Television: A Biography
By David Thomson. (Thomas & Hudson, 412 pages, $34.95.)
David Thomson is one of film's more thoughtful critics. He's also a crank. Scan his witty, withering put-downs in "The Biographical Dictionary of Film" — a must for cinephiles who don't mind their idols being taken down a peg — and you'll swear he's the protagonist in "A Clockwork Orange," his eyes forced open to endure the schlock on the screen.
Thomson is a bit more forgiving in "Television: A Biography," an ambitious survey that celebrates everything from Donna Reed to "Breaking Bad," but there are moments where you wonder if he'd rather be scrubbing toilets then sitting in front of the tube.
Despite his occasional pouts — is the original "Roots" really such a chore to re-watch? — the British author presents readers with one clever observation after another. You'll never watch the Ricardos the same way after reading his argument that "I Love Lucy" could have just as easily been called "I Can't Stand Her." His description of Johnny Carson as a man somewhere between a ghost and an angel is spot on.
And for those who think the 75-year-old writer will just be pining for the good ol' days, he leaves ample space to break down Felicity Huffman's multilayered performance in ABC's "American Crime" and give props to "Friends," although with more than a hint of harrumph.
Thomson may not be the most enthusiastic consumer, but he's among our most thought-provoking, which makes this dense but highly readable collection of essays a sturdy companion to your yellowing back copies of TV Guide.
The Girl Who Escaped ISIS
By Farida Khalaf and Andrea Hoffmann, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. (Atria Books, 240 pages, $24.)
Amid the endless war news streaming out of Syria, the need for moral clarity in the conflict is running high.
Farida Khalaf's story offers it explicitly. Khalaf was a math whiz and a soldier's daughter who was 19 years old when she was captured and sold into sexual slavery by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014.
Her first-person account, narrated in "The Girl Who Escaped ISIS" and written with German journalist Andrea C. Hoffmann, is a searing portrayal of the brutality facing people targeted by ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq.
Khalaf is a member of the Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq, whose practices are viewed by ISIS as "devil worship." Because of this belief, ISIS doctrine allows Yazidi children and teens like Khalaf to be kidnapped and sold at auction.
Khalaf recounts shocking wartime violence against a group of Yazidi girls who are routinely beaten and forced to convert to Islam by soldiers who sometimes pray before raping them. The abuse against Khalaf is especially savage because of her repeated escape attempts; at one point she is sold for $50 after injuries from a previous owner leave her too damaged to "function" sexually for the next one.
The book's plot is conveyed in its title, but there are cruel surprises in store, like the financial motives of the underground railroad for ISIS escapees, and the alienation imposed on survivors by their peers in refugee camps.
Though she attempts suicide, Khalaf eventually decides to escape and "bear witness," making her account read as an explicit call to action. She repeatedly imagines American troops coming to her rescue. Her leadership earns her the nickname "Barack Obama" from her fellow captives, and it's easy to imagine her hope that her namesake would take the time to read this account.