “fabricated news.”) Compared favorably to both Fatherland and Man in the High Castle, based on the novel’s abundance of political commentary coupled with its Islamic setting makes it much akin to Matt Ruff’s incredibly clever and surprisingly funny 2012 novel The Mirage. All of course makes Empire of Lies a highly entertaining and inventive book and thus a great way to help kick off the new year.

From Jakarta to Mao via the Islamic Enlightenment

It doesn’t seem right to name three books to my year-end Favorite Nonfiction list without writing a word about them. Therefore, I’m going to spend just a little time telling you about a trio of history books I read in the final quarter of 2020. Luckily for me I was able to borrow all three through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Deeply researched, detailed and wide in scope they’re definitely a treat.

  • The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World by Vincent Bevins – After seeing this thing get included on just about every best book of 2020 list I knew I had to read it. Few people know at one time Indonesia had the third largest Communist party in the world after China and the USSR, and Indonesia, not North Vietnam was America’s chief policy concern in South East Asia. But after a US-backed military coup overthrew that nation’s president, leading to an extermination of perhaps a million Communists and suspected allies militantly anticommunist regimes would seize power over the next 10 years throughout the world, especially in Latin America. The aftershocks of this global authoritarian sweep can be felt decades later from Indonesia to Chile to Brazil. 
  • Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell – I have the good people at CBC’s Ideas for bringing this one to my attention. Lovell did a fine job detailing not just Mao’s rise to power and establishment of the People’s Republic of China but also how his ideas on leadership and armed struggle influenced movements around the world. From the jungles of Peru to the Black ghettos of America revolutionaries looked to Maoism for inspiration. 
  • The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times by Christopher de Bellaigue – I’m no stranger to de Bellaigue having read his books on Iran and Turkey. I was set to read this one after it was released in the spring of 2017 but did so only after my international affairs discussion group opted to read Hillel Ofek’s New Atlantis essay “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science.” Focusing on traditional Islamic power centers of Istanbul, Cairo, and Tehran de Bellaigue looks at the history of how Muslims in these areas responded to the challenges of Western imperialism. In order to check, and hopefully rollback European military and commercial exploitation of their lands armies would need to be modernized, industries created and scientific advances promoted. But to do so would require bold and uncompromising makeovers of Islamic societies across the region and with it overthrowing age old established traditions and beliefs. 

I’m glad I was able to read these three books back to back since they compliment each other well. As one might suspect there’s significant overlap between The Jakarta Method and Maoism with considerable attention paid to political movements in the developing world. Since one cannot look at life in the developing world without including the Greater Middle East The Islamic Enlightenment nicely completes our fine trio.