Thursday, September 29, 2016

STALIN by Edvard Radzinsky ✮ ✮ ✮

I had a real love/hate relationship with this book. When it came to elements of writing style, I found that I enjoyed Radzinsky very much. However, I found that I was rather disappointed in the level of analysis that the book provided.
To the best of my memory’s reliability, I think this is the third biography of Stalin that I have read over the last twenty-five or so years. Given what I remember of the others, I found Radzinsky’s style of writing to be very lucid and simple in comparison. There were none of the lengthy sentences and hefty vocabulary that one normally finds in a significant work of nonfiction. In short, the book was a very easy, if lengthy, read. I also felt that, despite its length, it was well organized and decently edited.

Despite its strengths, there was one critical element that I found quite lacking: analysis. Radzinsky marches through Stalin’s early years in Georgia and his growing role in the history of the Russian revolution, laying down the course of events in brisk, brief kernels. Unfortunately, there was nowhere near the synthesizing of information that I would like to have seen. Quite frequently, the why of things was not explained. Over and over, the reader is told about shifting alliances, but there is very little written to help the reader to understand why these shifts kept happening. If the book had been a novel, a reviewer would have said that the characters lacked motivation for their actions. Based on what is given in this book, a reader would have serious difficulty understanding Stalin’s Purges because it seems that the vast majority of the players went from cohort to out of favor in a very big way in a very big hurry.

Although it was often easy to loose track of which direction the relationships were heading, many sections of the book, such as those about the tragic years of famine, read quite compellingly. Many sections of the book gave the feeling of having been written as self-contained stories which were then compiled into a book. It was not always a bad thing, as often the sections flowed very well within themselves. However, for the most part, it made the book feel very choppy.

The one thing that makes Radzinsky’s book stand apart from other biographies of Stalin is that the author had unprecedented access to documents from the old Soviet archives. He quotes extensively from these primary source materials to give the reader an inside view into the minds of his subjects by using their own letters and reports. I am a huge fan of authors who extensively direct quote their subjects, so in this, I loved the book.

I do not think that I would recommend this book for people who are new to the subject matter, given the lack of continuity of story line and explanation of motivations. If you would like to learn more, I would highly recommend Albert Marrin’s Stalin. Although aimed at the young adult crowd, this biography remains one of my favorites for taking a very complex man and making him understandable. 


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

THE GREAT THINKERS OF THE KAZAKH STEPPE by Yerkebulan Dzhelbuldin (trans. Dana Jeteyeva) ✮ ✮ ✮

I was motivated to read this book because I was participating in a reading challenge for the Olympics, for which I needed a philosophy book either about Kazakhstan or by a writer from there. After a lot of digging I found this title, just released in the United Kingdom.
In the interest of full exposure, I must admit that I really am not overly fond of pure philosophy. This book, however, was about how the cultural factors in the area and its unique global location between the Arab west and the oriental east affect the thinking of this region.

The book contains twelve chapters, each of which deals with the life and work of a single great Kazakh thinker. Some of these people were involved in politics, some in music and literature, and others were known for their intellect and their role as teachers.

My one issue with the book was that it was quite a difficult read. Not because of the ideas that were central to the book but because the translation was very rough. My guess is that the Kazakh language does not have article adjectivesóa, an, and theóand that their sentence structure is vastly different from ours. I am thinking that plural nouns might not be present either. There are also a large number of vocabulary words which, while the definition might make one think that the word worked, had a connotation that was not in keeping with the circumstances in which the word was used.


Overall, I did enjoy learning about the culture and intellectual life of this country at the crossroads of the east and west. It appears to be a one of a kind book, and although it wasnít an easy read, neither was it a slog. If the topic interests you, I would read the book.

Monday, September 12, 2016

GIRL AT WAR by Sara Nović ✮✮✮✮✮

What a wonderful find this novel was! I have been reading, for an Olympic challenge, books by foreign authors or set in foreign countries. This is one of those books that I never would have read had I not been taking part in a challenge that caused me to look for specific genre of books from specific countries.

On the surface, there wasn’t anything seemingly extraordinary about the plot line. This is a contemporary book about a Croatian girl who suffers several tragic experiences before physically moving to a safer environment. Unfortunately, her mind doesn’t make the leap to safety as easily as her body.

Author Sara Nović writes in a spare style that is perfect for the starkness of this story. In many ways the writing reminded me of Cormac McCarthy”s The Road. I am always in awe of authors who can convey such powerful emotion in such simple language. This debut novel is a powerful testament by a young Croatian writer about just what it means to grow up in a war-torn homeland.


Given the complexity of the characters, the clear plot lines, and the emotional heft, it is amazing to think that this is Nović’s freshman effort. Watching her grow as an author is going to be such a pleasure. I highly recommend this novel for all readers of historical fiction (although the book is technically set too recent to qualify), war fiction, and international domestic fiction. If you enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See and The Tiger's Wife, you will definitely not want to miss this one.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

TO THE BRIGHT EDGE OF THE WORLD by Eowyn Ivey ✮✮✮✮✮




The perfect writing spot: Liberty Creek--along
its decent into the Copper River
I had the fun coincidence of finishing this novel while traveling in the area in which it is set. At the time of this writing, I sit on the banks of Liberty Creek, along the falls that drop from a height of some 4,000 ft a total of 3,000 ft before surging into the mighty Copper River, almost visible below. Readers of Eowyn Ivey’s newest novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, will know the Copper by her fictional name: the Wolverine River. A few miles downstream of this point can be found the confluence of the Copper and the Chitna, know to Ivey’s readers as the Trail River.

To the Bright Edge of the World is a work of historical fiction which recreates the actual 1885 journey of Lieutenant Henry T. Allen and Private Fred Fickett, who traveled the length of the Copper River, a feat never before accomplished by a white man, before portaging overland to the previously explored Tanana River, which they followed to its joining with the then partially settled mighty Yukon and traveled that third river’s length to the village of St. Michael on the coast of Norton Sound. Since Ivey adds some magical realism elements to her story, she renames Lt. Allen Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester and Private Fickett becomes Ivey’s Sergeant Tillman. 

The confluence of the Chitna/"Trail" and the
Copper/"Wolverine" Rivers
Just as she gives her characters her own names, so too does she rename the rivers and even some of the native tribes—her Midnooskis appear to be an Athabaskan people, the Ahtna. In my research I did find some reference to a real people called the Midnooski’s, but from the novel’s details, it seems that the Ahtna are the tribe to which she refers. I am unclear as to why she does this only some of the time. The first tribe that assists the fictional Lt. Col. Forrester is the factually named Eyak. My assumption is that she confers upon her Midnooskis the mythical characteristics which became her trademark style in her first novel, The Snow Child, and she either does not wish to offend the Ahtna by association or perhaps falsely portray their folklore.


Our youngest daughter out blueberry picking
I very much enjoyed The Snow Child, with its sense of whimsical wonder and the relatable pathos of a couple longing for a child. In To the Bright Edge of the World, Ivey absolutely out-writes that debut novel. Both novels bring the reader home to our Alaska, sharing early settlement in our state and giving a sense of our rich culture and the challenging daily lives of those who have built lives in the wild. Many of the things she writes about still hold true today. Devil’s club is still the bane of every Alaskan hiker, our mighty rivers still boom and crackle as they break up and begin their journey once again each spring, and just three days before reading of blueberry pie in the novel, my husband and daughter had picked fresh berries that I made into a pie. In this novel, as opposed to her debut, her history is richer and more varied, her characters deeper and more diverse, and her magical elements far more subtle.

Magic was present in her first novel, but it permeates every plot line of this sophomore effort. Just as in her first novel, those elements are so finely drafted that at times the reader is drawn into the realm of belief. If you have a serious dislike of magical realism, then you might be one of the few people who would not enjoy this novel. I would encourage even those people to give it a go, as the historical fiction elements are much stronger in this book and could carry through even a reticent reader.

In addition to the journey of exploration that is based on fact there are two other plot lines. All plot lines are shaped using journal entries, letters, drawings, maps, and photos. The two main threads involve the letters, dispatches, and private journal of Allen Forrester and the letters and journal of his wife, Sophie Forrester, left behind at the army post in Vancouver, Washington Territory. In addition, there is a further set of letters which pass between a great-grand-nephew of the Forresters and the curator of a small museum in a town along the Wolverine/Copper River. Writings of several other people weigh in as well: Forrester’s companions, Sgt. Tillman and Lt. Pruitt, and a pharmacist that Sophie corresponds with in search of assistance for her venture into the new technology of the taking and development of photographs. Through the insights of this variety of writers all elements, both mythical and factual, begin to emerge and take shape in a far more subtle fashion than any other form of narration could have achieved. These multiple first person narrators allow the story to expand and give the reader a feel for both the trials and grandeur of the Alaskan wilds and the life in a territorial post during the later years of the nineteenth century.

There are very few readers who wouldn’t, in my opinion, fall in love with this novel. Those who have zero tolerance for magical realism might fall in that group. Readers of psychological thrillers might find that they enjoy this one more than they might normally enjoy a work of historical fiction as the magical realism lends a genuine feel of suspense to the plot as it toys with the characters’ sense of mental stability. This novel comes highly recommended—it might well become my number one work of fiction this year. Many thanks to my reading sister, Nicole Rohr, who messaged me about this novel before I even knew its release was imminent and allowed me to be first on my library’s waiting list for what will surely become another international bestseller.

If you would like to see some of our family photos from the Copper River area, I have put together a second post (click here). There are photos of the Copper River Basin, the terrain that the explorers would have traversed, how the modern Ahta subsistence fish on the Copper River, and from a Wrangell St. Elias National Park exhibit on Lt. Allen's exploration of the river. 

LIFE AT THE BRIGHT EDGE OF THE WORLD: IN PICTURES

Although I do not personally know Eowyn Ivey, we do live less that fifty miles apart in our magnificent state of Alaska. In tandem with my five star review of her latest novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, I thought I would share some of our family pictures of the Copper River Basin area in which her novel is set. I have included pictures from two trips, one in 2011 and the second late August of 2016, when I, by sheer coincidence, happened to finish and review To the Bright Edge while camping in the area. There are three sections of pictures: what the terrain would have been like, how the modern natives subsistence fish, and an exhibit that tells about the real people who were Ivey's inspiration.

What would the terrain have been like for Ivey's Lt. Col. Forrester and company?

From high points along the way the expedition group would have seen stunning views of the Copper/"Wolverine" River basin.



In the distance they would have seen some of the tallest peaks in North America.



Their path would frequently have been blocked by tributaries such as Liberty Creek shown here.




"Um, yeah no! Wouldn't want to have to pack too much gear across this way!"



"Hmmm...one logistical issue after another!"




Journeying through the surrounding woodlands would not have been a whole lot easier for the men of the expedition.




Both Ivey's fictional and the real expedition party used the high ground to orientate themselves and no doubt, as my middle daughter did, took a minute to rest and marvel at the view. 




Just as the Ahtna people did, my youngest daughter enjoys collecting sticks and using them to whittle and build her own bows and arrows.




 The flatter places, such as this one further down Liberty Creek, certainly make for an easier crossing than the route  my daughter chose above!





Both the real and the fictional explorers gained valuable assistance from the native people that they met along the Chitna/"Trail" River. These two rivers meet in a mighty convergence near a major Ahtna tribal fishing area along the Copper River. 




Life was very difficult for the members of the expedition, but the land they explored was certainly stunning! To see how the modern modern First Nations people pull their food from the mighty Copper River, check out the next section.





Life in Alaska is no doubt easier now, but some things, such as the Ahtna people feeding their families through traditional methods of subsistence fishing for salmon, haven't changed much.

In July of 2011, my middle son and I took a midnight stroll. We found a couple of water routes leading from the airfield of the tiny town of Chitna down to an Ahtna fishing camp. The first one was drivable:




The second was just a series of planks across a much faster creek. Can I just say that I would not want to have to haul my catch of the day out along that route?



Down each route, we found fish wheels, a traditional method still used by the Ahtna for subsistence fishing for salmon. The drivable creek was criss-crossed with planks to make walking around the camp easier. 


The camps included simple picnic tables and processing tables set close to the wheels.



Most of the wheels were accessed by planks, but one enterprising family used a railroad rail.





While we were there, a family came down to check their wheel and filet their salmon. The lady very kindly spoke to us a while. It had been a "pretty good day" as the wheel had brought in over ninety fish. Although her husband isn't Native Alaskan, they are still allowed subsistence rights, as she is Ahtna and they live on tribal land. Along to help them were her brother and brother-in-law. Their family runs their wheel for about three months each year and preserves their fish in many ways, from the most traditional method of smoking to the more modern canning in oil or freezing. Natives may share their catch with any family and with other Alaska Natives, but they are not permitted to sell any--either to other natives or to non-native people. 



Fish wheels are works of art and engineering. Each one is different, as they tend to be cobbled together with whatever the family has on hand or can find.





We saw a number of wheels that had old highway and street signs on them.



We also found a couple of wheels that were built in the traditional fashion, using only natural materials.





This August, our family paid a visit to the Copper River, and we were amazed at how high the water was running! My husband took my picture with this ingenious wheel.



Its builder made clever use of a couple of grocery carts! 




During our 2011 trip, we were there at the height of the season, in July. There were whole islands of fish wheels connected together in the middle of the Copper River, allowing their owners to walk from one to another all the way to the middle of the river.




Some wheels were close to shore as with those at the fish camps.



Both near shore and in the middle of the river, the wheels stretched almost as far as the eye could see.




During our trip this August, we stopped in at the visitor's center for Wrangell St. Elias National Park. I was delighted to see that they had an exhibit about the real-life inspiration for Eowyn Ivey's Lt. Col. Allen Forrester, Lt. Henry Allen. The exhibit also shared some great information about the river, the natives, and the history of the area.




This board showed where the Eyak people, the first group of natives that assisted the explorers, made their home and where the expedition truly began.




There was an excellent history timeline. I snatched a picture of the section that pertained to Ivey's book.




I was ridiculously excited to find a whole section of boards pertaining to a number of people who were central to the novel. The first of these was Lt. Henry Allen:




In addition to Allen himself there was a board for the Ahtna chief who clearly inspired the character of the Midnooski chief in Ivey's story.





And finally, there was even a board for the miners who helped the expedition until they discovered an area where they wanted to stake their claim--with all its ramifications for the history of our state and her native people.


I cannot say enough how much I loved Eowyn Ivey's newest book! The Snow Child was a lovely novel, but To the Bright Edge of the World was absolutely brilliant on so many levels. Again, if you would like to read my complete review, you can find it here.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

BEING MORTAL by Atul Gawande ✮ ✮ ✮ ✮ ✮

In his newest work of nonfiction, Atul Gawande speaks frankly about aging and death: how we can make the final years—our own and those of our loved ones—rich and fulfilling. 

The first major section of the book focuses on nursing homes and assisted living facilities, giving a history of how these forms of care giving for the elderly came into being and have evolved. Gawande also talks about cultural elements of elder care and how the issue is approached around the globe. This section of the book really hit close to home for me, as ten months ago my mother passes away. Prior to her passing, she failed rapidly, too rapidly for her independent spirit to adjust to the changes that were becoming necessary in the way she lived her life. 

The second major section of the book addressed the time in a person’s life when they are actively dying. When is it time to let go and how can we confront head-on this traumatic end-phase of living? Almost two years ago, we had to make just such a decision for our sixteen-year-old daughter, who had a brain that didn’t grow and spent her life in a severely handicapped and medically fragile body that in no way was equipped to house her powerful soul.

No doubt like many readers, this book was very personal for me. Many of my friends advised me not to read it, as they were concerned that it might be too soon after the loss of my daughter and mother. While I cried during many parts, I am so glad that I did read it. I wish I had read it before either of these two losses occurred in my life. As I listened to the first section, a frequent thought was how differently I might have approached the end phase of my mom’s life had I had the benefit of Dr. Gawande’s insight prior to her life reaching a critical point. My thoughts as I read the second part were more positive, leaving me feeling like we had made the most loving decision possible in helping our daughter have a pain and distress free death that allowed for her personal dignity through the very end.

In both sections, the personal dignity of the elderly and ill is a crucial factor. Dr. Gawande focuses on the patients themselves, frequently reminding his readers that one of the common mistakes in elder care is treating them in much the same way we would treat a child, a practice which is both demeaning to these people in our lives who have the most wisdom born of living and frustrating to them in a time when they themselves are becoming most distressed and annoyed by the limitations their bodies are placing on them.


Being Mortal is bold in asking the difficult questions and giving answers that might not be what the reader wants to hear. I highly recommend this book for all readers, especially if you have yet to personally experience the illness or death of a loved one. As the saying goes, death and taxes are unavoidable in life. Dr. Gawande’s book is a wonderful instruction manual for enabling people to make the most respectful and loving choices during what is always a time of great trial.

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion ✮ ✮ ✮

I had very mixed feelings about this generally highly rated memoir by Joan Didion. The purpose of the book was to work through her grief following the unexpected deaths of both her husband and her daughter. If I were rating the book completely on this premise, I would have given the book five stars. However, the book came across as highly pretentious, which utterly ruined it for me.

All throughout the book Joan refers to numerous famous people, high end real estate and hotels, and other accoutrements of the lives of the rich and famous. If it had been occasional or if the references had directly related to the point of her book it wouldn’t have been an issue. Unfortunately, only one story of a friend whose daughter had been murdered had the remotest connection to Joan’s emotional journey. The book was an endless namedropping litany of people who I had never heard of but assume I should have based on her writing, recitation of hotel names such as the Ritz, and stories about jetting to Columbia for film festivals with famous actors taking a turn as pilot. The point of the book was supposed to be about loss and grief, and the majority of the book missed the mark completely.

In December of 2014, we lost our sixteen year old daughter. ten months later, in October of 2015, my mother passed away. With this shared experience of losing two loved ones so close together, I anticipated really being able to identify with this memoir. In that, I was not disappointed. I could absolutely identify with the author’s experiences in the hospital and with her feelings about trying to move forward after so tremendous a loss. Sadly, this element of the book was so overshadowed by the absolute pretension that permeated the work.


Despite not being as excited about the book as others, I still found the book a worthwhile read. I very much enjoyed Joan Didion’s writing style. Her prose was lucid and contemplative in places, lending a gentle, touching quality to her observations. There were some parts that I felt were a bit too close to home for me at the moment, making me happy I hadn’t read it sooner, but overall it felt comforting to know that she seems to understand where I am at. If you have been through the death of someone you are close to, I do recommend this book, even if it had its drawbacks.

THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING by Milan Kundera ✮ ✮ ✮ ✮

I have heard so many things about Kundera, and about this novel in particular, that I couldn't wait to read it. An Olympic reading challenge put on by my friends over at The Reader's Room was the perfect opportunity.

Unfortunately, one of the things that I find is that when I am on a deadline to read books I don't always enjoy them as much because I read them at a time when I am just not in the mental space to maximize the experience. Don't get me wrong, I love challenges. Challenges often get me to read a great work that might have languished on my shelf forever. That was the case with this novel. The only problem was that I knew by the time I was twenty pages in that it just wasn't the right time to read this book.

Like any great book, this one is composed of many layers: marriage, infidelity, philosophical musings, history--you get the idea. And Milan Kundera writes them all well. Central to the novel are two writers and the typist that they, for a brief span, shared. I even found his secondary characters particularly well developed, although I never found a single character that I could honestly say that I would have liked to call friend. As the plot circles back and forth through their intertwined lives, you find yourself sympathizing with characters you might otherwise despise, which is always a sign of great empathetic writing, and even if you don't share in the character's inner musings you nonetheless are willing to wander along down the mental garden path.


This, though, was why I think I would have enjoyed this book more had I read it at another time. My life was particularly emotional while I was reading this book, and I found the prose too deep for what I needed at the time. I did give the book four stars in the end--out of recognition for the author's undoubtable talent and his ability to build his characters from their inner selves out. Had I read this novel while in a better place, it would no doubt have been a five star read for me.

Monday, August 22, 2016

THE BOOK OF MURDER by Guillermo Martinez ✮✮✮✮✮

Whoa! I am not at all a reader of mysteries, but I knew my reading companion for this challenge enjoyed them, and since I’ll give any book a go, I agreed to read this book. I am so happy that I shared Rachel’s genre, because I LOVED this novel!

The premise of the book is fairly simple. Through a first person, book within a book narration. we learn about events that occurred ten years previously, when two authors, one our narrator, engage the services of the same typist, and their lives became intricately enmeshed. 

Initially, we meet the typist and hear her story and find it wholly believable. Then we hear the second author’s side of the story and his version begins to make us doubt that of the typist. As our narrator, the first author, begins to riffle through the stories in an attempt to bring his readers to a satisfyingly believable ending, the book takes a mind-bendingly radical turn, leaving the reader questioning the mental stability of both the typist and second author and juggling the niggling wonder in your own brain as to whether the truly fantastical third version could possibly be the truth the narrator wants you to end up with in the end.

When my reading buddy, Rachel, posted her review, she said she couldn’t wait for someone else to read the book so that she could discuss it. I totally see now what she meant. For book clubs that like to read international authors and expand their genre list beyond literary fiction, this would be a great selection.

This mystery by Argentinian author Guillermo Martinez is masterfully edited down to a tight plot spun in only 215 pages, which was a good thing for me, because I couldn’t put it down once I started it. I highly recommend this book, even if, like me, you aren’t generally a fan of the genre.

PROPHET OF BONES by Ted Kosmatka ✮✮✮✮

I am not much of a fan of sci-fi books, but I really enjoyed this one—probably because the sci-fi elements were very subtle, which for me made them feel more real. The main story line involves an archeological dig in Indonesia, where bones from a hitherto unknown species are found. The main character, Paul, suspects that there is something not quite human about the bones, but human enough to start trouble. By this point, the reader realizes that the current government in the United States is a very far right conservative one and that many issues involving freedom of speech, religion, and education are dealt with very differently than they used to be. Let’s just say that there is one faction that does not want word of these other human-like beings to get out. And then there is the group that plans to exploit this find for all its worth. Think Jurassic Park, and you get an inkling of where the book is headed.
While Kosmatka’s book lacks the sustained tension of Crichton’s work, if you enjoyed the premise of Jurassic Park I think you will enjoy this read. I am very fascinated by genetics and similar biology topics, so I found this novel, which includes three pages of biographical references that the author used to ensure his science was sound, an intellectually stimulating read as well as an entertaining one. That said, he never takes his research to such a point that the plot would drag for those who are not interested in the topic—I felt it was well-paced.

If you are a fan of scientific thrillers with a bit of a sci-fi bent to them, this is one I am confident you would enjoy.
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Saturday, July 30, 2016

THE WAY TO THE SPRING by Ben Ehrenreich ✮✮✮✮✮

As I write this review, there are only ten others on Amazon for this book: eight five star reviews and two one star reviews. Obviously, this book about Palestinians in the occupied West Bank is a very polarizing one. In writing this review I have two goals. First, I wish to debunk a few commonly held misconceptions that often make Americans who know nothing about the Middle East automatically side with Israel. Second, I wish to review the book based solely on the strengths or weaknesses of its research and writing.
Before I write anything else let me say that I personally do not fall in either the Zionist camp nor that of the Palestinians. I have been a serious student of the Middle East for more than two decades, and the one lesson I have learned in all my reading is that there is no single right or wrong side. Each side has committed atrocities for which they should be answerable. Conversely, each side has many conscientious citizens who, seeing what their own leaders and other members of their society are doing, are outraged. Neither do I believe that all Palestinians embrace the resistance movement that is described in this book. There are Palestinians who do not want to resist, wanting only to live as peacefully as possible--even if that means under Israeli control. There are also Palestinians who believe that only a much more aggressive, more violent form of resistance will result in a free Palestine. But those are not the stories that Ben Ehrenreich set out to tell. I have tried to review this book based on the stated goals of the author in his introduction.

I have divided my review into parts, in case some readers want or need a full historical backstory, just want the basics that pertain to the book, or simply want my review of the book as a researched piece of writing. I have clearly divided the parts of my review so readers can read as much or as little as they choose.

*****If you want all the historical backstory, begin here*****

Let's spend a little bit talking about Israel's creation. Many Americans assume, quite incorrectly, that it was the Holocaust that led to the formation of a country for the Jews. Jews had been fleeing increasing persecution in Europe since the Middle Ages, and many of them went to the land that was the ancient Kingdom of Israel, but land that had been in other's hands since the Babylonians invaded in 586 B.C., with the exception of a period of about a hundred years when the Hasmonean Dynasty was in control. So you might say that the Jews were there first, prior to the Babylonian invasion, and you would be correct. However, the ruling of the area then passed through two hundred years Persian rule, two hundred years of Hellenistic rule, and more than four hundred years of Roman rule. After the Romans, the Byzantines ruled the area for two hundred fifty years, followed by the Caliphates--the introduction of Islamic rule into the area. As you can clearly see, while the Jews might have been there first, rights to the land were turned over many times as empires came and went. During these turbulent times many Jews left and made their homes in Europe, while a very diverse group of other people moved in.

Which brings us back to the Middle Ages when, fleeing both persecution and bouts of the Plague, many Jews began to stream back into their ancient lands. This influx increased greatly during the Ottoman rule of the region, which lasted from the early 1500s until 1920. The Ottoman rulers were very tolerant of people of many faiths. Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in comparative peace, with the conflicts that did happen being chiefly between the Muslims and the Christian sects. Several times the Ottomans briefly lost control of their territories and there was talk of creating a Jewish state: Napoleon had an independent Jewish nation in the plans in 1799, before he was ousted, and the Egyptians had similar notions in 1838, before they too lost the lands back to the Ottomans. By the 1890s, the Jews were the majority population in the city of Jerusalem, but they comprised less than 10% of the population of the area that would become Israel. 

Zionism as we know it became a movement in the mid-1800s, but it sprang not from Western Europe, where Jews were finally gaining a measure of acceptance, but from Eastern Europe, in the Russian Empire, where persecution was increasing. In 1870, Jews began settling in the area that would become Israel. The first serious talk of an internationally recognized Jewish state began in 1896. From our vantage point in history, World War I is a bit of an ironic time for the Jews--they supported the Germans against the Russians, because it was in Russia that they had suffered the worst persecution.

At the closing of World War I, Britain had driven the Turks out of the area and the British foreign minister proposed a land for the Israelites. This became known as the Balfour Declaration and became part of the British Mandate of Palestine. This mandate was approved by the League of Nations in 1923. By 1928, half a million Jews had moved to the mandated lands, and as the Nazi threat became apparent in the early 1930s, by 1938, almost a million Jews had settled in the area. The ending of World War II saw Britain's powers greatly reduced, and they were unable to control both the influx of Jews pouring into Arab lands and the Arabs who revolted against them. The United Kingdom decided to turn the whole issue over to the newly formed United Nations and let them decide the issue. In 1947, the UN mandated a plan for the partition of Palestine.

As I hope this whole history makes clear, the waters are very muddy as to who has the rights to this land. Yes, the Jews were there first, but century upon century of other peopleís invasions have left this small area of land populated with a very diverse group of ethnic and religious peoples. That is why the issue is such a difficult one. This land is home to many people, not just the Jews, who have been a minority for a very, very long time.

*****If you want just the basic backstory, begin here*****

In addition to the thought that the idea of Israel didn't arise until it became a response to the Holocaust, another misconception that many Americans have is that the land was clearly partitioned into two separate countries: Israel for the Jews and Palestine for the Arabs. That alone would have caused upheaval, with parties from both sides needing to relocate to their allotted side of the boundary lines. The reality is nowhere near that simple. Israel was created and given international status as an independent nation. Palestinians were given occupied territory. I won't go into all the wars that have happened over the years involving Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, which have resulted in a near constant flux of occupations by various entities, but will skip right to how things stand today.

The long and short of it is that while there is an Israel, there is no Palestine. Sections of Israel were partitioned off, with Gaza on the west, governed primarily by Hamas, but with some areas controlled by Israel, and the West Bank in the east, nominally under the control of Fatah affiliated Palestinian Authority. There are only Palestinian territories, which are not recognized as an independent nation state, and which are largely governed by Israel. What idiot thought that was a peace inducing idea, I have no idea. 

Further complicating Americans' understanding, for those who do realize that there is no Palestinian nation, is the misconception that Israel just governs a "no man's land" sort of buffer area between Israel and Gaza and the West Bank. Again, the truth is far more complex and ridiculous, for two reasons. On the West Bank, there is such a demarcation, known as the Green Line, which acts as a border, but which has been manipulated by Israel, who has built a wall, a separation barrier, ensuring that their largest settlements, though built on land internationally recognized as Palestinian, fall on the western, Israeli, side of the wall. Google "West Bank green line" and find an image that shows the original boundary and where the wall is today. You will clearly see the land grab for yourself. 

In addition to the border not being respected, imagine, if you can, a map of the West Bank covered in spots like a leopard, with two colored shadings on the spots and a single background color. That is what the West Bank, and to a lesser extent, Gaza, look like. I urge you to Google images using "West Bank areas A B C" as your search. If you have never seen the image before, I think you will be shocked and understand why there are so many problems. The three colors represent how the occupied territories are governed. Area A regions are totally under the control of the Palestinian Authority and make up about 18% of the West Bank. There are no Israeli settlements in these areas. In Area B the Palestinians have civil control, but both the Israelis and the Palestinians have charge of security. This area is about 22% of the West Bank and has no Israeli settlements. Area C, which is 60% of the Palestinian Territories, is under total control, both civil and security, of Israel. It doesnít take a political scientist to know that this is just bound to be a recipe for disaster.

****If you want just the nuts and bolts about the book, start here****

In his introduction, Ehrenreich says, "Telling the stories that I am telling, choosing certain stories and not others, means taking a side. This is unavoidable, and only a sin to those standing on the other side." He wrote this book because he felt that there was a preponderance of narratives written from the other side and that "The exclusion of discomforting and inconvenient narratives sets the world off balance. It makes it false." He wanted to explore the commitment to resistance, even when the cause appears hopeless, the drive to "decline to consent to one's own eradication." He does not pretend to write an unbiased telling, in fact, his sole purpose is to tell the side people often don't want to hear. You know right from the outset what you are going to read, and if you are not willing to approach with at least some measure of an open mind, I would advise you to not read any further.

Ben Ehrenreich lived in the West Bank off and on for an extended period of time, during which he met the people of Nabi Saleh, who had become famous for their resistance against the nearby Israeli settlers and the Israeli soldiers who protected them. Armed with nothing more than rocks, the villagers argued their right to access their spring, from which they had been cut off by the settlement. The story of Nabi Saleh and her people, primarily with the surname Tamimi, makes up the core of the book. Ehrenreich also covers the Palestinians in the city of Hebron, who deal with a crazy series of barricades and checkpoints that make just getting to work every day an exercise in humiliation and frustration, including whole streets they cannot even walk down. A small section of the book tells the story of a group of Bedouin nomads whose grazing lands have been shrunk time and again as the settlement near them grows.

Throughout the book, Ehrenreich tells stories to illustrate the difficulty of being a Palestinian on land that is supposed to be yours, but where you cannot so much as install a toilet without permission from the Israeli occupiers. While Israel has total control of their own territory, the Palestinians have very little control of theirs and have watched Israel encroach upon lands recognized internationally as Palestinian time and again while the world does nothing. In addition to the land grab, Palestinians who are arrested, often on very flimsy or completely fabricated charges, are tried in Israeli courts, where 99.76 % of them are found guilty and imprisoned. Justice in the West Bank is not decided by the rule of law--which is often bent to accommodate Israeli desires--but by fear of the past when resistance wasn't just about throwing rocks and shouting.

Which leads us to another misconception that is had by many: that most Palestinian nationalists are violent radicals. There was a time, during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, when this was true. Many of the Palestinians who had been proponents of peaceful resistance to encroaching Israeli settlements decided their methods were not working and were swayed by members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an off-shoot of Fatah, who encouraged terrorist methods. For a brief period, many Palestinians embraced this horrifically violent form of resistance and forever etched members of the Palestinian resistance as suicide bombers in the minds of Americans. One of the main Palestinians followed in the book, Bassim Tamimi, acknowledges that following Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade was the biggest mistake made by the Palestinians in their resistance movement, because it caused the demonstrators in the West Bank to become forever identified as violent terrorists, which they ceased to be as the Intifada drew to a close.

Less fresh in American memories is the Jewish Underground, which was active twenty years earlier, who also committed bombings against Palestinian targets, among them a grade school. For almost every story on one side of this conflict there is a similar story of the other. The end of the Second Intifada came about largely because the vast majority of the Palestinians realized that only a bloodbath would come from such methods. However, simple sit-ins were no longer accepted as enough, and the Palestinians began throwing rocks against the Israeli soldiers decked out in riot gear and armed with tear gas grenade launchers and guns that fire rubber coated bullets.

As Ehrenreich tells of the Palestinian struggle, he backs his stories up with citation after citation of verifiable sources. Given the fact that his book was bound to elicit strong response, especially from those in the Zionist camp, he made sure to not only support his statements, but to do so with sources that are internationally recognized as creditable. In addition to international journalists, he includes the work of Israeli journalists who see the dark side of how their government is treating the Palestinians and enforcing the settlements on Palestinian land. One might argue that a source such as Haaretz news agency is rather on the left-wing of Israeli politics. That is true, but it nevertheless shows that not all Israelis agree with their government's actions with regard to the Occupied Territories of the West Bank. Other sources include various organizations that investigate human rights violations, both legal and extra-judicial. Some of these are based in Israel, such as the highly respected B'Tselem, which the Israeli court system uses for assistance when investigating cases from the Occupied Territories.

I cannot understand the vehemence behind the negative reviews for Ben Ehrenreich's book. Yes, he clearly tells the story as he sees it and as is held up by his research, both first-hand and via archival writings, but he also shows plenty of places where the Palestinians are clearly in the wrong. His goal is not necessarily to convert people to the side of the Palestinians but to show people that the picture they may be getting on the evening news is not always accurate--that just as he chooses the stories to tell in his book, so too do the major American news outlets.


The Palestinians deserve to have their story told and Ehrenreich has done it with vivid writing and thoroughly supported documentation of the situation. At one point, when talking about an Israeli right-wing activist whom he actually found himself admiring, Ehrenreich describes her in a way that I think perfectly describes people on both sides of the conflict: "Anat Cohen had the courage to believe in something with the fullness of her being and no calculus to guide her save her own bottomless rage and inherited fear and awe-drenched narrowness of her faith." There is not one side to this story and all readers would be well-served to read this book and gain some understanding of the other side to your news broadcast.