Non-Fiction: The Books of Michael J. Totten

It’s closing in on twenty years since I met Michael J. Totten, at a life-changing writer’s workshop in Michigan. Not long after, he contributed to another life-changing move for me, letting me crash in his spare bedroom for a while when I relocated to Iowa City. Since then, Mike’s gone on to become a highly successful political writer and freelance foreign correspondent, with a popular international affairs blog. Through his blog, he’s crowdfunded trips overseas to the Middle East and North Africa, to get a first-hand perspective on what’s going on in some of the world’s most troubled and complex regions. His writing is clear-headed, even-handed, and thought-provoking.

Last year, his work saw its first releases in book form. I’m far from an expert on this kind of material, and I suspect I’m not doing it justice, but I’ll try anyway, because I think Mike is an amazing guy whose undertakings are uniquely brave and admirable. The Road to Fatima Gate (2011) is a fascinating first-person account of his experiences in Lebanon in 2005-2006, when renewed hostilities looked to be leading to momentous changes in the region. This book breaks down and elucidates the complicated politics of the area, but also tells nervewracking, eye-opening stories of his travels, interviewing leaders and citizens and witnessing the action as bullets fly and street altercations occur. Worth the price of admission is a hilariously frightening depiction of his interactions with Hezbollah’s “media relations” department.

His more recent follow-up, In the Wake of the Surge (2011), sets its sights on the quagmire of Iraq. Detailing his travels through this war-torn nation, from Kurdistan to Baghdad to Ramadi and back again, this is one of the most honest and illuminating accounts of the military situation in that country I’ve ever read, cutting straight to the heart of the matter through sharp-eyed, first-hand narrative. In this one, he takes to the streets on night patrols with the U.S. military, and it’s every bit as suspenseful and hair-raising as you might expect, even as the resulting material — the opinions of his military contacts and local interviewees, and his descriptions of the situation on the ground — defies easy expectation.

Mike’s devoted interest in his subject matter is passionate and infectious, his insights fiercely intelligent and refreshingly unfiltered and honest. I highly recommend his work to anyone who really wants to know what’s going on in the Middle East.

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