One-Minute Book Reviews

March 10, 2008

Ishmael Beah’s Parents May Be Alive and ‘No One Knows Where They Are,’ Wikipedia Says — Entry Contradicts Author’s Statements in the New York Times and Elsewhere — Has the Site Been Gulled?

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:52 am
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[Update, 11:10 p.m., March 10: Wikipedia has deleted the sentence saying that Beah’s parents may be alive that is discussed in the post below. But it’s war over there at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishmael_Beah, so don’t expect this to last. And the entry still contains material that directly contradicts statements made by Beah or others. I’ll try to comment briefly on the mess the next day or so. Jan]

More bizarre changes in the entry for the author of A Long Way Gone, who claims he was a child soldier in Sierra Leone for more than two years

What is going on with the entry for Ishmael Beah on Wikipedia? The online encyclopedia is now saying that Beah’s parents may not be dead. Instead his parents “left” — whether they left their village or country is unclear — after war broke out in Sierra Leone: “No one knows where they are now.”

This statement contradicts an excerpt from A Long Way Gone in the New York Times Magazine in which Beah said his parents and brother were dead:

“After I discovered that my parents and two brothers had been killed, I felt even more lost and worthless in a world that had become pregnant with fear and suspicion as neighbor turned against neighbor and child against parent.”

The latest change on Wikipedia also contradicts other statements Beah has made and entries about him that have appeared on the encyclopedia for more than six months. It further implies that he had one brother when he says in his book that he had two.

Some of these changes are a baffling. Slate says Beah’s friends and foes have made competing changes in his Wikipedia listing www.slate.com/id/2185928/. But you can’t always tell which camp has made them.

You might assume that the latest change, suggesting that Beah’s parents might be alive, had come from a detractor who wanted to discredit the author’s repeated claims that his family is dead. But it could also have come from a friend who knew that Beah’s parents or a brother might be about to come forward – an ally who wanted to help Beah backpedal and who had leaked material, the way political campaigns do, as a trial balloon. The idea that Beah’s parents might be alive appeared on Wikipedia three days ago and, because anybody can edit its entries, his PR team has apparently allowed it to remain in place.

In either case, why does Wikipedia keep allowing the site to be used like this?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 4, 2008

Why Critics, Journalists and You, the Reader, Need to Read Defensively

Filed under: Current Events,Life,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:47 pm
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Fabricated tale of gang life reaffirms the need to question “memoirs” that don’t make sense

For more than a year, this site has been raising questions about Ishmael Beah’s purported memoir of two years as a child solider, A Long Way Gone, that have received unsatisfactory responses from the author and his publisher. Why do critics, journalists and you, the reader, need to keep challenging aspects of personal accounts that don’t make sense?

One answer is implicit in a story in today’s New York Times about a young writer’s confession that she made up Love and Consequences, a widely praised book billed as a “memoir” of her life as a drug-runner for the Bloods: Publishers are doing too little to verify the authenticity of their books www.nytimes.com/2008/03/04/books/04fake.html. Book publishers have never done – nor can they be expected to do – the exhaustive fact-checking that occurs at The New Yorker. But the Times‘s story shows that they sometimes don’t take the much more basic steps that would be reasonable.

Love and Consequences was reportedly exposed as a fraud by a call to the publisher, Riverhead Books, from a sister of the author, Margaret Seltzer, who used the pen name of Margaret B. Jones. Riverhead is a unit of the Penguin Group USA, one of the world’s largest publishers. It seems that all an editor would have to do to uncover problems with this book would have been to require the writer to provide the telephone numbers of a few immediate-family members, then call those people.

[The Penguin Group has recalled all copies of Love and Consequences, and One-Minute Book Reviews will comment on the recall in a post later today.]

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

March 2, 2008

Ishmael Beah May Have Had ‘Nagging Doubts’ About His Story, Wikipedia Reports — A World Exclusive for the Online Encyclopedia? — Or Was It Sucker-Punched?

Filed under: News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:55 pm
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[Update at 11:30 p.m., March 9, 2008: Another bizarre change the entry for Beah — this one suggesting that his parents may not be dead! All along Beah been claiming to be an orphan. This change in the entry requires a separate post, which will be dated March 9 or 10 depending on how long it takes to write. Jan]

[Update at 1:30 a.m. March 7, 2008: Since this post appeared, Wikipedia has removed some of the editorializing, speculation and other elements of Beah’s entry that appeared to violate its own policies. But if the recent pattern holds, these will soon reappear. In any case, the entry is outdated, inconsistent with published reports and an unreliable source of information. For example, Wikipedia refers to Laura Simms as Beah’s “foster mother.” Beah refers to her as his “adoptive mother.” Similar problems occur throughout the entry. Jan]

The reference site again abandons neutrality and editorializes about the bestselling author and this time speculates about the mental state of the man who says he was a child soldier

By Janice Harayda

Ishmael Beah may have had “nagging doubts” about parts of his controversial A Long Way Gone, Wikipedia reports. The free online encyclopedia makes this startling assertion in its March 2 entry on the author who claims to have been a child soldier for two years in Sierra Leone en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishmael_Beah.

The Wikipedia statement, if true, would appear to be either a world exclusive for the popular reference site or evidence that it has been sucker-punched. Beah has not publicly admitted to having such “nagging doubts.” He says in A Long Way Gone that he has a “photographic memory.” And after questions arose about the credibility of his book, he released a statement that said, “Sad to say, my story is all true” www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6524214.html.

Wikpedia speculates about Beah’s state of mind in a section of his entry called “Credibility Controversy.” The section deals with articles in the Australian that have made a persuasive case that Beah’s village was attacked in 1995, not in 1993 as he suggests, and that he could not been a soldier for more than a few months. Wikipedia speculates: “Beah perhaps believed to the best of his memory, events were in 1993; but was aware of a few nagging doubts, so could not commit 100% to that date.” Or perhaps the author of that ungrammatical comment hopes you won’t remember that Beah said as recently as January: “I am right about my story. This is not something one gets wrong.”

That’s not the only place in the Beah’s entry where Wikipedia contines the editorializing discussed in a Feb. 13 post on One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/13/. Some biased comments were removed after that post appeared.

But Wikipedia has added a long new section of editorializing (beginning “However, there is …”) that attempts to justify inconsistencies in A Long Way Gone in ways neither Beah nor his publisher has done. This section ends with this campaign rhetoric by the online encyclopedia:

“In the large scheme of things, fixing a precise year is perhaps not that important. The main issue is child soldiering. Beah clearly went through horrendous experiences, and it probably makes little difference whether they were spread over a few months or longer.”

This is not a neutral statement. It is a further attempt to deflect attention from the credibility of Beah’s account by focusing on child soldiers in general. Who says that “the main issue is child soldiers”? Why isn’t the main issue the truth? Or respect for the nearly 700,000 people bought A Long Way Gone and deserve better answers than they have received from Beah and his publisher about what it contains?

Child soldiering is a tragedy. But legitimate questions have been raised about survivors’ accounts of tragedies from the Holocaust to the Sept. 11 attacks. And some accounts have been revealed to have flaws ranging from mild inaccuracies to sweeping fabrications.

If questions were raised about a Holocaust or 9/11 memoir, would Wikipedia editorialize that “the main issue is that 6 million Jews died” or “the main issue is that the U.S. was attacked”? Simplistic arguments like these insult thoughtful and intelligent adults who are capable or recognizing that great as a tragedy may be, any individual account of it may have serious flaws. And it’s a mystery why Wikipedia keeps allowing such editorializing to appear in Beah’s entry.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 29, 2008

O. J. Simpson and Ishmael Beah Books Disqualified From Delete Key Awards

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:16 am
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Two of the most controversial books of 2007 have been ejected from the competition

O. J. Simpson’s If I Did It might be the most loathsome book in the history of publishing, but it’s been disqualified from the 2008 Delete Key Awards contest, which recognizes the year’s worst writing in books. One-Minute Book Reviews said last weekend that the book had been ruled ineligible because it would be cruel to the other finalists to mention them in the same breath with this purportedly “hypothetical” account of the murders of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson.

Another controversial book, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, was disqualified today for different reasons. The Delete Key Awards don’t recognize the “worst books” of the year but specific examples of bad writing, such as cliché-infested sentences or paragraphs. And the Australian, the Australian national newspaper, has raised such serious questions about the credibility of Beah’s entire account that to single out one or two sentences would distract attention from those larger issues. A Long Way Gone doesn’t need a Delete Key Award – it needs a segment on Sixty Minutes.

The first Delete Key finalist will be named by 10 a.m. today with others announced throughout the day.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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?

Filed under: Book Covers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:50 pm
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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 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

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