I heard about this book while listening to Brad Jersak and some other guy talking about David Bentley Hart's new book on a podcast. The other guy mentioned that this 1895 novel was the first thing that made him take seriously the idea that some form of eventual universal salvation could be compatible with Christianity. Obviously that intrigued me, and it's available for free on Project Gutenberg, so I put it on my kindle. This book is strange, and somehow the stranger it became the less I cared about it. I enjoyed the first few chapters in which the main character meets a mysterious man who can turn into a raven, but it quickly became extremely episodic, with each of the scenes seeming like unrelated heavy-handed allegories. It probably didn't help that I was literally reading this until I fell asleep every night to prevent myself from having thoughts. At one point I realized that the main character was leading an army of tiny babies riding on tiny elephants to attack a city ruled by a white leopard, and that I had absolutely no idea why or what this meant and that I didn't care enough to try to figure it out. So I can't recommend this book, though that might be my own fault for consistently intentionally falling asleep while reading it. Want to read a weird sentence from it? Here: The raven, with wings half extended, looked on pleased at my love-making to his magnificent horse.
LIVES OF THE MONSTER DOGS
At least fifteen years ago I saw this book at Well-Fed Head, a Springfield bookstore that no longer exists, and I've thought about the title, the cover, and the concept fairly often ever since then. It's about a race of dogs who have been taught to talk and walk upright and who have been equipped with animatronic hands. The cover that I remember showed a dog in a red velvet coat standing in a library looking sad and regal. In my mind, the idea and the image were nearly perfect - equal parts hilarious, grotesque, and deeply moving. Probably because I've always insisted on inhabiting only the edges of any community, I've always loved stories about being barely human, and one of the most natural ways to tell those stories is by blurring the lines between people and animals - ANIMAL FARM, PLANET OF THE APES, DUNCAN THE WONDER DOG, Narnia, Jungle Book, Beatrix Potter, Ovid, Kafka - I love em all.
So one night, feeling lonely in Tunisia, I decided to finally read this. It was good. The first two thirds especially were perfect for reading late into the night, laying on my couch feeling like an eternal outsider and knowing that I, like Cleo, would be the one to befriend the monster dogs when they arrived in their helicopter because I alone in all of New York City would be the one to relate to them and want to understand them (LOLOL). I wanted the whole thing to be Cleo slowly getting to know each of the dogs - humans and canines gradually revealing their memories and confusion about the world to each other, but instead there was eventually a vague plot. The last part of the book has sections that become tedious - there is an opera, as well as several long, philosophical letters written by a dog who is going insane - but the ending itself is satisfying enough, and the tone throughout is surprisingly similar to the one I carried with me all those years based on briefly seeing the cover: mildly unsettling but comforting in its loneliness and otherness.
TUNISIA: AN ARAB ANOMALY
This is a Jordanian guy trying to figure out why the 2011 Tunisian revolution was largely successful when the revolutions it inspired throughout the region were largely disastrous. He essentially concludes that Tunisia has a history of three things that its neighbors don't: secular government, an emphasis on education, and religious reform movements working from within Islam.
While I trust that his explanations and analysis are accurate, Masri often comes across as someone rightfully frustrated with his own context who is now romanticizing another option that he's only recently encountered. I'm often vocally critical of my own country and religion because I feel that it's my right and responsibility to do so when they choose to be shitty instead of being as good as I know they could and should be. This book was a helpful reminder of how odd that can seem from the outside though: self-criticism not properly contextualized just looks like masochistic self-loathing.
Also, written in 2017, the book already feels almost out of date. With the surprising election of Kais Saied in Tunisia, an ongoing push for reform in Algeria, and massive protests portending significant change to power structures in Iraq and Lebanon in just the last few weeks, some of these developments might support the claims he's making, but I don't think that all of them do. I'm glad I read this, especially to get a rough understanding of the outlines of modern Tunisian history, but if anyone has recommendations for other books on Tunisian social or religious history, I'd like to read those too.
other books I read this month: