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Recent Reading: November 2017

Here’s what I’ve been reading lately: short stories, a memoir, a post-apocalyptic murder mystery, and a fascinating book about Islamism.

An open notebook, a pen, and a stack of old hardcover books rest upon a wooden table.
Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace with Dan Ozzi

Hachette Books, 2016.

Laura Jane Grace is the frontwoman for the punk rock band Against Me!. Against Me! is a great band, and Tranny is a great book.

There are two intersecting storylines that the book follows: Laura dealing with being transgender, and the band’s journey from being little-known DIY punks to signing with a major record label and beyond. Both of those journeys are fascinating and emotionally compelling. As someone who has not read much about the music industry, punk rock music, or being transgender, I found Tranny to be an accessible and gripping introduction to all of those topics. And if you are familiar with either transgenderism or puck rock music, I doubt you’ve encountered these two subjects tied up together in the unique way that they are in Laura Jane Grace’s life.

Moreover, Tranny was just a fun read that gave me insights into a band I like. It makes me want to read more about bands and the music industry.

I strongly recommend this book to everyone.

Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn

John Joseph Adams Books, 2017.

Bannerless is a post-apocalyptic murder mystery, and it’s as fun as that sounds like.

Carrie Vaughn’s prose is superb. It is accessible, immediate, and packs a punch when she wants it to.

Bannerless has a split narrative, with chapters alternating between the present-day murder mystery and a coming-of-age tale for the protagonist. In Bannerless, the split structure is executed marvelously. Each narrative thread paralleled and informed the other, so that after finishing a chapter I was not only excited to read the next chapter in that narrative thread, but I was also excited to simply read the next chapter. Often, novels with a split narrative structure leave me frustrated, wanting to skip ahead to stay with one narrative thread, but Bannerless is the best deployment of a split narrative structure I have come across—and that’s saying something, because I’ve read The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. (I think I would argue that while The Dispossessed is a better book, Bannerless makes better use of the split narrative structure.)

Another thing I liked about Bannerless is the way it envisions community. The base social unit in Bannerless is the household; most households in the book consist of either multiple generations of one family or of multiple families living together. Although we don’t get to see too much of it, I really liked the dynamic in Enid’s Serenity household, which comprises of Enid, her partner, and another adult couple.

Nightmare Magazine Issue 49: People of Colo(u)r Destory Horror! edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Tananarive Due, and Maurice Broaddus

October 2016.

My two favorite stories in this collection are “A Diet of Worms” by Valerie Valdes and “Wet Pain” by Terence Taylor.

A Diet of Worms” is an existential horror story about working a dead-end job at a movie theatre. What’s horrific in this story is the prospect of working a shitty dead-end job for all of one’s life. “A Diet of Worms” is told in second-person present-tense, which can easily feel awkward and contrived, but Valdes actually makes great use of this narrative mode. I really enjoyed this unique story.

“Wet Pain” is about the long-distance friendship between two friends. When one of them moves back to New Orleans, something starts changing him in ominous ways. What’s horrific in this story is American racism; it almost takes on the qualities of an otherworldly virus. At 10,000 words, “Wet Pain” qualifies as a novelette rather than a short story, and Taylor does a fantastic job slowly building up the terror and surrealism with each page.

Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World by Shadi Hamid

St. Martin's Press, 2016.

Islamic Exceptionalism is a fascinating book about Islamism, liberalism, and democracy in the present-day Middle East. Shadi Hamid defines Islamist movements as “those that believe Islam or Islamic law should play a central role in political life and explicitly organize around those goals in the public arena.” He writes, “Though they now find themselves eclipsed by radicals, the most politically influential Islamist groups have generally been of the mainstream and nonviolent variety, so it’s worth focusing considerable attention on them, even if they may not be the ones who, today, attract the most headlines.” Islamic Exceptionalism is an important book because Hamid takes time to explain, with context and history, mainstream Islamism and its place across the contemporary Middle East. Mainstream Islamism is a central force animating much of Middle Eastern politics that, when discussed in the West (if and when that happens), is often spoken of in prejudiced ways by the far right. If you want a solid, well-researched, level-headed introduction to these important political movements, Islamic Exceptionalism is a must-read.

Hamid writes, “Two related arguments form the core of the first half of this book. The first is that Islam is, in fact, distinctive in how it relates to politics. Islam is different. […] This admittedly is a controversial, even troubling claim, especially in the context of rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and Europe. ‘Islamic Exceptionalism,’ however, is neither good nor bad. It just is, and we need to understand it and respect it, even if it runs counter to our own hopes and preferences. Second, because the relationship between Islam and politics is distinctive, a replay of the Western model—Protestant Reformation followed by an enlightenment in which religion is gradually pushed into the private realm—is unlikely.” Like any good liberal, I get a little anxious when I read that: “Islam is different.” It reminds me of Donald Trump calling for a “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” Indeed, this book occupies politically sensitive territory when it makes that first argument. However, that said, I found Hamid’s argument well-researched and carefully crafted, with a respectable sense of academic detachment. In short, I found Hamid’s argument generally convincing.

“The second half of this book,” Hamid writes, “is about the different, contrasting models of how to resolve the dilemma of the once and future Islamic state.” Hamid surveys mainstream Islamist movements in Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia, before focusing on the Islamic State for a chapter. The final chapter examines how to balance the tensions between Islamism, liberalism, and democracy.

In exploring the role of Islamism in contemporary Middle Eastern politics, Hamid has some fascinating insights into liberalism and democracy more generally. In the West, we often use the phrase “liberal democracy” to describe our modes of government, and correspondingly we tend to imagine that liberalism and democracy go hand-in-hand. But what about when they don’t? States in the Middle East threaten to become illiberal democracies, places where liberalism and democracy are actually competing values. How do you understand, compare, and rank liberalism and democracy when they fall in tension with each other?

Islamic Exceptionalism surveys and evaluates different models of integrating (or separating) society, religion, and politics, and in doing so, this book was actually fantastic fodder for SF world-building. It made me ponder different shapes religions can take and different modes of interaction between religion and the state. What if a religion is legalistic? What if a legalistic tradition develops within a context of dispossession and diaspora? Within a context of governance? Does the state suppress religious expression? Protect it? Not care? Are citizens governed by nationwide laws? Or are subjects governed by the rules, regulations, and norms of their own religious and ethnic groups? How are constitutions created? How is power shared between different social groups? Is the state a democracy? If so, is it a liberal democracy? Are liberal vetos built into the system to protect against majoritarian rule? How big must the majority be before it can overrule the veto? What if a significant majority doesn’t want liberal vetos? How are the values of liberalism and democracy balanced? How polarized is the populace? How powerful is the state? How high are the stakes? All these questions were floating through my head as I read this book. So if contemporary politics aren’t your thing but you do like to create imagined worlds (and you have some interest in politics and religion), this book will actually be a fantastic research tool for you.