Local Writer's Specialty Is History in a Hurry
*Amanda 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.

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 said.

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 dictate.

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 her.

"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 present."

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 users, however.

"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 said.

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 Angeles-area bookstores.

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 said.

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 hurry.

April 7, 2003