One-Minute Book Reviews

April 3, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Infidel’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

10 Discussion Questions
Infidel

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries that many reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

In 2004 a Muslim fanatic shot the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh on an Amsterdam street and used a butcher knife to stab into his chest a five-page letter to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a member of the Dutch Parliament. Hirsi Ali had worked with Van Gogh on a film of about female oppression under Islam, entitled Submission, that included shots of a naked, battered woman covered with writings from the Koran. Her memoir, Infidel, begins with an account of the murder and deals with Hirsi Ali’s childhood in Somali and elsewhere, her flight to Holland to escape an arranged marriage, her election to Parliament and her eventual move to the United States. When this book came out, she worked for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Questions For Reading Groups

1. Some of the practices that Hirsi Ali describes, such as female circumcision, have had wide publicity in the U.S. and may have lost some of their shock value. How did Infidel affect your view of them?

2. Did Infidel change your views of any other events that have had extensive media coverage in the U.S., such as tensions in Western Europe between longtime residents and recent immigrants? How did it affect your views?

3. One of the themes of Infidel is the liberating power of books. Hirsi Ali says that at the Muslim Girls’ Secondary School in Nairobi, she read books like 1984, Wuthering Heights and Cry, the Beloved Country. “Later on there were sexy books: Valley of the Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele [sic]. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas – races were equal, women were equal to men – and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new to me.” [Page 69] Some people might say women aren’t equal in the novels like those of Susann and Steel – that the goal of their female characters is above all to get a man. Is Hirsi Ali is accurately characterizing any of those books or authors that you’ve read?

4. Ian Buruma, a Dutch author who has met Hirsi Ali and wrote A Murder in Amsterdam (Penguin, 2006) about the Van Gogh case, said in a review of Infidel: “I know from having spoken to her on several occasions that she resents people attributing her views, including her conversion to atheism, to personal experiences. She insists that she arrived at her opinions intellectually and not because she was traumatized, say, by being painfully circumcised as a child, or brutally beaten by her religious instructor or tormented by guilt whenever she was touched by a boy.” [The New York Times Book Review, March 4, 2007, p. 14] Did Infidel convince you that Hirsi Ali arrived at her opinions that way? Why or why not? How much, if any, difference does her ability to do this make to the overall success of the book?

5. Buruma says in the same review that Hirsi Ali’s descriptions of life in the West “have an idealized, almost comic book quality that sounds as naïve as those romantic novels she consumed as a young girl” and “offers up the West as a caricature of sweetness and light, which is then contrasted not to specific places, like Somalia, Kenya or Saudi Arabia, but to the whole Muslim world.” Do you agree? Or do you think she was describing Holland as she saw it at first, a view that later changed?

6. Generations of American school children were taught, and some may still learn, that in the Crusaders went to the Holy Land to fight the “infidels.” The word that Americans once applied to people in other parts of the world, some now apply to us. How, if at all, does this affect your view of the use of words like “infidel”?

7. Hirsi Ali says that “a new idea crept up on me” on her first day in Bonn, a stopover on her way to Canada to join a husband she had been forced to marry: She didn’t have to go to Canada but “could disappear here.” [page 187] Did you believe that this idea suddenly occurred to or that she’d been planning all along to defect? Why?

8. After arriving in Holland, Hirsi Ali went to the Refugee Aid office and learned that the authorities wouldn’t give her asylum just because she had been forced to marry a man she didn’t love. So she cooked up another story about why she wanted to stay: “This story was detailed, consistent, but it was an invention. With hindsight I’m not proud of this fact but, but yes, it is true that I did not tell my full story to get into Holland.” [Page 193] Later she invents another story so her sister can stay in the Netherlands. What makes much of Infidel credible despite these admissions?

9. Hirsi Ali says that the Dutch government treated her well while reviewing her application for refugee status. She received free meals and housing in a tidy bungalow in a compound with a swimming pool and tennis and volleyball courts. Hirsi Ali also had free laundry services, legal representation, and health care, and got a “weekly allowance” to cover her basic needs. [Page 192] Did any of this make you say, “I want to move to Holland! Where’s my plane ticket?”

10. Some critics have referred to Hirsi Ali a “feminist” because of her strong advocacy of the rights of Muslim women. Yet she took a job with an American conservative think tank. Are these two incompatible? ["No Rest for a Feminist Fighting Radical Islam," by William Grimes, The New York Times, Feb. 14, 2007, p. E1.]

Extras:
11. Some of the ideas in Infidel relate to those in Reading Lolita in Tehran, which is popular with reading groups. If your club has read that book, what similarities and differences do you see between the two?

Vital statistics:
Infidel. By Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Free Press, 353 pp., $26. Published: February 2007.

A review of Infidel appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews, http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com on April 2, 2007, and is archived with the April posts and in the “Memoirs” category.

Most reading group guides come from publishers or Web sites that accept advertising from them or fees for preparing the guides. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or ads from publishers. All of its reading guides offer an independent evaluation of books by award-winning journalist Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

If you found this review helpful, please see the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews for others and bookmark the site so you don’t miss future reviews I would also be grateful if you would forward a link to the site to others who might like to know about it.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 27, 2007

Ishmael Beah, Soldier Boy in Sierra Leone

Filed under: African American,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:30 am
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A young author with a “photographic memory” writes of learning to use an AK-47

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Sarah Crichton, 229 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

At the age of 13, Ishmael Beah practiced for combat in his native Sierra Leone by “stabbing the banana trees with bayonets.” He had fled into the bush months earlier, carrying a few cassettes by LL Cool J and other rappers, when rebel forces attacked village and scattered his family.

Beah stayed on the run, near starvation, until captured by government soldiers who promised that if he joined the army, he would have food and a chance to avenge the loss of parents. Afraid he would be shot if he refused, he became part of a squad of boys between the ages of 7 and 16 who learned to use AK-47s and other weapons against the rebels who were still terrorizing the countryside. He also became addicted to the marijuana, cocaine mixed with gunpowder, and “white tablets” – presumably amphetamines – that the army gave young conscripts to ease their fears and keep them awake on patrol. For more than two years, he says, killing was “a daily activity” that he describes in chilling detail in A Long Way Gone. Then one day United Nations workers showed up – as unexpectedly as rebels had attacked his old village — and demanded that the army release some of boys, including Beah, who made his way to Guinea and from there to New York.

These experiences make for a story that, if gripping, is at times hard to believe, and not just because the killings it describes are so savage. Now 26 years old, Beah could not have taken many notes as a soldier, because their discovery could have led to his death. Instead, he implies, he relied his “photographic memory” in telling his story. But you wonder if that memory might have been impaired by near-starvation or the chronic use of drugs, an issue that A Long Way Gone doesn’t address. And some of the events seem implausible regardless. In one scene Beah tells how he and several friends “lay in the dirt” on a coffee farm near a ruined village and eavesdropped on rebels who played cards and chatted “for hours.” He says he heard one rebel say that his group had just burned three villages:

“Another rebel, the only one dressed in full army gear, agreed with him. ‘Yes, three is impressive, in just a few hours in the afternoon.’ He paused, playing with the side of his G3 weapon. ‘I especially enjoyed burning this village. We caught everyone here. No one escaped. That is how good it was. We carried out the command and executed everyone. Commander will be pleased when he gets here.’ He nodded, looking at the rest of the rebels, who had stopped the game to listen to him. They all agreed with him, nodding their heads. They gave each other high fives and resumed their game.”

If Beah and his friends were close enough to hear that conversation, how did the rebels avoid hearing them “for hours”? If the boys could see a rebel “nod,” and others “nodding” in agreement, how could the rebels not see them? It appears that they could have avoided notice only by hiding behind bushes dense enough that neither group could see, or hear, the other.

Beah has described some of his wartime experiences at a United Nations conference and in other settings likely to have included experts who could have challenged aspects of his story that didn’t ring true. Even so, the tragic abuse of child soldiers is so important – and has received so little attention – that you wish he had made an airtight case for believing all that he has to say about it.

Best line: Beah writes his first visit to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone: “I was amazed at how many lights there were without the sound of a generator.”

Worst line: The scene at the coffee farm, described above, is one of a number that make you question the accuracy of some of Beah’s recollections.

Editor: Sarah Crichton

Published: February 2007

Furthermore: On Feb. 15, A Long Way Gone replaced Mitch Albom’s For One More Day as the only book sold at Starbucks coffee shops in the United States.

Reading group guides: The site for Farrar, Straus www.fsgbooks.com has a reading group guide. An additional reading group guide to A Long Way Gone was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 5. This unauthorized guide covers questions that do not appear in the official FSG guide. It is archived with the March posts and also in the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides category.

Links: You can find other information at www.alongwaygone.com, the site for the book.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 19, 2007

‘That Scrotum Book’ for Children: A Review of the 2007 Newbery Medal Winner, ‘The Higher Power of Lucky’ by Susan Patron

Some libraries have banned the winner of the American Library Association’s highest award for for children’s literature. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the book that caused the uproar?

The Higher Power of Lucky: A Novel. By Susan Patron. Illustrated by Matt Phelan. Atheneum: A Richard Jackson Book, 135 pp., $16.95. Age range: 9-11. [See further comments about these ages at the end of the review.]

By Janice Harayda

Who would have thought that the American Library Association www.ala.org would give its most prestigious award for children’s literature to a novel that uses the word “scrotum” on the first page? Not those of us who have observed its choices for years and have found that they tend to suffer from an excess of caution, often rewarding deserving books only after children have embraced them.

So it was, in a sense, startling that the ALA gave the 2007 Newbery Medal to Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, which tells the story of a 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble who hears what an Amazon reviewer has called “the s word” while eavesdropping on a 12-step meeting through a hole in the wall. Patron writes on the first page:

“Sammy told of the day when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked ’62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.”

This is hardly shocking language when many 3-year-olds know the words “penis” and “vagina” and psychologists routinely urge parents to introduce the medically correct terms for genitalia as soon as their children can understand them. You would think that librarians would rejoice in the arrival of a book that supports this view instead of rolling out words you are more likely to hear from children, such as “dickhead” and “butt-head” and, of course, the deathless “poopy-head.”

But some people have reacted to The Higher Power of Lucky though Patron had issued a manifesto in favor of kiddie porn. At least a few libraries have banned the novel, the New York Times reported yesterday. And a librarian in Durango, Colorado, accused Patron of using “a Howard Stern-type shock treatment” to attract attention.

All of this distracts from the more important question: How good is this book?

Answer: Not bad. I’d give it a B or B-minus, though it was far from the best work of children’s literature published last year. I haven’t read all the candidates for 2007 Newbery, including the Honor Books. But among those I have read, Patron’s novel has less literary merit than Kate DiCamillos’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane or Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, both rumored on library listservs and elsewhere to have been contenders for the award.

But The Higher Power of Lucky does have virtues, some of which are more therapeutic than literary. Patron describes the principles of 12-step programs not just for alcoholics but for “gamblers, smokers, and overeaters.” This may help many children who have relatives in such programs and don’t understand them. And Lucky is an intrepid and often amusing heroine who defies a few female stereotypes. She loves science, has close male friends, and lives in a trailer in the Mojave Desert, which has a dramatic landscape that Patron describes vibrantly. No one could accuse this novel of fostering the rampant materialism you see in so many children’s books. The Higher Power of Lucky also has evocative black-and-white illustrations by Matt Phelan that add so much to the book that you wonder if it would have had a shot at the Newbery without them. Perhaps above all, the novel has a worthy theme: What constitutes a “family”?

So what’s not to like about the book? The writing — vivid as it can be — is at times careless or clunky. Patron confuses “lay” and “lie” in a line of dialogue on page 4, and while you could argue that this misuse is in character for the speaker, she makes similar lapses in expository passages. She tells us that a character had “a very unique way of cooking.” She does not appear to have mastered the use of the semicolon and overuses it, including in conversation, in a book for children who may themselves be struggling to figure out its purpose. She also italicizes so many words — a sign of weak writing — that her book reads at times like a children’s version of the old Cosmopolitan edited by Helen Gurley Brown.

Most of all, some aspects of the plot and Lucky’s character are thin and underdeveloped. Toward the end of the book, Lucky behaves recklessly and is also dangerously mean to a friend. And while such events might have made less difference earlier in the book, they come so late that Patron has left herself too little time to persuade us that her heroine has learned from them. Other late events are insufficiently foreshadowed to make them believable. And that brings us back to that incendiary “scrotum.”

Lucky finally does learn the meaning of the word. But it turns out to have so little relation to the rest of the plot that its use in the beginning looks gratuitous. The metaphorical gun on the wall in the first act turns out to be firing blanks. The Higher Power of Lucky is not about its heroine’s sexual development or anything else that might have justified the use of the word. Patron could have reworked the offending passage with no loss to the book. In that sense, she may have made a mistake. But libraries would be making an even more serious one if they ban a book that has much to offer children.

Best line: This book has many good descriptions of the landscape of the Mojave, such as this image of a dust storm: “Tiny twisters of sand rose up from the ground, as if minature people were throwing handfuls in the air.”

Worst line: Clearly many people think it’s the one about the scrotum. For variety I’ll go with the ungrammatical first line of the third chapter, which includes a dangling modifier: “Out of the millions of people in America who might become Lucky’s mother if Brigitte went home to France, Lucky wondered about some way to trap and catch exactly the right one.”

Age range: The publisher recommends this book for ages 9-to-11. But The Higher Power of Lucky has a much less complex plot and smaller cast than many novels beloved by children in that age group, such as the Harry Potter novels. And its heroine is a 10-and-a-half-year-old fifth-grader, and children tend to read “up,” or prefer stories about characters who are older than they are. So this book may have much more appeal for children below its age range, including 7- and 8-year-olds, than 11-year-olds. This fact may explain much of the controversy about the book. Many librarians and teachers who would have no trouble with the word “scrotum” in a book for fifth-graders may be upset because they know that this one will end up in the hands of many second- and third-graders.

Furthermore: You may also want to read two related items posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 22: a reading group guide to The Higher Power of Lucky and a discussion of six possible reasons why this book one the Newbery despite having the word “scrotum” on the first page. Check the “Children’s Books” category on this site if you don’t see them on the home page of this blog. The reading group guide is also archived in the “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides” category.

Published: November 2006

Furthermore: Patron’s name is pronounced “pa-TRONE.”

Links: You may also want to read the review of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, archived in the “Children’s Books” category on this site.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist and former book editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. Please visit www.janiceharayda.com for information about her comic novels.

If you found this review helpful, please consider forwarding a link to One-Minute Book Reviews to others, particularly sites for parents and libraries. To my knowledge, this is the most comprehensive review of The Higher Power of Lucky on the Web that anyone can read without registering or providing personal information and that was written by a highly experienced critic who has judged a national book awards competition. One-Minute Book Reviews is a four-month-old site that has grown rapidly, in part because of links from libraries and other book-related groups or institutions. Additional links will help to make it possible for future reviews like this one to keep appearing

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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