The Weight of a Mustard Seed – Wendell Steavenson

Not only are Kim of Reading Matters and myself two of the hosts of NTTVBG, we are also the two founding member of the Riverside Readers who meet on the Southbank last night. After choosing a wonderful book for the last NTTVBG meeting Kim went and did it again for book group with ‘The Weight of a Mustard Seed’ by Wendell Steavenson, which caused some great discussion not only about what we had read but also about several themes of modern times it brought to the forefronts of our minds.

I have to say that if it wasn’t for this being a book group choice then I don’t think in all honesty I would have read or even heard of ‘The Weight of a Mustard Seed’. I might have been intrigued by the title and quite possibly the delightful cover (it’s the materialist in me) but the genre would have put me off as I am not the biggest fan of non fiction. What’s more the blurb hinted that this was a tale of a General who worked for Saddam Hussein during his dictatorship of Iraq and the aftermath, which I wouldn’t have thought would have been my sort of book at all.

I have to say I think that ‘The Weight of a Mustard Seed’ has to be one of the most interesting, engaging, horrifying and moving non fiction books that I have ever read. Although Wendell does indeed spend a lot of time with and writing about General Kamel Sachet and his family this is a book that actually tells of the history of the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, how he controlled the people he did (whilst also oddly humanising him from time to time), how fear can rule any man and how the country has been left since. The latter for me was actually one of the most shocking parts of the book.

I did have a few small qualms with the book and these are small ones. Despite Wendell being incredibly good at engaging the reader and making you read on I did think that on occasion question her motives, find her slightly patronising now and again and thought she expected you to know more of the history of Iraq than I did, however most people who would go to read this would know a lot (there is of course always google) which occasionally made things a little confusing for me as the book isn’t always in chronological order.

Having said all that it’s a minor criticism and I do believe you have to work at some books and I do think that Wendell was trying to make the point that it didn’t matter when the atrocities and conflicts happened it’s the how and the why she was illustrating to the reader and that is the power of this book. It’s real, it’s difficult and it’s happening still right as you read this, that leaves you both moved and with a lot to think about.

This book showed me that not only do I need to occasionally judge a book by its cover I also need to let my bookish boundaries down sometimes. I started out thinking that I wouldn’t enjoy this and then became moved in a way I never thought a non fiction book could do. If I marked books out of ten this would get a ten out of ten for non fiction and eight out of ten for a book in general, one to definitely give a try. I need to find more non fiction books like this… any recommendations?


Filed under Atlantic Books, Book Group, Review, Wendell Steavenson

14 responses to “The Weight of a Mustard Seed – Wendell Steavenson

  1. farmlanebooks

    I’m not a big fan of non-fiction either, but agree that this was a great example of it and hope to read more non-fiction in future. I’m afraid I haven’t got any recommendations, but hope some other people have some good suggestions.

    • I am hoping for some more recommendations along this books lines, it doesnt have to be this subject it can be anything am always keen to learn about lots of other parts of history and places.

  2. I do really love non-fiction, if well-written. So I will definitely have to check this one out. I was on a real 911 kick for awhile, reading everything I could about the “why”. I don’t know, I just had to have some closure. I really really enjoyed “The Looming Tower”, which gives you so much information about the mindset of those that despise Americans…the history, Bin Laden’s rise to fame, the hundreds of ways that our leaders missed the clues, the whole bit. It is heavy reading but you will walk away with amazing insight.

    • The Looming Tower sounds very interesting so I will look and see what that one is all about in more detail.

      This book has a bit of a mention of 9/11 and also at the Iraqi’s (in the book not as a whole) feel about America, it also looks at Bush (boo hiss) and how America have left a nation they sort of tried to save its quite shocking, oh Brits get a nod in terms of their part too so its not an anti america book.

  3. Glad you enjoyed this one, Simon. It was a bit risky choosing non-fiction and then something as potentially heavy as Iraq, but it seems to have proved a hit in most quarters.

    Some of my favourite books are non-fiction. But sadly I don’t read enough of it — maybe just two or three titles a year. I tend to go for memoirs and literary non-fiction crime books.

    I recommend anything by Gitta Sereny (she’s name-checked several times in Weight of a Mustard Seed). In 2008 I read Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, which explains a lot about the pyschological experiments we were discussing last night, and is a wonderful overview of economic policy gone wrong BEFORE the current global collapse.

    For further inspiration there’s a non-fiction section on my site:

    • It was indeed a hit in most quarters. Whats a literary non fiction book? Are we talking In Cold Blood kind of books as I would love to read more books along the line of that amazing piece of Capote’s.

      I shall have to look at Gitta Sereny and your list. Blimey two lists of books to look at in two days from you Kim, I feel most honoured.

  4. There are some very interesting selections in Kim’s aforesaid non-fiction section, but just in case you still need any other ideas …

    Anything by Robert Macfarlane will normally be worth reading. He is an English literature don at Cambridge, now best known for writing about nature and the outdoors. (Quite what his facility bosses think of this one can only guess. How would a nuclear physics department react if one of its number started writing successful travel books?) He wrote a fantastic book about man’s relationship with hills and mountains, called Mountains of the Mind. Climbing, winter sports and the influence of romantics like Wordsworth all feature. This was recently followed by The Wild Places, in which he tours some of the remaining wilder parts of the British Isles. Not only does he climb Lake District fells in the depths of winter, he even spends the night on them – not even in a tent!

    The non-fiction title I have most recently enjoyed is The Plot by Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting. It is an unusual blend of biography and history; partly a biography of her sculptor father, partly the story of an acre of land he purchased near the family home in North Yorkshire, and partly about her relationship with him. Revisiting this plot of land after his death, Bunting ends up gaining a better understanding of him. Along the way she recounts episodes from the history of the area. There is even a brief history of the Forestry Commission – more interesting than it may sound – and accounts of her attempts, frequently frustrated by the weather, to see the area from a new perspective by taking to the skies with a nearby gliding club.

    Many readers of your blog may also enjoy Paula Byrne’s Mad World, about Evelyn Waugh and the real-life families – there were actually two of them – who influenced Brideshead Revisited. I do have to admit, though, that I didn’t finish that one. I wasn’t really in the mood for the hijinks of the privileged at and beyond Oxford in the inter-war years. I may return to it some day. It certainly isn’t dull.

  5. Cindy

    I do read a bit of non-fiction, but have hit a few duds lately. one I would recommend is “The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up” by Liao Yiwu

  6. This sounds like a good book. I read a fair amount of non-fiction. A really great book I read a couple of years ago was Melissa Fay Greene’s There is No Me Without You which is primarily a profile (good & bad) of an Ethiopian woman who began taking care of children orphaned by AIDS. Greene provides some additional context about the country, AIDS, and about others involved with AIDS orphans.

    Adrian LeBlanc’s Random Family, which follows a loosely connected group of people from the Bronx over the course of a decade, is also an excellent non-fiction book – a real astonishing work.

    • Oh blimey that book sounds like it would be quite the emotional rollercoaster as well as being a rather important read at the same time.

      Random Family sounds really, really interesting, am off to find out more about that one.

  7. Pingback: The Weight of a Mustard Seed, by Wendell Steavenson « Novel Insights

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