Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski, is an excellent and unique book offering an unparalleled insight into life in the former Soviet empire, and life in the current Russia and former Soviet-bloc states. Growing up as a Pole from where is currently Byelorussia, Ryszard is ideally positioned to commentate and annotate life under the former Soviet regime. He is an exceptional, if not the most exceptional, proponent of “travel reportage” in any case, and here he works on reportage from an area he clearly has massive emotional attachment to.
The Soccer War by Ryszard Kapuscinski is a collection by this one-of-a-kind author of his escapades, adventures and experiences in some of the 27 (yes, twenty seven) revolutions slash wars he personally experienced during the 1960s and early 1970s. Ryszard was a Polish journalist with responsibilities at any one time for over 50 countries in Africa and South America, and this book offers his insights and experiences into among others, Patrice Lulumba, the Algeria of Boumedienne and Ben Bella, barbarous civil war in Nigeria, and the eponymous Soccer War between El Salvador and Honduras.
Hide & Seek is BBC journalist Stephen Walker’s re-telling of the cat-and-mouse antics and escapades of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty and the SS and Gestapo head Herbert Kappler, during 1940s wartime Rome. It apparently is a little-known story, and this is Stephen Walker’s effort to right that by giving this story its deserved place in the annals of World War II history.
Monsignor O’Flaherty was an Irish priest assigned to the Vatican, who set up and operated an escape route for Allied POWs and opponents of the Germans, using Vatican City as his base of operations. I have no trouble at all believing that the Monsignor was an incredible character, and his efforts undoubtedly saved many thousands of people, and therefore this story is indeed a story worth telling. The problem with this book unfortunately, is how the story is told.
Jerusalem – The Biography, from the pen of Simon Sebag Montefiore, is a fittingly epic work chronicling the history of the city of Jerusalem. As you would expect from the author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, which was the most impressively researched biography I have ever come across, pieced together as it was solely from the actual correspondence of Stalin and his cohorts, this “biography” of Jerusalem is an incredibly well researched and authoritative account of this mystical city from approximately 1000 B.C through to present times.
It is a brave undertaking, as the sweep of history covered in this book is truly immense. Helpfully though, the author has employed a novel approach here, in that he treats Jerusalem as a biographical subject, and that Jerusalem acts effectively as a witness to the historical events that occur throughout this broad expanse of history. This keeps the historical focus squarely on events impacting Jerusalem, and acts as a sort of historical filter. This device works very well for the most part, and despite there being a few flaws with it, the reader is richly rewarded with not just a detailed, thorough, exciting and vibrant history of this city, but also having read it will likely emerge with an illuminated and refreshed view of world history in general.
Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia, is a real labour of love by husband and wife team Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac, and is the result of many years travel and research on their behalf. So top marks for effort then, and the book is a physically impressive, weighty and voluminous tome. The actual content though, while certainly very entertaining and interesting in places, is unfortunately a bit lacking. I am always wary of books that are co-written, as they always have a higher than normal potential to be lacking in coherency and narrative structure. This is unfortunately the case here.
Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the 17-Century Mediterranean, by Adrian Tinniswood, sheds much needed light on who and what pirates actually were, and who and what they did. It debunks the stereotypical notion of Blackbeard with his talking parrot and his pieces of eight, as being a typical pirate. In the real world, piratry was a world of profiteering, slavery, butchery, brinkmanship and religion, with its players being a motley crew of Christians and Muslims from all walks of life. Adrian’s book brilliantly illuminates their world, and this world’s revelation will be a shock to you.
The period of history when pirates reigned was the 17th-century, and geographically they were to be feared from the Mediterranean, up the Western coast of Europe and spanning to Scandinavia and Northern America, and out across the expanse of the Barbary Coast (present-day Morocco, Algeria and Libya). Mostly though, and this is the focus of the book, they had their bases of operations all along the Barbary coast, especially the port city of Algiers, which was pirate-central.
Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, 1453 by Roger Crowley, is a history of the momentous struggle waged for the city of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) in 1453. This was a real game-changer in historical terms, as it finally and utterly rested power in the region from the faltering Byzantium empire to the Ottoman Turks, and shut Christian Europe out in the process. It is also the history of the titanic and fatal battle of two great leaders, Sultan Mehmet II and Emperor Constantine XI.
Constantinople, sitting as it did on the Bosphorous sea, was a massive and natural fortress. Indeed, it had proved impervious to previous mostly Muslim and other assaults, except for one crucial and brutal sacking of the city by Christian Crusaders in 1204. So it was possibly with no great alarm that the Emperor Constantine and Constantinople’s inhabitants viewed the approach of the young Sultan’s army – that however was soon to change, once they realised the extent of the army, and the iron will of the Sultan.
The New Nobility – The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB, is a book that delivers exactly what its title promises. This is a very brave work, written in English by Russian journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan. I don’t say “brave” lightly, when you consider the fate of so many Russian journalists, lawyers or human rights activists who dare challenge or question Putin’s establishment in today’s Russia. Indeed, reading a little online about the authors, they have experienced their share of harassment prior to authoring this work, including involuntary “visits” to Lefortovo prison – one hopes that this literary work will not be used as an excuse for more of the same against them.
Kurt Vonnegut, the late American science fiction writer, served in the U.S army in World War II, was captured and imprisoned by the German army in Dresden, and therefore witnessed the fire-bombing of that city by the Allies in February 1945. Slaughterhouse 5 is the book he felt compelled to write about this massacre, being turned as he said into a figurative “pillar of salt” in its aftermath. It is also his rejection of war of any kind in its entirety, and should be considered a classic “anti-war” book, as well as a testimony to the bombing of civilian innocents in Dresden.