Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Wow! Wow. Wow! What a fine and fabulous book. Yet again, Mr. Rushdie has absolutely outdone himself. Wow.

The Satanic Verses is a sprawling epic of men, women, angels, prophets, devils(?), martial artists, movie stars, and nearly everything else between Bombay, Mecca and the great wet city Ellowen Deeowen. Like several of Mr. Rushdie’s other novels, it is told with a frantic post fall-of-Babel style. Everyone talking, multitude of voices in the wilderness, every sentence near competing with tits fellow, falling over itself to delight, entertain, amuse and perplex the reader. It is downright funny, a comedy first and foremost maybe; a tragedy second, a deadly serious meditation on faith third.

The core of the framework tale concerns itself with two men, both of whom fall from an exploding jetliner over the English Channel. The jet has been destroyed by muslim militants. One of the men, Gabreel, is a Bombay film star. The other, Saladin, is an Indian expatriate voice actor living in London. As they fall, the one takes on the countenance of angel Gabriel and dreams. The other adopts a more satanic countenance. Then things start to get really complicated.

Along the way, there are two other critical tales told. One is the story of the Prophet, Mahound (Peace Be Upon Him). The other is the tale of a young woman who is visted by the angel Gabriel, becomes covered in a gown of butterflies, and leads the residents of a North Indian villiage on a doomed crusade to walk to Mecca.

All of the above plot bits and major story arcs make up just the primary weave of the garment. As usual with Rushdie, there are hundreds or more sub-threads which are all woven together to ask some really compelling questions about faith.

So was the fatwa upon Rushdie justified? Is the book blasphemous? Why is “Satanic” in the title?

For a devout muslim, particularly one uneducated enough to miss the rich tradition in which Rushdie is operating, certain passages in the book would certainly seem sacrilegious. The prophet is not presented in the best possible light, and any number of questions about his veracity are slyly woven into the narrative. There’s a really haunting sequence in which an Iranian imam brings about and revels in the slaughter of students during the revolution. And one of the core question at the heart of the book could be summed up as “did the prophet compromise his message for political gain in the early days of Islam.” This is where the title comes into play. Turns out that some accounts indicate that Mohammed (PBUH) may have at one point acknowledged, however obliquely, the power and divinity of earlier three goddesses who were much favored by the people of Mecca. Later, the prophet rescinded his statement, indicating that Shitan had spoken to him in the voice of the angel Gibreel and misled him. These so called “Satanic Verses” of the Koran were excised completely about 600 years later, and are not recognized by most fundamentalist Islamic scholars, as they imply that the prophet was not infalliable.

Now, this Satanic Verses bit is really just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the blasphemous portions of the novel. And, since it doesn’t seem to take much to get radical islam riled up, it’s no surprise, I suppose that they didn’t like what was in the novel. What is more surprising is that there were any who were both educated enough to read it and rigid enough to want to kill a person for writing a novel. But then, as the prophet in the novel suggests, there are only two types of people for whom God has no forgiveness, “writers and whores, which are the same.”

I loved this book. Not quite as much as Midnight’s Children, but still among the finest things I’ve ever read. It really helps that, as anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I’m trainwreck-fasinated by the muslim faith in its modern incarnation. I wish very much that I could travel to some muslim counties, or even more that I had a smart, educated friend who was also a devout muslim. I’ve certainly got a lot of questions…

Fine book, Mr. Rushdie. As always, you amaze.


The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz

“Use bright, cheerful words to describe other people.”
“In moments when you are alone, recall pleasant, positive experiences.”
“Make sure you can always pronounce another’s name the way they pronounce it.”

These are the sorts of earnest, fine and useful advice that Scwartz’s delightful book is full of. In thirteen chapters which are filled with a zeal for life, a desire for right action, and a charming nineteen fifties brand of boosterism, Schwartz gives great practical advice for how to be a winner in all things you do.

I sincerely enjoyed this book, and believe that if a person read it twice a year for their life, and committed to living by the principles it espouses, that the person would really, truly have a better life, be more successful, and be a shining star to everyone they knew.

Does it sound like a self help book? Yes, and it definitely is. Does it sound cheesy? Well… It’s YOU who have become too cynical, too jaded to remember that being a good person, always striving to be happy, working to make other’s lives better, and so on… These are actually really good and noble values, even if our post-post-post everything culture makes us want to sneer at them.

Here is to trying to banish cynicism and trying hard to be the type of person who is able to think big in all things, and get the most out of life.


Vagabonding by Rolf Potts

Recommended on Amazon and by a few friends, but...

Rolf Potts had nothing new to say. The only interesting parts in his book were the quotes from other, smarter people, who had already laid down the philosophies he so clearly ill-understood. The quality of his writing was poor, and there was little to no substance. Dr. Seuss managed to capture the core spirit more succinctly in “Oh The Places You’ll Go!”

Potts was mighty proud of himself for being a person who had done some wandering, had a bunch of experiences seemingly at random – (yeah, okay, I get it, you scored with a Hungarian girl one time on the road – good for you) --and seemed to have drawn few useful conclusions from them. (“When you get home, your friends won’t understand you.” Being about the most profound— better summed up by Wilco a decade earlier.) His constant looking down his nose at others who are doing the EXACT same thing as he was irritating (see the section on “Trustafarians” and “Tourists” for examples). Aside from being a good refresher on “Common Quotables: From Thoreau to Muir”, I just didn’t see much in the book. In short, it was self aggrandizing without substance.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have anything against “vagabonding” as a way of spending some time. I just don’t really see either capital-T “Travel” or capital-V “Vagabonding” as an actual lifestyle or philosophy; just a way of making the act of seeing new places both more and less profound at the same time.

Four Hour Work Week was a far better look at similar topics.

How to Make Millions with Your Ideas by Dan S. Kennedy

Still on the quickly-getting-tired Business/Self-Help category we have Dan Kennedy's early nineties book on how to be a successful entrepreneur. Kennedy was highly involved in the mail-order, direct-to-consumer, and the early television info-mercial scene. He (apparently) made millions and has made millions of dollars for some of his clients by advising them on ways to build better businesses.

These could be summarized as:
- Find products and sell them.
- Make your business a service business in addition to its other functions.
- Use synergies between various businesses you control to get a multiplier effect.
- Market yourself and your business aggressively to get more customers; then sell these customers more stuff.

The book was vaguely useful, if occasionally smarmy. As part of a larger cross sampling of entrepreneurial case studies, there were a few tidbits here. In particular, a primer on how to get more money for a business you sell to a larger company was likely valuable. The end of the book also contains a (now very dated) list of various resources which could help you find products to sell, find customers to sell them to, deal with fulfillment, etc.

Not a waste of time, but... I couldn't help but feel like Dan Kennedy was just using ME, the reader, as yet another sucker he could toss off a quick book to and make a few bucks. The coupon at the end of the book for a PERSONAL PRODUCT REVIEW WITH DAN KENNEDY... Not sure the infomercial market is for me... Still, interesting as part of a larger study.

Demonology by Rick Moody

Bit of a snoozer, this one, I’m afraid. The title looked good, the cover imagery was provacatve. The core notion wasn’t bad, which was, “let’s tell some semi-zany stories that deal with modern social angst in our North American consumerist culture.” So far, so good. But, unfortunately, Moody just lacks the zeal and writing ability of, say, George Saunders, who did the same thing better.

I’ll admit that not a single story in this collection sticks in my mind. And that should tell you something.

The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss

Now this was something actually new! I stopped into a bookstore in Canada; a bookstore I really don’t like, I might add. I was irritated with the fiction I’d read recently and wanted to learn how to do something new.

I ran across Ferris’ book and opened it up with great skepticism. I was delighted. Ferris advocates a type of lifestyle design that is empowering, realistic, and entirely possible, if not for everyone.

In brief, Ferris encourages you to recognize that almost nothing is out of your reach and that most of the reasons people give for deferring their dreams are simple excuses. He goes on to give lots of great advice for how to manage one’s time more efficiently – sort of a “habits of highly effective people” bit – then he dives into a collection of chapters on how to reform your work/life balance in a fairly radical way. He gives further advice on a wide range of topics, from “outsourcing your life” to how to structure companies such that they aren’t a horrific burden on their leaders.

I loved the book, and have become a follower of Ferris’s blog, and, in large part, the lifestyle he advocates. It was the sort of book that well stated a number of beliefs I’ve had for quite some time.

In short: The rules don’t have to apply to you, because there are no rules. If you don’t like it, don’t do it. You can have the life you want; it’s there for your taking.

Highly recommended for anyone who is paralyzed by all the bullshit fears in life that prevent them from actually having one.

Ferris reminds us that learning new things is cool, that you can be anything you want to be, and that life is yours if you but choose to participate in it.
Ahh, what an interesting week!

The Senator and KMK stayed with us for the week, as their house had no power. The game continued, shuddering towards the finish line with as much grace as a drunken linebacker. I spent a little time reading, a little time writing...

And now, as of this fine Sunday morning, I'm ALMOST all caught up from the summer's reading. Without further ado...


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Darkfall by Dean Koonz

Darkfall was exactly the kind of pulp horror Koonz has led me to expect. A series of grisly, unexplicable murders in New York send a prototypical Mulder & Scully team out into a terrible snowstorm to track the killer. He's open minded; he wants to believe, you might say. She's a by-the-books woman of science, no room for emotion or superstition in her cold heart. At least not until the right man can thaw her...

In any case, turns out that the killer is a voodoo priest, summoning demons and 'goblins' from various hells as part of a vengeance plot. Along the way, the Mulder character's kids get targeted to be gobbled up by these devils. Some chases ensue. Good wins. Love triumphs. The voodoo priest's black magic catches up with him. Scully learns how to love. Yawn.

The Iron Council by China Meville

Meville has cool ideas. It’s that simple. From golem commanding thaumaturgies to mangled half-men Remade, to the catacopic stained zones where chaos reigns, he shows us a darkly fantasic mirror of our own world.

The Iron Council is set in the same world as Perdido Street Station, many years after the events described therin. It’s not a sequel, or really related in any way, and you don’t need to be familiar with Meville’s other works to enjoy this one.

Meville could improve the occasional impenetrability of his prose, which makes wading through all of his novels a bit tiresome at points. He overuses arcane words, and obscures the flow of narrative needlessly on occasion.

But he gives you very interesting places, characters, and action sequences. What do they they all really mean? Not much, I think, other than telling a fine and dark tale of things that might have occurred in a strange place which never existed. It’s not fantasy, except in a literal sense. It’s not horror, though often horrific. It’s fine speculative science fiction, I suppose. And it’s good, if a bit tedious at times.

Taft by Ann Patchett

As I quite liked Bel Canto, I was eager to stumble across Taft in a Houston Half-Price Books. I dimply recall likely that our friend Kerri B. was a fan of Patchett’s other works. So in the hopes of feminizing my bookshelf slightly, I picked this one up to read on our trip to Honduras.

Taft is a mid-thirties ex-drummer. He’s a bartender in Memphis. He takes in a young woman who needs a job. We get a mildly tragic tale of broken relationships, broken families, and a man’s desire to do good with the wreckage of his life while resisting temptation.

It’s a good novel, Patchett is a good writer. It’s not Bel Canto, but as a bit of an homage to the Rabbit Angstrom, John Gardner’s heroes, and the protagonists of Richard Russo’s novels, it’s fine work.

Six Stories of the Jazz Age by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I suspect there is a reason that most of these tales never really got much mainstream interest. While they are entertaining, occasionally silly, they qualify as little more than pieces that reveal a bit of the character of the age. Little depth here, and they add little to the understanding of the life of this already overanalyzed writer.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner had the same kind of buzz surrounding it that The Life of Pi did. The same people were telling me about it, the same vague part of the world invoked in their commentary.

As the first novel I’ve ever read from an Afghani, I was delighted. The prose is good without being flashy or great. The plotting is fine, if a tad contrived at various points. The descriptions of Kabul make me think it must have been a fine and fabulous city before the soviets came and wrecked everything.

I have issue with the inclusion of blond-haired-blue-eyed Nazism as a root of evil. It seems to me that the Taliban are a regionally grown menace, who reached their sick conclusions without much influence from Mein Kampf. So then, in a sense, having the evil Talib baddie as a white man felt like a way of shifting blame to an “other.”

Otherwise, the novel was pretty good; I enjoyed it but didn’t love it, and while I’d read his later works, which I see appearing in bookstores everywhere, I’ve not run right out to buy it yet.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Nafasi writes a beautiful memoir of her time in Iran during and after the revolution. As we all know, things went from bad to worse for intellictuals once the Shah was overthrown. And for women, things got worse still. Throughout this period, Nafisi and her students undertook a clandestine study of several of the masterworks of Western literature.

I’m fascinated by Iran, and the Muslim world as a whole. I see in Nafisi’s story a microcosm of some important broad questions about how education, freedom, and the role of women can co-exist with some of the particularly virulent strains of Islamo-fascism that currently hold sway in the middle east.

My only complaint here would be that there’s slightly too much navel gazing on occasion, surrounding what it felt like to look at a certain tree, etc. But overall, this is a fascinating glipse into a world that as an American, as a male, I could never otherwise peek inside. And it’s a world in which scholars are heroic; risking everything in order to teach and acquire knowledge.

This book describes the kind of quiet bravery that I wish we could hear more about from the Muslim world.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Cool little sci-fi novel. Bit of a classic, I suppose. Haldeman, who clearly served in Vietnam, writes the first half of his soldier’s story with a real ear for grunt dialog. Things get a bit steamy as he fantasizes about a free-love co-ed army. Then, once we delve into the meat of the tale, which addresses the social implications of faster-than-light travel, things start to get really interesting.

Our protagonist goes on several missions, one of which strands him in a galactic backwater. When he returns from each of these missions, some really significant periods of time have passed for Earth. The social and inter-personal revelations which unfold are fascinating and occasionally touching. Dan Simmons had clearly read Haldeman’s novel when writing a few of the tales in Hyperion.

Spook Country by William Gibson

I really like William Gibson, so I really liked this novel. It takes the same fictional-high-ground that Pattern Recognition did, which is to say, it embraces the post-Neuromancer future as the present and writes sci-fi sounding modern day fiction.

Our characters are the same international hipsters, cool hunters, artistes and mercs of other Gibson novels. The language is similar, though slightly plainer in many cases. But it’s still a treat to read his descriptions of places you’ve been.

In this case, since Gibson is a bit lazy and sets the novel mostly in the two cities he likely knows best, Los Angeles and Vancouver, I happen to be VERY familiar with the locations he’s describing, which is fun. In particular, the novel’s conclusion, amid the blue and orange shipping containers on the Vancouver harbor dockyard is a view that I see out both my office and my hotel window about 100 days a year. And since I’m fascinated with the spaceport looking place I can appreciate his fascination with the same.

A fun, fast novel. It doesn’t cover any new ground, and the inclusion of weird deities hearkens back to the Loas I liked the least in Count Zero. But it’s still cool fiction, and it’s cool that our world is now largely Gibson’s future from twenty years ago.
Wow! What a summer!

Houston, Honduras, Vancouver, Silicon Valley, Oxford, Napa, Austin... It just didn't stop!

The Professor accomplished all that she set out to; both law firms were excited by her, as one would expect.

I've nearly accomplished what I set out to. The games are all nearly in their respective boxes. It had been a while since I did a hard crunch like the last few months. Learned a lot, definitely advanced a level or two and picked up a few new feats.

Meantime, this week is (busy) but falling action on the games. The Senator and the esteemed KMK are here staying with us until their city has recovered from Ike's beating.

So many interesting times and good conversations with various people around the world in the last three months. And more than a few great new books read. At least one or two of them changed completely the way I think about things. Read on for more!