Monday, June 23, 2008

The Caged Virgin and Willful Blindness

How's that for a matchup? Actually, those are the titles of two books on my must-read list. Both examine Islamic beliefs and practices but from distinctly different perspectives.

I've read enough excerpts of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's The Caged Virgin to know that I want to read the entire book. Her more recent release, Infidel, provided a fascinating look at her life as an Islamic woman and traced her journey from Somalia to the Dutch Parliament. In The Caged Virgin, Ali offers a rebuke of Islam's treatment of women as well as a critical analysis of fundamentalist Islam and how it is perceived in the West. Her perspective is that of an insider who escaped being forced to marry her cousin and who lost her sister to the emotional aftereffects of genital mutilation. Hers is a compelling story, and that is an understatement.

My knowledge of Willful Blindness stems entirely from an interview by Hugh Hewitt on BookTV with author Andrew McCarthy, the federal prosecutor who brought the "Blind Sheikh," Omar Abdel Rahman, to trial for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. What struck me most about the interview was McCarthy's vulnerability about the mistakes he made and his shallow understanding of Islam. And then there were the many revelations about the lack of communication among government agencies and other lapses in national security measures that allowed the Blind Sheikh to carry out the attack — and that paved the way for the 9/11 attacks. An equally compelling read in a different way, I suspect.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A.J. Kiesling and 'Skizzer'

I read a lot of books. I don't mean a skimpy one per week or anything like that; double or triple that, and you're in my ballpark. I read both multi-genre fiction and multi-category nonfiction. I'm not only an avid book reader; I'm also a highly critical book editor and writing instructor. And I will say this without apology or qualification: The very last thing CBA (shorthand for the Christian book publishing industry) needs is another crummy or mediocre or wannabe writer. You have to kiss a lot of toads to find a prince, or princess, among the mass of Christian writers.

One such evidence of CBA royalty is Angie Kiesling, who writes under the name A.J. Kiesling and is one of the best writers I've ever edited. She is also a friend, which makes me appear less than objective in my assessment of her writing skills. But before I launch into a glowing review of her first novel, Skizzer, let me assure you that our friendship grew in part out of a mutual respect for each other's writing skills. I wouldn't praise her book just because she's my friend; I wouldn't subject her or you or the publishing industry to that kind of deception.

Here's what I love about Angie's writing: She's a wordsmith through and through. After reading dozens and dozens of Christian novels so far this year, I am so utterly tired of lazy writing, which made Skizzer such a refreshing and
even recuperative read; I found myself breathing more deeply as I settled into a book that reminded me why I love the English language so much. Angie's word choice is always precise; her metaphors are always fresh; her descriptions are always visual. If you can't "see" the scenes in Skizzer, the problem is not with her writing.

Okay, enough about Angie. I'm guessing it would help if I told you a bit about the book. In Skizzer (the way one character pronounced "sister" as a toddler), protagonist Claire Trowling's sister, Becca, has disappeared, leaving only a few cryptic clues behind. Claire's quest to find her sister uncovers a long-held family secret and takes her from North Carolina to England, where the mystery behind an unusual pendant, the celebration of a sacred ritual and the reason for Becca's disappearance all come together. It's a compelling, suspenseful and ultimately satisfying read.

Reading Skizzer made me wonder why CBA editors don't demand this level of writing from more of their authors. Maybe the problem is that there are plenty of writers in love with stories but not enough in love with language and stories. Readers should be given both — a page-turner of a story and just the right words to tell it. Budding writers and veteran authors alike would do well to read Skizzer and learn from it.

You can buy the book here as well as in brick-and-mortar stores, and you can read a great interview with Angie here. I heartily recommend both.

Monday, June 09, 2008

John Hodgman and "We the Purple"

Becky from somewhere or other is one of my new, very best friends, and all because of John Hodgman, the resident expert on "The Daily Show" and PC Guy on the "Get a Mac" commercials.

Maybe not all because of him, but close enough. Becky and I stayed at the same hotel in L.A. during BookExpo America and met at breakfast one morning. We got to talking about the reason I was there, the release of We the Purple: Faith, Politics and the Independent Voter. As it turns out, Becky is a committed independent, so she stood in my autograph line later that day to pick up a copy of the book.

Beloved Becky, God bless her, then went to John Hodgman's autograph line, got a copy of his book* — and handed him her own copy of We the Purple, talking it up and encouraging him to read it. He received it graciously and seemed genuinely interested, Becky tells me.

How cool is that?

"The Daily Show" staff already has a copy of the book; my publicist made sure they got it along with a media kit. Even if nothing comes of it — even if Jon & Company don't come calling — I'm so grateful to Becky. John Hodgman has my book! That's good enough for me.

Things you probably don't know about PC Guy:
* I couldn't make it to Hodgman's signing. Ergo, I did not get a copy of his book, More Information Than You Require, or what I assume was an excerpt from it since it doesn't release until October. Whatever he was signing at BEA was titled Taxonomies of Complete World Knowledge; I'm guessing it's a chapter title. Anyway, if the good people at Dutton would like me to get my facts straight, maybe they wouldn't mind sending me a copy of Taxonomies and put me on the hot list for a review copy of More Information.

Cross-posted on my other blog.