S.L. Allen
October 31, 2003 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Afghan bookseller of the title considers himself a martyr to the cause of saving his country’s literary heritage. He’s even had jail sentences under both the Russians and the Taliban. In this compact book, a best-seller overseas, he’s also portrayed as a patriarch who destroys his children’s lives for personal gain. His sons permanently forgo school to tend his shop, while one of his sisters becomes a virtual slave. (He’s since threatened to sue the author, a Norwegian journalist who lived with the family just after 2001’s U.S. invasion.) Regardless of the controversy, ”Bookseller” offers an unusually intimate glimpse of a traditional Afghan family. And in describing brothers who suffocate their own sister for an illicit affair and villages that ”rear up in the landscape like skeletons,” Seierstad imbues a grim story with language of desolate beauty.

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