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My Prison, My Home by Haleh Esfandiari

The story that comes to mind when reading Haleh Esfandiari’s memoir of wrongful arrest, surprise raids, puzzling interrogations, and solitary confinement in Ahmadinejad’s Iran is Franz Kafka’s dystopian novel The Trial. Yet unlike the fictional bank clerk Joseph K., Esfandiari—who runs the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program in DC—survived her ordeal, including four months in Iran’s Evin Prison on trumped-up charges, to deliver a taut, jolting narrative that describes how life in the Islamic republic is stranger—and darker—than fiction.

Esfandiari, who fled Iran in the winter of 1978, had been visiting her mother in 2006 when Iranian police forced her cab off the highway outside Tehran, swiped her passports and plane tickets, and disappeared into the night.

Interrogations follow. Esfandiari pleads her innocence. An investigator with Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence twists her testimony. The story, a snapshot of Iranian paranoia in response to the Bush administration’s rhetoric, is also a luminous panorama of Iranian life. In prison, Esfandiari befriends the female guards, whose dark chadors disguise worldly concerns about body weight, love, and the future. In the juxtaposition of these women with Esfandiari and the generation that came of age before the revolution, the book channels another Kafka story, The Metamorphosis. As Esfandiari’s tale proves, Gregor Samsa’s transformation from man to insect is no more frightening than Iran’s from homeland to prison.

Gorgeous East by Robert Girardi

The miscreants in Washington writer Robert Girardi’s new novel share an ear for music and a thrumming desire to settle personal scores.

Smith is an off-off-Broadway performer on the run after a crime of passion. Pinard is an oboe-playing ex–drug peddler with a weakness for African whores. Phillipe—a manic-depressive aficionado of eccentric composer Erik Satie—is hell-bent on avenging a colleague’s murder. For all three, the French Foreign Legion provides an ideal purgatory: a chance to pay off their crimes in service to la république française while lending their pipes to the legion’s ace chorale.

Equal parts P.C. Wren and John le Carré, this literary thriller bends through battlefields, bandstands, and bedrooms as the legionnaires trail a marauding sect of extremist Muslims led by an American-educated imam. The role that camaraderie plays in the redemption of his trio is Girardi’s chief concern. From his litany of thanks at book’s end, it’s clear that this is a boisterous 300-page salute to his own faithful cohort.

A Fiery Peace in a Cold War by Neil Sheehan

There’s nothing like fear to fire the engines of innovation, and there was a lot of innovation in the US during the Cold War. Under the looming threat of Soviet expansion and subversion, an army of American scientists engineered technological advances that culminated—or so the story goes—in Apollo 11’s televised moon landing.

In this long-awaited follow-up to his Vietnam opus, A Bright Shining Lie, Washington writer Neil Sheehan argues that the advent of nuclear missiles was a more consequential coda to the era of innovation than the lunar landing and that the missiles’ creators—German-born Air Force general Bernard Schriever and his team—were unsung heroes whose practical contributions to preserving peace far exceeded the largely symbolic achievements of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin:

“In these chilling years of the early Cold War, fear of the Soviet Union was a constant and powerful stimulant. Yet anxiety for the security of their nation and a race against opponents who would endanger it were only half of what drove them. . . . Their fulfillment came from creating the new, from bringing into being that which no one else had yet achieved.”

Off the Shelf: An Excerpt From a Classic Washington Read

In The Last of the Southern Girls, his 1973 novel tracing the decadent ambitions of debutante Carol Hollywell in the federal city, Willie Morris describes Washington’s confounding relationship with words:

“Its people seemed not to take language seriously. In this regard the political melted into the social in ways that were childish and destructive. They seemed not to understand the consequences of words. They babbled away to anyone about anything, principally about each other. Words should have real weight for intelligent members of the species, who must perceive by now that they can evoke and titillate and inspire and damage and delude as effectively as actions, yet language in this locale seemed somehow off at the edges of perception.”

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