Podcast review – Caliphate (New York Times)

A review – Caliphate, a New York Times podcast
 
Moving from my usual book reviews to a new media, I must talk about Caliphate, an NYT podcast, similarly feted (and voluminously downloaded). It struck me as I listened to these 10 episodes on a recent trip with my family that the Age of Enlightenment (mainly the 18th century) in which we understood human reason to have taken root in many disciplines is bullshit. This podcast clearly demonstrates the ease with which the determined and driven can turn men (mainly men) into monsters. I refused to listen to this for the longest time, I don’t know why. Perhaps I thought it would be preaching to the converted. Perhaps I was apprehensive about listening to the worst of things.
 
But if you take the time to listen to this 10-episode series, probably the best written and best on-the-ground reporting (US, Canada, Syria, Iraq, etc) I have ever encountered on any medium (the reporter’s name is Rukmini Callimachi),, you will enter the following worlds:
 
You will enter the world of ISIS, deep and dark and fetid. Hearing people people who who believe that raping 11 year-old girls is a sacred act (there is a whole theological justification there, they pray before doing it). That flogging a man’s back 150 times at full force with a belt encrusted with 2-inch studs is fair punishment for wearing his pants too long. That rolling over a live bound man in a tank is an expression of god-graced justice. And they believe that this is right with the same absolute fervour that you believe it is wrong.
 
You will enter the world of a middle class Canadian university student from a loving and not particularly religious family, who signs up for this and eventually commits atrocities without question.
 
You will enter the world of recruiting, and how scientifically shaped it is – these are not fools, not wild Imams ranting hatred. Every single word of those online sermons is calculated like a complex architecture. By the end, when it is over, the potential recruit is complete putty. It is a working algorithm for radicalisation, nothing less.
 
You will enter the world of how young recruits are trained in committing atrocities – also very carefully graduated until a boy cutting off a man’s head requires no more emotional effort than squashing a bug underfoot.
 
You will enter the world of the Isis bureaucrats – better able to provide clean streets, water, electricity than any municipality that we ever encounter here (quickly, efficiently, without corruption and with great technical skill.
 
You will enter a world where fear is the greatest convincer. Nothing seems to work as quickly and as efficiently. An entire population of 12 million (at its height) completely subjugating themselves without any resistance at all.
 
And you will enter a world of dogged reporting and story-crafting at its absolute finest.
 
This is a remarkable journey. A lot of it truly revolting, sickening, hard to listen to. Most of it just an extraordinary look how small the gap between reason and its opposite, about how utterly pliable we are are, and at least in my case, how dangerous any sort of faith is, because it is so easy to take faith and warp to any arbitrary agenda. It just takes skilful leadership and convincing oratory. We know this story, it is old as religion, and it works as well as ever in this story.
 
Finally, it struck me that most of the world, particularly here in SA, look at America and see Trump. I look at America and this American, an Arab-speaking Muslim-born, female, weight-challenged (joking about being fat-shamed by Isis-trolls) heroine reporter, Rukmini Callimachi.
 
Listen to this, you will emerge from it transformed in ways you did not expect.

Book Review – Florida by Lauren Groff

Book Review – Florida by Lauren Groff
 
Steven Boykey Sidley
 
If you put a gun to my head and asked – best novel in the last decade – I would go with Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. Imagine my little Snoopy dance then when I heard that Ms. Groff had produced her latest, Florida. Not a novel, but a collection of short stories, all somewhat connected to Florida, her home state.
 
Short stories are a new flirtation of mine, I have come to them late. It is a special art, rendered naked by brevity. Every word counts and there is no time or length for sag and lard.
 
It is an offbeat and eccentric collection, awash with cocked-head frowns and gentle melancholy, swollen with unusual allusions, freighted with the author’s anxieties (especially around her two boys, and children in general) and fuelled by some the most unusual and sharply-spiced sentences you will read in the modern literary canon. At this level she is like Anne Michaels, who wrote Fugitive Pieces. The writing is like poetry, it power lies in the sentence and phrase, in the stones rather than the structure.
 
This was a surprise to me. Fates and Furies was a volatile, volcanic, sexy and lurid love story. Florida is a quiet contemplation about life and death and parenting and marriage, often filtered through the hot wet swamps of Northern Florida. That these two books came from the same author is testament to her diversity – both memorable in completely different ways.
 
So there is the story of her late night insomniac walks in her Florida neighbourhood while her gentle husband takes on the care her babies, a task for which she feels unprepared. And a swamp shack-born boy, Jude, wrecked by his abusive snake-loving father, his unfulfilled life racing by us in a matter of pages as he finally returns at the end of his life to the swamp house of his birth to seek his father’s spirit. There is an injured mother and her two boys, trapped in a hurricane in a house alone, neighbours wisely fled. And two little girls abandoned by dissolute and crime-ravaged parents and cousins alone on an unpopulated island, trying to survive starvation and loneliness, bound only to each other. A young woman losing her way, dropping from university into homelessness and hopelessness and finally gently hinted better future. A woman talking to dead lovers and late husband and late mother about the life she wondered whether she had lived rightly. And finally a mother and her two sons chasing ghosts in France, a rumination on looking and not finding.
 
Joyous stuff, like Fates and Furies? Not at all, but there is a thick and wet atmosphere that pervades all of it, clinging to the reader like a fine sweat as we live the character’s internal lives, pervaded by their small hopes and many disappoints and heavy regrets. More importantly, these small stories seem to be invaded by their author. Her talents, her bewilderments, her continual search for a life’s meaning as she clings to life rafts of a gentle husband and innocent children.
 
So I continue to be in Lauren Groff’s thrall now, my appreciation of her spread wider than before, even though this book is more distant, less immediate, less fun. But every bit as profound.