From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Bird, Pulitzer Prize–winning coauthor of American Prometheus
, offers a compelling hybrid of memoir and history, weaving together recollections of his childhood in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt; the stories of his wife's Holocaust survivor parents; and rigorous scholarship on the region. The book's title—Mandelbaum Gate once separated Israeli-controlled Western Jerusalem from the Jordanian-controlled East—indicates a view on the conflict, and it's certainly that, but it's also much more: readers are given ringside seats to Cairo under Nasser, the author's American family's friends (including Osama bin Laden's elder brother), and Bird's years in India and the U.S. during the heyday of the antiwar movement of the '60s. Notable events and figures (airplane hijacker Leila Khaled, for example, or the Palestinian-Jordanian battles known as Black September) are given detailed treatment and their continuing resonance is made clear. Bird's brushes with history—his first girlfriend was held hostage on an airplane hijacked to win Khaled's release, for instance—brings home the deeply messy humanity of the stories he binds together in this kaleidoscopic and captivating book. (Apr.)
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The interminable conflict between Arabs and Israelis, sadly, lends itself to visual images that reduce both sides to caricatures. One of the treasures of this superb memoir is Bird’s determination to put a human face on some of the participants in this conflict. His father, an American foreign-service officer, brought his family to Jerusalem in 1956, and young Kai frequently passed through Mandelbaum Gate, the dividing line between the Israeli- and Jordanian-controlled sectors. Over the next 22 years, he lived and traveled in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. He seamlessly melds personal history and the story of his family within the turmoil surrounding them, which included three major wars, the spate of airline hijackings, and the prominence of Black September. Although broadly sympathetic to Palestinian aspirations and suffering, Bird, whose wife is the child of Holocaust survivors, is also acutely sensitive to the fears and dilemmas faced by Israelis. This is a deeply felt and moving chronicle of one person’s up-close view of the human cost of this seemingly endless struggle. --Jay Freeman