March 2009

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Outside Our Borders

As a new administration enters the White House and thus a fresh spotlight is placed on American foreign policy, I thought it would be timely to consider political books for teens. There are not many books written on contemporary international affairs for young adults so I widened my scope to include several adult titles that I believe also work particularly well for high school students. While all of the books I have included in this column are exceedingly well written and should be considered for research material and as resources for anyone curious about conflicts around the world, it was I Wouldn’t Start From Here that most impressed me. From the always topical indy publisher Soft Skull Press, this collection of essays written by the rock critic/foreign correspondent/travel writer Andrew Mueller is essential reading for anyone interested in knowing more about geopolitical relations. Best of all, Mueller is devastatingly funny and asks the questions we're too polite to ask ourselves. (In one exchange in the former Soviet republic of Georgia he asks his cab driver, “Why do you people always drive like fucking idiots?” The response is classic: “We drive like this… because in Georgia, life is short.”) In both his writing style and subject matter Mueller is a role model for 21st century journalism. Forget about the cable news; if you want to know how it is in the world’s troublespots (and in a few peaceful locales), then Mueller is the one to ask.

His essay about a visit to Kabul in 2003 includes an exchange with a local describing the bleakness of life under the Taliban: “They outlawed all the senses. There was nothing to look at, nothing to listen to, nobody you could touch. Even the food didn’t taste of anything.” Mueller also recounts several visits to Iraq including one in 2003 where he ponders that “…invading an entire country seemed a klutzy way to get one guy out of his job.” Later in the book he recalls a long visit to the West Bank in late 2005 where the issue of Israeli settlements came up repeatedly in conversations with both Palestinians and Israelis, but again Mueller can’t help asking (of both sides) the most basic question:

If the East Timorese, having won independence, started encouraging their people to build homes in West Timor, we’d suspect LSD in the water supply. If Kosovo, when independence came, announced an intention to help itself to choice hilltops in Serbia, the international community would suggest, forcibly, that they pull their heads in. It seemed a no-brainer. The Israelis had a homeland. Why didn’t the Israelis live in it?

Over 450 pages Mueller travels across Europe (one exceedingly humorous chapter is set in relatively dull Luxembourg), Central Asia, and Africa (where he is arrested in Cameroon for dubious reasons). He has conversations with many interesting people, including Bono, Al Gore, and former Ulster Defence Association terrorist-turned-artist Michael Stone. Visiting Stone in Belfast, Mueller can not quite wrap his head around why people whose ancestry stretches back generations in Ireland should feel greater loyalty to Britain. Stone is happy to enlighten him:

”We’re proud of our Britishness,” insisted Stone. “My great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all British servicemen. My great-grandfather was gassed at the Somme, my uncle drowned in a submarine. The flags, the symbolism, that’s all part of our identity. I could never say I’m Irish. I’m British. We’re more British than the British over there.”

Five years after his interview with Stone, in 2006, he proved he had not been reformed when he tried to blow up the seat of Northern Ireland’s government. Although he had been lionized by his fellow loyalists for his actions in the previous decades, after this thwarted and seemingly insane attack, Mueller could not help but consider that "Stone was just plain violent, and dangerous, a bad man granted a perverse legitimacy, even luster, by the violent times and the dangerous place in which he lived.” Stone proves to be another example to Mueller of how “war makes people more of what they already are, whether cowardly, brave, stupid, smart, cruel, kind, follower, leader.”

In chapter after chapter, Mueller introduces ordinary people and examines the countries in which they live through a lens of incredulity. I Wouldn’t Start From Here manages to bring readers around the world with the most acerbic and forthright of guides. There simply is no excuse for not questioning world leaders anymore and with Mueller along to give direction, a whole new generation of readers will feel empowered to demand simple truths and ask just why in the world we all keep screwing up in the same colossally obvious manner. This book is a truly first rate example of political reportage.

Marc Aronson bravely walks into very dangerous literary territory with his YA title, Unsettled: The Problem of Loving Israel. He succeeds brilliantly here in explaining the long history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. From the beginning he explains that he is Jewish with family members in Israel but his heart is torn by the negative impacts of the conflict. The need to maintain Israeli security while also promoting peace is a difficult one for the author to explain yet he does so by starting with the region’s modern history and then delving into how places such as the Wailing Wall have changed hands over the centuries. Going further into Israeli life, he reveals that there is a split in Jewish society between modern immigrants from Europe and those from other sections of the world.

The author carefully exposes how the complicated series of relationships between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, Israel and the Arab nations, the Palestinians and the Arab nations and all groups and the United States has changed very little in the past sixty years. Missteps and failures in leadership make the muddy picture of the present conflict much easier to understand. Israeli Jews invite all Jews to have the “right of return” to Israel and so Palestinians demand the same right to return to the homes which were lost in the 1948 war. The Israelis state this simply is not physically possible (over 4 million refugees exist) and as the Arab nations will not accept the refugees, they should not be Israel's responsibility. But logic is not the only issue here, which Aronson acknowledges. The refugee tragedy occurred because of acts by Israel, and the Palestinians feel they must apologize (something the authors believes also). The refugees still have no country to call their own and every year there are more of them and every year the situation just gets worse.

Unsettled is a very impressive work of history and contemporary political studies that is an absolute must read for any high school student with an interest in this topic. For adults with only a light knowledge of the region it will be equally appealing. Marc Aronson has done a wonderful job of making the Israeli/Palestinian conflict something that is easily understood and you can see both sides clearly after reading his book. I can not recommend Unsettled enough; it is one of the most important books to come out for teens in the past year.

More From Our Own Correspondent collects dispatches from the BBC’s radio and Internet program and presents them in a volume that travels the world and presents intimate reporting at its best. Averaging three to five pages in length, the essays cover topics ranging around the world touching every continent and covering war, peace and the all too common situation of bloody yet undeclared hostilities. This is a very unorthodox but exceedingly useful way to learn about contemporary politics and world events -- in fact it pretty much beats any standard general textbook out there today. The pieces are all well written, cover fascinating topics and present subjects that are significantly overlooked in the canned media news we continue to suffer through even in the era of the Internet. The U.S. is just a player here, and not the focus, which is part of its immense appeal. If you want to know a little about a lot -- and enough to get started on deeper research on your own -- then this collection is the place to start.

In “The Last Storyteller,” Richard Hamilton writes about Moroccan elders in Marrakech whose art of “conveying ideas, values and philosophies” through oral stories is under threat by a new generation who values television over memorizing A Thousand and One Nights. Other cultural essays include “Four-legged Library” about bibliomulas (“book mules”) who bring books, laptops and projectors to villages in the Andean states of Venezuela and the conversion of a former Soviet radio telescope in Latvia into “Little Star,” now used to map the universe and search for extraterrestrial life.

There is also coverage of various wars such as the one between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. In this case it is America’s role which most struck correspondent Jim Muir who writes in “Under Fire” of President Bush’s “startling degree of permissiveness” in Israel’s use of force. It is, he writes, a “regional balance of power” being fought there, between “Syria and Iran, America and Israel.” Pages later that conflict is considered again in “A Furious Vitality,” which looks at Israel’s sixtieth anniversary and how the country grapples “with being victors, not victims, powerful not powerless.” The history of the Pakistan/India conflict is covered well also, including in the “Massacre at Baramulla” which recounts the events of 1947 in Kashmir, one of the world’s most enduring trouble spots. Most moving however is the story of Alisher Saipov, a twenty-six year old journalist in Kyrgystan who was murdered in his own country in 2007 after years of outspoken criticism of his president. His death is a sterling example of why the work of all of these journalists and the BBC is so important. Natalia Antelava writes:

His murder was an execution. And it sent a chilling message not just to his friends, but to all of his colleagues around the world who live and work in dangerous places; to all of those who give their communities a voice, who are trying to promote freedom in countries where it does not exist; to all of those whose names you may not know but without whom we could never tell you the full story.

More From Our Own Correspondent succeeds on multiple levels and is the sort of writing so appropriate for all those focused outwardly on the world around us. The perfect blend of serious and sentimental, it is politics and culture, countries and people. Editor Tony Grant has wrought a bit of a miracle here with this balancing act; I hope it finds many, many readers.

Olive Press has just released two excellent titles from author Phyllis Bennis, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC. Both Understanding the US-Iran Crisis and Ending the Iraq War are perfect choices for teens researching US history and policy as it applies to Iran and Iraq. The books are designed around clearly set question and answer sections and chapters that parcel history from modern events but build successively on previous sections. This translates into a lot of easy to digest information such as the bit from Understanding the US-Iran Crisis about how the company British Petroleum was initially named the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and developed so that the British government could exploit what later became the Iranian oil fields. (The company dates to 1908 and is still majority-owned by the government.) Bennis excels at this kind of information, not just thrown out for trivial shock, but to show how in the case of Iran, oil was key to western involvement in that country from the beginning of the 20th century and played a huge part in the removal of its democratically elected leader in 1953 and installation of the Shah of Iran… by the United States.

The point Bennis strives to make about Iran and the U.S. is that their relationship is both rather old and exceedingly complicated. You can’t casually describe it with words like “oil,” “Shah,” “embassy hostages” or “axis of evil.” She chips away at the preconceptions Americans have of Iran and while most certainly not dismissing any of Iranian faults (recent comments about destroying Israel are discussed), she is clear about how one country has played for and against the other repeatedly in the past, from working hand in hand through the '70s under the Shah to America’s funding of the Iraqi side of the Iran-Iraq War. (Funding which Bennis asserts was primarily done to prolong the war and weaken both countries.) She points out the positive diplomatic exchanges between the U.S. and Iran post 9/11 and potential for future exchanges. By the book’s end Bennis proves that casting aside or even worse bombing Iran is not a logical choice given the long relationship between the two countries. She accomplishes this in just over 100 pages and provides ample resources for those looking to learn more.

In Ending the Iraq War, Bennis provides an overview of U.S./Iraqi relations but mostly concentrates on recent history and political relations between Saddam Hussein and a succession of American presidents. She also focuses a great deal on the casual way in which U.S. politicians have discussed Iraq’s future since Hussein’s ouster. “The notion of ‘we’ choosing to divide -- or unite Iraq from outside is rooted in a set of thoroughly colonial assumptions about who has the ‘right’ to impose their will on Iraq and Iraqis from outside,” she writes. Bennis then discusses how the occupation has set up a series of conflicts within the country which should have been avoided if those long outdated, and repeatedly disproved, colonial assumptions had never been pursued.

One area of particular interest for readers should be her discussion of the Iraqi right of resistance to the occupation. This perspective has been largely overlooked in Western media but Bennis points out that several groups, both sectarian and religious, are part of the collectively termed “Iraqi resistance.” Each has its own reasons for opposing the occupation and those reasons must be individually addressed and considered if a successful end to the occupation is to be achieved. Unfortunately few of them have communicated beyond a desire to oust the Americans and thus have received little international support. Bennis makes it clear that internationalism is critical to Iraq’s successful future and these groups are going to have to build a “powerful global movement” to have their voices heard.

Beyond the broader discussions however, it is likely that teen readers will most appreciate sections entitled: “Why did the U.S. and U.K. invade Iraq?” and “What does oil have to do with the Iraq war?” It is in deconstructing the initial invasion that Bennis has some of her harshest words for the Bush administration, writing of the neoconservative vision that: “They [Iraqis] would welcome the troops with sweets and flowers and singing in the streets. And they would call it democracy. It is an old illusion long held by occupiers of others’ lands -- first described more than 2,000 years ago by the great war correspondent Tacitus, who followed the Roman legions as they laid waste to the far reaches of the empire. ‘The Romans brought devastation,’ Tacitus wrote after one particularly brutal battle, ‘but they called it peace.’”

With that quote she brings the new “war on terror” back to some of the oldest wars in human history and she proves, yet again, how little has changed. Was the U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq even legal, Bennis asks, and by the end readers will finds themselves, perhaps for the first time, questioning that legality. Clearly, taken with Understanding the US-Iran Crisis, Phyllis Bennis has crafted two excellent resources for those who wish to understand just what has gone wrong in the for the U.S. in the Middle East, and poses the questions that might prompt students to uncover new directions to make things right.

In terms of fiction, war is not a common theme for teen books. Middle grade readers should check out one stellar exception Frances O’Roark Dowell’s Vietnam drama Shooting the Moon. Set entirely on the homefront (Fort Hood, Texas), Moon follows twelve-year old protagonist Jamie Dexter as the reality of her brother’s war experiences transform her own vision of war. Dowell, who, for my money, is one of the best authors of fiction for this age group today, effectively shows how Jamie has grown up playing war and idolizing soldiers but becomes unsettled as she meets veterans at the local rec center and is befriended by a private whose brother was killed in combat. The biggest shock however is her officer father who wishes his son had gone to college first and bemoans the many young dying in a war that he feels is no longer winnable. Jamie has a lot to sort out after TJ ships out and begins mailing her film from the jungle to develop. Most touching are his moon pictures, startlingly like her own moon over Texas but clearly more than a world away.

I hesitate to say that a book is sensitive because that can all too often make it sound unreal or unremarkable. But we forget how quietly war infects the lives of those who are left behind. It is not the shooting they hear, but the silence of what they do not know and can never understand. This is the territory that Dowell explores with Shooting the Moon and through its very quiet and careful story she accomplishes a great deal. Jamie goes on a journey from war to peace and takes the reader along with her in a way that transforms the coming-of-age novel into something far bigger. This could not have been an easy book to write but is a special pleasure to read; most highly recommended.

And for older teens, look to Walter Dean Myers’s recent Sunrise Over Fallujah or Geert Spillebeen’s WWI drama Kipling’s Choice for two other excellent war titles.

Until next month you can find me at my site, chasingray.com and also be sure to check out guyslitwire.com for book reviews and recommendations for teenage boys.

Cool Read: The Samaritan’s Secret, third in the Omar Yussef series by Matt Beynon Rees, continues his exploration of Palestinian life. Following the first book The Collaborator of Bethlehem and the second, A Grave in Gaza, this entry sends Yussef to the city of Nablus where the theft of a religious artifact from a small relatively unknown group sets off a mystery involving hundreds of millions of missing dollars and the political machinations of Hamas, Fatah and many who have no allegiance to anyone other than themselves. As he did in the first two novels, Yussef is unwavering in his dedication to the dead. This unlikeliest of heroes, a history teacher, puts his knowledge of the region to good use as he gets to the bottom of a murder and determines just how much can be revealed so that no one else ends up dead.

While Rees is clearly accomplished at crafting tight plots and surprises, it is his depth of knowledge about the Middle East that truly elevates these titles. Many Western readers will find the mysteries alone appealing and then fall into the twists and turns of contemporary Palestinian life. Rees, who lives in Jerusalem and was Time magazine’s bureau chief between 2000 and 2006, makes it clear that whatever we think we might know about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it pales in comparison to an intimate portrayal of the day-to-day reality. The best part is that the Yussef titles are focused on Palestinian life and the characters, good and bad, are richly drawn examples of the men and women the media all too often shows only as caricatures -- as the clichéd grieving parent, enraged militant, tortured child. Rees gives us families like any other, committed friendships, and leaders motivated far more by greed than religious devotion. He gives readers people they can recognize and understand and thus he transforms a part of the world that has been determinedly presented as foreign into someplace we recognize; someplace that in many ways we already know.

The Omar Yussef mysteries are an excellent way for curious minded older teens to learn about this tremendously troubled and significant region. While The Samaritan’s Secret is a very intense read with a surprising number of personal moments, I recommend readers start with the first book so they can get to know Yussef from the beginning. I find myself enjoying this series more and more with each new title and being surprised all over again by how little I know about Palestinian life.