Monday, March 23, 2009

Rush, die

NOW FINISHED: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Salman's last name is made up of two verbs. That's fun. So, I finished his book and I still feel pretty much the same way about it as I have this whole time: he's a good writer, it's basically interesting, it's weird, fanciful things happen, and I'm certain these allusions and wordplay and characters would mean more to me if I knew/cared anything about Islam, etc.

For all the hullabaloo about this book's blasphemy, it's not particularly anti- anything, although once in a while somebody calls out religion, like near the end when Sisodia says, "Fact is...religious faith, which encodes the highest aspirations of human race, is now, in our country, the servant of lowest instincts, and God is the creature of evil." That's certainly appropriate for the U.S., too. (note: that chracter stutters, but I wrote the quote from page 533 normally, instead of "cococountry" etc.)

Then again, I guess the pilgrimage to Mecca via the sea, which they expect to part and which most believe to have parted, even though bodies wash up ashore when they drown because the sea has not in fact parted, is supposed to be making fun of religious zealots a bit ... but, duh. I guess you just have to be a devout believer in some dumb crap to get your feathers ruffled when people make fun of devout believers in dumb crap.

I think the line that has most stuck with me of this entire book is what Alicja says to her daughter Alleluia Cone:

"Alicja at first offered little more than world-weariness. 'So a woman's life-plans are being smothered by a man's,' she said, not unkindly. 'So welcome to your gender.'" -- p. 358

That was funny/true. I guess a lot of the book is funny/true. The end was riveting: I definitely wanted to power through the last 100 or so pages and see what was going to happen. All in all it's worth a read and totally not worth a fatwa.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Everyone jump upon the L train

I'm still waiting for someone to say something to me as I read The Satanic Verses on the subway or bus in New York City. I look around at the diverse crowds to see if they notice me reading it -- because I always spy on what other passengers are reading -- and only half-jokingly wonder if anyone wants to say something to me about it. So far all I've had were a couple people across from me on the L train into Manhattan once who started talking to each other about it, instead of me. I heard the 30-ish girl tell her twentysomething guy friend, "No, and Cat Stevens like totally said, 'He should die,' like, he completely said he should die because of the fatwa."

She refers, of course, to when the artist formerly still known to me as Cat Stevens was widely, famously quoted as "supporting" the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing the book. Having now read a bit more about it, I think I understand what Cat Stevens, fairly new to Islam at the time, was trying to say: that blasphemy is, under Islamic law, a sin punishable by death. I think he was trying to qualify his statement a lot that if he were in an Islamic state bound by that law in that court then he would be bound to carry out the sentence, but it still didn't (doesn't) sit well, particularly with those of us who thought Cat Stevens would be on the side of goodness and non-violence in all things. He probably shouldn't have said anything at all; I think he still gets asked about it and tries to say it was a media-induced frenzy.

Frankly, the worst fallout for me personally was that after that happened 10,000 Maniacs removed their cover of "Peace Train" from their album In My Tribe and from then on it was sold with one less track and then when I wanted to replace my In My Tribe cassette with a CD it took forever to find online an old copy that included "Peace Train," and I had to pay like $40 for the CD (hello, this was 1995, pre-Napster, even), and so, yeah. Plus Natalie Merchant has since refused to sing it in concert. Good for her, but bad for those of us who'd love to hear it. It's certainly more sensible than Indigo Girls refusing to ever again play "Nashville" live, though. At least Nashville didn't advocate killing anybody. Unless you count all the God-told-me-to-go-to-war-in-Iraq nonsense songs in popular country these last few years. Which, ugh.

ANYWAY. About the book. I'm on page 433, closing in on an ending. It's such a mish-mash of peoples, although at least all the little bits are interesting. I'm not particularly moved or wowed, but it's solid. Worth a read -- particularly if you want to show off to your literary friends. (Joke, okay.) I don't suppose you can really start any trouble by reading it, as long as you're not in a mosque or Iran, although I guess back in the day you couldn't have it in, like, Malaysia or somewhere either so any hipster backpackers carrying it under one arm with Lonely Planet tucked under the other could have been majorly screwed.

My favorite part of the last couple dozen pages was a rumination on how Machiavelli is misunderstood. Saladin Chamcha, the sometimes devil character, reminds himself there are lessons to be learned from Niccolo Machiavelli:

"...a wronged man, his name...a synonym for evil; whereas in fact his staunch republicanism had earned him the rack, upon which he survived, was it three turns of the wheel?...if Niccolo could survive such tribulation and live to write that perhaps embittered, perhaps sardonic parody of the sycophantic mirror-of-princes literature..." (p. 415)

I love it! No one ever seems to agree with me that Machiavelli was just messing with us. Other parts I have recently enjoyed include all the Mount Everest talk and analogies (I like Everest things), including the character Alleluia Cone who climbs Everest, sees dead people, and then occasionally sees them in London, too. I also really liked the twelve-women-in-the-brothel part. I guess that might also be one of the blaspheming parts, comparing Mohammad's twelve wives to the twelve ladies of the evening? was so cleverly done. And it called him out on his polygamy.

Well, this is definitely a literary book, with allusions to Shakespeare, Islam, and all kinds of things, and I like it, although I'm not backing away from calling it weird just yet. Meanwhile, it's almost time to pick an 'S' author!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


NOW READING: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

I've just been humming along contentedly reading The Satanic Verses, except when taking time out to do things like take gigantic lawyer ethics exams for hours on a random Saturday. I'm just about halfway through and I have yet to find anything worth getting Muslims all in a snit, but then, I don't really pretend to understand what goes on in the heads of those who believe religion justifies violence.

So, my relationship with reading is interesting. I can't believe in only four and a half months I will again be able to read only what I want when I want ... unless of course I get some job that assigns reading to me, but that would require me to get a job so I'm not holding my breath on that one.

The Satanic Verses has a lot of weird characters running around doing a lot of weird things. It's pleasant enough, but I haven't really fallen in love with it. Every once in a while, though, there's a sentence or phrase that Rushdie puts SO WELL. He is a good writer, and I can get behind that. I may even be surprised and satisfied in the end when these characters come to some sort of resolution, if they do. I've been told I should also read Midnight's Children. We'll see.

The main weird thing that happens in this book is with each new scene you have to redetermine where and when you are. (Much like an episode of Lost, these days.) The funny thing is that Rushdie is using all these characters who I vaguely recognize are characters from the mythology of Islam --for example, I got that Mahound was Mohammed, which was apparently lost on some British reviewers when the book came out -- and sometimes I just have NO idea what is going on with them. It makes me wonder how differently the book resonates with people who have grown up with/know about the characters in the Islam story.

Today is a Jewish holiday. Apparently. I guess it's not high and holy enough for us to have the day off, but "Furim" (?) involves dressing up and giving out treats. Like a spring Hallowe'en? I'm not sure; when I tried asking some classmates why they dress up the reply was, "For the holiday." Like pulling teeth, people. Anyway, in one particular class this afternoon even the professor was dressed up, and he brought cookies. Good enough for me.

So here's the point. It just so happens that this class deals with the topic of negotiation, and my professor as part of today's discussion showed a few film clips, featuring very different looks at negotiation, from Life of Brian, Erin Brockovich, and Five Easy Pieces ("I want you to hold it between your knees!") As he brought up the Life of Brian clip from the computer, he was saying, "I don't know who this guy is supposed to be; he's running away from the Romans..." And I may be reading too much into this, but first of all I thought that it was odd that someone would show a clip from a movie JUST for the negotiation lesson (trying to get Brian to haggle in the market when he just wants to pay and continue outrunning the Roman centurions) while having no idea what the film is about. I mean, wouldn't you become at least a tiny bit curious what the movie was, even if the scene was brought to your attention by a colleague in an academic seminar or something? Wouldn't you at least look it up on Wikipedia or Netflix?

Secondly, though, I thought it seemed like an almost willful not knowing what the plot was. Here's where what may be my bias comes in: as I said, I could be reading too much into it, and by all accounts I am the one Out of My Element on Long Island asking "What holiday? Why are you dressing up? Cookies, really?" all day, and I can appreciate the subversive satisfaction to be felt by someone Jewish and devout in the face of my ignorance when they later demonstrate ignorance of anything Christ-related that many of us raised in a predominantly somewhat-Christian society take for granted ... but I still think it's weird to not have looked up the plot of the movie at ALL, and weird to claim not to know what's going on at ALL in that scene. Oh well.

The point of all these musings is that ... hmmm, I'm not sure what my point is. I guess it's that Life of Brian was controversial, making light of Jesus and all. Still, I'm told that blasphemy is a far more egregious "sin" in Islamic society than the West can understand, hence the Satanic Verses fatwa. It's supposed to be more like the revulsion and lack of sympathy we feel for child molesters, that in Islamic society they wouldn't feel bad to see a blasphemer die. THAT is messed up, I say. Get. Over. It. I've never understood, in any religion, why people think their gods and prophets are not strong enough to endure a little satire.