LOS ANGELES TIMES
Local Writer's Specialty Is History
in a Hurry
Roraback has self-published 'Iraq in a Nutshell,'
her fourth book in a series.
April 7, 2003
By Bob Pool, Times Staff Writer
The last chapter of the war in Iraq
is ready to be written. In Atwater Village.
April 7, 2003
That's where historian Amanda Roraback sits at a
desk surrounded by maps and reference materials and
waits for the battle for Baghdad to play out so she
can finish the Iraqi history book she published
three weeks ago.
Her "Iraq in a Nutshell" is a pocket-sized guide to
the Mideastern country's stormy history. Its first
edition traces Iraq's past, from the days of the
Sumerians of 2000 BC to what may have been the final
days of Saddam Hussein. And she knows a second
edition is coming.
"At the writing of this book, the U.S. and its
allies were trying to assassinate Hussein and senior
Iraqi leaders," wrote Roraback on the evening of
March 19 as the U.S.-led assault began.
She rushed her 51-page book to the printer at 8 a.m.
the next day. A day after that, the first copies of
"Iraq in a Nutshell" began popping up in independent
bookstores around Los Angeles.
Now Roraback is waiting to see what happens next to
Iraq -- and to her ambitious goal of creating a
series of study guides that use the lessons of
history to explain why there are so many political
hot spots around the globe.
"My grand vision is, this will become something like
Cliffs Notes," Roraback said, referring to the
venerable series of booklets about literature that
generations of students have turned to when faced
with intimidating book-report assignments.
But each entry in the Cliffs Notes series had to be
written only once. "I'm doing a kind of Cliffs Notes
of news -- my subjects are constantly changing," she
Political and social shifts are what Roraback is
counting on to make her Nutshell books a hit. The
shakier a country is, the better she likes it.
"A stable country like Canada -- who would want to
read a book about it now?" she asked.
So far Roraback has profiled Afghanistan and
Pakistan, as well as Iraq. A fourth book is devoted
to the subject of Islam. Planned for the future are
books on the disputed Israel/Palestine area, Iran,
North Korea, Colombia and Indonesia. She said she's
prepared to do follow-up versions of each as events
Roraback, 37, of Santa Monica, has bachelor's and
master's degrees in history from Cal State
Northridge. She was working on a doctorate in
history at UCLA in 1997 when world events overtook
"I was doing a paper on 19th-century Russian
prostitutes. Although it was very interesting, it
didn't relate to what was happening in Russia. And
at that time a lot was going on," she said. "It was
frustrating. I was constantly being pushed into the
past" when things were happening so fast in the
Her geographical history writing began by accident
after she left graduate school. When she amassed an
interesting collection of information about Cuba for
a planned trip there, she posted it on the Internet.
Soon after that, the Elian Gonzales child-custody
incident was in the news and her Cuba Web site
attracted thousands of viewers.
Emboldened, Roraback -- whose father was a
newspaperman -- wrote a treatise on Yugoslavia's
history that was pegged to the then-ending Kosovo
crisis. It attracted little attention from Internet
"I learned a lesson: I should have written about
Yugoslavia before the conflict was over," she said.
She also learned that she had far more information
than casual Internet readers were willing to digest.
"I decided I should have a book. People can only
consume a certain amount when it's on a screen," she
In early 2001 Roraback began researching the history
of Afghanistan after hearing celebrities such as
Mavis Leno, wife of entertainer Jay Leno, speak
about abuses to women there.
She had written most of "Afghanistan in a Nutshell"
when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred. Within
two weeks, she had published it herself and managed
to get it on the shelves of independent Los
The 1,500-copy press run of "Afghanistan in a
Nutshell" quickly sold out, landing the book on The
Times' bestseller list for three weeks. Roraback
updated it after Hamid Karzai assumed power. She
launched "Pakistan in a Nutshell" after it appeared
that Osama bin Laden might be hiding there.
Readers such as Warren Shiller of Mar Vista say they
appreciate the timeliness of the $5.95 volumes.
"The climate of the world changes so quickly. It's
really helpful to have something that's easy to read
that lets you know about a subject you know little
about," said Shiller, who owns a flooring company
and purchased the Afghanistan book when U.S. troops
were sent there.
Roraback can move quickly because of help she gets
from friends and family members. Her mother,
Dorothy, and brother, Richard, both of Woodland
Hills, edit and help with fact-checking. A childhood
chum, geography teacher Katie Gerber of Burbank,
draws the books' maps. A Santa Monica neighbor,
Chris Herlong, does the page layout.
Publishing costs have been underwritten by Avo
Tavitian, owner of Enisen Gallery, a Glendale
Boulevard art gallery that Roraback helps run. It is
there that she maintains her office.
Unlike conventional history books, Roraback's
contain no footnotes. Information has been drawn
from other books, newspapers, magazines and the
Internet. "I use so many sources that to list them
all would make my 51-page book 151 pages," she said.
About 2,100 copies of "Iraq in a Nutshell" have so
far been printed and are selling well. Written in a
breezy yet authoritative style, it pulls no punches
as it tells of various nations' tangled ties with
Iraq and of the nasty infighting among its
inhabitants in the past. Against that backdrop, the
current war takes on new meaning.
"Most historians want to wait until the dust
settles. They say that writing about an issue before
it's finished doesn't do justice to history," she
Her answer is "that if people are interested in a
country right now they should be able to get a taste
of its past right now too."
In a nutshell, that translates to history in a