Well, I did it. I finished my pile of books I checked out from the library last night. I have a couple books on my Kindle that I’ve purchased to get through the next week or so. After that I guess I’ll start checking out ebooks from the library, which I kind of hate to do after learning about how difficult the ebook system is for libraries. (Long story short: publishers screw libraries on ebooks.) I also have a pile of books that I have already read but loved and can re-read.

The Cold War: A New History – John Lewis Gaddis
Gaddis has many Cold War titles to his credit. Which is appropriate a he was long considered one of the greatest American CW scholars. In the early 2000s he noticed how his students were beginning to reach the age where they had not actively grown up during the Cold War. He decided Americans of this new generation needed a less dense overview of the Cold War, and one that focused more on the final outcome of the era rather than the details.

This book is the result. And even for history buffs like myself, its brevity is useful. Gaddis glides through the major sections of the Cold War, picking out key events and showing how each side acted and reacted and putting those actions in context of the broader US-Soviet rivalry.

The book’s strongest sections are those that cover the 1970s and 1980s, when the cracks were starting to form in the foundation of the Soviet bloc. Gaddis points out that it took a handful of leaders who viewed the world in very different ways from the calcified, Cold War viewpoints that had the world stuck in a system many believed could not change. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Deng Xiaoping all rejected the existing order and worked to break it down, each in their own, personal ways. Together that hammered those slowly forming cracks and brought about the events of 1989, when the world, almost overnight, totally changed.

I’m no great fan of Reagan or Thatcher’s domestic politics. But credit where credit is due: their rejection of the orthodoxy their parties/countries were wed to helped make the world a much safer place for 25 years or so.

Pravda Ha Ha – Rory Maclean
I did not read these two books back-to-back – there was one in between – but I chose to write about them together as they are good counters to each other. Maclean is a British travel writer. In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Eastern Europe, he traveled and wrote about his experiences in the once closed-off countries of that region.

Here he goes back to those countries nearly 30 years after their opening to see what has changed. He travels through Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, and Germany before returning home to a Britain that is disengaging from Europe. What he finds frightens him. Russia is again run by a strongman, with Putin controlling the country with an iron – capitalist rather than communist – fist. He threatens countries like the Baltics and Ukraine that earned their independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Poland and Hungary, democracy is also on the wane as right-wing, nationalist governments have taken over, stamped out dissent, and used Putin-like techniques to control the media.

Maclean also explores the issue of refugees, running into a Nigerian man in Russia who is attempting to get somewhere safe. He helps the man to escape Russia and, at the book’s close, finds him in a small British town, working in an off-the-books job but with glimmers of hope that he can establish his legal status thanks to an unlikely benefactor.

This is a pretty sobering book. While there are success stories from the end of the Cold War – a reunited and peaceful Germany being the most obvious – it is clear those heady days are over as more and more of Eastern Europe slips back into authoritarianism and the west looks to isolate itself more. With the rise of nationalism, borders that were drawn in the aftermath of war, and fewer safety valves to prevent conflict, you can’t help but wonder if the 30 years of peace since the Berlin Wall came down aren’t a temporary aberration and Europe could soon slip back to its bad old ways of continuous conflict.

The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner
I read Kushner’s highly acclaimed The Flamethrowers five years ago and did not love it. This book also got tons of critical praise but because of that previous experience, it took me awhile to get to it. I’m pretty sure I’ve checked it out from the library once before and did not read it. Thank goodness for a lockdown that forced the issue, because I really enjoyed it.

The Mars Room is named for a strip club (fictional I believe) in San Francisco where Romy, the book’s center, was once employed. When the book begins she is on a bus to the women’s prison in Stanville, CA to serve two life sentences for murdering a former Mars Room customer.

Most of the book lays out her life in prison, from her that first bus ride to her eventual escape, capture, and presumed death. Along the way there are flashbacks to her life before prison and stripping, the story of her trial and ineffective legal representation, back stories on her cellmates, and tangents about her in-prison educator and a dirty cop with a connection to the women’s prison. In addition to her day-to-day life in prison, Romy also fights to find security for her 12-year-old son after her mother, his guardian and her only other family member dies. Only at the very end does Kushner finally lay out the events that led to Romy’s conviction.

Kushner does a wonderful job getting into the lives of Romy and the women she is in prison with. Some are legit psychos. Some were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some were too young to have any idea they were putting themselves in bad positions. And some, like Romy, were victims of a system that doesn’t have the time to dive into cases and discover their true causes. Especially if the accused are poor, a minority, a woman, or some combination of those three.

Romy is a compelling character, even with her great flaws. In many ways she is everything you would never want your daughter to be. But she is also fiercely independent, capable of surviving in the most trying circumstances, and her ultimate crime is done out of protection of her child, not out of true malice.