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Learning about Iran Through Two Classic Books: All the Shah’s Men and Persepolis

11 Dec

Many people learn about Iran because of its hostile relationship with the United States, but the history and culture of the country is much more complex than it is often portrayed. Two classic books, All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, are compelling stories that provide great context for understanding Iran in 2019.

All the Shah’s Men focuses on a 1953 coup d’état led by the U.S. and Great Britain against Iran’s democratically elected president Mohammed Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh was a progressive leader who supported religious freedom, women’s rights, and empowering the poor in his country. He was elected  by promising to nationalize the British oil companies operating in Iran that were siphoning all of the wealth they were generating out of the country. This greatly angered the British and at the height of Cold War hysteria, President Eisenhower began to fear that Iran would fall to Communist rule. Kinzer’s book explains how the coup against Mosaddegh was orchestrated, going into great detail about secret plots, propaganda campaigns, and international conspiracies. This is history written as a spy novel and a suspenseful story that describes an Iran that was on the verge on becoming a secular democracy before it was so cruelly undermined.

Persepolis picks up shortly after the events of All the Shah’s Men. Marji is a ten-year old girl in 1980 who is growing up during the Islamic Revolution, a time when her country is becoming increasingly religious and more restrictive of women’s freedoms. Had Mohammed Mosaddegh stayed in power, Marji may have grown up in a much different country, but his ousting created an opening for religious fundamentalism to thrive. Persepolis is a graphic novel that provides an on the ground view of what life is like for someone living through these events. Marji is a smart and observant narrator who makes life Iran understandable to an audience of all ages. Satrapi’s wonderful art and storytelling have made Persepolis one of the most critically acclaimed graphic novels of all time.  You can also borrow the sequel and an adaptation on DVD.

Reading both books together gave me a great overview of Iran’s modern history. What new and countries and cultures have you learned about through the resources available at the Hoboken Public Library?  Share with us in the comments.

Written by:
Karl Schwartz
Young Adult Librarian

A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and its Assault on the American Mind by Harriet A. Washington

23 Oct

A Terrible Thing to Waste
I first became interested in the work of Harriet A. Washington when my home city of Newark was hit with a lead water crisis that has frequently been compared in terms of severity to Flint, Michigan. I wondered why such environmental disasters hit the poorest communities in the United States the hardest and what the social effects of long term lead exposure would mean for the children of Newark. In A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and its Assault on the American Mind, Washington brilliantly lays out the sobering research about environmental racism and the profound effects it has on the well-being of some of the most vulnerable Americans.

“Environmental Racism” is a term used by public health researchers and sociologists to describe the disproportionate way in which black, Latino, and indigenous communities face the brunt of environmental hazards, often leading to devastating health consequences. A prominent example of environmental racism that Washington cites is the fact that almost all of the cases of lead poisoning in Baltimore were found among the city’s black children. While white residents of Baltimore were approved for cheap mortgages in the suburbs after World War II and moved into newly built homes, African Americans were redlined out of these neighborhoods and forced to stay in unsafe homes in the inner city, many of which to this day have never been fully remediated of the lead paint that continues to poison the developing brains of infants in Baltimore.

Washington bluntly describes the profound social consequences of environmental racism. Many of these toxins such as lead, untested chemicals, and waste from landfills that find their way disproportionately into minority communities cause severe cognitive damage. Washington doesn’t believe that IQ is a good predictor of intelligence, but she does believe that it can show how a person has been harmed by bad environmental policies. In contrast to those who would argue that intelligence is innate or genetic, Washington’s research shows that differences in IQ between different groups of people correlates most strongly to the type of environment they live in. Washington demonstrates how the average intelligence of groups of people can rise dramatically when they are exposed to better nutrition and cleaner environments, refuting that commonly held belief that intelligence is a static trait.

A Terrible Thing to Waste is an incredibly important book by one today’s smartest environmental researchers. I found many of my beliefs about intelligence, race, poverty, and urban planning to be constantly challenged while reading Washington’s book. I was inspired by the stories of communities who fought back against environmental racism and despite the often depressing subject matter, I felt hopeful by the end of the book that communities can work together to solve these problems.

Written by
Karl Schwartz
Young Adult Librarian

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