Wednesday, May 30, 2007

I have pages and pages of quotes from No god But God: The origins, evolution, and future of Islam by Reza Aslan, which covers exactly what the subtitle says in a scholarly but immensely readable fashion. His is a decidedly modern, progressive viewpoint, arguing that "religion, it must be understood, is not faith. Religion is the story of faith." And that "all religions are inextricably bound to the social, spiritual, and cultural milieux from which they arose and in which they developed." He then proceeds to describe the pre-Islamic society, Muhammad's innovations and revelations, and how the religion developed and evolved from that beginning, including its problematic relationship with women.

Much like Christianity, "the fact is that for fourteen centuries, the science of Quranic commentary has been the exclusive domain of Muslim men. And because each one of these exegetes inevitably brings to the Quran his own ideology and his own preconceived notions, it should not be surprising to learn that certain verses have most often been read in their most misogynist interpretation." That reminded me of a religion professor I had in college who admitted up front that the New Testament had a problem with women. I was a little shocked to hear him say it, but it made the class much more interesting because we delved into the origins of the words and how the meanings evolved over time due to cultural assumptions and mistranslation. In Islam, of course, this also applies to the veil or hijab which Aslan traces back to its original roots. "Although long seen as the most distinctive emblem of Islam, the veil is, surprisingly, not enjoined upon Muslim women anywhere in the Quran. The tradition of veiling and seclusion... was introduced into Arabia long before Muhammad, primarily through Arab contacts with Syria and Iran, where the hijab was a sign of social status. After all, only a woman who need not work in the fields could afford to remain secluded and veiled." The particular verse in the Quran used to justify the practice he explains, "was addressed not to women in general, but exclusively to Muhammad's wives." He goes on to detail the reasons why that was and continues, "That the veil applied solely to Muhammad's wives is further demonstrated by the fact that the term for donning the veil, darabat al-hujab, was used synonymously and interchangeable with 'becoming Muhammad's wife.'" He speculates "Muslim women probably began wearing the veil as a way to emulate the Prophet's wives, who were revered... but the veil was neither compulsory nor, for that matter, widely adopted until generations after Muhammad's death, when a large body of male scriptural and legal scholars began using their religious and political authority to regain the dominance they had lost in society as a result of the Prophet's egalitarian reforms." I was aware wearing the veil isn't compulsory, but didn't know the particulars of the history, so this section was particularly interesting to me.

The majority of the book concerns the history of Islam and covers the development of the three major schools of thought, explaining clearly how they split, why they differ, the doctrinal justifications for each, and also touches on others that have had lasting significance, notably the modern radical fundamentalism which gave rise to Al-Queda and the Taliban. Of those he remarks, "... Saudi Arabia quickly discovered what the rest of the world would soon learn. Fundamentalism, in all religious traditions, is impervious to suppression. The more one tries to squelch it, the stronger it becomes. Counter it with cruelty, and it gains adherents. Kill its leaders, and they become martyrs. Respond with despotism, and it becomes the sole voice of opposition. Try to control it, and it will turn against you. Try to appease it, and it will take control." Which I think is a rather marvelous, if worrying, summation of the fundamentalist mindset in any religion. Despite recent events he's optimistic about the future of Islam, insisting that "what is taking place now in the Muslim world is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West. The West is merely a bystander - an unwary yet complicit casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story." And he compares this struggle to the fifteen "vicious, bloody, and occasionally apocalyptic" centuries of evolution of Christianity, from inception to Reformation saying, "Islam has finally begun its fifteenth century." This leads him to discussing the futility of forcing our version of democracy on the countries of the Middle East, insisting that much like how our framework for democracy was Christianity, theirs must be Islam. "A democratic state can be established upon any normative moral framework as long as pluralism remains the source of its legitimacy." He points to Iran as struggling toward this emerging model of democracy and advocates a hands-off policy so they can complete the transformation. Let's hope he's right and that we haven't screwed things up beyond repair.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I finished The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall yesterday. It caught my eye because it starts with a man waking up with no memory of who he is. He finds a note from himself (signed "The First Eric Sanderson") telling him he needs to call his doctor, who tells him he is suffering from a dissociative disorder stemming from the traumatic loss of his girlfriend. But things take a turn for the seriously weird as letters start arriving from himself and he's attacked by an unseen enemy. While I enjoyed the book for the most part, as it devolved into a retelling of the movie Jaws, I became more ambivalent about it. It reminded me a lot of mid-to-late Melissa Scott by way of Jasper Fforde, but I think either of those two authors would have done more with the premise. And the more I think about it, the more I suspect it could have been as affecting and exhilarating as The People Of Paper, but it just didn't go far enough. I did have fun with it though and liked it, just not as much as I wanted to.


Monday, May 14, 2007

It feels like I haven't spent a weekend doing nothing but reading for a long time. It was nice, despite discovering my grand plan of lounging by the pool Sunday afternoon wasn't going to work because our lone deck chair was seriously dirty and possibly broken, so I enjoyed my lunch on the patio bench instead and then went back inside to resume my position on the couch. So Saturday I read The Woods by Harlan Coben, which I described to Daisy as "a very Harlan Coben-like book." It was, too. There was the believed-to-be dead relative who might not actually be dead, secrets, lies, plot twists galore, etc. The problem was it was a little too Harlan Coben-like. The twists and turns were a little less shocking and even predictable - when they happened instead of being amazed and excited, my reaction was more of a "oh, yeah, I thought that might be the case." That's not to say I didn't enjoy it - I did - but it was definitely one of his weaker efforts.

Sunday was spent with The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, which was obviously very influenced by du Maurier and the Brontes. Daisy loaned it to me and I can see why she loved it, but my response wasn't quite as enthusiastic as hers. I definitely enjoyed it, but there were things I can't quite put my finger on that irritated me and prevented me from whole-heartedly embracing it. Was it the repetition? Margaret's constant longing for her sister got a little old. Or Hester's diary - it merely presented the same facts we'd already learned earlier from a different point of view but didn't shed any additional light on the story, so why was it presented as a big deal? I just didn't connect with it on a deeper level which, I'll agree, is odd given the setting, subject matter, references, etc.

Last week I read Murder In The Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, and the redemption of a killer by Paul Bass and Douglas W. Rae. It follows the murder of Alex Rackley by fellow members of the Black Panthers who suspected he was an informant, their trials, and the life of Warren Kimbro, one of the gunmen in the case, as he turned his life around. The book attempts to clarify the facts of the case and clear away all the misinformation that has built up around it over the years and explains how the case exemplified the nation-wide recoil away from genuine social change by manipulating and using the Black Panthers to scare the middle class. The government successfully redefined liberalism as "a code word for cowardice in the face of demands by the black and the unwashed. To Nixon and his 'silent majority,' courage came to mean 'standing up' to black demands." It's easy to see the seeds sown then are still bearing fruit today: "Nixon... represented an ascending white middle-class and, eventually, working-class Republicanism. Spiro Agnew represented the self-seeking - eventually criminal - side of this invasion. They both played on hostility to elites. They echoed the idea that the Ivy League snobs, the liberal judges, egghead intellectuals, and scruffy upper-class rabble-rousers threatened America by weakening the nation's military resolve in Vietnam or by supporting upstart blacks who could steal white jobs, move into white neighborhoods and schools." Replace "Vietnam" with "Iraq" and "blacks" with "illegal immigrants" and it's just as relevant to our current political climate. Meanwhile, it's also a riveting account of a high profile trial and the surrounding media circus and a touching portrait of Kimbro, who has spent his life helping his community and trying to make up for what he did.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Last week I read Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, a collection of short stories linked by a shared narrator and his drug-fueled experiences. I can't say it's my favorite book of short stories, but there are moments and scenes that still occupy my thoughts and the writing was often beautiful ("The women were blank, shining areas with photographs of sad girls floating in them"). I suspect I'll come back to this one later.


Monday, May 07, 2007

I have been somewhat reluctant to write about How Sassy Changed My Life: A love letter to the greatest teen magazine of all time by Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer because while I loved Sassy, I came to it late and never fully connected with it before it was gone. I didn't subscribe until after I'd graduated from high school and left home because I wasn't allowed to. Wait, I take that back because I never specifically asked for a subscription, but I knew the answer would most likely be no if I had because my mom had made her dislike of teen magazines perfectly clear by the time I hit junior high ("waste of money" - which obviously didn't stop me from sneaking off to buy Tiger Beat with my babysitting money when I could). The fact that Sassy was different from all those other magazines (read: more liberal) would have just been even more reason for her to say no. So I have only a few memories of the late, great Sassy, most of which involve me feeling helplessly uncool when faced with its DIY indie culture (something I was glad to see the authors acknowledge). This book outlined the rise of the magazine, what made it so successful (which was a surprise to me as I'd always assumed it wasn't), and what brought it down. But more importantly it dug deep into just why it was necessary, how quickly and intensely its readers connected with it, and how it pretty much single-handedly influenced the rest of the teen lifestyle magazines and dragged them into the modern age. I enjoyed being reminded of some articles I'd forgotten, and some I hadn't, even after all this time. I remembered again how mad I was when all of a sudden I started getting Teen in the mail. Or how I eagerly subscribed to Jane, hoping it would be everything and more I missed from Sassy, only to find that was so not the case. And I loved how they made the case that Lucky is the true successor to Sassy, because I've always secretly kinda thought that myself.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Revolution Will Be Accessorized edited by Aaron Hicklin is a compilation of essays that originally appeared in BlackBook magazine, which I occasionally read. These aren't long in-depth interviews or powerful essays for the most part and it's a bit of a mixed bag with some I enjoyed, some I thought were just okay, and some I didn't care for at all (namely Toby Young's piece, which just further reinforced the violently unfavorable opinion of him I developed from reading all of 10 pages of his book). There were a couple of things that struck me from two of the interviews that I want to mention though.

The first was in an interview with Joan Didion when, in response to a question asking if the written word has been devalued since she began her career, she answered, "I think specifically novels because people don't understand unreliable narrators, for example; they believe that anything the narrators of a novel tells them is supposed to be the truth. They read a novel as if they were reading nonfiction. They literally do not seem to grasp the difference. And even if they know that one is fiction and one is not, they don't know it at a level where it allows them to not trust a character - they will turn against that character rather than simply think, 'This is an interesting, untrustworthy character.'" This obviously amused me because I loves me some unreliable narrators and I have several friends who do as well. I guess I see her point though, because looking at the bestseller lists doesn't usually engender confidence in the general public's ability to recognize shades of gray, and in my view great art is rarely found in black and white because there's no breathing room there, no space for interpretation.

Speaking of art, the second quote I wanted to mention was in an interview with Damien Hirst (conducted shortly after the fire that took out a lot of his works) when he made the statement that he'd, "always believed that art's more powerful and important than money, but it gets fucking close sometimes, and you just have to stay open to the fact that if you decide money's more important you have to stop doing it." I really love that. It encapsulates exactly what I always feel is the point at which you can see a band or a movie or a TV show fail - that moment when artistry falls before commerce.


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