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Paperback Books by Nora Krug

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By Nora Krug
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

THE AYATOLLAH BEGS TO DIFFER

The Paradox of Modern Iran

This Story

By Hooman Majd

Anchor. 272 pp. $14.95

Hooman Majd is like a dashing character in a Graham Greene novel. The son of an Iranian diplomat and a grandson of an ayatollah, he was educated in America and Europe, and has been told that he speaks "without an identifying accent." This cloak, along with his language skills and expertise, has allowed Majd to travel almost as freely in Iranian circles as in Western ones: He has served as an interpreter for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and as an adviser to former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami, and he has testified before the U.S. Senate. He is also, according to GQ magazine, a style icon. Majd's cosmopolitan perspective permeates his book, "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ," an impressionistic collection of reporting, memoir, travelogue and commentary. In an effort to reveal the nuances of Iranian culture, Majd tours the country, offering explanations of mores and a rare glimpse inside the Iranian political system. In one anecdote, he meets with Ahmadinejad's top media adviser to inquire about the wisdom of the infamous 2006 conference questioning the Holocaust; he is met with a blank stare. Even Majd's fashion savvy figures into this thorough analysis: President Ahmadinejad's "bad suits" and signature windbreaker, Majd comments, "signal to the working class that he is still one of them."

Firoozeh Dumas left Iran when she was 7, but it hasn't left her. In "Laughing Without an Accent," a follow-up to her 2003 memoir, "Funny in Farsi," Dumas once again mines her childhood and home country for material. She writes in an endearingly casual style, and though her subjects are more personal than political, among her targets is the Iranian censor who altered the translation of her first book. (Dumas was forbidden to say that in the next life she wanted to be Swedish. "In Islam, the censor said, there is no next life.") Dumas is at her best when reminiscing about her early years in Tehran and riffing on the difficulties of being Iranian in America, particularly in the late 1970s. But the essays in this collection are hit or miss; Dumas's observations about motherhood and family life are less interesting than her commentary on the immigrant experience.

Also of Interest

-- When he talks about running, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami isn't really talking about running. Otherwise, why call his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Vintage, $14)? Murakami structures his book on a journal he kept while preparing for the New York City marathon, tracking his miles along with his thoughts about writing, endurance, solitude and, yes, what it all has to do with running.

-- Barney Ross rose from the streets of Chicago in the 1920s and '30s to become a boxing champion and something of a Jewish folk hero. Along the way, he is said to have rubbed shoulders with the likes of Al Capone and Jack Ruby. In Barney Ross (Nextbook, $12.95), Douglas Century sorts through the truths and myths of the prizefighter known as "The Pride of the Ghetto."

From Our Previous Reviews

-- In The Black Hole War (Back Bay, $15.99), Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind recounts his battle with Stephen Hawking over the question of what happens to matter when it falls into a black hole. James Trefil called this math-geek drama and primer in astrophysics "both readable and easy to understand."

-- Set in the "dark woods of 19th-century New England," Hannah Tinti's novel The Good Thief (Dial, $15) "follows a bright, one-handed orphan through enough harrowing scrapes and turns to satisfy your inner Dickens," Ron Charles wrote.

-- Reeve Lindbergh's Forward From Here (Simon & Schuster, $14), an essay collection Judith Viorst called "a winsome meditation" on life after 60, offers insights on experiences universal (the challenges of motherhood) and particular (the discovery that her father, Charles Lindbergh, had three secret families.

-- Waiter Rant (Ecco, $14.99), Steve Dublanica's tell-all about life as a New York waiter "is as delightful as it is irreverent," Jonathan Yardley wrote.

-- By the end of World War II, there were only about a dozen Akita dogs left in Japan (their pelts were used to line soldiers' coats); Morie Sawataishi owned two of them. In Dog Man (Riverhead, $16), a book Pico Iyer described as "spellbindingly beautiful," Martha Sherrill tells the story of how Sawataishi helped save the animal from extinction.

-- Delving "deeply into the world of migrant workers in China, Leslie T. Chang provides an insightful look at the new China in Factory Girls (Spiegel & Grau, $16), according to Seth Faison.

Krug is The Post's monthly paperback columnist.


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