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June 12, 2024

5 books that dads will love

Dads are notoriously difficult to shop for. For Father’s Day, we recommend five dad-worthy history books, including the latest from Erik Larson, a biography of John Lewis, the story of the space shuttle Challenger and more.

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Adam Higginbotham’s international bestseller, Midnight in Chernobyl, chronicled the disastrous 1986 nuclear reactor explosion in Ukraine that was caused by a Soviet program plagued with a toxic combination of unrealistic timelines and dangerous cost cutting. His new book, Challenger: A True Story of Heroism and Disaster on the Edge of Space, describes a surprisingly similar catastrophe that very same year, this time at the hands of NASA: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger that killed all seven people aboard. Hefty, compelling and propulsive, Challenger overflows with revelatory details.

Reading this book is like watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion. One can’t help but hear a drumbeat of dread while getting to know the astronauts—Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee and Michael Smith—and their families. Details will stay with readers long after they close the book: McAuliffe’s appearance on The Tonight Show, her husband’s increasing anxiety at launch time, the horror and disbelief of the families as they watch their loved ones die, the grim details of the recovery efforts and the attempts of professionals both to warn against the mission and to bring to light why it failed.

Among the latter is engineer Roger Boisjoly, who, over a year before the explosion, wrote a memo voicing fears to senior management, stating, “It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action . . . we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch facilities.” Unbelievably, in the hours just before the mission commenced, Boisjoly and a team of 13 other engineers unanimously advised against the launch, yet their concerns were not even voiced up the command chain. After the explosion, physicist Richard Feynman sought to bring clarity to the commission tasked with investigating the tragedy. The scientist noted that “the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy.”

Higginbotham excels at delineating not only the science, technology and history of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, but also the bureaucratic snafus and mismanagement that led to the catastrophe, including economic pressures and a nonstop race to get people into space. As with Midnight in Chernobyl, Challenger proves Higginbotham is a master chronicler of disasters, demonstrating an unflinching ability to pierce through politics, power and bureaucracies with laser-sharp focus.

Challenger proves Adam Higginbotham is a master chronicler of disasters, piercing through politics, power and bureaucracies with laser-sharp focus.
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There’s no such thing as a spoiler alert when a story’s subject is taught in most every American history class across the country. Injecting hold-your-breath suspense into a narrative history, particularly one in which we already know the story’s ending, is a task that Erik Larson has mastered. In the Garden of the Beasts took on Nazi Germany on the cusp of war; The Splendid and the Vile explored Winston Churchill’s stewardship of under-siege England. In his new book, The Demon of Unrest: A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War, Larson turns his attention to the immediate aftermath of the election of Abraham Lincoln and the unlanced boil where the war began: Fort Sumter.

Larson covers just a few months of American history—but perhaps the most consequential few months. Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and other well-known figures from the period play key roles, but so too do a British journalist on assignment, a young private stuck in the besieged fort and a Southern society woman watching the events unfold. They aren’t key characters in the grand arc of the Civil War or the country’s history, but they did write a lot down. Their accounts help Larson propel the narrative without relying entirely on the stories of people who have already been the subject of hundreds or thousands of other books.

There are obvious parallels to the current moment: a refusal to accept the results of a presidential election, threats to march on the Capitol, a tendency toward civility and appeasement in the face of existential threat and other more subtle links to the present. Some of the connections are unavoidable and necessary; others, Larson perhaps injects as a result of recency bias.

Even after a century and a half of books about the subject, it remains remarkably unclear what course of action key figures should or could have taken to avoid America’s bloodiest war. Maybe we’ll never figure that out, but The Demon of Unrest is a damn good read.

In The Demon of Unrest, Erik Larson crafts a tale of hold-your-breath suspense about the crucial three months leading up to the Civil War.
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June 1939: British naval sub HMS Thetis sinks in sea trials. Ninety-nine people die. August 1942: Allied forces raid the coastal town of Dieppe in German-occupied France. Thousands are killed, captured or wounded, in part because coastal scouting was minimal. September 1942: British-manned torpedoes attack German battleship Tirpitz. All crewmen are captured or killed. Catastrophes have a way of concentrating the mind: Do it right next time. Luckily for the Allies in World War II, a group of scientists in London risked their lives in secret pressure chamber “dives” to give future underwater and amphibious missions better odds.

Author Rachel Lance is a biomedical engineer and blast injury specialist who has worked on underwater equipment for the U.S. Navy, making her unusually suited to unveil the forgotten story of these scientists in Chamber Divers: The Untold Story of the D-Day Scientists Who Changed Special Operations Forever.

Their project at University College London was led by J.B.S. Haldane, a brilliant, annoying eccentric who hired scientists shunned by others, among them Jewish refugees, women and Communist sympathizers. As the bombs in the Blitz exploded around them, these scientists subjected themselves again and again to dangerous pressure in chambers that simulated deep underwater dives in order to design more effective breathing equipment for submarine crews, frogmen and torpedo riders.

Relying on their experiment notes, Lance takes us inside the metal tubes where scientists suffered life-threatening injuries. She explores their backgrounds and relationships, which included a love affair between Haldane and research colleague Helen Spurway. And she ranges throughout combat zones to show us the dangers of underwater action, from the perspective of individual combatants on both sides. But Lance’s singular strength is her lucid explanations of the complex science behind the experiments, making it accessible to untrained readers. Lance also uncovers the combination of official secrecy, prejudice against outsiders and bureaucratic skullduggery that obscured this story until now.

Lance begins her book with the Dieppe disaster and ends with D-Day—an Allied triumph that might have gone badly wrong without the chamber divers’ dedication and resilience. Chamber Divers is a necessary reminder that not all war heroes were on the front lines.

In Chamber Divers, Rachel Lance uncovers the Navy scientists who risked their lives to improve the odds of underwater and amphibious missions in World War II.
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With its near 500-page count and robust endnotes, The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the C.I.A., and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq might at first glance scare off readers who haven’t sniffed a textbook in years. But thanks to Steve Coll’s crisp and dynamic prose, what’s between the covers feels little like an academic tome.

Despite appearances, The Achilles Trap is not really an Iraq War book (just as Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is not really a 9/11 book). Yes, you get there eventually, but Coll, like Wright, has more to say about the years leading up to that cataclysm. The narrative details Saddam’s upbringing, rise to power and entrenchment as a key strongman in the Middle East, sometimes allied with the United States and sometimes its biggest pain in the ass—and sometimes both at the same time.

In the two decades since the American invasion of Iraq began, Saddam Hussein has become a sort of caricature. Here, Coll reintroduces the dictator to an audience that has either forgotten his nuances or never knew them. There is unimaginable cruelty, family drama and even comedy—like when Saddam sets out on a career as a historical romance novelist just a few years before his death.

Coll, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ghost Wars and a longtime journalist for The New Yorker and The Washington Post, has a special combination of mostly unrelated skill sets that eludes so many narrative nonfiction writers: He’s a groundbreaking reporter and researcher who is able to uncover new information in a tightly wound arena, but also a deft stylist with a natural gift for both narrative structure and fluent yet surprising writing. Like a baseball player who can both pitch and hit with the best, the rare union places Coll at or near the apex of the craft.

Detailing Saddam’s own cruelty does not mean Coll lets the U.S. off the hook, though. Sprinkled among what is at times a tense political thriller are scenes of astounding myopia, hubris, miscommunication, dark hypocrisy, betrayal, stupidity, cruelty and violence of our own. Though the events of The Achilles Trap concluded 20 years ago, there are few better roadmaps to where American foreign policy in the Middle East has ended up today.

With agile prose, groundbreaking reporting and narrative splendor, The Achilles Trap is a gripping history of the Iraq War.

Like his mentor Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis had a dream. Amid the turmoil and violence of a segregated South and a nation embroiled in the struggle for racial reconciliation, Lewis envisioned and championed what he called a “Beloved Community” in America, “a society based on simple justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being.” In his captivating John Lewis: In Search of Beloved Community, Raymond Arsenault narrates the mesmerizing story of Lewis’ evolution from a Civil Rights activist to an eminent congressman who never lost sight of his vision for a just and equitable society.

Drawing on archival materials and interviews with Lewis and his friends, family and associates, Arsenault traces Lewis from his childhood in Troy, Alabama, where he daily witnessed the indignities and violence of racial segregation. Steeled and inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he entered American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, and began his storied activism in earnest. Lewis and his contemporaries incorporated the principles of rightness and righteousness—what their teacher James Lawson called “soul force”—with methods of nonviolent resistance. Arsenault documents Lewis’ participation in the Freedom Rides, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Selma to Montgomery marches and his advocacy for the Voting Rights Act. After King’s 1968 assassination, Lewis’ optimism turned to despair; he had a feeling, Arsenault writes, that “maybe, just maybe, we would not overcome.”

But that didn’t last. Elected to Congress in 1986, Lewis went to Washington with a legacy to uphold and a commitment to carry on the spirit, goals and principles of nonviolence and social action. He was always disillusioned by self-serving politicians and their infighting, and he devoted his career to building coalitions among opponents. In a 2020 speech, Lewis uttered the remarks that cemented his legacy: “We cannot give up now. We cannot give in. . . . Go out there, speak up, speak out, get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

With John Lewis Arsenault offers the first comprehensive biography of the icon and serves as a fitting bookend to Lewis’ own autobiography, Walking With the Wind. The work provides an inspiring portrait of a man whose vision and moral courage propelled him to share his belief in the Beloved Community and inspire generations.

Raymond Arsenault’s mesmerizing biography of John Lewis chronicles the life of the Civil Rights icon and congressman whose vision of a just and equitable society has inspired generations.

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Dads are notoriously hard to shop for. For Father’s Day, we recommend five dad-worthy history books, including the latest from Erik Larson, a biography of John Lewis, the story of the space shuttle Challenger and more.
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Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoirs Persepolis and Persepolis II—and the Oscar-nominated film adapted from the books—tell the story of the author-illustrator’s coming of age in 1980s Iran. Her new work is concerned with the life of another young Iranian woman, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after being arrested, detained and severely beaten because some of her hair escaped her headscarf in 2022. Civilian protests erupted in Iran and were quickly taken up elsewhere, the movement’s slogan, “Woman, Life, Freedom,” echoing around the world.

Satrapi’s new graphic anthology, Woman, Life, Freedom, presents the story of the titular movement through short graphic vignettes. The project pairs artists with experts on Iran: Satrapi herself, plus two journalists and an Iranian-born Stanford University professor. These experts composed the words that accompany each of the 23 vignettes, which are divided among three sections that detail Amini’s death and the aftermath; contextualize the events in light of late 20th-century revolutions; and explore everyday life in Iran today, where tensions increasingly show a divide between the ruling party and the people. The vignettes demonstrate the complexity of interactions among residents: State-sanctioned violence, surveillance and propaganda foment confusion and sow mistrust among neighbors. The predominant culture is one of fear.

Some of the graphic illustrations in Woman, Life, Freedom read like political cartoons, while others offer intimate scenes of daily life. The styles reflect the individuality of the creators—swooping, impressionistic, single-color and frameless illustrations exist alongside framed, sequenced, multicolor ones. In all cases, the visual medium enhances the storytelling and creates an immersive reading experience that accessibly communicates information. In my favorite vignettes, such as “In the Heart of the Diaspora,” I felt like I was eavesdropping on conversations that felt both familiar and incredibly complex, much as I felt while reading Persepolis.

Satrapi’s memoirs were widely praised for creating complex images of Iran that probed the subjective, everyday experiences of people living there. She brings the same ability to relate to readers here. She writes in her preface that an aim of the book is to “remind Iranians that they are not alone.” The anthology is being published in many languages for distribution around the world and made freely available online in Persian for Iranian readers. Woman, Life, Freedom offers a look at the human toll of an authoritarian regime, and a people’s heroic, ongoing movement against it.

Persepolis author Marjane Satrapi’s new anthology offers a look at the human toll of Iran’s authoritarian regime, and a people’s heroic, ongoing movement against it.
STARRED REVIEW

Our top 10 books for March 2024

The best new books of the month include highly anticipated follow-ups from Sloane Crosley, Sasha LaPointe and Juan Gómez-Jurado.
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Recent Features

Recent Reviews

The best new books of the month include highly anticipated follow-ups from Sloane Crosley, Sasha LaPointe and Juan Gómez-Jurado.
Review by

With its near 500-page count and robust endnotes, The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the C.I.A., and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq might at first glance scare off readers who haven’t sniffed a textbook in years. But thanks to Steve Coll’s crisp and dynamic prose, what’s between the covers feels little like an academic tome.

Despite appearances, The Achilles Trap is not really an Iraq War book (just as Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is not really a 9/11 book). Yes, you get there eventually, but Coll, like Wright, has more to say about the years leading up to that cataclysm. The narrative details Saddam’s upbringing, rise to power and entrenchment as a key strongman in the Middle East, sometimes allied with the United States and sometimes its biggest pain in the ass—and sometimes both at the same time.

In the two decades since the American invasion of Iraq began, Saddam Hussein has become a sort of caricature. Here, Coll reintroduces the dictator to an audience that has either forgotten his nuances or never knew them. There is unimaginable cruelty, family drama and even comedy—like when Saddam sets out on a career as a historical romance novelist just a few years before his death.

Coll, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ghost Wars and a longtime journalist for The New Yorker and The Washington Post, has a special combination of mostly unrelated skill sets that eludes so many narrative nonfiction writers: He’s a groundbreaking reporter and researcher who is able to uncover new information in a tightly wound arena, but also a deft stylist with a natural gift for both narrative structure and fluent yet surprising writing. Like a baseball player who can both pitch and hit with the best, the rare union places Coll at or near the apex of the craft.

Detailing Saddam’s own cruelty does not mean Coll lets the U.S. off the hook, though. Sprinkled among what is at times a tense political thriller are scenes of astounding myopia, hubris, miscommunication, dark hypocrisy, betrayal, stupidity, cruelty and violence of our own. Though the events of The Achilles Trap concluded 20 years ago, there are few better roadmaps to where American foreign policy in the Middle East has ended up today.

With agile prose, groundbreaking reporting and narrative splendor, The Achilles Trap is a gripping history of the Iraq War.
STARRED REVIEW

Top 10 books for February 2024

Beloved and buzzy authors such as Tia Williams, Francis Spufford and Katherine Arden took new and exciting directions in February!
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Recent Reviews

Beloved and buzzy authors such as Tia Williams, Francis Spufford and Katherine Arden took new and exciting directions in February!
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After 20 years of trying and failing to rebuild Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, NATO allies pulled out of the country, promising sanctuary in the United Kingdom to the hundreds of Afghan interpreters, base workers and their families. In The Gardener of Lashkar Gah: The Afghans Who Risked Everything to Fight the Taliban, award-winning British journalist Larisa Brown uses her considerable reporting skills, astute insights and conflict zone experience to uncover the stories of those left behind.

Shaista Gul’s beautiful garden at the British base in the southwestern Afghanistan city of Lashkar Gah served as a place of comfort and respite for Afghan base workers and military personnel, for whom “life outside was an incongruous contrast to the patch of garden paradise inside.” Gul’s earnest teenage son Jamal became an interpreter for the British soldiers there and soon found himself on the front lines. His translating skills often made the difference between life and death for the troops as they moved across roads embedded with bombs, and into villages where he had to discern if people were farmers or insurgents ready to kill. Because interpreters were usually beside commanders, they were frequently targeted. Jamal barely made it out alive, only to return home to death threats from people intent on killing those who cooperated with the allies.

As NATO forces began their 2021 pullout, Afghan workers were hopeful that they’d be resettled in the U.K., instead of being left behind at the mercy of the Taliban as they reclaimed the country with brutal force. NATO broke its promise, and the final days at the Kabul Airport were a living nightmare marked by chaos and despair. Thousands were left behind and still wait to be rescued.

Brown relies on specificity and detail in her storytelling: the terrifying knock on the door when the Taliban came looking for a man accused of working for British troops; the rocky mountain paths where the very old and very young slept while attempting to escape to Pakistan; an entitled British commander who prioritized the escape of his pets over hundreds of Afghans desperate to be rescued. This forthright, unsparing account lays bare the failures of British and American leaders to keep their many promises, and succeeds in honoring the tenacity and courage of Afghans like Shaista Gul and Jamal.

Larisa Brown’s The Gardener of Lashkar Gah tells the harrowing story of the Afghan aid workers that NATO left to their fates when the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan.
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The popular conception of America’s origins as a nation forged by hardworking immigrants contrasts sharply with the indifferent and sometimes cruel policies that hinder many migrants and refugees today. In A Map of Future Ruins: On Borders and Belonging, author and journalist Lauren Markham explores this chasm in the American consciousness, asking why some migrants are heroized and others demonized.

Markham made several trips to Greece during the “still-roiling wake of the debt crisis” with two purposes: reflecting on her Greek heritage and reporting on the population of undocumented migrants at refugee camps. She intertwines these two threads with the specificity of a journalist and the fluidity of a storyteller. In 2015, she writes, “hundreds of thousands and then millions of people from Africa and Asia and the Middle East fled their own homes in search of safety in Europe, washing up waterlogged and desperate and sometimes dead on Greece’s shores.” At Moria, a camp on the island of Lesbos, she meets Ali, an Afghan teenager who left his country to earn more money for his impoverished family. She follows his experience as he is wrongfully accused of setting fire to Moria and thrust into a cruel legal system.

At the same time, Markham investigates what visiting her ancestral homeland can (and can never) reveal about her family, herself and the very nature of how white Americans conceive of ethnicity. Markham argues that what we consider “the West” is more of a recently constructed, apocryphal origin story for white identity—a myth that stokes nationalism and xenophobia—than it is a historically cohesive set of peoples and places.

Markham’s unfussy yet detailed style provides an engaging read as she moves from research to reporting to memoir. A Map of Future Ruins is more of a meditation on a theme than an exhaustive dive into a topic. While it may not be the best fit for someone seeking a deep investigation into immigration, the book is uniquely suited to nudge readers into considering where their ideas of national identity originated, and whom these ideas disenfranchise today.

Lauren Markham deftly braids reporting on the refugee crisis in Greece with historical research and memoir in A Map of Future Ruins.
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The story of how young Kurdish women brought down terrorists from the Islamic State group has been waiting to be told. If Kobani, Syria, is a city that has gone unnoticed in the saga of Middle Eastern wars, then The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice will change that. It’s the story of a new generation of combatants, long denied choices about education, marriage or their very futures, who vanquished hosts of kidnappers, rapists and enslavers. Yet when author and journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon was asked to tell their story, she hesitated. “It just doesn’t make sense that the Middle East would be home to AK-47-wielding women driven with fervor and without apology or hesitation to make women’s equality a reality—and that the Americans would be the ones backing them.” She decided to go see for herself.

By 2016, civil war was tearing Syria apart, leaving room for ISIS, with help from allies such as Russia and Iran, to swagger in. President Barack Obama pledged that there would be no American troops on the ground; American support would have to come from the air, with airstrikes and weapons drops, while consultants and diplomats strategized from afar. On the front lines in Kobani were women like Azeema, trained as an expert sniper, and her childhood friend Rojda, whose mother still called her every day.

Based on hours of on-the-ground reporting and countless interviews with Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) fighters, Lemmon delivers a vivid, street-by-bombed-out-street account of the final days of the battle for Kobani. Strewn throughout are reports of what the soldiers were up against: appalling ISIS acts like beheadings, torture and worse. The YPJ was outnumbered and underequipped, but they were fearless.

The battles for Kobani, and later Raqqa, were key moments in a history that is still being made. With international interest waning and ISIS sleeper cells and foreign fighter recruitments quietly continuing, ready to reignite the landscape, those Kurdish and Arab victories in 2017 and onward hold no guarantees. As Lemmon observes, it is “easier to kill a terrorist than to slay an ideology.” Still, no matter the final outcome, the women who fought this war have shown the world what courage and justice look like. And if the next generation must keep fighting, these warriors have shown them how.

The story of how young Kurdish women brought down terrorists from the Islamic State group finally gets told in The Daughters of Kobani.
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“Divorce, divorce, divorce.” Homeira Qaderi’s phone screen lit up with these words from her husband, ending their arranged marriage—and her parental rights to their baby son. This heartbreaking act comes not at the beginning of her searing memoir, Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother’s Letter to Her Son, but near its inevitable conclusion, as a woman who could not conform to the strictures of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan must face the bitter consequences. Her journey from rebellious child to courageous teacher, acclaimed storyteller and, finally, despairing mother feels like a secret that needed to be told. Someday, Qaderi writes to her son, Siawash, from her chosen exile in California, she hopes their story will mean other Afghan mothers will not meet the same fate.

Qaderi’s childhood in Herat, occupied by Russians and later ruled by the Taliban, was fraught with violence. Bullets flew everywhere. Soldiers strode through streets and into homes. Books were forbidden for girls, and her mother “was like a spider trying to safeguard me within her web.” Her grandmother chastised her curiosity and fearlessness, but her father encouraged her. She was still a teenager when she began teaching boys and girls together, a forbidden act. Their classroom was a stifling tent that served as a mosque, and they kept their notebooks hidden in their Qurans lest Taliban soldiers found them learning instead of praying. Risking discovery and death for a few moments of youthful joy, Qaderi once even allowed dancing.

Interspersed among grim descriptions of Taliban rule and Qaderi’s heartbroken letters to her lost son are stunning passages describing the austere beauty of her homeland, which she still mourns. Yet her grief begs an even harder question: What does it take for a parent to choose hope for a greater good over their own child?

“Divorce, divorce, divorce.” Homeira Qaderi’s phone screen lit up with these words from her husband, ending their arranged marriage—and her parental rights to their baby son. This heartbreaking act comes not at the beginning of her searing memoir, Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother’s Letter to Her Son, but near its inevitable conclusion, as […]

When bestselling author Leila Slimani published her debut novel, Adéle, in 2014, she spent two weeks on a book tour around Morocco. After her events at bookshops, universities and libraries, numerous women were hungry to discuss their own personal and political struggles to express their sexuality in a country that represses women’s sexual natures. Slimani collects many of these testimonies, woven together with her own reflections on Morocco’s social attitudes toward sex, in Sex and Lies: True Stories of Women’s Intimate Lives in the Arab World.

Soraya, an attractive woman, perhaps in her 40s, locates Slimani in the hotel bar one evening after an event and, reticently at first, opens up to Slimani about her mother’s marital counsel: “Don’t forget to stay a virgin.” Soraya shares that she never experienced sexual pleasure in her marriage but that, after her divorce, she wants to discover pleasure and freedom. Slimani uses Soraya’s story as an illustration of the many ways women in Morocco face humiliation—humiliations that men never face. They must be good girls, and if they lose their virginity, they are “spoiled.”

Malika is a 40-year-old doctor who’s single and has never been married. Although she feels freer than many women who lack her income and social status, she still must live a life of subterfuge when she wants to sleep with her partner, checking into French hotels where no one will ask them for an ID. As Malika puts it, “Hypocrisy is growing here, and conservatism, too.” Slimani reflects on Malika’s story by pointing out that the more freedom women gain in Moroccan society, the more they take up public space, which leaves men feeling unmoored.

Provocative and disturbing, fervent and moving, Sex and Lies offers a glimpse into a world often hidden from view, allowing Moroccan women to express in their own words their desires and hopes for a sexual revolution in their society.

When bestselling author Leila Slimani published her debut novel, Adéle, in 2014, she spent two weeks on a book tour around Morocco. After her events at bookshops, universities and libraries, numerous women were hungry to discuss their own personal and political struggles to express their sexuality in a country that represses women’s sexual natures. Slimani […]

“What happened to us?” This question haunts the Middle East and the Arab world, from Iraq to Syria, Iran to Saudi Arabia. It’s also the question posed by Kim Ghattas at the beginning of her new book, Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East.

Ambitious and novelistic in its approach, Black Wave attempts to answer this question through extensive research, vibrant reporting and personal stories. At its core, the book is a survey of the once harmonious relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As Ghattas examines how a culturally diverse region full of hope could twist itself into an entirely new body of destruction and instability, she explores the events that led to these nations’ opposition of each other, and to their desire for cultural supremacy over an entire region and its people.

Ghattas, an Emmy award-winning journalist who was born and raised in Lebanon, focuses on the three major touchstones in 1979 that led to the current crisis: the overthrow of the shah and the Iranian Revolution; the siege of the Holy Mosque in Mecca by Saudi militants; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As Ghattas writes, “Nothing has changed the Arab and Muslim world as deeply and fundamentally as the events of 1979.”

Unlike narratives told from a Western point of view, this book doesn’t highlight terrorism or ISIS but instead seamlessly weaves history and personal narrative into a story that explains the gradual suppression of intellectualism and the creep of authoritarianism in the region, while highlighting those who have tried to fight against it, like murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It also shows how the United States’ numerous attempts at intervention have made the situation indelibly worse.

Illuminating, conversational, rich in details and like nothing else you’ve ever read about the Middle East, Black Wave will leave you with a new understanding of this diverse and troubled region.

“What happened to us?” This question haunts the Middle East and the Arab world, from Iraq to Syria, Iran to Saudi Arabia. It’s also the question posed by Kim Ghattas at the beginning of her new book, Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the […]

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