Archive for November, 2011

My Second Book Review: Sonia Gandhi

This week my second book review was published in the Washington Independent Review of Books. It’s about a current Gandhi in office and one for whom you may not be familiar, Sonia Gandhi. To learn more click here:

or read the review below.

Sonia Gandhi: An Extraordinary Life, An Indian Destiny

By Rani Singh

Palgrave Macmillan

288 pp.

Reviewed by Amy Schapiro

Gandhi. The name for many evokes Mahatma or Indira, but Rani Singh’s new book isn’t about them. It is about one of India’s current political leaders, Sonia Gandhi. Rani Singh, a London-based journalist, brings her investigative skills to this remarkable story of an Italian schoolgirl who went to England, met a boy, married him and instantly became a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family dynasty.

When Sonia Maino met Rajiv Gandhi in a Cambridge restaurant, it was love at first sight for both. “I just wanted Rajiv,” said Sonia. “I could have gone to any part of the world for him. He was my biggest security.” Before the pair married, they had to endure a one-year separation imposed by Sonia’s father, who did not want his 20-year-old daughter moving across the ocean and marrying a foreigner. But that’s just what she did.

In a matter of weeks, Sonia went from living in a small Italian village with her parents to living in New Delhi with her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, at the prime minister’s residence. Indira Gandhi took her new daughter-in-law under her wing and helped shepherd her through the transition to a new culture, language, and lifestyle. Sonia was determined to immerse herself into her new homeland and she did that by giving up her old one. As Sonia said, “I decided that my roots had to be properly embedded in India. …  This would be possible only if I severed all contacts with Italy.” Once Sonia achieved that goal she reconnected with her Italian family.

The first part of the book examines Sonia’s childhood and idyllic family life with Rajiv and their two children ― but the fairy tale comes to a sudden end. Like the Kennedy family, the Nehru-Gandhi family produced a political dynasty and suffered an excruciating amount of pain. In Part II, Singh describes the death of Rajiv’s only brother, Sanjay, in a plane crash, and the even more devastating assassination of Indira Gandhi by one of her bodyguards. India lost the woman dubbed the mother of the nation, and Sonia lost a mother-in-law, mentor and confidante.

In the wake of his mother’s death, Rajiv was asked to step up to the political plate, and he did, becoming the youngest prime minister of India, at the age of 40. Sonia did not rejoice. Instead, she feared her husband would meet the same violent fate as his mother. He did, assassinated by a bomb blast that was so powerful it tore his body apart and emotionally shattered his wife of 23 years.

The second half of the book chronicles how a grief-stricken Sonia Gandhi gradually entered a life of politics as the politician, not the spouse. According to Singh, living with Indira was “the best political kindergarten Sonia could have had, and she absorbed everything osmotically, even though she was never interested in being a politician.”

Sonia’s foremost interest was preserving the legacy of her husband. She did so through the establishment and chairmanship of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, which espoused his vision for a new India through science, technology, literacy and an emphasis on the future ― the country’s youth. The Indian National Congress, the party of Rajiv, Indira and Indira’s father, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was desperate for a Nehru-Gandhi to lead and tried to recruit Sonia into the family business. As Sonia recovered from her loss and gradually built up her confidence, she answered the call of the party, not by choice, but to advance the ideas of her husband.

The irony is that for more than a dozen years of marriage, Rajiv and Sonia led a quiet life out of the spotlight. He was an airline pilot and she ran the household. When Rajiv’s brother died suddenly in 1980, the political torch was passed to Rajiv. This was the first time there was tension in the marriage. Sonia was a reluctant political spouse, but once again adapted. She traveled the countryside with her husband and demonstrated an innate ability to connect with people. This skill served Sonia well, as did her years of playing host to world leaders first, when Indira was prime minister, and later, when her husband held that position.

Mikhail Gorbachev was among the first political leaders Sonia met once her husband assumed his role as prime minister. The friendship that emerged between the Gorbachevs and Gandhis is recounted in Gorbachev’s foreword to the book, as is the reluctance of both Rajiv and Sonia to be on the world’s political stage.

One wonders if it was Sonia’s lack of desire to become a politician that gave her the luxury to step down at will. She did that twice when opposition about her not being a native-born Indian became deafening and unproductive. While Sonia’s opponents have used her Italian roots against her, the people of India have always embraced her, and the Indian National Congress has relied on her to rejuvenate the party and the voters.

Sonia’s rebirth and the development of her political prowess, first at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and then leading the Indian National Congress, comprise the last two parts of this six-part book. For those who are novices at Indian politics, Singh does a good job of weaving an understanding of India’s political structure and key players into the narrative.

What’s most remarkable about this book is that it is about a powerful contemporary figure, but one with whom most Americans are not familiar. Since India, with a rapidly growing population, is expected to surpass China as the most populous  nation in the world, it’s vital that the story of Sonia Gandhi and her leadership is understood as India becomes a key player in atomic energy and its economy continues to expand globally as the class divide within India widens.

Amy Schapiro is the author of Millicent Fenwick: Her Way. Schapiro’s next book is Leading Justice: The Life of Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach. 


A Russian Thanksgiving

This year we had an untraditional Thanksgiving. We originally planned to buck tradition and head to New Orleans for a week of feasting leading up to turkey day. We had gotten tons of restaurant suggestions and eventually settled on Galatoire’s for Thanksgiving, Commander’s Palace for brunch, and dinner at Jacques Imo’s to start.

The New Orleans trip had been my father’s idea – a week of family, not just a day. We booked our hotel and flights over the summer but our plans were derailed last month when my father had a stroke. From rehab, he cobbled together a question about the weather in New Orleans. He remembered; a good sign. But, it wasn’t to be. While he is doing remarkably well, travel was not in the cards.

So I found myself in New Jersey with my parents, but without the usual Thanksgiving Day plans. Our Russian neighbors across the street invited us over for Thanksgiving with one caveat. They would not be serving turkey. Instead we enjoyed a Russian feast with some American touches including baked apples and sweet potatoes.

The first course was an assortment of salads. There was a colorful beet salad with dates and nuts; an American salad with goat cheese; an Olivia salad with eggs, potatoes, pickles and who knows what else; deviled eggs with a mushroom pate; stuffed peppers; and caviar from Greece.

The second course was a bird, but what exactly I don’t know. There was no white meat so it wasn’t turkey or chicken and I didn’t I ask, I just ate (it was good). Although we didn’t have stuffing, I was stuffed when I learned that there was also a pot roast coming. However that never got served as everyone was full – the markings of a true thanksgiving. We did manage to muster up some room for a sour cream cake and chocolates.

Although it wasn’t the Thanksgiving we had planned, it still had all the right fixings – we were together.

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

Are you  familiar with the Washington Independent Review of Books? If not,  you should check it out. It’s an online publication dedicated to book reviews and writing about the world of books. You can subscribe for free and read about the newest books hitting the shelves by visiting:

This week’s issue features my first book review! I reviewed David Margolick’s latest, “Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock.”  It is the spellbinding story about two teenagers captured in an iconic photograph from the integration of Central High School and their lives before, and after, they became a part of history. The review is below and here’s the link:

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, David Margolick (Yale University Press, 320 pp.)

Reviewed by Amy Schapiro

They say a picture tells a thousand words, but in Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, it is the words that tell the painful half-century-old story of two girls captured on film at a moment in time. Neither Elizabeth Eckford nor Hazel Bryan could have foreseen the historic events that would unfold on September 4, 1957, and bind them together for a lifetime.

Elizabeth, a shy 15-year-old girl, had been among nine students selected to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. To prepare for her first day at her new school, she had made a new outfit by hand. She wanted to look good for the occasion. To get to the school, she rode the public bus. Little Rock had desegregated its buses in 1954, a year before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Alabama.

What Elizabeth did not know as she sat on the bus was that there had been a plan for her and the other trailblazing students, later known as the “Little Rock Nine,” to meet at someone’s home and go to Central High School together. It was a last-minute arrangement, of which Elizabeth did not learn until after the fact because her family did not have a telephone. The organizer had meant to tell Elizabeth’s father in person, but never delivered the message. This unintended oversight resulted in Elizabeth unknowingly heading into a thicket of racism alone.

On the same morning, another 15-year-old girl, Hazel Bryan, also carefully picked out her outfit. Hers was a mint green department store dress with a tie in front. But, more than 50 years later, people do not remember her dress: they remember her face. For it was Hazel’s venomous expression that was captured on film, as Elizabeth, head down, books in hand, walked stoically towards Central High School amid chants of “Lynch her! Lynch her! Lynch her!”

That is the image the public remembers. That is the pain that Elizabeth endured, not only that day, but each and every day she attended Central High School. Hazel did not have to endure anything at Central as her parents pulled her out of the school citing safety concerns. Yet, if anyone needed to worry about safety, it was Elizabeth. To help protect herself from constant shoving and body slamming, she slipped pins into the edges of her books, pricking those who came near.

In his bookDavid Margolick chronicles the lives of Elizabeth and Hazel before, during and after the integration of Central High School. While the photograph taken by local reporter Will Counts resulted in Elizabeth becoming a public face of integration, bravery and stoicism, reality was quite different. Being a pioneer took an emotional toll.

The first half of Elizabeth and Hazel chronicles Elizabeth’s sheltered upbringing, harsh treatment at Central High School and downward spiral afterwards. It was only years later, with the help of anti-depressants and an unlikely friendship, that she was able to overcome her inner demons.

That unlikely friendship was with her most widely recognized tormenter: Hazel Bryan Massery. Forty years had passed between the day the infamous photo was snapped and the women’s second encounter, a meeting staged by Will Counts to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the integration of Central High School. The result was another memorable photograph and the birth of reconciliation between these two women.

In the second half of the book, Margolick recounts the journey of this new relationship and the bumps along the way. The reader knows that Hazel apologized to Elizabeth in 1963, but the public at the time did not. When the public did learn of the apology decades later from a Nightline interview, many believed Hazel was trying to capitalize on the publicity around the 40th anniversary. She was not; however, images, words and intentions often take on meanings of their own.

During the two years that their friendship blossomed, Elizabeth and Hazel traveled the speaking circuit together, sharing their experiences and lessons learned with others. Margolick weaves a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications that has the reader rooting for this unlikely pair to overcome their differences and mutual stubbornness. Their relationship gradually deteriorated and their communication all but ended. Nonetheless, Elizabeth still acknowledges the role Hazel had in lifting her from the shadows of despair and what eventually was diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Margolick brings the story of Elizabeth and Hazel to life by capturing the impact the photograph had locally, nationally and worldwide as well as on the women themselves, as they tried to understand each other and the racist overtones that tinged their lives. One element that gets scant attention in the book is the fact that Elizabeth formed a stronger bond with Hazel, her visual nemesis, than she did with the rest of the Little Rock Nine. But, ultimately, what Margolick does is paint a riveting portrait of the two women behind the faces of an iconic image and how that image indelibly affected their lives.

Elizabeth and Hazel represent both the tragedy of racial discrimination and the promise of reconciliation. Unlike many things in life, the latter was too short.

Amy Schapiro is the author of Millicent Fenwick: Her Way. Her next book is Leading Justice: The Life of Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach. You can follow her blog at