Adventures in Reading

Fiction: Nation by Terry Pratchett

I’ve been trying to write on Terry Pratchett’s Nation for ages, so here are a handful of notes I wrote down while reading: story begins with a creation myth, looks at god superstitions, written by an atheist, some characters taught an unquestioning faith in belief, religion and/versus science.

Nation is Terry Pratchett’s most recent novel and the first in quite awhile not to occur within his fantastical Discworld series. In a bit of an alternate reality that is very similar to our own 19th Century, a tsunami strikes destroying much of the populations of this world’s equivocal South Pacific and also happens to shipwreck an English ship. The only immediate survivors are a man-child (with no soul (give me a moment on this)) MAu and a British girl going by the pseudonym Daphne.

I can think of three reasons why you would want to read this book, and the first most easily being that you love Terry Pratchett and as there is no new Discworld book this year what else are you going to read? Believe me, you won’t be disappointed!

Secondly, this is a wonderful book for young adults. Our protagonists are both at the coming-of-age period when the tsunami strikes – it’s The Lord of the Flies with much less madness and much more humor. Mau is returning home from his rite-of-passage during the disaster and his ceremony is never concluded, and thus he finds himself in limbo without his soul from childhood, but no way to enter manhood. Daphne is going to meet her father who is a member of the British Empire and one in a long queue to be the next king. Nation is interesting, thoughtful, funny, and has some brilliant speaking points: sex and gender, religion, colonization, beliefs, etc.

Three, you love atheism, hate atheism, or are interested in atheism. Pratchett, an atheist, has written a book on belief, why people believe, and perhaps even the need for some people to believe. The book concludes with a series of warnings including that the book might make you think. Unlike Pullman’s more in your face style, Pratchett is putting out the query of why do people believe and trying to present his answer.

The book concludes with Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins visiting the island. Really, what more do you need?

Conclusion: Keeper.

Other opinions: Book Addiction.


Nonfiction: In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta A. Ahmed, MD

Sourcebooks, Inc. kindly sent me a copy of the memoir In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta A. Ahmed, MD, which was perfect timing as I had just heard Ahmed’s interview on the Diane Rehm Show and was quite curious about the book. Ahmed, “a British Muslim doctor,” is denied a visa to stay within the United States and quickly makes up her mind to accept a position in Saudi Arabia. Her memoir In the Land of Invisible Women offers a unique perspective of a western woman, professional doctor, and Muslim living within the kingdom.

I feel that most of what I know about Saudi Arabia has been my interpretation of evening news’ sound bytes. Via an original and interesting perspective, Ahmed takes the reader through her experience of Saudi Arabia, particularly in Riyadh [1], where she worked as a doctor for two years at the National Guard Hospital. In the Land of Invisible Women reads as a cross between a medical narrative and a memoir, and also manages to pursue two distinctly interesting themes: a western woman’s experience within the Kingdom and a lifelong Muslim’s interaction with more extreme forms of Islam.

My only complaint about the book regard some structural issues as some chapters read as disjointed. Assumedly the format is chronological, though certainly gaps of time are missing, but the reader at times is expected to make shaky leaps between one handful of chapters, for example, that focus on Hajj season to the next handful of chapters detailing Ahmed’s experience with romance in Riyadh. Relatively a minor distraction, but it did force me to wonder if I had managed to skip pages.

What I most appreciated about this book was Ahmed’s divulgence of her opinion and how she avoided becoming dismissive of other’s beliefs. The author is consistently willing to acknowledge the complex traditions and cultures that, for example, produce both negative and positive responses to wearing the abbayah. Nevertheless, Ahmed still beautifully asserts her arguments and confronts the anti-Semitism, the sexism, and the anti-western attitudes she experienced.

In the Land of Invisible Women gave me a lot to think about, and just not about the complexities of Saudi Arabia but also my country’s, the U.S.A., interactions within the Middle East.

[1] I now have a new appreciation for The Girls of Riyadh, a book I previously shrugged off as so-so pop-literature.

Other opinions: Book Addiction.

Conclusion: Available on Bookmooch.

Revisted Reviews: Atheism by Julian Baggini

I finished Atheism: A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini. For the most part, it reassured my beliefs and choices as well as answered some of the questions I was seeking. Largely, does atheism only exist as a critique against other religions (which it seems to be in many discussions) and atheism as a belief system itself. It lightly delved into quite a few philosophical arguments for atheism and responses to arguments against atheism.

Of course, Baggini did dwell on the relationship of atheism and religion and did spend some time refuting religious beliefs and reasons to believe in religion in the sense that there are practical and factual reasons. That is, Baggini doesn’t so much as negate religion as much as realistic belief in it and the requirement of blind faith to accept it.

I think what I enjoyed most is Baggini’s look that atheism is neither a positive nor a negative outlook on life. Rather, it’s a realistic and naturalistic approach to life and that atheists can define and find their own good and bad. Too often atheism is confused with nihilism. Additionally, the book helped me to distinguish the lines between atheism and existentialism more so than I previously had.

Interestingly enough, the book included a quote from my favorite – Terry Pratchett, “I think I’m probably an atheist, but rather angry at god for not existing.” When I shared this with my partner he didn’t get it at first, but everyone reaches for belief differently and Pratchett succinctly describes my somewhat rocky journey in wanting to believe in something only to realize that what I wanted wasn’t some supernatural entity. I’ve also slowly been becoming more and more aware of the religious privilege around me.

Revisted: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

In high school I switched English levels, which left me lacking in a lot of classic high school reads. This includes authors from Twain to Salinger and just about every generic book that someone says: “Oh, I read that in high school.” This weekend I finally gave in to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter and it was brilliant. His short piece The Custom House precedes the story and it was so descriptive and funny and that’s certainly one adjective (funny) that I’ve never heard paired with Hawthorne. Most everyone seems to be familiar with the plot (especially after the 1995 film) and it all together is a rather simple story line: a married woman whose husband has disappeared has an affair and becomes pregnant. She’s forced to wear the letter A in scarlet on her bosom as punishment. From here some fabulous ideas of witchcraft and black magic pepper the story and leads to a great ending.

Over the years I’ve been slowly reading the multitude of books everyone else read in high school. For example, I still have yet to read Of Mice & Men and people accuse me of being a bad English major for this. (To which I reply that I’ve read the likes of I Am A Cat, Gargantua & Pantagruel, and Tristram Shandy and these are only a few of the titles that I can boast!) But I really enjoyed The Scarlet Letter and most recently was interested by Hawthorne’s essay on his own writing.

Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories

During my years as a literature major I have repeatedly been assigned Flannery O’Connor’s short stories A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People. These two stories seem staples in the English major repertoire, and don’t get me wrong because these are phenomenal stories, but seldom does an undergraduate read anything else. I have heard rumors of people reading The Artificial Nigger, but even with this addition that is only three stories out of her numerous books of short stories (not to mention the novels O’Connor wrote). When I started reading her Complete Stories I suppose I was just as interested in the stories I had not read as much as wondering why the previously mentioned stories are so academically popular.

All of O’Connor’s stories are focused in or at least on the southern United States, and any discussion of O’Connor cannot escape commenting on the southern gothic. I had never made the comparison until I ran across the portrait the other day, but a great way of explaining the term southern gothic is comparing it with Winslow Homer’s American Gothic. It is a quintessential representation of a geographical location and the people and customs from that region. Gothic writers tend to stereotype their characters but still maintain to perplex and astound the reader at what they reveal through their writing. Being described as southern gothic also classifies O’Connor with the southern United State’s literary tradition along with Margaret Mitchum, Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams.

O’Connor’s stories largely focus on religion and brokenness (yes, a word I am making up), and often how these themes tie together. I do not specifically recall O’Connor’s personal relationship with god, but I think it is safe to say that she was a troubled Catholic. In the introduction an excerpt from a letter from O’Connor describes, “That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence.” However, I cannot recall one story out of the thirty-one that I read that favorably represents religion, but there are quite a few stories that interestingly juxtapose atheism and christianity.

As for brokenness, all of O’Connor’s stories focus on an idea of brokenness and this is reflected in a tangible manner through her characters. Chronologically early in her writing, her characters may singularly be morally, religiously, or financially broken, but the stories she wrote later in her career also have her characters physically “broken” with missing limbs, deformities, and mental illness. For example, in Good Country People Hulga-Joy (how I fondly recall the character from class discussion) has a prosthetic leg and all of the characters can be described as broken or corrupt in a fashion.

Another theme I find fascinating, but that appears less in her writings, are her many characters relationship with the academy and education versus the “uneducated.” (By uneducated I do mean to imply ignorance or stupidity (though it would apply for certain stories), but simply characters that have received formal or public education.) This creates a terrific tension of displacement similar to Jane Austen’s character Harriet in Emma, who receives enough education from Emma to find herself displaced from the social groups she is acquainted with but without the peerage to formally belong to a different social group. O’Connor’s stories are brimming over with various themes and these are only a handful of teasers.

Both A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People were written in the middle of O’Connor’s career, and a definite development exists between her early stories and the later ones. One reason why I love the short story is because of the twist. A good short story must have a twist. For lack of a better word, a twist is the point in the story where you have to set the book down and spend time pondering, “What exactly happened?” Novels usually are developed so that the conclusion is a neat and tidy package. Certainly not all novels (one exception that comes to mind is Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale), but most novels seem to leave the reader satisfied that the story has been completed. Short stories, however, tend to build up a familiarity, then remove you from the structured comfort zone, and often purposefully leave you on edge. This process the author puts the reader through is the twist, and O’Connor’s Good Man and Good Country People have excellent twists that leave the reader feeling blindsided.

Some of O’Connor’s short stories certainly are weaker or less dynamic, but as a whole collection I am by no means disappointed. Her later stories gain in length, and I wonder (without knowing the dates) how much this bridges her shorter stories and novels. Then again, short stories should be read over and over again and I do not want to pass unfair criticism on stories I am less familiar with. As for why A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People are consistent favorites – I don’t have an answer. They are tremendous tales but valid arguments seem to exist for the inclusion of at least half the stories in this collection.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I first read Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass in high school, but for the life of me I could not recollect three-fourths of the book during my reread. The premise of the book was familiar as were certain scenes, but overall I was drawing gaping blanks. Recently The Golden Compass has had quite a bit of media attention because of the film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman (soon to be out in theatres), and perhaps more interestingly the criticism and outright banning of the film and book from religious groups.

The world of The Golden Compass is similar to our own world circa the 19th Century. Some geography and historical matters have changed, a race of talking bears exist called panserbjørnes, and every human has a sort of familiar known as a dæmon. The hero of our tale is a young girl named Lyra, and she quickly becomes involved in a theological and philosophical trip that will land her in a different world all together.

Prior to reading the book, I participated in a good bit of discourse with my co-workers regarding adult’s reactions to certain themes and language in children’s books. Reading a book at different ages will almost always result in differing interpretations. It seems what you get from a book is largely based on either what you are told to get from the book or what you are looking for. Consciously or unconsciously how we approach a book defines what themes, symbols, plot points, etc. are important to us. Our approach to a novel seems to differ every time we engage with it. Thus, how an adult, or specifically a parent, may read a book is perhaps drastically different than how a child, a parent’s own child, will engage with the same book.

The Golden Compass dragged for the first 50-pages, but it was well worth making it through those first few chapters. Lyra participates in a terrific journey that I must have been entirely oblivious to in my earlier reading. Reading the book in my 20s, Pullman – a well-known atheist – presents an intriguing and challenging commentary on the Catholic Church and theology in general. In 351 pages, Pullman slowly discloses a criticism on the brutal and unnecessary practice of various genital mutilations in religious practice and history. This is paralleled with the story as children are kidnapped to receive an “incision” that removes their dæmons, or sexual maturity or original sin, from them. The final chapters of the book quote from an adapted version of Genesis.

Considering my patchy memory, I cannot say how I interpreted these passages when I was younger. I can say that when I first heard of religious group’s criticisms of the book that I was entirely unaware of what had caused all of the excitement. I had never picked up on strictly religious criticism, but considering the ending of the book there really is not much left open for adult interpretation. To say that The Golden Compass is not outright criticizing the church is ludicrous and insulting to Pullman. However, I suppose it is little different than reading the heavy handed christian influence in The Chronicles of Narnia. More likely than not, a child will read the book for the adventure and fantasy. However, as with any book a child could become engaged and ask questions (oh, the horror!).

The Golden Compass is a grand read and one I would have no qualms handing to anyone: adult or child. Pullman has written a riveting fantasy adventure with a strong female character. An adult with only the slightest awareness of the catholic church cannot fail to read Pullman’s condemnation of church practices. Perhaps though rather than banning and censoring literature Pullman’s book can be read for the points of discussion it opens and for the magnificent story that unfolds.

Also reviews of The Golden Compass from Books I Done Read and Book Addiction.

god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens
“If one must have faith in order to believe something, or believe in something, then the likelihood of that something have any truth or value is considerably diminished.”

I have been debating on whether or not to include books of a strictly (or mostly) political nature on my blog. While of course many political debates rage fiercely in regards to fictional works such as Jane Austen, but seldom do arguments over narrative structure or character disposition result in earnest offense. However, political books certainly do exist in my personal reading repertoire and rather than shying away from public comment, which I seldom if ever do, I will attempt to represent my opinions of these pieces as best I can.

If you were born or raised in the United States, undoubtedly early on you learned of certain discussion points to avoid in social situations: (1) money, (2) politics, and (3) religion. Fortunately, my family never bothered much with these notions of politeness and instead spent a great deal of time speaking about everything. Despite my personal experience, I comfortably say that religion is certainly a point of contention for many people and I dare say it has always been this way. It seems recently, and I am sure it has blipped onto the screen in the past, that atheism has become the new chattering point with some such atheist regularly making guest appearances on television or lecture tours. During the past year, three notable atheist texts have been published: Christopher Hitchens’ god is Not Great, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation.

I finished Christopher Hitchens’ god is Not Great last evening, and it is a book I do not gush about with enthusiasm but that has provided me with a great deal of thought. While the book is located in the atheist section and certainly was written from an atheist perspective, the book has far more to do with its title than atheism. I recalled the sing-songy rhyme of my childhood declaring “god is great, god is good,” and Hitchens directly challenges this idea by listing example and explanation of religions own hypocrisy and hatred. If you do not identify as religious nothing in the book is probably too great of a surprise, but if you do consider yourself religious you may be shocked and/or insulted by what you read.

What I have gushed about is Hitchens’ brilliant rhetoric and wit. Even if you disagree with everything he says, he still remains an ingenious speaker and writer. I have read a few reviews calling Hitchens angry, which immediately calls upon my response of “what is wrong with being angry?” but after reading the book I cannot agree that he is all that angry (I found him often rather charming actually) or that when he is angry that it is not an acceptable and expected expression of emotion.

Hitchens’ concludes his book expressing his desire to see an updated version of the Enlightenment, which held particular interest for me after my recent Enlightenment inquiries in application to Jane Austen. I admit that I am a bit trumped at envisioning a New Enlightenment as the former Enlightenment was so thoroughly entrenched in a white, western, patriarchal, male, ablist, heteronormative, etc. perspective that I cannot easily imagine what a New Enlightenment embracing a wider perspective could be. However, I do believe Hitchens extends an interesting and plausible possibility to define the future of humankind in a secular world.

Overall do I recommend the book? Sure, why not? It was an enjoyable and informative read for myself though I must confess I am far more interested in his new collection of essays The Portable Atheist. However, it is a political book and being so I am sure the reader is (mostly) aware of what they are getting into as well as their response to reading such a text. I admittedly was not hugely interested in reading any of these books I have mentioned until fairly recently, but now that I have finished Hitchens’ book I do await the other books with much anticipation.

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