One-Minute Book Reviews

March 12, 2012

Deborah Baker’s ‘The Convert’ – A National Book Awards Reality Check

Filed under: Biography,Book Awards Reality Check,National Book Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:01 pm
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“Make-believe” letters undermine the credibility of a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. By Deborah Baker. Graywolf, 246 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Deborah Baker purports in this book to tell the story of an American woman who converted from Judaism to Islam in her 20s and who, after moving to Pakistan in 1962, has remained there. But she gives you reason to distrust most of The Convert by waiting until late in book to clarify a line on the dust jacket that says that she drew on letters that Maryam Jameelah sent home to her parents after she had begun her new life as Maryam Jameelah.

Baker says in “A Note on Methodology” that while her book is “fundamentally nonfiction,” she has “rewritten and greatly condensed” the letters and rearranged the order of some of the anecdotes. And some letters are more than reconstructed: They are “make-believe” (apparently, Jameelah’s fantasies, though you don’t know that the author hasn’t made up letters, too). A message on Baker’s website, ostensibly from Jameelah, says: “I am satisfied with your book as a fair and just detailed appraisal of my life and work.”

That note does little to bolster the credibility of The Convert, given that doctors said Jameelah had schizophrenia and that she appears to be mentally disturbed, whether or not the diagnosis was accurate.  There may well be a fascinating story in the life of the former Margaret Marcus of Mamaroneck, New York, but Baker hasn’t found a credible way to tell it.

Best line: Not applicable.

Worst line: “I then asked Maryam if I could write her story as if she were writing once again to her family. Having her voice pass through my own, perhaps I might understand her better. I wanted her blessing to use the correspondence in her archive, the doctored and make-believe letters as well as the real ones, to quote and paraphrase and arrange as I saw fit.”

Published: 2011 (Graywolf hardcover). Graywolf paperback due out in September 2012.

Furthermore: One of the unreported literary scandals of last year was that The Convert was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for “nonfiction.”

Flap copy: The dust jacket of the hardcover edition of The Convert erroneously says that Jameelah grew up Larchmont, NY, when the book makes clear that it was Mamaroneck, a mistake picked up by many reviewers.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet and was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs by New Jersey Monthly.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 17, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali on ‘Designer Tribalism’ / Quote of the Day From ‘Nomad’

Filed under: Memoirs,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:45 am
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Ayaan Hirsi Ali condemns honor killings and other crimes against women in her new Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations (Free Press, 304 pp., $27), a sequel to her bestselling Infidel. She also argues that a blinkered multiculturalism can help to legitimize to misogyny.

In this quote from Nomad, the Somali-born activist responds to idea that immigrants benefit from maintaining the cohesion of their old culture:

“The idea that immigrants need to maintain group cohesion promotes the perception of them as victim groups requiring special accommodation, an industry of special facilities and assistance. If people should conform to their ancestral culture, it therefore follows that they should also be helped to maintain it, with their own schools, their own government-subsidized community groups, and even their own system of legal arbitration. This is the kind of romantic primitivism that the Australian anthropologist Roger Sandall calls ‘designer tribalism.’ NonWestern cultures are automatically assumed to live in harmony with animals and plants according to the deeper dictates of humanity and to practice an elemental spirituality.

“Here is something I have learned the hard way, but which a lot of well-meaning people in the West have a hard time accepting: All human beings are equal, but all cultures and religions are not. A culture that celebrates femininity and considers women to be the masters of their own lives is better than a culture that mutilates girls’ genitals and confines them behind walls and flogs or stones them for falling in love. … It is part of Muslim culture to oppress women and part of all tribal cultures to institutionalize patronage, nepotism, and corruption. The culture of the Western Enlightenment is better.”

June 15, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali Faults Islam and Multiculturalists in ‘Nomad’

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:40 pm
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The author of Infidel returns with an inflammatory polemic

Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. Free Press, 304 pp., $27.

By Janice Harayda

At the age of five, the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali was circumcised with scissors by a man hired by her grandmother. She later fled to Holland to escape a forced marriage and collaborated on a Dutch film about the oppression of Muslim women, which led to death threats and another move – this time, to America.

Hirsi Ali described these and other upheavals in Infidel, a harrowing account of her efforts to forge an independent life after rejecting Islam and the violent culture of her family’s tribe. Nomad is a much less effective book, and not just because it repeats in different form many of the ideas and incidents in that memoir.

In this inflammatory polemic Hirsi Ali argues that Islam is not just a religion but “a violent way of life,” and she condemns its “increasingly dangerous impacts” — a stilted phrase typical of the writing in Nomad — on Western societies. She believes that Muslim immigrants must be required to assimilate, a process that includes respecting the laws of their adopted countries instead of demanding that their crimes be tried in sharia courts. As she describes her conversion from Islam to atheism, she calls for “a massive public effort to reveal, ridicule, revile, and replace” traditional Islamic views, especially those that cast women as property.

To support her arguments, Hirsi Ali draws heavily on the brutality suffered by her family in passages that are among the most vivid in Nomad. She also makes a strong case that honor killings and other crimes against Muslim women exist in the U.S. as well as abroad but that the media play down their religious basis for fear of offending the faithful.

On other subjects, Hirsi Ali oversimplifies or underdocuments her points or extrapolates too freely from her own life. She faults multiculturalists who seek to enable Muslims to preserve their old culture in their adopted countries: “Social workers in the West will tell you that immigrants need to maintain group cohesion for their mental health, because otherwise they will be confused and their self-esteem destroyed. This is untrue.” But there are degrees of “cohesion” and “self-esteem,” and immigrants may suffer as much from cutting all ties to their culture as from cutting none. This kind of either-or logic pervades the book.

Since the publication of Infidel, Hirsi Ali has also become more closely linked to the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank that employs her. Some of her causes demand support from liberals and conservatives alike, including her call for an end to honor killings.

But it is unfortunate that after spending much of Nomad arguing that violence against Muslim women should concern everyone, Hirsi Ali faults feminists for not doing more to end it when, in fact, well-known feminists such as Gloria Steinem may have done more than any other group to publicize the problem. Her nearsightedness on this and other issues may alienate many people who share her outrage about honor killings and related crimes.  Infidel – which keeps a tighter focus on her story – makes a better introduction to her work.

Best line: Hirsi Ali says that when she and her family lived in Saudi Arabia, her father and brother often went to a “tribunal of justice” at a spot known as Chop-Chop Square: “There men and boys would take their seats and watch the sinners being punished with stonings, floggings, amputations, or beheadings.”

Worst line: “In fact a certain kind of feminism has worsened things for the female victims of misogyny perpetrated by men of color. My colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Christina Hoff-Sommers, calls this ‘the feminism of resentment.’”

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

You may also want to read: One-Minute Book Reviews also posted a review  of Infidel and a reading group guide to Infidel.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 17, 2008

Graphic ‘Novels’ — Actually, Memoirs — for People Who Don’t Read Graphic Novels — Marjane Satrapi’s Tales of Life Under Islamic Fundamentalism

Not long ago, the nether parts of Hurricane Gustav hit my town and trapped me in a coffee shop just after I’d left a bookstore with Persepolis and Persepolis 2, Marjane Satrapi’s tragicomic memoirs in comic strips of her childhood and early adulthood in fundamentalist Iran. What a welcome diversion the books made as rain pelted the plate glass. Both have enough to offer teenagers — assuming there are any left who haven’t read these bestsellers — that I hope to review them on a Saturday soon. Until then Persepolis could be a good choice for adult book clubs that want to try a graphic novel, the industry term that’s a misnomer for nonfiction. Both memoirs are much more engaging than — but would make a fine complement to — the pontifical Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book club staple. You’ll find more on Satrapi’s work at www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/graphicnovels/catalog/author.pperl?authorid=43801. If you like the genre, you may want to explore other comic-books pages at Pantheon www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/graphicnovels/, the Tiffany’s of graphic-novel publishers.

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

January 26, 2008

A Review of the 2008 Newbery Medal Winner, Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!': Voices from a Medieval Village’

A prize-winning collection of linked monologues and dialogues in prose and poetry by characters, between 10 and 15 years old, who live on bankrupt English manor in the time of the Crusades

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Ilustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick, 85 pp., $15.95. Ages 10 and up.

By Janice Harayda

This is a refreshingly subversive book. Perhaps only a school librarian like Laura Amy Schlitz could have found a way not just to publish but to win a Newbery Medal for a book that defies almost every fashion in American education.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is about children like the destitute Barbary, who knows that a lord’s daughter will someday give birth “and squat in the straw, / and scream with the pain / and pray for her life / same as me.” It’s about girls like the crippled Constance, who makes a pilgrimage to a site associated with Saint Winifred, who was decapitated after she fought a man who tried to “seize” (read: rape) her. (Her head miraculously reattached itself her body.) And it’s about boys like the miller’s son Otho, who plans to cheat his customers the way his father does because: “There’s no use in looking back, / for here’s the truth I’ve found: / It’s hunger, want, and wickedness / that makes the world go ’round.”

This book is, in other words, about everday life in the Middle Ages, as described in 19 linked monologues and two dialogues by characters between the ages of 10 and 15. All of the speakers live on or near an English manor that, in 1255, has been bankrupted by the Crusades. So it isn’t surprising that their talk often turns to God, Jesus, the Apostles, the Virgin Mary, Hell, Judgment Day and saints who died gruesome deaths. Their lives are so brutal that for some, this world has nothing on the next.

To help children make sense of all of it, Schlitz adds background in marginal notes and pages of explanatory text that can get a bit breezy. Why did people go on Crusades? Partly because the pope said that killing people was “a religious duty”: “Ordinary people could escape the tedium of their everyday lives, see the world, kill Muslims, and go to heaven in the bargain.” Schlitz almost makes it sound as though you could get frequent flyer miles for it. In a post-9/11 world, you can’t get much less fashionable than talking about killing Muslims, in a tone that borders on flip, in book intended for use in schools.

The monologues tend to work better than the interleaved explanatory pages, but it’s unclear why some characters speak in prose and others in poetry. The verse forms range from bouncy dactyls to stately heroic couplets, which helps to keep the speeches from becoming monotonous. But some of Schlitz’s poetry is hard enough to scan that it may defeat many students and even teachers. This book would have benefited from a few notes on the verse forms and on the obvious parallels with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Even so, it’s a worthy Newbery winner. Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! offers a fascinating view of the Middle Ages from which many adults may learn as much as children. Schlitz’s characters tell exciting stories of falconry, boar-hunting and other pursuits that offer more realistic view of medieval life than fairy tales about demure princesses. And although the Newbery judges aren’t supposed to consider the artwork, it can’t have hurt that this book has such appealing watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations by Robert Byrd, who found inspiration in an illuminated poem from 13th-century Germany.

Best line: A lament by Lowdy, the daughter of a varlet (a man who looked after the animals owned by the lord of the manor): “Fleas in the pottage bowl, / Fleas in the bread, / Bloodsucking fleas / In the blankets of our beds …” Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! has many good lines, but these stand out because they are written in dactylic meter, which is much less common in children’s books than iambic or anapestic.

Worst line: Schlitz writes about the Children’s Crusade as though its existence were an established fact: “In 1212, a French shepherd boy had a vision that the Holy Land could be recovered by innocent children. Thirty to forty thousand children from France and Germany set off to Palestine, believing that God would favor their cause because of their faith, love, and poverty. They believed that when they reached the Mediterranean, it would part, like the Red Sea. They were mistaken. Most of them starved, froze to death, or were sold into slavery.” Many scholars question whether this crusade occurred or, if it did, whether it attracted “thirty to forty thousand” children. Schlitz gives no source for this information beyond a general bibliography that lists only one book that deals primarily with the Crusades.

Published: August 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! won the 2008 John Newbery Medal from the American Library Association, given to the most distinguished work of American literature for children www.ala.org/ala/alsc/awardsscholarships/literaryawds/newberymedal/newberymedal.htm .
Schlitz also wrote an excellent neo-Gothic novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/. Robert Byrd’s site is www.robertbyrdart.com.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. This site posts a new review of a book for children or teenagers every Saturday.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 3, 2007

Ayaan Hirsi Ali Speaks Out in ‘Infidel’ Against ‘Honor Killings’ and Other Injustices to Women

A Somali-born former member of the Dutch Parliament writes about her circumcision at the age of five and other events that shaped her life

Infidel. By Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Free Press, 353 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

In November 2004 a Muslim fanatic shot the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh on an Amsterdam street and used a butcher knife to stab into his chest a 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, called Submission, that included shots of a naked, battered woman covered with writings from the Koran.

Infidel begins with a gripping account of the murder. And the scene sets the tone for much of the rest of this memoir of 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 and her work for a conservative think tank.

Much of the coverage of Infidel has focused on some of its more harrowing events. These include the day that 5-year-old Hirsi Ali and her 6-year-old brother and 4-year-old sister underwent circumcisions arranged by their grandmother, with the job done in the author’s case by a man with scissors “who was probably an itinerant traditional circumciser from the blacksmith clan.” But Infidel has equally memorable portraits of later events, such as the treatment Hirsi Ali received after asking for asylum in Holland. The Dutch government, until it could act on her request, gave her free meals and housing in a tidy bungalow in a compound with a swimming pool and tennis and volleyball courts. It also provided her with free laundry services, legal representation and health care, and a “weekly allowance” to cover her basic needs. Does this help you understand why so many people want to emigrate to the Netherlands and other welfare states?

For all its insights into such topics, Infidel isn’t always credible or persuasive in its arguments. Hirsi Ali admits that she lied to Dutch officials to get refugee status for herself and, later, for her sister, which raises questions about whether she is always telling the truth elsewhere. And while she waged a brave and admirable campaign to get the authorities to keep track of the “honor killings” of Muslim women who had been raped or otherwise “stained” their family honor, she adds: “I am also convinced that this is the largest, most important issue that that our society and our planet will face in this century.” More important than nuclear war?

Some people have called Hirsi Ali “the new Salman Rushdie” because she has received death threats. But her fascinating memoir has much more to offer to most American readers than the frequently opaque magical realism of The Satanic Verses. If you belong to a reading group looking for books that will inspire passionate debate, you could hardly find a memoir more likely to ignite sparks.

Best line: On what the author learned at a Muslim center in Nairobi: “There were so many rules, with minutely detailed prescriptions, and so many authorities had pronounced on them all. Truly Muslim women should cover their bodies even in front of a blind man, even in their own houses. They had no right to walk down the middle of the street. They should not move out of their father’s house without permission.”

Worst Line: Quoted above, about how the registration of honor killings is “the largest, most important” issue of the century.

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to Infidel for book clubs appears in the April 3, 2007, post directly below this one. The post is archived under “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides on One-Minute Book Reviews.

Published: February 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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.

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