Category Archives: Current Affairs

About Time I Read It: God and His Demons by Michael Parenti

I was introduced to the writing of Michael Parenti a million years ago. During my freshman year in college the professor of my Introduction to American Politics class assigned four or five books to read and one of which was Parenti’s  Democracy for the Few. Impressed by Parenti’s radical approach to addressing the pressing political and social issues of the day, during my early post college years I went on to read a pair of his other books, namely The Sword and the Dollar: Imperialism, Revolution, and the Arms Race and Inventing Reality: The Politics of New Media. Then, as the years went by like many of us I lost much of of my youthful idealism and with it my hunger for the writing of Michael Parenti But like an old friend you slowly drifted away from but never forget, I always perked up whenever hearing he’d written something new.

In 2010 I learned he’d written yet another book, called God and His DemonsInstead taking on the evils of unchecked capitalism or modern-day imperialism Parenti turned his sights on the abuses of religion, especially how it’s used to fleece and control the unsuspecting masses. Since Parenti is a leftist critic of the prevailing political and social order, I was curious to see how he would approach the topic of religion. I mentally added God and His Demons to my To Be Read List (TBR) and like I did so many other books promptly forgot about it.

Then a few months ago I requested my public library add the book to its catalog of available Kindle books via Overdrive. Not long after submitting my request I received an email from the library letting me know they’d purchased a copy, and that copy was available for me to check out. I downloaded God and His Demons to my Kindle Paperwhite and promptly began reading it.

If one is to properly critique something, it’s best to define exactly what one is critiquing. With that in mind Parenti begins his book by looking at what we in the West consider God. According to him, God is seen as being one of two things. One, God viewed as some kind of impersonal, supernatural life force that governs or in some way provides order to the universe. On the other hand, others see God a personified being, not only anthropomorphized but also according to critics like Parenti prone to fits of jealousy, wrath and genocide (and the occasional loving father or deliverer from evil). From there Parenti goes on to show how throughout history many have used religion as a handy tool to oppress, enslave or manipulate.

Even though Parenti is an atheist I got the impression from reading this book his goal isn’t to attack religion per se, and certainly not all religious believers. I think he mainly wants to show how religion has been used by those in power to maintain control. In contrast to many critics of religion, his targets aren’t entirely the Abrahamic faiths of the West. In one of his later chapters he spends a great deal of time showing how the ruling Buddhist clerics of Tibet maintained their oppressive feudal control over the country’s peasantry before deposed by the Chinese.

While books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great and The End of Faith might have made headlines, God and his Demons never achieved the same level of notoriety. That seems unfair because it’s a worthy book in its own right and deserves to be read along the three above mentioned religious critiques. I’m not sure God and His Demons rank among the best books I’ve read this year, but I enjoyed it. And trust me, that’s never a bad thing.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Christianity, Current Affairs, History

Books About Books: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

A book entitled The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts has got to be a bibliophile’s dream. About a year after seeing reviews of Joshua Hammer’s book flood the Internet I spotted an available copy at my public library. So, with a title like that of course I grabbed it.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the story, 500 hundred years ago the North African city of Timbuktu was the Oxford or Cambridge of the medieval Islamic world. Scholars, clerics, jurists and doctors from across the  Muslim realms came to Timbuktu to do research and exchange ideas. This was made possible in no small part by the city’s extensive collection of manuscripts covering a diverse array of subjects including philosophy, religion, science and medicine. Over time, even though Timbuktu slipped into obscurity, the manuscripts nevertheless remained hidden away in places like mosques and privates homes. Until about 10 years ago, Abdul Kader Haidara, a forward thinking Malian realized it was high time to gather the countless manuscripts spread throughout the city and place them in one climate controlled library. This would not only make the aged texts easily accessible for the world’s scholars, but more importantly it would protect them from the ravages of time and the elements.

But as the old saying goes, no good plan survives contact. In 2012 when Islamist fighters conquered the area and began imposing their interpretation of Sharia law, the city’s new rulers took a dim view of the manuscripts. Fearing for good reason the Muslim extremists saw the texts as religiously impure, Haidara made sure the library’s manuscripts were secretly extracted and hidden away throughout the area. With out saying too much, had it not been for Haidara and a number of ordinary Malian citizens who risked their lives to hide the manuscripts countless irreplaceable writings would have went up in smoke.

One of the cool surprises of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is Hammer devotes a significant amount of time showing how Mali found itself in such a dire situation. In only a few years Mali went from West African backwater to a hip, up and coming cultural Mecca, once the world discovered the nation’s vibrant indigenous music scene. But once Mali’s ethnic rivalries were amplified by larger geopolitical struggles the country became a battleground. Therefore, when the Islamists do come to Timbuktu, you the reader are able to understand the conflict in its fuller context.

Combining elements of travelogue, battlefield reporting and historical writing The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu did not leave this bibliophile disappointed.

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Filed under Africa, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, History, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

Conclave by Robert Harris

I love Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Since the rules state “each book must be by a different author and set in a different country” intrepid participants are inspired to read books representing the breadth of Europe. Let’s face it, as I’ve mentioned before on my blog, it’s easy to find books representing large countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia. But what about the small ones? And the really small ones? How about the smallest one of all? By that I mean Vatican City. My solution over the last few years has been to read a biography of a pope. (Both times I did they were short biographies of Pope John XXIII, one by Christian Feldman and the other by Thomas Cahill.) Nothing against papal biographies, but I wondered if there were other books about or set in Vatican City that I could read for the European Reading Challenge.

As luck would have it, I found a solution. Thanks to my public library I learned British novelist Robert Harris has a new novel out and it’s set in of all places the Vatican. Excited the author of the outstanding alternate history novel Fatherland had turned his literary attention to the world of high-stakes Vatican politics excited me. So I grabbed a copy of Conclave and began reading it. After weathering a few distractions I eagerly ripped through it. I’m happy to say Conclave did not disappoint me. Ian Samson writing for the Guardian called the novel “unputdownable” and I’m tempted to agree because it’s one hell of a page turner.

Named after an assembly of cardinals who meet under lock and key in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope, Conclave begins with the somewhat mysterious death of a revered reformist pope and moves quickly to the quest to elect his successor. Sequestered from the outside world, the Conclave is rife with high drama and intrigue. Like any sizable voting assembly there are factions. Not only is there a rivalry  between conservative elements (called “Trads” for their traditionalist or Pre-Vatican II views) and progressives (some from Continental Europe and America sharing liberal outlooks with a few Liberation Theologians from Latin Americans) but there’s also blocks of cardinals representing Italian, Latin American, African and Anglophone interests. Just to make things even more interesting, a mysterious Cardinal arrives in Rome just in time for the Conclave. A Filipino with a long but unpublicized history of humanitarian work in Africa and the Middle East, thanks to his secret elevation to Cardinal by the late Pope he too can vote in the Conclave.

Like any good page-turner, the story moves quickly and there’s no shortage of twists and turns. Conclave is one of those light, fast-paced pieces of contemporary fiction that’s entertaining as hell and a pleasure to read. So naturally, I have no problem recommending this wonderful novel.

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Filed under Christianity, Current Affairs, Europe, Fiction

About Time I Read It: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

My last post featured The Golem and the Jinni, a novel we read for my fiction-oriented book club. The post before that featured The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016, an anthology we read for my science and nature themed book club. The subject of this post, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness we read for my nonfiction book club. Three posts, three books, three book clubs. That’s how we roll at Maphead’s Book Blog.

Published back in 2012, The New Jim Crow has been on my list to read for half a decade or so, ever since I saw it mentioned on a number of my favorite book blogs. Alexander’s insightful, hard-hitting and heavily footnoted analysis of how and why our supposedly colorblind criminal justice system has stacked the deck against the nation’s African-American and Hispanic communities has generated and continues to generate a ton of buzz, especially among those involved in the Black Lives Matter campaign. With more considerably more African-American men languishing in prisons, jails or subject to some sort of parole or probationary restrictions than enrolled in college, all of this happening in a nation that recently boasted a two term African-American President, not to mention countless anti-discrimination laws on the books should cause any intelligent American to take a step back and ask what’s wrong with this picture.

After taking a detailed and focused look at our nation’s history Alexander concludes while America successful dismantled the old Jim Crow system of laws and practices that kept African-Americans away from voting booths, jury boxes and decent public schools and colleges a more subtle and sophisticated means of societal control has arisen in its place. This one, while officially racially blind, targets black and brown-skinned individuals in the guise of the War on Drugs and assorted get tough on crime measures. Focussing these aggressive policing measures on the nation’s African-American and Hispanic communities has resulted in not only high incarceration rates, but also political disenfranchisement; (in many states felons can’t vote) and high unemployment; (most employers are hesitant to hire ex-cons). In The New Jim Crow Alexander asserts our nation’s zealous anti-drug crusades have produced an American version of Apartheid.

I guess my only knock on The New Jim Crow is it could have used a tad more editing. Reading it, I felt Alexander’s editor could have cut about quarter of the material. By doing so it could have created a tighter and more focused book without sacrificing the author’s powerful message. Lastly, while her critics might accuse of her of bias or promoting her own political agenda, one must remember her book is a call to arms. And you can’t have a call to arms without passion.

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Filed under Current Affairs, History

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016

Although I don’t read them at the rate I used to, I’m a big fan of anthologies. You know, those end of the year compilations featuring the year’s best writing in a particular genre, whether it’s short story, essay or mystery. While I don’t consider myself a true crime aficionado, I love The Best American Crime Writing, finding those collections hard to resist whenever an available copy surfaces at my public library. But the one anthology I’ve always loved is the Best American Science and Nature Writing. So when one of my book clubs voted to read The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 I went running to the public library in search of a copy. After finding one, I leisurely plodded my way through it, reading the selections out-of-order just as I usually do with these anthologies. In the end, I was happy with The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016.

Traditionally, the knock of these kind of books is they’re”uneven”, meaning some of the selections are great, some are OK and some, well are meh. With this particular offering, I didn’t get that feeling. Of the pieces chosen for inclusion by guest editor Amy Stewart only Amy Leach’s “The Modern Moose” was not to my liking. In what some might consider a no brainer, Stewart elected to include Kathryn Schulz’s outstanding Pulitzer-prize winning New Yorker article on the horrors of a possible Cascadia mega quake “The Really Big One. ” (When her piece appeared in the New Yorker it generated a ton of buzz here in my fair city of Portland, Oregon.) On a bittersweet note, there’s a short offering from the late Oliver Sacks, one of the last things he wrote before losing his battle with cancer.

I believe behind every successful anthology is a talented editor. With that in mind, there’s pair of pieces in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 I thought for sure I wouldn’t like, but loved the hell out of them. Their very inclusion in this anthology proves Stewart was the right editor for the job. Being male, I had no desire to read Sarah Maslin Nir’s “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers” but her powerful and well-written expose of the serious health risks facing nail salon workers is top-notch. Likewise, with every Tom, Dick and Harry weighing in online with their varying opinions on autism, I figured Apoorva Mandavilli’s article “The Lost Girls” on the little known and misunderstood challenges faced by autistic females wouldn’t hold my interest. Much to my surprise it would up being one of my favorites in the anthology.

Reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 reminded how much I miss reading these anthologies. Therefore, don’t be surprised when you start seeing more of them featured on my blog.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Science

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick

If I may for a moment, channel The Most Interesting Man in the World and say I don’t always read young adult books, but when I do, I prefer something that’s socially and politically relevant. When I saw my public library had an available copy of Malala Yousafzai’s 2014 memoir I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World I decided to grab it lest someone beat me to it. I mean, it’s not everyday you get to read something authored by history’s youngest Nobel laureate. Plus, with my interest in the history and politics of South Asia, I’d be fool to pass up a chance to read I Am Malala. Lastly, considering she spoke in town about six months ago it might be wise to read Yousafzai’s memoir in the event I find myself in a conversation with someone who saw her speak that night in my hometown of Portland. (Remember, one of the keys to being a great conversationist is knowing your audience. And that requires preparation, possibly even research.)

But I was hesitant to read it because the edition I’d selection was billed as the Young Reader Edition. Was this some dumbed-down, Dick and Jane Reader version of what I assumed was a powerful memoir? So, like any decent American who needs to know something, I went running to the Internet. Luckily for me, I came across Kasey’s blog PhDs and Pigtails. Back in March of 2015 she posted an outstanding piece in which she weighed in on the pros and cons of both the original version of I Am Malala and its Young Reader Edition. In the end, while she suggested it’s best to read both versions, she preferred the Young Reader Edition. Feeling enlightened by Kasey’s recommendation I began reading I Am Malala. After whipping through it in mere days I’m happy to report Kasey did not lead my astray. I Am Malala did not disappoint me.

If you’re a half-way intelligent person who’s spent even a modicum of time reading or watching the news over the last few years, you’re probably familiar with Malala’s story. After surviving being shot three times in the head by militants who found her views on female education an affront to Islam, the Pakistani teen became an international human rights celebrity and eventual co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s about I knew about her before reading this book.

Thanks to I Am Malala I learned there’s a lot more to her story. For one, I had no idea prior to her assassination attempt she was such a vocal proponent of female eduction, doing interviews and meeting with officials. I also didn’t know how close she came to either dying or suffering major brain damage. (Or that she sought treatment in a series of four hospitals, with the last one in the United Kingdom.) But what will really stick with me after reading I am Malala is this young woman’s sense of purpose and belief in the importance of her cause, aided in no small part by her vast reservoir of self-confidence.

Not only did I enjoy this memoir, there’s a good chance at the end of the year when I look back on all the books I’ve read that I Am Malala could earn an honorable mention. This is a great book for young readers, as well as the not so young like myself.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Indian Subcontinent, Islam, Memoir

About Time I Read It: The J Curve by Ian Bremmer

The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and FallBack in 2010 while TV channel surfing I happened to land on PBS in the middle of Charlie Rose interviewing a geopolitical thinker/writer named Ian Bremmer. Bremmer had just written a book called The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and the two of them discussed recent global economic developments and China’s rise as an international power. As I sat watching the interview I found myself intrigued by Bremmer’s insights and vowed to read his recently published book. Later that year I did. But sadly, as much as I valued Bremmer’s take on the state of the world I never got around to reading more of his stuff.

Fast forward to this past summer, I happened to stumble across Bremmer’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Watching his posted videos and reading his tweets rekindled my appreciation of him. (He’s also probably the only international mover and shaker with a muppet created in his own likeness.) So much so when I discovered my public library had an available copy of his book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall I snatched it up. Unfortunately, it took me a bit longer than it should had for me to make it through his book because I kept getting distracted by other books I was reading at the time. Eventually, I  made my way through it. Overall, I enjoyed it even though I did have one minor problem with it.

That problem, which believe me isn’t a fault of Bremmer’s. The J Curve was published in 2006, making it a decade old. Therefore, the whole time I was reading the J Curve I kept asking myself how relevant his book could be. After all, much has changed since 2006. We’ve seen both the Arab Spring and the coming of ISIS. Dictators like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il have all passed away. (Chavez and Castro’s deaths could lead to greater openness in their respective countries. On the other hand, it looks like Kim Jong-il’s death has led to even more oppression and insanity.) Lastly, in recent years we’ve experienced a global rise in old school nationalism with the passing of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But in spite of all this, happily, I can say yes, The J Curve is still relevant to today’s world.

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The J Curve – Stability versus Openness

Bremmer, in his book The J Curve addresses that age-old question we, especially those involved in the fields of international politics and diplomacy have been asking for years: how does an authoritarian regime liberalize without becoming so unstable it descends into chaos resulting in political fragmentation or worse, yet another authoritarian regime. According to Bremmer, it’s no easy challenge. (Throughout the book he refers to this relationship between political stability and openness as something that can be plotted on a graph, hence the term “J Curve.”)  Over the years, Western nations like the United States has preferred to isolate authoritarian regimes like Iran, Cuba and North Korea with sanctions and censure in hopes of promoting regime change. In Bremmer’s opinion such measures end up being counter productive because the more isolated and impoverished the citizens are in these countries become, the easier it is for those running these regimes to manipulate the masses and thus stay in power. In The J Curve Bremmer looks at different authoritarian countries which succesful liberalized like South Africa, imploded like Yugoslavia and Iraq, and liberalized, imploded and then returned to authoritarianism like the Soviet Union/Russia.

My only knock on this book, really in reality is an unfair one in that it’s 10 years old. But like I said earlier, for a book a book that was published a decade ago it still feels relevant. The portions discussing challenges facing Saudi Arabia, Israel, and especially China look spot on even 10 years after he wrote them. Perhaps because of it’s relevancy after reading the J Curve I’m now inspired to read more of Bremmer’s stuff. So with that in mind, don’t be surprised if you see more of his stuff like Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World and Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World reviewed on my blog.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Economics, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Israel, Latin America/Caribbean, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey