Currently Reading and Recently Read

Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie

I. Love. This. Book. LOVE LOVE LOVE. I've read it at least six times, and it's only been out for two years. And I didn't even get it as soon as it came out...I think. Not really sure, but either way, it is AWESOME. Scare-the-cat-laughing-out-loud funny, toe-curlingly romantic (but never soppy) and sexy, and always, always intelligent. I could analyze it as a post-Postmodern reclamation of the Cinderella story -- and it is, and it would hold up under that kind of scrutiny -- but more importantly to me it's a damn fun book, and the epitome of a comfort read. Rock On, Crusie.


The Partly Cloudy Patriot, by Sarah Vowell

I just wished this book could have gone on -- I really enjoy reading Sarah Vowell's essays. I also liked her collection Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World (also essays, not short stories as the title might imply), but Patriot is the better book. It's more consistent -- and consistently better -- in tone and quality while managing to cover a hell of wide range of topics. I don't share Vowell's love for [morbid] American History or city life, but I could (and...have) read what she has to say about them all day.


The Corpse Wore a Familiar Face, by Edna Buchanan

Not at all my usual sort of reading material, but damn this was a good book. Totally confirms Carl Hiassen's picture of Miami and southern Florida, too, batshit-crazy ex-governors notwithstanding. I should have known it would be worth reading: Florence King cited it in her essay "The Graves of Academe" (see Lump It or Leave It) as both an excellent book and proof that "good writer" is not synonymous with "college-educated." As usual, right on both counts.


Of Love and Other Demons, by Gabriel García Márquez

These Old Shades, by Georgette Heyer

Cetaganda, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Once More* with Footnotes, by Terry Pratchett

Black Sheep, by Georgette Heyer

A Damsel in Distress, by P.G. Wodehouse

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

A Civil Campaign, by Lois McMaster Bujold



The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier

I was a little apprehensive about reading this book -- if you look at the customer reviews at Amazon you'll see why. The concept seemed awesome, but there were conflicting reports about the execution. So...would it be awesome? Or would it be another great idea ruined by association with mediocrity? (See A Day Without a Mexican for one example of that.)

I needn't have worried: it's awesome. In fact, I stayed up until 3 a.m. last night finishing it, a fact I would regret more if I weren't so happy I'd read it. As promised, the chapters alternate between describing existence in The City, where the Dead But Not Gone continue to experience something an awful lot like life, and Laura Byrd's struggle for survival in Antarctica after a bio-engineered plague has made her possibly the last person on Earth. I suppose the book could be considered half metaphysical thought-experiment, half adventure narrative, but that would be somewhat misleading: Laura's two (epic, yes) journeys alone across the Antarctic ice are described in riveting detail, but that portion of the book is really much more about what goes on in her head as she realizes what's happened and what she has to do in order to have a chance at survival. I was afraid that it would turn into one of those gruesome survival stories that details every brutal test of endurance(™) and frostbitten extremity in excruciating detail, but it didn't: while Laura does have to undergo those sorts of hardships, this is not a suspense novel.

Laura's growing understanding of what has happened is mirrored in the City, where the earthly plague has precipitated a vast influx of people. Residents of the City usually stay there for about sixty years and then vanish, but these latest arrivals disappear almost immediately, and many longtime City-dwellers (heh) have also gone . Those who are left speculate that they remain in the City only so long as somone on Earth remembers them; the introduction of a virus that leaves no survivors on Earth means that the number of people in the City must continue to plummet. Eventually only a few thousand of the millions or billions who once inhabited the City remain; many of them realize that their only common link is Laura Byrd. While Laura is alive they go on in the City, where they don't age but nevertheless can change: as we are introduced to several characters there we see some of them find a new love or rediscover an old one, reflect on their past or begin to forget it, cling to their familiar activities or seek out new interests. When Laura dies, the City itself may cease to exist.

Satisfyingly enough, the Antarctica and the City portions of Brief History... are equally readable and compelling. Brockmeier's writing is thoughtful and somewhat lyrical, but not so much that it overpowers the stories or intrudes on you as you read. Laura's memories and the reminiscences of the dead can meander or digress; I actually found this fairly charming, and liked seeing how they would intertwine and reflect off of each other. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and while I wouldn't call it a potential classic I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for an absorbing and thought-provoking story.


The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I was inspired to look into this book by Christopher Hitchens's excellent article for Slate Magazine on May 8th, and I'm glad I did. Hirsi Ali is certainly controversial -- and how -- but she makes a strong case for views that quite a few people will find unpalatable.

By birth a Somalian Muslim, Hirsi Ali is now an atheist and lives in the West. She was a citizen of Denmark and a member of the Danish Parliament until a few days ago, but according to the latest information I've read about her her citizenship has been revoked and she is coming to the U.S. (to work at a conservative think tank, no less). She argues that Islam, by emphasizing the necessity of submitting oneself entirely to Allah, fosters a sense of fatalism and lethargy in Muslims that is at the root of not only that group's socio-economic development problems but also its tendency to produce people inclined to violent fanaticism. Hirsi Ali is also deeply concerned with the situation of women within Islam; she (rightly, in my opinion) argues that tribal customs that have no religious basis have been incorporated as almost articles of the faith and are keeping some half the world's Muslim population in a state of ignorance and subjugation. She cogently points out that a people cannot advance and develop while their women are held down. In addition to robbing the group of half of its intelligence, energy, and talent, in such a society women are usually responsible for the children, and keeping the persons responsible for basic childcare ignorant and frequently superstitious is an entirely effective way to retard an entire community's progress.
Hirsi Ali also takes aim at people in the West who have an idealized vision of Islam. She has no patience with those who will repeat that it is a religion of peace and then ignore the atrocities done in its name because "that's not the real Islam." I tended to look at it that way myself -- the "this religion, which is as valid as any other religion, has been hijacked by extremists who do not represent the majority of its practitioners" stance. It's a beguiling and comforting idea, but I may have to give it up entirely in the face of her arguments. (Standard Disclaimer: No, I am not saying that all Muslims are violently inclined fundamentalist radicals. I am saying that Hirsi Ali's argument that Islam encourages its adherents to blame other people -- specifically, non-Muslims -- for their problems is compelling, and that this is a better explanation for the rise in Islamist thought and action than the idea that "they're just some bad eggs.") She states bluntly that the group-welfare-over-individual-rights mentality of most Muslim communities is in direct conflict with the ideals of the Enlightenment which underpin modern Western society, and that those who prize diversity should not do so at the expense of the individuals in those communities. And she is right. No pleasure taken in multicultural influences or warm fuzzy feelings inside because how many different groups we can see are worth the price of women being beaten and killed for "honor," children remaining uneducated for "religious purity," men being unable to advance at work because they've been inculcated with religious fatalism, and an entire "community" foundering in medieval ignorance, brutality, and sloth.
Hirsi Ali points out that Muslim communities in Europe and Muslim countries in the world are lagging behind in education, the sciences, culture (contributions to the arts, books, music, etc.), general health, and, where no oil is present, economic growth. Emancipation from squalor comes with emancipation from ignorance (as any student of history knows), and where ignorance is traditional she argues that tradition should be overhauled for the general good. To deny this on the basis of multiculturalism -- which too often comes down to "but they look so picturesque all different like that, and aren't we cosmopolitan!" -- is to commit the unforgivable sin of dismissal by means of patronizing contempt. To wit: "Of course women should be elected to national office. Congress needs some civilizing influences." "We can't expect blacks to do as well as whites and asians on standardized tests -- they just have too much Soul for those rigid formats. We should place more emphasis on "unstructured" "creative" types of things than academics for them -- look how they excel at sports and dance!" "But it would be culturally insensitive to insist that Muslim girls finish secondary school -- after all, tradition is the basis of their group identity." To refrain from having high expectations for a person or a group because of their "cultural context" or "natural gifts" is to declare them inherently inferior to oneself.
Throughout this...well, let's call it a rant...I have used "Western" as shorthand for "ideologically opposed to traditional Muslim thought." I have done so deliberately because of the point Hirsi Ali makes about the individualistic bases of current European and American society, but I am also intrigued by the comparison of Hirsi Ali's statements to the speech I heard by Amartya Sen a few weeks ago at my sister's graduation. I understood Sen to be arguing that the division of the world into Muslim and Western camps, and the perception of these as being necessarily in opposition to one another, can only add fuel to Muslim fundamentalist violence and anti-American/Western feeling. He urged that we not think of identity as an exclusive category, but that we consider how we all have multiple coexisting identities, and that we encourage the idea that participation in Western life is not inimical to Muslim faith.
I found Sen's points to be as persuasive at that time as I later found Hirsi Ali's to be. Am I hopelessly indecisive, in that I can agree with two such divergent assessments of the major issue facing American society right now? (And it is the most important cultural, philosophical, and ideological conundrum we must deal with: how do we go on and go forward from where we are now, in the world we now inhabit? How do we fix what is wrong and prevent further wrongs? Not new questions at all, but we cannot answer them at this point without addressing the question of religious-based terrorism.) I think not: my exposure to Sen's work and opinions is just that one speech, but I think he and Hirsi Ali are making the same point with quite different language. She wants to reform Islam so that it is possible for Muslims to adopt Western ideas about individual rights and responsibilities without losing their faith; he wants Muslim as well as non-Muslim people to see that Muslim and "Western" are not mutually exclusive categories. Both (seem to -- I'll have to read more of Sen's work) have good ideas about how to accomplish this; I would say theirs are efforts worth supporting.
To get back to Hirsi Ali's book, The Caged Virgin is a thoughtful, provocative, well-argued collection (it includes several speeches and the script of her film as well as the main, several-chapter essay) that should not be ignored or dismissed. The questions and issues she raises are as vital as her straightforward and to the point style is refreshing, and as sorry as I am that she has been ejected from her home in Denmark, I am nevertheless very glad that she has come to the United States.

5/21/06, 6/12/06

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

Okay, now I don't hate Hemingway any more.

Beautiful, just beautiful. Everything about it seems perfectly crafted; everything from the ocean descriptions to the characters to the themes continued to resonate long after I put down the book down. This just catapulted onto my Top 50 Ever list.


Komarr, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I've lost track of how many times I've read this, but it never pales. It's so satisfying to read a "space adventure" story that doesn't stint the emotional development of the characters, and the ethical as well as physical consequences of the "action." Bujold never delivers anything less, though, and I love, love, love her books for it.


Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson

Ah, the '30s...


Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby

So, is it odd that I'm reading this now because A) I've read several of Hornby's other books before and loved them (mostly), so why wait until now to read this one, or B) I hate sports in general, and frequently sports fans as well, so why would I read a book about being a [British] football fan? I'm not sure -- but I will say that I readFever Pitch in one sitting (from 6:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday night, to be precise), and neither the "sport"ness nor the "fan"ness bothered me at all. It may just be that I'm a sucker for wry self-analysis in any form.
It's almost like a blog-book from before there were blogs: it's arranged as a series of entries (or brief thematically-connected essays) going through his life as a football fan chronologically according to match. Not every match, of course, but my point here is that it isn't one long continuous narrative, or broken into chapters by theme. It works well, since the book is about his life as a fan, not the team itself or fandom in general.
Prior to reading this, the only things I knew about British football were what I'd learned from watching Bend It Like Beckham (love!), so, as a warning to the similarly uninitiated: there is no Beckham in this book. It was published in 1991, I think, and that must pre-date Beckham's pro career by quite a bit. (What do I know? I'm not looking up Beckham's stats, though, and 1991 is 15 years ago, god help us all.)

Anyway, it's a good book -- and now I know something about football (soccer, whatever).


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