In a 'Nutshell,' a primer worth looking into

The World in a Nutshell: A Series.

Michael J. Bonafield, Star Tribune

Last update: August 13, 2006 10:34 PM

World

"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. Roraback, who conceived the idea for the series, had embarked upon a doctoral program in history at UCLA when 9/11 changed the world -- and her career path. "I didn't see myself standing in front of a class explaining stuff that can be found in books," she said. "History is dynamic; it's real. I try to make the connection in my series between what is read in the daily newspaper and a country's history." So far she has written about Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Islam, Iraq, Pakistan and Iran. Two more are on the drawing board -- China and the Koreas. Moreover, "Israel-Palestine in a Nutshell" (its back-to-back layout is ingenious) has been revamped in light of recent events. The Star Tribune's Michael J. Bonafield caught up with her in Santa Monica, Calif., as she was preparing for a fact-finding trip to Iran.

Celebrities' ignorance sparked the idea for 'Nutshell'

Last update: August 13, 2006 6:52 PM

The World in a Nutshell: A Series.

By Amanda Roraback.

Enisen Publishing, 80 to 145 pages, $7.95 to $9.95.

Q: What led you to do the "Nutshell" series?

A: It was 9/11, actually. I went to a Directors Guild rally out here in Hollywood and various celebrities were championing women's rights in Afghanistan, but it was apparent they didn't even know where Afghanistan is, much less anything about its culture and history. It motivated me to do the first book, on Afghanistan.

Q: A knowledge of Islam would seem to be a key to understanding not only Afghanistan, or the Taliban, but the entire Middle East.

A: I had studied Islam in school, and I've taken trips to the Mideast: Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Egypt. I stayed with a sheik in Cyprus studying Islam. He was a Sufi Muslim. I still go to Qur'an classes often. I found it fascinating how similar religions are; even the stories in the Bible and the Qur'an are similar.

Q: We hear often that Islam is a religion of peace. Did you find that to be true?

A: Definitely. Islam on paper is very peaceful; as with Christianity, it's the interpretation of the word that leads to problems. For example, most Muslims I've talked to see terrorists, such as suicide bombers, as separate from themselves and from Islam. What motivates people to kill themselves and others for Islam is not so much a religious question as it is a cultural and political issue.

Q: How do you go about writing these books?

A: I assume readers are the same as I was when I first approached a subject. I thought about the questions they'd be embarrassed to ask, so I asked -- and answered -- the questions for them. The purpose of writing these books is to express facts and events about a nation's history, not to impress. The time it takes to research and write varies: Islam took me a year, but the Israel-Palestine book took two years. Afghanistan took a year and a half.

Q: By the way, how does one prepare for a trip to Iran these days?

A: After trying to decode the mixed advice I've been receiving about my sartorial responsibilities -- "jeans are fine,"no, you must wear dark pants,"open shoes, no problem,"always cover your toes" -- I decided to shop for a black manteau, or raincoat, or coat, depending on who is advising me, that reaches below my knees. I just stood laughing realizing how futile my search for a raincoat was in Southern California in July. ... I prayed that one of my Persian friends would have pity on me and lend me a chador [a full-body covering] so that I could simply toss on a pair of shorts and a tank top and be done with it -- with closed-toe black shoes, of course.

Michael J. Bonafield 612-673-4215