The Book Smuggler, by Omaima al-Khamis

Compared to the world of Mazid ibn Abdullah al-Hanafi, I live in a paradise. Whenever I have a question, I have access to an incalculable amount of information. I can call up Google, Wikipedia, and the catalogs and databases of two libraries at any time. Mazid, however, has to travel across deserts, mountains, and seas to get to libraries that may or may not have copies of books that can answer his questions. He also has to contend with growing sectarian violence, anti-intellectualism, and fracturing caliphates on his way to those libraries. Omaima al-Khamis takes us to the second decade of the eleventh century and drops us onto a caravan route between Baghdad and Jerusalem in The Book Smuggler, translated with a lovely medieval flavor by Sarah Enany.

All Mazid has ever wanted was to read books and learn. Once he is old enough, he leaves the Arabian desert and travels to Baghdad. Unfortunately for Mazid, Baghdad is no longer the shining city of learning that hosted the House of Wisdom. There are some remnants. Mazid’s abilities as a scribe and his love of learning help him find those remnants, but it isn’t long before increasing fundamentalist violence sends Mazid out into the world again—this time with a precious cargo of books full of translated Greek philosophy and science.

The Book Smuggler chronicles Mazid’s travels across the Abbasid, Fatimid, and Córdoban caliphates, from Baghdad to Jerusalem to Cairo and finally to Córdoba. (At the time, Córdoba was believed to be a haven for science, literature, and the arts). It’s a journey that takes Mazid years to complete as he moseys his way across the Islamic world. I’m not terribly familiar with medieval Islamic writing, but al-Khamis (via Enany’s translation) sounds medieval to me. Mazid interrupts his narration with side stories and the text wanders as much as he does. He also has a habit of falling instantly in love with the women he encounters. He spouts poetry at the drop of a hat and blames any bad health on imbalanced humors. The medieval flavoring takes some getting used to. Once I was in, I was hooked.

Mazid’s physical journey is mirrored by his intellectual journey, which I found almost as interesting. (I love a book that can transport me from my couch in the twenty-first century to a camel in the eleventh.) When we first meet young Mazid, he is in awe of the people and places of Baghdad. It is the city he always dreamed of as a child at his grandfather’s knee. He has complete faith in the Qu’ran and Mohammed. Although he remains a faithful Muslim, he starts to have serious questions about the imams who teach in the mosques and their followers who “police” the streets. The philosophy he reads add to his questions.

It’s never easy to be a questioner, but Mazid has a mission to guide him. Before he leaves Baghdad, he is inducted into a society called the Voyagers. These men shepherd books—especially translations of the ancient Greeks and radical thinkers from around the Islamic world—from city to city. They sell the books to intellectuals who share their questioning values, but mostly they want to make sure that these books will be safe from anti-intellectuals who want to burn anything that might make them question what they’ve been taught.

The Book Smuggler was an amazing read. It was the closest I’ve ever come to time traveling I’ve ever had while reading.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Tabula Rogeriana, by Muhammad al-Idrisi, c. 1154 CE (Image via Wikicommons, note that the map is oriented with Africa and the Arabian Peninsula at the top of the page)

The Book of Collateral Damage, by Sinan Antoon

Authors and philosophers have said it for centuries. You can’t go home again and you can never step in the same river twice, and other variations on the theme. Our memories of the past are exaggerated or rose-colored or other wise faulty, and things are never the same when we visit. Most of us, however, are not dealing with the complications of a war forever altering the landscapes of our childhood as the characters of Sinan Antoon’s achingly beautiful novel, The Book of Collateral Damage (translated impeccably, with a slight British flavor, by Jonathan Wright). This book catalogs what was lost in a way I’ve never seen before in war literature, while also asking if holding on to the past is noble or pathological.

Nameer al-Baghdadi left Baghdad with this family in 1993, after the Gulf War. He’s made a career in academia, but he’s never mentally shifted his identity as an exiled Iraqi. The Book of Collateral Damage opens as Nameer returns to Baghdad after ten years, to help a pair of Californians made a documentary about life during the Iraq War and the American occupation. On his very last day before returning to America, Nameer meets Wadood Abdulkarim, a bookseller who tells Nameer that he is working on a project to document all of the things lost during the first minute of the Iraq War: books and photographs that burned, trees and structures and statues damaged by bombs. It’s clear that Wadood is deeply damaged, psychologically. He was tortured by Saddam’s agents. Before that, he was a deserter from the Iraqi Army. The only thing that seems to give him some peace is collecting information about what was lost.

Wadood gives Nameer a portion of his colloquy (a conversation, but here used to describe Wadood’s narratives in the voice of lost and destroyed things) to take back to America. There are a lot of verbs I could use to describe what those pages do to Nameer. If you asked Nameer, he might say that the pages enchant, fascinate, and engage him. If you ask his friends, they might say that Wadood’s Quixotic literary effort has infected Nameer. And I think if you ask Mariah, Nameer’s girlfriend, she might say that Nameer is haunted by Wadood’s pages because it reminds him of all he has lost and is still losing as Iraq fell further into violence and destruction.

The Book of Collateral Damage is written in alternating passages by Nameer and Wadood. Nameer’s sections reveal a life that appears to be progressing, but is fundamentally stuck. Wadood’s sections are sometimes poignant scenes of the last moments of trees, books, etc., and sometimes incoherent cries for help. I loved the layers and layers of nuance in this book and in Nameer and Wadood’s journeys between the past, the present, and possible futures. What can a person hold on to from the past? What has to be let go? Is it possible to strike a balance between memory and growth? There are no easy answers in this book.

I strongly recommend this book for readers who want elegant, evocative, thoughtful prose, as well as readers who are looking for something original in war literature and readers who love realistic psychological depth. The Book of Collateral Damage is as close to perfect as I’ve ever read.

Father of Lions, by Louise Callaghan

Trigger warning for cruelty to animals.

In my country, the word zoo conjures up images of animals wandering in enclosures that try hard to be small slices of habitat. The zoo closest to where I live has been undergoing waves of construction for the last decade as the last of the old cages are removed and new habitats created for different species to roam together. Still, I have memories from childhood and my early teens of visiting “zoos” that were little more than large cages containing unhealthy, depressed, animals. It’s these memories that roared back to the front of my mind as I read the heartbreaking and infuriating book Father of Lions, by Louise Callaghan. I’m not much of a crier, but this book had me close to tears more than once.

Much of this book centers on Abu Laith, who reads like a cross between Don Quixote and Steve Irwin. He is entirely self taught from watching the National Geographic Channel. He earned his nickname, Abu Laith, which means Father of Lions in Iraqi Arabi, when he was a child, thanks to his dogged love of animals and his red hair. In middle age, after moving from Baghdad to Mosul, Abu Laith wrangled a job as zookeeper at the city’s zoo (run more like an old-fashioned menagerie than an actual zoo). Abu Laith spends a lot of his time angry, tilting at windmills against people who neglect or abuse the animals in his care.

Life at the Mosul Zoo was not easy but it was stable, until the Islamic State took the city in 2014 and occupied it for more than two years. Disaster after disaster hits the zoo as food runs short, animals are stolen or killed, and Abu Laith runs afoul of the city’s new masters. When the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga begin to retake Mosul, things get even worse. In the months that it takes the Army and the Peshmerga to take the city, food runs so low that Abu Laith has to make the decision to ask his family to give up food to fees the surviving animals at the defunct zoo. In the end, only two animals survive the devastation: a bear named Lula and a lion that Abu Laith calls Zombie.

Father of Lions is hard to read. Many chapters are devoted to Abu Laith’s struggles during the occupation and the long wait for the ISIS’s defeat. In the last quarter of the book, news about the Mosul Zoo hits social media. Dr. Amir Khalil, an Egyptian veterinarian based in Vienna with the international animal rescue organization, Four Paws, learns about the bear and the lion and springs into action. This part was hugely frustrating for me because Dr. Khalil is stymied at almost every turn as misinformation from the owner—who thinks he let the dying animals go too cheaply—leads the public and Army officers to think that he is stealing the surviving animals. I have no idea how Dr. Khalil kept his temper. I was yelling at my advanced reader copy because I hated these people who tried to block the doctor’s efforts.

Father of Lions serves as a powerful reminder about the welfare of animals that we use to entertain ourselves, then forget when life gets dangerous. This is not to say that animal life is more valuable than human life, as some people point out to Dr. Khalil and Abu Laith. Rather, it is to say that war and violence cause incalculable to every living thing that touch, human and animal. It also serves as a reminder that not everyone values the lives of animals even when times are good. Animals feel pain and hunger and fear and we humans, who claim to be the dominant species, should never forget our duty to care for all of the other species we share the planet with.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Map of Knowledge, by Violet Moller

In The Map of Knowledge, Violet Moller traces the transmission of knowledge from the ancient Mediterranean, via the Abbasid and Umayyad caliphates and centuries of scholars and translators, from 500 CE to the European Renaissance. This summary might sound a little dry, but Moller’s semi-conversational style and the content made her overview of a thousand years of history highly readable. Outside of academia, I don’t know that many people know how much of a debt we Westerners owe to the ancient world. The ancient Greek and Graeco-Egyptian scholars gave us (again, Westerners) our start on the scientific method, philosophy, geometry, medicine, and so many other topics. We would have lost so much if it hadn’t been for medieval Arab scholars and translators. At the same time, however, I lament what we lost anyway to time and deliberate destruction.

Moller was inspired to write this book while working on her dissertation. She visited the library of Dr. John Dee, an Elizabethan polymath, who helped create an English translation of a hugely influential book: Euclid‘s The Elements. She started to think about the long journey the text had taken for the centuries and dug into the historical and bibliographic history of The Elements; The Almagest, an astronomical text by Claudius Ptolmey; and the physician Galen‘s enormous body of work. Even though Ptolemy and Galen have been subject to heavy revision since the Renaissance, these three books represent the ancient foundation of a lot of Western science and thought. Moller begins her chronology in Alexandria, an early center of scholarship and learning—as well as a particularly aggressive book acquisition program that makes me, as a librarian, blush.

From Alexandria, which collapsed as a place of scholarship by 500 CE, Moller begins her historical journey around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. She charts the rise and fall of what she begins to call, Houses of Wisdom, after the name of a loose confederation of scholars and scientists in her first stop after Alexandria: Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphate. Moller takes us from Baghdad to Córdoba, the Umayyad capital; to Toledo; Salerno, Italy; Palermo; and finally Venice. As she jumps time and place, Moller gives us the names (as far as we know) of the people who made it possible for us to have as much as we do of our ancient texts. She finishes up with the European invention of moveable type and printing, a critical innovation that helped fuel the Renaissance.

As she makes her way through time and space, Moller develops her thesis of what is needed to create new knowledge on the scale of ancient Alexandria. She argues that tolerance, political stability, and a strong support for learning are vital to create communities like what is now called La Convivencia, a period of time when Córdoba flourished under the Umayyads. Sadly, these convivencias seem to last shorter and shorter periods of time (at least in this account) as outside invaders or internal strife tear it all down. I wondered more than once where we would be now, as a species, if these cultures hadn’t been interrupted all the time or if later translators hadn’t erased the new knowledge and corrections Arab scholars had added to the ancient texts.

The Map of Knowledge may not be for everyone. For bookish folk with a historical bent, however, this is a wonderful read. Even for me, who fits that bill, I enjoyed this book more than I expected. I appreciated that Moller doesn’t talk about these texts as objects for book hunters—who tend to value books because they are old or rare. Instead, she very much keeps her focus on the value of the content. It shouldn’t matter what language they’re in or if they in a beautiful binding or not; the words are the most important thing because they are what transmit knowledge through time and make it possible for us to “stand on the shoulders of giants.”*

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, Spain (Image via Wikicommons)

*Quote attributed to Bernard of Chartres.

Arabian Journey, by Levison Wood

I’ve realized that I have a deep love of nonfiction accounts of amazing, slightly-crazy journeys. Levison Wood’s An Arabian Journey definitely fits the bill. Wood, a journalist and world traveler, had wanted to follow in the footsteps of Wilfred Thesiger, T.E. Lawrence, and Freya Stark—Europeans who traveled into the Arabian desert and made friendships with Bedouins, Arabs, and the other residents of the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula.

When Wood first floated his idea of walking around the Arabian Peninsula to two friends he wanted to go with him, they told him he was nuts. Not only was he nuts, they told him, but they had proof that the idea could never work. Many of the places Wood wanted to visit during the fall of 2017 were active war zones, had recently been war zones, or were shaping up to possibly war zones in the near future. It would be incredibly dangerous because of all the fighting on top of the fact that the Arabian Peninsula is one of the most hostile environments on the planet. Wood, of course, goes anyway.

An Arabian Journey is an amble of a book, fittingly enough. Wood starts in Syria and Kurdistan, planning to walk “clockwise” around the Peninsula—which of course puts him in the middle of the Syrian Civil War and the lingering fight against ISIL. In each country, Wood travels with a guide/fixer. Some of these, as his guides in Oman and Saudi Arabia, are great. Others, like his cantankerous guide in Iraq, are so awful that Wood regrets even starting out. It didn’t take me long to figure out, based on these detailed sketches of the people he works with and meets, that Wood is as interested in people as he is in the scenery of the desolate deserts and mountains of the Peninsula.

Wood is at his best when he’s talking about that scenery. He loves the empty spaces and wildness and arid danger. He marvels at the flora and fauna of the magical sounding island of Sir Bani Yas and the frankincense trees of western Oman. A lot of his journey is miserable, mostly because his luck in picking guides is dreadful about half of the time. When he has a good guide, like his guides in Oman who hooked him up with good camels, Wood can almost transport you. These passages make up for the parts when Wood is at the mercy of guides who half-ass their way through the desert or who want to scam him out of more money. Wood’s account is completely honest, for good or ill.

An Arabian Journey mostly scratched my itch to travel (via words) to remote places full of history and packed with interesting people and animals. I would never have the gumption to pack up for a long walking tour in my own country, let alone traveling to a place that is so dangerous for so many reasons as Wood did. I’m glad that I got to tag along, in a way—even if there were parts I wish Wood had glossed over. If you have a yen to visit far away places via print, I would recommend An Arabian Journey.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

An Arabian Oryx, one of the many amazing animals Wood saw while hoofing it around the Arabian Peninsula. (Image via Wikicommons)

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson is the kind book I pick up just because of the cover. After all, how can one resist a cover that has a woman with octopus tentacles on it? Throw in time travel and I’m sold. In this novella, Minh, an ecological restorer is offered a job she can’t refuse. Her usual gig is to monitor rivers and snowpack to help sustain water in the newly habitable surface communes on a ruined earth. But her nemesis of a corporation offers to pay her to travel back in time to 2024 BCE to map the total ecosystem of the Tigris and the Euphrates so that, perhaps, they might be recreated. 

Minh is a delightfully prickly woman of the future. She is a part of the plague baby generation, a generation that was decimated by a variety of epidemics that ripped through the subterranean cities that humans retreated to in the face of ecological disasters. The plague babies (some of whom are genetically or physically modified to survive on the surface) struck out for the blighted surface to try and re-create surface life. They’ve survived in a few places, but most of these colonies are struggling because the banks that finance everything aren’t seeing a big enough return on their investment. It’s no wonder that Minh is bitter. 

It’s a surprise to her friends that she’s even willing to work with one of the biggest of the corporations making a go of it on the surface. Years ago, they were the ones who pulled the plug on Minh’s big project to restore the Colorado River. Minh somehow sees her way to bidding for this company’s plan to use time travel to recreate the Tigris and Euphrates ecosystem. As things usually do in fiction, things start to go awry as soon as Minh and her landing party arrive in 2024 BCE. There are hints at the beginnings of each chapter about just how wrong things can get when the group disturbs the heavily armed people who are already living there. 

This novella completely hooked me. I loved the characters and the advanced science that they employ. Seeing cultures from opposite ends of history in conflict is wonderfully original and entertaining. The best part, I think, is the ending. Something happens that has huge implications about what it means to be able to time travel. The ending completely changed how I saw the book. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is a great adventure story.

The Girl in Green, by Derek B. Miller

Like divine revelation, quests aren’t usually something we see in this day and age. That sort of thing belongs to Arthur’s knights or poor old Don Quixote. At least, that’s what I would have thought before I read Derek B. Miller’s The Girl in Green. The novel follows the serio-comic adventures of Arwood Hobbes, as seen by Times journalist Thomas Benton.

Arwood was an ordinary soldier in 1991—more mouthy than most, but fairly ordinary—when he gets caught in an atrocity committed by Iraqi Republican Guard against a small town in the southern part of the country. Thomas meets Arwood while Arwood is manning a machine gun station near a small town by the Iraq-Kuwait border. They chat about the strangeness of war in the late twentieth century, American culture, and how much Arwood wants an ice cream because it’s damn hot out. Arwood talks Thomas into going into the town (which is closed to journalists) for an ice cream when all hell breaks lose. Then Arwood goes AWOL to try and save a girl in a green dress. He was very close to talking his way to safety for himself, the girl, and Thomas until his lieutenant interfered.

The incident scars Arwood, though he would never admit it. After a not-dishonorable discharge, Arwood disappears for twenty years. Thomas goes back to a fading career as a war journalist for the Times and a splintering family life. He might have disappeared entirely into obscurity when he is suddenly contacted by Arwood. Another girl in green has appeared on the news in Syria, in a video of a bomb attack by ISIL. Arwood is convinced that she survived somehow and that it is his mission to find and rescue this girl, who looks exactly like the young woman killed in 1991.

The rest of The Girl in Green is a series of strange, dangerous, and weirdly funny misadventures as Arwood and Thomas try to get to the site of the bombing and rescue the girl. Along the way, they (and we) reflect on how war has gotten even less clear-cut since the first Iraq War. There are many more players than we realize in a war zone than just the belligerents and the civilians who get caught in their way: NGOs, war profiteers, journalists, terrorists. Everyone’s out to fulfill their own agendas, in contrast to what we’ve been told about how war ought to be fought to restore peace. (Which is a bizarre concept when you think about it.) And in the middle of it all, are stories like Arwood and Thomas’s and their weird little quest to do something right for once. I very much enjoyed this book.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 3 January 2017.