Sunday, June 22, 2008


Infidel is an autobiography by Ayaan Hirsi Ali - you may have heard of her. She was born in Somalia, and eventually moved to The Netherlands as a refugee where she met the director Theo van Gogh. They made a short film together and he was killed by a Muslim extremist. (I'm not ruining the book, by the way - aside from being all over the news, that's all spelled out in the first few pages.)

The first part of Hirsi Ali's book describes her life growing up in Africa. She had a pretty terrible childhood, and it's rather agonizing to read. I don't really like her writing style, which sort of goes like, and then this terrible thing happen, and then this terrible thing happened, and then this terrible thing happened...

I think she spent so much time describing her horrendous childhood for two reasons - she's trying to illustrate how difficult life is for young girls and women in the various Muslim countries and communities she lived in, and also because (she's very upfront about this) she lied in her process to get refugee status in The Netherlands, and was trying to justify her right to be there.

The second half of the book explains her experience in Holland, her intellectual awakening, her feminist awakening, and her entry into politics. Particularly after 9/11, she starts to question Islam. She writes:
I didn't want to do it, but I had to: I picked up the Quran and the hadith and started looking through them, to check. I hated to do it, because I knew that I would find Bin Ladin's quotations in there, and I didn't want to question God's word.

While so many in the west were concerned about a general backlash against Muslims and all basically all Middle Easterners, she holds that it's not a faith of peace, but a faith that's rooted in violence and, in practice, not only tolerates but encourages treating women badly and beating children. Again, she writes:
Most Muslims never delve into theology, and we rarely read the Quran; we are taught in in Arabic, which most Muslims can't speak. As a result, most people think that Islam is about peace. It is from these people, honest and kind, that the fallacy has arisen that Islam is peaceful and tolerant...True Islam, as a rigid belief system and a moral framework, leads to cruelty.

I'm all for questioning organized religion. Hirsi Ali rightly points out that the messages of religious texts we have today have been heavily influenced for centuries by the writings of men. Her message, that Islam is wrong, strikes me (who has a small amount of respect for the freedom of religion) as a simplistic response to outrageously complex reasons for violence in various societal groups. The fact that she now works for a right wing "think tank" in Washington DC (that also boasts Newt Gingrich as a "fellow") makes me wonder what her intentions really are. She certainly is for more integration of immigrants into the lands where they immigrate - but is she for the dissolution of Islam?

She's supposedly motivated by improving the lives of Islam women. How Feminism and ultra-conservativism got so mixed up, I'll never understand. But, no matter how frustrating I found her book, she made me think about these issues a little more. Even though I think she's a little bit of a crackpot, she did make me question a few of my own opinions about these issues.

Here's the short film she made with van Gogh. It's about 10 minutes long.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Small Ceremonies

Small Ceremonies (1976) is by Carol Shields, author of one of my favorite books, The Stone Diaries. If you haven't read The Stone Diaries, I implore you, get thee to a bookstore (especially if you're from Indiana). Although I like just about everything she's written, her other work hasn't wowed me like 'Diaries - until now!

Small Ceremonies is a short book, with chapters split by months (less than a year) of a woman's life. During this time, Judith, a wife, mother and author, grapples with a couple of life's mysteries (which I'll let you read for yourself). What I found so exciting about Small Ceremonies was how this woman, even though she's, you know, kind of old-ish, is still asking herself questions about her own art (writing biographies), discovering that deconstructionist truth that you can never really sum up a life in something so simple as words on a page (the same is true in Shield's book!)

With a strong feminist view, a lot of humor and a theoretical look at the art of writing, this intellectually stimulating book rivals that old favorite of mine (which won the Pulitzer Prize, if you need more convincing).

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Running with Scissors

Read Running with Scissors: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs for my new book club. A few days before I started reading it, I got my hair done, and the girl who dried my hair was nuts about A. Burroughs, and told me what a great writer he was and how he's like David Sedaris, only better. I'll tell ya, he ain't no David Sedaris. Where Sedaris is a great writer, hilarious, cultured, and sentimental without being cloying, Burroughs is ham-fisted, dull, and not at all funny. I dont' know why people are always going on about how hysterical it is - I never so much as cracked a smile.