Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Review: The Weight of a Mustard Seed by Wendell Steavenson

But in Iraq, there was never one story, there were always many stories, layers of episodes, each one a wound. [pg 6]

The Weight of a Mustard Seed: The Intimate Story of an Iraqi General and His Family During Thirty Years of Tyranny by Wendell Steavenson
HarperCollins, 2009 (ARE)
Nonfiction; 288 pgs

I am having the hardest time thinking of something to say about The Weight of a Mustard Seed. I am just plain stuck. I liked the book, some parts more than others. I thought it was relevant to the times, informative, and thought provoking. I have read a handful of reviews in which this book is described as reading like a novel, but I cannot say that proved true for me. It definitely read like a nonfiction book—and not at all in a bad way. It certainly lends credibility to the author’s research and efforts in putting together and writing this book.

Author and journalist Wendell Steavenson spent many years researching her story, interviewing various sources, reading through documents, and living in the country she wrote about. In part, she wanted to know why: why reputable people like General Kamel Sachet would remain loyal to a government regime that he did not agree with, one that, at times, was oppressive, practiced torture and executed people for believing differently or speaking out, including his own followers and supporters.

Although the author sets out to tell the story of General Kamel Sachet and his family, there are many stories within the novel about individuals, some powerful and some with no power at all, sharing their experiences. The book spans over several years, marking much of Saddam Hussein's reign over Iraq. While the focus of the book is on the negative impact of Saddam Hussein’s rule over Iraq, the author does make mention of some of the positives as well, however briefly.

The people, including those in high positions, had to adapt as best they could to survive, sometimes compromising their own beliefs, whether through denial or looking the other way. They rationalized their actions or lack thereof. The author points out the difference in cultures and beliefs between the West and the Middle East through the words of those she interviews. Wendell Steavenson also uses science to seek answers to her questions, looking into psychological studies conducted in the United States. The scientific results are not all that different from what happened in real life Iraq, demonstrating that man, when placed in extreme situations, is not so different even countries and cultures apart.

The Weight of a Mustard Seed provides no real new insights into those age old questions, "Why did you go along with what you knew was wrong? Why didn't you speak out when so many of you disagreed? Why didn't you do something to stop it?" However, what the book does offer is insight into a people and country that have been in turmoil for many years. It shows the strength and resilience of individuals who do what they feel they must to survive. Unfortunately, some do turn to extremism as a way to survive, and it really is no wonder considering the life they have known, the constant fear they live in. There are many though who do not go that route, and who instead are trying their best to get by and hoping for a better day, one free of occupation and oppression, one where they can walk down the street without fear.

General Kamel Sachet did, in fact, speak out, on occasion, although he suffered the consequences as a result. General Kamel Sachet has been compared to Field Marshal Rommel, one of Germany's top generals during World War II. Both men cared about the men they lead and felt a loyalty to the countries they served. They were respected by their peers and those who served below them. Not knowing enough about either, I do not know if that is a fair comparison. I did come to respect him through the author's research and presentation of him in her book. I also appreciated the effort she took in giving the reader a glimpse at the man's family and the impact he had on their lives, both the good and the bad.

The Weight of a Mustard Seed is not my usual type of reading material, but the subject matter interested me, and I am glad I took the time to read it. I don't feel like I did the book justice in all that it covered, but I wanted to at least share some of my thoughts about what I read.

Challenge Commitment Fulfilled: ARC Challenge & 2009 Pub Challenge

Rating: * (Good)


  1. I've seen a lot of mixed reviews about this. It seems like it gets split opinions within single readers. A most interesting review; thank you.

  2. Sounds like some heavy reading in the moral sense. Trying to understand the circumstances that lead to supporting such an oppressive regime is worth the effort, but not necessarily easy to do.

  3. I really need to get back to my ARC of this. I keep getting distracted by shiny things. So far I have to say it's very well written but yes, a bit heavy. I think finishing it will be this weekend's task.

  4. I got this one from the First Look Program and I should have already had it finished but don't. I'm going to start it today. I'll be back after I read it.

  5. Sounds like a real "mixed bag" with this book! You did a fantastic job with your review.

  6. Despite your fear in doing the book justice, you have communicated the premise very well! These are often difficult books for many reasons...they address questions difficult to answer and understand. They are sometimes hard to get through, but still a good thing to read nonetheless.

  7. I think that you communicated your feelings about this book very well. I think that unless we have walked a mile in someone's shoes it is so hard to understand why they would do things that they know are wrong or that they totally don't support. I can't even begin to imagine what it would've been like to live in Iraq under Sadam's regime....daily torture and never knowing if today was the day they would be coming for you. I love your insight into this book and I thank you for reviewing a subject that for some of us just would not be something we may read.

    **So glad to see you are back to posting...hope you're feeling better!! :)

  8. I wouldn't go so far as to describe this one as reading like a novel. It took some effort to read for me, yet, for the most part was pretty interesting. I think you did a very nice job with this review, Wendy!

  9. In spite of your mixed eview, I think i would like this book. This is exactly my kind of book. Thanks for the detailed review Wendy.

  10. Anonymous Child - I have noticed that too--about the mixed reviews. The book covered a lot of ground even though it isn't very long. I am glad I read it.

    Jenclair - It certainly raised some interesting points to think about.

    Sassy Monkey - I understand the ease of distraction. :-) I look forward to reading your thoughts on it when you do finish.

    Dar - I can't wait to see what you think when you've read it.

  11. Terri - Thanks, Terri!

    Sandy - Thank you, Sandy. I hope I at least didn't mangle anything the author was trying to get across. I made the mistake of reading some more professional reviews after posting this one and I felt rather inadequate in my attempt. I had to remind myself that I am only sharing my thoughts about the book--my own impressions--and I'm content with that.

    Staci - Thank you, Staci. I agree. It's hard to know how we would act in the place of someone else who is living in such a different environment facing so many different stressors--some that I can't even imagine. That's part of why I think reading books like this can be so important.

    Shana - I really liked your review of this one and think you captured it much better than I could. And you did it in a lot fewer words.

    Eliza - I do think it's worth reading, especially if you are interested in the subject matter. I am glad I took the time to read it.

  12. That sounds very interesting. I've often wondered how I would react in a situation like that. It's easy to judge others, but you never know what you'd do, especially if you have a family.

  13. Well, as usual, I'm way behind the times, as I've never even heard of this book before. But I thought your review was wonderful, and I am definitely going to be checking the library for it!

  14. This does sound like an interesting premise for a book. Did you like it though? I'll have to check out some more on it before I add it to my TBR list. Thanks for the review :)

  15. I don't think I've ever read anything set in this country before. Your questions ("Why did you go along with what you knew was wrong? Why didn't you speak out when so many of you disagreed? Why didn't you do something to stop it?") remind me of this video documentary that I saw a couple of years ago about why the Holocaust was allowed to happen. They had several different men (one at a time) in a booth and told them that they were turning a dial of electricity that someone was hooked up to a person (there was pre-recorded screaming) and they continued to follow orders of turning the dial higher. Even when told it was killing the person, one man just asked if he would get in trouble. Made me so sick to my stomach.

  16. It's interesting that despite Iraq being in the news every day for so long now, I still haven't read any books set in Iraq. I think it would be beneficial to read something like this to get a different perspective but it does sound like some heavy reading.

  17. I've read quite a few books set in Iraq. I just finished one called Big Boy Battles about the ubiquitous hired mercenaries crawling throughout the country in the guise of protecting troops, private individuals and others. The book you reviewed is one I have wanted to read. I'm a bit disappointed that it is just average, but I'll give it a whirl anyway. Thanks for your honest opinion. Wisteria

  18. This sounds like an interesting premise. However, like you say it is important to actually gain insight from a book, and if there is nothing new... then the book kinda falls flat. Thanks for reviewing.

  19. I know what you mean, Wendy. Sometimes I don't know what to say or where to begin my own reviews. I still have so many books that's pending...

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this one.

  20. Kathy - I agree. It's hard to know what we would do in situations like that.

    Debi - I don't think this book has gotten a tremendous amount of press, so you aren't as far behind as you might think. :-) And thank you!

    Samantha - As I said in my review, I did like it. Even gave it a good rating. :-) It was thought provoking and relevant. I'm glad I read it.

    Jen - That's exactly what I was thinking when reading the book, and the author does bring up the Holocaust in her book as well. The study you mention is similar to one of the ones the author mentions in this book.

    Iliana - There are quite a few books out there right now that you could chose from should you decide to read something about Iraq. I haven't read too much about the country myself.

    Wisteria - I've caught bits and pieces of news stories about the mercenaries in Iraq. It would be interesting to know more about that particular piece of the story.

    I thought The Weight of a Mustard Seed was a good book and well worth reading. I'm not sure I would go so far as to call it average.

    Kim - I do think the book has something to offer just the same. It may not have raised any new points, but it certainly provided insight into a situation I knew little about before hand.

    Alice - Some books just leave me tongue-tied!

  21. I have part of this in the sampler. I need to read it to see if I want to get the book to read the rest. Thanks for your review!

  22. Lenore - I'll be curious to know what you think of it if you do read it.

  23. That was an excellent and fair review. This type of non-fiction book is not my kind of read but I don't read much non-fiction generally.

  24. Myckyee - Thank you. It definitely as an interesting book. I am glad I took a chance on it.


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