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The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen


I picked up this book because, in part, I have this morbid curiosity about what drives people to do some of the most horrendous things ever: bombings, the Holocaust, whatever.  I'm also a transplant in the Boston area - I went to college on mile 13.1 of the Boston Marathon (go Wellesley), so Marathon Monday always will and always had a special place in my heart.  So when the bombings at the finish line happened on April 15, 2013 it was almost a personal violation. 

This book isn't about intricate relationships between Jahar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev or about family even.  I found that it was more about disconnection and sociopathy and what led to the disaffection that could lead two people to cause such pain and tragedy in the city that had seemingly welcomed them. It describes the events leading up to the bombings and the events in its immediate aftermath and offers a theory that the FBI doesn't really get terrorism. The book was most interesting and effective in conveying the Tsarnaev's social history. The story begins in Soviet-era Russia where we meet the parents of the marathon bombers as young adults.

Zubeidat, the boys' mother, is an ethnic Avar from Makhachkala, Dagestan, who met Anzor Tsarnaev, an ethnic Chechen from Kyrgyzstan, on the street in Novosibirsk, Siberia, in the spring of 1985. Their marriage was considered to be somewhat outside the norm since they were from different ethnic groups but that didn't stop them. During the early part of their marriage, Stalin was in power and was actively going after Chechans. When Krushchev came to power, those restrictions were being rolled back. In 1992 therefore, they moved back to Chechnya, two years ahead of the Russians bombing the area. They left for America when the going got bad, exchanging one brand of chaos for another. Not only were they on the margins but they still harbored much mistrust for the government and authorities, which further served to marginalize them. They often skirted the rules.  The boys tried to fit in as much as possible - interestingly, Jahar, the youngest, was sent to America alone way in advance of his family in his early teens (something I never knew), so he was more Americanized than his family members.

I really thoroughly enjoyed getting the familial background because it gave me the context that I had so craved. The cultural confusion that the family felt was palpable and the author did a masterful job getting the family and its friends to talk about their experiences. It was also a very interesting story. However, I left unsatisfied at the same time. I still have no answers as to WHY the brothers did such a heinous thing. The end of the book seemed just a collection of conspiracy theories, so if you're looking for an answer to WHY then this book probably isn't for you. It IS a masterful history of the most recent generation of the Tsarnaev family. 

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