• Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff **** (of 4)

    Stacy Schiff doesn’t just bring the most powerful woman in history to life, she brings her readers on location.  We face every decision Cleopatra contends with in real time.  First we are given detailed context with respect to the economy, politics, both local and foreign, family issues, the weather, even it feels like, how everyone is feeling on a particular cloudy afternoon when something auspicious is about to occur.  Then we are given options, Cleopatra’s selection among those choices, and finally a full retrospective analysis for what might have been going through her mind as she calculated was on the minds of her friends and enemies.    Without being overtly feminist in her description, Schiff does an extraordinary job of overturning history’s assessment of the Queen.  No longer a whore and seductress, Schiff persuades us rather convincingly that Cleopatra is an exceptionally adept politician unsurpassed by virtually anyone of her period.  Yes, she sleeps with and has children by the two most powerful men of her era — Julius Caeser and Marc Antony — but her success is not so much sexual as political.  The tragedy, Schiff argues, is that Cleopatra is judged by standards reserved to oppress women, rather than the more objective measures used to evaluate male political leaders. Schiff can really write, too.  This is much more than a history text; it redirects the way history has been used for 2,000 years.

  • Prisoners by Jeffrey Goldberg *** (of 4)

    Goldberg describes himself as a Zionist, former peace-nik, with an insatiable wish to meet people who want to kill him because he is Jewish. As a regular contributer to the New Yorker he’s an excellent writer with an ability to meet face to face with leaders of Islamic Jihad, the Taliban, and Hamas. In this book Goldberg is best when he’s doing journalism, describing the hell of Ketziot prison for Palestinians swept up by the IDF and in the end of the book when he refuses to relinquish his search for a Muslim Palestinian willing to put friendship with a Jew before desire for revenge. I had to wade through a long middle section of memoir that I didn’t quite care about. September 2007

  • Beaufort by Ron Leshem **** (of 4)

    Erez, a patriotic IDF commander of 13 fresh recruits, is sent to Lebanon in the late 90s to protect Israel’s northern border from Hezbollah rocket attacks. What begins as a group of gung-ho, post high-school roustabouts on a clear mission descends into the heart of darkness as the reason for Israel’s being in Lebanon disintegrates and the soldiers do too. One of the finest written descriptions of the pride of being part of a group of men whose lives depend on one another followed by the creeping development of post-traumatic stress disorder. May 2008.

  • Shia Revival by Vali Nasr *** (of 4)

    The first two chapters were so densely packed with Islamic history I am almost gave up on the book, but am so glad I didn’t. Nasr provides the clearest explanation of events in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia of anyone I’ve read and does it primarily by describing the 1400 year conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. At the end of the book I felt I knew more about Middle Eastern politics than most of Bush’s advisors and half the U.S. media. That shouldn’t be taken as faint praise. The only caveat is that the writing is dense, textbookish, but well worth the effort. The book isn’t too long, either. December 2006.

  • Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi *** (of 4)

    This is Marjane Satrapi’s second half of her graphic (comic book) memoir of life as an Iranian exile in Europe as a young teen followed by her return to Iran as an older teen. It is more personal, and therefore, more compelling even then Persepolis 1, especially the second half of the book about life in Iran after the eight-year war with Iraq has ended. August 2006.

  • Persepolis 1 by Marjane Satrapi *** (of 4)

    A memoir in graphic novel form of growing up under Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. It’s a good introduction to the history of the era and a fine description of living as a liberal beneath the feet of an autocratic religious regime with their minions of spies and enforcers. The comic book format makes for a very quick read, but the storyline is too superficial. January 2006.