(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)
After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam
By Lesley Hazleton
Doubleday / ISBN: 978-1-385-52393-6
Regular readers will know that I'm already a big fan of religion journalist Lesley Hazleton, and especially after reading her bewitching Jezebel last year, in which through historical texts and contemporary journeys through the Holy Land she argued that who we've traditionally thought of as the "Whore of Babylon" was actually a tolerant, wise and popular leader in her day, forced by necessity into a villainous role by the war-mongering, monotheistic early Christians precisely in order to justify their monotheistic war-mongering. And now Hazleton has released her latest, After the Prophet, which does something pretty simple which is why I don't have a lot to say about it -- it tells in plain language the various Islamic legends of the 7th century that led to the split in their religion between so-called "Shia" and "Sunni" denominations, which Westerners can think of as the Muslim equivalent of the Protestant/Catholic split in Christianity (and which the Bush administration claimed didn't exist, which is why they argued that a transition in Iraq from a Sunni-led Saddam Hussein regime to a US-backed Shiite government would present no complications).
Yeah, as you can see, most of us could really benefit from learning a little more about this historic rift, especially since we currently have several hundreds of thousands of soldiers over there right now in the middle of all this in-fighting; and that's exactly what Hazleton's book does, is explain this rift in a way so that it's easy for Americans to follow along, but while still honoring the complexity of the story itself. It's fascinating and engaging, a balanced book which tries to be as fair as possible to both sides of the Shia/Sunni argument*, but is also a fairly straight-ahead book which is why I don't have a lot to say about it; despite the short review today, it comes highly recommended.
Out of 10: 9.3
*Now, that said, it did seem to me that Hazleton at least slightly favors the Shiites over the Sunnis; but I don't know if that's because she actually did so, or because I as an individual read both sides and just personally favored the Shia argument over the Sunni one. And what a strange realization to make, by the way, as an American who was raised as a Bible-thumping Southern Baptist; that if I were to convert to Islam tomorrow, I would almost undoubtedly be a Shiite Muslim instead of a Sunni**.
**Oh, who are we kidding? If I did convert, I would probably actually be a mystical, poetry-spouting Sufi Muslim, the third wing of Islam that gets almost no play at all. What a fascinating book this was!
The Black Heart
By Patrick O'Leary
PS Publishing / ISBN: 978-1-906-30180-4
As I've mentioned before, I'm not the biggest fan of story collections, mostly because I find short stories to lack both the length and weight to justify doing an analytical write-up about in the first place; and so that makes it tricky whenever someone sends in a book of stories for me to review, in that the collection itself may be just fine but with me having almost nothing to say about it. Take for example The Black Heart, the new collection by Weird author Patrick O'Leary, one of a whole pile of books I recently received from British small press PS Publishing; it's a perfectly decent book, just as physically gorgeous as well as all of PS's other titles, yet at the end of it I find myself with not much more to say than, "...You know, it was fine. It was fine." For what it's worth, just from a content standpoint, it shares a lot of traits with fellow PS author Robert Freeman Wexler, just so you know what you're getting yourself into; they are stories that are not quite science-fiction, not quite horror, not quite absurdist humor, but a pleasing combination of them all, stories which then have endings that many times come straight out of left field and that you will never be able to guess at beforehand. (And might I mention, by the way, how much I particularly loved "Yo-Yo, Stradivarius and Me," about a guy who one day decides to beat the sh-t out of famous classical musician Yo Yo Ma, simply because he finds himself with a random opportunity to do so, and how he accidentally then finds himself in possession of a cello worth tens of millions of dollars but that he could never in a million years actually find a buyer for.) It's enjoyable for what it is, although I just don't have much to say about it; it's for sure a title you'll want to pick up if you're a fan of Weird short stories, though.
Out of 10: 8.5
The Fortress of Solitude
By Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday / ISBN: 978-0-385-50069-6
Soon after opening CCLaP in the summer of 2007, one of the first books I had a chance to review was what at the time was Jonathan Lethem's latest, You Don't Love Me Yet; and as long-time readers remember, I found that book to be a nearly unreadable pile of horsesh-t, so bad in fact that it served as the inaugural entry of my old "Too Awful to Finish" essay series, a series I eventually shut down again because of it being just too damn mean. And that's when I started hearing from all of Lethem's fans, telling me that I should give this grad-student panty-moistener another chance, that I had simply picked the wrong book of his to start out with. "Read The Fortress of Solitude instead!" all these academes argued. "That's the good one! You'll like that! That's the one that got all the award nominations! You'll like that one!"
So this week I finally did, yet another older title I'm getting caught up with through new "Netflix for books" service BookSwim.com, which I'm in the middle of a courtesy two-month membership with, in exchange for doing a write-up about my experience here in mid-December. And it was at this point (in fact, about 50 pages in, the point when I angrily gave up on this book) that I realized that a little theory I've had about the arts for some time now seems to be coming more and more true with every new book I read, with every year I continue being a book critic: namely, academes don't know what the f-ck they're talking about, and in the process are completely wrecking the entire literary industry we all used to know and love. I mean, how else to explain these people's baffling love for this unmitigated piece of garbage, which much like Augusten Burroughs presents a ridiculously overwritten, pop-culture-laced memoir of 1970s Gen-X childhood, featuring excruciatingly precious slang-filled magic-realism dialogue and with insanely too much gravitas assigned to such plotless meanderings as kids watching bad television and eavesdropping on their intellectual parents' insultingly banal conversations?
And then I realized -- oh, right, of course, this is an early-2000s novel by a white academe about how much white people suck (specifically, the story of the "re-whitening" of Brooklyn starting in the late '70s, after the New York borough turning into an ethnic slum following World War Two, a process called "gentrification" that has by 2009 turned nearly the entire city into a Caucasian hipster fantasyland); and man, if there's one thing that's become an undeniable truism by now, it's that back in the '90s and early '00s, academes tended to automatically fall in love with preciously overwritten screeds by self-loathing white males about the horrors of their fellow Caucasians, with the same kind of burning passion that, say, dogs love licking their own f-cking balls.
F-CK YOU, SELF-LOATHING GRAD STUDENTS! Stop ruining the entire subject of literature for the rest of us by falsely trumpeting these unreadable pieces of horsesh-t by such preciously twee suck-ass fellow self-loathing academes! J-sus F-cking Chr-st, no godd-mn wonder that the general public has stopped reading novels anymore, when you all keep running around handing out awards to execrable f-cking turds like this! Please, PLEASE, for the love of GOD, no more worshipping of overwritten plotless Gen-X pop-culture-obsessed '70s-memoir drivel! PLEASE! STOP! I'M F-CKING BEGGING YOU! STOP! STOP! STOP!
Out of 10: 0.0