Sunday, April 29, 2007

Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today's World

By Karen Armstrong

I knew the Crusades were an attempt by the Europeans to gain control of Jerusalem and of the other sites that were significant to the Christian religion. But that is about all I knew. Just that bare fact. I learned a lot about the Crusades from this book and it is chock full of interesting details. So if you are looking to learn more about the Crusades, you will find this book very informative.
However, one of the author's theories is that the violence visited upon the Middle East by wave after wave of invading Crusader armies is the root cause of the violence in the region today, as Western violence conditioned the Muslims to respond in kind, a conditioning in effect even today. I can't agree with that even after reading her book. It seems to me that violence is inherent in humanity, it's just part of our nature.
One thing I found irksome about her writing is the way she portrays Islamists as just put upon and misunderstood and she soft peddles their violence while condemning Israeli and Western violence in the strongest terms. At times, reading through it, you wonder if she had decided to convert to Islam. She seems to look at Islam through rose-colored glasses. But she has no such glasses for the Israelis, to quote, "Today it is the Jews who are the brutal occupiers of Bethlehem and the other towns in the occupied territories, and some of their methods would have shocked even the Romans." Oh, really? Would have shocked a people who used to go to their arenas and be entertained by watching humans being torn to bits by wild animals? Yeah, right.
Read her book for the historical information but as for the rest of it, keep in mind that she is biased towards Islam and biased against Israel and Christianity. She is not exactly an impartial reporter of the facts.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Late George Apley

By John P. Marquand

This 1937 Pulitzer Prize winning book is a gentle satire of Boston high society at the turn of century from the 1800s to the 1900s. It is written in the form of a biography of the fictional character, George Apley, presented through the letters and other papers written by George and his friends.
George was born with a gold spoon in his mouth. His father was a very successful businessman, with his finger in many pies. But the Apleys are a conservative family who did not approve of extravagance or ostentation and George never realized how very wealthy his father was until after his father died.
George's family were strict conformists, devoted to their place in Boston society. They really didn't care to associate with anyone who wasn't of their class. In fact, members of their society who dared to live just a little differently were ostracized and their names never mentioned again.
It's a good thing that George was born to money because he was really just an average guy. If he had been born to a lower class family he would have ended up a shoe salesman like Al Bundy.
About the most shocking thing George ever did was fall in love with an Irish girl. His parents were so upset by this that they packed him off to Europe to get him away from her influence. George just went along with their plan even though by this time he was a young man in college.
George always did what he felt was expected of him. Yet he always felt that somehow he was missing out. Towards the end of his life, he looked back and thought that he had never really accomplished anything. He never actually had to work at anything, and although he served on lots of committees and belonged to all the best clubs, he still felt unfulfilled.
George's kids grew up in the 1920s and they were not buying into George's ideals.
At one point he advised his son to undertake the same activities that have left George feeling so empty, because it is what is expected of an Apley. But his son headed off to New York and then ended up marrying a divorcee, oh, the disgrace! Even worse the daughter married a penniless newspaper man and moved out West.
I guess that George's man problem was that he was not a man, he was a mouse. He never learned to stand on his own two feet, even after his parents died. He never tried to live life on his own terms. By the time he is an old man, he thought that maybe his kids were right to refuse to conform to the Boston standard. And he hoped that they find life happier because of their freedom, freedom he never allowed himself to experience.
I didn't really care for this book. It was boring. Just like old George.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Kabbalah A Love Story

By Lawrence Kushner

Well, I guess Jewish mysticism is just not for me.
I found this book dense and incomprehensible. The plot was disappointing as the mysterious page turns out to be just some filler a guy used when he was making the back cover. He just grabbed an old piece of paper that had a short note about the creation on it and stuck it in to make the cover the right thickness. The creation occurred when Nothing (or as some like to say, God) loosed the dark spark and there's this primordial womb and they come together and hello! Everything is either created or uncreated: I couldn't figure out which. It's beyond me.
I did enjoy the description of the cloud observatory. It inspired me to do a little cloud observing also. Today was a perfect day for it. Lots of fluffy clouds scudding by on a windy, warm day. Just as I was starting to get into it, a guy near by fires up his very loud boat motor. The man was just sitting in dock racing the motor. I tried to ignore it but after five minutes, I gave up.
One thing I strongly question in the book is this statement: "You ever try to be reverent and injure someone at the same time? Sorry, it can't be done." I immediately thought about those Islamics who blow themselves up, intending to kill as many people as they can. Don't most of those guys believe they are doing what Allah wants them to do? Isn't it an act of faith, misguided and sick as it may be? I expect it makes one pretty reverent when he presses that switch to end his own life and other's lives.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Muhammad His Life Based on the Earliest Sources

By Martin Lings

If you want to read an account of the life of Muhammad as seen by a devout believer then this is the book for you. It is chock full of the kind of details that will make an Islamist's mouth water.
On the other hand if you want to know the truth about Muhammad, then look elsewhere. This book is just a retelling of all the old myths and is completely uncritical of the old stories and it treats all those stories as if they were Gospel. I found the book a chore to read but it did contain some interesting items. While I knew that Muhammad had a child bride who was nine years old, I didn't know he encouraged other men to do the same because, according to him, girls are fun to play with. I also didn't know that when his enemies surrendered to him after a battle, Muhammad had them executed.
The most interesting thing about this book is the author. This man was an Englishman who converted to Islam. Apparently the violence, intolerance and the cruelty to females that are the hallmarks of Arab culture was just what this guy was looking for in a religion. He even acquired an Arab name: Abu Bakr Siraj Ad-Din.
One thing I have learned, after reading this biography: Islam is certainly an accurate reflection of its founder.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Red Lily

by Nora Roberts

The third book in her In the Garden trilogy, a rather disappointing conclusion to what was a good story.
Hayley works for her cousin Roz in her garden center, which is part of the Roz's family estate. Hayley also lives with Roz in the mansion, which the ghost, know as the Harper Bride for the long white dress she wears, is haunting. The ghost is attracted to children, especially babies and has been known in the past to sing to them at night. But she doesn't like men and when Hayley starts up a relationship with Harper, Roz's son, the ghost becomes angry and dangerous, even taking possession of Hayley at times.
The family decides that the only way to get rid of the ghost is to figure out what happened to her. They know that she was the wronged mistress of a long dead ancestor and that she had a baby. They discover that the baby she had was taken from her by her lover and he passed the baby off has the child of his wife. This pushed the mistress over the edge and one night she came to the mansion, determined to be reunited with her infant son. But something terrible happened that night and Hayley and Harper need to find out what it was if they are ever to have any peace and security in their life together, as the ghost is violently opposed to their relationship.
Frankly, I was bored by this novel, the third in the series. I lost interest when it became clear that the author had decided to portray the mistress, the ghost, as greedy, cold and cruel. Roberts took away all the sympathy the reader felt for the ghost when she emphasized how vain, greedy, materialistic, and lewd the character was when alive. The ghost had good cause to hate her lover when he stole her baby, but Roberts makes sure we know that the woman hated men even before this event occurred, viewing men only as a means to acquiring all the good things she wanted in life. Roberts turned a sympathetic and mysterious character into just another stupid monster. Half way through the book, I just wanted it to be over.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Mine Are Spectacular

By Janice Kaplan and Lynn Schnurnberger

This is a lighthearted look at life in the elite suburbs of New York City, seen through the eyes of the main character, Sara, a forty-something divorcee, who has left New York City to share a house in the burbs with her fiancee, Bradford, and her young son. She is settling in well and has even made a new friend in a neighbor, Berni, who is also forty-something and who is pregnant for the first time and expecting twins. Sara's best friend is a beautiful and very successful dermatologist who is having an affair with a married man, much to Sara's concern.
Other than that everything seem to going very well until Bradford's ex-wife, Mimi, suddenly shows up with their teen daughter. The daughter has all the usual despite for the "replacement mom" and Mimi makes it very clear that she wants her husband back. To make matters worse, Sara's ex, James, also shows up after having abandoned her and their son years ago. James has decided he wants a relationship with the son he has never before shown any interest in.
Sara, a talented cook, has just started a new cooking show on TV and Bradford is feeling neglected. They have a fight and Bradford decides they need a cooling off period and he goes off to Hong Kong for three months. Then James tells Sara that he is sorry for his crappy previous behavior and he wants to be a family with Sara and their son again. Sara's best friend, Kate, is a wreck because her married lover is turning out to be a selfish prick. How will Sara straighten out all the tangled threads in her life?
Not a deep story, this novel is a light and amusing look at life among the well off. It may not be very believable, but it is enjoyable, if only for the chance to experience a lifestyle that many would like to have. The title is kind of stupid, makes it seem like the book is going to be about breasts, which it isn't. But I suppose the title was something the publishers came up with not the authors.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Gone with the Wind

By Margaret Mitchell

This lengthy novel won the Pulitzer Prize for 1937. It was made into a very successful movie in 1939 starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh as Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara and Leslie Howard and Olivia De Havilland as Ashley and Melanie Wilkes. I saw the movie when I was a kid and later as an adult on TV. I had never read the novel.
The first thing I thought about the novel was that it was way long. I had the paperback version and it's got to be at least two inches thick. I figured it would take me at least two months to read it all. In fact, I read it in 20 days.
When I first started reading it, I was a little bored with it. It seemed to get off to a slow start. I didn't really start to get interested in it until Scarlett marries Charles Hamilton, Melanie's brother. She marries Charles in a fit of pique because Ashley has asked Melanie to be his wife and Scarlett was unable to get Ashley to change his mind, even though he admits it is Scarlett he loves. Shortly there after, Charlie and Ashley are off to fight for states' rights and king cotton, leaving their respective wives home. Charlie falls ill while serving and dies and, Scarlett and Melanie move to Atlanta and are still there when Atlanta falls to the Union Army. They make a panicked escape from Atlanta with Rhett Butler's help, with poor Melanie being carried in a rickety wagon pulled by a broken down horse, all the transportation that is left in the area. Melanie is gravely ill from complications of giving birth and Rhett takes them far enough into the country headed back home to Tara to where he figures they can manage on their own. He leaves them there and goes off to fight for the Rebels even though he knows it is a lost cause.
Rhett has fancied Scarlett ever since that night when he overheard Scarlett begging Ashley to forget Melanie and be with her instead. When Ashley oh so nobly turns her down and leaves the room, Scarlett smashes a vase in anger. This unladylike behavior endears her to Rhett because he himself is an outcast and a social pariah. He feels he has a lot in common with Scarlett, that they are birds of a feather.
Scarlett goes through trials and tribulations, the same trials and tribulations suffered by the rest of the South in the final days and the aftermath of the war.
She manages to take care of herself and her family and even is able to keep the Yankees from burning Tara like they did to most of the plantation homes in the area. She eventually ends up back in Atlanta with Melanie and Ashley. She marries an older man just for his money, which she needs to save Tara from being sold for back taxes. The older man gets killed during a raid by the Ku Klux Klan, of which he was a member.
Rhett finally realizes he will never get Scarlett unless he marries her, as she has steadfastly refused all his advances. He proposes and she accepts, although he knows that Scarlett is still enamored of Ashley Wilkes. He figures that Scarlett will eventually realize that Ashley is a weak man and then she will love Rhett instead. But Scarlett never comes to that realization until it is too late. By then, Rhett and Scarlett's little daughter is dead in a riding accident and Rhett is so torn up by the loss and by Scarlett's accusation that it was all his fault that he has completely fallen out of love with Scarlett.
The novel ends with Scarlett awareness that she really did love Rhett. She finally admits that Ashley is not the man she thought and her infatuation with him was just a school girl crush. She also realizes, too late, that her hated rival, Melanie (who has died of a miscarriage) was Scarlett's best and dearest friend. Although Rhett has left her, the book ends on a note of optimism with Scarlett vowing that she will get him to love her again someday. And knowing Scarlett, I believe she would.
I enjoyed this novel a lot. Especially the part set in the Reconstruction era. I had no idea how hard Reconstruction was on the South or how much fraud and corruption there was in the government imposed on the South by the North. It was an eye opener.
A couple quibbles... Rhett is a man in his forties when he marries Scarlett; he is well-traveled, smart and sophisticated. Scarlett is only in her twenties, and although she has been through a lot, she is ignorant, uneducated, selfish and shallow. He knows this when he marries her, just as he knows she is still infatuated with Ashley Wilkes. He marries her fully expecting that she will change. This I found to be completely unbelievable. What person in their forties doesn't know that you can't change people? Maybe Mitchell at the time she wrote the book was too young to know this sad fact of life either.
Also Margaret Mitchell's attitude towards blacks is condescending. She claims, in the book, that blacks are child-like and need to be taken in hand and lead by a kind, and wise white master. At one point she has Ashley explaining that although he had slaves, they were never miserable. In the book, blacks are divided into two types, house servants and field hands. The smart ones were raised to be servants and the stupid ones to work the fields. Mitchell's attitude is that blacks were much better off under slavery than when they were freed because they were fed, clothed, taken care of and kept out of trouble when slaves. She seems to not realize that limiting a people to being either a servant or a field hand is vast waste of human potential. Think of all the possible lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, poets, entrepreneurs, artists who spent their lives in servitude, never being allowed to grow to their full capacity. What a shame.
Other than that, I really enjoyed the story. It's a long book, but very engaging and well worth the investment of time it takes to read. Also, you might learn a little history too. I know I did.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia

By Ahmed Rashid

Ahmed Rashid is a reporter who lives in Pakistan and reports on Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. In this book he looks at the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and why and who funded their offensive. According to Rashid, after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, the USA, who had been supporting the mujaheddin, lost interest. As a result, a power vacuum developed and the Taliban saw their chance to institute an "Islamic" government in Afghanistan.
In the beginning, the USA supported the Taliban, who are Sunni Muslims, because the Taliban was against the enemy of the US, Iran, who are mostly Shia Muslims. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia also supported the Taliban, providing weapons and gobs of money. Pakistan supported the Taliban because they thought the Taliban would be a good ally against their enemy, India. The Saudis supported the Taliban because they espoused the same kind of Islamic fundamentalism that is popular in Saudi Arabia. For the government of Saudi Arabia, supporting the Taliban would make the Saudi fundamentalists happy and not criticising the Saudi government. Everyone hoped the Taliban would bring peace and stability to Afghanistan so that various oil and gas pipeline projects could be carried through, bringing gas and oil to the big markets in China and India.
But it all backfired. The Taliban turned out to be insane assholes. They didn't really care about bringing peace and prosperity to Afghanistan, all they wanted to do was establish their Islamic revolution. The USA pulled its support when the Taliban's harsh and loony treatment of women was revealed to the world. Saudi Arabia withdrew their support when Taliban leaders insulted one of the Saudi princes. Pakistan continued to support the Taliban, even though the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan promoted the growth of heroine poppies and smuggling of drugs and consumer goods to the detriment of the revenue coffers of the surrounding countries, Pakistan included.
So after years of war with the Soviets, civil war and ethnic strife after the Soviets, and the depredations of the Taliban, the people of Afghanistan are fragmented, divided, desperate and ignorant, knowing nothing but hardship and war.
This is an excellent book and takes the reader right to the roots of the advance of the Taliban in Afghanistan. I recommend it to anyone who wants to know more and understand better this part of the world.

Now in November

By Josephine Johnson

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for 1934. It is the story of a farm family, barely getting by, making just enough to meet their mortgage payments. Each year they hope maybe they will be able to get a little ahead but it never seems to happen. Then a drought strikes, lasting several years. Things go from bad to worse when the farm catches on fire. They are able to save the house and barn, but the mother is mortally injured.
The farm family consists of the father and mother, and three daughters. The father is angry, loud and stupid. The mother is quiet and loving and faithful. One daughter is stolid, one is quiet and one is unbalanced. The father hires a man to help out on the farm and the man falls for the stolid daughter who couldn't care less. The other two daughters fall for the hired man but he only has eyes for the stolid daughter. The hired man finally figures out the stolid one is never going to love him and he quits the farm. The unbalanced daughter kills herself. And the quiet one quietly suffers.
I didn't like this story. It was boring and depressing. I was glad when it came to its dull ending. Apparently it is designed to extoll the virtues of endurance; at the end the quiet daughter sums it all up, "And if this is only the consolation of a heart in its necessity, or that easy faith born of despair, it does not matter, since it gives us courage somehow to face the mornings." Eh. Do I really need a novel to tell me that life sucks? No.
After reading this dark and brooding story, do yourself a favor and read Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. It is a fun and light satire of just the sort of novel like Now in November.