Writer Amanda Roraback says Americans want to know more about places in the news, such as Muslim countries. Her book series called "Nutshell Notes" helps readers learn about those regions.
Six years ago, historian Amanda Roraback became interested in Afghanistan under the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic party that restricted women's rights and zealously suppressed non-Islamic parts of Afghan culture. She started a website to share the results of her studies.
After the terrorist attacks of September 2001 in the United States, believed orchestrated by Afghanistan-based al-Qaida, she compiled her notes into a book called Afghanistan in a Nutshell. With the help of her friends and family, she got copies into bookstores around Los Angeles, in the days before the US-led invasion of that country.
"And everybody was just dying for information on Afghanistan, since the United States was going to war, so they ended up on front counters, and just a couple of days after that, ended up on the LA Times bestsellers list," said Amanda Roraback.
The book was the first of six in the Nutshell Notes series, each inspired by developments in the news.
"After that, Osama bin Laden has escaped into Pakistan, or so they thought, and so I followed it up with a book called Pakistan in a Nutshell, she said. "And because neither of these books really can be understood unless one understands Islam, I did a book called Islam in a Nutshell.
A book followed on Iraq, which also made the Los Angeles Times bestsellers list.
The Nutshell Notes are short, mostly between 60 and 80 pages, and they summarize the history, religion and politics of a region.
The writer says she tries to be impartial. Her book on Israel and Palestine is divided in two sections, back to back. The reader can flip the book over, seeing what seems to be a front cover on either side.
"I did it as a flip-book, tried to make the pages equal, put bar codes and the price on both sides to make everything very, very equal," noted Amanda Roraback. "The intention of that book is to present both sides in such a compelling way that, once somebody finishes it, they understand why it's a big quagmire, why there is constant conflict in that area, because both sides have very compelling reasons to be in that region and to feel that it is their land."
Roraback's latest book is called Iran in a Nutshell.
In each case, she faces a problem in keeping pace with fast-changing events.
"I read the paper every day and wonder, is my book obsolete yet? What I try to do is bring the very far past up to the present, and include all the issues," she said. "The problem is, these situations change on a regular basis."
The Palestine-Israel book, published two years ago, is already in need of revision, and the writer says a new edition should be out in a month or two.
She says the books are especially popular with students and teachers.
"Teachers love these books," said Amanda Roraback. "I sell a lot to teachers because they are really called upon to teach a lot of different subjects, and to keep up with what's going on today. In fact, in California and I'm sure other parts of the United States, students are required to learn about Buddhism and Islam, and there are sections on the Middle East, and there are lot more subjects being taught that relate to the rest of the world. And since 2001, there has been a much greater interest in what's going on "over there," in the other part of the world.
Upcoming Nutshell Notes will look at China, and North and South Korea.