Somerville, MA, United States | Member Since 2005
Majd, an Iranian-born, American-raised journalist who returned the country of his birth several times during the last decade, is intent on providing a tour of modern Iran that cautions against any simplistic understanding of a multi-layered country and its people. Though the demonstrations of 2009 showed obvious discontent with the Islamic regime, that, according to Majd, shouldn???t be read as a sign of impending rebellion. Many Iranians, particularly the working class, are proud of their nation???s Islamic roots, and the system still enjoys a popular base of support.
Majd also attempts to explain quirks of Iranian culture and attitude that often elude Westerners. He argues that there are strong traditions of rights (if not exactly ???freedoms???, in the liberal, secular Western sense) and self-effacing politeness (which means that Iranians are often far more reasonable and less extreme in person than they might be in a faceless crowd). Both these factors create a society, as he sees it, in which people act one way in public, but feel free to express themselves as they like in private, a realm that the regime is careful not to intrude too far into.
Most of this understanding is revealed in pieces as Majd travels the country and meets Iranians from different walks of life, from cab drivers to politicians to mullahs to conservative religious families to liberal intellectuals to the chic Tehranian elite. We learn, for example, that some Iranians look with contempt on the low-class style and dubious diplomatic skills of their president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while others admire him as a man from the streets who stands up to the West. Some question the need for religious strictures in public life (while being careful not to criticize Islam itself), while others find intense emotional outpouring in passion plays about the Shi'a saint, Hussein ibn Ali. They admire many things about the West, but distrust it for its past political interference. Like Americans, Iranians don???t always agree with each other, but they certainly do agree on being a people who can run their own affairs and have earned the right, through years of hardship and war, not to be told when to jump and how far by outsiders (a similarity in popular attitude to the US which, ironically, seems to fuel the ???nuclear energy??? head-butting with Washington). Generally, I found Majd to be skilled at turning his experiences into engaging, revealing anecdotes, though the larger narrative is a bit wandering.
That said, I thought that the author had some obvious biases. While he???s not uncritical of the ruling regime, he???s certainly not highly critical of it, either, and seems optimistic that the government is moving in the right direction on its own. As one of his friends puts it late in the book, ???your breath is coming from a warm place???. Meaning, of course, that someone who enjoys the freedoms and privileges of America is hardly someone to put aside the criticisms of Iranian dissidents and dissenters. Then again, that line kind of proves Majd???s thesis: Iran is too complex of a country to be easily summed up by anyone -- including himself. Will an "Islamic democracy" movement, guided from within the system itself, really bear fruit? I can't say, but Majd makes it seem plausible.
All in all, a good ???beginners guide??? to Iran, but perhaps not the guide to end one???s education with.
I enjoyed Jon Ronson’s 2011 foray into the world of psychopaths and special interest groups out to protect or demonize them, and this seemed like a good book of his to read next. Though published in 2001, just before 9/11 and the Bush and Obama presidencies drove conspiracy theory and anti-government groups to new levels of hysteria, it’s an enlightening window into how fringe groups form around certain rallying ideas and code words.
As advertised, Ronson discovers that Islamic extremists in Britain, anti-government paranoids in the US, racist groups, anti-Catholic groups, and a man who claims that the world is ruled by secret alien lizard people all have something in common: fear that a shadowy cabal of bankers, businessmen, media elites, and politicians is scheming to impose some sort of Orwellian New World Order. In their own minds, these extremists are fighting a resistance against those who would turn them into, to use a well-worn internetism, weak and helpless “sheeple”.
As in the Psychopath Test, Ronson carefully humors his subjects and lets them express themselves in their own words, which sometimes veer towards the Monty Python-esque. Hard not to find the bumbling Islamic activist, Omar Bakri Muhammad, somewhat ridiculous, as he makes over-the-top pronouncements, then furiously backpedals towards a more genial facade whenever challenged. Same with KKK leader, Thomas Robb, who is trying to rebrand his organization with a more friendly image after being inspired by some leadership books from the self-help section. Ronson’s own self-deprecating wit is also amusing, if a little distracting at times.
Other people Ronson spends time with, though, seem like they might have a point, such as the survivors of the infamous Ruby Ridge Incident, in which the feds seemingly came down on a misunderstood survivalist family in Idaho with excessive force. His investigations into the claims of anti-Zionist groups raises a question: are Jewish film moguls really just acting out their own insecurities about being Jews in Hollywood... and giving some people the wrong idea? And when Ronson joins Alex Jones (of Infowars fame) and several others in investigating the Bilderberg Group, a publicity-shunning private conference of political, business, and academic elites, it’s somewhat unclear where paranoia ends and dull reality begins. Is a bacchanalian gathering in the woods of Northern California about rich old men celebrating dark, perverse rites of power, or just harmless, fraternity-like fun? Is it scarier to think that these people might indeed have a lot of influence over the world’s affairs... or that they don’t?
Ultimately, this might be a little too light-hearted of a book on extremism -- Ronson, not surprisingly, doesn’t spend much time in the company of the most hateful or militant types of groups, such as neo-Nazis, so his character studies tend more towards crackpots and self-promoters. And this *is* a pre-9/11 book. Still the character studies are interesting.
Audiobooks narrated by their own authors are a mixed bag, but Ronson’s pleading voice adds a lot to the funnier parts, like when he talks about trying to “tone down” his Jewishness.
Though not a long book, All Quiet on the Western Front is the prototype for nearly every modern novel about going to war. Young men with their heads crammed full of patriotism and dreams of glory volunteer for the army. There is a strenuous boot camp with a martinet drill instructor. Then the horror and carnage of battle, which often amounts to hunkering down and hoping not to be hit by shells fired by a far-off enemy, while nearby comrades are randomly cut down by shrapnel, explosive, bullets, and poison gas, sometimes to die hideous, lingering deaths.
The story is told through the eyes of Paul Bäumer, an everyman character whom Remarque never defines in much depth -- though part of this is the conceit that Paul, at 19, sees himself as a person who was unformed before war claimed him. The novel, written in the immediate tense, reads more as a series of fragmentary scenes and impressions than an ordered narrative, which might put off some readers, but I think this adds to its effectiveness. Over the course of the novel, Paul and his companions experience all the usual responses to modern war. There's horror, disillusionment, shell shock, and alienation from the civilian world, with its self-satisfied values and artificial lives. To Paul, the ability to care about the things that his student self once cared about is lost, the only meaning now in small, primal acts of life and in his comrades-in-arms.
The prose is haunted by bleakness and despair, though there are some scenes that are quite beautiful in their melancholy humanity, such as Paul's visit to a camp of Russian POWs, or of his regrets after being trapped in a shell hole for a few hours with a dying enemy soldier, who, now disarmed, is little different from himself. There are a few moments of levity, such a scene where a pompous teacher gets his just desserts, but they're few. For their part, the sequences set in the trenches are rich in images of dull, hellish squalor, such as passing time by killing ever-present corpse-fed rats, or the cries of a wounded man slowly dying somewhere out in No Man's Land. Yes, no surprise that the Nazis banned this one for "defeatism" (and got to relive it all at Stalingrad).
Though the specific causes of World War One are now buried in the dustbin of history, the reader doesn't need to be familiar with them to grasp the essential themes. All Quiet on the Western Front still maintains its timeless message of youth pointlessly squandered by the impenetrable stupidity of politics. When Paul's companions discuss the reasons they've been sent to fight and die, they can only observe that they never had anything against the French, nor the average French soldier against Germany, but, as always, the few people who make and benefit from policy aren't the ones deemed young and physically fit enough to die for it. While no 21st century generation is likely to experience the kind of wholesale meat-grinder warfare that could wipe out thirty thousand lives in one battle, we shouldn't forget the naivete that led to it, or the callousness it inflicted. These are aspects of modernity that have hardly left the world, even a century later.
Audiobook narrator Frank Muller gives a restrained but haunted reading that fits the spirit of the text well.
Fillory, the magical land in this series, is a flagrant riff on CS Lewis's Narnia. In Lewis's classic children's books, the young protagonists entered the world through a magic portal, had adventures, and got into trouble, but had Aslan the lion (and Christ figure) to set them on the right path again. Here, though, the heroes aren't children, but jaded young adults, and the gods are a lot more fallible. And magic is dangerous.
In the hands of other writers, such a premise might not have gone beyond parody, but Grossman's marvelous mix of creativity, snark, grimness, and squirmy truth shows that he had more serious things in mind. His story might be a metaphor for the messy process of growing up, for reaching that age where you've outgrown childish things, but haven't fully abandoned them. It’s when you find out that the world doesn't always answer your dreams with wish fulfillment, but with sharp edges. So it happens with the mopey, self-absorbed Quentin Coldwater and his disaffected friends, who, after learning magic at a special university that recruits the smartest misfits, manage to open a gateway to Fillory, which they become rulers of after removing a monster. Though not without death and suffering, and not without quite a bit of angst.
In this novel, the nearly-thirty Quentin, who was banished from Fillory at the end of the last book, returns to Earth, while his friends continue on as rulers of the magic land or go on other missions (in the case of Julia, the hedge witch now turned demigod). There, he takes up a post as a professor at Brakebills, until something/someone from his past comes back to haunt him. Along with a new character named Plum, who has her own secret, he joins a team of renegade magicians to carry out a mission for a talking bird, who wishes them to recover a lost suitcase. This suitcase, well-guarded and kept closed by powerful magic, once belonged to one of the Chatwin children.
If this is meant to be the last adventure in the Magicians universe, it finds its way to a somewhat expected, but not unsatisfying conclusion. Yes, Quentin finally matures and embraces being an adult, and his friends have their own growth. The plot is a little more rushed than previous entries, as Grossman works his way towards tying up all the loose ends, sometimes at the expense of spending enough time with his more interesting or likable characters or fully addressing some of the series' outstanding questions (who’s behind the Neitherlands?).
Still, he has talent as a writer, which stands out in more than a few moments. I especially liked a journal sequence that reveals, with fitting Britishness, more about the relationship between the Chatwins and Fillory. As in the previous books, there's plenty of snarky humor, with irreverent young adults talking back to monsters and one another, but Grossman can also do emotional honesty, existential doubt, and genuine wonder. There's poignancy to a few scenes, such as Quentin's emotional response to his father's death, or a surprisingly beautiful scene in which one world comes to an end and another is born. A creative duel between Quentin and a ghostly being has an otherworldly creepiness to it, as well as an extra layer of emotional tension.
Overall, I think that readers who enjoyed books one and two will like this one, even if it lacks many surprises in overall plot arc or character development. Grossman has created a world whose biting twists on traditional fantasy are as much of a pleasure to explore as the original thing was when we were kids. These books ain't for kids, and that's okay by me. Audiobook narrator for the series, Mark Bramhall, brings his usual droll style, though I felt he gave a little less personality to some of the characters than before.
Gone Girl is 2012's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, that gritty suspense thriller that everyone and their mother was reading. For the first half, it sucked me in with well-drawn characters, a setup that has its fingers on the pulse of the times, and a delicious sense of Hitchcockian misdirection.
The two narrators are Nick and Amy, a thirty-something pair of would-be yuppies whose magazine careers and New York City lives were derailed by the Great Recession. They have now downsized their dreams to the Midwest, characterized as the home of corn chip casseroles, bland earnestness, and shopping at Walmart. There, Nick took care of his ailing parents and opened a bar with the last of Amy's trust fund money. And, there, their marriage fell apart.
Starting from page one, we get Nick's side of things: a perpetually unsatisfied wife and a life that seems to be going nowhere. Then, on their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears, leaving behind signs of a struggle and a trail of clues in the form of an anniversary scavenger hunt. Nick blinks and stumbles his way through the ensuing police investigation, and there's the sense that he's not telling us everything.
Interspersed with Nick's narrative are journal entries from Amy, painting a picture of a fairytale marriage that sours after a husband stops trying. And there's just a hint of control freak insecurity, perhaps triggered in part by being the inspiration for the goody-two-shoes protagonist of a series of saccharine children's books written by Amy's own parents over the decades, the source of her small family fortune.
It doesn't take long before the reader gets the sense that Nick, while somewhat evasive and not exactly the husband of the year, is falling into a trap. Clues in the investigation and public opinion are going against him.
Then comes a twist, and we learn that a few things about Nick and Amy’s marriage have been misrepresented. Here, the novel began to get unbelievable for me, though the suspense remained enjoyable. Would Nick be arrested? How would his sleazeball lawyer, his media appearances, his oddball sister, Amy's wealthy, creepy ex-boyfriend, a deranged father, and a couple of desperate types in a short-term housing park play into the plot? As Nick's defenses steadily crumble around him, against a far craftier opponent, Flynn keeps us guessing, even rooting for a guy who was initially hard to like.
When the story reaches its endgame, it escalates into pure absurdity, a sort of screw-turning, Stephen King-like nightmare scenario (think of him in suspense mode, not monster mode). Somewhere, a few psychologists are doing face palms. But, if you're willing to shut off your brain, it's fun, in a deliciously dark way.
All in all, this novel showed a lot of promise for roughly the first half. Flynn obviously *reads*, and has a sense of craft. I loved the unreliable narrators and the ambiguity. Unfortunately, though, once the game is revealed, the novel morphs steadily into airport bookstore territory. This isn't necessarily bad, but I'd hoped for a bit more psychological complexity. Oh well.
The two audiobook narrators are good. Kirby Heyborne, who performs Nick's parts, ranges from bemused calm to barely suppressed anger. Julia Whelan, who takes Amy's, has a girlish chipperness that works well.
I've already written a review of the Winds of War, the first half of this marathon two-part historical drama. War and Remembrance picks up right where that one left off, shortly after the Pearl Harbor attacks. Now, the US is fully in the Second World War, and Victor, Warren, and Byron all see action in the Pacific. Meanwhile, Byron's Jewish wife, Natalie, is trapped in fascist Italy, where a series of misjudgements and bureaucratic tangles have blocked the escape of her and her uncle. And there are a few other dramas, involving characters we'd met before, such as Leslie Slote and Pamela Tudsbury.
As in the previous book, Wouk masterfully illustrates how the war unfolded and how it looked to the Allies, with the much-pounded British grasping the full urgency of the situation while America was only beginning to get into gear. His overview of the politics and fighting takes into account the bumbling mistakes made by both sides, and the many opportunities the Axis powers had to achieve some devastating victories, on top of those they'd already had over the dithering Allies. If Wouk's narrative is to be believed, the fate of nations can turn on a single faulty report from a scout plane or a lucky accident of timing.
Compared to the first book, there are more scenes of battle and combat, which are well-written. There’s a subplot concerning the development of the atomic bomb, involving Rhoda’s lover, Palmer Kirby. We can see the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union on the horizon. There’s more from the fictional German general, Armin von Ruhn, whose cerebral apologism for fascism becomes ever more disquieting, considering that his views don’t seem all that far off from those held by present-day right-wing groups, though his analysis of the war remains compelling. And there’s a subplot that exposes the horrors of the Holocaust, through both the eyes of a Jewish character interned in Auschwitz and the chillingly mechanical viewpoint of the camp’s commandant.
If the plot turns are a little more soap opera-like, with the main characters getting into drawn-out dramas and crossing paths strangely often, they’re still absorbing. Through the storyline involving Natalie, her uncle, Aaron, and her friend Leslie, it becomes easy to see how Holocaust denial paralyzed much of the civilized world, which wanted to believe that the terrible stories were mostly just propaganda by people with an agenda (I couldn’t help but think of climate change deniers). The two Jews, as they struggle to find an out, get ever more inexorably trapped in the Nazi web, ending up in the sham showcase ghetto of Theresienstadt, and these desperate scenes are gripping.
Both this novel and the Winds of War should really be thought of as one long work, though not everyone will want to power straight through both of them in sequence, as I did. As before, my compliments to Kevin Pariseau for his spoken performance. When I at last reached the final page, while biking along a lake in Massachusetts, I felt that I’d completed a real journey across eight profoundly world-changing years of history. Through the sheer scale, vision, energy, investment in storytelling, and deeper truth-seeking of his drama, Wouk has left a work for the ages.
At over 100 hours, this audiobook and its sequel are a commitment, a 20th century War and Peace. Over 2000 pages, Herman Wouk spins both a family saga and a sort of “bearing witness” document, a detailed history of World War Two that leaves no one excused for humanity’s greatest calamity (so far) and the many acts of blindness on both sides that allowed it to unfold as it did
The fictional narrative centers around an American naval family headed by one Victor “Pug” Henry, a stolid, unpretentious career officer of classic mold. Yearning for a battleship command, Victor is instead sent to be the US’s naval attache in 1939 Berlin, at a time well before most Americans had any desire to get embroiled in another European mess. Because of his thorough reports, Victor finds himself coming to the attention of FDR, who makes him a high-powered informal go-between. Meanwhile, Victor’s two sons have their own stories -- one training as a Navy pilot, while the other “finds himself” in Italy, where he gets involved with a Jewish author and his lovely, headstrong niece. These two, trapped in Europe, become significant viewpoint characters in their own right. Others enter the narrative, too, including Victor’s wife, who is beginning to chafe at the sacrifices of being a Navy wife, and his daughter, who takes a job at a NYC radio station. While most of the action happens behind the lines, we do get a few tastes of the shooting war.
Wouk’s style is a bit nostalgic, but the characters are well-written and credible. For all the contrivances in the plot -- such as Victor managing to meet Hitler, FDR, Churchill, *and* Stalin -- Wouk makes us believe that such path-crossings were plausible. Maybe one family wasn’t in so many places, but history did have plenty of small actors who played such roles. In any case, the small details of the characters’ thoughts and actions give events a full, living color. Sometimes Wouk pulls the camera back and explains in a clear, compelling way what was happening on the broader stage, which was a counterpoint that appealed to me, since the protagonists seldom have all the facts themselves. It’s to his credit that almost nothing feels irrelevant -- personalities and family lives seem to dovetail neatly into greater events and vice-versa.
No, Herman Wouk isn’t Tolstoy, but he’s certainly a writer with a strong grasp of the forces of history, gentle insight into human behavior, the ability to connect small-scale events with large ones, and a storyteller’s gift for putting it all in familiar terms, through the eyes of some memorable characters.
What pleased me most about this book, though, and a big reason for my enthusiastic recommendation, is its absence of simplistic rah-rah patriotism. Instead, Wouk soberly examines the causes of the war and the dangers of nationalism and ideology. He also notes the hypocrisies of British and American imperialism, and the self-absorbed apathy of both countries in the face of fascism’s self-image of surety. One of the most fascinating features of the novel is the inclusion of the memoirs of a German general, translated decades after the war by Pug himself. There’s a creepy familiarity to his critiques of the “decadent” West, and one begins to remember that evil is often rationalized away, sometime quite convincingly, by those who worship strength and power. This mattered at the time the author was writing, around the height of the Vietnam War, and it matters now.
Ultimately, this novel and its sequel are a rich mix of intimate and broad-scale human themes, 20th century history, and wistful nostalgia for a time when the American middle class family embodied all that was hopeful. Audiobook narrator Kevin Pariseau rises to the occasion, with some impressive imitations of certain famous figures, a range of accents, and a narration voice that has both friendliness and gravity. Put the sequel on standby, because you’ll want to know what happens next.
This short, smart existential novella is a gem. After the protagonist, Soren Johansson, a devout Mormon, dies of cancer, he finds himself in a room with four other people. There, an officious demon cheerfully informs everyone that they’ve all failed to follow the one true religion (which I won’t spoil, but suffice to say, it’s not one of the obvious candidates) and consigns them all to a variety of hells.
For the protagonist, hell is a bigger-than-the-known-universe library containing every possible book (including those whose contents are just random characters, i.e. the vast majority). And the only way out, according to a posted notice, is to find the book containing one’s own life story. Hell does operate according to a few rules, which can’t be broken. There are food dispensers, which give out any meal requested. Non-carried objects return to their place at the end of each day. People who die are returned to life.
At first, Soren does what most people would do: he explores, forms relationships, tests the rules, and discusses solutions to the shared predicament. But days, then months, then years pass. The denizens of the library form societies. Soren experiences wandering and loneliness. He falls in love. Then violent religious mania hits people, and hell really does become hell. So, he escapes to deeper levels, in search of both his lost lover and answers.
I won’t give away what happens from there, but Peck does eventually make it clear that there’s no easy way out. The author’s wry sense of humor makes the haunting philosophical questions go down easy, but that won’t stop them from swirling uncomfortably in your mind later. As I see it, this is a book about what faith really means. What happens if God utterly defies all our expectations? Would we still believe? Could we let go of our belief? And I don’t think Peck is letting non-believers off the hook, either -- if we contemplate the hell of a purposeless reality, might it be better to have some ray of hope in a greater meaning, however slender?
Beautifully unsettling questions. I’m glad I spotted this one in an audible sale.
The first in this series, Altered Carbon, was all the rage a few years back. It was a gritty, hard-boiled detective story set in the 25th century, complete with pithy first person narration by sardonic tough guy male protagonist. The universe is a little reminiscent of the one in the movie Blade Runner, with powerful corporations that run everything and crime syndicates and rebel groups in the shadows. The most notable technological feature of this reality is the ability to back human consciousness up on a "cortical stack" implant, allowing people to "resleeve" in a new body if the old one gets excessively damaged. The implications of this made for some interesting twists, both in terms of plot and human themes.
In this novel, a loose sequel to Altered Carbon, Takeshi Kovacs has put aside the detective work and is back to his former trade of soldiering. He's serving as a mercenary on behalf of a corporate power battling rebel fanatics on a planet whose civilian populace is receiving the brunt of the misery and suffering. He's feeling about ready to jump ship on his contract when a pilot points Kovacs to a xenoarchaeologist in a prison camp, who knows something about a gateway leading to an ancient, derelict alien starship -- the find of the century. Can he put together a team to stake legal claim?
As with many sequels to hot first novels, the dazzle factor of the author’s style and universe has worn off a little, and this reader notices the formula a little more. For those who liked the grit, hard-boiled cynicism, manga-like universe, over-the-top sex scenes, and action movie machismo of Altered Carbon, Broken Angels brings more of that, but the characters and plot are more familiar and forgettable. While the part surrounding the entering of the long-dead ghost ship, the high point of the book, has a cool eeriness similar to the opening of the movie Alien and its own horror to deliver about the fate of a superior civilization, the story leading up this point isn’t hugely riveting. Yes, the sequences about locating a corporate backer (without being screwed over by the same), recruiting a squad of soldiers from the colorful personalities found in a pile of discarded cortical stacks, battling nanobots, and discovering what became of a previous expedition to the alien ship, were a pleasant audio distraction while I was doing yard work, a lot of other science fiction novels could have done as much. The war going on in the background had potential to be interesting, but wasn’t fleshed out much -- I suspect it will come more into play in the next book.
All in all, this is a recommendation for those who loved Altered Carbon and want to go further into the Takeshi Kovacs universe, but other readers could probably take it or leave it. Audiobook reader Todd McLaren has a square-jawed voice that suits the hard-boiled nature of Morgan's prose well and keeps it from coming across as too self-serious, but his sultry-voiced women can be a little irritating. Particularly the "sassy black girl" voice.
I can’t remember the history of the Islamic world rating more than a few pages in my high school AP World History textbook. And those pages were about the things that related directly to the story of Europe and the Americas, kthxbye. Oh, and oil.
This book is an excellent corrective for the distorted, limited picture most Americans have of the Islamic sphere, revealing it as a complex and fascinating parallel universe that had developed largely apart from Europe. This culture rose to great heights while most Europeans still lived in ignorant medieval squalor, became fragmented by Mongol invasion and the politics of empire in successive centuries, and was finally encroached upon by the modern West in the 19th and 20th centuries, an encounter that it’s still in turmoil from.
Tamim Ansary, an author and lecturer, turns a millenium plus into an informal, engaging narrative, as a good professor would. There’s even some humor (“pointing his cannons at Parliament and blowing it up was just the shah’s way of showing that he some objections to the new agreement”). Good historical narrative doesn’t judge the past from a modern perspective, but illuminates it as a complex set of relationships that evolved over time. There are many terms here that I’d heard before and had a vague sense of the meaning of -- Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Assassin, caliphate, 12th Imam, vizier, harem, Mamluk, janissary, Safavid, Ottoman, Great Game, Raj -- but Ansary puts them all into their place.
Thus, it became easier for me to understand how Islam is often (without irony) called a “religion of peace”, while also having a warrior aspect. During and following the prophet Muhammad's life, the faithful saw themselves as creating a new vision for society, founded on peace, justice, self-discipline, religious tolerance, and egalitarian brotherhood (even sisterhood) for the once fractious people of the Arabian peninsula and the Levant. Muslims saw God’s favor as being demonstrated by their success at liberating the oppressed inhabitants of neighboring lands and God’s disfavor as being shown through military loss -- which was to have far-reaching implications.
Ansary also helped me see how Islam’s source ideas played out in attempts to codify them into a framework for daily life. Elaborate bodies of law developed and scholars saw a unity of reason and divine revelation, bringing about advances in science and mathematics, and re-introducing classical Greek logic to the world. Of course, these noble goals did not prevent the usual conflicts between higher thinking and human nature from taking root -- politics, greed, war, dynastic feuding, cultural chauvinism, overly conservative thinking -- and so Islam fragmented into different visions. Mystics, enlightened progressives, and traditionalists all found footholds in different parts the greater empires. Interesting stuff.
The latter chapters, which deal with the Muslim world’s encounter with the West, are the most revealing. I’d never fully considered how the Protestant Reformation opened the door for a culture of individualism and mercantilism, but it did, and soon European traders and bankers were making inroads into stratified empires in Asia Minor, Persia, and India, making deals that that decadent rulers couldn’t refuse and securing more and more privilege for themselves. Never underestimate the corrosive power of loans! While Muslim intellectuals and secularists came to see the future as lying in the kind of democratic, constitutional governments that the west had (as Turkey is today), a combination of cynical Western imperialism and rising fundamentalism among large, impoverished lower classes that saw their elites as selling out on God’s instructions (with no pope-like figure to intermediate), poisoned this dream in many places. Obviously, terrorism can’t be justified under any system that claims respect for the innocent, but the resentment and sense of a stolen destiny that boiled over into extremism (enabled by oil money) makes more sense to me now.
For people who enjoy history and know that there are different ways of telling it, depending on who’s in the “center” of a narrative and who comes crashing in from outside during Act Three, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.
Afterparty was a pleasant discovery for me, comparable to recent Neal Stephenson or William Gibson, but less geeked-out than the former and a little snarkier than the latter.
The initial setting is a near-future Toronto. A former neuroscientist named Lyda is in a mental hospital, in the wake of a series of breakdowns. It’s about a decade after her biotech startup discovered, while trying to cure schizophrenia, a drug that enables users to experience God. Well, in a manner of speaking. More specifically, Lyda and her colleagues overdosed on the drug and each now experiences a very convincing hallucination of a heavenly spirit companion. In Lyda's case, it's a moralizing winged angel named Doctor Gloria. In more controlled doses, the drug, nicknamed Numinous, makes people feel that they're in the presence of the divine.
It’s not the only mind-altering custom drug in this future. There's now a whole subculture of print-it-at-home drug manufacture, to say nothing of what more serious organizations do with the tech. Some products have amusingly harmless effects, but some alter consciousness in disturbing ways, such as one that removes one character’s natural empathy and turns him into a temporary sociopath.
When a peculiarly troubled teenage patient shows up in the clinic, it dawns on Lyda that Numinous, which her and her colleagues swore to keep secret, is now on the street, being distributed by a strange new “church”. So, Lyda must check herself out of the hospital, evade monitoring systems, get across the border, and track down her former colleagues in the US. Her only allies are a sweetly unaware young man who thinks his consciousness resides in the aquarium toy hanging from his neck, and a crafty American ex-intelligence officer whose own mind has been scrambled by too much "focus" drug over her career. And a cat. And, of course, the amusingly huffy Doctor G, who remains invisible to everyone but Lyda.
This is definitely a smart book, asking meaningful philosophical questions about the nature of being and the implications of messing with our brains/minds. Or of messing with other people's. It's also a witty one, with cleverly written scenes, oddball characters, and a lot of snarky quips from Lyda. For example, when a drug dealer sells a seemingly effective gay-for-a-day "product" to some straight dudebros at a college frat party, she retorts, "product? Don't you mean placebo?" (Well, it made me laugh.)
The story, once it gets going, is interesting. There's also a backstory that emerges, concerning the tragic events that took place at Little Sprout (the startup) ten years ago, what became of Lyda's wife and fellow scientist, who took too much Numinous, how Lyda ended up in the mental hospital, and what happened to her daughter, who she had to give up for adoption. While Gregory doesn’t posit a drastically altered future, I also enjoyed the creative, incidental little ideas that he drops in here and there, such as a plausible successor to smart phones. Like the plot of a good thriller, all the pieces come together in the end, but with some room for taking the characters and setup further, should he choose to.
If there are a few believability issues and the ending is a little predictable, it’s a thriller with a brain and an eye on an approaching bend in the road ahead. And the core questions -- if there is a better us inside ourselves, should we try to access it by tampering with ourselves? Or should we not? Is “divine experience” more about the divine, or the experience? -- are ones that Gregory keeps hovering in our peripheral vision throughout the book, but admirably never tries to answer for us.
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