One-Minute Book Reviews

February 27, 2008

Does the Cover of ‘A Long Way’ Gone Show a Soldier in Niger or Another African Country Instead of Sierra Leone? Why Isn’t the Location Identified?

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Seeing red on the dust jacket of Ishmael Beah’s controversial book

Does anything strike you as odd about the photo on the cover of A Long Way Gone, the book that Ishmael Beah bills as a memoir of his years as a child solider in Sierra Leone? For months the picture puzzled me: Why was the young solider wearing a T-shirt in a shade of orange-red so bright, it would make him an easy target for an enemy?

The book says only that the picture was taken by Michael Kamber www.kamberphoto.com and came from the Polaris image bank www.polarisimages.com. And at first I suspected that an art director had changed the original color of the T-shirt to a bright orange-red so the cover would stand out more at stores.

But the more I looked at the cover, the more questions I had: Why hasn’t the young man’s T-shirt faded when his flip-flops are so tattered? Where was the picture taken? If it shows Sierra Leone, why doesn’t the cover say so?

It occurred to me that the soldier might be wearing an orange-red T-shirt for the same nationalistic reasons that the Marines wear their blue, white and red dress uniforms. But the colors of Sierra Leone flag don’t include orange or red – they’re blue, green and white. And the colors of another West African country, Niger, are the colors of the young soldier’s T-shirt and flip-flops – dark orange and green. Soldiers in Niger seized control of the government in 1996 after the ouster of the president Mahamane Ousmane, and Human Rights Watch has called on both government and rebel forces to end abuses against civilians that have occurred in a more recent conflict www.hrw.org/english/docs/2007/12/19/niger17623.htm.

Publishers don’t have to tell you more about stock photos than Beah’s book does. Still, wouldn’t you like know how this one found its way onto the cover of A Long Way Gone?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 26, 2008

Rating the Cover of ‘A Long Way Gone’ – Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Book Covers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:24 pm
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Update, 5 p.m. Yes, I still plan to rate the cover today, Wednesday. The post should be up in an hour or so. Thanks for your patience. Jan

You could argue that the cover of A Long Way Gone doesn’t matter, given all the other concerns that have been raised about the credibility of this book by a man who claims to have spent two years as a child soldier in Africa. But book covers always matter in the sense that what you wear on a job interview matters. They’re part of what’s become known in the age of Facebook as “impression management.” So tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will consider the cover of A Long Way Gone in the next of its occasional series of posts that rate book covers on their artistry and accuracy in representing the text. You’ll find other posts in the “Book Covers” category at right. This site welcomes comments from booksellers, librarians, graphic designers and others whose perspectives on book covers may differ from those of literary critics.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 14, 2008

Ishmael Beah’s Wikipedia Entry – A Point-by-Point Response for Reporters, Producers, Book Groups and Others Seeking Facts About the Author of ‘A Long Way Gone’

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia has an entry on Ishmael Beah that may mislead reporters, producers and others seeking facts about the author of A Long Way Gone. This post is an attempt to clarify some of the statements that may cause confusion. It may be updated to deal with others.

Wikipedia says:
“He now considers his foster mother, Laura Simms, his mother.”

Others say:
Ishmael Beah says Laura Simms is “my adoptive mother.”
“Ishmael Beah Takes a Public Stand,” by Michael Coffey, Publishers Weekly Jan. 21, 2008. www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6524214.html.

Laura Simms’s Web site refers to “her adopted son Ishmael Beah.” www.laurasimms.com.

Wikipedia says:
“He and other soldiers smoked marijuana and sniffed amphetamines and ‘brown-brown’, a mix of cocaine and gunpowder.”

Others say:
Jon Stewart said,while questioning Beah on the Daily Show on February 14, 2007, that the drugs included crystal meth. Beah did not correct him and appeared to nod www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=82274&title=ishmael-beah.

Wikipedia says:
“Beah currently works for the Human Rights Watch Children’s Division Advisory Committee, lives in Brooklyn, and is considering attending graduate school.”

Others say:
On Nov. 20, 2007 Beah was appointed the UNICEF Advocate for Children Affected by War. www.unicef.org/people/media_41827.html.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda com.

February 13, 2008

Has Wikipedia Been Hijacked by Ishmael Beah’s PR Machine? The Online Encyclopedia Abandons Neutrality and Regurgitates the Young Author’s View by Editorializing That ‘It Is Important Not to Lose to Lose Sight’ of His Human-Rights Work

[UPDATE at 9:25 a.m. on March 2, 2008: At this writing, Wikipedia appears to have been sucker-punched again. A post about the continuing lack of neutrality in Beah's entry will appear soon on One-Minute Book Reviews.]

[UPDATE at 12:01 p.m. on Feb. 14, 2008: Since I wrote this post, the biased line that I discuss below has been removed from Beah's Wikipedia entry. If you see that someone has reinstated that line or inserted others that lack neutrality, I'd be so grateful if you let me know. Thanks. Jan]

Would Wikipedia warn that “it is important not to lose sight” of Roger Clemens’s contributions the Boys and Girls Clubs as we consider whether he used steroids?

By Janice Harayda

Has the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia become the latest victim of the deepening controversy about the credibility of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone?

Wikipedia editorializes in its entry for Beah that “it is important not to lose sight” of the young author’s work to raise awareness about child soldiers en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishmael_Beah. This is not a neutral comment. It is exactly what Beah and his handlers want you to think and have been saying since the newspaper the Australian began raising questions last month about A Long Way Gone, billed by its publisher as a memoir of Beah’s experiences as a child solider in Sierra Leone.

Why, exactly, is it “important not to lose sight” of Beah’s human-rights work? And to whom? Does Beah’s work matter if it is based wholly or partly on claims nobody can substantiate? Will his efforts comfort the hundreds of thousands of readers who bought A Long Way Gone in the belief that its story was, in Beah’s words, is “all true,” and who now may now have serious doubts about its veracity? Shouldn’t we consider the harm that any book may do along with the good?

Beah’s listing on Wikipedia is questionable for reasons other than its editorializing. One-Minute Book Reviews will deal with these reasons soon if the encyclopedia allows them to remain in place. In the meantime, you may wonder: Would Wikipedia instruct us – as we consider whether Roger Clemens used steroids — that “it is important not to lose sight” of the pitcher’s contributions to the Boys and Girls Clubs?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 12, 2008

Ishmael Beah Says He Was Shot ‘Three Times on My Left Foot’ But Suffered No Serious Damage — Can Any Soldiers, E.R. Doctors or Others Explain This?

Another scene I don’t understand from the memoir of the man who claims to have been a child soldier

On this site I try to keep reviews short enough that you can read them in a minute if you skip the supplemental material at the end, so I’ll often give one example instead of three or choose a brief quote from a book instead of a long one. But enough questions have been raised about the credibility of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone that I’d like to mention a scene from it that didn’t appear in my original review. In this scene Beah talks about continuing to fight after receiving “many bullet wounds” and about foot injuries don’t appear to have left him with a limp or a need to use a cane.

Beah’s account of his injuries seemed implausible, but I don’t have a medical or military background. Would anyone with expertise in such fields like to comment on the following?

Ishmael Beah says in A Long Way Gone that he received “many bullet wounds” in a firefight in Sierra Leone but kept attacking a village his squad was trying to take. He adds that after 24 hours, he and his fellow soldiers seemed to have achieved their aim.

Then they were attacked again, and he was hit three times in the left foot: “The first two bullets went in and out, and the last one stayed inside my foot.” The third bullet, he says, was later removed with “crooked-looking scissors” by a “sergeant doctor” in the Sierra Leone army at a base camp. After leaving the army, Beah entered a hospital and was told that medical tests showed that nothing was “seriously wrong” and he would just have to take medications until his next checkup.

Quotes from pages 156–158 and 163.

Links: The original review of A Long Way Gone appeared on this site on Feb. 27, 2007. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/27/. A reading group guide was posted on March 5, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 11, 2008

Inside a Hellish Iranian Prison — Zarah Ghahramani’s ‘My Life as a Traitor’

A young writer says she was locked up and tortured for taking part in student demonstrations at Tehran University

My Life as a Traitor. By Zarah Ghahramani. With Robert Hillman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 242 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has followed the controversy about the credibility of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone may approach My Life as a Traitor with deep skepticism. Here we have another memoir by a young writer who had a hellish experience, wrote it up with the help of an established novelist and got it published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Until recently the main question you might have about such a book was: Is it good? Now another question presents itself: How much of it can you believe? A tough call.

Like Beah, Zarah Ghahramani writes vividly and with what appears to be disarming frankness about a terrifying ordeal — a month-long incarceration in Iran’s Evin Prison that she casts as her punishment for taking part in student protests at Tehran University. With Australian novelist Robert Hillman, she tells a good story about her incarceration and torture and the restrictions that even well-off families like hers have faced since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

But she doesn’t say whether her book includes composite or invented characters or dialogue, or whether she took other liberties with facts. Nor does she explain how she reconstructed in detail scenes that occurred when she couldn’t have had a pencil or notepaper. She offers pages of dialogue with a prisoner whom she calls Sohrab and identifies as “a madman” in the cell above hers, but we have only her word that he existed. Who’s going to ring up a few mullahs and ask them to confirm it? And if prison officials tortured Ghahramani, they may also have starved her or drugged her food until she was hallucinating about prisoners or holding imaginary conversations to keep her sanity. If she considered these possibilities, she doesn’t deal with them in her book.

So we are left with another interesting and well-written memoir that raises almost as many questions as it answers. Farrar, Straus could have eased some of the concerns by insisting that Ghahramani include a note saying whether she had changed any names, dates or places or used composites. In the absence of such information, you can only hope that over time her story will withstand scrutiny better than Beah’s.

Best line: Many scenes offer sharp observations on growing up in a country ruled by mullahs, especially during Iran’s war with Iraq. This passages describes a standard mourning ritual: “For example, the husband of a young woman living next door to us was killed on the battlefield, and this poor woman was expected to forsake smiling at anything from the moment the news reached her until years in the future, the actual number of years contingent on how long the war lasted … the proscription on smiling meant that she could not behave in any natural, human way for years to come – she could not even smile for her children.”

Worst line: Ghahramani says when she sees photos of herself that the authorities took before throwing her in prison: “I feel violated.” “I feel violated” is journalistic cliché right up there with “closure” and at times used in the same sentence in newspaper stories, as in: “Mrs. Smith said she felt violated by the break-in and wanted the police to catch the thief so she could have closure.” In My Life As a Traitor it sounds just bizarre. Ghahramani doesn’t feel “violated” by being thrown in prison but does feel “violated” by seeing photographs of herself that were taken secretly?

Reading group guide: The publisher has posted one at www.fsgbooks.com.

Black box warning: This memoir comes from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, publisher of A Long Way Gone, which has so far failed to provide persuasive answers to the questions about the credibility of that book that have been raised by reporters for the Australian, Australia’s national daily newspaper, and others.

Published: January 2008

Furthermore: Ghahramani fled Iran after her release from prison and now lives in Australia.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

Do We Need ‘Black Box’ Warnings for Toxic Memoirs?

Some readers may fume about Ishmael Beah’s book, but the publisher appears indifferent to the controvesy

You know that “black box” warning that the Food and Drug Administration requires drug companies to put on the labels of some medications? The one that means that a drug may carry a significant risk of causing serious harm or even death?

Lately I’ve been wondering if we need a similar label for books. A label that means: Warning! This book makes claims nobody can verify. Reading it may cause serious harm or even death to your faith in the author’s credibility. The publisher’s response to questions about the book may cause nausea.

For several weeks the newspaper the Australian has been publishing articles that cast serious doubt on many of the statements that Ishmael Beah makses in his A Long Way Gone, including his assertion that he was a child in Sierra Leone for two years – the foundation of his book, billed as a “memoir.” Beah and his publisher, the Sarah Crichton Books imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), have responded to these articles in ways that are startlingly cavalier or, as one news service put it, “blasé.” Asked if the firm planned to answer one report by the Australian, a senior vice president of FSG joked to the New York Observer that he was “responding with an ulcer.” How funny will this be to people who bought the book in good faith that they would be reading the true story of someone who spent years as a child soldier?

The insensitive responses may tarnish the reputation of FSG, widely regarded as one of the two most prestigious publishers in the U.S. along with Alfred A. Knopf at Random House. They also show a lack of respect for readers, who deserve a better explanation for what is and isn’t true in A Long Way Gone. The “blasé” attitude means, in part, that you need to approach with caution any FSG memoirs, particularly those from first-time authors or others who lack established reputations.

How should critics respond to the indifference by Farrar, Straus and Giroux? Some may stop reviewing FSG books for a while. This would penalize authors and others who are blameless in this fiasco. So I’m going to the adapt the FDA’s idea: Put the equivalent of a “black box” warning on each FSG memoir that is reviewed on this site until the responses by the firm reflect the gravity of the situation.

If you’re not a professional critic, you have another option – return your copy of A Long Way Gone to your bookstore, Starbucks or other vendor. Even if you no longer have your receipt, the circumstances are unusual enough to warrant a refund without it. FSG has sold more than 600,000 copes of A Long Way Gone. How long do you think it would take the company to start providing better answers if just one percent of those readers showed up at bookstores tomorrow and asked for their money back?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 5, 2008

Out of the Mouth of a Babe Soldier (Quotes of the Day / Ishmael Beah)

Confused about the controversy about A Long Way Gone, which Ishmael Beah says describes his two years as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone? These quotes from Beah may clarify the situation. Or not.

“The first time that I was touched by war I was twelve. It was in January of 1993.”
Ishmael Beah, page 6, A Long Way Gone (Use the “Search Inside” tool on the Amazon page for the book to search for “I was twelve” www.amazon.com.)

“I tried to write as I felt back then – at twelve, at eleven …”
Ishmael Beah on the Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Feb. 14, 2007 interview www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=82274&title=ishmael-beah

“I am right about my story. This is not something one gets wrong. … Sad to say, my story is all true.” Ishmael Beah in a statement defending his book published by the trade journal Publishers Weekly on Jan. 21, 2008 www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6524214.html%5E.

“I have tried to think deeply about this, and my memory gives me 1993 and nothing more. And that’s what I stand by.”
Ishmael Beah in an interview with Hillel Italie of the Associated Press as published on Jan. 30, 2008, in the International Herald Tribune and elsewhere www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/01/30/arts/NA-A-E-BKS-US-Ishmael-Beah.php.

Comment:

In A Long Way Gone Beah says clearly that he was first “touched by war” he was 12. He mentions earlier events as background but does not imply that, at 11, he was a soldier (which he suggests occurs between the ages of 13 and 15). But you could easily have come away from his Daily Show interview with the idea that he was a soldier “at 12, at 11.” His book says he was born in 1980, so events that happened when he was 11 would have occurred in 1991 or 1992, or before the 1993 date that he stands by.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 4, 2008

The OTHER Book About Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone

Did you love Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone so much that you want to read something else like it no matter how many questions have been raised about parts of the book by people like me? Or would you just like to read more about child soldiers in Sierra Leone? You can.

A discussion about Beah’s memoir on Speakeasy/The Australian Writer’s Marketplace has a fascinating comment by Detmar Stone about Delia Jarrett-Macauley’s novel about child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Moses, Citizen and Me (Granta, 2005), which won the Orwell Prize for political writing. Stone had a sense of déjà vu after reading Beah’s book:

“ … the Jarrett [novel] had a Shakespeare-spouting and performing field guerrilla commander in it and when I then read the Ishmael Beah there’s what looks like exactly the same character! I mean how many Shakespeare-performing guerrillas were there out there in the wars then, let alone guerrillas performing the same plays to child soldiers….. SPOOKY or what?”

I haven’t read Moses, Citizen and Me, but the publisher says this about the novel:

“When Julia flies in to war-scarred Sierra Leone from London, she is apprehensive about seeing her uncle Moses for the first time in twenty years. But nothing could have prepared her for her encounter with her eight-year-old cousin, Citizen, a former child soldier, and for the shocking truth of what he has done.

“Driven by a desire to understand Citizen, Julia takes the disturbed child into the rainforest, where to her surprise, she encounters him amongst other child soldiers, along with a mysterious storyteller … He alone in the heart of the rainforest can heal the rift between the cultures of war and peace, Europe and Africa. But who would think he’d use Shakespeare to do it?”

There’s more about Moses, Citizen and Me on the site for Granta www.granta.com and on that of Jarrett-Macauley deliajarrettmacauley.com, who lives in England and is the daughter of Sierra Leonean parents. You can read an interview with her on Bookslut at www.bookslut.com/features/2007_09_011638.php. And here’s where you’ll find Stone’s comments on Speakeasy blog.awmonline.com.au/2008/01/22/ishmael-beahs-memoir-a-long-way-gone-not-factually-correct/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 3, 2008

Watch Ishmael Beah on Comedy Central (This Is Not a Joke)

Somehow I missed this until now, but last year the people at Sarah Crichton Books apparently decided that they had found a great place for Ishmael Beach to plug his memoir of how the army in Sierra Leone turned him into a ruthless drug-addicted killer. And that place was … Comedy Central!

I’m not making this up. Beah was on the Daily Show With Jon Stewart on Feb. 14, 2007. His publisher posted a clip of his appearance the Web site for his A Long Way Gone and hasn’t taken it down, so somebody must still think it’s pretty funny. Here’s a link to the Stewart interview www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=82274&title=ishmael-beah. (If the link doesn’t work, you can find the clip by going to www.alongwaygone.com and clicking on the “News” page.) Click here for the latest developments in the investigation of the book by the newspaper the Australian www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23145293-5001986,00.html.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. 2008 All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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