Despite a lifetime of history and social studies, I managed to remain ignorant about the ways of the not-too-distant rest of the world. In our little American island, I suspect the majority of us know little more than bare basics about world cultures and history.  Hearing first hand stories of people from different countries and times tremendously helps add detail and life to our hollow knowledge.

These are three books I’ve stumbled upon recently that each opened my eyes to other cultures and world events.  They’re all beautifully crafted books that take place in roughly the same time period (1940’s-present day). They masterfully paint a picture of the human side of the political unrest that still profoundly affects the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan (Israel & Palestine)

This is a true story told in novel-like fashion which takes place primarily in Palestine and the newly formed Israel just after World War 2 ends. It tells the story of two families on opposite sides of a political war who shared the same house (at different times).  The narrative gives accounts from the perspective of the two youngest members of each family, and shows how each was shaped by and responsive to the events of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. 

Under a Cruel Star by Heda Margolius Kovaly (Czech Republic)

Another true story, Heda Margolius Kovaly accounts her time during Nazi occupation, Russian liberation, communist rule, and Prague Spring. Margolius Kovaly was deported to Germany, survived concentration camp, escaped imprisonment, hid in Prague until it was liberated, married the man who became the Foreign Minister fot the Communist Party, saw him unjustly accused and executed, leaked information to the outside world about what was happening within the country, and finally leaves the country during after Prague Spring. The crazy thing is how non-nonchalantly she writes about her experiences.  Sometimes authors relaying personal accounts get wrapped up in their own heroics.  She says so much by what she leaves out and it’s mind boggling when you consider how much she left out. As it is, the book is crammed full of unbelievable events and awe-inspiring courage.

A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri (Iran)

This novel, written by an Iranian native who immigrated to Oklahoma (woot woot) when she was ten years old.  The book takes place in Iran and centers on a girl who grows up as a twin split from her sister and mother.  The story is moving and personal, but includes so many cultural and political references that you can’t help but learn about Iran in the process. I confess that I have just started this one and am halfway through.  However, it has been a quick read that I’m having trouble setting down.  I felt compelled to recommend it ASAP. Nayeri is so quotable it’s not even funny.  Her ability to bring cleverness and simplicity to complex feelings is remarkable.  For instance, (tiny spoilers) after a brute Mullah (officer) beats a woman who refuses him, “When Mustafa is an old man, will he remember that he once beat a girl just because she retained her loveliness despite him?”  or when talking with her unattainable crush about the appropriateness of kisses, “talking with Reza about kisses is like standing in a baker’s kitchen, holding a warm cake and only smelling.” I mean come on. I’m eating this one up!