A harrowing survival story.



An American journalist’s account of 44 days in a Taliban prison.

Van Dyk, a freelancer for CBS News and the New York Times, wrote years ago about his travels with the mujahideen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan (In Afghanistan: An American Odyssey, 1983). In 2008, he began a dangerous trip into Pakistani tribal areas occupied by the Taliban, hoping to chronicle life along the rugged Afghan/Pakistani border, a center of Taliban and al-Qaeda activity. Working on his own, Van Dyk disguised himself as a pious Muslim and a member of the Pashtun tribe prevalent in the region. He had just entered Pakistan when a group of Taliban kidnapped him and his Afghan guides. The author’s memoir reveals his constant fear and uncertainty during weeks of captivity in a Taliban safe house. When Van Dyk admitted he was an American, his captors treated him hospitably—as dictated by their tribal code—but nonetheless badgered and toyed with him psychologically, convinced he was a spy. Between interrogations, his jailers described differing plans. They would negotiate an exchange of Van Dyk for three inmates at Guantánamo; they would free him for a ransom of $1.5 million, or $1 million, or some amount, to be raised by his family and friends. At the same time, they stressed that preparing for Paradise was all that mattered, and insisted that he draw closer to Islam through prayer and reading. With the occasional Predator unmanned aircraft passing overhead, he talked with his captors about the role of women in Islam, the training of suicide bombers, and other relevant topics; studied the Pashtun language; fantasized about escaping; and slept more and more. Van Dyk’s staccato style keeps the narrative moving. Finally, he was taken back into Afghanistan and freed, the Taliban having presumably received a $200,000 ransom. “We will be watching you,” they warned. Later, at a U.S. military base, looking like a Taliban member with his long beard, Van Dyk found that soldiers were wary of him. He says he still did not know who was responsible for his kidnapping, whether a ransom was actually paid and, if so, by whom.

A harrowing survival story.

Pub Date: June 22, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-8050-8827-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Times/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2010

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time.


Maya Angelou is a natural writer with an inordinate sense of life and she has written an exceptional autobiographical narrative which retrieves her first sixteen years from "the general darkness just beyond the great blinkers of childhood."

Her story is told in scenes, ineluctably moving scenes, from the time when she and her brother were sent by her fancy living parents to Stamps, Arkansas, and a grandmother who had the local Store. Displaced they were and "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat." But alternating with all the pain and terror (her rape at the age of eight when in St. Louis With her mother) and humiliation (a brief spell in the kitchen of a white woman who refused to remember her name) and fear (of a lynching—and the time they buried afflicted Uncle Willie under a blanket of vegetables) as well as all the unanswered and unanswerable questions, there are affirmative memories and moments: her charming brother Bailey; her own "unshakable God"; a revival meeting in a tent; her 8th grade graduation; and at the end, when she's sixteen, the birth of a baby. Times When as she says "It seemed that the peace of a day's ending was an assurance that the covenant God made with children, Negroes and the crippled was still in effect."

However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1969

ISBN: 0375507892

Page Count: 235

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1969

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