March 29, 2008

Reviewed in the NYT: Mirror of the Arab World

The New York Times asked me to review Sandra Mackey’s new book Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict for the Sunday Book Review.

Mirror of the Arab World Cover.JPG

It's too short to excerpt, so read the whole thing at the New York Times.

UPDATE: The buffoonish and aptly named Angry Arab calls me a "Zionist fanatic" and accuses me of lying in my NYT bio when I say I lived in Lebanon. For the record, I lived on the sixth floor of the Farah Building on Makhoul Street in Hamra, West Beirut.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at March 29, 2008 1:19 PM
Comments

Holy shit. Congratulations.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood Author Profile Page at March 29, 2008 2:49 PM

Awesome! Congrats.

The review (and coffee with an 'everything' bagel) will be part of the hallowed Sunday morning read-the-Times tradition

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at March 29, 2008 8:25 PM

So the Times came a callin'.
Well Done!

Posted by: Lindsey Author Profile Page at March 29, 2008 10:54 PM

I would say congratulations are due more to the New York Times than to Michael. They need the credibility more than he does.

Posted by: Gary Rosen Author Profile Page at March 30, 2008 1:16 PM

Well, a perfectly suitable, competent, appropriate book review. Nothing really stands out, though. Maybe your opinion of the NYT's tolerance for deviance or controversy is very low, or maybe the book is mundane, despite the nice review you gave it, and left you nothing to work with.

I'm surprised you didn't segueway into your stock of more personalized opinions / observations.

Posted by: glasnost Author Profile Page at March 30, 2008 1:32 PM

Glasnost,

Nothing really stands out, though.

They gave me 600 words as a drop-dead limit. It's hard for anything to stand out when writing under those kinds of constraints.

Maybe your opinion of the NYT's tolerance for deviance or controversy is very low

I had no reason to be "deviant" when writing this review. Her book is non-partisan, and my review is non-partisan. I can tell she is some kind of liberal, but only because of two or three giveaway sentences. (She certainly is not a Hezbollah-cheerleading leftist, or I would have called her on it.) If that mere handful of sentences were stricken from the text, I'd have to guess her affiliation, and I would have guessed "centrist."

maybe the book is mundane

No, it is very good.

I'm surprised you didn't segueway into your stock of more personalized opinions / observations.

I didn't have enough room. Writing for the Internet instead of print is liberating. I understand why old media reporters are jealous of us new media types.

I wouldn't have used the assignment as an excuse to mouth off, anyway. There is a time and place for that, and I wouldn't want to get in the way. The review is about Mackey's book, not about me.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at March 30, 2008 1:44 PM

"Well, a perfectly suitable, competent, appropriate book review."

My, what a smug, condescending, supercilious, pompous blog comment. You can't let Totten get in a single blog post without attaching your passive-aggressive little droppings, can you?

Posted by: David Fleck Author Profile Page at March 30, 2008 2:29 PM

Dear Michael,

Was this line really necessary?

"Freewheeling Beirut, where almost everything short of murder and rape is allowed, feels more like Hong Kong or Amsterdam than dreary Damascus or Cairo..."

Posted by: Qifa Nabki Author Profile Page at March 30, 2008 6:04 PM

Glasnost,

In the past I saw you as part of a certain camp of commenters on this blog (with DPU being another prominent member) and I found it annoying when people called you a "troll" for disagreeing with them.

It's clear that you come here for legitimate debate. But it's become obvious that you see MJT as a kind of simpleton, and display your feelings, as David Fleck pointed out, in a weird, passive-aggressive fashion.

There is so little to criticize in this short, concise book review that only a miserable (and condescending) prick would do so.

Posted by: Edgar Author Profile Page at March 30, 2008 7:25 PM

Qifa Nabki,

What, precisely, is your objection? I could have said "Lebanon is the land of do-as-you-please," but that's a cliche at this point. Yes, I could have written the sentence differently, but you're acting like I insulted the city when I did no such thing. I like freewheeling places where anything goes, and so do plenty of readers of the New York Times.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at March 30, 2008 8:45 PM

Some people find ways to discredit themselves, saving us the trouble. "Angry Arab" is one of them.

"The Jews are the great satan and George Bush suckles at their teat" That's the gist of his content, it seems.

This guy needs to contact Reverend Jeremiah Wright immediately for employment.

Posted by: lee Author Profile Page at March 31, 2008 12:22 AM

MJT: What, precisely, is your objection? I could have said “Lebanon is the land of do-as-you-please,” but that's a cliche at this point.

Well, I think the objection someone would have to that line would be that it could imply that Lebanese authorities allow people to commit crimes.

I'm sure the Lebanese police arrest burglars, car thieves, scam artists, and shoplifters.

The laws people break without fear of punishment are things like traffic regulations, trespassing, hunting with unregistered weapons, etc. Very minor stuff.

Posted by: Edgar Author Profile Page at March 31, 2008 7:12 AM

Michael,

I suppose my objection is that free-wheeling and lawless aren't synonyms, to my mind.

Is Lebanon more democratic and liberal than other Arab countries? Sure. Does that mean it's a debauched and exotic den of iniquity? For some, I guess, though such types are usually foreigners who come and sample the fruits, and then leave.

Also, even mentioning murder and rape in a negative light inexorably tends to draw the reader's mind toward identifying freewheeling Lebanon with murder and rape. It's like saying: in that sexual wonderland, almost anything short of bestiality is allowed. Once you've conjured up the image, it's hard not to associate it with the subject.

Anyway, it's clear you meant well. I just thought you might have been a bit less flashy with that lede.

Posted by: Qifa Nabki Author Profile Page at March 31, 2008 8:01 AM

Wow, the NY Times found something fit to print. I think this is the first time that I've read anything from them since getting disgusted over their daily front-page fetish with Abu Ghraib.

I read one of Mackey's earlier books in 2002 - "The Reckoning" - I forget the subtitle, but it was about Iraq and Saddam's legacy (though he was still in power). That, too, struck me as a pretty balanced assessment.

I no longer have a copy of that book, but one of the things that struck me when I read it was her account of the desperate plight of the Iraqi people (again, this was before we invaded). How quickly we forget! Ask anyone now what Iraq was like prior to 2003 and they'll probably tell you that the Iraqi people were living in the land of plenty, happy as can be, and that even the Kurds were better off.

Posted by: Saint in Exile Author Profile Page at March 31, 2008 9:16 AM

There is so little to criticize in this short, concise book review that only a miserable (and condescending) prick would do so.

I do this thing, Edgar. I read Mike's blog. Then I say whatever comes to mind. I react to it.

It's really not a critical comment at all. There's nothing wrong with the book review. I commented on how it seemed to be unlike Mike's usual writing style. It was a little more generic, to me, than his usual stuff, which probably comes from the audience, the noncontroversial nature of the topic, the word limit, etc, etc. That's how I felt, so that's what I said. I could have said nothing at all, but I tend to comment on everything Mike puts out, unless I'm deliberately staying away to get work accomplished.

If this comment section has a default position, especially among the regulars, it would be as Mike's support and therapy group. I don't do that. I respect Mike, or I wouldn't put in so much time here, but I approach every thing he writes from the perspective of a New Yorker answering a doorbell and seeing a stranger. That's also how I approach most public opinion pieces. I'm not here to be friends.

Mike doesn't seem to have a problem with that; not that I would change if he did. I'm sure it's occasionally irritating, but it doesn't seem to have broken his professional and personal spirit just yet. eh?

But it's become obvious that you see MJT as a kind of simpleton,

You're wrong. Mike's smarter than the average guy on most of his topics. Perhaps you're misinterpreting my occasional attempts to choose my words with care. Or perhaps I've developed a way of talking to people like a pompous *ss - I think that's your point. Well, tough luck for me then. So I'll get what's coming to me. Or something.

What it was, was an (awkward?) attempt at lukewarm praise. Which is how I felt about it. I say this a lot, but I'm really not obligated to care if you don't enjoy the content of my opinions here in this comment section designed precisely to solicit opinions. I suggest you think about something happier, like all the nice comments left by other people, and develop a coping mechanism. Perhaps one would fall out, if you removed protruding objects from personal places.
No hard feelings.

Posted by: glasnost Author Profile Page at March 31, 2008 9:19 AM

Nice review; sounds like a good book. Her work on Saudi Arabia was the most comprehensive and by far the most balanced I've found; just wish she could get back in and do a whole new edition. I'll grab this book.

Posted by: AZZenny Author Profile Page at March 31, 2008 9:30 AM

Glasnost: It was a little more generic, to me, than his usual stuff

I know. I knew that before anyone said anything, and I figured someone would say something. So I'm not annoyed that you said so. It's a very short piece, too short for me to deviate from the book review formula. I could have loosened my tie a bit if I had 1,200 words.

It is 600 words. The dispatches I publish here are usually around 5,000 words. I give myself more room to stretch my legs and get comfortable on my own Web site because I can. Newspapers don't allow that. They can't allow that, and it's a big reason they're less pleasant to read, and less pleasant to write for.

If I were to write a piece for the New York Times Magazine, you would more easily recognize it as mine.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at March 31, 2008 11:30 AM

You own a tie?
:)

Posted by: Lindsey Author Profile Page at March 31, 2008 9:50 PM

Man, being criticized by someone who teachs at CSU Stanislaus. That's bad. But then again when you start getting anti-fan mail from Dominguez Hills or Clackamas JC then you know you're in trouble.

Posted by: Pat Patterson Author Profile Page at April 2, 2008 4:42 AM

I think you are probably on the right track when you are pissing off the right people.

Posted by: Lindsey Author Profile Page at April 5, 2008 2:15 PM
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