Arabic writing on sexuality used to be world-renowned for both its frankness and sensuality. A tenth century book named The Language of F*cking listed over one thousand words for intercourse. But even speaking of sex has become taboo wherever conservative Islam has spread. As one Egyptian gynecologist noted, “Everyone talks about football, but hardly anyone plays it. But sex –- everyone is doing it, but nobody wants to talk about it.”
Sex outside of marriage is considered a sin in the Arab world. The hymen has taken on almost mythical status and the dukhla ceremony is common -- the blood-stained sheets of the marriage bed are exhibited to show the bride’s virginity. Despite extremely rigid social norms around sex, both for the married and the unmarried, the Arab Spring brought a glimmer of hope that government policies and unwritten religious and cultural rules thought barbaric by the West might be changing, especially in the area of women’s rights. But El Feki notes that repression and religious conservatism is still prevalent, even in Egypt; the military government forced female protesters to undergo virginity testing after the protests against Mubarak in Tahrir Square, ostensibly for their protection.
Why I picked it up: Ever since I read a book on Saudi Arabia and the changing politics there by Karen Elliot House -- On Saudi Arabia -- I have been interested in the Middle East.
Why I finished it: The Quran, interviews with Eygptian citizens, and Islamic hadiths are quoted to show the ongoing conflict over rules. Some approved by one branch of Islam are forbidden by others. One such conflict is over "summer marriages," which are approved by some mullahs. These allow a man to enter a country (in this case, Egypt) and pay a broker for temporary marriage. After a week or two the certificate is torn up, negating the marriage, and both participants go their own way. This is done to make sex between the man and woman acceptable and legal, but most of the rest of the world would call this prostitution.
There are plenty of other cultural quirks around sex in both Egypt and Islam, like the Sunni belief that one should wash after sex and also before Friday morning prayers. Some canny (and arguably lazy) Egyptians have devised the tradition of the Thursday Night Special, where one washes after sex and prepares for Friday prayers with the same wash. Others believe in black magic which can lead to an affliction called “missing vagina syndrome” where the man cannot find his wife’s relevant parts.
I'd give it to: Chad, who would enjoy the chapters on what it is like to be a gay man in the Middle East, and how those attitudes toward homosexuality are changing at a glacially slow rate.
One of the manga world's most intriguing artist returns with a science-fiction tour deforce which combines post apocalyptic action, modern sci-fi video game tropes and a traditional Japanese aesthetic. In the distant future mankind has been forced to space, not for technological advancement or for environmental concerns but because of war. And in this case, the enemy has travelled the galaxy to annihilate humanity where ever it may reside. The Guarna as they are known, are enormous shape-shifting beings that can easily survive within the vacuum of space. Their size, about as large as mountains or large asteroids, is only one of their weapons. These monsters and their tentacles can slice though metal and stone with ease, making most defenses incapable providing much protection. So now, nearly one-thousand years in the future what remains of humanity, is racing through the stars for its survival.
Susannah, her parents, and her cousin Martin are cruising toward Hawaii on her dad's custom yacht, Athena's Secret, with the help of a macho deck hand, Axel. This is their final cruise because her dad's fortune disappeared in the stock market’s collapse.
Jeremy is the son of a crime mogul who specializes in gun running and drug smuggling. Jeremy is with his mentor, Elwood, and a fifteen-year-old baby-faced hit man, Shako, on a sea plane searching the western Pacific for the speedboat Witch Grass. It’s supposed to be bringing in a load of cash and is overdue.
After surviving a horrific storm, Martin and Susannah find a dog in the ocean struggling to stay afloat. After bringing him aboard they spot Witch Grass, which is adrift with two dead men and a duffle bag full of cash aboard. Susannah’s father realizes this must have been a shady deal gone bad. Everyone except Susannah agrees to take the cash despite the potential danger of the choice.
When Jeremy spots the yacht heading away from the speedboat, there is no choice but to pursue the yacht, recover the cash, and leave no witnesses.
Why I picked it up: It is described as a psychological thriller on the jacket. After reading the dust cover it reminded me of Desert Angel by Charlie Price, which ended with a life-threatening chase.
Why I finished it: The story is told from each character's perspective, and each is compelling. Shako, wanting desperately to please his boss, also longs for a normal friendship with Jeremy. Susannah, torn between her parents because of her father’s possible infidelity, struggles with a strong attraction to her cousin, Martin. And then there’s Jeremy, who is not really sure he wants to be (or can be) the cold, hard head of a crime cartel.
I'd give it to: My friend Mark, who loved the movie Dead Calm, about a serial killer rescued from a small boat and a subsequent high-energy flight for survival. He'll also love the pace and the two schizoid personalities in Axel and Shako. Tough and professional on the outside, Shako longs to be a normal teenager, while Axel yearns for a life and family like Martin’s.
A brand-new collection of Sherlock Holmes stories from a variety of exciting voices in modern horror and steampunk, including James Lovegrove, Justin Richards, Paul Magrs, Guy Adams and Mark Hodder. Edited by respected anthologist George Mann, and including a story by Mann himself.
The townspeople viewed Vita's mother as a washashore, a flighty transplant to the small Cape Cod town of Oyster Creek where she never fit in. Vita's father had a brief fling with her. After Vita's mother was murdered, she was raised by LaRee, her mother's best friend.
At first Vita's father was a suspect, but he was never found guilty. Another member of the community went to jail for the murder. LaRee kept the details of her mother's death from Vita to protect her, even though the rest of the town knew the killer's identity.
Vita is heartbroken when she learns the killer's daughter is her classmate. She reacts strongly to the rumors about herself and her own father, the harbormaster's assistant.
Why I picked it up: I was intrigued by the cover’s description of strife in a small town between the descendants of Portuguese fisherman and newcomers from the mainland.
Why I finished it: Vita is the product of both cultures (neither of which I was familiar with) and struggles to find her own identity. I loved the story’s layers, which included the murder mystery and Vita's budding career as an actress. Throughout the novel, Vita works with a local theater group on a production of The Tempest. While Vita feels uncomfortable in her own skin, she loves to pretend to be other people, to experience their pain and their joys. Vita's work on the play mirrors the events in the town; as Prospero tries to right his daughter's place to the throne, Vita's father tries give her a sense of belonging in the town of Oyster Creek.
I'd give it to: Sarah, who thinks that nothing since Shakespeare is worth reading. I disagree and want her to understand that modern novels can be fun, too. I think she'd appreciate the theater company’s flamboyant characters and the Shakespeare quotes throughout the book.
Ireland 1963. As the Irish people prepare to welcome President John F. Kennedy to the land of his ancestors, a German national is murdered in a seaside guesthouse. Lieutenant Albert Ryan, Directorate of Intelligence, is ordered to investigate. The German is the third foreigner to die within a few days, and Minister for Justice Charles Haughey wants the killing to end lest a shameful secret be exposed: the dead men were all Nazis granted asylum by the Irish government in the years following World War II. A note from the killers is found on the dead German's corpse, addressed to Colonel Otto Skorzeny, Hitler's favorite commando, once called the most dangerous man in Europe. The note simply says: "We are coming for you." Lieutenant Ryan must now protect the very people he fought against twenty years before?
Ichiro hasn’t been to Japan since he was a child, but his mother is moving there (at least temporarily) for a teaching position. Ichiro goes to stay with his Japanese grandfather, whom he barely knows. They get to know one another over meals, on a visit to Hiroshima, and while fishing. Their discussion of war shifts to soldiers and on to Ichiro’s father, a U.S. Army Reservist who was killed in action. Ichiro doesn’t really remember him.
One night Ichiro sees a tanuki stealing persimmons from a tree. He traps it, but it turns into a huge monster and drags Ichiro into a world where beings from Japanese mythology live.
Why I picked it up: I really liked the emptiness of the back cover, with a pigeon flying in the upper left-hand corner.
Why I finished it: This full-color graphic novel uses color sparingly and to great effect. The scenes from myths are full color, and make the telling appear more powerful because they transport us to a land that is so much more vibrant than the nearly monochromatic modern Japan in the rest of the book. But the Japanese landscape is great, too -- I’m so used to the clean, architectural lines of most manga cityscapes that Inzana’s more impressionistic take was refreshing.
I'd give it to: Richard, because Ichiro says that Japan, with the factories he sees along the highway, is like New Jersey (where Richard is from).
With its fiery breath, scaly armor, and baleful, malevolent stare, the dragon became the ultimate symbol of evil and corruption in European folklore and mythology. Often serving as a stand-in for Satan, or the power of evil gods, dragons spread death and hopelessness throughout the land. Only heroes of uncommon valor, courageousness, and purity could hope to battle these monsters and emerge victorious. Those that did became legends. They became dragonslayers. The list of dragonslayers is small, but it is filled with great and legendary names. Hercules, Beowulf, Cuchulain, Sigfried, Lancelot, and Saint George all battled to the death with dragons. This book retells the greatest legends of this select group of warriors, while examining the myth of the dragonslayer in a historical, mythological, and even theological context.
Many American music fans know Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, but not as many are aware of the influence her family had on the development of country music. Her uncle, A.P. Carter, loved traditional folk music and collected it all his life. Together with his wife, Sara, and her cousin, Maybelle, they performed as The Carter Family. They released records starting in the 1920s. When "hillbilly" music became the rage, they started performing on the radio. Their work preserved many traditional songs, laid the foundations of modern country music, and helped inspire the 1960s folk revival.
Includes a CD of rare Carter Family radio performances from 1939.
Why I picked it up: My parents raised me with a love of traditional Appalachian folk, old-school country, bluegrass, gospel, shape note singing, and basically any music played on a fiddle, banjo, dulcimer, or autoharp.
Why I finished it: Because Young and Lasky did such a beautiful job. Rather than a dry recounting of the life of A.P. Carter and the family members who performed with him, each chapter is a vignette from the lives of the Carter Family. Most of the chapter titles are songs sung by the Carter Family, and each song title ties in with the theme of the chapter. I found myself humming along as I read. Young and Lasky opted for a simple art style to clearly show the lives of hard-working, poor farmers during the early part of the twentieth century. One nice touch is that no space is wasted; even the end papers tell part of the tale.
Each regional accent is distinct, too, from the mountains of Virginia to the differing Southern from North Carolina and Georgia to the Texas drawl and even the sharpness of Brooklyn.
I'd give it to: Mike Mullins, if he were still alive. Mike was the Executive Director of the Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky where my family has attended Appalachian Family Folk Week every year since I was ten. (Twenty-nine years, if you're wondering.) Mike was a second father to me, and I miss him a lot. Instead I'll give it to folk musician and friend Sonny Houston. While we were in Kentucky this spring for Mike's funeral, Sonny was asking me about my work as a graphic novel reviewer. He'll be tickled by this blend of old folk music traditions and modern comics.
A year's worth of songs, drawn from many genres and eras, lovingly arranged for ukulele by the creators of my first uke, the Flea.
Why I picked it up: I don't care who you are or what instrument you play or if you don't play at all. If you can walk by a book called The Daily Ukulele without smiling I don't want to know you. Anyway, it was a Christmas present.
Why I finished it: I started teaching myself ukulele over four years ago, but got frustrated with its small sound and started taking guitar lessons. Then, a few months ago, an anonymous fan sent me the tenor ukulele of my dreams. Its big, beautiful sound has inspired me to explore music theory using the old favorites in this book.
I'd give it to: Virginia, about to make her jump into the wonderful world of ukulele. This is the perfect book for beginners. Each song shows the tablature for every chord used so she won't have to keep consulting a separate chord guide, plus there's a visual cue to the first note of the melody so you know where to start singing.
Confidential to Santa: the sequel is just about to come out.
Adrienne didn’t like fairy tales where a prince freed an imprisoned princess. But when she turned sixteen, her parents put her in a tower guarded by a monster to wait for a brave prince to free her.
She decides not to sit around until a muscle-bound warrior kills her dragon and rescues her. She sets off to free her sisters from their fairy tale-like prisons, and to get her dragon, Sparks, back to where he belongs.
Why I picked it up: This graphic novel was recommended to my daughter and me by the good folks at Comics Dungeon.
Why I finished it: Seeing Adrienne critique the traditional bedtime story her mother read her in the first few pages was enough to pull me in. Then, after she’s imprisoned, a suitor comes for her. “I seek a fair maiden Adrienne!” She lets him have it.
“As in fair skinned, as in fair as the new fallen snow, as fair as the moon, or as fair as a lily. I ask you then...does this look fair to you?”
(At the end of her rant, she’s gesturing to herself. She’s not white as snow, and she looks pissed.)
I'd give it to: My daughter’s friend, Jeremy. He seems to prefer hanging out with the girls in their class, and I think he’d identify with Adrienne’s twin brother, who doesn’t quite fit the manly mold his father expects.
Keith Sweat, a best-selling R&B crooner, is also a late night host of a popular call-in radio program, The Sweat Hotel. Using his knowledge of the ladies and his experience giving advice to callers, Sweat delves into what makes relationships and marriages work. He gives advice in themed chapters about subjects like how to rebound from a failed relationship, when it’s okay to tell someone you love them, preparing for marriage, seeing your partner honestly, and making yourself worthy of attention from the opposite sex. Each chapter ends with a short monologue from Sweat that wraps up the topic with down-home, common sense tips.
Why I picked it up: The cover mentioned Sweat’s show. I knew there would be great stories from callers, and I wanted to see if he was a competent advisor.
Why I finished it: The callers have difficult situations, and I was impressed with Sweat’s responses -- he was compassionate but direct and blunt. One woman asked Sweat what to do when a man you still love moves away, but you find you have the ability to love another, and then the first guy comes back. His answer was that a choice must be made, and quickly, because nothing good can come from trying to juggle men. Sweat discusses sexting, saying that it is the right of consenting adults, but that he would never do it because of the loss of control of the images. Instead he recommends writing a letter because of its implicit message that the receiver was worth the time it took to write and mail. Several times he refers to his own songs, which is appropriate when talking about cheating. He quoted “Something Just Ain’t Right,” which was inspired by a woman who two-timed him.
I'd give it to: Kyle and Christy, friends of mine who are engaged. I think it would be good for both a laugh and to get them talking about their marriage. There was one really useful nugget that I hope they take away: Sweat advises seeing your partner as a fallible human being, allowing you to treat them with compassion rather than anger, which is great advice for all of us.