Review

A Single Book Makes All the Difference

Pardon me for writing this lengthy and heartfelt column about a long-ago published book (2008), but each time I hear about brutal interrogations (did they lead to or away from Osama bin Laden, for example), I think of my favorite nonfiction title of the last three years, aside from Facebook for Dummies (not kidding), My Guantanamo Diary by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan (Public Affairs, 320 pages, $13.95).

If you wince at the word “Guantanamo” and think there’s nothing new to learn about the hellhole even Obama can’t shut down, wait until you meet the detainees from Afghanistan whom the author, an American law student who acted as translator for defense lawyers as early as 2006, came to know during more than 30 trips to and from the heavily barricaded cages that critics have called “our” Abu Ghraib.

We know from the outset we’re going to hear the by-now familiar stories of torture, hoods, stress positions and sexual humiliation; of screaming interrogators and dead-of-night batterings, of Orwellian tribunals, denial of due process and the whole, sad, shameful mess that has made Guantanamo a continuing nightmare.

But what we don’t expect in this book is humor – not gallows humor (the prisoners are already half-dead) or angry humor (they’re too resigned), but an affectionate, teasing kind of humor usually reserved for members of a close family.

Author Khan certainly didn’t expect anything light-hearted or emotionally moving when she first applied to the FBI for security clearance in 2005. An Afghan American who grew up in the United States speaking fluent Pashto with her immigrant family, Kahn was a law student in her 20s when she became concerned about the plight of prisoners from Afghanistan at Guantanamo.

Some detainees at the prison, especially those from Saudi Arabia, came from the kind of wealth that allowed their families to hire aggressive U.S. criminal defense lawyers even when the Bush administration denied them representation. But Afghanistan is such a poor country that prisoners languished for years at Guantanamo before the Supreme Court decision of 2004 gave them access to U.S. courts, and the first pro bono lawyers began setting up meetings.
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Two Terrific Books (And Amazon Blows it Again)

The most controversial book (by far) at the NCIBA trade show* was Tiger, Tiger, the true story of a pedophile in his 50s who not only befriended a 7-year-old girl but became her “playmate, father and lover” for 15 years before he committed suicide and she ended up in her twenties becoming both an incredibly mature author and a — well, you hafta wait and see.

Not one parent at the show could open Tiger, Tiger to even begin page one because it’s so menacing, so terrifying and so creepy …. or so it seemed by the look of it. The fact that the author, Margaux Fragoso, lived to tell the story would seem astonishing enough; that she writes in a beautiful, gripping narrative voice with the most astounding insights opens our ears (and, incredibly, our hearts) to otherwise unspeakable matters.

I can say that once you do open the book and you do begin reading, it’s impossible to put down. And boy, is it needed. Fragoso refuses to be either victim or avenger. What she learned about herself and human nature keeps us appalled and instructed every step of the way. From the start, her choices in life are so unexpected and in a way so thrilling that … well, again, you hafta see for yourself. The wait may be excruciating, because Tiger, Tiger is going to simmer (and not on the back burner) at Farrar, Straus & Giroux until its March publication.

(BTW, thank you, Autumn, at From The TBR Pile, a blog for readers that’s turned up a good handful of other books named Tiger, Tiger [or Tyger, Tyger in goblin speak] that you can find here. And extra thanks of course to poet William Blake who started it all.) (more…)

THE DEMOCRATIZATION OF PUBLISHING, PART 7,326

Lowly Self-Publisher Educates Wise Publishing Veteran

This is the story of a self-publisher who did everything “wrong” to publish a charming and humorous gem that I’m recommending to everyone.

The big lesson I had to learn (again) is that “professionals” in the book business like yours truly can easily lose their trust in the reader and their eye for creativity. Instead of enhancing the publishing process, too often we pros get in the way of very good, very original and often even memorable books.

In my own defense may I say that 99 times out of 100, the self-publishing author needs guidance from a wizened (I used to think that meant wise; now in my declining years I see it’s right on the money) veteran of industry standards and procedures.

Too Shy to Paginate

The author in question is Niko Mayer, a member of the book group I facilitate at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif. When Niko asked me to endorse a collection of travel stories that she had written and illustrated, I felt a certain dread creep in.

1. First, there was the title: “Travelin’ Light Is Not for Me: Worries Weigh a Lot.”

Well, it’s a bit wordy and hard to follow, I thought, not to mention a little precious. A customer may read it several times and still not know what the book is about.

I told Niko a good rule of thumb about titles: If the reader has to look inside the book to understand the title, you’re not there yet. But if the title is catchy, and intriguing enough to lure the reader into the book — to make us curious, to make us open the book to learn more — you’ve nailed it.

Uh-huh… said Niko. (more…)

Two Furious Authors Tell Reviewers Where To Get Off

I DON’T BLAME THEM


1. How To Say ‘Up Yours’: Alice Hoffman

Well, if I were Alice Hoffman, I’d go bonkers myself over the way modern critics not only give away too much plot in the novels they review (and the movies, plays, etc.) but seem determined to spoil the ending. images

Hoffman is in the news because she Twittered out her anger in 27 different Tweets about a mixed-to-negative Boston Globe review by Roberta Silman of her new book, “The Story Sisters” (Shaye Areheart/Crown; 325 pages; $25).

Granted, Hoffman got a bit carried away by calling Silman a “moron” and insisting that “any idiot can be a critic” (hey!), and she got a bit vindictive by giving out Silman’s private email and phone number so that readers can “tell her what u think of snarky critics.”

Hoffman has apologized for responding “strongly” in the “heat of the moment” and says she’s “sorry if I offended anyone,” which is the usual code for “my publisher won’t let me say ‘up yours.’ ”

But I think we should listen to Hoffman’s more important and far-reaching statement — one that is true of way too many reviews these days — about being “dismayed” because the review “gave away the plot of the novel.”

Two Reviewers Give It Away

Which many reviews today often do. Silman refers to “the secret that is the linchpin of the book” and then appears to disclose it. She describes key plot points in Part Two, which is way too far in the book to follow the heart of the novel’s story. She tells us how the book ends by naming the “only” character who “is given a chance to grow,” by revealing the two estranged characters whom we’re hoping will bond but find “no resolution,” and divulging the hero-turned-drug addict who’s institutionalized but “does bear a child and reform,” yet “never really matures.”

No wonder Hoffman went off her feed. I bet she was already smarting from a similar debacle at the Washington Post, where critic Wendy Smith not only follows the development of a key character far too long and with too much detail, she then drops the bomb that the character is “responsible for a death that estranges her from the family, but a series of poignant scenes shows her tentative attempts to reconnect.” Smith spoils the end of the book by telling us about “this radiant finale” in which a wedding in Paris provides the sisters with “a tender opportunity to reconcile.”

Let me just say, too, that it doesn’t matter if any of these salient details are provided at the beginning of the book. It is the reviewer’s charge never to even seem to give the book away, to step in front of the material, to plant a seed in the reader’s mind (she does “reform”) that will one day spoil a fresh reading of the text. (More about this next week.)

The Fall of Lit Crit

I have a theory that the standards of literary criticism have fallen in direct proportion to the “democratization” of publishing and blogging on the Internet. Stands to reason, no? Those first customer reviews on Amazon years ago weren’t (and for the most part still aren’t) notable for their professionalism, heaven knows. But boy, did they have energy (still do) and how ebulliently they make themselves heard. Read four or five of ’em and you glean enough about the book to know if it’s for you. At the same time, these charged-up contributors feel they are part of a reading family and would never spoil the fun of others by giving away key aspects of a book. So you can scroll through customer reviews on just about any website without having to keep one eye closed, which I find myself doing with so-called professional criticism of everything from books to movies to theater.

2. Blogging for Revenge: Alain de Botton

In this case I have to say as a reader, what in heck was the New York Times Book Review thinking of last Sunday when a wretched piece of bad writing showed up disguised as a book review of “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” by Alain de Botton (Pantheon; 327 pages; $26)?images-1

You’d think a book with a straightforward title like that would be easy to describe, but no. I read the full-page review by Caleb Crain three times and I still didn’t know what it was about. Crain accuses de Botton of mockery, condescension, mean-spiritedness, superficial judgment and spite, but he never tells us the “initial goal” of the book, except to say the author “has already lost track of (it)” by Chapter 3.

Of course if I were advising de Botton, I would have tied him to a chair before allowing him to write a vitriolic message to Crain for all on the Internet to see. This part especially is regrettable: “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”

But I would have spread out the red carpet for de Botton to say this: “I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon — so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer.” (more…)

Review of ‘Tinkers’

SHORT NOVEL, HUGE DESIGN

Somewhere in the midst of discovering tiny Bellevue Literary Press and its incredible launch of an original trade paperback called “Tinkers” (191 pages; $14.95), I decided to take a look at the book to make sure it was worthy of a whole column (or, as it turns out, two).

Paul Harding

Paul Harding

Wouldn’t you know, this first novel by Paul Harding has so much originality and fresh writing that I could not believe — well, first, that the author is still in his 40s (see left; surely his mind’s age is about 142); and second, that the intricate and animated construction of the novel becomes a character in its own right.

My only regret is that as much as I admire Bellevue Press for its literary standards, I wish the cover copy for “Tinkers” weren’t so dreary.

“An old man lies dying,” it begins. “As time collapses into memory, he travels deep into his past where he is united with his father and relives the wonder and pain ….” Sounds like a dozen other books to me, and misses a certain playfulness on Harding’s part. In most deathbed scenes, the soul rises gracefully to heaven, but here the house (which the dying man once built himself) — in fact everything in his universe — comes crashing down on him.

As walls crack and foundation gives way, George Crosby, a former teacher lying in his rented hospital bed, remembers teaching his grandkids how to staple insulation in place. “Now two or three lengths of it had come loose and lolled down like pink woolly tongues,” along with shattered windows, caved-in ceiling, and “electrical wires that looked like severed veins” to George.

There is no respite. “The second floor fell on him, with its unfinished pine framing and dead-end plumbing and racks of old coats and boxes.” Now he sees right through a crippled roof as “the clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head. The very blue of the sky followed…Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George’s confused obliteration.” (more…)

When Math Can Be Murder

I knew Wendy Lichtman was a good writer (Washington Post, New York Times), but I never thought she (or anybody) could pull off a book so inventive and winning as “Secrets, Lies & Algebra” (HarperTeen; 183 pages; $6.99 paperback).

It’s a great novel for young readers in the 6th-8th grades, but if you’re a math-phobic oldster like myself, it’s even better for mature(d) audiences.

The story takes off like a rocket and before you know it, principles of algebra and even a little non-Euclidean geometry (I never heard of it before but now find indispensable) fly into your brain as though destined to reside there. (more…)