I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey behind the Lines of Jihad, a memoir by Washington Post national security reporter Souad Mekhennet, takes us into dangerous territory to places she was uniquely qualified to explore. The daughter of Muslim immigrants in Germany, Mekhennet was the first to identify the masked ISIS fighter in beheading videos known as Jihadi John, and the book reveals the extreme jeopardy into which she placed herself to get the story. Fluent in English, French, German and Arabic, the daughter of a Sunni father and Shiite mother, Mekhennet works to blend in in Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa in her effort to understand the background and motivation of those who do evil things in the name of her religion.
The Sacred Willow by Mai Elliott is a memoir about four generations of a Vietnamese family, including its early status at the mandarin level of society, through decades of wars with the French, the Viet Minh, the Viet Cong and the Americans and on to the diaspora, family loyalties being the continuous thread. Though I reveled in the book on our return from Vietnam, it is not necessary to have traveled there to enjoy this journey of one extended family through a nation’s tumultuous history.
Citizens of London by Lynne Olson has been on my list for a few years, and I finally got to read it in conjunction with a class at Brandeis. It is a spell-binding account of three Americans living in London prior to the United States entering World War II: CBS luminary Edward R. Murrow, whose broadcasts during the blitz help sway American opinion on the need to defend our British allies. John Gill Winant, American Ambassador to the Court of Saint James. Averill Harriman sent to oversee the Lend Lease program. All three were close to Winston Churchill, politically advancing the cause of war against Hitler, and all three were intimates of Churchill’s daughters and daughter-in-law. It’s a story about politics and passion, international intrigue and amazing courage. It’s living, breathing history at its finest.
Dark Money by Jane Mayer Should be must reading for students of history and anyone else who cares about the political influence of the rich and powerful. The focus is largely Charles and David Koch, super wealthy oilmen who decided systematically to support anti-government libertarians at every level of government. They’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars for candidates and lobbyists but also very quietly invest millions of dollars in college programs to promote a conservative agenda. You can see their success reflected in the Trump administration’s rollback of regulations on energy and the environment, leaving a nearly unfettered fossil fuel industry. Mayer also delves into the background of billionaire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ family (fortune from Amway) spending on conservative causes and makes passing reference to the way George Soros uses his fortune to benefit liberal causes. Mayer spent five years writing the book, which, at a minimum, reinforces the need to reverse the impact of the Citizens United decision.
Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder will someday make a great edge-of-your-seat movie. As Browder explains in this memoir, his grandfather was head of the Communist Party in the United States and ran for President on that ticket. Bill Browder went in the opposite direction, got his degree at Stanford and, after the demise of the Soviet Union, built the biggest hedge fund in Russia. You can’t function at that level of finance and power without coming up against Vladimir Putin. When Browder wouldn’t play ball with Putin and his cronies, they trumped up tax evasion charges against him amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. Browder, then living in London, hired attorney Sergei Magnitsky to represent him. Putin had Magnitsky imprisoned and tortured, leading to his death in prison. Browder lobbied Congress tirelessly to pass sanctions against Russia, the resulting legislation called the Magnitskty Act. Sound familiar? Putin is still bristling under the sanctions imposed, a subject apparently discussed frequently with the Trumps. Browder’s book offers an inside look at the brutal ways of Vladimir Putin and his cronies.
Family of Secrets by Russ Baker is easily dismissed as yet another imagining by a conspiracy theorist. It sees major events of the 20th and early 21st century as driven by dark forces, especially the nexus among financiers, oilmen, and spies. Everything from the Kennedy assassination to Watergate and beyond is presented as the result off a plot to pursue the goals of these three interest groups. The book is very well researched, and, if you succeed in plowing through it, there are fascinating connections among key players in multiple generations of the Bush family cutting across the banking, oil and spook worlds. The Bush family’s old school ties at Andover, Harvard and Yale are also analyzed, including how Yale’s Skull and Bones Society was a hot recruitment space for the CIA. The book has been called reckless and paranoid, but it does leave the reader with unanswered questions about historic events and a general sense of unease about who is pulling the levers of power.