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Amanda Roraback

Amanda Roraback was born in Scotland and spent the first 7 years of her life in Paris with her American father, then a journalist at the International Herald Tribune, and Scottish mother. The family moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s after her father was offered a job at the Los Angeles Times.

By the time the family had relocated to the warmer climates of America’s west coast, she had already visited 7 countries beginning her lifelong quest to visit as many countries as the number of years she was alive. The wanderlust was inherited by her father, who had traveled the world as a missionary, fisherman, naval officer, journalist and other jobs, and her mother who had lived in Hong Kong and Paris before getting married.  

As soon as she graduated from high school, she took her first solo trip to Europe where she explored life behind the infamous Iron Curtain and added her name to the graffiti on the Berlin Wall.  During one excursion up Notre Dame in Paris, one of the first terrorist bombs exploded at the local police prefecture. Roraback, already a journalist at heart, quickly snapped photos of the billowing smoke before running to the scene. The next day, she sold the photo to Paris Match. The money she earned from the double-page spread paid for this trip and a portion of the next.

Two years later, Roraback, a French major at the time, spent a semester in China resulting in an abrupt shift in her field of study. “For the first time in my life, I saw people who, in effect, thought differently that I did,” Roraback reported. She changed her major to history in order to better explore the hearts and minds of people around the world. Out of the China trip also came her very first published piece. While she was abroad, her letters home were published in the Cal State University of Northridge alumni magazine. The next year, the same students she had befriended in Xi’an joined their peers to demonstrate against the government in Tiananmen Square.

Not entirely abandoning her first desire to learn French, Amanda finally spent a semester in Paris, the same year the Berlin wall collapsed. She would have a chance to explore the consequences of this momentous event a couple of years later in the Soviet Union.

In 1991, Roraback arrived for a year-long term teaching history at a progressive university in the Soviet Republic of Lithuania. In line with her impeccable knack for timing, she arrived the evening of the coup that deposed Gorbachev and brought an end to the Soviet Empire. For the next year, she watched Lithuania (now independent) evolve from a Soviet country to a Western one.  She was quickly hired by the brand new American Embassy as a liaison in her city, Kaunas, and kept up with local sentiments by hosting her own radio show, “The Kaunas Commentary” broadcast around the world.

When Roraback returned to the States, Amanda finished her Masters degree in history and published a number of scholarly articles on her experiences in Lithuania. She graduated with the highest honors from California State University Northridge, the same year the University nearly collapsed in the course of the Northridge earthquake in 1994.

She was accepted into the Doctorate program at UCLA where she worked towards a PhD in Soviet History.

As she climbed higher in the academic arena, though, she saw her world continue to shrink. No longer inspired by studying minutiae in history, she decided to drop the program and academia in order to chase grander goals.

“At a certain point, I got tired of reexamining historical revolutions. What I really wanted to know was how they influenced the world today.” She also wanted to share what she her passion of history and current affairs with ordinary people – those who didn’t have the time or inclination to properly learn about the world around them.

Breaking all the rules she had learned from her pundit professors, Roraback set out to simplify concepts and bridge the gap between history and contemporary news. “Information is only interesting when it is understood and when, in some way or another, it relates to our lives.”

After a few illicit trips to Cuba, Roraback penned the first in her “Nutshell Notes” and posted it on her new website,  Soon after it went up, a little boy drifted on the shores of Florida setting off media frenzy. The Elian Gonzales story increased the number of visitors to her site from less than 10 a day to thousands of hits a day. She added entries on Yugoslavia and Afghanistan but maintained an ambition to put them into printed booklets in the same style as Cliffs Notes.

The Nutshell Notes book series

Roraback’s big break came in 2000 when she met Avo Tavitian, an Armenian doctor-photographer-philanthropist who employed Roraback to help him develop his photography.  Together they planned to create a photo book about ethnic groups in Los Angeles. As Roraback and Tavitian diligently worked on the project, tentatively called “L.A. International,” Roraback continued to maintain her website adding by adding entries on Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.

“I became particularly interested in Afghanistan when I came upon a demonstration at the Director’s Guild in West Hollywood,” Roraback recalled. “Inside the auditorium a cavalcade of celebrities paraded past the paparazzi championing the cause of Afghan women. Outside the theater, meanwhile, groups of real immigrant Afghans were picketing the star-studded event. It occurred to me that despite good intentions, Mavis Leno [Jay Leno’s wife, the organizer of the event] and the rest of the attendees knew very little about the country they were trying to defend.”

For the next year, Roraback researched Afghanistan’s history in order to add content to her “Afghanistan in a Nutshell” website entry. Little did she know that the little South Asian country would soon become front page news.

Just hours after two planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, Roraback put in a call to Tavitian. Now was the time to turn the website into books. Tavitian agreed and immediately offered the finances necessary to create the first booklet in the Nutshell Notes series.

With a lot of help from friends and relatives, the book came out in record time. Just a month after the terrorist attacks, the 26-page booklet was placed on the shelves of L.A.’s biggest independent bookstores. A week later, the book was listed on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list where it remained for three weeks.

In order not to lose the momentum, Roraback followed Osama bin Laden as he fled to Pakistan by creating the second title in the series, “Pakistan in a Nutshell” followed soon after by “Islam in a Nutshell.”

Roraback and Tavitian again had impeccable timing by publishing “Iraq in a Nutshell” in March 2003, just when American troops were setting off for the desert Mid-East country. “Iraq in a Nutshell,” too, was listed on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list.

The same year, Roraback and Tavitian also decided to open an art gallery (Enisen Gallery) exhibiting international artwork. Among the shows were photographic exhibitions of Iraq and Iran by National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita and documentarian Aryana Farshad. The gallery also hosted a number of local photography contests including one titled “Neighborhood of Nations.”

In 2004, Amanda Roraback embarked on her most ambitious project, a “flip-book” which would present the Middle East crisis from two perspectives. “Israel-Palestine in a Nutshell” was an instant hit attracting the attention of a big distributor.

Sales of all the books (most in their second or third editions) skyrocketed in 2004 with sales to Borders, Barnes & Nobles, Booksamillion and other book store chains. 

The wide circulation inspired Roraback to share her wisdom by lecturing to audiences in libraries, colleges, clubs, the LA Times Book Festival and even elementary schools.

“Young kids know that the U.S. is at war but they don’t understand the details and that scares them. By simplifying the issues, I try to put them at ease.”

Not surprisingly, grade-school teachers feel the same way. In 2004, the books were listed in the Social Studies School Catalogue and Roraback joined a number of educational organizations in support of the study of social studies and history. Every year, Roraback also volunteers as a judge in local and statewide “History Day” competitions and participates in educational programs for teachers.

By 2006, Roraback also added a sixth book to the series, “Iran in a Nutshell” – just in time to explain the “nuclear showdown” between President Bush and Iran’s spitfire President Ahmadinejad.

In 2006, Amanda finally received a visa allowing her to visit Iran as a British tourist (she applied for dual-citizenship to facilitate the trip). The trip coincided with the war in Lebanon between Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel and the terrorist threat on planes flying between London and the United States. Despite many set-backs (among them, Amanda’s flight connection through London’s Heathrow Airport) the author was able to study a broad cross-section of Iran’s population in more than a dozen cities. She captured the trip in 700 photographs and more than 100 pages of notes which she is still compiling into a blog.

In the last few months of 2006, Roraback plans, again, to update her existing titles while completing work on the book that she and Avo set out to write six years ago. “L.A. International” will be published in 2007 as will titles #7 and #8 in the Nutshell Notes series, “Korea in a Nutshell,” and “China in a Nutshell.”

Roraback is the author of debuting in March 2007.