With this group of books, the end approaches for the spring cleaning I originally intended. I have less than a shelf to go. That means, I can clean off an end table or two and put books on a freshly dusted off shelf.
The Stuff: As journalist Seierstad recounts in her foreword, she met Shah Muhammad Rais (whom she calls Sultan Khan in the book) in Kabul after spending time with the Northern Alliance during their fight with the Taliban. He loves books.
“First the Communists burned my books, then the Mujahedeen looted and pillaged, finally the Taliban burned them all over again,” he tells her. He had even spent time in prison.
The author realizes this man is interested in preserving Afghan culture. He invites her to dinner one night. She invites herself to spend time as a houseguest. He assures her she is welcome.
A portrait emerges where the head of house has absolute sway over everyone’s life. One’s wives and children aren’t that important. They serve the pater familias.
Rais eventually brought suit against the author for defamation and/or invasion of privacy. Its resolution is a little hard to suss out as there several contradictory articles.
The book was foremost sad. Several layers weigh down on the people who can do little about their situation. I can only wish them well after the Taliban take over.
Bio: Åsne Seierstad (b. 1970) is a Norwegian freelance journalist and author best known for her portraits of everyday life during times of war in places like Afghanistan, Serbia, and Chechnya. She also wrote an account of the 2011 attack on a summer camp in Norway, titled One of Us.
Title: The Bookseller of Kabul
Author: Åsne Seierstad (b. 1970)
First published: 2002 (English translation 2003)
The Stuff: Shattuck divides the book into two main sections, plus three appendices. The first section deals with forbidden knowledge as a topic in literature. Reading this was fun for me. I got to read tidbits of stuff I’d read before and find things I hadn’t read before. Seldom did I agree with his interpretation of works. No, Mary Shelley wasn’t writing about forbidden knowledge or scientific trespass. She was writing about Victor Frankenstein abandoning his creation. The second part dealt with forbidden knowledge in science in the real world. His great bugaboo, the human genome project, almost seems quaint now. He also writes about the “rehabilitation” of the writing of the Marquis de Sade and his violent pornography. This was genuinely difficult for me to read. Shattuck warns the reader, not without reason, that his excerpts are graphic. The bigger question is whether such sh—er, such writing should be censored. Shattuck doesn’t call for censorship per se, but his outlook is quite conservative. In one appendix, he outlines six types of forbidden knowledge.
I disagree with many things Shattuck wrote, but this is a thoughtful, scholarly book, not a reactionary, pearl-clutching screed.
Bio: Roger Shattuck (1923-2005) was a polyglot scholar and writer who taught French and comparative literature at Harvard, the University of Texas, the University of Virginia, and Boston University, from which he retired in 1997. He interrupted his pre-med studies at Yale to enlist in the Army for World War II and served in the Pacific. His books include The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I (1958); a 1975 biography of Marcel Proust, which won the National Book Award Arts & Letters prize; and Candor and Perversion: Literature, Education, and the Arts (1998).
Title: Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography
Author: Roger Shattuck (1923-2005)
First published: 1996
The Stuff: Beginning in 1934, these are extracts from Shirer’s diary that depict the rise of Naziism in Germany. For most of that time, he was a foreign correspondent for CBS, the first of the “Murrow Boys.” He was in Vienna for the Anschluss and in France for the signing of the armistice between France and Germany. He spent time in Berlin, attending speeches given by Hitler, whom he calls “the great man” and describes as “dripping with venom.” He got wind the Gestapo was building an espionage case against him and got out of Dodge, smuggling the diary.
It’s come to light since his death that the diary paints Hitler in a more favorable light than the published work, so there is a bit of revisionism. Nevertheless, re-reading this book is chilling, especially with the rise of fascism in the world.
Bio: William Shirer (1904-1993) was an American print and radio journalist and later lecturer and author. Among his books are The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) and The Nightmare Years (1984).
Title: Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941
Author: William L. Shirer (1904-1993)
First published: 1941
The Stuff: In 1920s London, psychic Ellie Winter receives a man who’s come to her under the pretense of asking for her help in finding his sister’s lost brooch. Ellie knows the man is lying—and his name is not Mr. Baker. She, unlike most psychics, does not communicate with the dead. At least not anymore, despite the demand since the Great War. She finds lost things—not people. Mr. Not-Baker has come to find out if Ellie is real because his sister, the flamboyant psychic Gloria Sutter, was murdered during a seance. Just before she died, she sent him a note saying, “Tell Ellie Winter to find me.”
Does Ellie have any idea what she meant? Nope.
Gloria and Ellie were once friends but have become rivals as two of the only “true” psychics around. Why would Gloria leave such a note for her brother?
This was a fun, quick read, but it was also quite commercial. The reader knew what would happen because it relied on tried and true formulae.
Bio: Simone St. James is a Canadian author of mystery, historical fiction, and romance novels. According to the author’s blurb, St. James worked behind the scenes in the television industry for twenty years before leaving to write full-time. Her books include The Haunting of Maddy Clare (2012), The Sun Down Motel (2020), and The Book of Cold Cases (2022). She lives outside of Toronto with her husband and spoiled cat.
Title: The Other Side of Midnight
Author: Simone St. James
First published: April 2015
The Stuff: Once upon a time, I read Plato’s Republic. I read it on my own, not for a class. I was still young enough to be shocked as I watched a totalitarian state arise from the search for “justice.”
In the present book, the author asks that in a society that prized free speech, why was Socrates sentenced to death for dishonoring the gods and corrupting the youth? The records of the trial that have come down to us are from two pupils of Socrates, Plato and Xenophon. They offer only a one-sided view of the trial. Information missing is as important as information presented. Stone searches into Athenian history to arrive at an answer. This does not make for a rip-roaring yarn, but it is a thoughtful, interesting read that has implications for the present.
While Stone may go out on a limb at some points, this remains an engaging and worthwhile read.
Bio: Isidor Feinstein Stone (1907-1989) was an American investigative journalist, writer, and author perhaps best known for leftist politics and his newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, which ran from 1953 to 1971. He wrote for such periodicals as the New York Post, The Nation, and PM. After ill health forced him into retirement, he began studying classics, teaching himself classic Greek.
Title: The Trial of Socrates
Author: I. F. Stone (1907-1989)
First published: 1988