2008 Non Fiction

The Weight of a Mustard Seed – Wendell Steavenson

The Weight of a Mustard Seed attempts to discover why ordinary people were driven to commit evil acts under the orders of Saddam Hussein. The author,  Wendell Steavenson, is a journalist who travelled to Iraq many times between 2002 and 2005 interviewing the friends and family of General Kamel Sachet; a decorated hero of the Iran-Iraq war and a man favoured by Saddam Hussein. She tried to discover what motivated Sachet and his colleagues and how his actions affected his family.  

The book is a fascinating insight into the lives of both ordinary Iraqis and members of the military. All the people were brought to life and I found myself having great sympathy for everyone in the book, despite the horrendous acts many of them committed. Wendell’s ability to make me see things from their perspective was impressive.

‘You chose to be a part of it,’ I told him. ‘You could have resigned, you could have gone to live in the country like your cousin.’
‘One of my American debriefers asked me the same question. He asked me why I continued to fight against the Americans. I told him it had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. It’s hard for you to understand, but it was a matter of military honour, being part of a country and within that comes your loyalty to your high command.

The Weight of a Mustard Seed was very readable and although there were some descriptions of violence I never felt that it went over the top. The modern history of Iraq was well described, although as the book wasn’t written in chronological order I got a bit confused occasionally.

The book contained many examples of psychological experiments which explained why people behave as they do under the pressure of war. Unfortunately I was already aware of all of these and so these sections were irrelevant for me. If you are interested in finding out about them then some of the experiments are summarised in this post: The Ten Most Revealing Psych Experiments

I highly recommend this book as an introduction to the psychology of war, but if you have read a lot of books on the subject you may find it too basic.

Everyone seemed to enjoy this one:

…one of the most interesting, engaging, horrifying and moving non fiction books that I have ever read. Savidge Reads

…an accessible book for those wanting to read a factual book about Iraq. Novel Insights

This is a powerful, well-written and moving account… Reading Matters


2008 Memoirs

My Father’s Paradise – Ariel Sabar

Winner of National Book Critics Circle Award: Best Biography 2008

I bought this book after reading Violet’s review. I don’t read much non-fiction, but this one sounded too good to miss! 

My Father’s Paradise is written by journalist, Ariel Sabar, who decides to use his investigative skills to trace the history of his father, a man born in a remote part of Kurdish Iraq. His father is one of the last native speakers of neo-aramaic, an ancient language which has almost disappeared due to population migration. Ariel Sabar decides to do everything he can to record the language and traditions of his ancestors, before they are lost forever.

The start of the book reads almost like fiction, telling the story of his father’s life growing up in a small village. I loved this section! In many ways I wish the whole book had continued in this style (perhaps because I prefer to read fiction), but also because I found the sense of community in the village heart warming. I could feel Ariel’s love for the traditions shining through the text.

As time passes the book starts to bring in more historical facts, explaining the political situation in Iraq and why his father, a Kurdish Jew, had to flee to Israel. Some parts of the book book felt a bit dry, but in reality I needed these facts to fully understand what was happening.

The book then went on to describe their life in America and how they set to work recording the language and folklore of the Kurdish Jews. His father became a famous professor, internationally renowned for his work on aramaic text. It was amazing to see how much one man’s life had changed, but I found I was far more interested in his early life than his work in the University. I think this is summed up nicely by the words of Ariel’s father:

The more a society advances in a technical and material way, the more its people grow complicated and distant from one another.

Overall, this was a fascinating book but I wish Ariel Sabar would write another one, focusing only on life in 1930s Iraq.

If you’d like to learn more about this book then I recommend that you watch this Interview with Ariel Sabar.

2008 Non Fiction

Bonk – Mary Roach

I had heard many people raving about Mary Roach and so when I spotted this in my local library I took the opportunity to give her a try.

Bonk takes a light, amusing look at sexual research. Mary Roach visits laboratories, hospitals and even pig farms in the hope of gaining an insight into the world of a sex researcher. She interviews everyone thoroughly, asking questions that most of us would be too embarrassed to ask. Bonk isn’t for the prudish as it contains many detailed descriptions of bodily functions and medical procedures, but I was entertained throughout.

I loved all the little facts about attitudes to sex throughout the ages:

The ancient Greeks, as we’ve learned, thought that women produced their own semen, released at the climax of intercourse, and that the mingling of male and female seed formed the basis of conception.  Young widows, with no sexual outlet and a consequent log jam of womanly seed, were said to be especially prone to hysteria – or “womb fury.”

Mary fills the book with snippets of information so interesting that I had to keep pausing mid-page to let my husband know them:

Cheese crumbs spread in front of a copulating pair of rats may distract the female, but not the male.

I’m not sure I learned anything life changing, but I found much of it amusing and look forward to seeking out the rest of her books.

Have you read any of Mary Roach’s books?

Which one do you recommend I try next?


My first self published book: The Native Hurricane – Chigozie John Obioma

I hadn’t read a self published book before I started this one. I had the impression that they were likely to be of a low quality, published for the author’s pleasure rather than the reader’s. I had no intention of reading one until someone (completely unconnected to the author) mentioned how good The Native Hurricane was. I was still unconvinced, but then a few weeks later I spotted another person raving about it. The coincidence was too much for my curiosity and so I decided to buy a copy.

I can see why it hasn’t been published in the UK – The Native Hurricane is the most African book I have ever read. The narrative hasn’t been toned down for Western readers, every sentence oozing African atmosphere. Initially I loved it, but unfortunately it soon became too much for me. I don’t have much knowledge of African traditions and so the folklore went over my head. I didn’t really understand what was happening, or the significance of each event.

But when I returned to my tent, the cry returned, even louder. I would go out three more times before realising that it was not the voice of a real woman, but just the echo of apparitions that were scattered on every tree in the evil forest, like invisible trees.

There was nothing wrong with the book – the writing quality was good and the characters well developed; the fault was with me, I just don’t know enough about their culture and that saddens me. I love reading books set in other countries, but my failure with this one leads me to question how realistic the books we are reading in the West are.

Are we just reading watered down versions of events rather than realistic portrayals of their society?

Are publishers only picking those books which are packed with clichés we think are representative of the countries mentioned?

This book makes me more determined to find books which show how Africans really live. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to come back to this book and understand what is happening.

I recommend this book to anyone with understanding of African mytholgy.

Have you read a self published book before?

Have you read any books which show the real Africa?


2008 Books in Translation

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

I had seen nothing but praise for this book in the blogging world, so was keen to find out why everyone raves about it.  Unfortunately the book failed to live up to expectations, so I am going explain why I just didn’t get this book at all.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is set in Paris and focuses on Renée, a concierge with a secret passion for culture. Living in the same apartment building is Paloma, a suicidal twelve-year-old. The outlook of both women is changed when one of their privileged neighbours dies.

The book started off very slowly, but I was prepared for that. I had seen several reviews that described the beginning as being uninspiring, but they assured me that after 100 pages I would be completely hooked. I admit that it did pick up a bit towards the end, but instead of falling in love with the characters I found myself being increasingly wound up by them. Was I the only one who found the characters very annoying? I didn’t understand why Renée needed to keep her passions hidden and found the whole idea of her pretending to watch television ridiculous.

Paloma was equally annoying. I struggle to believe that anyone, let alone a twelve-year-old girl, would come out with phrases like:

The most intelligent among them turn their malaise into a religion: oh, the despicable vacuousness of bourgeois existence!

The book was packed with profound statements, but there were so many that it felt contrived. It was as though a philosophy text book had been regurgitated and disguised as a novel.

The words were also ridiculously long and obscure – all those syllables meant that the flow of the text was continually broken up. I don’t think I have ever read a book in which I have had to use a dictionary so often, and I think I have a pretty good vocabulary – it just came across as pretentious.

The only reason I finished the book was so I could assure myself that it was the same all the way to the end. In previous years I would have given up within 20 pages, so if you find yourself agreeing with me then I recommend you save yourself a few hours and find something else to read.

This is a fantastic choice for book clubs, as it is bound to divide people, but I’m afraid that I’m on the side of those who dislike this book.

Please can you explain why you love this book?

Did you enjoy every single word?


Right to Die – Hazel McHaffie

Right to Die is the about a young man who is dying from Motor Neurone Disease. Written in the form of a diary, it shows how his thoughts and emotions change as his health deteriorates.

The book is essentially a study of the euthanasia debate. It is packed with arguements on both sides, but ultimately results in a powerful pro-euthanasia message.

The book is very well researched, with medical and legal facts sprinkled liberally, but appropriately throughout. It was very emotional and I found that I couldn’t read much of it at once, as it was too sad.

I do not want to be relegated to the rank of a dumb animal because I can no longer plead my cause. I do not want to be pitied by the gentle ones, resented by the hard ones, tolerated by the indifferent ones.

The medical professionals in this book were all portrayed as incredibly helpful, caring individuals and this jarred with me initially, as I am so used to hearing about them behaving negligently. I still feel that the GP in the book was unrealistically attentive, but in the end  it was refreshing to see the medical profession in a positive light.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in exploring the euthanasia debate, or looking for an emotional read.