Book Briefs: On the Middle East, and urban cultural scenes

Sun Feb 15, 2009 at 08:00:05 AM PST

I’m trying to play catch-up with a wide variety of books landing on my doorstep these days, so let me do a couple of quick overviews of two unrelated but intriguing books published in the last couple of months. Excellent reads, both of them:

What Every American Should Know About the Middle East
By Melissa Rossi
Plume, New York: December 2008
Paperback, 512 pages, $16.00

Author Rossi, who’s made something of a cottage industry of explaining the world–and even, yes, America–to provincial Americans (see What Every American Should Know About the Rest of the World, What Every American Should Know About Who’s Really Running the World, What Every American Should Know About Who’s Really Running America), takes on the daunting task of explaining the Middle East and its complexity in her most recent outing.

Think of it as a book version of a zip file — compressed history, geography and political backgrounder on each country in the region. As an introductory overview of the area, it’s informative, engaging and snappy, with bright writing and witty observations. Each country makes up its own chapter, and while she’s clearly a liberal at heart (unconditionally condemning the Iraq invasion, for example), she maintains a solid tone of objective political fact-reporting on the more tricky points (think I/P) of the current situation. Luckily, this is a very small part of the book, for she’s chosen (smartly) to lead the reader through ancient history, to the modern era, incorporating quick sketches of art, culture, tradition and artifacts along the way, before winding up explaining as the current economic climate and financial resources of each of the countries and how this feeds into the complicated political alliances and enmities of the individual countries.

She wisely breaks things down into small bite-sized visual reads, providing little sidebars she calls “History in a Box,” or “Hot Spots” or “Fast Facts” that get some of the more weedy or mundane topics out of the way so she can move a narrative forward chronologically about each country. And thankfully, she refers back and forth to previous material throughout the book, reminding the reader that we learned a bit about the Coptics a hundred pages ago; this sort of helpful nudging is rare and welcome in an author. Too often writers assume you’re reading a work in one long read with an idealized attention span and with perfect recall for what went before.

A small taste of the larger whole:

Take a stunning land of Roman ruins, biblical artifacts, and geological wonders. Deprive it of water and oil. Stick it in the middle of the world’s two hottest flash points, fill it with unhappy refugees from every Middle Eastern war in the past sixty years, pump unemployment to the 30 percent mark, amke it dependent on the whims of foreigners, and there you have it: Jordon–the right place in a bizarre time.

The work–part travelogue, part history–also can serve as a worthy reference book as well, with a detailed index, extensive notes and an in-depth bibliography with both print and online resources.

Original Article

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