A History of Iraq by Charles Tripp

When you study history you have to make choices very early on, because the whole of history is growing to contain quite a lot of years. What period do you want to study? What country or region? What class of people? Studying history at university has the advantage of being able to choose from a wide range of subjects to broaden your understanding of the world and go beyond what you know or thought you were interested in. My university had a good American History programme that I did not want to do. That’s how I ended up in a course about the history of Iraq.

A History of Iraq (note the indefinite article) tells the story of the modern state of Iraq (so no Mesopotamia) starting in the nineteenth century, when the region that is now the nation-state Iraq was a part of the Ottoman empire. It deals with the British occupation and Mandate, the oil finds, the Hashemite Kingdom, military coups and war with Iran, all the way to modern day Iraq.
Through this complex history, the particulars of Iraqi politics come to light. Its many aspects come together in an account of the coup d’état of 1936, when general Bakr Sidqi pushed the weak king Ghazi to replace prime minister Yasin al-Hashimi with his own favourite Hikmat Sulaiman. The power of the army is clear when Sidqi drops a few bombs near the prime minister’s office for dramatic effect. The effect of the system of ‘patronage’, political and social ties that determine affiliation, plays its part when Sidqi has Al-Hashimi’s influential minister of defense murdered, thereby making many enemies. The Sunni/Shi’a divide plays a part in the eternal question of foreign diplomacy: will the new government’s affinities lie with Iran, Turkey, the Arab world? And how to deal with the British, who no longer enforce a mandate in Iraq but still have quite some influence?

Reading a history book is like reading a story. In this case, a very detailed story. Charles Tripp, who is a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), is thorough in his recording of the many different factions and politicians who played a role in Iraq over the past two hundred years. His writing style is matter-of-fact, which makes it a little hard to stay focused throughout. On the other hand, it shows the complexity of his subject matter without polluting his phenomenal knowledge with flowery prose. Overall, I prefer this dense, informative style to the (American) trend of popularising with funny asides and explanations of words you could easily look up.

By the way, Tripp and his editor have made it quite easy to remember who is who and what happened when: the book provides an index, a glossary of non-English words, a chronology, a list of abbreviations and no less than four maps. It’s probably easier to keep track of these Iraqi names than of those in The Lord of the Rings. Read history like you would a fantasy story and suddenly you’re wondering what the next twist will be or how this new character will fit into the greater story. And with history, you can be quite sure that the character will be relevant somehow. If you ever find yourself stuck on the pages of a very informative but bone dry history book (not that this is one), use your imagination and sense of humour and you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to concentrate.

That is where the comparisons to a novel end, though. A History of Iraq is a political history, so it’s full of facts about politicians and war but not about the lives of ordinary people. I am personally much more interested in social and cultural history, but the thing is: you always need to read these political accounts first, because the influence of politics on society is so big. Before you can understand, for instance, a feminist revolution, you need to understand the context of government, wars, economics, and all that stuff that seems so far away from ordinary people, but isn’t. If my first book about Iraqi history would have been a social history, I might have learned lots of interesting things, but it would create the illusion that I ‘understood Iraq’ while I would in fact only know the anecdotes, not the framework in which they belonged. Now, I know some facts (I also forgot many of them), and have a good base for further study.

There is no shame in forgetting specifics when reading a book so full of them. Your overall understanding of the subject will improve regardless. The more you read, the more you can place new information, like newspaper articles, in a broader context. Terms like the Young Turk Revolution or the Iran-Iraq War will start to carry meaning and implications in your head. And most importantly, if you remember nothing else, you’ll be aware of the fact that things don’t just happen. Countries you have never been to have centuries of history with millions of people, all carrying their own sorrows and happiness. It might sound like common sense, but I think we could be more conscious of this, especially in the West.

What’s interesting about this book is that it was first published, to good reviews, in 2000. Then came 2003, and the United States of America invaded Iraq. In the third edition, which I own, Charles Tripp has added a chapter about what transpired in the next few years (until 2007, when the third edition was published). Surprisingly, this new closing chapter doesn’t feel like an appendix but flows very naturally from the events in the previous chapters. It makes you think that the people in the United States government would have benefited from reading this book and could have foreseen that their plans were doomed to fail. Not that I believe they actually cared about the Iraqi people.

I read somewhere that A History of Iraq is now suggested reading for people who go to work at the US Embassy in Baghdad. Maybe we shouldn’t count upon them to inform themselves, but read this book (or others about the region) ourselves to able to critically watch and judge the foreign policies of our governments.

P!nk Award for throwing shade at a certain president by recounting facts

Charles Tripp, A History if Iraq (Cambridge, 2000; 3rd edition 2007)

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Jo Robin

Matilda by Roald Dahl

I’ve been on a spree of reviewing children’s books lately and I’m not sure why. One of the reasons is that I think you should never stop reading the books you love, even when they’re children’s books. Let me rephrase that: especially when it’s a children’s book! Some books teach you a lot about life and this is one of the books that taught me some lessons I hope I’ll never forget. This world and the adults in it can be cruel, and someone has to hold them accountable. As an adult now, I still feel like a child has the right to punish an adult when they’re wrong and this is just one of the effects Matilda has had on me.

Mr and Mrs Wormwood are bad people, and Matilda will be the first one to tell you that. Five-year-old Matilda is precocious to say the least and a genius to be frank, but her parents treat her with utter disgust. They usually ignore her, but when they don’t, they ridicule her and let her know they can’t wait until she is gone. The problem is, of course, that Matilda’s parents and her brother are dumb and slow. Therefore, they fail to notice just how special their daughter is. When Matilda was only one-and-a-half years old, she could already talk perfectly. When she was two, she learned how to take care of herself. By the time she was three, she had taught herself how to read and by four, she started reading every book she could get her hands on. Unsurprisingly, her parents don’t own many books, so little Matilda decides to go to the library on her own when her parents are out one day.

Books change Matilda’s life, as they give her hope and the first look outside of her awful home life. And they make her feel less alone. When Matilda is finally old enough to go to school, she befriends her teacher Miss Honey, who actually notices how intelligent Matilda is and appreciates her for it. However, the school is run by a tyrant by the name of Miss Trunchbull. Slowly, Matilda bonds with Miss Honey more and her confidence grows. So the little girl decides to punish her parents for being mean, because a bad person deserves punishment, right? Matilda gets very creative and it’s absolutely brilliant. At the same time, Miss Trunchbull terrorises the school and when Matilda’s friend Lavender tries to pull a prank on their headmistress, Matilda must step in to save her. This is when Matilda finds out she is not only incredibly bright, but she also has telekinetic superpowers, and there is no stopping her now.

Matilda really is the original bookworm and it could be said that it’s a crying shame that we haven’t reviewed her book on this site before. How exactly she learns how to read isn’t explained in the book, but she does and reads with gusto. When you think about it, it’s interesting how Matilda is a book about a bookworm, probably read by little bookworms, because Matilda is quite a long book for young children, so you need to be dedicated to it. But I really identified with Matilda when I was little, because my childhood was hard and I remember reading so many books as a way out. Matilda does the same thing, but even better, she translates her newfound knowledge from books to action in real life. She is just a child, but she develops her own sense of morality based on what she learns, like how a bad person has to be punished, even when it’s the adult who’s bad. Matilda reads to feel less alone, which is such a strong message, but I think an even stronger message is that kids who read this book feel less alone through Matilda.

There has been a shift in me and in how I read this book now compared to when I was little. When I was little I was aware of Matilda’s parents being mean, but the main points of interest are how funny the book is, the books Matilda reads and how cool it would be to have superpowers just like Matilda. I’ve recently re-read this novel and now it also strikes me how sad Matilda’s home life is. The book is filed with pain in a sense and two storylines of horrible neglect. Matilda is still a cool little girl, but she is also wounded and vulnerable from the abuse she essentially faces. As great as it may seem that she decides to change all of that on her own, a six-year-old girl shouldn’t be responsible for that. The adults should act, but as is often the case in Dahl’s books, adults are completely useless. Matilda was a hero to me when I was little because of the fact that she takes control of her own life, but as an adult now, I can also see the adults who fail her so badly.

One of the best things about Roald Dahl’s books is the fact that he seems so in tune with how childrens’ brains work. I think many adults can’t for the life of them remember what it was like to be a kid, but Dahl; he remembers. Like I said, the adults are often useless, which is unfortunately the case in real life as well. But there’s also the imaginative stories he creates, with little details kids love, but adults might find disgusting or simply too weird. His books are hilarious, unexpected in every way and the children always win. I’ve always found it interesting how Roald Dahl was apparently not that great of a father, but on the other hand, maybe you can’t have it both ways. Maybe you can’t still be a child at heart and be a wonderful parent at the same time. This is another one of the lessons I have learned through Matilda: a healthy balance is needed. I need to remember what it’s like to be a kid, but I also need to make sure I do not fail a kid.

I’m not sure if Matilda is my favourite book by Roald Dahl, but it has been his most influential one. I used to read it in times of distress and I still do on occasion. Now, I hope with all my heart that you’ve had a lovely childhood and never had the need to escape it through stories, but if you did, Matilda is the heroine for you. If not, this book is hilarious, still deep at times, and an utter joy to read. You’ll not regret reading it. As a last warning: if you plan on gifting this book to a child, please do, but beware of Matilda’s moral advice: if a person is bad, that person deserves to be punished. So, if you end up with your hat glued to your head, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Alex Cabot Award: For straight up legal advice

Roald Dahl, Matilda (London, 1988)

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Thura Nightingale 

The Reckoning by John Grisham

The Reckoning is the first John Grisham novel I’ve read. Besides Agatha Christie, I haven’t read much murder mysteries at all, because I always thought those books were not for me. I bought The Reckoning as a gift for my boyfriend when I flew to Kenya. On my first flight on that journey, I decided to give the book a try. I am sure that I am not the only bookworm who reads books bought as presents before giving it. From the moment I started until this moment, two weeks later, I’ve been reading this book like a madwoman. Part of The Reckoning is set in the Philippines during the Second World War and part of it is set in the deep South of the USA a few years after the war.

The Reckoning centres around the Banning family. They have been a respected cotton-farming family for many generations in the town of Clanton, Mississippi. That is, until the day Pete Banning, the patriarch of the family, gets up, goes to town and kills the beloved Methodist priest Dexter Bell. He hands himself over to the police but refuses to give a motive for the murder. His two children Stella and Joel, his sister Florry and his wife Liza are all distraught by what happened. They try to ask Pete why he killed the priest, but he refuses to tell them as well. What follows is a story that alternates between courtroom scenes regarding Pete’s trial and the aftermath of that. These scenes are alternated by stories of how the Banning family copes with the murder and trial and how they try to build back a life. In the middle of the book, the story moves to the Philippines where we learn about what happened to Pete during the war.

Pete started as a cavalier soldier during the war. After that, he became a Japanese prisoner of war when the Americans surrendered. Eventually, he escapes and becomes a guerrilla fighter in the jungle of the Philippines where he spends most of his war years. In this part of the book, we also learn more about Pete and Liza’s marriage and how it changed after the war. Pete hasn’t told his family anything about what happened to him during the war. Likewise, he knows little of his family’s life at home at that time. The Banning family is not used to talk about anything that happens to them. This brings a lot of questions, such as why did Pete kill the priest? What is the role of the priest in the disintegration of Pete’s and Liza’s marriage? Do Pete’s employees know the truth? And there are many more questions like this. All these questions together form the bigger mystery of the book, which is slowly unravelled in the book by revealing what happened in the Philippines and what happened at home. This ends in the conclusion where the mystery might or might not be revealed. I won’t spoil that for you. I can only say that I was thoroughly satisfied with the ending.

The question of whether the mystery will be revealed or not is one thing that made the book exciting to me. Most of the book I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to know the answers. The Banning family is known for their secrecy, so I feared it might feel unrealistic if all the mysteries would be revealed. Also, sometimes it is best if not all secrets are revealed in a murder mystery, so the book keeps you wondering. However, I also really wanted to know what happened. This book keeps you wondering in a good way. A big part of the book doesn’t even talk about the mystery directly but is about the life of all the characters. The connection between all the characters and the murder is not immediately clear either. I liked that Grisham spends a lot of time introducing all the characters because that gives us readers the opportunity to theorize about the mystery ourselves.

Overall, I loved this book, however, it is also very long-winded at certain points. There is too much detail about things such as particulars about the trial. It didn’t surprise me at all when I discovered John Grisham is a lawyer, seeing all the details he puts in those scenes. The level of detail gave the book a realistic vibe, but to me, it felt excessive. Another way Grisham stretches the word count in this novel is by repeating the explanations of certain things or concepts every time it’s mentioned. For example, communication is done through a phone system called ‘the rural party line’. This means that neighbours on the same line can listen in to conversations at will, making sensitive discussions public rather than private. This, Grisham explains every time the term ‘rural party line’ is used. To me, it would have been better if Grisham realized his readers understand the concept after the first time it is mentioned.

The easy writing style and the structure of the book compensate for the repetition in the book: reading never feels like a chore and you can read for hours without getting tired. Also, Grisham gives clues to the mystery at the right moments: when my attention started to slack, I found out something new. Still, the book is longer than necessary. I am not saying that every book should be as short as possible, because reading is as much about the pleasure of turning the pages as it is about finishing books. However, an author should take care not to bore or annoy its readers with too many repetitions.

All in all, I enjoyed my first John Grisham novel a lot. Especially because about two thirds through the book I had expansive theories of what happened and why Pete killed the priest. And I am delighted to say that I was partly correct! This puzzling out the mystery and being right helped a lot to enjoy the book. The Reckoning is recommendable for everyone who loves a murder mystery written in an accessible writing styles and with enough clues to figure out part of the mystery yourself. At the end of this review, I must conclude that murder mysteries are my kind of books after all. Do you have any recommendations of what to read next?

Sherlock Holmes award for giving us a murder mystery where everyone can figure out some of the clues themselves and feel smart.

 

John Grisham, The Reckoning (New York, 2018)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore

“I was born in a sycamore tree. That was fifty-five years ago, and it made me a bit of a local celebrity. My celebrity status was brief, though. Two baby girls, later my best friends, came along within months of me in ways that made my sycamore tree entrance seem less astonishing.” Odette Henry tells the story of her life almost casually. She and her friends, locally known as the Supremes, have been inseparable since they were very young. The book lets them tell their stories, sometimes moving, sometimes joyful and sometimes absurd. In my opinion, there was a bit too much of everything. Even though the characters were sympathetic and the writing style natural and warm, I missed depth in the many issues the story touches upon.

Three middle-aged women meet every Sunday after church at the local diner, Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat. Odette Henry, Clarice Baker and Barbara Jean Maxberry have been nicknamed ‘the Supremes’, after the singing group, ever since they first made the diner their hang-out as teenagers. They have stuck together through love, marriage and heartbreak, taking on their lives together. At the start of the story, they receive some bad news: the owner of the diner, Big Earl, has died. From now on, they have to get through their troubles without his kind support and advice. Big Earl started the first black-owned business in their small town of Plainview, Indiana, United States. His diner was the heart of the community and a refuge for outcasts of any skin colour for decades. Even when Big Earl retired, you could always find him at the diner, now owned by his son Little Earl. The Supremes have their own table there, where they share sorrow, joy and gossip.

Missing their friend and father figure Big Earl is made the more difficult because the three women encounter one of the most challenging years of their lives. Barbara Jean’s husband dies and the man she loved as a teenager returns to town. When they were young, their love was impossible because he is white and she is black. Now, decades later, Barbara Jean has conflicted feelings about her first love. Clarice, the poised piano teacher, struggles with her charming husband’s adultery and her own lack of assertiveness. And Odette, the sassy fighter, learns that she has cancer. The story jumps back and forth through time, showing the lives of the three women through the lens of hindsight while they deal with the challenges of the present. Many more characters appear along the way, making it colourful if a little overpopulated. To make matters a little more complicated, Odette starts getting visited by ghosts like her mother was before her. While the Supremes work their way through their troubles with wit and friendship, the ghosts comment and give unsolicited advice.

When I was little and first learned the word ‘novel’, I thought that it meant a book in which characters encounter as many dramatic, real life problems as possible. Somebody must have explained it in the wrong way or else I jumped to conclusions on my own. I genuinely thought that a novel needed to be stuffed with life-threatening illnesses, tragic deaths, divorces, etcetera. I now know that ‘drama’ is not synonymous with ‘novel’ and that ‘conflict’ doesn’t mean literal fighting but The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat made me think about my youthful mistake. This story has a bit too much of everything, especially dramatic plotlines. It makes it hard to keep track of who is dealing with what. It sometimes veers to the ridiculous, which threatens the balance between comedy and drama. I’d say the author should have limited himself to one big conflict for every Supreme, allowing it to really make a difference to their development as people. That would make the drama more affecting and I suspect it would also make the comedy funnier. As it is, none of the serious issues like racism, alcoholism, abandonment, grief for a child and adultery are explored to the extent they deserve.

The story alternates between chapters told in third-person and chapters that are told by Odette in first person. The exclusives through Odette’s eyes make clear that the author thought of her as the most important character. Although the life stories of Clarice and Barbara Jean are also central to the book, it is Odette who is the most interesting. She is the most opinionated and strongest of the three and the most vulnerable as well. She loves her now-dead mother very deeply, although she’s quite different from her. She has learned to copy her mother’s confidence despite of her own self-doubt, which makes her the decisive one in her friend group. The fact that she sees ghosts is not that shocking to her: she takes things as they are and the ghosts of her parents and people she knew in her past are often a comfort to her, connecting her with times gone by.

One thing the (male!) author has done very well, is to portray the friendship between the women itself. It is a comfortable friendship that only exists when you’ve grown up together and know each other through and through. Although I am half their age, I was convinced by the portrayal of how female friendship works when you’re middle-aged and your children are grown up. The women have insecurities but their friendship is the thing they fall back on. This is illustrated when Big Earl’s daughter-in-law runs past Clarice and Odette to seek comfort with Barbara Jean upon hearing of Earl’s death. Clarice and Odette, although both closer to friends to the woman than Barbara Jean is, are not for a moment offended or surprised. They know that their best friend knows more about grief than they do and people turn instinctively to her for comfort.

All in all, the story is charming and engaging. But I have to confess that I forgot almost everything about it quite soon after I had finished it. There are too many colourful but two-dimensional characters and too many different plotlines that keep the story from really diving into its subject matter. I liked the book, but wouldn’t read it a second time. Then again, not every book needs to be a classic. The feel-good friendship of the Supremes at their favourite table at Earl’s gives off plenty of warmth for a one time read.

Greek Chorus Award for the ghostly group of commentators

Edward Kelsey Moore, The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat (New York, 2013)

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Jo Robin