One-Minute Book Reviews

May 6, 2011

Today’s Gusher Award for Literary Hype Goes to …

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Time magazine wins today’s Gusher Award for a brief review that named Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea one of the best books of 2006:

“ … Three Cups of Tea is an astonishing tale of compassion—and of a promise kept.”

No doubt those words sounded less ironic four years ago than they do in the wake of a 60 Minutes investigation that found that Mortenson misrepresented some of his efforts to build schools in Afghanistan. But even in 2006, that “astonishing” might have suggested that parts of the book were too good to be true and that Three Cups of Tea didn’t belong on a best-of-the-year list.

September 30, 2010

Writing About War Is Hell: Megan Stack’s Memoir, ‘Every Man in This Village Is a Liar’

A foreign correspondent looks back on her work in Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat zones

Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War. By Megan K. Stack. Doubleday, 255 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Megan Stack wears her emotions on her flak jacket. She was twenty-five years old when, a few weeks after the Twin Towers fell, the Los Angeles Times sent her to Afghanistan to cover the hunt for Osama bin Laden. In this overwrought memoir she tries, as she puts it, to pull “poetry from war.”

At first exhilarated by her posting to Afghanistan, she grew disillusioned by the brutality and corruption she saw over the next six years as she traveled to strategic outposts in what the Bush administration called “the war on terror” – Iraq, Yemen, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Pakistan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. She maps her disenchantment along with her destinations in Every Man in This Village Is a Liar, a memoir in the form of a series of linked narrative essays about the cataclysms she observed.

Stack writes in a florid style far removed from that of great war correspondents like Ernie Pyle and George Orwell, whose unembellished prose threw the horrors of combat into high relief. And her prose is much more self-conscious than that of veteran contemporary journalists like Martha Raddatz of ABC News, whose The Long Road Home is one of the best books on the human cost of war in Iraq.  Stack slips into Libya and finds Moammar Qaddafi’s dictatorship a place where a doctor “muttered nervously,” a government agent “laughed nastily,” and “Sun glinted evilly on the sea.” The angrier she gets, the more overheated her writing becomes. She is seething with rage by the time she sees old and sick people abandoned by fleeing kin during Israel’s heavy bombing of Lebanon, where the terrorist group Hezbollah was based, in 2006:

“I hate the Lebanese families for leaving them here. I hate Hezbollah for not evacuating them, for ensuring civilian deaths that will bolster their cause. I hate Israel for wasting this place on the heads of the feeble. I hate all of us for participating in this great fiction of the war on terror, for pretending there is a framework, a purpose, for this torment.”

Like much else in this book, that rant tells you more about Stack than about the conflict she seeks to describe. And what it tells you is muddled: It conflates the post-9/11 “war on terror” with the older hostilities among Israel and its neighbors.

When she looks outward instead of inward, Stack can offer sharp portraits of her subjects, including countries Americans regard as their allies. In Egypt she is tear-gassed as president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s “modern-day pharaoh,” rigs an election by using riot police to keep supporters of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood party away from the polls. Her report on the savage crackdown on voters lends credibility to words of a human-rights official who told her “that Egypt, of all the Arab states, came closest” to having a gulag.

The account of election fraud in Egypt also reveals her eye for subtle details about how violence affects ordinary lives. Stack notes that as voters were being tear-gassed by Mubarak’s legions, protesters shredded rags and pressed them to their mouths. “Egyptian hospitality unflagged,” she writes,” “they kept offering me their rags because I was a foreigner.”

Best line: “McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks make women stand in separate lines [in Saudi Arabia]. Hotels like the InterContinental and Sheraton won’t rent a woman a room without a letter from a company vouching for her ability to pay; women checking into hotels alone are regarded as prostitutes.”

Worst line: No. 1: “I learned to count the fighter jets that passed overhead in my sleep.” How could she count them if she was sleeping? No. 2: “Violence is a reprint of itself, an endless copy. I mean to say that by itself, violence is not the point. A bomb, a battle, a bullet is just a hole torn in the fabric of the day.” Tell it to someone who took a bullet. No. 3. “Sunlight glinted evilly …” Every Man in This Village Is a Liar brims with cloying phrases like that one.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to this book: The Long Road Home, a fine account by by ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz of the 2004 assault on American soldiers in Sadr City Iraq, and its aftermath.

Published: June 2010

Caveat lector: This review of Every Man In This Village Is a Liar was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ. This post shows the cover of the U.K. edition of the book.

About the author: Stack reports from Beijing for the Los Angeles Times. She was a finalist, with others in the paper’s Baghdad bureau, for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda.

August 13, 2007

Review of Marcus Luttrell’s ‘Lone Survivor’: A Navy SEAL Survives a Firefight in Afghanistan With His Pride — and His Anger — Intact

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“Right here was a 21st-century version of General Custer’s last stand, Little Big Horn with turbans.”
Marcus Luttrell in Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10. By Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson. Little Brown, 249 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Two years ago Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell survived a disastrous firefight in the mountains of Afghanistan with his pride – and his anger – intact. But the clash took the lives of the three comrades who fought beside him and eight U.S. servicemen whose helicopter was shot down by the Taliban during an attempted rescue.

Luttrell’s memoir of this horrific experience is part war story, part polemic against “the liberal media” and part Valentine to George W. Bush. As a war story, it is gripping, providing a rare soldier’s-eye-view of a guerilla conflict. As a polemic, it is uneven. And as a Valentine to the president, it is likely to appeal only those who already support the administration.

“Right here was a twenty-first-century version of General Custer’s last stand, Little Big Horn with turbans,” Luttrell writes of the firefight that killed his three fellow SEALs, who were on a mission to capture an al Qaeda leader. And if the metaphor is overstated, it contains an element of truth. The appeal of this account of Operation Redwing – like that of the many books on Custer – depends partly on whose side you’re on in the provocative issues it raises.

Best line: Luttrell gives a remarkably candid account of his stateside training as a SEAL in the aptly titled Chapters 4 (“Welcome to Hell, Gentlemen”) and 5 (“Like the Remnants of a Ravaged Army”). The program was so brutal — even sadistic — that the long list of injuries included several cases of pneumonia.

Worst line: “We all harbor fears about untrained, half-educated journalists who only want a good story to justify their fears and expense accounts. Don’t think it’s just me. We all detest them, partly for their lack of judgment, mostly because of their ignorance and toe-curling opportunism. The first minute an armed conflict turns into a media war, the news becomes someone’s opinion, not hard truths. When the media gets involved in a war you’ve got a damned good chance of losing, because the restrictions on us are immediately amplified, and that’s sensationally good news for our enemy.” And it’s not “opportunism” when Luttrell gives interviews to the media to promote his book?

Reading group guide: A Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guide to Lone Survivor was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on August 13 in the post directly before this one. The guide contains more information on and quotations from the book.

Published: First American edition, June 2007.

Links: You can read an excerpt from Lone Survivor and listen to a podcast at www.hachettebookgroupusa.com. You can find out about other books by Patrick Robinson at www.patrickrobinson.com.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Marcus Luttrell’s ‘Lone Survivor’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Lone Survivor
The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10

By Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

In 2005 Marcus Luttrell set out with three other U.S. Navy SEALs to capture an al Qaeda leader hiding on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Luttrell and his unit soon became engaged in a fierce firefight with Taliban soldiers that he alone survived. He tells his story in his memoir, Lone Survivor, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller.

Questions for Readers

1. Military books don’t usually become immediate bestsellers unless they have famous authors, such as Private Jessica Lynch or General Colin Powell. Lone Survivor reached the No. 1 spot on the New York Times list quickly even though Marcus Luttrell was little-known. Why do you think accounts for this? What drew you to the book? What do you think attracted others to it?

2. Luttrell is the son of Texas horse ranchers and had something of a cowboy childhood. For example, his father taught him to shoot a .22-caliber rifle at the age of seven. [Page 51] Is Lone Survivor a kind of cowboy story? Why or why not?

3. At times Luttrell rails against what he calls “the liberal media.” But you might wonder whether he means “the liberal media” as opposed to “the conservative media” or “the media in general, which tend to be liberal.” What do you think he meant? Does it matter to his story?

4. Luttrell says that on an earlier assignment in Iraq, he realized that some people thought “we who put our lives on the line for our nation at the behest of our government should be charged with murder for shooting our enemy.” They included “the liberal media, which knows nothing of combat, nothing of our training, and nothing of the mortal dangers we face out there on the front line.” [Page 37] Was this a fair comment when so many reporters are embedded with troops? Why or why not?

5. Luttrell also lashes out against provisions of the Geneva Conventions that prevent civilians from becoming targets of attacks. He argues that these are unfair in wars such the one SEALs were fighting in Afghanistan, because soldiers often disguise themselves as civilians. [Page 367 and elsewhere] How well does Luttrell make his case against some provisions of the Conventions?

6. Nations clearly have several options if some provisions of the Geneva Conventions don’t work in wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq: 1) Obey all the provisions, even those put soldiers’ lives at risk; 2) Ignore provisions that would endanger soldiers (even if this would anger other countries); 3) Don’t get involved in wars that would require soldiers to make such choices. Luttrell seems to favor a variation on the second option: Either repeal some provisions or allow soldiers to disregard them. Which option makes most sense to you?

7. Some of America’s greatest books involve sole survivors of disasters. These include Moby-Dick. (Its epilogue includes a line from the Book of Job: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”) What accounts for the appeal of these survival narratives? Do Americans tend to see themselves as “alone” in some fundamental way and identify with their characters? Or is something else at work?

8. In an interview with the New York Times, Luttrell said his main goal in writing Lone Survivor was to tell the story of the SEALs who did not survive. ”Now I think the American public knows who they are, and now they are forever immortalized,” he said. ”Their memory will never die out, and that’s what I wanted.” [“He Lived to Tell the Tale (And Write a Best Seller), by Motoko Rich, in the New York Times, Aug 9, 2007, page E1.] Did he achieve his goal? Do you agree that his friends’ memory “will never die”?

9. Many studies have shown that schoolchildren today have trouble identifying major battles of the Civil War or World War II, let alone their winners, losers, and individual participants. In that context, do you think that people will remember Operation Redwing years from now? Or will they forget it after other military memoirs appear? Why or why not? What does your answer say to you about our country?

10. Luttrell says early in his book, “I am not a political person.” [Page 39] After reading Lone Survivor, do you agree? Why or why not?

Vital statistics:

Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10. By Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson. Little Brown, 249 pp., $24.99. First American edition: June 2007.

Links: You can read an excerpt and listen to a podcast at www.hachettebookgroupusa.com. You can learn about other military books by Patrick Robinson at www.patrickrobinson.com.

Your book group may also want to read:

Return With Honor (Doubleday, 1995). By Captian Scott O’Grady with Jeff Coplon. This gripping bestseller tells the true story of a U.S. Air Force caption who was shot down while enforcing a NATO no-fly zone over Bosnia in 1995 and eluded capture for six days until rescued by Marines. Return With Honor lacks the angry political rhetoric of Lone Survivor, and for that reason, some people may prefer it to Luttrell’s book.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She does not accept free books from editors, publishers or agents, and all or her reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please bookmark One-Minute Book Reviews or subscribe to the RSS feed. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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