A Winter’s Worth of Reading

Well, we’re barely into 2017 I’m already behind in my blogging. Not sure I wanted to start the year with a catch-up post but I’m afraid that’s what I need to do. Perhaps I shouldn’t look at it that way. Instead, perhaps I should see this as more of a preview post. In the coming weeks on my blog, you’ll learn more about these books listed below. While my blogging has been a bit lack luster of late, reading wise, it’s been a strong start for the new year. In addition, even for a nonfiction addict like myself I still managed to read a piece of fiction here and there.

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Wordless Wednesday

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February 9, 2017 · 2:44 am

2016 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

ERC 2016I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a huge fan of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Over the years she has encouraged us to read as many books as possible that are set in, or about different European countries. With one country per book and each book by a different author, over the course of the year we readers find ourselves moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

As for the 2016 edition of the challenge, the bad news is I didn’t read and review nearly as many books as I would have liked. However, the good news is unless my count is wrong, I reviewed 13 books and that’s up slightly from last year’s total of 10. Just like in past years, there was variety in countries, ranging from large European counties like Russia and Ukraine, but also smaller ones like Latvia and the Czech Republic and even the micro-state of Monaco. Also like in past years it was a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, with history and historical fiction leading the pack. Looking back on what I read for the challenge, I read some quality books since three of those novels made my year-end best fiction list. One of those three novels, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (France) ended up being my favorite piece of fiction from 2016. As for nonfiction, Matthew Brzezinski’s Isaac’s Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland made that particular year-end list.

Like I said at the start, I’m a huge fan of this challenge and I encourage all you book bloggers out there in the blogosphere to sign up. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

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In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah

Probably the coolest thing about Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is it makes a person read books set in, or about countries all over Europe. That’s always been fine with me. Over the years it’s discovered a ton of great books that who knows, had it not been for the European Reading Challenge I might never had read. And trust me, when is that ever a bad thing?

My quest to find yet another book to read for the challenge led me to Tim Judah’s 2015 book In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine. Until it was overshadowed by the tumultuous American election, the conflict in Ukraine seemed to always be in the news. So, when I found an available copy at my public library I helped myself. After a few fits and starts I eventually made my way through it, finishing it last night just before bed.  While perhaps not a page-turning, nevertheless it’s probably the best book out there when it comes to showing just how complex and, well, horribly messed-up the situation has been in Ukraine. Judah travels from one end of the country to another interviewing an almost endless series of people who’ve been involved in, or at least significantly impacted by the ongoing conflict. Like many wars, civil wars and combinations of both, the roots of today’s conflict go deep into the past. As Ukraine struggles define itself as a distinct nation state and plot a political trajectory somewhere between East and West, it must deal with a restive eastern population as well as a resurgent Putinist Russia that sees Ukraine as traditionally part of it homeland.

I’m a sucker for good, on the ground reporting like this. In Wartime reminded me of other books written about Easter Europe like Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War, Lawrence Scott Sheets’ 8 Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Former Soviet Union and last but not least Askold Krushnelnycky’s An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History. Of course, since I am a sucker for this kind of writing, you’ll be sure to see a more books like this featured on my blog in the coming year.

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January 11, 2017 · 5:40 pm

2016 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

Two weeks ago I gave you my picks for my favorite novels of 2016. Today, with 2017 just a few days away I’m going to reveal my favorite nonfiction books of 2016. Just like in previous years, when I put together my year-end best of list it doesn’t matter when the book was published. All that matters is it’s outstanding.

  1. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson – Larson has a great gift for making history, especially tragic history come alive.
  2. The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter by Mark Seal – Why do people get conned? Sadly, most of the time it’s because they WANT to be deceived.
  3. Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough – 40 years ago a decade-long string of left-wing terrorist acts plagued America. Today, it’s all been forgotten.
  4.  Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal – You think you really know what separates humans from animals? Better guess again.
  5. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer – Beyond a doubt, reading Dark Money will forever change how you look at the nation’s political system.
  6. A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh – When I told the guys at my neighborhood coffee shop about this book, they jokingly asked me if they’d have to someday testify at my trial. This book won’t make you a criminal, but it will make you look at the world in a whole new light. And you’ll love it.
  7. Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition by Nisid Hajari – If you wanna understand India, Pakistan and their tense relationship this book is essential reading.
  8. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick – North Korea is the mother of all freak shows. By reading this book (the updated version) you’ll learn just how twisted that freak show really is.
  9. The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 by Amos Elon – A great account of one of history’s most tragic, and sadly ironic episodes.
  10. Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century by Christian Caryl – Who knew 1979 was such a pivotal year?
  11. When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning – Outstanding book on the importance of reading.
  12. Isaac’s Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland by Matthew Brzezinski – an insanely well-researched account of Poland’s wartime Jewish underground.

There you have 12 outstanding books. Because they’re so outstanding assigning an overall winner has been agonizingly difficult. However, after much thought and consideration I’m declaring Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right the winner. Highly praised by the New York Times, NPR and Washington Post, Mayer’s book is essential reading for any intelligent, curious and civic-minded person.

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Dark Money, Days of Rage and A Burglar’s Guide to the City

I hate doing catch-up posts but with 2016 almost over, I gotta start wrapping things up. Thankfully, the three books I’m featuring in this post are all excellent. Please consider them highly recommend.

  • Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer – After listening to Jane Mayer’s interview on NPR and hearing one of my good friends rave about this book, I figured with 2016 an election year I better get my hands on a copy as soon as possible. Once one became available through my public library I snapped it up. Not only is Mayer’s book a detailed expose of the Koch family’s shadowy empire, but it’s probably the best book around that shows how rich uber-conservatives use their vast resources to manipulate the political process. From backing far-right think tanks and policy institutes to funneling massive amounts of campaign money into state congressional and gubernatorial races to funding ultra-conservative “law and economics” departments at the nation’s premier law schools, these powerful right-wing billionaires and their allies cast a deep shadow across America and its institutions. Beyond a doubt, reading Dark Money will forever change how you look at the nation’s political system.
  • Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough – Last April in the Books supplement in the Sunday New York Times I read a review of Burrough’s Days of Rage. Intrigued by what I read, I made a mental note of the book and hoped to eventually read it someday down the road. That day finally came a few weeks ago, when cruising through my public library’s online catalog I saw there was an available copy of Days of Rage. I took a chance on Burrough’s 2015 book and my goodness I’m glad I did. Today, when we think of domestic terrorism we think of extremely reactionary groups: Islamist, anti-government, white supremacist or Christian Identity. But from the early 1970s through as late as the mid 80s those doing the bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and other acts of politically motivated violence were all on the far left: Weather Underground, Symbionese Liberation Army, Black Liberation Front and the Puerto Rican separatist organization FALN. All of them detested the current state of the world and saw violence as the preferred means of bringing about the changes they so desired. In the end, they achieved nothing and wound up being little more than historical footnotes. (Ironically, these groups’ only legacy was an indirect one. The FBI would come under fire for how it battled groups like the Weather Underground. As a result the Bureau would have to play nice and be respectful of civil liberties when investigating suspected terrorist organizations.) This is a terrific book and compliments well other books that touch on this era like Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,  Andreas Killen’s 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America and Brendan I. Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking.
  • A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh- When a good buddy recommended this book with the incredibly cool title of A Burglar’s Guide to the City I simply had to take notice. As soon as a library copy became available I grabbed one. I burned through it in no time because it’s fun as hell to read. Just as Dark Money will forever change how you look at America’s political system, this book will forever change how you look at building security. You’ll lean the best burglars are incredibly resourceful and will stop at nothing. This book is full of great stories like the bandit who liked to rob McDonald’s restaurants just after closing time by entering through the roof; a 19th century architect who hobnobbed with New York City’s rich and famous, asked to see the blueprints of banks and then painstakingly concocted elaborate plans to rob them late at night; and the 14-year-old boy in Lodz, Poland who hacked the city’s tram network. Manaugh also shows how the criminally inclined are using social media to find the best time to burglarize a home (just wait until the owners post their vacation pics on Facebook) as well feeding erroneous data to Waze in order to create traffic-free getaway routes. Trust me, this book is a lot of fun.

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