We Read Diverse Books August Challenge

For the month of August, your challenge is to read a book by an author of a different religion than yours, and by that I don't mean reading one by a Presbyterian if you're Pentecostal. Step right outside your own religion, whether you adhere to it through conviction or culture. Possibilities include Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Bahai, and Wicca. The book should deal with what it means to believe in or belong to that particular religion, although it doesn't have to be the central theme of the story, just something essential to it, if you understand what I mean. It should give you a good feel of what it would be like to be a Buddhist or a Muslim, for example.

Possible authors would include Khaled Hosseini, Chaim Potok, Marilynne Robinson, and Chinua Achebe. Suggestions for specific books and authors are welcome!

And if you are new to this challenge, feel free to start late and read at your own pace. This is a great exercise for expanding your understanding of what other people experience.

The concept

January's challenge

February's challenge

March's challenge

April's challenge

May's challenge

June's challenge

July's challenge

Review: Burn Baby, Burn Baby

Burn Baby

Burn Baby, Burn Baby by Kevin Craig is a raw look at abuse and disfigurement from a victim's perspective. Teenager Francis Fripp bears the scars, mental and physical, inflicted by a brutal father. He arms himself against a hostile world with sarcasm, cynicism, and profanity. The only truly bright spot in that world is his best friend from before his disfigurement, "Trig", who has stuck with him all the way and who always has his back. Trig is also everything Francis isn't: a popular, athletic A-student, dating one of the hottest girls in the school. Francis is envious, but not enough to ruin his friendship. In the meanwhile, school is hell for him, as a violent bully who has christened him "Burn Baby" sees to it that he gets regular verbal and physical abuse, which he amps up any time somebody tries to help.

And one person who tries to help is the new girl, Rachel. She has to be persistent, because her greatest roadblock is Francis himself, who cannot conceive of the notion that any girl could actually like him. Kevin Craig was himself a victim of abuse, so he comes at this subject with a deep understanding of what that kind of pain can do to a child. Francis has to fight with both himself and his environment to come to terms with his disfiguring scars, the ones on his body and the ones on his soul. It's not an easy read on any level, but I think a valuable one for anyone who has had an easier ride through life. Fortunately Craig allows some light to shine in the deep darkness here, or it would be an unbearable read.

It is not unbearable, but it is brutal. Prepare yourself for profanity, anger, violence, and a very unhappy teen culture. Prepare yourself also for hope.

Kevin Craig's website

Review: An Ember in the Ashes

EmberInTheAshes

Ye gods! as they say in Coventree1. Burning, bleeding skies! as they say in the Martial Empire. I haven't read anything as good as An Ember in the Ashes in some time. I kept being struck by the quiet inventiveness of the language ("In the ensuing silence, you could hear a tear drop.") and the brilliant handling of tension and characterization. Don't most people take several books to get to that kind of skill level?

The story is told from the viewpoints of two young people: Laia, a young woman of the Scholar people who has lost all her family but one to the brutality of the Martial Empire, and Elias, a young Martial man about to graduate from a brutal military academy to become a Mask, sort of a cross between secret police and special forces. Their paths are fated to cross of course, and the results are explosive. The Martial Empire is at a critical junction and the choices they make (and they will have to make many) will have far-reaching consequences.

The Martial Empire itself bears some similarity to Ancient Rome, but elements of many other cultures are drawn in, with the fantasy elements being mostly Arabic in flavour: jinn, efrits, ghuls.

An Ember in the Ashes is a fantasy book for teens, but that designation does make me grumble a bit. I haven't been a teenager in many, many years, and I never felt that this book was too juvenile for me. Yes, the central characters are young, but the themes are universal: conflicting loyalties, choosing between self-gratification and principles, love, betrayal... All the good stuff. And while the difference between good and evil is quite clear in this book, the mix can be complex. While the Scholars are very clearly the oppressed in this story, we find out that their past is not as virtuous as one might think, and their Resistance, while sometimes heroic, can also be venal and corrupt. And the Martial people, while clearly the oppressors, have individuals who aspire to be better and will sacrifice a great deal to do so.

The personal dynamics can also be complex. Sometimes there is no simple choice; someone will get hurt or feel betrayed. Some of the choices remain in the future, as this is clearly the first of a series, and we can't help but wonder how the dilemma will be resolved. The "good guys" blow it sometimes, and even the most evil of the evil show flashes of humanity, although admittedly very few.

The plot is fast-paced and suspenseful, which keeps us turning pages and perhaps from noticing an occasional plausibility issue (unless there is an underlying reason for those implausibilities which will be revealed in future episodes). I am particularly pleased to note that there is no foul language (unless you are so sensitive that "ten hells" sets off your alarms), no steamy sex, although desire is never far away (they're young, how could it be otherwise?) and the story does not suffer in the least because of it.

And for those following the We Read Diverse Books Challenge, this would answer nicely in a couple of categories, depending on your age and the colour of your skin.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy through a giveaway from SF Signal. No review was requested, but I wrote it anyway.

Sabaa Tahir's website

 

1The land at the heart of Disenchanted.

Review: The Name of the Rose

The-Name-of-the-Rose.jpg

The Name of the Rose has got to be the most philosophical mystery novel of all time, the one the most layered with symbolism and cryptic meanings. To fully appreciate the book that launched Umberto Eco's career as a novelist, it would be helpful to be well acquainted with several languages, at least basic notions of philosophy and logic, as well as medieval church history. Fortunately, Eco has wrapped all of this in a first-class mystery story, so readers with a less classical education can skim through the denser parts.

The novel takes place in a fictional medieval monastery (modelled very roughly on Monte Cassino) in fourteenth-century Italy. Preliminary talks between proponents of papal and imperial power are about to take place there. William of Baskerville, a Franciscan and a former inquisitor, arrives on a mission from the Emperor, accompanied by a German novice, who is the first-person narrator of the story. They find out on their arrival that a young monk has just died under suspicious circumstances. In the next seven days, there will be a series of deaths which William is tasked to investigate and hopefully put an end to, in the midst of multiple personal antagonisms and a high-level political dance between the delegates of the Pope, the Emperor, and the abbot himself.

William is a stand-in for the modern man, our window into the medieval mentality, which another very important element of the story: the medieval mind which assigns deep symbolic meaning to virtually everything, and for whom authority is more trustworthy than evidence interpreted by very fallible human beings. William is an anomaly, disabused by all the abuse of authority that he has seen, and at the forefront of the new kind of thinking that will sweep the world during the Renaissance. We find ourselves at a pivotal point in history. He is very much a Sherlock Holmes, in a world that really doesn't know what to make of him. Adso, his young assistant, is very impressed by him but also rattled profoundly. He is in many ways a Watson figure. And where is Moriarty, you ask? We spend most of the book realizing that he must exist and then finding him and, true to form, the story concludes with a dramatic between him and William-Holmes.

But because this book is more than a whodunnit, the now elderly Adso who is telling the story finds himself at the end of the book reflecting on the meaning not only of the events he witnessed but of life itself, and the meaning of everything he has ever been taught or believed.

Eco is a semiotician, someone who studies the meaning behind signs, which are themselves representatives of reality. The constant play between meaning, symbol, and reality is at the heart of this novel, and it is quite clear that he wants to bring us to a deep reflection on these things.

I was very much taken at the beginning of the story by how well Eco establishes the setting and the atmosphere. We find ourselves at the foot of the mountain on which the monastery is built on a snowy winter day, and we truly do find ourselves there, in another place and another time. It was beautifully done.

There are generous sprinklings of passages in different languages throughout the story, for the monastery is a very international place, with monks of many different nationalities, drawn to a monastery famous for its library and its learning. These are never translated, although occasionally reworded by one of the characters. Fortunately for me, my studies were in foreign languages, but the Latin was perplexing to me. This is not a fatal flaw in the book, but you might find it irritating. Anybody who likes a light read will hate this book. It is dense and requires quite a bit of thought to be appreciated. Those who enjoy the challenge will love it. It is certainly fine example of how literature can expose you to worldviews and experiences totally different from your own. The fact that it has not gone out of print in the last thirty-five years also speaks to the broadness of its appeal, despite its difficulties.

I would really love to explore the parallels between the fictional abbey and the famous Monte Cassino, but that would turn this into an analytical essay more than a review, and more to the point, would necessarily involve some serious spoilers. So I will refrain. For those who are interested in such things, Monte Cassino also inspired A Canticle for Leibowitz, an excellent work of science fiction which also provokes thought about the nature of civilization, faith, and learning.

Umberto Eco's website