One-Minute Book Reviews

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 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, the site for the book.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 9, 2007

‘Queens’: A Great Valentine’s Day Gift Book for Black Women

Filed under: African American,Book Reviews,Books,Coffee Table Books,Reading,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:54 pm

African-American women talk about hairstyles they’ve worn in places from Manhattan hair salons to a marketplace in Ghana

Queens: Portraits of Black Women and Their Fabulous Hair. By Michael Cunningham and George Alexander. Doubleday, 200 pp., $29.95.

By Janice Harayda

Queens came out more than a year ago, but it would still make such a great Valentine’s Day gift for many women that I can’t resist reminding you about it. This coffee-table book is more than a striking collection of black-and-white photographs of 53 black women who talk about some of their most memorable hairstyles, including a sequined elegy for the Twin Towers that perches atop one head. Queens is also a celebration of the role of hair salons in African-American culture.

“The African-American beauty salons are special even though they may not always be plush,” hairstylist Sonia Mullings says. “The salon is a place where women can come in and sit down and be heard and finally express how they’re feeling. I’ve found being in this business for so many years that women don’t come to the salon for just a hairdo. The hairdo is secondary to having someone focus on them.”

Photographer Michael Cunningham and journalist George Alexander found proof of those words places that range from Manhattan to Ghana. And their book shows an extraordinary range of familiar and not-so-familiar hairstyles, including dreadlocks, Afros, a pageboy, and traditional Ghanian styles such as Dadaba, Alice, and Bolga braids. Among the most beautiful Ghanian styles is the Akwyelebi, resembling a small and elegant birdcage, that could be ideal for brides who want their weddings to include authentically African-American elements. All of this means that Queens is more than a potential Valentine’s Day gift. It could also be a terrific engagement present for a woman who is getting a ring on Feb. 14 and has begun thinking about how she wants to wear her hair on her wedding day.

Best line: Lettice Graham, age 82, on one of her many memorable hairstyles: “When I was a child, my aunt used to braid my hair and she would braid it so tight I couldn’t laugh for three days.”

Worst line: A bit more explanation of how stylists created some hairdos in this book would have been useful. It isn’t clear, for example, how much of that homage to the Twin Towers consists of human hair and how much of other materials.

Recommended if … you’re looking for a gift for a black woman of any age. including mothers and grandmothers. Also highly recommended to brides-to-be.

Editor: Janet Hill

Published: December 2005


Furthermore: Just a reminder, men: Books are not a substitute for flowers. If you give her Queens, make sure you add something with a stem. Yes, it’s unfair that you have to come up with two gifts if one is a book. But this, unfortunately, is how the world works on Feb. 14.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 11, 2007

Antonia Felix’s Valentine to Condoleeza Rice

Filed under: African American,Biography — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:24 pm

A biography written for adults may have more appeal for teenagers thinking of careers in politics or foreign service

Condi: The Condoleeza Rice Story. By Antonia Felix. Pocket Books, 302 pp., $6.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Next time you hear a mental-health expert warn that American children are overscheduled, consider this: Being overscheduled didn’t seem to hurt Condoleeza Rice. On the way to becoming secretary of state, Rice skipped two grades, enrolled in a conservatory at 10, played the piano with a symphony orchestra at 15, and graduated from college at 19, all without giving up clubs, ballet lessons, or going to church.

Antonia Felix focuses Rice’s childhood, education, and professional successes in Condi, a biography that’s easy to read and well documented but top-heavy with praise – it’s a book-length Valentine. Felix’s narrow scope and lack of balance limit the value of her book for adults. But Condi may have more appeal for teenagers who are thinking about careers in politics or foreign service and are looking for inspiration, not a searching analysis of what went wrong in Iraq. Felix did not interview Rice but spoke to her stepmother, friends, and former academic colleagues. And Rice contributed some of the 29 black-and-white photos. In one picture she wears a figure-skating outfit while enjoying another of her many extra-curricular activities.

Best line: Felix says that Angelena Rice, a teacher, used to iron the tiny lace edges of the anklets worn by her daughter, Condi. This may be the best political ironing story since a White House insider reported that Jacqueline Kennedy had her staff iron her pantyhose.

Worst line: “Condi has aimed for the top in every endeavor she has undertaken, and in most cases, she has succeeded.” Reality check: Rice was national security adviser on Sept. 11, 2001 and, as such, was responsible for some of the intelligence failures that preceded that tragedy. More than 3,000 members of the military have died in Iraq since she became secretary of state.

Recommended if … you have a teenage daughter or granddaughter who wants to be president someday.

Editor: Keith Hollaman

Caveat reader: This review was based on the Pocket Books paperback edition. Some material in other editions may differ. For information about the newer second edition, available in hardcover, visit

Published: 2002 and 2005 (Newmarkt Press first and second hardcover editions), 2003 (Pocket Books paperback).

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 28, 2006

Jason Johnson’s Celebration of Black Worship Styles

Filed under: African American,Book Reviews,Books,Christianity,Coffee Table Books,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:57 am

A contemporary photographic portrait of famous and little-known black churches from New York City to Los Angeles

Soul Sanctuary: Images of the African-American Worship Experience. By Jason Miccolo Johnson. Foreword by Gordon Parks. Introduction by Dr. Cain Hope Felder. Essays by Barbranda Lumpkins Walls, Rev. Cardes H. Brown, Jr., and Rev. Dr. Lawrence N. Jones. Afterword by Bishop John Hurst Adams. Epilogue by Rev. Dr. J. Beecher Hicks, Jr. Bulfinch, 159 pp., $29.95.

By Janice Harayda

On New Year’s Eve, many black churches will hold Watch Night services, a tradition that began in African-American worship on Dec. 31, 1862, the day before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. On that date, slaves gathered in their congretations to await confirmation that they would soon be free.

Photographer James Miccolo Johnson celebrates the Watch Night tradition and others in Soul Sanctuary, a striking portrait in words and black-and-white pictures of worship in black Protestant and Catholic Churches from New York City to Los Angeles. Photography books often have a bare-bones text that does little to enrich an understanding of their images. Soul Sanctuary is exceptional for its thoughtful essays by three Biblical scholars, two ministers, a journalist, and the late photographer Gordon Parks. These essays explain standard practices such as the call and response between the pulpit and the pew (during which minister’s “Ain’t He all right?” may bring the response, “Yeah!”).

Soul Sanctuary also shows, in words and pictures, how black churches are changing. Newer forms of worship include “praise step teams” that are especially popular among students and “reminiscent of high school drill teams.” Churches may have gyms, classrooms, day-care centers, computer labs, recording studios, and conference centers. Some of the largest have parking lots so far away from the sanctuary, they use golf carts to ferry members to services.

All of this makes Soul Sanctuary an excellent introduction to African-American worship, and a book that keeps its focus on spirituality, not history or architecture or personalities. Those New Year’s Eve services evoke more than the joy of the Emancipation Proclamation: “Watch Night is also a time to give thanks to God for making it through another year and to pray for a better year to come.”

Best line: Each major section of the book begins with one or more Bible verses, and the one that best fits its spirit is: “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118: 24 (King James Version)

Worst line: “Baptized believers have the right to participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion … usually small wafers or crushed crackers (the bread, symbolizing Christ’s body) and grape juice (the wine, symbolizing his blood) from gleaming gold or silver trays.” This describes only the Protestant tradition, though the book also includes Catholic churches. Catholics believe that the bread and wine are the actual body and blood of Christ, known as the doctrine of transubstantion.

Recommended … without reservations, particularly as a gift for a minister or lay leader of a black, white, or racially mixed congregation.

Editor: Michael L. Sand

Published: April 2006

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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