One-Minute Book Reviews

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.

May 22, 2008

Why Do Suicide Bombers Do It? Lessons From Kamikazes

Why have so many suicide bombers been willing to sacrifice their lives in the Middle East and elsewhere? Similar questions were raised about Japanese kamikaze pilots who crashed their planes into American aircraft carriers and other ships in the last months of World War II. Max Hastings, the British journalist, notes his new Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45 (Knopf, $35) that the attacks began when traditional Japanese air forces were being overwhelmed by the Americans:

“Suicide attack offered a prospect of redressing the balance of forces, circumventing the fact that Japanese pilots were no longer capable of challenging their American counterparts on conventional terms. Instead, their astonishing willingness for self-sacrifice might be exploited. Here was a concept which struck a chord in the Japanese psyche, and caught the Imperial Navy’s mood of the moment. Officers cherished a saying: ‘When a commander is uncertain whether to steer to port or starboard, he should steer towards death.’ An alternative aphorism held that ‘One should take care to make one’s own dying as meaningful as possible.’ The suicide concept appeared to satisfy both requirements.”

Hastings adds that one kamikaze pilot had married just three months earlier. Before leaving on his final mission, instead of saying that he was sacrificing himself for his country, he told reporters he was doing it for his beloved wife:

“To a Western mind, self-immolation in such circumstances is incomprehensible. To some Japanese of the time, however, it seemed intensely romantic.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 10, 2006

Igal Sarna’s Lost Israelis

A former tank commander explores the cost of exile with a style reminiscent of the early Joan Didion

The Man Who Fell Into a Puddle: Israeli Lives. By Igal Sarna. Translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman. Vintage, 210 pp., $13, paperback.

Igal Sarna is a literary journalist who has no precise counterpart in the United States, and not just because he served as a tank commander in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. He writes about the hidden lives of ordinary Israelis with an insight and clarity that recalls both the high style of the early Joan Didion and the medical precision of Irwin Yalom, the author of a memorable book of psychiatric case histories called Love’s Executioner (Basic, 1989).

Each of the 14 essays in The Man Who Fell Into a Puddle profiles a person or group whose life has been cleft by tragedy — men and women uprooted by the Holocaust, beaten in Iraqi-ruled Kurdistan, and tortured in a Syrian prison. Sarna’s subjects came to Israel seeking new lives but were overmatched by war, loneliness, poverty or the harshness of the Negev Desert. Many committed suicide or became “shells of human beings,” casualties of social service agencies overwhelmed by the crush of refugees. The happiest is a 92-year-old Kurdish Jew who once used a hoe to kill a snake that had slithered into his home on a hill slope and still drinks tea flecked with the brown ants that infest his sugar supply. Sarna offers compassionate but unromanticized portraits of all of them and makes clear that their failings, if profound, were never theirs alone. The Man Who Fell Into a Puddle shows a side of modern Israel that few others have described with such poignancy.

Recommended if … you miss the glory days of “the new journalism,” or want to understand the long-term effects on the human psyche of decades of crises in the Mideast.

Best lines: “Faulty immigrant reasoning, and a desire to save money, made them decide to live in Beersheeba’s huge neighborhood of ready-made caravan homes, one of dozens of such camps set up all over the country in the 1990s to the house hundreds of thousands of newcomers from Russia. But whoever begins their life in Israel in a place of that sort seals their fate. The desert is a hard place in and of itself, and needs a lot of greenery to soften it form human habitation. The caravan neighborhood, where each home has just over 200 feet of floor space, is a merciless patch of desolation. The homes are made of cheap, graceless material and stand on bare earth that sends up a cloud of dust with each footstep. Electrical wires strech overhead, thin bars separating human from sky.”

Worst line: None.

Caveat reader: This review doesn’t assess the accuracy of the translation by Haim Watzman.

Published: October 2002

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


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