LEAVING RICHARD'S VALLEY
I've been following DeForge's work since the livejournal days of the mid-2000s, and I think I have a few of his early zines and some original art in a box somewhere. This is easily the longest thing I've read by him, and it's also the best. It's also still deeply weird. The main plot follows a squirrel, a spider, a rabbitdog, and an armless raccoon who struggle to survive in Toronto after getting kicked out of a cult. I love anything that uses a bizarre premise to communicate something meaningful. This is not, like An Important Book, but it IS smart and sad and hilarious and has some insightful things to say about religion, friendship, infatuation, capitalism, and mental health.
THE DRAGON SLAYER: FOLKTALES FROM LATIN AMERICA
I've spent many many hours and pages with Jaime's characters and stories in LOVE AND ROCKETS, but this is the first thing for kids that I've read by him. I liked this little collection of folktales, and probably would've loved it if it was longer, with like 15 or 20 stories instead of just 3. Reminded me a little bit of David B's collections of Persian stories, THE ARMED GARDEN and HASIB AND THE QUEEN OF SERPENTS.
THE BIRD KING
Last year I read Wilson's novel ALIF THE UNSEEN; I liked it quite a bit and there are a few lines, characters, and ideas in it that I think about fairly often, so I was excited for this. It starts in Andalusia right before the reconquista, which could be a really interesting setting, but it moves around too much to feel like the particular time or place is of any significance. Wilson is good at creating complex characters who have surprising things to say about God and various types of identity - which was the most memorable thing about her last book - but here they're always too busy arguing with each other or escaping from something to say anything very interesting. Same thing with magick and jinn: not as much as last time. I like that she seems to be creating a sort of Islamic adventure mythos with the jinn Vikram and his sister appearing in each of her stories across centuries and continents, I just hope her future books will be as fun and insightful as ALIF was, and not as episodic as this one.
THE CHRISTIAN HERITAGE OF IRAQ:
I first got this book from the library in the fall when I was writing a seminar paper on the 8th century Nestorian patriarch Timothy I and his friend/ruler/pupil/debating partner, the Abbasid caliph al-Mahdi. Although there's a few interesting pieces of information about Timothy in here (quite a few of his letters still haven't been translated into English! he didn't get along with the Syrian Orthodox community and found a way to smuggle sacred texts out of a monastery full of monks that didn't like him! he once referred to Muslims as "the new Jews"?!), none of them were particularly relevant to my paper so I didn't use it as a source, but I did keep it and slowly read each of the essays over 8 or 9 months since I'm increasingly interested in Syriac and eastern Christianities, and because the MSU library lets me check things out for up to a year and a half at a time LOL.
There's a lot in here, and despite the title it's not exclusively about either Christianity or Iraq: Qatari Christians' early responses to Islam, the influence of Aristotelian philosophy on the Abbasid court, the history of monasticism in Iraq, 13th century Nestorian missions in Kyrgyzstan, the influence of Kurdish dialects on Aramaic-speaking Jewish communities, the genocides committed against Assyrians in the 1910s-1930s, and quite a bit more are all covered.
One of my favorite stories in here was in Amir Harrak's piece on Ottoman-era monumental architecture. In 1743 the armies of the Persian ruler Nadir-Shah, having already captured Kirkuk and Erbil, attacked Mosul, which was an Ottoman city at the time. Husayn Beg, the pasha of Mosul, told the all inhabitants of the surrounding villages (who were mostly Christian and had lots of grain) to bring their supplies and come inside the city walls for protection. The Persians besieged the city with catapults and cannons, killing hundreds and destroying homes, mosques, churches, and other buildings, but the walls held and the people of Mosul defeated the attackers. The wild part is that supposedly the Virgin Mary appeared above the walls of the city, protecting it and deflecting incoming cannonballs back at the Persians. Afterwards, a church dedicated Mary was built in Mosul and several buildings were inscribed commemorating her intercession. Husayn Beg also encouraged at least eight other churches that had been destroyed to be rebuilt, choosing to disregard Islamic laws that technically prohibited churches from being built or repaired.
I like stories like this, but I also wanted to know more about Syriac practices, texts, and liturgies. The only piece that really dealt with this was Erica Hunter's article about magical amulets used by Kurdish Christians. Footnotes throughout the book pointed me to lots of other sources I'm going to spend this summer exploring though, and I think I might start trying to learn Syriac.
This was published in 2009, and there have been significant demographic shifts in Iraq in the last decade connected to the US invasion and occupation, subsequent civil war, and the rise and fall of ISIS. On the day I finished the final essay, the Atlantic published a long and sobering article on the future and present of Christianity in Iraq that's worth reading. I'd like to go to Iraq someday, but don't know when or if I will.
other books I read this month: