Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “middle east”

narfna’s #CBR4 Review #56: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Alif the Unseen is simultaneously one of the most complex books I’ve ever read and the simplest. Set in an unnamed middle-eastern security state, Alif is the story of a young hacker who has made it his mission in life to protect the internet freedom of anyone who asks for it, and who can pay. He and his hacker friends are in a constant state of war with the State and its enforcer, an amalgam of both man and software, whom they call The Hand (as in, ‘of God’). But when a broken heart spurs Alif to create a dangerous new program, the Hand comes after him and he’s caught up in a chain of events that lead him to become a fugitive, protecting himself, his childhood friend Dina, and a 1000 plus year old book given to him by the girl who broke his heart. The book is The Thousand and One Days, or the Alf Yeom, and its stories belong to the jinn, something Alif realizes only when his adventures lead him to a real-life jinn who calls himself Vikram the Vampire, and then the shit REALLY hits the fan. The Hand wants the book for his own nefarious purposes, but in Alif’s quest to protect it, his life changes in ways he never could have predicted.

Wilson’s non-stop narrative and beautiful prose is both an examination of Alif’s character and an exploration of all things unseen (I’m not going to elaborate on this, because it’s one of the pleasures of the book seeing how Wilson teases this theme throughout the novel).

I had a hard time getting into the story at first, despite Wilson’s way with words. In theory, this should have been one of the best books I’ve ever read. You bring examination of mysticism or fantastic elements into close range of technology and religion in a story and chances are I will lose my damn mind over it (see: Battlestar Galactica, for example). I think part of my problem with this was that the world Wilson was writing about made me uncomfortable, both because it’s intentionally an uncomfortable world that she’s writing about, and because her main character, Alif, is a little bit of a sheltered douchebag at the beginning of the story, and I didn’t really enjoy reading about him. But in retrospect, that’s the point. At the end of the prologue, after a scribe has just finished forcing a jinn to narrate the last of the Alf Yeom for transcription, the jinn leaves the scribe with a warning. He tells the scribe that once he hears the final story, he will become a different person. Even before I’d read the whole book, that line resonated with me. Even though the jinn in the story is being somewhat literal, every experience that we have as human beings changes us in small ways, shaping our thoughts and personalities, and what are stories if not experiences?

There is no paradigm of comparison that I can easily fit this novel into. I’ve never read anything like it. Whether that’s because it’s the first of its kind or because I need to stretch my horizons, I don’t konw. This is not the Middle-Eastern Harry Potter. This is not “The Golden Compass for the Arab Spring,” as Steven Hall is quoted as saying on the blurb on the back of the book. It’s not even close. I would even go so far as to say they’re diametrically opposed to one another. The Golden Compass is about the death of spirituality and innocence, and Alif the Unseen is about its rebirth. Alif the Unseen is about the re-discovery of things ignored, things not believed in, things that are hidden like treasures. This book is about learning to believe again in things that we have hidden from ourselves. Wilson’s book positiviely screams out her belief that there is power in the unseen, both mystically and religiously, and in terms of the people who are made unseen by the domination and tyranny of others. It’s about an ungrateful, spiritually barren young man learning to discover the wonders in his life that were there all along, but he was just to willful to see them. It’s about learning to accept the spiritual, unquantifiable part of life without feeling shame. As one jinn tells Alif, “Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent.”

Plus, it’s full of beautiful passages like this:

“I have had much experience with the unclean and uncivilized in the recent past. Shall I tell you what I discovered? I am not the state of my feet. I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts. If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray at any time since my arrest. But I did pray, because I am not these things. I the end, I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word God.”

This is the type of book you come back to, that you re-read over and over again to delve for meaning, and the kind that makes it possible to do so, giving you a different answer every time you ask the same question. This is a book ripe for literary analysis, for inquiring minds to rip it apart and put it back together. I like it more and more the longer I think about it. And yet, as dense as it is, it’s also light and terrificaly readable. It’s scary and thrilling and has magic and genies and shit, and you can totally ignore the thinky parts if you’re inclined to not, you know, using your brain and stuff. It’s a win-win for everybody, really.

The only people I wouldn’t recommend this book to are racists, and fuck those guys anyways.

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Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #70: The Innocent by David Baldacci

Baldacci’s latest thriller is a decent recovery from Zero Day, his previous most recent novel and an unexpected bomb, in my opinion (see my earlier review). The Innocent has likeable if unoriginal characters, an exciting if somewhat predictable plot, plenty of gore, a touch of romance, and just enough of a political tinge to keep it interesting but still politically correct.

Baldacci once again centers much of the action in the Washington DC/Northern Virginia area he knows so well, and builds his story around a U.S. government assassin who only questions his life and those who deploy him when he is ordered—but refuses–to kill his target, a working mother of two right in the nation’s capitol. She is not the drug cartel boss, terrorist financier, and so forth he usually is sent after, and besides, she has two cute kids. Trained killer Will Robie suddenly discovers he has a soft spot for helpless females, babies, and a smart-ass teenage girl he encounters running for her life. Robie and the girl end up going on the run together, trying to figure out who killed her parents and is after her, and who ordered him to do a bad hit and then tried to kill him.

At first, their two stories appear to be unrelated, but little by little, the clues, the victims, and the story lines cross, until it becomes evident that there is a huge conspiracy afoot, and the players are very high up inside U.S. intelligence, defense and law enforcement. The big disappointment to me is that, while Baldacci’s plot gave him ample ammunition for going after real corruption inside the U.S. political machine, something he has not shied away from in his earlier novels, he instead chose a more clichéd approach in The Innocent. And somehow, I managed to guess rather early in the plot who the ultimate baddie was, and that was a bit of a disappointment for me.

Nonetheless, as far as Baldacci thrillers go, this one had all the right stuff and I’ll confess that I mostly enjoyed it, despite the nagging feeling that I had already read the story–or seen the movie—before.

lefaquin’s #CBR4 Review #12: The Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice

The Sisters of Sinai describes the adventures of Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, twin sisters who independently explored the Middle East in the late 1800’s and made one of the most important discoveries in biblical history. Agnes and Margaret came of age in a time when the historical accuracy of the bible was being called into question publicly. Scholars were extremely interested in amassing scientific proof to substantiate or undermine the veracity of biblical stories, and wealthy tourists were taking trips to the holy lands of Palestine and Egypt.

Born in 1843, and originally from a small town in Scotland, Agnes and Margaret were raised by their father in a somewhat unconventional manner for the time. Their father was adamant that Agnes and Margaret become well educated in an era where women were not allowed to attend most universities, and frequently took the twins traveling with him. After the death of their father, Agnes and Margaret continued their studies (they were already fluent in German, French and Italian) and began to travel independently, going to Europe, Egypt and Palestine in 1868. Their trip to the Middle East fueled their continued study of languages, driving them to study Greek, Syriac and some Arabic.

The twins do a lot more awesome stuff – to read more, head over to my full post!

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