Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, by Tariq Ali

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, by Tariq Ali
Islam Quintet Book 1
Publisher: Open Road Media
ASIN: B00FEZ2432
288 pages, Kindle Edition
Published October 2013
(Original Publ: 1993)
Source: NetGalley

This novel intrigued me and held my interest primarily from its exotic nature to a Western reader relatively unfamiliar with the time period, particularly from the Muslim point of view. I studied Medieval Spanish history in course for school years ago, but not up to this point of the Renaissance period of ‘Reconquest’ under the reigns of Ferdinand and Isabella.

It is immediately apparent that Ali writes nonfiction essays and screenplays predominantly, in many respects this novel is a mixture of the two set around a fictionalized plot of one family’s tragic destruction as microcosm of the Reconquest as a whole. Ali focuses the story around key historic details both political and of daily life, writing most eloquently when describing the mundane and quotidian, such as cooking a dish, or when describing moments of tenderness and eroticism. In contrast, while relaying large dramatic moments, Ali employs matter-of-fact brevity. The result is a flow that feels a great deal like watching a film, or a documentary re-enactment of events. In similar film manner the focus of scenes flows back and forth between characters with complete omniscience, favoring no single character in the novel overall, but intimately zoomed in to each for their moment in the camera’s eye.

The resulting style may not be for everyone’s reading taste, but I didn’t mind it whatsoever, in a way it gave the events related on the small scale of this one family seem more grandiose and general for the society as a whole, splitting focus between characters with varied pasts, secrets, and points of view. What is interesting is that although on the face of it the events in the story feature a clash of religions, particular theological faith has very little to do with it. Really it is a clash of general cultures. The majority of characters have either a general faith in an almighty power, willing to accept the Muslim version or the Christian as required, or have no faith whatsoever. Instead, the events are reduced to a matter of conqueror and conquered. Of destroying a particular culture and wiping it out and the decision of whether to give into assimilation or fighting to preserve a culture and religious heritage.

This treatment of a complex mixture of religion and general secular culture into a simplified form makes the point that these conflicts in history are, at their heart, ultimately independent of any theological issues. However, the treatment also reduces the characters, particularly the chief villain, into one-dimensional caricatures of cruelty. The novel thus certainly has its flaws, and those demanding happy endings to their stories should obviously stay away, but for those interested in an introduction to this period and the type of conflict that continues to this day, it would be worth reading.

Four Stars out of Five

A History of Britain in Thirty-six Postage Stamps, by Chris West

A History of Britain in Thirty-six Postage Stamps, by Chris West
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 1250035503
277 pages, hardcover
Published October 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Each time we’ve gone to a stamp show my wife and I first head to poster presentations to see what people have put together. Philatelists take a theme, or a bit of postage history and develop one to many panels that explore the concept in a mixture of text and stamp presentation. They can vary from very dry postal minutiae to stunning artistic displays, and all between.

West’s work here is basically an expansion of that concept into book form. It doesn’t pretend to be an exhaustive history of Britain, not even of that small portion of Britain’s history that has coincided with stamp production. Instead it simply presents a series of special stamps to show how that stamp reflects a particular portion or key event between the start of Queen Victoria’s reign (and the first use of a stamp) until present day. The history related has both breadth and snippets of depth, covering aspects postal, social, political, and cultural.

Reading this gives you insight into the aesthetics of stamp design – albeit Britain’s is a bit more tame and unadventurous compared to some other nations, and a well-balanced, though again, clearly and proudly British, insight into key events both within Britain and the world as a whole. Well written and captivating for anyone that enjoys history or stamps, I’d recommend it.

Personally I found the book to get better as it went along. Perhaps this is because I was more familiar with recent history than that of mid-late 1800s Britain. It may also be that the style and structure of the book, as little snippets of history, took some getting accustomed to.

Four Stars out of Five

Virus Hunt: The Search for the Origin of HIV, by Dorothy H. Crawford

Virus Hunt: The Search for the Origin of HIV, by Dorothy H. Crawford
Publisher: Oxford University Press
224 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

Other books, such as “And the Band Played On” have well-covered the story of HIV and AIDS breaking into public consciousness throughout the world in the early 1980s, its social and political effects, and the response of the medical and scientific community. Here, however, the focus is on the actual appearance of HIV in the world – long before we humans were aware of its existence. Where in Africa did HIV come from? When did it first arise to infect humans? How did it get from a virus that infects monkeys and apes to one that infects humans? I have even heard people ask, “If HIV is gotten through sex, then that means someone must have had sex with a monkey at some point!” Well, this is untrue, so if you ever thought something like this, then please please do read this book. These are the questions addressed by Crawford, and their answers have ramifications both for how AIDS seemed to suddenly spring out of nowhere into our human lives and for how we should consider future viral pandemics.

The answers to those questions take the reader through chapters that blend medicine, science, ecology, evolution, and the sociopolitical history of West-Central Africa. Unless you are already an expert on the latest scientific findings on the origin of the HIV, you will probably learn a great deal that is new. The book begins by briefly introducing and dispelling one of several misconceptions or ‘mis-informations’ about AIDS, namely the erroneous assertion that AIDS is not caused by HIV. Crawford then introduces the topic of related viruses that infect are evolutionary relatives (the simian immunodeficiency viruses or SIVs) and begins to set the stage for explaining how we know where AIDS generally comes from. She then focuses in with each chapter to address more specific matters that recent scientific experiments have brought to light, such as what kind of ape the different types of HIV variants came from, down to the specific area and people who were likely the first infected back around the early 1900s, approximately. The book concludes with a molecular discussion of HIV and how that relates to its origins and dissemination and a final discussion on the nature of viral pandemics in general, with future prospects considered.

The copy I read is an unfinished proof, and I assume misprints will be caught and changed. However, the start of the book in particular was hard to get into due to some very awkward sentence structures and several sentences that were vague or grammatically problematic. Beyond the first chapter this issue went away, and it may not even be a problem in the final product.

Crawford knows the material, and she does a fine job of distinctly conveying information that we know as scientific fact from that which leads to educated guesses or downright conjecture. However, her familiarity with the material may also be an impediment for the general reader who does not have any prior knowledge of virology or HIV. Many concepts are discussed in bits throughout the book, only being completely explained later, and many of the more scientific sections can be daunting and dry to read for a nonspecialist (such as the myriad SIV and HIV variants and subtle – though important – differences). Her writing becomes far less technical and more ‘natural’ sounding when she discusses matters outside of direct virology, such as history or anecdotes.

I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in HIV or those curious to learn just how a virus can go from being in a population of non-human primates for centuries, only to cross suddenly into the human population with devastating consequences decades later. If you are concerned if just such an event could happen again then there could be no better volume to read, despite its detailed technical portions.

Four Stars out of Five