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Book Reviews


"Get your facts straight first," advised Mark Twain, but facts can be devilishly elusive -- and never more so as when they are needed immediately. That's the beauty of Amanda Roraback's "Nutshell" series. Most everything one would want to know about a country -- its history, government, economy, social composition, religion, languages and more -- is covered in cleanly written précis brimming with important and fascinating data. And it's packaged in a user-friendly paperback.

Michael J. Bonafield
Minneapolis Star Tribune

Amanda Roraback must be a fan of Dragnet hero Sgt. Joe Friday, who entered the English language with his famous phrase "All we want are the facts, ma'am." Roraback's Nutshell Notes series does a superb job of providing readers with all the background information they need to make sense of news reports about the world's trouble spots. The best things often come in small packages, and thanks to skillful editing these booklets are lively and informative, while avoiding the temptation to get bogged down in detail and opinion. Roraback has a penchant for the world's hotspots, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, but manages to remain fair and objective when she tries to explain the turmoil these countries are experiencing. Nutshell Notes aren't tourist guides, but they are essential tools for anyone wanting to understand what makes these countries tick.

David Pearson
Columnist, Dow Jones Newswires

“The Nutshell Notes series performs a great service in a world torn by violence and uncertainty by bringing readers understanding of the peoples, nations and beliefs of regions stretching from the cockpit of the Middle East to the burgeoning landscape of Asia, and from Latin America to Africa…”

James Flanigan
Sr. Economics Editor & Columnist
Los Angeles Times

Amanda Roraback has written a series of books on the Middle East that covers each country's history from antiquity to the present as well as the origins, growth, spread, and current issues of Islam.  Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan are treated in three separate books (while cleverly, Israel and Palestine are in the same book--Palestine on one side, flip the book over and Israel is on the other).  The books are short and quite easy to read.  In each, the table of contents is meticulously detailed for easy reference.  There is a separate section for maps as well as side bars.  Each book has a full page on "Facts and Figures" for quick reference.  This includes population, import/export products and trade partners, breakdown of religious affiliations and languages, as well as GDP per capita.  This alone makes the series a good investment for the classroom.

     The books do not take a stand on any issues nor do they argue a point.  They are reference books.  Each book gives a very detailed history of the nation or religion and concludes with the present day.  Important names, places, and events are in bold print for quick reference.  Islam has a glossary at the end and also contains sidebars dedicated to the translation of biblical names, Qur'an rules of conduct, and the ninety-nine names for God.  Iraq includes a timeline of "The Road to War--UN Resolutions" allowing students to see at a glance how the U.S. became involved in today's Iraqi War.

     There is a tremendous amount of detailed material in the books.  For instance, Islam traces each caliph, from the "Rightly Guided Caliphs" through the dynasties, Turks,  Crusades, Mamelukes, Mongols, and Ottoman Empire.  Each splinter group is discussed.  The reasons for the splits, the rulers, and various offshoots are covered in great detail.  This information can aid student understanding of the tension in Iraq today.  Iraq begins in antiquity and includes sidebars covering Iraq in the Bible, the UN vote for war and the list of the rotating presidency complete with religious affiliation (Sunni, Shiite, and Sunni Kurd) and dates.  Iran also begins in antiquity and details the dynasties and various rulers through the Ottoman Empire.

     Roraback then details the "Great Game" of imperialism between Russia and Great Britain in the 19th century during which many Middle Eastern countries became pawns and were subsequently taken over by one of the great powers.  In Iran, she explains, weak leaders borrowed heavily to support lavish lifestyles and gave British companies monopolies over the tobacco and booming oil businesses.  She then explains the work toward modernization/westernization under Reza Shah Pahlevi: Sharia law was abolished, the chador was prohibited, and "the new Iranian man" was visualized based on Western ideals, dress, and customs.  Roraback then traces Iran's position in both world wars and the Cold War culminating in the Islamic Revolution in the 1970s to rid Iran of western ideals bringing the chador and Sharia law back. Iran also contains the Iranian Constitution and a section on nuclear weapons.  There is a detailed section titled, "Building a Nuclear Bomb".  I am not sure why the author goes into such detail as to give the reader a list of ingredients and steps in the processing of uranium and plutonium except to say that "reprocessing rather than disposing spent fuel allows poorer countries to extract all the energy they can from their uranium supply and reduces nuclear waste".(54-55). Each book, where applicable, contains a section on Islam, oil, and/or terrorism.

     The Nutshell Notes series is best suited for the high school student.  A classroom set would give students the basic information and start them on the path to deeper research.  The series has great breadth on Middle Eastern countries that allows it to fit quite well into any World History curriculum. The series can also be effective for teachers whose knowledge of the Middle East is minimal by pointing them in the direction they may need to go for additional research.

Adele Dalesandro-Haug
Wheeling High School
From World History Connection



Israel in a nutshell/Palestine in a nutshell (Nutshell Notes), by A. Roraback, Enisen Publishing, Santa Monica, California, 2004, 136pp. £5.71, ISBN 097029084-5

The interesting title is ‘Nutshell’s’ ingenious response to the political, social, and religious conflicts over this land, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, and its borders.  It reflects a ‘book of two halves’, the two parts starting from opposite ends and being upside-down to the other (having the effects of squeezing out any index, and tempting the reader to read each subject separately).  As with others in this series, the format is somewhat like a website, with ‘keywords’ in bold which can refer the reader to text elsewhere about that word.  Roraback explains clearly and perhaps as objectively as possible the long historical context and ‘current’ situation.  The word ‘Palestine’ comes from ‘Philistine’, ‘Israel’ means “to strive with God and prevail”, and was the name given to Jacob in the bible.  Starting in the 4th millennium B.C.), one can read about the Canaanites, ‘Jerusalem’ meaning ‘City of Peace’, the invasion by Philistines and Hebrew-speaking tribes, and the birth of the “King of the Jews”/prophet Jesus (Christ).  This is a detailed, comprehensive guide to a subject about which there is much controversy and conflict.       

Book Review

A welcome addition to International Studies reading lists
Israel/Palestine In A Nutshell is really two books in one. On one side is "Palestine in a nutshell". Flip it over and you have "Israel in a nutshell" on the other side. What is provided is the history of the current conflict presented from both the perspective of the Israelis and the Palestinians. A welcome addition to International Studies reading lists, Israel/Palestine In A Nutshell offers an informed and informative tour through the series of peace treaties between the two opposing communities from the Camp David accords down to the latest 2003 Geneva proposal. Also very highly recommended are the four other "World in a Nutshell" titles from Enisen Publishing: Afghanistan in a Nutshell; Iraq in a Nutshell; Pakistan in a Nutshell, and Islam in a Nutshell.

Midwest Book Review

Amanda Roraback's "Israel-Palestine in a Nutshell" captures one of the world's most complex, contentious and violent political situations in an usual format. Its "flip-book" approach, with each people's experience facing the other's, literally and figuratively enables readers to confront both sides of the issue. As a rabbi who works on campus with a range of religious groups, including Muslims, I will find this book useful in
dialogue situations and could also recommend it for use in courses on the
Middle East.

Rabbi Susan Laemmle, Ph.D.
Dean of Religious Life
University of Southern California


As a lifelong, card-carrying member of Islam Ignoramus Society, I finally compelled myself to become a proud ex-member in light of all that's happened in recent years. Since there is no such book as Islam For Dummies (Salman Rushdie being disinclined to pen such a book), I opted for Amanda Roraback's excellent "nutshell" version. Islam in a Nutshell deftly (and objectively) whisks us on a journey to the 6th Century A.D. and beyond, carefully educating the reader along the way. Incredibly, I didn't understand how Sunni and Shiite Muslims differed-and, more importantly, why-but this little book (not too little to skimp on some crucial maps of the era) told me clearly and concisely. I highly recommend Islam in a Nutshell, so read it before bed one night and awake the next day a little more enlightened.

David Pecchia
Freelance Book Reviewer


After enjoying Amanda Roraback's Islam in a Nutshell, I allocated a portion of my day to devour another in her series of "Nutshell" books. Iraq, with its pivotal location as a hotbed of humanity, seemed the next logical destination. I turned off CNN (talking heads blah blah), unplugged the phone (telemarketer blah blah), hopped offline (porn blah blah) and began reading. Once again, my time was well spent as I journeyed into the Middle East as it was then and learned why it is now. Granted, this wonderful read went to publication just as the war commenced, so don't expect any capture of Saddam insights. Not to worry, though, as you'll be brought up to speed as to Iraq's history in a way that's as entertaining as is it informative. Roraback's objectivity remains intact, as it concludes with a valuable Arguments Against War and Arguments In Favor of War section that should be required reading for hawks and doves alike. Someday soon I will try and contact Ms. Roraback to see if she's working on a Britney Spears' Wedding in a Nutshell, but she'd probably tell me that would be redundant.

David Pecchia
Freelance Book Reviewer

Excellent, informative and well written!
I have a few of these "Nutshell Notes" books and I have even visited the website, and I must say that these books do a superb job of telling it like it is--no fluff, no confusion, no words that I have to look up in the dictionary every other sentence, just pure, concise information.
I also really like that the author's voice is not tainted by any particular right or left wing opinion, it is very journalistic and straight forward. You can pick it up, read for one minute or one hour and you will come away having learned something new.
I recommend these books for anyone from a seventh grader doing a school report to an adult interested in getting themself more educated in the world issues at hand. It is definitely worth $5.95, in fact, I think they should go for more!

Marny Kamins


A great guide for anyone who wants background information on a volatile country ... This book is a well-rounded assembly of facts, timelines, definitions, and general information that covers an array of topics from the origin of Muslim influence in Afghanistan, to the current state of the Taliban rule and its affects on its people. We also get background information on Osama Bin Laden leading up to and following his declaration of war on the United States. Overall, I give this book a very high rating. It both summarized what I've already learned about Afghanistan..., and has also given me a broader understanding of the region and its history.

Warren Schiller