Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

The Children's Book

Reading The Children's Book is a little like opening a long-abandoned toy cupboard and finding childhood thoughts and feelings inside, tattered and worn and well-remembered, rather than the playthings one might have expected. We recognize Byatt as masterful even as she begins, for in the first chapter one feels the power of her rich imagination: a young runaway is found sketching designs from originals deep within the bowels of an art museum during turn-of-the-19th-century London. The scurry of the 21st century is nowhere apparent as the author slowly unfolds a complicated set, and peoples it with many characters. This is a book one must slow down to appreciate.

Byatt might liken her novel to the work of a potter--she writes that the air inside a pot is part of the experience of the pot, and the form and glaze on a pot cannot alone capture the pot's essence. Perhaps the thoughts and feelings that a book inspires is what makes a novel art more than simply words alone. Her work is like a jeweler's art--intricate and complicated and filled with symbolism. A novel is like a dramatist's set, where the inclusion of the smallest detail focuses our attention, registers its importance, and sends us thinking in a certain direction.

I had a favorite character, Philip, and at first waited impatiently for him to show again, and when he did, I wanted him to stay. A good book could have been written about just him, the way he thought, his art, and how he made his way in the world. One could have said that of any of the many characters in the book, young and old. Byatt's skill was in revealing believable passions, scalding faults, and the real terrors the world holds for our fragile hopes. We see early 20th century England and its inhabitants in the midst of massive social and political change and realize the power and limitations of human intervention. When we close the book we feel closer in many ways to these paper people than to today's world hurtling past us too fast to comprehend.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A God who Hates by Wafa Sultan

A God Who Hates

First off, let me say that Wafa Sultan, an American psychiatrist born in Syria, is a very brave woman. She clearly believes that the Muslim religion damages believers, and says so openly, and loudly. Judging from her expectation of how such talk will be received among the primary audience for her essays, fellow Muslims, she qualifies as heroic. America is involved in fighting two wars in Muslim countries, and has contemplated another (Iran). What I’d most like to hear is that 9/11 was an aberration, that Muslim countries are filled with reasonable people who, being human, have the same general needs, desires, hopes as the rest of non-Muslims on the planet. Unfortunately, I did not get that reassurance in this book.

In an earlier review for Jean Sasson’s book, Growing Up bin Laden, I mentioned that Osama Bin Laden appears to hate his enemies more than he loves his family, his countrymen, or his country. Wafa Sultan says much the same thing about all Islamic-adherents in this book. She uses references from the Koran to illuminate the sources of the rhetoric coming from mullahs, clerics, and ordinary citizens of Muslim countries. I appreciate someone leading me through the maze of translations of the Koran and pulling out references, but I did have the uneasy feeling one may get when lines of any big, old, religious text (like the Bible) are quoted. She certainly knows more than I do about Islam, so I must defer to her insistence that these quotes are interpreted literally. Not being a big fan of the Bible, I am not sure how many out there take the words literally today. I would guess a small proportion of those that call themselves Christian are literal in their interpretation of the Bible. I have no idea whether or not I could assume the same level of rationality in the Middle East. Wafa Sultan says no.

The author makes many good points which resonate. First, she does not spare herself in her critique, but shows how Islam made her shallow, and narrow-minded in her dealings with Islam’s traditional enemies, Jews, for instance. She also points out that Muslim tend to view themselves as victims, and as such, may have held themselves back from achieving bigger things with their oil wealth and opportunities. Another good point is that the less compelling the idea (Islam), the more virulent the defenders must be to keep it alive (threatening their own people and infidels with destruction). However, the author is somewhat messianic in her message that Muslims cannot be taken at face value, and can never be trusted to interact truthfully with nonbelievers. It is a grim message, and a difficult one for Americans brought up on laissez faire and 'live and let live'. Perhaps hers is a lesson we disregard at our peril.