One-Minute Book Reviews

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 12, 2008

Ishmael Beah Says He Was Shot ‘Three Times on My Left Foot’ But Suffered No Serious Damage — Can Any Soldiers, E.R. Doctors or Others Explain This?

Another scene I don’t understand from the memoir of the man who claims to have been a child soldier

On this site I try to keep reviews short enough that you can read them in a minute if you skip the supplemental material at the end, so I’ll often give one example instead of three or choose a brief quote from a book instead of a long one. But enough questions have been raised about the credibility of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone that I’d like to mention a scene from it that didn’t appear in my original review. In this scene Beah talks about continuing to fight after receiving “many bullet wounds” and about foot injuries don’t appear to have left him with a limp or a need to use a cane.

Beah’s account of his injuries seemed implausible, but I don’t have a medical or military background. Would anyone with expertise in such fields like to comment on the following?

Ishmael Beah says in A Long Way Gone that he received “many bullet wounds” in a firefight in Sierra Leone but kept attacking a village his squad was trying to take. He adds that after 24 hours, he and his fellow soldiers seemed to have achieved their aim.

Then they were attacked again, and he was hit three times in the left foot: “The first two bullets went in and out, and the last one stayed inside my foot.” The third bullet, he says, was later removed with “crooked-looking scissors” by a “sergeant doctor” in the Sierra Leone army at a base camp. After leaving the army, Beah entered a hospital and was told that medical tests showed that nothing was “seriously wrong” and he would just have to take medications until his next checkup.

Quotes from pages 156–158 and 163.

Links: The original review of A Long Way Gone appeared on this site on Feb. 27, 2007. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/27/. A reading group guide was posted on March 5, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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 5, 2008

Out of the Mouth of a Babe Soldier (Quotes of the Day / Ishmael Beah)

Confused about the controversy about A Long Way Gone, which Ishmael Beah says describes his two years as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone? These quotes from Beah may clarify the situation. Or not.

“The first time that I was touched by war I was twelve. It was in January of 1993.”
Ishmael Beah, page 6, A Long Way Gone (Use the “Search Inside” tool on the Amazon page for the book to search for “I was twelve” www.amazon.com.)

“I tried to write as I felt back then – at twelve, at eleven …”
Ishmael Beah on the Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Feb. 14, 2007 interview www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=82274&title=ishmael-beah

“I am right about my story. This is not something one gets wrong. … Sad to say, my story is all true.” Ishmael Beah in a statement defending his book published by the trade journal Publishers Weekly on Jan. 21, 2008 www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6524214.html%5E.

“I have tried to think deeply about this, and my memory gives me 1993 and nothing more. And that’s what I stand by.”
Ishmael Beah in an interview with Hillel Italie of the Associated Press as published on Jan. 30, 2008, in the International Herald Tribune and elsewhere www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/01/30/arts/NA-A-E-BKS-US-Ishmael-Beah.php.

Comment:

In A Long Way Gone Beah says clearly that he was first “touched by war” he was 12. He mentions earlier events as background but does not imply that, at 11, he was a soldier (which he suggests occurs between the ages of 13 and 15). But you could easily have come away from his Daily Show interview with the idea that he was a soldier “at 12, at 11.” His book says he was born in 1980, so events that happened when he was 11 would have occurred in 1991 or 1992, or before the 1993 date that he stands by.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 4, 2008

The OTHER Book About Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone

Did you love Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone so much that you want to read something else like it no matter how many questions have been raised about parts of the book by people like me? Or would you just like to read more about child soldiers in Sierra Leone? You can.

A discussion about Beah’s memoir on Speakeasy/The Australian Writer’s Marketplace has a fascinating comment by Detmar Stone about Delia Jarrett-Macauley’s novel about child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Moses, Citizen and Me (Granta, 2005), which won the Orwell Prize for political writing. Stone had a sense of déjà vu after reading Beah’s book:

“ … the Jarrett [novel] had a Shakespeare-spouting and performing field guerrilla commander in it and when I then read the Ishmael Beah there’s what looks like exactly the same character! I mean how many Shakespeare-performing guerrillas were there out there in the wars then, let alone guerrillas performing the same plays to child soldiers….. SPOOKY or what?”

I haven’t read Moses, Citizen and Me, but the publisher says this about the novel:

“When Julia flies in to war-scarred Sierra Leone from London, she is apprehensive about seeing her uncle Moses for the first time in twenty years. But nothing could have prepared her for her encounter with her eight-year-old cousin, Citizen, a former child soldier, and for the shocking truth of what he has done.

“Driven by a desire to understand Citizen, Julia takes the disturbed child into the rainforest, where to her surprise, she encounters him amongst other child soldiers, along with a mysterious storyteller … He alone in the heart of the rainforest can heal the rift between the cultures of war and peace, Europe and Africa. But who would think he’d use Shakespeare to do it?”

There’s more about Moses, Citizen and Me on the site for Granta www.granta.com and on that of Jarrett-Macauley deliajarrettmacauley.com, who lives in England and is the daughter of Sierra Leonean parents. You can read an interview with her on Bookslut at www.bookslut.com/features/2007_09_011638.php. And here’s where you’ll find Stone’s comments on Speakeasy blog.awmonline.com.au/2008/01/22/ishmael-beahs-memoir-a-long-way-gone-not-factually-correct/.

© 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

February 2, 2008

Newly Found Records Show That Ishmael Beah Was in School for Part of the Time When He Says He Was a Soldier, Australian Newspaper Reports

The Australian says that records recently found in a remote Sierra Leone schoolhouse show that Ishmael Beah was in school for part of the time when he says he was a soldier. Peter Wilson, a reporter for the newspaper, writes in an article dated Feb. 2, 2008:

“The school results for March 1993 showed the popular author attended the Centennial Secondary School throughout the January-March term, a time when he claimed in his heartrending book A Long Way Gone that he was already roaming the countryside as a child refugee.

“Beah, his New York publisher Sarah Crichton Books and his Australian co-publisher HarperCollins have furiously denied reports by The Weekend Australian in recent weeks that have undermined the credibility of his highly profitable book …

“Beah, now 27, did spend some time as a child soldier during his country’s civil war, but it appears likely to have been a few months around the age of 15 rather than two years from the age of 13 that he vividly describes in his book.”

Read the rest of story here www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23147571-601,00.html.

In response to earlier questions about his memoir, Beah said: “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 disputed this in a statement posted by Publishers Weekly www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6525128.html. This week Beah stood by his story again in an interview with Hillel Italie of the Associated Press.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com

January 29, 2008

More Questions About Ishmael Beah’s ‘A Long Way Gone’

[Update at 5:20 p.m. Ishmael Beah stands by his story in an Associated Press article posted today www.books.beloblog.com/archives/2008/01/ishmael_beah_stands_by_hi, though I can't get this link to the story to work.]

More questions have arisen about Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone in a continuing investigation of the book by the Australian, the Australian national newspaper. The paper says it “failed to find any supporting evidence for one of the book’s dramatic peaks: the death of six boy soldiers in a fight at a UNICEF-run camp in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown in early 1996.” Beah and his publisher have defended the accuracy of A Long Way Gone. But they have refused to answer questions about discrepancies between what the reporters found and what appears in the book, the newspaper says. Here’s the latest report on the controversy, in which I am quoted:

www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23130172-5016101,00.html

A review of A Long Way Gone appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 27, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/27/, And a reading group guide to the book was posted on March 5, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/. The guide noted that John Corry, who has reported from West Africa, said in a review in the Wall Street Journal: “It is permissible to wonder whether Mr. Beah is accurately recalling events and people and what they said.”

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. 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.

March 5, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier’ by Ishmael Beah

Discussion Questions for A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Solider

by Ishmael Beah

Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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 reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries, which may use it in their in-house reading groups. Other book clubs that wish to use this guide should link to it or check “Contact” page to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

A Long Way Gone is a memoir by Ishmael Beah, who claims that he joined the government army in Sierra Leone to save his life after rebels destroyed his village and separated him from his parents. A review of this book appeared on Feb. 27, 2007, on One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com and is archived in the “Memoirs” category and with the February 2007 posts on that site. [Note: Since this guide appeared, many of the claims in A Long Way Gone have been disputed by reputable journalists, and the publisher of the book has produced no proof that Beah was ever a child soldier.]

The publisher of A Long Way Gone has posted an extensive reading group guide to the book at www.fsgbooks.com that contains questions your club may want to use as a starting point for its discussions. That guide includes samples of the praise the book has received from respected authors or critics. Like most publishers’ promotional materials, the online guide does not encourage criticism of the book, cite concerns raised by reviewers, or suggest that you are reading anything other than a flawless work. The following Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide is not intended to be comprehensive but only to raise questions not covered by publisher’s guide.

Questions For Reading Groups About A Long Way Gone

1) Beah, now in his mid-20s, focuses on the upheavals that began when he was 12 and also covers some earlier events. How good is your memory for events in your life that occurred when you were that age? Can you recall events from that long ago in the detail Beah describes, including such things as hand gestures and a speaker’s pauses? If not, are you willing to give Beah credit for remembering them? Why or why not?

2) John Corry, who has reported from West Africa, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “It is permissible to wonder whether Mr. Beah is accurately recalling events and people and what they said.” (Feb. 10, 2007, page P8.) Do you agree with Corry? If so, what are some of the things it’s permissible to question? Do your questions affect your overall view of A Long Way Gone? Corry is a senior editor of American Spectator, a conservative magazine. Do you believe that critics’ liberal or conservative biases affect their reviews? How might liberal and conservative critics have reviewed this book differently?

3) Corry noted in his review that, perhaps to forestall questions about the book, Beah writes: “To this day, I have an excellent photographic memory that enables me to remember details of the day-to-day moments of my life, indelibly.” [Page 51] Did you ever know anyone who had a “photographic memory”? Was the person sometimes able to recall events in the detail described in A Long Way Gone?

4) Beah says that the army supplied the young conscripts with “white capsules,” presumably amphetamines, to help them stay alert. He adds that the child soldiers also had easy access to other drugs. [Page 121] Beah writes:

“In the daytime, instead of playing soccer in the village square, I took turns at guarding posts around the village, smoking marijuana and sniffing, brown brown, cocaine mixed with gunpowder, which was always spread out on the table, and of course the white capsules, as I had become addicted to them.” [Page 121]

Are you willing to share with your group whether or not you ever took drugs and how they affected your perceptions of events? Or how drugs have affected the memory of someone you know who used them?

5) Beah describes in one scene how he 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.” [Page 97] He adds that he 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.” [p. 97]

Does it seem to you that Beah and his friends could have been close enough to overhear that conversation yet avoid detection “for hours” by the rebels? Or that if the boys could see a rebel “nod,” and others “nodding” in agreement, that the rebels could not see them? What are some possible explanations for how Beah could have observed a conversation in such detail while avoiding detection himself?

6) When this book was published, Beah worked for a respected international organization, Human Rights Watch www.hrw.org. He has also described his experiences at the United Nations and in other settings likely to have included experts who could have confirmed at least part of what he says. How does this affect your view of A Long Way Gone?

7) Beah is a young writer who has clearly survived tragedies that go beyond anything most of us will experience in our lives. Do you believe that because of his youth or suffering he should be held to different literary or journalistic standards than writers who are older or have not suffered as much? Or do you believe that there are standards that all authors should uphold? What are they?

Vital statistics:
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. By Ishmael Beah. Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Sarah Crichton, 229 pp., $22. Published: February 2007.

Your book group may also want to read:

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda (Picador, 1999) by Philip Gourevitch. This award-winning book describes the Rwandan genocide, which took place during a time that partly overlaps with that of A Long Way Gone. It also involves some similar events, such as machete killings. But Gourevitch places such events in a wider social and political context than Beah does. Comparing We Wish to Inform You … with A Long Way Gone may enrich your understanding of how events in Sierra Leone fit into the broader pattern of African history during the 1990s. It may also suggest ways Beah could have developed his story differently – for example, by adding more background about the events in his country – without sacrificing narrative power.

As a high school student, Beah wrote an essay about his experiences as a boy solider that appears on the web site for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation www.wagingpeace.org. Search the site for his name or “When Good Comes From Bad.”

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she writes about books and related topics.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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