Dec 31, 2015

Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors, by Brian A. Catlos

Ending the year on a non-fiction note, I picked up a book that has much relevance to my area of study in college. And up front, I'll admit that I skipped the last fifty pages since it was information on the Crusades with which I was already quite familiar. The subtitle to this work is "Faith, power, and violence in the age of Crusade and Jihad." It's an academic, approachable look at the Mediterranean (specifically Spain, North Africa, Sicily, and the Near East) during the Middle Ages, a time when borders were fluid and Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived mostly together and mostly peacefully. Catlos's thesis is that the primary sources that seem to indicate that religion was a major cause of discordance and violence in the medieval Mediterranean world give a false impression; instead, Catlos argues that religion was simply an easy tool to utilize when one wanted to damage someone personally or politically. A Jewish wazir was only attacked because of his Jewish identity when he angered Muslim taxpayers; an Armenian Christian wazir was excoriated for his Christianity only after personally refusing a loan to a Muslim administrator. Religion, far from being divisive, was simply another means to a political end.

Catlos argues his point well, though he tends to restate his thesis a little more often than is necessary. His chapter on the Cid is particularly interesting, as it parses the well-known legend into its real world history. He could have focused more on the turning point of religions relations, where instead he suddenly jumps into it with the announcement of the First Crusade in 1095. But it's a well-written, extremely well-researched book, another strong exhibit for the argument that the three Peoples of the Book can, and did, get along well enough without religious invective and violence.

Dec 10, 2015

Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett's wonderfully funny and whimsical Discworld novels always have a bit of philosophy in them, but I found this book to be especially deep. When the beings who run the universe decide to get rid of human life, their first move is to do away with the Hogfather (the Discworld's version of Santa Claus). Why? Because belief, Pratchett postulates, is what makes us human. As children, we have to learn to believe in the little things, such as the Tooth Fairy, before we can believe in bigger concepts like justice and mercy. These are not absolutes; they are concepts, ideas, impermanent and fragile. Once again, Terry Pratchett's humor and wisdom have impressed me mightily.

Dec 6, 2015

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree Jr.

I had never heard of this author when this collection of his short stories popped up on a "best of sci fi" list I read a couple of years ago. I bought a copy and it sat on my shelf, thick and blue, until I decided to bite the bullet and try it. What an impressive, surprising, incredible piece of work. James Tiptree Jr. was the nom de plume of Alice B. Sheldon, who started writing science fiction short stories under that name in the late 1960s. Her luminous stories soon took home awards and she developed a large, devoted fan base with whom she corresponded quite freely, despite never being seen in public. Her writing was known for its philosophical, cynically tinged hard sci fi with beautiful titles and not an inconsiderable amount of feminism. Her career remained strong after she was revealed to be a woman, but a life-long struggle with depression ended in her suicide.

These stories are nearly indescribable. Terribly imaginative, one can easily see the influence they have had on future science fiction writers. I was reminded of "Station Eleven" at the very first story, "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain." Her writing is almost too good to bear; paragraphs of solid, wrenching emotion pull strenuously at the heart and soul and you are almost too afraid to read on while simultaneously devouring every page as quickly as possible. Tiptree's cynicism towards humanity, especially men, is laid bare on the page, the inevitable nature of our animal spirits striving vainly to reach some sort of greater height but always falling just short. What an incredible talent, what an amazing writer.

Dec 1, 2015

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, by Jackie Copleton

It's hard to write a lovely book about nuclear warfare, but newcomer Jackie Copleton has managed to do just that. Ameratsu, when we first meet her, is an elderly widower living in Pennsylvania, lonely and veering into alcoholism. A knock on her door reveals a middle aged Japanese man, clearly marked by the scars of the atom bomb, who claims to be her dead grandson. The story proceeds back and forth through time - the moment the bomb is dropped on Nagasaki, the years and months just before the bomb, the weeks after, and Ameratsu's own youth. Her daughter, Yuko, was instantly killed as she waited for her mother in Nagasaki's cathedral, right in the middle of the bomb zone, and Ameratsu has always blamed herself for her daughter's presence in the city that killed her. Could Hideo, this man on her doorstop, possibly be that daughter's son?

Each chapter is preceded by a Japanese word and its meaning, usually colloquial or traditional. Though I generally dislike chapter epigraphs because I always forget them anyways and thus lose their significance, these are relevant to understanding the nuances of Japanese culture each chapter circles around. It's a beautifully written and very touching novel.