Review by New York Times Review
NO more tragic or romantic institution emerged from the Jim Crow era of American life than the Negro Leagues. African-Americans were banished from the majors in 1884, and a few seasons later from the minors as well, under a "gentleman's agreement" between white owners and players. None would return until Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers some 60 years later. Black baseball players scrambled to make a living any way they could. In 1920, Rube Foster, star pitcher, manager and owner of the Chicago American Giants, banded eight leading black teams from around the Midwest into the Negro National League, and a legend was born. Over the next 40 years, and through three more segregated major leagues - a second Negro National League, the Eastern Colored League and the Negro American League - African-Americans invented a whole new brand of baseball on the outskirts of town, one that was usually faster, tougher, more merciless than the game played in the white leagues. When black players, led by. the likes of Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson and Roberto Clemente, were finally allowed into the white game, the intelligence and ferocity of their play frequently overwhelmed the opposition. "We are the ship; all else the sea" was how Rube Foster described his new league, and Kadir Nelson takes the phrase for the title of his riveting picturebook introduction to the Negro Leagues. It was a ship always on the verge of foundering. Players made little money and barnstormed constantly between league contests, sometimes logging as many as three or four games in a day. They traveled everywhere jammed into well-worn buses or private cars, often arriving in a town after many hours on the road only to find that there was no place, in the segregated America of their time, to get a room, have a meal, use the bathroom. They slept in their uniforms, bought their bats at a store and played in fields that were little more than roped-off cow pastures. Owners operated on a shoestring. A harried Foster was committed to a mental asylum, where he died in 1930; his league collapsed a year later. Players were left with the bitter realization that they would never compete on a bigger stage. And yet, as was the case with many Jim Crow improvisations, African-Americans transformed a white institution into something of their own - something better. Many Negro League teams were owned by blacks; one owner, a hard-edged numbers king by the name of Gus Greenlee, even built his Pittsburgh Crawfords team its own park, in the middle of the Depression. Black managers and players came up with daring new plays and pitches, they performed at dizzying speed, and they regularly beat white teams - perhaps as much as 60 percent of the time - in the postseason exhibitions they put on. The painter Kadir Nelson has illustrated several award-winning children's books, including some on black history. This is the first book he has both illustrated and written, and it's absolutely gorgeous. He uses the conversational, first-person voice of a fictional, anonymous player. It's a device that generally works well and allows him to include many of the great old tales of the Negro Leagues; he conveys the humor, showmanship. and joy that were an integral part of the game, without soft-soaping how hard it all was. Nelson bolsters his text with an index and endnotes, for the readers who will be drawn by his work to learn more. There is the occasional gaffe. White ballplayers in the 1940s did not make $7,000 a month - more like $7,000 a season - and he goes too easy on the black owners of the Negro League teams who were also running numbers rackets on the side. Tre, such men had limited opportunities in apartheid America, but they were still gangsters, vultures who preyed upon the desperate hopes of their own communities. Nelson's visual narrative is nothing short of magnificent. His paintings include numerous portraits and action scenes, as well as facsimiles of baseball cards, a ticket to the "First Colored World Series" and a beautifully drawn, melancholy sign for a "colored" inn. Particularly enthralling are his full-page portrayals of a white "House of David" ballplayer (from a religious colony in Michigan) with his trademark beard and long hair; an outfielder in an old park during the last days of the black leagues ; a double-page spread of Foster's American Giants stepping down from a Pullman car; and, especially, an early Negro League game played at night. JAMES STURM and Rich Tommaso's "Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow" offers a different approach to the subject, but it's every bit as engrossing. Both veteran writers and illustrators, Sturm and Tommaso tell the first-person story of a (fictional) black ballplayer who has a heady game against the Birmingham Black Barons in his first weeks of Negro League ball - he doubles off the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige - but then must return to the suffocating, racist world of Tuckwilla, Ala, a small cotton town dominated by an arrogant, white planter family. It's a haunting story in which Sturm's text poignantly conveys the quiet bitterness of his hero, and Tommaso's spare, two-tone drawings brilliantly contrast the physical beauty of the old, rural South with the savagery of its social institutions. An abiding air of menace hangs over the story like a gathering storm cloud. The authors refuse to look away from anything, not even lynching, although the material remains suitable - even vital - for most children. Paige himself is as elusive here as he was in real life, but Sturm and Tommaso, along with an excellent introduction by Gerald Early, provide a telling glimpse of this consummate showman, entrepreneur and competitor, who pitched into his mid60s and against all odds managed to rise above both the black gamp and the white one. "Don't look back; something might be gaining on you," Satch liked to say, but both of these books offer an invaluable look into the treasured and sorrowful past. Kevin Baker is the author of the historical novel "Strivers Row." He is currently working on a history of baseball in New York City.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 27, 2009]
Review by Booklist Review
It is 1988, and Pakistan's military government is flush with success. Its coffers are full of U.S. weapons and American dollars, CIA agents are everywhere, and the Russians are beginning to withdraw from Afghanistan. Military strongman General Zia ul Huk is the darling of CIA director Bill Casey, and Pakistan; Air Force underofficer Ali Shigri, a young man of good family, is plotting to assassinate Zia. Shigri has just learned that Zia and his deputies are responsible for the suicide of his father, the much-respected Colonel Shigri. Ali comes under suspicion by the country's dreaded ISI (Interservices Intelligence), and a painful end seems preordained. First-novelist Hanif, who spent seven years in the Pakistani Air Force and currently runs the Urdu service for the BBC, has crafted a clever black comedy about military culture, love, tyranny, family, and the events that eventually brought us to September 11, 2001. His depictions of Zia, Pakistani military life, the machinations of Pakistani military pols, and CIA cowboys are believable and convincingly detailed. Other elements of the book are purely fanciful, but they also work. Entertaining and illuminating.--Gaughan, Thomas Copyright 2008 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Pakistan's ongoing political turmoil adds a piquant edge to this fact-based farce spun from the mysterious 1988 plane crash that killed General Zia, the dictator who toppled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, father of recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto. Two parallel assassination plots converge in Hanif's darkly comic debut: Air Force Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri, sure that his renowned military father's alleged suicide was actually a murder, hopes to kill Zia, who he holds responsible. Meanwhile, disgruntled Zia underlings scheme to release poison gas into the ventilation system of the general's plane. Supporting characters include Bannon, a hash-smoking CIA officer posing as an American drill instructor; Obaid, Shigri's Rilke-reading, perfume-wearing barracks pal, whose friendship sometimes segues into sex; and, in a foreboding cameo, a "lanky man with a flowing beard," identified as OBL, who is among the guests at a Felliniesque party at the American ambassador's residence. The Pakistan-born author served in his nation's air force for several years, which adds daffy verisimilitude to his depiction of military foibles that recalls the satirical wallop of Catch 22, as well as some heft to the sagely absurd depiction of his homeland's history of political conspiracies and corruption. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review
Set in Pakistan in the 1980s, this first novel revolves around the events leading up to the plane crash that killed General Zia, then president of the country. The crash has been the subject of all sorts of rumors, and the author energetically seizes upon them and adds several of his own. The novel centers on Ali Shigri, a junior under officer in the Pakistani air force and son of a high-ranking commander who apparently committed suicide years earlier but whose death is beginning to look more like a political execution. When General Zia comes upon a passage in the Qur'an that he thinks foretells his death, he expands his already severe dictatorship by calling for heightened security. Shigri is taken into custody and given the full interrogation treatment but is eventually released. He then prepares for a demonstration of a military drill with his squad in front of the president himself. In keeping with the novel's somewhat surrealistic approach, a crow that has overheard a blind woman curse the president has flown several thousand miles to intersect with the flight route of the presidential party. Entertainingly bizarre and still seriously literate, this novel is recommended for larger fiction collections.-Jim Coan, SUNY at Oneonta (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
Journalist Hanif's first novel is a darkly witty imagining of the circumstances surrounding the mysterious plane crash that killed Pakistan's military ruler, General Zia, in August 1988. The central figure is a young military officer named Ali Shigri whose much-decorated father was found hanging from a ceiling fan, an alleged suicide. Ali knows, however, that his father's death was something more sinister, and he sets out first to identify the responsible party, Zia, and then--by way of a loopy plan involving swordsmanship and obscure pharmacology--to exact revenge. The book's omniscient narrator gets into the heads of multiple characters, including that of the General himself; his ambitious second-in-command, General Akhtar; a smooth torturer named Major Kiyani; a communist street sweeper who for a time occupies a prison cell near Ali's; a blind rape victim who has been imprisoned for fornication; and a wayward and sugar-drunk crow. Even Osama bin Laden has a cameo, at a Fourth of July bash. But plot summary misleads; the novel has less in common with the sober literature of fact than it does with Latin American magical realism (especially novels about mythic dictators such as Gabriel Garc"a Márquez's Autumn of the Patriarch) and absurdist military comedy (like Joseph Heller's Catch-22). Hanif adopts a playful, exuberant voice that's almost a parody of old-fashioned omniscience, as competing theories and assassination plots are ingeniously combined and overlaid. Uneasy rests the head that wears the General's famous twirled mustache--everybody's out to get him. A sure-footed, inventive debut that deftly undercuts its moral rage with comedy and deepens its comedy with moral rage. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.