Review of “The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine” by Ben Ehrenrich

Ben Ehrenreich is a writer and journalist who spent three years in the West Bank, staying with Palestinian families and listening to their stories, which he shares in this important book.

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We are into painting with broad brushes these days. For many people, Palestinian means terrorist, in spite of the small proportion of these men, women, and children who actually merit the label. But thanks in large part to the media, the equation of “Palestinian” with “terrorist” has eroded sympathy for their truly horrific plight.

Tragically, the Israeli government also does not distinguish between the two. In the summer of 2014, for example, during Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, the UN reported that at least 2,104 Palestinian died at the hands of the Israeli army, including 1,462 civilians, of whom 495 were children and 253 women. An Israeli government official told the BBC, however, that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had killed 1,000 “terrorists” during the assault.

Whether the occasion is a peaceful protest over land appropriation, the recitation of a protest poem by a little girl whose best friend was killed by soldiers, or little boys throwing rocks in defense of their villages, the Palestinians are considered legitimate targets for tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and sometimes live bullets, imprisonment without charges, house raids, land grabs, and numerous measures to make their lives difficult, such as the closure of schools and hospitals.

What the Israelis have done to the Palestinians is unconscionable.

Unfortunately, the fact that “Israeli” is also conflated with “Jew” doesn’t help get a discussion going. How the Israelis act has little to do with the life of a Jewish grocer in France, or with a Jewish daycare or synagogue in the United States. As the Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace recently wrote in an opinion piece for “The Washington Post”:

“It’s not discrimination to hold a state accountable for its violations of international law and human rights abuses. The state of Israel is not the same as the Jewish people.”

Nor does it help that Israel was set up (largely by Britain) as a place for Jews to go to escape the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe because no other country wanted to take them. [In the U.S., between 1933 and 1945 the United States took in only 132,000 Jewish refugees, only ten percent of the quota allowed by law, because of anti-Semitism in the State Department, in Congress, and among the public. Even children were denied sanctuary, on the theory that, as the wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration said at a party, they would all grow up to be ugly adults.]

But the British even restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. Still, enough came to create a conflict with the people already residing on the very small piece of land.

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No matter the difficulties of talking about it, though, ignoring the situation will only keep the fires burning in the Middle East and hurt us all. What happened to Jews before cannot justify what is happening to Palestinians now. But the rise once again of right-wing, exclusionary movements around the world (including inside the state of Israel) makes it hard to believe in a solution that will benefit all sides. More awareness is at least a step in the right direction.

Evaluation: Read this book and weep, for the cruelty that has begat cruelty, and the lack of easy answers. I wanted to stop reading, because it was so painful to hear. But that’s not the right answer. If you take away nothing from this book but the very complex nature of the issues in the Middle East, that will be a start. And maybe that understanding can lead someday to the salvation of people who have suffered for so long.

The author writes in his preface:

“I do believe that this book is a work of optimism, and of hope . . . because even in their despair, with no reason to hope, people continue to resist. I cannot think of many other reasons to be proud of being human, but that one is enough.”

The hardcover book includes a list of Dramatis Personae, a glossary of Arabic terms, maps, photos, and extensive footnotes.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardback by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

This book is read by the author, who did an excellent job. Some authors have no skill for a dramatic presentation of their work, but Ehrenreich manages to convey passion, despair, respect for his subjects, and hope for a better world in spite of everything.

Rating: 4/5

Published unabridged on 10 CDs (12.5 listening hours) by Penguin Audio, a member of Penguin Random House, 2016

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Kid Lit Review of “Animal Atlas” by James Buckley, Jr.

Animal Planet and Time Inc. Books have produced a fantastic atlas of animals for readers six and up.

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There are not only illustrated maps of every continent, but also maps and explanations of global biomes, “the world’s major communities, classified according to the predominant vegetation and characterized by adaptations of organisms to that particular environment” according to the textbook Biology by N. A. Campbell, 1996. Biomes include deserts grasslands, and rainforests, for example.

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To illustrate what kinds of animals live in the different biomes, this atlas includes full-color photographs of more than 200 animals, along with fun facts about them. A Nile crocodile, for example, can weigh up to 500 pounds. There are fewer than 400 saaima ringed seals left in the world, and they all live in southern Finland, but there are more than 8 million puffins in Iceland. Andean condors have a wingspan of more than 10 feet! The world’s largest rodent is a capybara, which is a favorite at zoos, with many of their admirers not realizing these large pig-like animals are rodents.

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The book includes a glossary and index at the back.

There are also occasional text boxes from R.O.A.R. (Reach Out. Act. Respond) – Animal Planet’s project to help make the world a better place for animals. These “ROAR” sidebars mention conservation and rescue efforts relevant to the animals and/or biomes being featured.

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You can learn more about ROAR here, and there is a downloadable curriculum guide here.

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Evaluation: This overview of a fascinating topic is sure to inspire kids to seek out further information. The books from Animal Planet (as well as their television series) prove that learning can be fun.

Published by Time Inc. Books, 2016

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Review of “You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice” by Tom Vanderbilt

This is a book about why we like what we like. The author explores major areas in which preferences are commonly shared, from food and restaurants, to books, movies, music, beer, and even cats.

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For me, not all of the areas he discussed were of interest, or rather, they might have been had he not belabored them so much. In addition, I didn’t always find the studies he described persuasive. Basically he concludes that there are lots of reasons we have tastes for one thing or another, and it’s hard to tell what they are.

It could be related to our memories (we love something because it reminds us of happy times as kids); expectations (the wine is expensive, so it is “supposed” to be good); the influence of our culture (we grew up in Philadelphia so we love Philly cheesesteaks) or friends or “experts,” or even identity issues (e.g., I want to be seen as someone who likes highbrow things, or conversely, l want to be thought of as more avant garde, and so I want to choose lowbrow things). We both want to be like others and we want to be different from others. Which is it? It may well be both, but a theory for anything and everything doesn’t explain much. Similarly with our taste in books and movies: seeing positive ratings by others can influence people to upgrade their evaluations, and seeing negative ratings can induce them to downgrade them. Vanderbilt avers we crave novelty, but we also crave familiarity. What exactly does all that explain?

In other words, there are theories that explain every possibility, and therefore they provide no enlightenment whatsoever.

The author does include a few interesting vignettes about music and food and movies, but beyond being diverting, they just don’t say much. He also poses some thought-provoking questions. How exactly, for example, would you describe what a carrot tastes like, without using the word carrot? (Vanderbilt points to a paucity of words to account for taste, unlike the plethora of theories to describe it!)

This doesn’t mean the subject doesn’t have the potential for being fun. There are some hilarious videos on youtube, to list but a few, with people arguing about whether grits should have sugar or salt; which Jewish holiday dishes are better (“The Great Latke-Hamantaschen Debates”); and whether deep dish pizza is better than thin crust. But in this book, the strength of preferences and the reasons behind that vehemence was mainly discussed with respect to very, very esoteric types of music.

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Evaluation: I hoped this would be better, but in spite of what I thought was a potentially interesting topic, it didn’t engage me much. But then again, it’s all a matter of taste. What I like not so much, other readers/listeners will undoubtedly like a lot.

Rating: 3/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

The narrator, Jeffrey Kafer, has apparently narrated over 300 books. He did invest his reading with good pitch and cadence, but some of his pronunciation was off. For example, he pronounced “referent” like reFERent, the noun “affect” like af-FECT instead of AFF-ect, and most egregiously, he pronounced “eschew” like es-Q.

Published unabridged on 8 CDs (9 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2016

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Review of “The Rose & The Dagger” by Renée Ahdieh

Note: Spoilers for Book One, The Wrath & The Dawn

This is the second and concluding volume of a re-imagining of One Thousand and One Nights (also called The Arabian Nights.)

This retelling by Ahdieh adds a lot of appeal for today’s young adults. In Book One, we found that the handsome 18-year-old king Khalid is not at all what spunky sixteen-year-old Shahrzad (known as “Shazi”) expected. Khalid marries a succession of young girls, and all of them are killed the next morning; Shazi thinks Khalid must be the epitome of evil. Nevertheless, she actually volunteers to be a bride, with the intent of getting revenge for the death of a previous bride who was her best friend. But she discovers that Khalid, rather than being a one-note villain who is easy to hate, is not without charm and humor. He also seems to feel a great deal of inner pain and suffering, the reasons for which he keeps secret at first. Shazi never dreamed she would find hidden depths in Khalid, and eventually she learns the reasons for all that he has done, and she falls in love with him. But at the end of Book One, she leaves Khalid after a lethal magical storm started by her father. Shazi is determined to find a way to undo the curse on Khalid so the killing spiral can stop.

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As Book Two begins, Shazi and her sister Irsa are in the desert camp where Shazi’s former boyfriend Tariq and others are plotting Khalid’s destruction. Shazi decides she must go see the magus Musa Zaragoza for help. And to get there, why, she just takes off at night on her magic carpet! Musa introduces her to Artan Temujin, a boy close to her own age with powerful magic. He in turn promises to take her and Khalid to see his aunt; she will know how to break the curse.

Eventually, it all gets sorted out, with those who so badly want power and influence being thwarted by better angels, most of whom, it might be noted, are females.

Discussion: This saga follows a very familiar pattern: sassy, independent girl meets brooding bad boy, a boy the girl wants very much to hate. But she sees through cracks in his forbidding facade, and she falls for him. Throw in an exotic setting and a hot romance, and you get a very popular entry into the young adult market.

I did think that the villains were a bit too caricatured, and the Epilogue way too short at the end of this book (opening the way however, one supposes, for a plethora of fan fiction). But the duology still ends on a satisfying note.

There weren’t as many “swoony” scenes between Khalid and Shazi in this book, but there are some nice thoughts about their feelings for one another, as when Shazi explains to Tariq why she is choosing Khalid:

“‘I do love you, Tariq.’ With great care, Shahrzad settled a palm against his cheek. ‘But . . . he’s where I live.’”

And Shazi on Khalid:

“…they were two parts of a whole. He did not belong to her. And she did not belong to him. It was never about belonging to someone. It was about belonging together.”

Evaluation: This second and concluding volume of a love story with an “Arabian Nights” flavor has more politics than romance, but ends on a gratifying note.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016

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Review of “The Perfect Neighbors” by Sarah Pekkanen

This story takes place in the perfect-seeming neighborhood of Newport Cove, and centers on a group of friends who seem to have it all: Kellie Scott, a former cheerleader who married her high school boyfriend – a football player, of course; her best friend Susan Barrett, who runs a very successful business coordinating services for the elderly; Gigi Kennedy, whose husband Joe is running for Congress in the Democratic primary; and the new neighbor Tessa Campbell, whose kids are just the right ages to be friends with the kids of the other mothers.

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All of them have secrets that we find out as the story unwinds, and none of their lives are as perfect as they seem to outsiders.

Kellie, whose marriage evolved from passion to contentment, begins a dangerous flirtation when she returns to work after ten years as a stay-at-home mom. Susan still loves her ex-husband, but now his new wife – Susan’s former friend – is pregnant, and it is breaking Susan’s heart. Gigi’s teenage daughter Melanie has become hostile, withdrawn, and uncommunicative, and Gigi senses danger from Joe’s campaign manager Zach, who has moved into their basement. And Tessa carries the biggest secret of all; one we don’t know about explicitly until near the end of the story.

Interspersed throughout the chapters are excerpts from the “Newport Cove Listserv Digest.” These are a riot, and totally believable; I live in a development that also has a neighborhood email list, and some of these very funny posts could have been copied almost verbatim from my own neighborhood’s correspondence.

As the story comes to a close, all but one of the neighbors’ situations get resolved, and the one that doesn’t should generate very lively book club discussions.

Evaluation: This is an entertaining and enjoyable book from a solidly good writer, and the surprising ending is one that will have readers eager to talk about it with one another.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Washington Square Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2016

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