One-Minute Book Reviews

February 11, 2008

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

February 3, 2008

Watch Ishmael Beah on Comedy Central (This Is Not a Joke)

Somehow I missed this until now, but last year the people at Sarah Crichton Books apparently decided that they had found a great place for Ishmael Beach to plug his memoir of how the army in Sierra Leone turned him into a ruthless drug-addicted killer. And that place was … Comedy Central!

I’m not making this up. Beah was on the Daily Show With Jon Stewart on Feb. 14, 2007. His publisher posted a clip of his appearance the Web site for his A Long Way Gone and hasn’t taken it down, so somebody must still think it’s pretty funny. Here’s a link to the Stewart interview www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=82274&title=ishmael-beah. (If the link doesn’t work, you can find the clip by going to www.alongwaygone.com and clicking on the “News” page.) Click here for the latest developments in the investigation of the book by the newspaper the Australian www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23145293-5001986,00.html.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. 2008 All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 24, 2008

An Open Letter to Ishmael Beah About the Questions Recently Raised About His Memoir, ‘A Long Way Gone,’ by Reporters for The Australian

Mr. Ishmael Beah
c/o Sarah Crichton Books
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
19 Union Square West
New York, New York 10003

Dear Mr. Beah:

Nearly a year ago, One-Minute Book Reviews questioned how you could have seen some of the things you claim to have observed in A Long Way Gone, your gripping memoir of your experiences as a teenage soldier in Sierra Leone. This site raised its questions first in a review of your book www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/27/ and then in a reading group guide www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/. The guide noted that John Corry, who has reported from West Africa, said in his review in the Wall Street Journal: “It is permissible to wonder whether Mr. Beah is accurately recalling events and people and what they said.”

More recently the newspaper The Australian raised questions about the timeline of your story www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23082274-2703,00.html. You responded to these by saying, in part, “I am right about my story. This is not something one gets wrong. … Sad to say, my story is all true” www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6524214.html%5E. The Australian disputes this and challenges your criticism of the paper in a statement posted by Publishers Weekly www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6525128.html.

In any case your response to The Australian was so prompt that I hope you will now be willing to respond to questions I raised last year. Some involve a scene on page 97 of A Long Way Gone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007) www.fsgbooks.com. You say that you and friends “lay in the dirt” on a coffee farm near a ruined village and eavesdropped on rebels who played cards and chatted “for hours.” You write that you heard one rebel say 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.”

My questions include: How could you and your friends have been close enough to overhear that conversation yet avoid detection “for hours” by the rebels? If you could see a rebel “nod” and others “nodding” in agreement, how could the rebels could not see you? In your time as a solider, did you take any any notes that would help you remember conversations in such detail? Or were you relying only on the “photographic memory” that you say in your book that you have? If you took notes, how did you hide them while you were a soldier and get them out of the country later on?

I would appreciate any clarification you can provide.

Sincerely,

Janice Harayda
One-Minute Book Reviews

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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