Book Review

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Happy October, the month of beautiful foliage and lots of new books!

Russell Shorto, whose book on the origins of Manhattan, The Island at the Center of the World is a local favorite, has another title out this month, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City. Readers of the earlier title will find some information repeated, but in the context of the growth of Dutch colonial power rather than the story of Manhattan’s Dutch roots.  Shorto posits that Amsterdam’s (and Holland’s) geography contributed to its history of liberalism; because everyone needed to work together to hold the sea back, no one was ranked very high above the rest of the population. Religious wars of the 16th century pitted the powerful Spanish Catholics against the Calvinist Dutch, but when the dust cleared and the Spanish were driven out, freedom of conscience was declared, and refugees of all nationalities and religions poured into Amsterdam, beginning its history of tolerance. Reading Amsterdam, one is inevitably reminded of the origins Manhattan as New Amsterdam and its eerily similar liberalism.

I knew that Phyllis Chesler was a well-known feminist, psychotherapist and author. What I did not know was that she married a Muslim Afghani man whom she met at Bard College and moved with him to Afghanistan instead of completing her degree when she was about 21 years old. An American Bride in Kabul is her memoir of that period of her life. As a rebellious Jewish girl in New York City, Chesler was intellectual and anti-religious. When she met Absul-Kareem at college, she was dazzled by his sophistication, his good looks and his westernized Bohemianism. Against her parents’ wishes, they marry and move to Afghanistan, where her nightmare begins. Instead of traveling Europe and widening her horizons, Chesler is brought to her father-in-law’s house and deposited in the harem with all of the other women and children in Abdul-Kareem’s extended family. Her American passport was confiscated upon her arrival, she doesn’t speak the language, and her only friend is her husband, who has reverted to a traditional Afghani male chauvinist upon reaching his native country.  Skillfully weaving in other Western women’s experiences in Afghanistan, Muslim mythology, and psychological theory, Chesler presents a balanced view of why women are treated as chattel and how men are programmed to see them as such, even worldly men like Abul-Kareem. Despite her nuanced approach, my blood boiled as I read this memoir; anyone who is complacent about American women’s equality should read Chesler’s memoir.  

Sara Paretsky was inspired to write Critical Mass, her newest mystery, because she was haunted by the story of an Austrian woman physicist from the 1930s who was brilliant, but could not get an American visa to continue her groundbreaking work when war threatened. She fled Europe, but never worked as a scientist again. Martina Saginor, the fulcrum upon whose work the mystery balances, is a fictional recreation of the real physicist. V. I. Warshawski, Paretsky’s intrepid Chicago private investigator, is tasked with trying to find Martin Binder, a brilliant 20 year-old computer programmer, who has been missing for 10 days. She searches drug houses looking for his addict mother who might know something; checks his employer, who says Martin was working on something extremely sensitive; questions his grandmother, who has no idea where he might be but refuses to file a missing persons report. The case is going nowhere, but all of a sudden, V. I.’s apartment and business office are being searched by Department of Homeland Security thugs and several of the drug connections she has questioned turn up dead. It turns out Martin is Martina Saginor’s great-grandson, and someone thinks he has very sensitive information. Can Warshawski find him before the killer does? A very exciting mystery that includes enough history to make it educational!

Susan Taylor has been in the book business since 1982.

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