Old Books Reading Project: Shepherd of Mankind by Willam E. Barrett

Like I mentioned in my previous post, when it comes to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge it’s easy to find books representing large countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia. But what about the small ones? And the really small ones? How about the smallest one of all? By that I mean Vatican City. My solution over the last few years has been to read a biography of a pope. Both times I did they were short biographies of Pope John XXIII, one by Christian Feldman and the other by Thomas Cahill. Lucky for me, I happen to possess in my personal library a biography of Pope Paul VI. For good, bad or otherwise it’s been gathering dust for years. Not long ago I decided to finally crack it open and give it a read.

Published in 1964, William E. Barrett’s Shepherd of Mankind: A Biography of Pope Paul VI is definitely a product of its time. Written by a devout Catholic, Barrett’s biography is adorned with an official Vatican imprimatur. While I’m hesitant to deem it a hagiography, nevertheless I was hard pressed to find anything critical or highly unflattering in this book about Pope Paul VI or, before his election Giovanni Montini. But hey, I knew that going in so no big deal.

What I did like about Shepherd of Mankind, when compared to the two above-mentioned papal biographies is the portion of the biography that focuses on the workings of the Vatican. (This is of course to be expected, before he became Pope John XXIII, Angelo Roncalli spent much of his career outside the Vatican, serving in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and France.) For years Montini was Pope Pius XII’s right hand man in charge of Vatican domestic affairs. In 1954, Pius appointed Montini Archbishop of Milan, in a move Barrett hints was to get him out of the Pope’s hair. (According to Barrett, Pius, plagued with escalating health issues and growing cranky with age began seeing Montini’s interruptions as bothersome. Employing the age-old tactic of Promoveatur ut amoveatur or promote him to remove him, he exiled him to Milan.)

But to Montini’s credit, during his four years in Milan he flourished. While serving as Archbishop he raised funds to build new churches, and actively engaged in dialog with artists, intellectuals and non-catholics like atheists, Protestants, Muslims and ex-Catholics. Despite seeing Communism as a false god and enemy of the Church, Montini was strongly pro-labor, regularly visiting the city’s factories and chatting with workers. He strove hard to bring dispirited ex-Catholics back to the fold and narrowly survived an attempt on his life when a would be assassin threw a bomb into his residence. (He had left the room only moments before it went off.)

Since it was published in 1964 the book pretty much ends when Montini becomes Pope. Sadly, much to my disappointment Barrett spends little time discussing the Second Vatican Council. Who knows, perhaps a book solely devoted to that episode of Church history I could end up read ing for the European Reading Challenge.

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About Time I Read It: The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna

As I’ve said time and time again, Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has inspired me to read books representing the length and breadth of Europe. Sometimes, when it comes to the smaller countries this can be challenging. But no matter how small they be, somehow I find a way. One of these relatively petit states is the former Yugoslavian republic of Croatia. In 2017 I featured Sara Nović’s 2015 novel Girl at War and a few years before that in 2014 it was Slavenka Drakulic’s 1994 offering Marble Skin. This time around it’s Aminatta Forna’s 2013 The Hired Man. It’s yet another book I found at the public library (perhaps initially taken in by its oddly intriguing cover art) and after seeing I could apply it towards the European Reading Challenge quickly opted to borrow it.

Day to-day life for Duro, a forty-something bachelor living in the small Croatian village of Gost, is pretty mundane. Having never attended a university or trade school, or underwent an apprenticeship nevertheless is one of those guys who, thanks to his decent work ethic and intelligence always manages to secure meaningful employment as a handyman or construction kind of guy. One day, his quiet existence is interrupted by the arrival of Laura, a British woman and her two teenage kids. Like an episode of House Hunters International, Laura and her husband have purchased a local farmhouse and soon find themselves in need of a talented and reliable fix-it man. Duro, cautious at first offers to help Laura repair the farmhouse. While getting the long-abandoned property back in shape he gets to know Laura as well as her two children. As novel unfolds we learn that Gost wasn’t always a sleepy and uneventful place. Bit by bit ghosts from its dark past begin to haunt Duro and his newly arrived neighbors.

The Scottish and Sierra Leonean writer Forna is not Croatian but alas this doesn’t stop her from writing a decent novel set in that particular part of the world. Kudos to Forna for doing her research. (At the end of the novel she credits, among many both Misha Glenny and the above-mentioned Slavenka Drakulic.) After reading The Hired Man I’d like to read her other novels. Therefore don’t be surprised if you see more of her stuff featured on my blog.

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About Time I Read It: In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi

When I came across Susan Fuladi’s memoir In the Darkroom at the public library one Saturday morning I didn’t know a lot about it, other than it had been highly praised by reviewers and some way or another dealt with life in Hungary. Since I could use a book set in or a about Hungary for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, and having fond memories of Faludi’s 1991 outstanding work Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, I decided to take a chance on it. After reading only a few pages I’m thankful I did. Her 2016 memoir is outstanding, easily exceeding my expectations

Imagine you haven’t spoken to your father in decades, and for good reason because you remember all too well he was an abusive jerk throughout your childhood. Then one day out of the blue you receive an email from him letting you know he’s living thousands of miles away in Hungary and would like to reconnect with you after all these years. This awkward situation becomes even more challenging once he informs you he’s now a woman. Susan Faludi’s quest to understand her estranged father’s radical transformation takes her from America to Hungary, where her father was born, survived the Holocaust and as a young adult fled Communist rule. As Faludi recalls her father’s life and her relationship with him, she also explores the history of Hungary, including the horrors of the Holocaust, post-war Communist oppression and eventual embrace of Western-style democracy and free market capitalism, albeit tainted of late by the emergence of reactionary political leadership.

This is a surprising good book and even though it’s early in the year there’s a good chance In the Darkroom will wind up on my Best Nonfiction List of 2019. I have no problem recommending it.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Memoir

About Time I Read It: The Best American Essays 2015

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

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

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

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Filed under Christianity, Current Affairs, Memoir, Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

2018 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.

As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.

As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.

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Soviet Spotlight: When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone by Gal Beckerman

Once again, it’s taken me way too long to write about an outstanding book. This time it’s Gal Beckerman’s 2010 masterpiece When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. I’ve been wanting to read it for years, ever since I saw it for sale at the Portland State University bookstore across from my old workplace. Two years ago today day I decided to splurge and buy a Kindle version of it only to ignore it for a few years until I included it as one of my 20 Books of Summer. Sadly, while I managed to read only three out of the 20, When They Come for Us was one of them. (The other two were Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe and Neal Bascomb’s Hunting Eichmann.)

When They Come for Us, just as its subtitle says, is in fact an epic story. It begins over a half-century ago in 1963 when a group of Soviet Jews began meeting in a secluded forest just outside Riga in the former Soviet Republic of Latvia. Their original plan was to honor the thousands of Latvian Jews who’d been murdered there during World War II by cleaning up the area and consecrating it as a holy memorial. Before long, other Jews joined them and together on a regular basis they studied Hebrew as well Jewish religious practices and beliefs. Eventually Jews around the USSR met quietly and covertly to do the same, sharing samizdat literature and even bootleg copies of the Leon Uris novel Exodus.

Later, as the 60s passed into the 70s, the Soviet Union’s Communist leadership took an antagonistic and strangely contradictory view of the nation’s Jews. Officially, all Soviet citizens were equal under the law, regardless of ethnic identity. Moreover, according to Communist doctrine, all religious affiliations were meaningless anyway, since they had no place in a classless Marxist society like the USSR. But in reality, things were much different. After Israeli won a surprising and resounding victory over its Arab enemies in 1967’s Six Day War, Soviet leaders ended up with egg on their faces since they’d backed Egypt and Syria and bragged to the world the Arabs would crush the small Jewish state should war ever break out. Embarrassed by their allies’ defeat, Kremlin leaders cast a paranoid eye towards the USSR’s Jews, seeing them as a potential fifth column. Soviet Jews also found themselves increasingly discriminated, whether it banned certain professions, locked out of prestigious universities or denied work promotions. Whenever Soviet Jews wished to leave it all behind and immigrate to Israel or America, their requests for exit visas were denied. No sane person would want to leave a perfect society like the USSR Jews were told. Other Jews who worked in highly technical fields like science or engineering were refused exit and told their knowledge and expertise was classified information and must not fall into the hands of the capitalist West.

When They Come for Us is not just a book about the Jews of the former Soviet Union. It’s also a book about America’s Jews, and how a small movement over the years grew into a large and multifaceted one, successfully enlisting the nation’s leaders in pressuring the USSR into allowing Jews to immigrate to Israel and the US. It’s also a detailed look at the foreign policy inner workings of every presidential administration from Kennedy to Reagan. Lastly, When They Come for Us shows over a 30 year period the inexorable decline and eventual collapse of the USSR.

When They Come for Us is outstanding and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. Please consider it highly recommended.

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2018 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

As the year known as 2018 finally draws to a close, it’s time for me to look back and announce to the world my favorite books of the year. Just like last year, I’ll start by talking about the outstanding fiction I read over the course of the year. Later, I’ll follow it up with another post dedicated to my favorite nonfiction. Of course, this year just like in previous ones, it doesn’t matter when the books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.

The bad news is I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year. As a result, there’s only six books on my list. The good news is I read some great stuff. So, in no specific order of preference here’s my favorite fiction from 2018.

As for declaring an overall winner, it wasn’t easy since all six are fantastic. In the end, City of Thieves narrowly edged out The Little Book my favorite. As high as my expectations were for this novel, I was not disappointed.

And a diverse collection of novels indeed. With The Gustav Sonata set in Switzerland, City of Thieves Russia and The Little Book Austria the armchair traveler in me was duly satisfied. So also was my inner historian, with all of them but The Senator’s Wife set wholly or partially during World War II or, in the case of The Little Book fin de siècle Vienna. Lastly, just like last year several of the above-mentioned titles are first time novels. Hats off to these authors for their outstanding inaugural efforts.

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