The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Read: 30 January, 2013

Amir grew up in Kabul, Afghanistan, with his father, his servant, and his servant’s son. The two boys grew up without mothers, and they were raised nearly as close as brothers. But soon after the Russians invaded, an event changed both of their lives forever.

The descriptions were wonderful and I feel that I learned quite a bit about Afghani history and culture. In particular, I quite enjoyed the comparisons between the Afghanistan prior to the Russian invasion and the Afghanistan many years later, once it had fallen under the control of the Taliban.

The book is very obviously a fictional account – though it’s written as if it were a memoir, there are several instances of far too perfect resonance  such as the mirroring between the events of Amir’s childhood and his return to Afghanistan as an adult. This would ordinarily be fine, but it felt far too clunky in The Kite Runner, perhaps because the author felt the need to keep reminding his readers about it – “look, look! He has a split lip! Just like Hassan!”

There were quite a few issues in the novel with the treatment of women. Amir acknowledges several times that he “won the genetic lottery” as far as gender is concerned, but he never seems to actually do anything to mitigate this. In fact, again and again, he just seems to make things worse, as when he speaks to Soraya without her father present, knowing and acknowledging that she would be the one to suffer from the gossip that would result.

The descriptions of Hassan and his father, Ali, were disturbing. I realize that they are supposed to be martyrs and that their suffering is supposed to be all the more poignant because of their exaggerated innocence, but the fact that they are also members of the servant class makes this problematic. They are Perfect Servants, knowing exactly what their masters want at all times (even to the point of what appears to be mind reading), and are utterly self-sacrificial (literally, in Hassan’s case) in serving their masters. And this is presented as a mutual relationship, in which both Hassan and Amir are at their happiest when the former is serving the latter.

I also had some issues with Amir’s absolution. I don’t want to give too much away, but basically he has to perform a task in order to “make right” with Hassan. Thing is, he never really performs that task. He takes a beating, realises that he feels wonderfully sin-free, and then the task performs itself. It’s a very odd, impotent sort of cleansing.

The last issue I had with the book is possibly the greatest one. Amir essentially gets custody of a child who has been through some pretty horrific experiences, including sexual abuse that has lasted for at least a month. His first reaction to this is to keep touching the child (despite the child’s obvious reticence) until the child finally starts submitting. After some more stuff happens, he just kinda lives with the child and waits out the “issues” until, in a big redemptive moment, the kid may or may not begin to smile again. Yay, right? Except that at no point does he mention getting professional help for this child. I’m sure that there are refugee support groups or at least therapists who specialise in sexual abuse who may be able to help. But no, it’s just something that the child is expected to get over on his own. It left me with a really bad taste in my mouth for Amir and his wife, as they are this child’s sole lifeline and they seem so utterly oblivious to his needs.

Despite all the issues, I did really enjoy the book until Amir leaves the hospital after his “redemption.” At this point, his total inadequacy in caring properly for the child just made me angry.

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God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens

Read: 27 April, 2010

“God should be flattered: unlike most of those clamoring for his attention, Hitchens treats him like an adult.”

The above quote is from the New York Times Book Review and appears on the cover of my edition. I find it to be an excellent summary of the book, and of Hitchens’s work in general. He treats God like any other human adult, holding him responsible for the actions attributed to him, and not letting God’s celebrity status get in the way of justice.

My complaint of this book is the same as my complaint of pre-sober Hitchens in general. He has a lot of zingers and truly quotable lines, but they’re buried under a meandering and unstructured argumentation. The book is divided into chapters, but there’s no build-up or progression. It’s more like Hitchens merely writes in the train of thought and then publishes, without regard for editing.

I also didn’t like the lack of notation. He does have end-notes, but they aren’t marked in the text and mostly only provide citations for the passages he quotes. Any “facts” that he writes aren’t sourced, so it’s often difficult to check their veracity. For example, on page 110 of my edition, he write: “One recalls a governor of Texas who, asked if the Bible should also be taught in Spanish, replied that ‘if English was good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for me.'” Unfortunately, no details are provided about this incident that might help the interested look it up. No name, no year, nothing except the location. It seems plausible that it’s true, but I have no way of verifying it.

I’m being harsh on the book, but I did enjoy it. Hitchens is an excellent writer – funny, interesting, and he certainly keeps the pace moving. So this is a fine book to read while travelling or sitting by the pool. What it isn’t is a resource or an argument. It’s the fluff of the atheist library.

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Sand Daughter by Sarah Bryant

Read: 3 December, 2009

Part historical fiction and part fantasy, Sand Daughter is the story of Khalidah, born of a Djinn mother and a Bedu father.

I had just picked it up without knowing what it was about, and the first portion read like a standard historical fiction, so I was taken rather by surprise when the story veered off into fantasy territory. That’s not to say that it was unpleasant. Bryant managed to combine the two in a way that worked, inserting magic into real history while still keeping a good hold on the novel’s verisimilitude.

The storytelling was quite good, making the book very readable. This is always a plus, especially in longer works!

Another aspect that I quite enjoyed was the inclusion of a homosexual romance as one of the subplots. It’s lovely to see homosexuality dropped into a story without it being the story, normalizing it as just another possible pairing, undeserving of freakshow attention.

I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. There are aspects of the history that I could argue with, but that seems unimportant in the face of a good story. Recommended for fans of both historical fiction and fantasy, but not for purists in either genre.

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The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Read: 4 April, 2010

After years of being told that I absolutely had to read The End of Faith and seeing Harris’s TED presentation on universal morality, I finally took the plunge and bought a copy.

The book is divided into two distinct parts: the first is what doesn’t work, and the second is what Harris believes will work. What doesn’t work is, of course, religion. This part reads like must other Atheist books that have come out in recent years. Harris devotes a portion to each major religion, a little different than some books, perhaps, in that he addresses the Eastern religions as well. Of course, his focus is on the two major troublemakers of recent year, Christianity and Islam. The chapter on Islam includes four pages of Quranic quotes that are racist, anti-tolerance, anti-apostate, xenophobic, etc. That alone makes this book a valuable addition to a debater’s bookshelf!

The second portion deals with spirituality, and a way to integrate spirituality with Atheism. Harris is a proponent of meditation. Unfortunately, many of his assumptions regarding the workings of the brain run contrary to what I’ve learned, some making rather strange leaps of logic and some being downright silly. Harris seems to lose his credulity in his search for “something more.” That being said, I can appreciate what he’s trying to do even if I don’t agree with him (or think he’s gone loony).

He also has the nasty habit of dropping bombs without any explanation. He’s presumably writing for a sceptical audience, so it seems strange that he wouldn’t devote a bit more time to explaining the concepts that would set off sceptical alarm bells. For example, he says that “there also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science” (p. 41). This particular bomb is dropped without examples or explanation, just a list of book titles in the end notes (obscure books that neither my library nor my university has ever heard of).

There were some historical inaccuracies that bugged me. For example, he refers to Isis as “the goddess of fertility, [who] sports an impressive pair of cow horns.” Well, I’ve never seen Isis with cow horns. Her symbol was a throne with an egg on top. The cow horns belonged to Hathor. These sorts of little details really pulled me out of the book and made me wonder how much else he may have gotten wrong.

Despite some carelessness and strange choices, it’s a worthwhile read. I do appreciate that he attempts to ‘fill the gap’ after dismantling religion, and I would like to see more of this in the mainstream Atheist discourse. I simply don’t see his replacement as being any more rational than that which he seeks to replace.

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No god but God by Reza Aslan

This is quite a long review. If you want just the final verdict, it is this: An interesting book with some good qualities overshadowed by a persistent lack of authorial honesty.

Read: 31 July, 2009

I don’t want this review to be about whether or not I agree with Aslan. For one thing, I simply do not know enough about the subject to do this well. Secondly, whether a book is good or not does not depend on whether the reader agrees with its conclusions; my own feelings on the matter are therefore irrelevant. Having resolved myself in this way, I will be restricting this review to an internal critique only.

Overall, Aslan didn’t fare too poorly. His tone is largely reasonable throughout and, if read without close attention to detail, I could see this being a fairly persuasive book.

However, the details are important and, as we shall see, they are where Aslan keeps his devils. I was dismayed to see the number of rhetorical fallacies used throughout the book. Giving the benefit of doubt, I choose to assume that many simply result in Aslan’s inability to reconcile his beliefs with some of the evidence he has found. He has likely tricked himself into blindness with regards to the evidence’s significance (something that those of us without a vested interest in the topic are not so much in danger of).

This manifests itself most when he attempts to justify the actions of Muhammad. Perhaps the most grievous illustration comes in Aslan’s discussion of Muhammad raiding caravans: “In pre-Islamic Arabia, caravan raiding was a legitimate means for small clans to benefit from the wealth of larger ones. It was in no way considered stealing…” This is followed, one paragraph later, with: Muhammad’s followers “effectively disrupted the trade flowing in and out of Mecca. It wasn’t long before caravans entering the sacred city began complaining to the Quraysh that they no longer felt safe travelling through the region” (p. 82-3).

A few pages later, we read that Islam teaches peace and that only defensive fighting is permissible. Aslan then goes on to say that: “It is true that some verses in the Quran instruct Muhammad and his followers to ‘slay the polytheists wherever you confront them’ (9:5); to ‘carry the struggle to the hypocrites who deny the faith’ (9:73); and, especially, to ‘fight those who do not believe in God and the Last Day’ (9:29). However, it must be understood that these verses were directed specifically at the Quraysh and their clandestine partisans in Yathrib” (p. 84). These “clandestine partisans” being the people that Muhammad suspected “at once” of treachery, though there were “many possibilities” (p. 89). In other words, Islam is a religion of peace, unless you suspect someone on circumstantial evidence of being in cohoots with guys its okay to attack because Muhammad just really doesn’t like them. That Aslan, a seemingly intelligent and thoughtful individual, should fail to see the obvious issues in his arguments is astounding.

Aslan expends much ink talking about how Islam never forces conversion or treats non-Muslims unfairly, and yet an equal amount of ink appears to contradict this. Whether he talks about all the groups who rebel and refuse to pay the religious tax as soon as Muhammad dies (p. 110), or the public conversion of Muhammad’s old enemy, Hind, who “remained proudly defiant, barely masking her disgust with Muhammad and his ‘provincial’ faith” (p. 106). He even mentions the “protection tax,” or jizyah, forced onto all non-Muslims living in Muslim-controlled areas as though this were a perfectly acceptable way to treat human beings (p. 94).

So far, I have listed only examples that could legitimately stem from the author’s lack of thoughtful consideration. I expect better, but at least it is a forgiveable offence. If this were the end of it, No god but God might still have received a positive review from me. Unfortunately, some of Aslan’s word choices seem to indicate a more deliberate intent.

Sometimes, it is a problem of omission: “[F]rom the earliest days of the Islamic expansion to the bloody wars and inquisition of the Crusades to the tragic consequences of colonialism…” (p. xvi). Things the Christian West has done are “bloody” and “tragic” while things the Muslim East has done receive no adjectives at all? As is common in discussions of the tension between the East and West, there is no mention of the Battle of Tours. I have yet to figure out if this is simply obscure history that no scholar of Christian/Muslim issues has ever heard about, or if there is something more sinister in it’s lack of mention.

Sometimes Aslan chooses positive words to describe acts that clearly couldn’t have been all that positive. For example, he writes that Jews were expelled “peacefully” from a Muslim community, and then that: “only slightly more than one percent of Medina’s Jewish population” were killed during this expulsion. Perhaps our definitions of “peaceful” differ.

And there there are his translations. Having no Arabic of my own, it is difficult for me to comment in any depth, but when I read a translation of a seventh century text that uses words like “atom” (p. 213), my anachronism flag is raised. If Aslan can so deliberately falsify his source text to add to its legitimacy, what other dishonesty might he have committed? His entire interpretation of the situation in Islam, both past and present, is called in question.

One of the grossest and most reprehensible examples appears in his (brief) discussion of the veil. As the only voice for the idea that the veil is a sexist tradition, Aslan refers to Alfred, Lord Cromer. Rather than dismissing his arguments (which is given so little page room that I can only assume they are inadequately presented), he writes: “Never mind that Cromer was the founder of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage in England” (p. 73). As though this one man and his personal character embodied the whole of the argument against the veil. As though discrediting a century old British lord was a legitimate way to respond to an argument that has so many promoters – many of whom are female, many Muslim, and many both. This is such a dishonest tactic that it even has its own name – the ad hominem fallacy.

I could go on. I filled many pages of notes during my reading, but this was never intended to be a page-by-page commentary.

This is an interesting book of apologetics from a more ‘moderate’ Muslim and it brings up qutie a few interesting ideas and arguments. The problem, however, is Aslan’s inability to rationally consider and counter any opinions that he does not share. Reading this, I got the distinct impression that anyone who disagrees with him is quickly labelled as a Sunni tyrant/terrorist or a Western neo-colonialist. Aslan shows himself in numerous examples to be dishonest and, to make the identification of his lies and half-truths all the more difficult for the reader, he hides them behind a perfectly reasonable writing style.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Islam, or to Muslims wanting to learn about different perspectives. However, reader beware: read with several grains of salt handy.

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Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Read: 20 October, 2008

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s story is one of extraordinary courage. Growing up in a culture that is oppressive to women, Hirsi Ali first tries to find her sense of self in religion – trying to find the freedom she sought through Allah. The tipping point occurs when an arranged marriage sends her out of Africa and into Europe where, like a bird that has suddenly realized its cage door is wide open, she flies to Holland and seeks refugee status and, finally, comes to terms with the atheism that had been growing in her from her earliest days.

The novel is divided into two parts. The first part is devoted to her childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya. I say her “childhood” even though she remained her twenties because the culture as she describes it kept women as children, stiffling their intellectual growth. I think Hirsi Ali would be the first to agree with my use of the term. The second part of her biography opens with her arrival in Europe and subsequent cultivation of her Self.

These two parts are different in more than just content. The first shows a vulnerable girl, a child ruled over by her parents, culture, and religion. Though she does defy the authorities of her life at times, she is by and large kept as a victim. In the second part, we see her as an active participant in her life (despite the regression she suffers after the death of Theo van Gogh). Because of this, these two parts feel very differently. I found the first to be intensely powerful and emotional, frequently reducing me to tears and causing me to sleep quite poorly for a few nights! I think this is the first book that has affected me quite so deeply since childhood. The second part is far more intellectual, an exposé of the conclusions Hirsi Ali has drawn from her experiences. The reading was much slower from that point on, but no less satisfying.

Though I can’t say that I agree with every idea Hirsi Ali espouses, she certainly manages to provide a convincing and rational case for them. My mind was certainly changed on a number of issues. This is a book that satisfies on a great many levels. Though I feel that many (of all faiths and from every end of the political spectrum) may be offended by Hirsi Ali’s writings, Infidel is well worth reading. Hirsi Ali is unguarded as she speaks her mind and this is a rare quality. I recommend that everyone read it and digest it slowly. You may not agree with her conclusions, but you can only benefit from having read them.

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The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Read: 26 July, 2008

Overall, I loved this book. Dawkins is a wonderful writer and I think I would have enjoyed his style regardless of the subject matter. The only major flaw that irked me was his habit of veering off into tangents, but even this was made bare-able by not only his writing style, but also by the fact that most of his tangents were just plain interesting. Dawkins makes his case even stronger, in my opinion, by fulling admitting to and even going out of his way to point out the limits of his own personal knowledge. At several times during the book, he will say that he suspects one thing but does not know for certain, showing an inquisitive and flexible mind, both humble and confident. It’s a refreshing break from the average writer who seems all too sure of her/his omniscience.

With all that out of the way, I’d like to address a couple of issues with the book. The first is with Chapter Four or “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.” I found the whole chapter to be a disappointment. Dawkins takes the question of “if there isn’t a god, how did everything fall into place so perfectly to produce us?” and tries to answer it with science. This points him in an awkward and unnecessarily defensive position because the question itself is not a legitimate one (something he never once says outright). It’s like asking “how did my parents know to have sex at just the perfect time to conceive me?” It assumes that we are an end result, a goal that the universe has been working towards – rather than the more accurate assumption that the universe is merely ambling along in one of billions (to pick an unrealistically small number) of possible ways and we just happen to be a bi-product (one of many possibilities) that happened to emerge. There is nothing special about the production of us, whether as individuals or as a species.

Another quibble I had with the book is that Dawkins repeats multiple times that natural selection gets rid of negatives and keeps positives, which is just sloppy. What about the vast majority of mutations, which are just neutral? Or mutations that have both positive and negative expressions?I understand the need for brevity and keeping things simple, but this is a major point and something that a lot of Dawkins’s opposition can’t seem to grasp.

And the final detail that I took issue with is his statement that “[monogamy] is what we expect, and it is what we set out to achieve.” Is it? Maybe he’s right, I don’t know. Maybe monogamy really is the default. But that’s not what even the quickest glance around the diversity of human societies in the world today will tell me. Many societies involve one man and several women, some even involve one woman and several men. If monogamy truly is the natural default, why isn’t this expression universal? Like I said, maybe he’s right – but because his statement was counter-intuitive, the existence of polygamous societies should have been addressed.

With all that said, this was a fabulous book and I am very glad that I’ve read it. It ought to have stayed on topic a little better, but that’s okay. There were no parts of the book that I felt weren’t worth reading and that’s more than I can say for most books.

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Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Read: 2005

Piscine Molitor Patel (known to all as Pi Patel) is the son of a zoo owner. He’s an exceptionally bright young man and shows his maturity quite clearly when it comes to religion. He’s a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Christian, all at the same time. But soon, political discontent drives his family out of India and towards Canada. The zoo is sold, the bags are packed, and the whole family (including several animals on their way to American zoos) board the Tsimtsum, a Japanese cargo ship with a Taiwanese crew.

“The ship sunk,” begins Part II. From that point on, this is a story of survival against amazing odds. Not only does Pi Patel survive 227 days in the Pacific Ocean, but he does it in the company of an adult male Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The thing I love most about this book is the fact that you can read it once and interpret the story one way, but then you can read it again and see everything differently. The revelation of Part III is certainly really good food for thought. There’s the literal interpretation of seeing the boy on a life-raft with a tiger. Then there is the alternative story given at the end of the boy on a life-raft struggling with his inner beast while trying to keep his humanity. Then, of course, there’s the third possibility that the entire story is complete fiction and is just about a boy maturing and struggling with the different influences in his life. It’s easy, especially as an English major, to really read too far into books and see things that just aren’t there. But I think Yann Martel makes it quite clear that all three of these interpretations are intentional. Heck, he even gives us two of them up front!

Another thing I loved about the story was the three part system. Part I deals with introducing Pi and the society he is coming out of. I found that what I read in Part I really brought Pi to life and let me identify with him enough that I really cared about what happened to him in Part II. I had bonded with him enough that when he suffered in Part II, I suffered as well. When he started to lose touch with his humanity (like when he suddenly notices that he’s eating like a tiger), I really feared for him. Thank goodness Part I ends with the message: “This story has a happy ending.” I think it would have been very difficult and painful to read otherwise. Part II is his struggle on the raft. Part III is his interview in which he explains what happens. I found this to be a really important part. It’s also a very interesting part in its function. It serves not only to ridicule the idea that the concept of the book (a boy surviving that long in the pacific with a tiger) is preposterous, but also serves to introduce a whole new perspective and the possibility that none of it might have happened at all (I mean that within the book’s fictional world).

Several people I have spoken to have said that the transition is too abrupt. Of course, it would have to be since that’s exactly what it was for Pi Patel: abrupt. But I’ve heard many times that there’s too much character development at the beginning to wade through before getting to the meat of the story. To each her own, I suppose.

One final fantastic point I just want to bring up in relation to the two possible stories offered by Martel is the idea that the more interesting story is more important than the story that is true. So that’s what Martel leaves us with: “Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?” Which is more important to you, a good story or the truth?

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