#1-3.

Sunday, 6 January 2013 08:39
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Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden.

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a North Korean gulag and was the first person born in a North Korean political prison camp to escape, and this is his memoir: brutal and harrowing, obviously, and really really chilling. I don't like using the word "evil", but the extent to which executions and violence and beatings and selling other prisoners out - selling one's family members out - was woven into the fabric of daily life, in addition to the other, more expected deprivations like, oh, I don't know, starvation and cold, was just... really really harrowing. I think my brain shut down a little reading this, because it was 'either this is just things that happened in a book' or 'this REALLY happened, and is still happening to thousands of people in hidden prison camps in North Korea' and surprisingly, one of the options is easier to deal with.

On a more detached note: this book didn't show the skill (or really, need it) that a work of non-fiction like Nothing to Envy did, simply because in a sense Shin's testimony was the only thing to go on; Blaine Harden wasn't really able to interview like 100 escapees as Barbara Demick could with defectors in and around Chongjin. What I did find interesting, in terms of context and such, and helpful, was Harden's discussion of Nazi concentration camps and 'the pair as the basic unit of survival'.

So, yeah.

Manhood for Amateurs, by Michael Chabon.

This had some good bits - like the part at the start where he talks about how the standard for 'good fathers' is drastically, simperingly, unfairly, low - but at the end I just found that I didn't really care? As a memoir filtered through the recurring theme of his gender - I definitely felt like at some points that Michael Chabon didn't really have that interesting a life, which is probably not the impression you want to give your readers. And also - I'm not sure how to explain this, I just wasn't very interested in his perspective on life, in a way that is probably connected to.... the demographic of his being a middle-class American male. WHO KNOWS.

Islam and the Arab Awakening, by Tariq Ramadan.

A really good, and really nuanced book - the Arab Spring is one of those things I know all too little about, so while I don't really have the knowledge needed to critique his arguments this book left me feeling like I didn't want to, just because he has this uber-pragmatic positive approach to analysis that dovetails with all the qualities I respect in writing: so, yes, many of the cyber-activists who led the Arab Spring had been trained by Western governments, yes, the same government/s that 'allowed' (in the sense of not engaging in military intervention, but also in the sense of actively working with) oppressive regimes in the Middle East to perpetuate themselves, geo-political considerations dictated which countries the West didn't aid uprisings in, al-Jazeera has an ideological slant... but he never lets all of this lead him astray; which is to say that just because the West was a player in the Arab Spring, doesn't mean that the Arab Spring was nothing but a series of made-to-order uprisings controlled by Western imperialism, etc.

Other things I liked: the discussion of Muslim youth and Muslim communities in the West, his subtle differentiation - borne of fairly detailed knowledge I, and potentially many people in the Western world, simply don't have - of the different countries involved in the Arab Spring and their chances for successful transition, and his critique of Edward Said's Orientalism - leading up to what I am tempted to call the 'second half' of his book, the normative dimension, though there wasn't a clear division as such and instead a fairly lucid interpolation: how to talk about democracy in the Middle East.

As someone who believes in democracy and human rights while having a being convinced of the fact that the tools & framework of this is rooted in Western liberalism - 'treating people decently' is a universal (cultural) imperative; the concept of proportionality in human rights adjudication, say, is not - I found what Tariq Ramadan had to say really interesting. He basically suggests that Muslim democracies can ensure justice by reference to the ethical codes of Islam - separation of state and religion is another of those things he critiques; this makes me wary but also, it is kind of true that separating 'the personal and the political' is kind of loaded and difficult - and that democracy in the Middle East, if to be achieved successfully and sustainably would look very different from Western liberal democracy.

Here's the thing... I found myself agreeing strongly in theory, and finding a certain commonality between what he says about the Arab project to reconstruct democracy on Muslim terms (obviously, Arab =/ Muslim, and I think he did discuss the role of non-Muslim minorities in the region although I forgot what he said, I think the bigger problem is that he has completely neglected mentioning Indonesia, which if I'm not wrong is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, and also a democracy), and the feminist project of reconstructing a gender-equal 'utopia' - we don't want to join Western/male ideals on their own terms; we want it on our own terms, but on a practical level I wonder if we wouldn't disagree strongly on certain specific issues after all. Perhaps this is mostly because I read his article on Islam & Homosexuality online and - surprise - found myself disagreeing strongly with what he had to say; maybe this is also because I can't recall anything particularly insightful he had to say about women or gender or anything in the Arab Spring; maybe he thinks that gender mainstreaming is 'too Western'. I don't know. His critique of Edward Said is basically that Said uses Western tools and Western concepts to deconstruct the intellectual architecture of Western thought; in this book Ramadan's project is concerned with going beyond that and striving for more, and it's hard. I found myself on the fence about this - on the one hand, yes, Islamic democracies are going to look very different from Western ones. On the other hand: I'm still way too attached to these Western tools, especially given that we don't know what the alternative Tariq Ramadan envisions is really going to look like (he says it's going to look something like Turkey, but given its eagerness to join the European Union perhaps 'Turkey' is more of a shifting target than he thinks). In a sense this book's greatest strength is its greatest weakness.

I meant to review Code Name Verity, but I feel that deserves a post all by itself. (SPOILERS: I REALLY LIKED IT)

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