THE MONK OF MOKHA
When I was in college Dave Eggers was one of my favorite writers, partly because Phil and Elise liked him, and partly because something about his early memoirs and quasi-memoirs felt new and immediate and vital. In the decade since then he's seemed unsure of how to write or what to write about. I thought ZEITOUN - about a Syrian family's experience during hurricane Katrina - was great, but A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING was strange and hokey, and everything else I tried to read by him seemed too precious or tedious to spend any time with. But my mom and dad both read this one, and Abdul El-Sayed - my favorite politician - said it was one of his favorite books of 2018, so I read it on airplanes to and from New Mexico and I enjoyed it. Learned a lot about the history of coffee and about Yemeni culture and politics.
I like having a giant novel to read as a means of escapism for when I'm too sad or angry to sleep, and because spending several weeks with one book provides a comforting sense of stability. This one is over 700 pages long, and it's about an orphan boy in 11th century London who learns some basic medical practices from the man who adopts him, and eventually goes to Persia to learn surgical techniques from Ibn Sina (who you might know as Avicenna). Weirdly, in order to do this he pretends to be Jewish, because supposedly Christians are not allowed to live in Persia or study at Ibn Sina's school. Based on what I know of the region in this time period, this is wildly historically inaccurate. Christians played an integral part of the Abbasid court in Baghdad at the time, acting as top-level doctors, translators, scholars, advisors, and bureaucrats in the Muslim court. Admittedly I know less about Persia in this era, but from what I understand, if anything Christians often fared better under Persian Muslim rulers than Arab Muslim ones, and the situation was usually better for Christians than Jews in either context. In any case a minority Christian population certainly existed in Persia during the 11th century, but Noah Gordon portrays his main character as literally the only Christian in the entire region; at one point another doctor from London is in Constantinople when he hears that there is a Christian living in Isfahan, and he makes the 1700 mile journey just to confirm that it's true LOLOL. I guess why this bothers me is because it reflects and reinforces the widely held assumption that after the Arab-Muslim conquests, Christians and other religious communities instantly disappeared from the region, presumably because they were all killed or forced to convert. While both of those things did sometimes happen, the reality is that significant numbers of Christians continued to exist throughout the region for centuries, frequently facing persecution, but living and surviving and making important contributions to local and regional cultures and modes of thought throughout Islam's golden age. None of that is reflected in this book. It's also full of orientalist tropes, with nearly every Muslim character portrayed as vain and extravagant and obsessed with sex and power. The plot was kinda fun, but a lot of my enjoyment of it was based on questioning the story's historical and religious accuracy, which was often bewilderingly bad. Having said all that, I might still read more of this guy's books, and the last paragraph made me cry: I'm very sentimental about the passage of time and about the size and scope of the world.
AMATEUR: A TRUE STORY ABOUT WHAT MAKES A MAN
I read this because it was Lauren Phillips' favorite book of 2018, and I'm glad I did. It's about a trans guy who takes up boxing and his considerations about the ways masculinity is learned, taught, displayed, and felt. Had a lot of thoughts that I'm currently too impatient to know how organize or articulate. A few of them: In many ways I am the same as most men, and in many ways I feel different than most men. I am often angry, but don't really relate to the aggression he describes. The part where he started getting lots of haircuts because being a man meant no one else would even touch him made me cry. I wish I had a coach. Sort of want to start boxing.
other books I read this month: