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Book News: Prominent Middle East Scholar Fouad Ajami Dies

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • Historian and political commentator Fouad Ajami, who was a prominent advocate for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, died Sunday. He was 68. A MacArthur Fellow and the author of several books about the Middle East, Ajami was perhaps best known for his columns and frequent TV appearances. A 2003 profile in The Nation called Ajami "the most politically influential Arab intellectual of his generation in the United States," adding that "Condoleezza Rice often summons him to the White House for advice, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a friend and former colleague, has paid tribute to him in several recent speeches on Iraq." Although Ajami was born in Lebanon, his often-controversial views made him a self-described "stranger in the Arab world." In a 1991 essay about Saddam Hussein, Ajami said there was a sense in which the Arab world asks for its tyrants: "Deep in the Arab psyche there is an attraction, a fatal attraction, to the swagger of the strongman," he wrote. "Despots always work with a culture's yearnings." He cited the Prophet Muhammad: "You will get the rulers you deserve." In a 2006 interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, Ajami talked about his book The Foreigner's Gift, in which he wrote about what went wrong with the Iraq War.
  • In The Atlantic,Nick Romeo looks at the relationship between literature and propaganda: "Stalin clearly believed that literature was a powerful political tool — and he was willing to execute writers whose works were deemed traitorous to the Soviet Union. Stalin's sentiments regarding literature may seem like the deranged delusions of a dictator. But consider a similar Cold War-era comment by the CIA's then-chief of covert action: 'Books differ from all other propaganda media primarily because one single book can significantly change the reader's attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium.' "
  • In the ongoing dispute between publisher Hachette and online retailer Amazon, someone has leaked Amazon's demands to The New York Times.A source "involved on the Hachette side of the negotiations," as the Timesartfully puts it, told the paper that "Amazon has been demanding payments for a range of services, including the pre-order button, personalized recommendations and a dedicated employee at Amazon for Hachette books."
  • Notable Books Coming Out This Week:

  • Andrea Camilleri's latest Inspector Montalbano mystery, Angelica's Smile, centers on a string of unsolved burglaries on the sunny Sicilian coast. Montalbano finds himself falling for one of the victims, the beautiful Angelica, who puts him in mind of the heroine of Ariosto's Italian epic Orlando Furioso. Charming, quick and breezy, Angelica's Smileis a solid summer mystery. It's marred only by the translator's atrocious attempts at rendering Sicilian dialects into English: "Ah Chief, 'at be yer lady frenn 'at tol' me as how she's waitin' f'yiz inna parkin latt."
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    Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.