PanThe New York Times Book ReviewIn the hands of an accomplished writer like Conant, this real-life scenario — and resulting disaster — offers great, if awful, promise ... But bumping up against the stranger-than-fiction dictum is another that is the bane of nonfiction writers everywhere: Truth often takes disappointing turns. In real life, otherwise fascinating people have a bad habit of dying or retiring or leaving on a business trip just before big stuff happens. In other cases, the discovery or invention for which someone is known is found to not be as groundbreaking as first imagined, or the person turns out to be a bit player in the great drama of the day, not the lead. It seems that an amalgam of these real-life pitfalls confronted Conant in the telling of her tale, and the effect is a discursive and oddly bifurcated book ... As intriguing as all this might sound, the telling is hobbled in several fundamental ways. Rather than employ her material to illuminate or support her narrative, Conant has a habit of allowing that material to dictate it. A chief example early on is Alexander’s unpublished autobiography, cited at least 25 times in the first chapter alone. Thus, after a quick and vivid description of the Bari attack, and an economical rendering of the doctor’s early years, readers are given an extended tour of Alexander’s prior wartime assignments and transfers...when what most readers will want is to get back to the hellscape of Bari ... Unfortunately, this return is marked by an overreliance on a new set of reference materials. Drawing from Alexander’s preliminary reports as he sets about his Bari investigations, Conant tells us countless times that Alexander suspects mustard gas to be the unknown killer long after we have already intuited this. Pulled from other documents is a litany of medical terms that are poorly defined and may leave lay readers at sea ... Of course, much of this profusion of ancillary detail could be excused, even justified, if the life of Stewart Alexander and his pioneering work on cancer were the book’s through-line. It is not. Instead, at war’s end, Alexander turns down an offer to join a cancer research institute in favor of returning to his family medical practice in New Jersey. As a result, the last third of The Great Secret is then handed off to a wholly different character ... despite the extraordinary circumstances in which it occurred, his contribution to the field of cancer research was quite limited ... In much of her work, Conant has traveled that fascinating and murky landscape where science, medicine and war intersect. While The Great Secret also resides on this terrain, readers are apt to find more reward in her previous books.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewKhalidi is one of the world’s foremost academic scholars on the topic of Palestinian identity and nationalism. Beyond its provocative title and occasional sharp insight, however, his Hundred Years’ War on Palestine feels a rather thin achievement ... While many of Khalidi’s insights are thought-provoking, their persuasiveness is undermined at times by a tendency to shave the rhetorical corner ... There is also a slipperiness to some of his formulations ... the bigger weakness of this book, to my mind, can be distilled to a simple question: Where does it get you? Even if one fully accepts Khalidi’s colonialist thesis, does that move us any closer to some kind of resolution? This may seem an unfair criticism. After all, it is not incumbent on a historian to offer up possible remedies — except this is the closing task Khalidi sets for himself. It is also where his insights become noticeably threadbare ... even if the Israel-Palestine conflict is to be viewed through a colonial lens, it no longer fits any colonial precedent ... In its stead, Khalidi’s notions for an eventual settlement take on an increasingly fantastic quality.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewDeborah Campbell has written a searing and extraordinarily affecting account of her experiences in Syria in the mid-2000s, one that reads in equal parts as memoir, history and mystery story ... The search for Ahlam, to find out why and where she has been taken, and how Campbell might win her release, forms the emotional heart of the book — and it is both riveting and devastating. The account also presents an unusual perspective on the grinding horror of the police state, not the all-too-familiar tale of one of its direct victims, but rather that of the outsider trying to navigate its treacherous shoals ... It is both ironic and a testament to Campbell’s skills as a storyteller that, despite her own very limited risk in the situation she describes, she has produced one of the more harrowing accounts of life inside a police state in recent memory ... If all this makes A Disappearance in Damascus sound like a depressing slog, it is not that at all. Instead, even in its darkest moments, there are bright flashes of humor, along with brief side stories that in the hands of a less accomplished writer would be annoying but are fascinating here.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewRoss, who served most notably as President Clinton’s special envoy to the Middle East, has produced a work that is simultaneously comprehensive, quite fair-minded and somewhat ponderous.