Book Briefs 7

Axis , Robert Charles Wilson — In this sequel to the 2006 Hugo Award-winning novel, Spin , Wilson once again displays his talents. He manages to not only keep the reader interested, he mixes enough different elements and tension into the story that you don’t really want to put the book down. Yet the different elements never become too numerous and, as with Spin , Wilson also doesn’t focus solely on the SF aspects of the tale. He provides us characters who are identifiable and who, for the most part, would be equally strong characters outside the SF genre. Because Axis takes us to a world discovered in Spin and in search of the Hypotheticals responsible for that world and what happened in Spin , familiarity the former is very useful, though not essential. And while Axis can stand alone, it also can easily serve as additional groundwork for another book in a trilogy or ongoing series.

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain , Oliver Sacks– Sacks seems to be the neurologist of the masses, at least the mass reading audience. As with his prior popular works, Musicophilia is a collection of neurological case histories although, as the title indicates, one that focuses on the brain’s processing of music (or failure to do so). While certainly a readable approach to interesting and at times bizarre problems, it often feels like an extended literature review prepared for a general audience. We don’t really gain any real insight or understanding of how the brain processes music. Instead, the focus is on the plight of people who encounter difficulties in that area. Although they undoubtedly have different aims, I personally prefer Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music .

Passage to Ararat , Michael Arlen — It’s easy to see why Arlen’s exploration of his Armenian heritage won the National Book Award in 1976. Although it won in the category of Contemporary Affairs, Passage to Ararat is so much more than that. Although much of the focus is on Arlen’s trip in the early 1970s to the Armenian Soviet Republic and the history of Armenia, the book is as much memoir as history and exploration of father-son relations as travelogue. Not only is it a near exemplary success in each of those areas, it is exceptionally written. This is one of those rare books you not only look forward to reading again in the future, but regret having waited so long to pick up.

The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine and the Birth of al-Qaeda , Yaroslav Trofimov — Journalist Trofimov’s prior book, Faith At War , was a wide-ranging exploration of Islam in a dozen countries. While Islamist fundamentalism, particularly Wahhabism, and the Sunni-Shiite divide remain topics in his new book, The Siege of Mecca has a narrower focus. It is a generally well-paced exploration of the events surrounding and the ramifications of the November 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca — Islam’s holiest site — by a group of heavily armed Islamist fundamentalists espousing a messianic theology. While Trofimov does not succeed in all respects, the book is an excellent and concise history of a crucial step in modern Islamist terrorism, internal weaknesses that very likely are still rife in Saudi Arabia, and how the contemporaneous hostage crisis in Iran and miscalculation or misunderstanding of Islam and the Islamic world led the Carter Administration to actions or inactions that reverberate today.

How hard it is to be a father.

Michael Arlen, Passage to Ararat

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