A Year of Reading, Part VII: The Real Real

One of the most gratifying aspects of non-fiction is that, in a few hundred pages or so, you can rather suddenly and efficiently have a grasp of something previously completely unknown to you. You think, how did I get this far in life and have absolutely no knowledge of x,y,z? This is what is so compelling about reading – there are innumerable galaxies of wonder and knowledge out there to conquer simply by turning a page.

Here are four non-fiction reads that stretched the envelope for me:

Hunting the Unabomber: The FBI, Ted Kaczynski, and the Capture of America’s Most Notorious Domestic Terrorist by Lis Wiehl with Lisa Pulitzer

Published 2020

Paperback, 336 pages

File under: It’s the bomb!

So of course we all remember the headlines. A diabolical genius bomb terrorist struck randomly over an agonizingly long seventeen years, ultimately killing three people and injuring twenty-three others. Of course hindsight makes it seem to easy – the weirdo Harvard graduate who walked away from his mathematics career and went to live off the grid in a tiny ramshackle cabin in Montana.

But he was so meticulous in building and planting his bombs that law enforcement – particularly the F.B.I. – was beginning to look ineffectual, to say the least, in their inability to track down the guy who had been dubbed “Unabomber”, given his early penchant for planting the bombs in university settings.

Lis Wiehl is the daughter of an F.B.I. agent and is herself an attorney. She is also one of the nicest people you could ever meet! She painstakingly chronicles the course of this protracted spree of domestic terror, and does it well – the book is thorough and suspenseful. You hold your breath when Ted Kaczynski’s sister-in-law connects the dots and when the long-denied F.B.I. agents descend on the isolated cabin.

Fish out of Water: A Search for the Meaning of Life: A Memoir by Eric Metaxas

Published 2021

Hardcover, 416 pages

File under: He’s all Greek to me.

How do you say me! me! me! in Greek?

In this fondly written memoir, Metaxas pretty much admits that he was that annoying short kid in class who wanted all the attention all the time. I suspect he hasn’t changed much. But he has credibility – this is the guy who created Veggie Tales and also wrote a masterful and memorable biography of World War II Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy). So when I received this book as a gift from a friend, I was intrigued.

As the title suggests, Metaxas’ premise is that he has always felt a bit misplaced, the “fish out of water” neither here nor there, beginning with his role as a first generation American son of immigrants. His mother came from Germany and his father from the Greek island of Cephalonia. Both parents exposed him to their strong bonds with family and their former countries and while Metaxas grew up in Queens and then Connecticut, he identifies intensely with his Teutonic and Greek heritage.

I think he intends this memoir to be a tracing of his journey from his Greek Orthodox roots to a spiritual awakening and shift to evangelical Christianity. He comments on the pallid “cultural Christianity” and political correctness he encountered in childhood and during his years at Yale University. He is open and somewhat confessional about personal missteps and the way in which he initially floundered after his college graduation. If, as we all hope, our wayward personal journeys are all leading us somewhere, he suggests that his led him to faith.

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre

Published 2018

Audiobook read by John Lee: 13 hours 20 minutes; 368 pages

File under: And you thought YOUR job was stressful?

Macintyre weaves a web almost as intricately as did the subjects of this book. One is Oleg Gordievsky, a second generation Soviet intelligence agent whose principles lead him to clandestinely switch his loyalty to Great Britain’s M16. The other is Aldrich Ames, a CIA officer with apparently no principles at all, who became an intelligence asset for the Russians in hopes of buying a new car and appeasing his avaricious wife. Where you shake your head in wonder at how the CIA ignored Ames’ flagrant behavior, your heart skips a beat with every page turn as Gordievsky threads the needle of playing for one side while his loyalties lie with the other. All’s well that ends well: Ames is serving a life sentence in prison and Gordievsky lives in the UK although not without trepidation – in 2007 there was a poisoning attempt on his life. Knowing how the book ends does not make it any less interesting to read. It’s a spy thriller that just happens to be true.

Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid

Published 2015

Paperback, 368 pages

File under: It’s complicated.

Originally published in 1997, Reid revised this excellent history of Ukraine in 2015 and I believe she has re-released it with updates in 2023. Every time you look away, the shape-shifting history of Ukraine seems to swerve to a new path. Depending on where you want to begin, it has been variously controlled by descendants of Genghis Khan, Poland, Austria and, of course Russia. Russia has always been looking over Ukraine’s shoulder.

Geography can seem to be destiny and indeed the word “Ukraine” is literally translated as “on the edge” or “borderland”, so depending upon which border you’re close to, its citizens’ loyalties may lean toward Poland or toward Russia, or of course, toward nationalism, which is partly what makes the current tragic war far more complicated than the waving of blue and yellow flags would suggest. Communists abound, as do neo-Nazis and of course, gross corruption and organized crime. We may or may not be seeing what we think we’re seeing with this war. Ms. Reid may have to revise her book yet again by the time it all ends.

Next week – my top ten reads of the year.

About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
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1 Response to A Year of Reading, Part VII: The Real Real

  1. citymama says:

    well we KNOW I will be ordering the Unabomber book. 😜

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