Sunday, May 01, 2011

Hamas, Riyadh, Baghdad, Korphe, and a haunted amusement park

Hooray for book reviews! Sorry I don't give any plot backgrounds here. I figure you can look that up on your own, if you want to. Sometimes it's best to just dive right in to a book without knowing too much about it ahead of time.

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester. This book was interesting, despite the author's best attempts to make it dull and haphazard. I have to wonder if this was originally a long article and someone told him to turn it into a book. If it weren't that this book described perfectly what my job with Oxford University Press was (though I was not interned in an asylum at the time), I would have liked it even less.


Kill Khalid, by Paul McGeough. Aside from being too detailed and too wide in scope, Kill Khalid had a tone that often disturbed me. Take a look at this passage from page 315. It describes a sniper attack by a Fatah operative on an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank:
"A first shot rang out at about 6:30 AM on March 3. With a hunter's expert eye, the shooter first picked off soldiers on the checkpoint; then reinforcements as they arrived; and next, stunned Jewish settlers as they slowed their vehicles on approaching the checkpoint. Incredibly, the marksman's twenty-five single shots, fired over twenty-five minutes, killed seven Israeli reservists and three settlers. Four others also suffered direct hits, but they survived."
Now, I understand that when you're writing a book about Hamas, it's not really going to be possible to insert condemnations or judgments after every single incident of violence contained therein. Maybe the author made a conscious decision to describe the bare facts and withhold the editorializing for the sake of brevity (FAIL - the book is over 400 pages long). But the result is that I often had the eerie feeling of the book glorifying terrorism.

I'm not saying that no one should be allowed to write about Hamas for fear of slandering Israel. Not at all. I just think there's a more sensitive way to do it, a way that does not suggest an unwritten but implied "...unfortunately" after the last sentence in the passage quoted above. The Looming Tower is a good example of a book about terrorism that does not pander to its subject.

Notice I haven't mentioned anything about Khalid Mishal, the book's purported subject. That's because the book hardly has anything to say about him, or at least about his attempted murder. The botched assassination doesn't even begin to take place until 130 pages in, and its story arc lasts for fewer than 100 pages.

All that said, I learned a lot about Hamas, Fatah, Shin Bet, and Gaza from this book. A LOT. Almost too much. I understand the politics of the region better than I did before. The assassination attempt was quite thrilling, if slightly anticlimactic in the end. I wish we could have been privy to more of Israel's motivations in carrying it out, but I suppose that's a different book.

Crescendo, by Becca Fitzpatrick. Just like the first book, I liked this one much to my surprise. It was sometimes ridiculous, never stupid or boring, and always entertaining. What a great, spooky read. (Book 1 review here.)

Baghdad Without a Map, by Tony Horwitz. What a lovely book this was! Simply a joy to read. I was wary at first because it's a good twenty years old (when he talks about the Persian Gulf War, he means the one between Iraq and Iran), but really, how much has changed in the Middle East when it comes to stuff like baksheesh and run-down infrastructure? The parts I loved best were the parts about places I've lived and traveled, but really, the whole book is fascinating. It reminded me of Robert D. Kaplan Lite - all the quirky travel experiences without the grand political commentary. This is the kind of book I'd like to write someday.

Three Cups of Deceit, by Jon Krakauer. This is probably the saddest book I've ever read. Even knowing that Jon Krakauer loves a good dispute he can really sink his teeth into - as long as he comes out in the right at the end of it; even knowing Krakauer himself has skimmed or doctored or ignored facts in his own writings; even knowing that a lot of this comes down to he said/she said: I can no longer believe anything Greg Mortenson says. Krakauer raises serious, pervasive doubts about the work Mortenson has done and the manner in which he has done it. This is a fine specimen of writing, a brutal, methodical takedown of a revered figure. I wish it didn't have a reason to exist.

Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa Alsanea. (Uh, I swear I only read this because I'm editing a master's thesis about the translation of Girls of Riyadh into English.) This is one of those books that is only good because it's about somewhere far-flung and exotic and was translated from Arabic into English. If it took place in Topeka and had less of an excuse for simple, sometimes odd English, I would probably make fun of it quite a bit. Even set in Saudi Arabia, with all the foreign-ness to hold my attention, there were some stupid parts.

Still, I enjoyed it. However, it struck me as the kind of book where a bunch of people say, "I can't believe she wrote all these lies about this place! It isn't like that at ALL." Meanwhile, a whole other bunch of people are exclaiming, "She got it all right! What an insightful commentary on our society!" I am in no position to make a judgment on that, obviously. It did remind me of a real-life The Help, though, with Saudi Arabian ladies being scandalized at this breach of privacy disguised as harmless fiction. Don't be alarmed by the excerpt on the book jacket, as I was. This is a really tame book and I would recommend it to anyone.

City of Gold, by Jim Krane. I'm not sorry I didn't read this book before moving to the UAE, but I do wish I had read it sooner after our arrival. It answered so many questions I've had about Dubai over the last few months, and I loved all the great "insider" stories. I also appreciated the very even-handed treatment of Dubai - the author neither fetes Dubai undeservedly nor dismisses its oddly triumphant successes. It's tempting to characterize the UAE as a backwards qausi-nation of migrant tribesman who subsisted for a milennium in abject poverty before falling into oil wealth in the latter half of the 20th century. Although this may be a true assessment - and it's the perspective I saw when living in other Arab countries - it is not a fair one. Dubai really is an amazing place. I liked this passage, which describes what I love about this city:
"Dubai is simultaneously the planet's most cosmopolitan and tolerant city, a beacon of peace and prosperity where all of mankind is welcome - as long as you work."
The book is very slightly out of date, which is understandable considering the pace of change here. Specifically, Dubai Mall seems to be doing extremely well for itself these days, and the metro is up and running. Really, a fantastic book.

Son of Hamas, by Mossab Hassan Yousef. I agreed with Jeremy's review.

The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis. Miriam really liked this one!

2 comments:

Susanne said...

Thanks for the reviews. As always, I enjoyed them greatly!

Jill said...

I loved Girls of Riyadh and I have no excuse

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