A Kidnapping in Milan by Steve Hendricks – Book Review

A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial by Steve Hendricks
Published by W. W. Norton & Company

Extraordinary rendition. Not a phrase that many Americans heard before 9/11. The concept – kidnapping someone from one country and taking them to another country with, shall we say, a less firmly defined sense of what constitutes human rights abuses for the purpose of torture – is probably not one that occurred to many of us before then either. Evidence suggests that these renditions did happen before 9/11, but it was after that time that the phrase and the concept became a part of the national consciousness, perhaps because it is alleged that the CIA has extraordinarily rendered some 3,000 suspected terrorists since then.

In A Kidnapping in Milan, freelance reporter Steve Hendricks explores one such case of post-9/11 extraordinary rendition of a radical Egyptian imam living in Milan. Beginning with Abu Omar’s radicalization in Egypt, through his time in the Balkans and his re-creation as an imam in Milan, Hendricks relates the story of this rendition from the earliest logical point, through the bitter end. We do not simply learn of Abu Omar’s story either, also included is CIA and Italian history that greatly influenced both the rendition and the eventual prosecution in Italian courts of the men and women involved in the kidnapping.

A Kidnapping in Milan is extraordinarily well researched, particularly considering much of this information must have been hard to track down or make sense of. Early on in the book, Hendricks tells the reader:

In Milan a known fact is always explained by competing stories, more than one of which will be plausible. Some of the stories will be frivolous, even absurd. With time, the elements of all will mix, their separate origins becoming unclear. With time enough, even the one fact once known with certainty will become all but unknowable.
Page 14

Based on the other details he gives us about life in Milan, that certainly seems to be the case. However, his research is so good and his story told so flawlessly, that A Kidnapping in Milan seems to belie that statement with its very existence.

This book is particularly timely right now, because it covers in broad strokes much of the political history of Egypt. This is primarily done to explain the large number of Egyptian-born radicals living overseas, as well as the appeal of rendering terrorism suspects to Egypt. It raised a good many questions for me about what the place of Egypt will be in these matters going forward, which I would guess is not something that is really known as of yet, as we wait to see exactly how the recent events in Egypt will play out. The accounts of the tortures which took place in Egypt are horrific, and the faint of heart and stomach may want to skim those sections, although I do think it is important for informed citizen to know what is being done in our name by proxies of our own government.

One of the earliest recipients of the CIA’s training was Egypt. The trainers were former Nazi commanders from Germany who were recruited by the CIA not long after the Second World War.
Page 145

“If you want a serious interrogation,” said Robert Baer, who for years was a CIA officer in the Middle East, “you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.”
Page 147

This is not a particularly easy read, both because of the level of detail Hendricks includes, and because of the subject matter, but if you have even the slightest interest in this subject – or in knowing what is being done in your (if you are American) name – this is a great choice. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound | Amazon*

Source: Author.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

C Street by Jeff Sharlet – Audiobook Review

C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy by Jeff Sharlet, narrated by Jeremy Guskin
Published by Hachette Audio/Little, Brown and Company, both imprints of Hachette


If you think the religious fundamentalists who most threaten American values live in the Middle East, Jeff Sharlet has some news for you: there is an elite religious-political organization who is a much greater threat to the essence of America than any foreign fundamentalists wielding bombs and aircraft. Perhaps you assume that Sharlet is referring to the Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin and her ilk, but no. Instead, Sharlet is writing about an organization thoroughly entrenched in establishment power called The Family, about whom he has previously written a book (titled, appropriately enough, “The Family”). The same organization that began the National Prayer Breakfast, which most politicians in Washington fail to attend at their own peril. The Family takes much of its mission from Acts 9:15:

But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. (NIV)

Which it strangely interprets to mean that it ONLY needs to minister to and attempt to convert ‘the kings,’ which in the United States evidently means governors, senators, presidents, and congressmen. So, they do their best to convert and ‘help’ those in power, with the idea that someone is in power not because of any of his or her own deeds but solely because God put him or her there. This, of course, means that the ends justify the means in any situation and power should be gained and maintained at all costs, since clearly God ordained this power structure. It probably gives you a good enough idea of their mindset to tell you that they idolize Hitler and Lenin for the power that those men had, although they of course say they want to use this power for Jesus.

In addition to a description of the The Family itself, Sharlet also discusses their religious-political progeny in Uganda who are trying to enact legislation to criminalize homosexuality to the point where ‘aggravated’ homosexuality (repeat offense) will be punishable by death and ‘promotion’ of homosexuality will be punishable by imprisonment. The section on fundamentalism in the military – it is particularly well entrenched in the Airforce – was also particularly frightening for the degree to which it is part of the establishment and people of other religions are harassed.

Thoughts on the story:

I listened to this about a week before Halloween and boy, I cannot imagine anything scarier. You want to give me nightmares? Skip the zombies and vampires, give me men in the highest ranks of power in this country, and influencing those in the highest ranks of power in this country who emulate the power of Hitler and Lenin. That being said, I thought that Sharlet communicated this threat in a very clear manner, both in terms of organization and language. The one thing I thought odd was his re-imagining – twice – of speeches which Mark Sanford might have given, had his lies and infidelities not been discovered. In the midst of such a factual and well-researched book, these suppositions seemed out of place and perhaps even inappropriate. Other than that, though, it was all very well done, as well as compelling (and absolutely terrifying). I should note, that even as a Christian myself I was absolutely horrified by the confluence of political power and religion here.

Thoughts on the audio production:

I wasn’t entirely sure about Jeremy Guskin at the beginning of “C Street,” but I grew accustomed to his style after about 5 minutes and actually really appreciated his narration. He did include vocal variations for emotion and expression, but primarily kept his voice steady, without becoming monotone. I thought it served Sharlet’s journalistic background and style very well.


I definitely recommend this book if you are interested in the intersection of power and religion in America. Whether the audio or print is preferable probably depends on how in-depth you wish to go into Sharlet’s account. I was happy just letting everything wash over me – I was horrified enough as it was – but other have said they would have preferred this in print so they could take time with the details. Your call.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Audio/Print*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound: Print*
Amazon: Audio/Print*

This review was done with a book received from the publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea – Book Review

The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

In May of 2001, a group of men attempted to cross from Mexico to the U.S. through a section of desert ominously referred to as the Devil’s Highway. While they are crossing, they get spooked, thinking the Border Patrol has found them and run, losing their way in the process. After an entire series of calamitous decisions, the men start hoping that the Border Patrol will find them, if only to save their lives.

This is some heart-wrenching nonfiction right here. Seriously.

One thing I think Urrea does particularly well in “The Devil’s Highway” is looking at the different sides of this story. He introduces the¬†perspectives¬†both of the men attempting to cross illegally into the United States and of the Border Patrol, and even tries to get into the head of some of the coyotes to a certain extent.

I also appreciated the way that Urrea presented his bias. I do not mean bias in a denigrating way, everyone has an opinion on immigration, and it is pretty much inevitable that it would an inform a book such as this. Urrea walked a fine line here with making his bias/opinion/what have you obvious enough that I could identify it and see how it influenced how he told the story of these men, but not so overwhelming that the reader would feel preached to.

The most powerful chapter in the book come right about in the middle and is called “Killed by the Light.” It basically details, step-by-step, how one dies from thirst and heat in sparse, beautiful prose. Every word of it pierced my heart, both due to the writing and the fact that I knew this process was happening in each and every of the men lost on the Devil’s Highway. The style and power of this section reminded me of Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels,” which is a very favorable comparison, as that is one of my very favorite books.

I had just a little bit of trouble getting into the very beginning of this book, but once I settled into the very distressing story Urrea was telling me, I was completely rapt. No matter what your views on immigration, I believe that Urrea will bring to life the human tragedy caused by policies on both sides of the border. Very highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound

This review was done with a book I purchased myself.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Sisters in War by Christina Asquith – Book Review

Sisters in War by Christina Asquith

One thing I don’t ever remember hearing the mainstream media talking about when the decision was made to invade Iraq in 2003 is what it would mean for the women and children of that country. In fact, to this day I have still not seen much explored about the lives of women in Iraq and whether they have improved or not since the war began – until I picked up Christina Asquith’s “Sisters in War.”

Asquith follows the stories of 4 different women from different backgrounds in Baghdad: Shia sisters Zia and Nunu; Heather, the white US Army reservist; and Manal, a devoutly Muslim feminist Arab-American aid worker. We begin following the sisters’ story before the invasion happens, and their hope for their future after Saddam is absolutely heart breaking.

I really don’t want to say too much about what these women experience. Obviously it is no secret what has been happening with the Iraq War (“Sisters in War” spans from 2003 to 2006), but it is something completely different to experience it through the eyes of these four women.

I was so completely invested in these women’s lives, I didn’t want to stop reading until I found out what happened to them! Asquith completely made all of them real to me. Of course they are real, but sometimes nonfiction writers don’t bring their subjects to life in the same way that authors of fiction do – not the case with “Sisters in War.” I also appreciated that Asquith did not include herself in the story she was telling. That seems to be quite the fad in narrative nonfiction right now and it often works quite well, but I think this story packed a much greater emotional punch for not including her, it read somewhat like a documentary, I felt as if I was simply a fly on the wall with all of these women.

Not always emotionally easy read, but endlessly compelling storytelling, great writing, and a fascinating subject make me highly recommend this book.

Buy this book from:
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound

This review was done with a book received from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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