One-Minute Book Reviews

June 15, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali Faults Islam and Multiculturalists in ‘Nomad’

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:40 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

October 10, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Why Did the Swedish Academy Announce the Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature on Yom Kippur? Cultural Insensitivity in Stockholm

Did you look at the lists of the bookies’ favorites for the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature and think, “There’s no way Philip Roth or Amos Oz is going to get the award this year”? I did for an obvious reason: The Swedish Academy said it was going to announce the winner on Yom Kippur. And I couldn’t believe the Academy would be so religiously tone-deaf as to ask a Jewish writer to take a call from the judges — and face the ensuing media onslaught — on a high holy day. The judges would have looked like cretins even if the winner had been too overjoyed to object. In naming the day of the prize, the Academy all but told Roth and Oz to forget it.

The question is: Why did the Academy decide to announce the winner on Yom Kippur in the first place? To my knowledge no important literary prizes are awarded on major religious holidays. That timing may reflect a literary reality as much as a respect for people’s spirituality: Writers get so few prizes that they deserve to be able enjoy them when they do.

To much of the world, the Nobel Prize in literature represents high culture and Hollywood stands for low. But even the Academy Awards presenters don’t hand out the Oscars on Easter. By deciding to award the literature prize on Yom Kippur, the Swedish Academy has made Hollywood look like a pillar of good taste.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 7, 2008

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read — Jeff Brown and Tomi Ungerer’s ‘Flat Stanley’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:23 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Stanley was different before different was the new normal

Flat Stanley. By Jeff Brown. Pictures by Tomi Ungerer. HarperCollins, 44 pp., varied prices and editions. Ages 4 and up (for reading aloud).

Flat Stanley. By Jeff Brown. Pictures by Scott Nash. HarperTrophy, 65 pp., $4.99, paperback. Ages 4 and up (for reading aloud), ages 6–9 (for independent readers).

By Janice Harayda

Long before bookstores and libraries abounded with books about children of all shapes and sizes, there was Flat Stanley, an ordinary boy who woke up one morning and found that he was flat. Stanley is flat — “four feet fall, about a foot wide, and half an inch thick” – because a bulletin board fell on him while he was sleeping.

He wasn’t hurt, so nobody is particularly troubled by this – least of all Stanley. “When Stanley got used to being flat, he enjoyed it.” Stanley finds that he can slide under closed doors and slip through the bars of a sidewalk grate to retrieve his mother’s favorite ring, which fell into a shaft. He can fly like a kite on the end of a string held by his younger brother, Arthur. And when thieves keep breaking into an art museum, he becomes a hero after helping the authorities with their plan to catch the robbers, which requires him to dress up like a shepherdess and be displayed in a frame. But after becoming a celebrity, Stanley starts getting teased by children who make fun of his flatness. He cries in bed at night because he wants to return to normal. And he doesn’t know how he can, until his sympathetic brother comes up with a creative idea that works.

The first edition of Flat Stanley has wonderful drawings by the French-born artist Tomi Ungerer who, on every page, raises Jeff Brown’s humor to a higher level. Few living artists can make visual satire work as well for young children as Ungerer, a winner of the the highest international prize for children’s-book illustration, the Hans Christian Andersen Award. Most children won’t know that he is gently tweaking 18th-century pastoral paintings of the school of Fragonard when they see Stanley, affixed to a wall, in ringlets and a dress with a shepherdess’s crook in hand. They don’t need to know it, because the picture is so funny in itself. Brown occasionally pitches his humor more to adults than to children, but Ungerer never makes that mistake.

Scott Nash’s cartoonish pictures for the chapter book don’t come close to Ungerer’s – it’s the difference between table wine and champagne. But the chapter book, which reproduces Brown’s text almost word-for-word, has its place. Because of the incident involving the museum thieves, some parents might hesitate to read Flat Stanley to preschoolers who are still worried about monsters under the bed. They might prefer to wait until children can read it on their own and, not incidentally, go to sleep without spraying down the bedroom with a water bottle labeled “Monster Repellent.” In that case, they can use the chapter book (which has sequels I haven’t seen).

Flat Stanley has a message that is expressed most directly by Stanley’s mother: “It is wrong to dislike people for their shapes. Or their religion, for that matter, or the color of their skin.” But the book wears this idea so lightly – and tells such a good story – that it stands far above the many recent, dreary books that bludgeon children with worthy ideas at the expense of plot, characterization and decent art. Stanley may be flat, but his story is anything but.

Best line/picture: All of Tomi Ungerer’s pictures of Stanley in his flat incarnation, especially that image of him in a shepherdess’s costume.

Worst line/picture: Stanley’s father announces that the newspaper says a painting, a Toulouse-Lautrec, has been stolen from the Famous Museum of Art. “That probably made it easy to steal,” his wife replies. “Being too loose, I mean.” This is one of the few lines that appears in the picture book but not in the chapter book. I didn’t mind the pun, because it fits in with the playful humor throughout the text and illustrations. But the reference isn’t explained and would no doubt sail over the heads of most preschoolers.

Published: 1964 (picture book by Jeff Brown with pictures by Tomi Ungerer) and 2003, (chapter book by Jeff Brown with pictures by Scott Nash) More information appears on

Furthermore: Tomi Ungerer’s site This site is in French (and doesn’t have pictures of Stanley), but it has a button on the home page that you can click on for an English or German translation.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 23, 2008

Ezra Jack Keats’s Trailblazing Picture Book for Ages 5 and Under, ‘The Snowy Day’

A Caldecott medalist often called “the book that broke the color barrier” in mainstream children’s publishing

Winter still has enough muscle here in New Jersey that the library was closed for snow yesterday. So I couldn’t put my hands on a trailblazing book about the kind of weather we’re having now, Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day (Puffin, 40 pp., $6.99, paperback, and other editions). And because I haven’t read it, I’ll have to quote an excellent reference book and hope that teachers, librarians or others will jump in with comments.

“Keats illustrated nearly a dozen books before writing his first, The Snowy Day, which won the 1963 Caldecott Medal,” former children’s librarian Mary Mehlman Burns writes in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), edited by Anita Silvey. “A celebration of color, texture, design, and childhood wonder, The Snowy Day is significant in that it was one of the first picture books in which a minority child is seen as Everychild. Years before, Keats had come across photos of a young boy, and he recalled that ‘his expressive face, his body attitudes, the way he wore his clothes, totally captivated me.’ The boy was to become Peter, who, in his red snowsuit, discovers the joys of dragging sticks and making tracks in the snow. After its publication, Keats found out that the photos had come from a 1940 Life magazine – he had retained the images for over 20 years.

“With solid and patterned paper as wedges of color, Keats used collage to create endearing characters and energetic cityscapes, not only in The Snowy Day (1962) but also in Whistle for Willie (1964) and Peter’s Chair (1964).”

A generation of readers – black and white – is grateful to The Snowy Day, sometimes called “the book that broke the color barrier” in picture books from mainstream publishers. One of the latest editions is a DVD-and-book gift set that Viking published in September and includes Whistle for Willie.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: