11 Books About Syria to Make Sense of the Civil War

A civil war has been raging within Syria since 2011, gradually taking on a more international scope as it has overlapped with other regional conflicts and drawn attention from global powers. Reading about it can be a wrenching experience, with numerous stories of death and displacement, along with atrocities, extremism, and the legacy of authoritarianism all present.

What follows is a look at a number of books that explore aspects of the war in Syria from a host of perspectives. Some come from people who witnessed harrowing events firsthand; others provide a more distanced look at the conflict and its implications. If you’re looking to better understand what’s happening in Syria, from the war itself to its causes to its regional and global effects, these books can help.

The cover of the book Brothers of the GunBrothers of the Gun

Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple

Marwan Hisham has plenty of firsthand experience of the conflict in Syria, beginning with his participation in protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and continuing through his work as a journalist. For this richly detailed account of a nation at war, Hisham’s prose is accentuated by the striking, visceral artwork of Molly Crabapple.

 

The cover of the book The Way of the StrangersThe Way of the Strangers

Graeme Wood

Graeme Wood has written extensively about the Middle East and global politics for The Atlantic, among other publications. In his book The Way of the Strangers, he focuses on a narrative that dovetails painfully with the story of the ongoing war in Syria, exploring what has caused people across the region to become associated with the Islamic State’s oppressive regime. Wood’s narrative provides insights into the region’s politics and conflicts.

 

The cover of the book No Turning BackNo Turning Back

Rania Abouzeid

Rania Abouzeid has written extensively about Syria for a host of publications over the years; in her book No Turning Back, she focuses on the human cost of the conflict. In his review of the book for the New York Times, Christopher Dickey noted that the book contained “a tremendous sense of intimacy with the victims and the violence that surrounds them.”

 

The cover of the book Syria BurningSyria Burning

Charles Glass

Few conflicts, global or regional, arise completely spontaneously, and the Syrian War is no exception. In his book Syria Burning, Charles Glass–who’s been writing about the Middle East for decades — delves into the causes of the current war and explores the implications that it might have on the region in the years to come.

 

The cover of the book The Home That Was Our CountryThe Home That Was Our Country

Alia Malek

In her book The Home That Was Our Country, Alia Malek writes about an apartment belonging to her grandmother, which she traveled to Damascus to reclaim when the Arab Spring began. She offers a portrait of the diverse communities in the city around this space, tracing the societal changes in Syria over the years and decades.

 

The cover of the book SyriaSyria

John McHugo

For readers looking at the larger canvas of Syrian history, John McHugo’s comprehensive look at Syria over the course of the last hundred years will be tremendously helpful. In exploring this history, McHugo delves into how colonialism shaped the nation, Syria’s involvement in global wars, and a series of other events leading up to its present conflict.

 

The cover of the book Death Is Hard WorkDeath Is Hard Work

Khaled Khalifa

Not all explorations of a war’s effect on a nation come through memoirs of sprawling histories. In Death Is Hard Work, Khaled Khalifa uses fiction to show how war has affected Syria, blending absurdism and tragedy along the way. In the tale of estranged siblings attempting to bury their father’s body as a war rages around them, Khalifa offers a different window on the war, but one no less memorable.

 

The cover of the book Syrian NotebooksSyrian Notebooks

Jonathan Littell

Jonathan Littell’s Syrian Notebooks provides a firsthand account of the Homs Uprising in 2012, one of the key events in Syria’s civil war. The book that resulted is one that traces the escalation of a conflict, demonstrating how it evolved from a civil conflict to something much more expansive.

 

The cover of the book The Battle for HomeThe Battle for Home

Marwa al-Sabouni

Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni offers a unique perspective on both the recent history of Syria and of the implications of the war taking place there. Her exploration of the architecture of Syria ventures into the numerous cultures that have thrived there, while also looking at how architecture might play a part in healing some of the wounds within Syrian society.

 

The cover of the book The Rise of Islamic StateThe Rise of Islamic State

Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn writes regularly about the Middle East for the Independent, and has written extensively about the region’s geopolitics. In The Rise of Islamic State, Cockburn explores the origins and implications of the extremist group that has played a significant role in the conflict. For readers looking to learn more about how this organization has affected Syria and its neighbors, Cockburn’s book offers a harrowing look.

 

The cover of the book Among the RuinsAmong the Ruins

Christian Sahner

Christian Sahner’s book offers a historical glimpse at Syria, written just as the nation’s civil war was beginning. Sahner offers a historian’s perspective on events, and brings in a sweeping view of the events in the nation’s past that have had a significant influence on the conflict going on there now.

Advertisements

Goodbye To Harlan Ellison, ‘America’s Weird Uncle’

Ellison in 1977, with his beloved typewriter.
Barbara Alper/Getty Images

Editor’s note: This piece uses some strong language; we think Harlan Ellison would have approved.

Harlan Ellison is dead. He was 375 years old. He died fighting alien space bears.

Harlan is dead. He exploded in his living room, in his favorite chair, apoplectic over the absolute garbage fire this world has become. He’s dead, gone missing under mysterious circumstances, leaving behind many suspects. He went down arguing over the law of gravity with a small plane in which he was flying. Harlan took the contrary position. He won.

Harlan Ellison, science fiction writer and legendarily angry man, died Thursday. He exited peacefully (as far as such things go) at home and in his sleep. He was 84 years old.

Any one of those first lies seems to me more likely than the truth of the last one. Hard enough to believe that Ellison is gone — that something out there finally stilled that great and furious spirit and pried those pecking fingers from the keyboard of his Olympia typewriter (without, apparently, the aid of explosives). But a quiet farewell to this life that he loved so largely and this world that he excoriated so beautifully? If someone had asked me, I would’ve bet on the space bears.

Harlan Ellison was, after all, one of the most interesting humans on Earth. He was one of the greatest and most influential science fiction writers alive (until yesterday), and now is one of the best dead ones. He was a complete jerk, mostly unapologetically, and a purely American creation — short, loud, furious, outnumbered but never outmatched — who came up in Cleveland, went to LA and lived like some kind of darkside Forrest Gump; a man who, however improbably, however weirdly, inserted himself into history simply by dint of being out in it, brass knuckles in his pocket, and always looking for trouble.

In his youth, he claims to have been, among other things, “a tuna fisherman off the coast of Galveston, itinerant crop-picker down in New Orleans, hired gun for a wealthy neurotic, nitroglycerine truck driver in North Carolina, short-order cook, cab driver.” He was the kid who ran off and joined the circus. Bought the circus. Burned the whole circus down one night just to see the pretty lights.Stone fact: He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, lectured to college kids, visited with death row inmates, and once mailed a dead gopher to a publisher. He got into it with Frank Sinatra one night in Beverly Hills. Omar Sharif and Peter Falk were there. Ellison was shooting pool, and in walks Sinatra, who laid into Ellison because he didn’t like the kid’s boots.

And look, this is Sinatra in ’65. Sinatra at the height of his power and glory. A Sinatra who could wreck anyone he felt like. But Ellison simply did not care. He went nose-to-nose with Sinatra, shouting, ready to scrap. Gay Talese was there, working on a story, so Ellison became a tiny part of what, among magazine geeks, stands as the single greatest magazine profile of all time: “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold.” “Sinatra probably forgot about it at once,” Talese wrote, “but Ellison will remember it all his life.”

And that was absolutely true.

But that moment? It encapsulated Ellison. His luck, his deviltry, his style and violence. He lived like he had nothing to lose, and he wrote the same way. Twenty hours a day sometimes, hunched over a typewriter, just pounding. He published something like 1,800 stories in his life and some of them (not just one of them or two of them, but a lot of them) are among the best, most important things ever put down on paper.

Ellison brought a literary sensibility to sci-fi at a time when the entire establishment was allergic to any notion of art, won awards for it, and held those who’d doubted him early in a state of perpetual contempt. He wrote “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” But everyone knows that, right? He wrote “A Boy and His Dog,” which became the movie of the same name and still stands as one of the darkest, most disturbing, most gorgeously weird examples of post-apocalyptica on the shelves.

His anthology, Dangerous Visions, gave weight and seriousness to the New Wave movement that revitalized sci-fi in the ’70s. That kicked open the door for everyone who came after and the scene we have today. He wrote a flamethrower essay about hating Christmas and the script for “City on the Edge of Forever,” the Star Trekepisode that most nerds who lean in that direction will tell you was the best of the series. He wrote for comics, for videogames, for Hollywood, got fired from Disney on his first day for making jokes about Disney porn.

He was … science fiction’s Hemingway. Its Picasso. Talented and conflicted, both, and with a fire in him that sometimes came out as genius and sometimes as violence and no one ever knew which one they’d get.

“My work is foursquare for chaos,” he once told Stephen King. “I spend my life personally, and my work professionally, keeping the soup boiling. Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous; I much prefer troublemaker, malcontent, desperado. I see myself as a combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket. My stories go out from here and raise hell.”

And he followed those stories right out the door. Did he get in fights? He did. And bragged about every one of them. Filed lawsuits like they were greeting cards. He assaulted book people with frightening regularity, went to story meetings with a baseball bat back in the day. He groped the author Connie Willis on stage during a Hugo Award ceremony, for which some people never forgave him.

And there’s nothing to say to normalize that. He wasn’t just some curmudgeon or crank to wave off. I once called him “America’s weird uncle,” but that almost seems too gentle because he was more than that. He was an all-American a**hole, born and bred. Science fiction’s Hemingway. Its Picasso. Talented and conflicted, both, and with a fire in him that sometimes came out as genius and sometimes as violence and no one ever knew which one they’d get.

But all of this? None of it really matters today. Because the man is dead and these are the Legends of Ol’ Harlan now. The tales he left behind — on paper and in the heads of those fortunate enough to read him when he was at his acetylene brightest — and the stories that followed in his stories’ wake. To say he was one-of-a-kind would be trite, and he would likely hate that. What he was, was a legend. Singular. Absolutely deserving of all the love and all the anger he earned in his time. With his work, he has purchased immortality at bulk rates. With his life, he stayed on till dawn and cursed the sun for rising. If ever there was a man who lived more than he was due, it was Harlan Ellison.

He’s earned his rest.

And the respect of the space bears.

By Jason Sheehan, June 29, 2018, first appearing on Books : NPR

All Good Magazines Go to Heaven

The Hyman Archive in London, the world’s largest private magazine collection according to Guinness, contains more than 120,000 titles. Its founder, James Hyman, began collecting magazines as a teenager. Credit:Lauren Fleishman for The New York Times

LONDON — When James Hyman was a scriptwriter at MTV Europe, in the 1990s, before the rise of the internet, there was a practical — as well as compulsive — reason he amassed an enormous collection of magazines. “If you’re interviewing David Bowie, you don’t want to be like, ‘O.K., mate, what’s your favorite color?’,” he said. “You want to go through all the magazines and be able to say, ‘Talk about when you did the Nazi salute at Paddington Station in 1976.’ You want to be like a lawyer when he preps his case.”

Whenever possible, Mr. Hyman tried to keep two copies of each magazine he acquired. One pristine copy was for his nascent magazine collection and another was for general circulation among his colleagues, marked with his name to ensure it found its way back to him. The magazines he used to research features on musicians and bands formed the early core of what became the Hyman Archive, which now contains approximately 160,000 magazines, most of which are not digitally archived or anywhere on the internet.

It was frigid inside the archive during a recent visit — a good 10 degrees colder than the chilly air outside — and the staff were bundled up. Space heaters illuminated a nest that Tory Turk (the creative lead), Alexia Marmara (the editorial lead) and Mr. Hyman had made for themselves amid boxes of donations to the collection. It lines more than 3,000 feet of shelving in a former cannon foundry in the 18th-century Royal Arsenal complex in Woolwich, a suburban neighborhood abutting the Thames in southeast London.

The Hyman Archive was confirmed as the largest collection of magazines in 2012 by Guinness World Records; then, it had just 50,953 magazines, 2,312 of them unique titles. Now, a year and a half after Mr. Hyman was interviewed by BBC Radio 4, donations are pouring in, and amid them Mr. Hyman and his staff have carved out space for an armchair and a snack-laden desk. (The rest of the foundry is a storage facility used mostly by media companies to house their film archives and the obsolete technology with which they were made.)

Stacks of British Vogue in the archive. Credit:Lauren Fleishman for The New York Times

At a moment when the old titans like Condé Nast and Time Inc. are contracting, shape-shifting and anxiously hashtagging, herein lies a museum of real magazine making, testament to the old glossy solidity. The price of admission, however, is stiff: visitors can do research with a staffer’s aid for 75 pounds per hour (about $100), with negotiable day rates (and a student discount of 20 percent), or gingerly borrow a magazine for three working days for £50.

“I always knew it was a cultural resource and that there was value in it,” Mr. Hyman said of the archive. But having the collection verified by Guinness was about validation, he said, “because then people might take it more seriously than just thinking: ‘Some lunatic’s got a warehouse full of magazines.’”

Ms. Turk has a knack for repackaging Mr. Hyman’s animated monologues into what in the trade are called sound bites. “I maintain that James always had the foresight that this was going to be something else, more than just a sort of collector’s dream,” she said. “The archive is all about preserving and documenting the history of print.”

Go here for the rest of the article…

By David Shaftel, Jan. 24, 2018, first appearing in NYT > Books

Muggles Rejoice: ‘Harry Potter And The Cursed Child’ Is Now On Broadway

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is an original play by John Tiffany, Jack Thorne and J.K. Rowling.
Matthew Murphy/Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

by Jeff Lunden, April 23, 2018, first appearing on Books : NPR

The most expensive play in Broadway history opened Sunday, April 22. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child cost $33.5 million, runs five and a half hours long (in two parts), and has gotten rave reviews. But while it has plenty of special effects, it’s actually designed for audiences to use their imagination.

“You don’t need millions of dollars to stage a CGI-fest,” says actor Jamie Parker. He plays a grown-up Harry Potter in a story that picks up where the last novel left off, with Harry sending his son off to Hogwarts.

Producers aimed to seduce the audience into seeing what the director wanted them to see, so suitcases become seats on the Hogwarts Express, and a young actor becomes an adult with the help of Polyjuice Potion and a big cloak. Many of the tricks are simple stage illusions, or “rough magic,” as director John Tiffany calls them.

Harry’s son, Albus (Sam Clemmett, left), befriends Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle) on the Hogwarts Express
Matthew Murphy/Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

“I could just smell the fact that cloaks and suitcases were going to tell our story beautifully,” Tiffany says. “And I loved the idea that we were doing things that kids could also do at home when they do their version of the story.”

Jack Thorne, who wrote the play, is thrilled by this approach.

He says, “My favorite moment in the play has no dialogue in it, sadly. And it’s a staircase dance, and you just see two boys and two staircases, and the staircases are openly being pushed around by members of the company. Everyone can see what’s happening onstage, there’s no pretense about it. And you see the staircases and the boys interact in an emotionally significant way that tells the story of what’s happening to these kids.”

Cursed Child is an original play, not a stage adaptation. (Author J.K. Rowling consistently rejected overtures to adapt her novels.) “She decided that this should be called the eighth ‘story,’ ” Tiffany says, “and that it should be classed as canon and in some ways this would be her last word on Harry Potter as a character.”

Jamie Parker plays Harry Potter, and Poppy Miller plays his wife, Ginny, in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Manuel Harlan/Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Tiffany, Thorne and Rowling collaborated on the story, which the producers have gone to great lengths to protect. They won’t release any scenes to the media, and audiences are given buttons that say #KeeptheSecrets. (Actor Jamie Parker had to sign a nondisclosure agreement when he got hired to do a reading.) But the script is available in bookstores and, at this point, pretty much anyone who cares knows what the play is about.

Tiffany says it’s as epic as the books, and insists he never worried it couldn’t be staged. “I absolutely believe and know that theater can do anything. If you harness the audience, and if you ask just enough of them, and if they’re willing to come with you, then they will make believe that anything is happening.”

As for the producers, they believed Harry Potter’s immense popularity would bring in new theater audiences. Producer Sonia Friedman says, “In our first couple of years in London, over 60 percent of our audience [were] first-time theatergoers.”

That sounds a lot like 9-year-old Domenic Simionetti, who attended a recent matinee (his first play) with his mom. He wore a cloak, just like Harry Potter.

“I saw the special effects and I thought they looked really cool,” he said, “because I’ve never seen special effects like that, only in movies.”

Tom Cole edited this story for broadcast. Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Attention Louisa May Alcott Fans!

This is your chance to see it on the (relatively) big screen (at the Moline Library)! 

little women

Literature Nobel In Doubt Amid Claims Swedish Princess Was Sexually Harassed

Protesters gathered earlier this month outside Stockholm’s Old Stock Exchange building, where the Swedish Academy meets. Demonstrators showed support for resigned Permanent Secretary Sara Danius by wearing her hallmark tied blouse.
Fredrik Persson/AFP/Getty Images

by Colin Dwyer, May 1, 2018, first appearing on Books : NPR

If the crisis facing the Swedish Academy looked dire earlier this month, this weekend spelled still worse trouble for the 18-member committee responsible for selecting the Nobel Prize in literature each year. Already deeply roiled by sexual assault and harassment allegations against a prominent cultural figure closely linked with the group, the Swedish Academy found that his ledger of alleged victims has added one more very prominent name: Sweden’s heir apparent, Crown Princess Victoria.

Three witnesses told the Stockholm daily Svenska Dagbladet they had seen photographer Jean-Claude Arnault, an influential cultural impresario in Stockholm, put his hand on Victoria’s behind during a 2006 event at an academy-owned property.

“He came lurking from behind and I saw his hand land on her neck and go downward. It was all the way down,” Swedish writer Ebba Witt-Brattstrom, who had been attending the event, later confirmed to London’s The Telegraph.

Witt-Brattstrom says a uniformed aide to the princess, who was then 27, “just flew herself” on the then-59-year-old Arnault. “She grabbed him,” Witt-Brattstrom added to the Telegraph, “and ‘whop’, he was gone. The crown princess turned in surprise. I guess she had never been groped. She just looked like ‘what?’ ”

Arnault’s attorney has told several media outlets he denies these allegations as well as the incidents of sexual assault and harassment alleged by 18 women in November.

His denials have done nothing to ease the turmoil wreaked on the Swedish Academy, of which Arnault’s wife, Katarina Frostenson, was a longtime member before resigning earlier this month. Questions about when and what the committee’s members knew about the allegations led several other members to resign before her, either in protest or because of the protests — including Permanent Secretary Sara Danius.

The controversy has even raised the prospect that this year it might be unable to perform its most famous duty, picking literature’s Nobel winner in October. The committee discussed the prospect of postponing the award last week “and came to no decision,” member Per Wastberg told The Guardian after the meeting last week.

He added that members would resume the conversation at another meeting this Thursday, at which point they will very likely reach a decision on whether it will be necessary to skip the prize this year and instead announce two winners in 2019.

If indeed the Swedish Academy decides to postpone the award, this would mark the first year since the depths of World War II, from 1940 to 1943, that no writers won the Nobel Prize in literature.

Another member, former Permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl, downplayed the possibility to The Guardian — but the committee’s public statement last week made little secret of the “state of crisis” it is currently experiencing.

“Confidence in the Academy has been undermined, the number of active members is diminished, and there has been an unplanned change in the post of Permanent Secretary,” the group acknowledged.

It noted that it had already engaged an outside law firm to investigate the situation. The firm has found that the Swedish Academy violated its conflict-of-interest rule by financially supporting a cultural forum co-owned by Arnault and Frostenson and that there had also been “a breach of the Academy’s secrecy rules” relating to the Nobel.

 

The Swedish Academy added that another damaging revelation had also recently surfaced: that as far back as 1996, the committee had received a letter detailing an alleged sexual assault at the forum and had ignored it.

“The Academy deeply regrets that the letter was shelved and no measures taken to investigate the charges and possibly stop further reimbursements to Kulturplats Forum,” the group said. “The Swedish Academy strongly condemns sexual harassment and sexual aggression wherever it occurs.”

One potential problem for the Swedish Academy does appear on its way to resolution, at least. As we reported earlier this month, the committee’s bylaws have had no formal provisions for members to resign their positions, which are supposed to be lifetime commitments. Those same bylaws also demand a quorum of 12 members to make any significant decisions — like, say, changing the provisions on resignation and selecting replacements. All but 11 members have de facto stepped down at this point, leaving the academy in a rather tough bind.

But the group’s patron, Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf, stepped in earlier this month with the announcement he is planning changes that will facilitate resignation.

“It is a given premise of Swedish and international law that any person who no longer wishes to be a member of an organisation must be allowed to leave,” he said in a statement. “This premise should also apply to the Swedish Academy.”

2018 Pulitzer Prize Winners Announced

by APRIL 17, 2018, first appearing in Library Journal

On Monday, April 16, the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced before a hushed crowd in the recently renovated Joseph Pulitzer World Room at Columbia University’s Pulitzer Hall.  The announcement was made by Dana Canedy, administrator of the awards and herself someone to be celebrated. Formerly a senior editor at the New York Times, where she was part of a team that won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting, Canedy was appointed in July 2017 as the first woman and first person of color to serve as awards administrator.

Altogether 14 journalism and seven letters, drama, and music awards were presented, the former covering topics ranging from sexual harassment to domestic terrorist Dylann Roof and the latter, said Canedy, signifying “the impact of arts and letters on American culture.”

The book prizes proved satisfying if not completely surprising.

With his fiction win for Less (Lee Boudreaux: Little, Brown), the story of a midlist novelist avoiding a former lover’s marriage by traveling to literary events worldwide, Andrew Sean Greer  finally lays claim to a major title, though he’s been an NYPL Young Lion and received best book honors for Less from the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle. Prize rules specify that the fiction honor go to a book “preferably dealing with American life,” but Greer deals more broadly with issues of aging and self-worth. Ironically, his protagonist, Arthur Less, is best known for his early liaison with a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, suffering comparisons that make him feel less worthy—a problem Greer won’t have.

The biography award went to Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a National Book Critics Award winner and New York Times Best Book; the poetry award, to Frank Bidart’s Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 (Farrar), a National Book Award winner; and the general nonfiction award, to James Forman Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (Farrar), a New York Times Best Book and Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist.

Forman’s work, which examines how response by African Americans to trauma within their own communities inadvertently led to the contentious issue of mass incarceration, was also short-listed for the Inaugural Goddard Riverside Stephan Russo Book Prize for Social Justice. Jack E. Davis’s The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea (Liveright: Norton), ranging from the Pleistocene era to the Deepwater Horizon disaster and beyond, also won the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction.

Music and drama were the big surprises, with gasps meeting the announcement of the music award. The winner is rapper Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., the first time a classical or jazz composer hasn’t won. Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living, a play about physical disability that opened Off Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club in June 2017, won the drama award. Majok, a Polish immigrant who saw her first play after winning some money playing pool, won against some formidable competition, with Obie Award winner and previous Pulitzer finalist Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everybody and previous Pulitzer winner Tracy Letts’s The Minutes this year’s drama finalists.

Canedy proved to be a congenial host, especially during the Q&A session, when she responded to urgent questions from a group of female high school students from the News Literacy Project by assuring them that news reporting and news reporters will be more diverse in the future. In general, she emphasized that whatever changes come in reporting and in the awards process (e.g., rules were changed this year so that coverage needn’t be from a local publication), the main point is that “the work speaks for itself.” For more on the winners, see 2018 Pulitzer Prizes.