Book Review – In My Father’s Country: An Afghan Woman Defies Her Fate by Saima Wahab

I have had Saima Wahab’s memoir In My Father’s Country: An Afghan Woman Defies Her Fate on my To Read list since I saw her interview on the Daily Show several years ago. Documenting her childhood in Afghanistan and then Pakistan as a refugee before moving to the United States to further her education, become a US citizen, and eventually travel back to Afghanistan to assist US troops during the war–and given the current political climate in the US—it seemed like the perfect time to finally make myself read this book.

First published in 2012, Wahab’s memoir begins with her earliest memories of life in Afghanistan as the Soviets invaded the country and her outspoken and rather liberal father was among the first taken into custody. She never saw him again and her family fled first to her father’s people in their small village and then across the border to Pakistan where they were safer. Wahab notes that even from a small age, she rejected elements of her native culture, especially with regards to how the women were controlled and restricted by the men of their families. Sent to her uncles in the US as a teenager along with her siblings and cousins, she embraced many of the freedoms of American culture even as it caused her to struggle with holding onto and preserving her sense of her culture as a Pashtun woman. Once she begins her exploration of her time working as a civilian alongside US forces in Afghanistan–first as an interpreter and then as a research manager on an HTT (Human Terrain Team) where she helped research and map the cultural differences between the villages in Afghanistan—her narrative focuses on her struggle to reconcile the two sides of her identity, Pashtun woman and American woman. Speaking the language and understanding the culture of the locals, she worked to educate and guide both the US soldiers and the local Afghan peoples as the nations aimed to work together to rebuild her father’s country. Continue reading

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Book Review – In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

in the heart of the sea - book coverIn addition to having a bit of a fascination with the ocean—in part the result of a combination of growing up in New England and too many viewings of The Little Mermaid in my early childhood—I went to college a stone’s throw from New Bedford. It would have been impossible during those four years to miss any of the area’s historic position in the whaling industry and its connection to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick—however much I might try (and it would have been irresponsible to ignore that history since one of my majors was history). So the first I heard of the Essex whaleship was probably in an English class discussing Moby-Dick as the main source of the novel’s inspiration. So when I saw that my library had added In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex to its digital catalogue, the part of me that has that love/hate relationship with Moby-Dick immediately clicked to add it to my request list—and then I learned the wait was so long because they’re making a film based on the book.

In August of 1819, the Essex left port in Nantucket on what was intended to be a two-year whaling voyage. Traveling south through the Atlantic beyond the equator and around Cape Horn at the tip of South America and into the Pacific where Nantucket-based whalers were pressing further and further in pursuit of the sperm whales that were their primary targets. In November of 1920—more than a year after setting out—the Essex was further into the Pacific than most whalers had gone before and its captain and crew knew little of the islands between them and the South American coast when they met with the large male sperm whale that fought back and sank their ship. With only three whaleboats and as many provisions as they could carry, the twenty member crew began making what adjustments they could to the boats’ construction to enable them to sail for civilization. Of the twenty members of the crew, only eight would survive the ordeal and only after immense suffering and resorting to extreme measures (including cannibalism). Continue reading

Book Review – Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

9780307408860_p0_v3_s260x420I put myself on the library’s wait list for Erik Larson’s latest book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, as soon as I saw they had it and after a few months of waiting, my number finally came up. I was already a fan of his from having read The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of the Beasts but the fact that the subject was the sinking of the Lusitania meant I was already three-quarters of the way to liking the book (I went through a phase where I was obsessed with the Titanic a year or two before the film came out; I was fascinated by the history and the science of Ballard locating the wreck site). My excitement to read the book only grew when I found out he was live-tweeting the events of the Lusitania’s final voyage on the hundredth anniversary early last month – and I wasn’t disappointed when I finally got the chance to read Dead Wake.

By the end of April 1915, World War I was in full swing in Europe. The trenches of the western front were dug deep and thousands of men had been killed on both sides. At sea, the British navy was still considered the best in the world but Germany’s use of submarines was growing and the tactics of war at sea were changing. America under Woodrow Wilson remained steadfastly neutral in the conflict, continuing to conduct regular business with both sides. But Britain wanted America in the war on the Allies’ side and Germany was beginning to test the patience of America’s neutrality as their U-boats began sinking ships with an increasing disregard for the vessels’ origins, cargo, or passengers. It was under a veil of threat that the Lusitania set sail from New York on May 1, 1915.

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Book Review – Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

9781400069224_custom-74c1fad03aa8c72c92cb923ce65325c75dd15ea0-s2-c85Religious historian Reza Aslan’s examination of Jesus of Nazareth sparked a lot of interest and controversy last summer. It was actually one of the interviews that Aslan did on The Daily Show that led me to put Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth on my To Read list. After reading it, so much of the discussion surrounding the controversy was beside the point and clearly politically motivated. It is a book in which many people seem to have had difficulties separating academic history from what they perceive as attacks against their personal beliefs. I simply found it fascinating, but then, I’m a huge history nerd and this book actually addressed many of the questions I had growing up but which weren’t answered during the years of CCD classes I endured.

Aslan’s book gives a brief but thorough history of the political situation in the Israel/Palestine area in the years leading up to and the start of Roman occupation of the area. He continues to explain the larger political picture during Jesus’ lifetime and in the years after his execution. There is some speculation regarding how and why the message of the Christian church came to be based on the situation the Jews faced under Roman rule, and that could cause problems for some people who choose to view it as an attack on their religion. However I did not find the tone of the book to be one of attack, but rather curiosity and illumination.

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Book Review – In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

9780307408853_p0_v1_s260x420In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson interwove the progression of a serial killer with the planning and construction of the Chicago World’s Fair. With In the Garden of Beasts, he tackles the subject of Hitler and his rise. More specifically, he examines why no one stepped in to stop Hitler and his regime before they had built up their military strength. Presented through the dual perspectives of then newly appointed US Ambassador to Berlin, William Dodd, and his forward daughter, Martha, Larson examines the gradual and often reluctant disillusionment with the Nazi regime and its leaders.

In 1933, President Roosevelt appointed William Dodd, a professor from Chicago, to the position of Ambassador to Berlin, but it turns out that was only after several others had turned the position down. Dodd was from a very different economic background and upbringing than many foreign officials of the day. This led to a number of personal disagreements with the State Department and other workers in the Berlin offices during Dodd’s tenure in Germany. Though Dodd was ambassador for several years, Larson focuses almost exclusively on the first full year the family spent there, July 1933 through 1934.

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Book Review – Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation by Cokie Roberts

Our nation’s Founding Fathers are a consistent part of our everyday lives as their images grace our currency and the tales they feature in, both factual and mythical, are retold on any number of national holidays and is classrooms around the country. But what about their wives? What about their mothers, their sisters, their daughters? In Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation, Cokie Roberts takes a look at the women who played a crucial role in those tumultuous years leading up to, during, and just after the American Revolution.

Though the books chapters cover different stages of our nation’s early years including declaring independence and the formation of the Constitution, the book might be better broken up by woman. It is hard to keep them straight at times considering so many of them were related and named after one another. There is a key at the back of the book but I’m sure how much it really helps as Roberts style tends towards the familiar and she often reverts to first names (or even nick-names) for these historic figures. When one woman crosses paths with another, the reader is given that next woman’s personal history, as well as that of her often more famous husband.

It is clear that the availability of sources played a huge role in the direction Roberts took. The letters between Abigail and John Adams are plentiful when compared to those of other couples and so the book at times feels like it should be called Founding Mother: Abigail Adams and a Few of Her Friends. The extensive quoting from so many letters belonging to so many women do help to distinguish between them and provide a much more intimate feel than a history relying primarily on statistics does (having read another history of the role of women in the American Revolution years ago in high school, the letters make for a much more reader-friendly book).

The way that Roberts jumps about from one woman to the next with flashes forward and backward in individuals’ timelines was more than a little distracting, especially as they increase in the last two chapters. The section on the generals’ wives in which she switched between Martha Washington, Lucy Knox, and Kitty Greene alternated so much I had to read it a few times because it was reaching a point where I was starting to confuse who was married to whom. I almost wish that Roberts had stayed truer to a chronological timeline and greater distinction between the women’s lives (so what if many of their lives were following similar paths).

Though Roberts’ relaxed style was meant to engage the reader, I think it might have hurt more than it helped. In addition to the confusion over names, the side commentary on the Capitol’s politics today felt like it was meant to distract the reader from what Roberts was saying. Also, her reiterating the connections between the different women and highlighting how confusing it could be was less than helpful. It was almost as though she expected the reader to pick up and put down the book many times before finally forcing him or herself to finish it.

Perhaps the most lasting impression of Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation is the alternative view of the Founding Fathers provided through their wives’ perspectives. Roberts book shows that no one can be completely understood, completely seen when they’re presented alone. Putting the portraits of the Founding Mothers beside those of the Founding Fathers changes the way we perceive them, providing a more dynamic history than before.

Book Review – The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr

I feel like I don’t read as much non-fiction as I should, especially having a degree in both History and English. Unfortunately, most novels hold my attention better than most non-fiction (not all novels though; there have definitely been novels that have disappointed me in that respect). With that said, I was skeptical about The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr. Having finished it, I think it’s safe to say that I’ll be reading more non-fiction in the future.

Jonathan Harr, the author of A Civil Action, tackles the world of art history in The Lost Painting as scholars search for a Caravaggio painting that disappeared from the records. Harr focuses mostly on two graduate students from Rome who turned to archives to trace The Taking of Christ’s trail and the Italian art restorer working in Ireland’s National Gallery who never doubted the true artist behind a work he was restoring. There is some background information on each of the key players but enough is left out to feel like their privacy wasn’t sacrificed for the sake of length. It’s about the painting, not the people. There isn’t even much of a biography of Caravaggio included, only a handful of pages scattered here and there.

If I hadn’t known going into the book that it was non-fiction, I would have thought it was a novel. There are only a few instances where the narrative reads like its origins were in interviews, articles, and books. The ending did have a hint of “where are they now” to it, but didn’t go into too many personal details or get bogged down in the media aftermath that the find generated. Harr wanted to focus on the work that went into tracking and tracing the painting’s history and the challenge of restoring and authenticating it.

The book reads like an exciting treasure hunt (but one where the toughest work has already been done for the reader with limited expertise). Amid the adventurous feel, Harr accurately depicts the frustrating and time consuming process of historical research. Any historian, not just art historians, will relate to the graduate students trips to various archives and the days of finding nothing before unearthing a single shred of useful information. I don’t know quite how he managed, but Harr made each trip to dusty shelves and fading print seem new and fresh instead of boring.

What intrigued me most were the technical details of the restoration and preservation processes. The harsh but true representation of competitive academia gave the book its key source of drama (and after witnessing a small piece of that world for four years, it really is as emotionally charged as Harr’s depiction).

I wish that I had been assigned a book like this during my art history class. It was far more engaging than any textbook and shows what someone with an art history degree can do (at least, in Italy). Part of me wishes that there could have been photos included as part of the book’s lay out. There’s only one full color image of the painting the book centers on and it is on the back cover.