Weekly book review digest: Iran, overlooked masters, and how to write

A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb by Amitava Kumar (Duke University Press. 2010)

English professor Amitava Kumar’s book about “the global war on terror and its cultural and human repercussions” is, according to reviewer Dwight Garner, “perceptive and soulful.” It is a concise but exhaustive survery of post-9/11 art, including fiction, nonfiction, performance art, and film. But, Kumar–a Pakistani Hindu whose wife is Muslim–extends the crux of his meditation to those he calls the “small people,” the “ordinary men and women, brown-skinned in general and Muslim in particular, who have had their lives upended by America’s enraged security apparatus.” One man in particular to suffer from this paranoid system is Indian business man Hemant Lakhani, whose entrapment by the American FBI leads to his arrest for arms dealing, in spite of Mr. Lakhani’s inability to follow through with the transaction. Kumar argues that Mr. Lakhani’s arrest was based on the flimsy but destructive theory that he had “the immoral nature of someone who might be a terrorist.” Although clumsily written in places, this “angry and artful book is a first step” toward acknowledging a real population of victims in the so-called war on terror.  

The Death of the Adversary by Hans Keilson, Translated by Ivo Jarosy. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2010).

It is advisable to read any glowing review with some reservation–literary preference is a matter of personal taste after all–but not always. Francine Prose's review of two Dutch novels, which were first published in 1947 and only now are appearing in English, is rather convincing, to put it mildly. It begins: "For busy, harried or distractible readers who have the time and energy only to skim the opening paragraph of a review, I’ll say this as quickly and clearly as possible: “The Death of the Adversary” and “Comedy in a Minor Key” are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius." Set in Nazi-occupied Europe, the novels succeed not only at capturing their time and location, but exceed specifics, "In fact the novel shows us how human beings, in any place, at any time, protectively shield themselves from the most frightening truths of their private lives and their historical moment." Prose may not have assumed a reader would make it to the end of her review, but those who do will find a final alert of this "astonishing" writer's talents, "Read these books and join me in adding him to the list, which each of us must compose on our own, of the world’s very greatest writers."

Death to the Dictator: A Young Man Casts a Vote in Iran's 2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price by Afsaneh Moqadam (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2010).

Reviewer Borzou Daragahi finds a lot of worth in this memoir of wrongful-imprisonment, in which all the names, including that of the author, have been changed. Arrested during one of last year's protests of the botched Iranian elections, "Abbaspour's tale is interspersed with relatively sound analysis of contemporary Iran's political and social mechanics" and has the immediacy of an emotional, clued-in, first person account. Although "the book's greatest flaw is the black-and-white picture it paints of Iran's kaleidoscopic social tapestry" and its factual offerings are sometimes less that watertight, it is an important piece of the puzzle of the Iranian mindset during the protests, as much a font of information to the outside world as it should be a warning to the regime.

Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes (Tin House. 2010). 

Sometimes it seems like there are more books on how to succeed as a writer than successful writers, but reviewer Michael Dirda insists that this "brutally honest" new addition to the genre, written by novelist Grimes, should be required reading for "anyone who dreams of becoming a novelist." Largely about Grimes's relationship with writer Frank Conroy, and his experience at the Iowa Writer's Workshop (arguably the finest graduate writing program in the US), the book describes his experience just outside of success, and what it means to be a writer, particularly if no one reads your work.

Back to top button