Review: Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland by Pamela J. Olson

16000331Title:  Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland
Author: Pamela J. Olson
Published: March 12th 2013
Publisher: Seal Press
Pages: 320
ISBN: 158005482X
Source: Netgalley

Synopsis
For much of her life -like many Westerners- most of what Pamela Olson knew of the Middle East was informed by headlines and stereotypes. But when she traveled to Palestine in 2003, she found herself thrown with dizzying speed into the realities of Palestinian life.

Fast Times in Palestine is Olson’s powerful, deeply moving account of life in Palestine – both the daily events that are universal to us all (house parties, concerts, barbecues, and weddings) as well as the violence, trauma, and political tensions that are particular to the country. From idyllic olive groves to Palestinian beer gardens, from Passover in Tel Aviv to Ramadan in a Hamas village, readers will find Olson’s narrative both suspenseful and discerning. Her irresistible story offers a multi-faceted understanding of the Palestinian perspective on the Israel/Palestine conflict, filling a gap in the West’s popular understanding of the difficult relationship between the two nations.

At turns funny, shocking, and galvanizing, Fast Times in Palestine is a gripping narrative that challenges our ways of thinking – not only about the Middle East, but about human nature, cultural identity, and our place in the world.

Review
Over the years I’ve read quite a few books about Israel and Palestine, but this one is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I knew that this book was about someone’s personal account of life in Palestine, but I had no idea that Olson hadn’t specifically intended to go to Palestine. She went backpacking in the Middle East and happened to come across some people who invited her to come along to Israel with them, and took her with them to Palestine after that. The fact that the Middle East was a relatively unknown region to Olson before she started out on her journey is actually really nice, especially for people reading this novel who don’t know much about it either, because you gradually discover more and more about the region and Israel and Palestine in particular.

The best thing about this book, in my opinion, are the personal accounts of the people she meets during her time in Palestine. Here in the West we get so much information thrown at us about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but there is nothing we can directly empathise with. By recording people’s personal accounts and allowing us a brief glimpse into their personal lives, it brings the conflict much closer to home. Olson shows that Palestinians are just ordinary human beings who try to go about their normal life as much as they possibly can in spite of all the restrictions imposed by the Israeli government.

The author tries to illustrate the injustices in the region the best she can, and she does so from a fairly objective point of view. It is very easy for a casual observer to generalise a situation and condemn only one of the parties involved, but Olson manages to depict everyone she encountered as human beings, Palestinians and Israelis alike, which is exactly where the power of this book lies. There is no doubt about the fact that Israel is the oppressor in this conflict and Palestine the oppressed, but that does not mean that Israel and all of its inhabitants are the source of all evil, which is how they are often depicted by pro Palestinians. The same goes for the general image of Palestinians in the media. Very often they are either depicted as victims of a great injustice, or as terrorists. The author shows that there are good and bad people on both sides, and also tries to understand and explain why certain people are drawn to certain courses of action. She doesn’t just depict the Palestinians as a poor, homeless people with no prospect, but rather as a multitude of people with hopes and dreams, and with very diverse expectations of life. Olson gives a voice to people who would normally be ignored by the general media, to show that there are many Palestinians who condemn suicide bombers, and there are many Israelis who oppose the settlements in Gaza and on the West Bank, just to name a few examples.

The way in which the book is written, as a kind of travelogue, works really well. Together with the author we gradually peel back the layers of society and of the conflict, and it makes reading the book really exciting because it almost feels as if you are there with her. Olson also manages to strike the right balance between the more light hearted moments of her time in Palestine, such as accounts of helping families with the harvest, enjoying dinners with a large variety of people, and sightseeing, and the more shocking and depressing moments when talking about the many civilian casualties, people being robbed of their land, and tragedies at the various Israeli checkpoints. This way the book offers a perspective that is neither too positive nor too depressing or pessimistic either. It shows how strong human spirit actually is, and that people can manage to retain a degree of optimism even in the most dire of circumstances.

I think this is a must-read for anyone who is remotely interested in the Middle East and who wants to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but doesn’t want to read a dry text packed with statistics and facts. This book does occasionally contain some statistics to back up arguments, but it is a lively and beautifully written account of a young woman whose life took some truly unexpected turns. It is an engaging and thought provoking book, and I definitely think everyone should read it.

My rating: heartheartheartheartheart

Review: Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir

11264788Title: Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life
Author: Alison Weir
Published: April 3rd 2001
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Pages: 480
ISBN: 0345434870

Synopsis
Combining the pace and descriptive quality of a novel with the authority of a textbook, Alison Weir’s study of the revered and reviled Eleanor of Aquitaine should be valuable to anyone with an interest in medieval European history. Wife of Louis VII of France and subsequently of Henry II of England, and mother of Richard “the Lion-Hearted,” Eleanor played a prominent part in the politics of the 12th century. The author of a number of other books on the medieval period (Life of Elizabeth IThe Children of Henry VIII), Weir brings all the color and ever-present dangers of Eleanor’s world to life, filling the text with absorbing background detail and revelatory contemporary anecdotes. She is concerned throughout to make critical analysis of the primary sources, the later myths about Eleanor, and other modern biographies. This results in a fresh and thoughtful perspective on the energetic life of a determined and ambitious woman living with the sexism, excesses, and violence of a society in which the word of a single man could condemn thousands to death. Eleanor of Aquitaine is a vivacious but scholarly book with extensive notes and references, giving an objective and rich account of the staunch Eleanor, her feuding family and her complex and unstable world.

Review
After having seen the play The Lion In Winter in London in January 2012, I really wanted to know more about Eleanor because I found her such a fascinating character. It is a shame that so very little of her is known today, and that a big part of the book is mainly a background story to illustrate the world that she lived in. Nevertheless, considering how little she had to go on, I think Alison Weir did an excellent job portraying Eleanor’s life the best she could. For the best part of history women weren’t considered important, not even the high ranking ones such as Eleanor, so not a lot of information about her exist these days. There are massive gaps in her timeline of which we know absolutely nothing, and while the lives of her husband and sons are well documented, we don’t even know the names of all of her daughters, so this shows how terribly unimportant women were at the time. The book was a bit dry to get through at times, but then again most history books are, but it proved an absolutely fascinating read. After finishing it I really felt I knew so much more about Eleanor and the beginning of the Plantagenet line than I did before. I would recommend this to anyone who loves history and doesn’t need to have a story romanticised in order to enjoy it.

My rating: heartheartheartheart