Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Son of Hamas by Mosab Hassan Yousef

Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices

This book left me terribly conflicted. I was forming an opinion of the author and his actions as I read, but his postscript turned my opinions around at the end. I was left with lots of discussion material, and lots of questions. This is a great reading club book.

This man, born and raised in the Palestinian settlements of the West Bank, is the son of a leading Hamas figure. Jailed by the Israelis at eighteen years old, he becomes an informant for the Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence service upon his release. His recruitment is detailed in the book, and it is classic. The good-looking, polite, smiling, soft-talking, friendly blond recruiter takes this essentially fatherless youth from an extreme prison situation and explains the delicacy of his position.

One can only imagine the exhaustion of those involved with demands for Palestinian rights--over forty years they have been living in increasingly putrid settlements feasting on hate and resentment. I am not going to judge this man, but I will say that I was aghast and horrified to read of his role as informant. I completely understand how one can see the contradictions in the Qur'an, and reject its literalness. I completely understand how one would want to get away from the misinformation, boredom, sanctity-of-death mirage, and cruel inequities of life on the West Bank as a Palestinian. He sounds like an ordinary young man with extraordinary demands placed upon him.

Yousef is clearly a religious man. His father is a cleric, and taught him the importance of the written word. When Yousef failed to find comfort and peace (and perhaps justification for his chosen path) in the words and teachings of the Qur'an, he found what he sought in the words of Jesus Christ in the Bible's New Testament. I was astonished to read in his early years studying Christianity that he found no violence or vengeance in the Bible. Later we learn he'd never read the Old Testament. Years on now, he has probably found that Christians can be as closed and vehement and intolerant as any Muslim, as full of righteous indignation and fervid vengeance as any Israeli Jew. And none of it matters so much as the constant, plodding insistence on trying to see and speak reason, to live an admirable and courageous life, to give and receive love. I imagine all the religions write about this, but hardly anyone actually lives it. It is not for me to judge Yousef. That is between him and his God.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Big Short by Michael Lewis

The Big Short

Lawd. This book took my breath away. I remember what I was doing at several critical moments described in the book and to have been so unaware makes me breathless. I learned things and feel oddly vindicated and cheated at the same time. I knew dumb people were making money with my money: vindicated. I thought some people in the government might be smart enough to realize what happened and know what to do: cheated.

Michael Lewis played two roles in writing this book about the subprime loan debacle. One the one hand he did the plebian job of untangling a very messy ball of knotted threads and on the other hand did a herculean job of elevating the discussion above the rock-slinging and shouting to which some angry losers are wont to resort. His characterizations of those involved on both sides of the trades are intimate enough to involve our emotions as well as our interest, but I think what really charmed me was the absurdity of some phrases that matched so perfectly the absurdities he was describing:
Inside Morgan Stanley, the subprime lending boom created a who-put-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter moment. (p.201)

Osama and his team of bombers couldn't have done what our own Wall Street firms and their rating agencies and regulators did to the U.S. people and to the credibility of the U.S. government:
It was as if bombs of differing sizes had been placed in virtually every major financial institution. The fuses had been lit and could not be extinguished. All that remained was to observe the speed of the spark, and the size of the explosions. (p.225)

It seems ridiculous for me to urge you to read this book. Don't read it. You'll sleep better. But please don't go investing on Wall Street unless you want your nuts torn off.

Rock and Roll Jihad by Salman Ahmad

Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star's Revolution

The best thing I liked about this book is something that is not in it: the music. As a result of reading of Ahmad's struggle to be a musician in a country that no longer valued new forms of musical expression (Pakistan in its ideologue phase), I downloaded some of his music and found it fascinating and accessible, retaining some essential South Asian characteristics while sharing some of our instruments, rhythms, and feel. But Ahmad does a good job of showing the trajectory of his life, the choices he made, the kismet he enjoyed, the focus he retained. What struck me most was that through his telescope, time in Pakistan became a lens through which we view could changes in the society, and in the government. One can see that the rich cultural underpinnings of the society are squelched by religious fervor for a period of time, like a wave. In that sense, this book reads a little like a history book of modern Pakistan, and is interesting for that.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

No One Would Listen by Harry Markopolos

No One Would Listen

This is an outstanding piece of work. Bernie Madoff was investigated by Markopolos and his team over a period of ten years, and yet this book reads with all the urgency and thrills of a case unfolding now and in a short window. Markopolos admits he is not politically correct, and he holds back no punches for agencies that obstructed, obscured, and ignored information that could have led to the detention of Madoff years before his scheme became widely known. And Markopolos is funny. The language in the book reads as though he were speaking--it has an immediacy, and an irreverence that most of us wouldn't dare commit to paper but which gives the book a refreshing and unstudied artlessness. It is so not lawyerspeak.

This is a book we all need to read. I am here to say it is no burden to put this on your reading list. It is another example of how a good democracy can work. Citizens must take notice of fraud, and speak of it, lest it overtake us. Incompetence in the regulatory agencies we hire to protect us is unacceptable. We might even recognize unfettered greed as the social ill it is. Sometimes I think Americans get confused about this--they might even admire it.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot does a great job researching the material for this book--one gets the feeling she could make anything interesting. It must have been a difficult book to write because of the yawning time lag since the death of Henrietta Lacks and sketchy family and town histories. But Skloot manages to make the material immediate, fresh, and personal by introducing us to the remains of the Lacks clan, and by sharing with us her route to uncovering the science that makes Henrietta Lacks immortal. The sheer doggedness of her pursuit and the art involved in making the story not only readable, but riveting, parallels the best scientific research, much of which is healthy doses of perspiration with dashes of inspiration. I am pleased to see the book reach the bestseller lists, not simply because this is a story we all need to know, but because Skloot has promised to set up a scholarship fund for the family with some proceeds from the book. That payback must come from this source is regrettable, but somehow payback seems required. Skloot tells us that people often ask if taking cells without permission is illegal either then (in the 1950s) or now (in 2010). It is not. But even asking the question makes it clear that those people have some sense that payback is required. What kind of payback would be fair is something we need to think on.