Saturday, August 14, 2010

Book Thoughts: Children of Dust

Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The book is truly written in memoir fashion, taking the reader from the author's young years in Pakistan to his teenage years in America (primarily Alabama) and some of his young adult travels involving college and work, including a trip back to Pakistan. Initially, it was difficult (for me) to get into the book as each chapter was somewhat of a short disjointed snippet, each relaying a seemingly random experience. It tends to come together as it approaches the middle and end, where those quick snippets into the author's mind assists in understanding the impact of later events. Thus, after a slow start, it picks up and becomes an informative read to an individual's experience with Islam.

There were a couple things I found noteworthy while reading it. First, while Eteraz didn't start this way, for awhile he become a conservative or fundamentalist practitioner of Islam. I think too often, at least in representations in the media and simply in general conversation, we tend to associate fundamentalist Islam with terrorism (I understand many who associate any Islam with terrorism, but that's a whole other issue). What's interesting is that while he was practicing his religion in this fashion, observing strictly the ideas regarding diet, dress, roles for men and women, etc., the September 11 attacks happened; and the author was abhorred by it. Its good to remember that conservative/fundamentalist Islam is not much different (in certain ways) then conservative or fundamentalist Christianity. They provide for strict adherence to (even in a literal sense) to their respective scripture, tend to call for "traditional" roles regarding men and women, and have similar views on various "social" issues, homosexuality for example. Thus, when an individual, who happens to be practicing a fundamentalist version of Christianity, murders a doctor who performs abortion, or commits any act of violence, we shouldn't thrust that act onto the religion. We tend to avoid using the language of terrorist when the perpetrator is Christian, and reserve it for use in cases where the persons happens to be Islam. Throughout reading the book, I found it a useful reminder that a person that commits such atrocity should be defined first by that act, not by their happenstance chosen religion. This is tending to become a larger digression than I intended, but with certain current debates (i.e., the Islamic Center near Ground Zero), it has been in my consciousness while reading this book.

Second, was the similar reaction from people in the author's background and many of today's Christians towards science. I do not personally understand the fear or apprehension (not sure of the right word) that certain religious tradition has towards the scientific discovery and explanation of our natural world. I would suppose that is has something to deal with in the past that religion has venture to explain the going ons and occurrences in nature, and now science, in many cases, has presented conflicting conclusions; and people refuse to leave their authority of their religion, as they would be unsure of what that would mean, for them, and the religion. But that's purely my speculation; I just wanted to note that I find the similar reaction to those issues among Islam and Christianity to point to similar religions tradition, history, and development than one might realize at first glance.

In any event, after kind of a slow beginning for me, the book read very well, and is thought-provoking and provides an opportunity for reflection considering the ever increasing contact between differing religions and differing religious people.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Book Thoughts: Middlesex


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Finally finished reading “Middlesex” over the weekend. Its been a book that has been on my radar for awhile, but it always seemed like I was caught in reading other things. Then, when I finally got around to it, I had a ton of reading to do at work, which made my progress through the book slower than I would have liked. But, good things spring from perseverance, and I am glad to have finally read this book. The novel has so many differing angles to it that its one I could easily imagine being taught in freshman college classes, yielding great discussion.

The book is written in memoir fashion by one of the more engaging narrators in contemporary literature, Cal Stephanides, a 41 year old hermaphrodite who was raised as a girl, Calliope. The book progresses from Cal's grandparents in their village in Greece/Turkey in the early 1920s and their journey to America, and the secret that haunts their family's history. They move to Detroit, so the reader gets glimpses of prohibition, the Depression and World War II, the boom of the 50s, the race riots and white flight of the 60s; all as a background to the incredible journey of self-discovery undertaken by the narrator, who was born in 1960.

As the book covers so much ground, there is much it causes its reader to reflect upon. The immigrant experience – the motives behind immigration; the fear and exhilaration experienced throughout the process; the assimilating into a new culture without forgetting the old; the challenge, prejudice, and discrimination faced; and finally, whether the dream achieved is truly the dream realized. As with any book that spans the 1960s, there's time to consider the effect the social upheaval had on individual families; the pain caused to parents and their children in attempting to find one another despite vehement disagreements over government policy and social mores.

Personally, the most fascinating aspect of the book was the opportunity to reflect on the gender stereotypes we have in society, how they are formed and cultivated, how they effect a child's perspective of the world, and how they effect the ability of a mother and a father to address those stereotypes, one way or the other, in their own child. The book presents the old nature versus nurture debate that was so popular before the current wave of evolutionary biology started changing so many ideas. Outside of inherent biology, what differences are brought about in males and females as a result of culture, as a result of rearing? Can culture (nurture) completely override nature, or is nature always triumphant in such a battle? Why do we maintain specific ideas about the role of gender, and are those ideas helpful or a hindrance?

All this and more comes to my mind throughout the reading of the narrator's journey from Calliope to Cal. The book is thoughtful, insightful, and extremely well written. In a way, it almost feels sad to be finished; it leaves you wanting to get to know Cal better and understand even more his complex personal identity history.