Book Reviews: September/October 2007

Face Time in Afghanistan: IN THE SHADOWS OF MOUNTAINS

by Steve McCurry (Phaidon)

Armed with little more than a Swiss army knife, airline peanuts, a camera, and film, photographer Steve McCurry stole across Pakistan’s border into Afghanistan during Russia’s 1979 invasion, only to be “spat out” a few weeks later “with burrs in my socks and rolls of film sewn into my clothes,” he writes. He has shed the burrs, but McCurry’s photos, and his fascination with a country he calls “pastoral and chaotic . . . destroyed and resilient,” have only grown deeper. The result is an aesthetically stunning picture book that captures, as well as any two-dimensional image can, three decades’ worth of Afghan lives, from Sikh schoolgirls in Kabul to mujahedeen fighters in the poverty-stricken province of Nuristan. Recognizing that “portraiture is especially responsive to the imaginary narratives we may weave around a picture,” McCurry includes small anthropology lessons: A dentist shown making false teeth exemplifies the effect of sweet green tea and Coca-Cola in Afghan diets; five women in jewel-toned burqas, huddled under a row of Western-style tennis shoes in 1992, portrays Afghanistan’s “flirtation with modernity” under Taliban rule. —Kristen Mueller

WRITERS UNDER SIEGE: Voices of Freedom from Around the World

edited by Lucy Popescu and Carole Seymour-Jones (New York University Press)

In a country whose blogosphere explodes with political rants, it’s easy to regard the right to free expression with benign neglect. Writers Under Siege assembles the works of those who have faced torture, imprisonment, and sometimes death to practice their craft, serving as a reminder that this right is a life-and-death matter for many people around the world. Some of the prose is sparse, testifying to the economy of writers hurried by the threat of discovery; other pieces are rich with the care of dazzling minds left with no company but words. The anthology, which was assembled by the international literary organization PEN, also includes some of the final, haunting reflections of outspoken Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote an essay for the collection just weeks before she was murdered. —Hannah Lobel


by Brock Clarke (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)

Sam Pulsifer is an accidental arsonist, a bumbler who burned down the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst, Massachusetts, and An Arsonist’s Guide is his memoir. Or would be, if the book weren’t a novel masquerading as a memoir. It’s a witty, intensely clever piece of writing that scrutinizes our relationship with stories and storytelling: Are memoirs ever true? What is true? What’s real? But this is no writing-about-writing-for-other-writers type of tale. Brock Clarke composes with panache, packing his pages with offbeat humor, vibrant characters, and tender scenes. As Sam roams New England, searching for whoever’s framing him for subsequent blazes, his narration never misses a beat. At times, he feels more real than you or me–just as Clarke would have it. —Julie Hanus

BRAVE NEW WEST: Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed

by Jim Stiles (University of Arizona Press)

Our present will be someday be “the good old days,” according to the dystopian vision of author Jim Stiles, who moved to Utah in the late ’70s, worked at Arches National Park, and founded the Canyon Country Zephyr newspaper, which he still puts out. Stiles imagines a freeway to Moab, a luxury resort hosting pornographic film shoots, and the death of the town’s last great shade tree. Wait: The last two have actually happened. With barbed pen, Stiles–friend and “shameless disciple” of desert-loving author Edward Abbey–struggles to differentiate exploiters of the land from defenders, decries greed and apathy, laments the homogenization of New West towns, and offers homage to lost trees and good people. —Chris Dodge


by the Lavaca Collective (Haymarket)

In the months surrounding Argentina’s December 2001 economic collapse, scores of companies went bankrupt and corrupt owners, often owing employees months of unpaid wages, prepared to gut factories and leave town. This translation of Sin Patron (“Without a Boss”) presents, for the first time in English, the stories of workers who took over these factories for themselves, organizing cooperatives and asserting their right to work. Lavaca, a collective of Argentine journalists, details the history and structure of 10 of the cooperatives. Workers’ narratives get top billing, and the considerable legal and financial difficulties associated with creating a cooperative are not sugarcoated: One woman acknowledges that “no one thought it was going to be such a long and tedious struggle.” —Danielle Maestretti

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