30 Seconds of Book Criticism: Inside the Kingdom

Publishers send me books to consider for review, but I rarely end up writing about even those that interest me. So, after culling the trash and the irrelevant and the brilliant-but-not-compelling-to-me volumes and dispatching them to the Monroe County Public Library, Honeoye Falls branch, I stack up the rest. The stack grows, until it teeters; and still I stack more, a tower of babel on my office floor, a monument to my guilt over books ignored. What are they doing on the floor, anyway? Books should never be left on the floor. Once, Jews would kiss a book that had fallen. Now, my floor is littered with them. My solution has been to box them — just like DeAnna on BSG — some of you know what I mean — with the promise of resurrection at some distant point in the future, when I’ll write a big essay that ties together all these disparate works of genius, history and fiction and polemic and poetry — a universal theory of books with pretty covers. But that’s never happened. So I’m instituting a new semi-regular feature, inspired by Bobby Tisdale‘s old “30 seconds of standup” weekly comedy feature: 30 seconds of book criticism. (Not counting this long-winded introduction, and not funny, either, sadly.)

This week: Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia, by Robert Lacey (Viking Press, October 2009).

Never trust a book about Arabs by a Briton, especially one who begins his account of Saudi Arabia with a whimsical recollection of dropping in on the king. But one needn’t trust an author to learn from him, so if you’re interested in a 329 page newsweekly article, stuffed with artfully condensed potted histories, revealing anecdotes, and strange physical descriptions — “King Abdul Azis and his friend Mohammed Bin Laden had just two working eyeballs between them — one each.” — read this book, with a salt shaker at your side. Here’s a nugget in need of just a little seasoning:

“‘One September two of our best professors, ladies from Canada and the United States, arrived back at Jeddah for the start of the new year,’ remembers a bright young Saudi woman who was studying English literature at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah in 1983. ‘They were sent home. They had been teaching the origins of the English novel — Tom Jones, Moll Flanders, and all that bawdy stuff. Someone had reported them. There were a group of ‘veilers’ in our class–‘the fanatics with eyes.’ They considered themselves guardians of our virtue.’

The fundamentalists in the class did appreciate one piece of Christian literature, however.

‘We were reading John Milton,’ remembers the student, ‘Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, in which Eve was depicted as a seducer, the source of all human sin and wickedness. Trouble arrives with the very first woman — the veilers just loved that. Eve is treated quite kindly in the Koran: we don’t talk badly about her in our religion; for Muslims she is the mother of mankind. But for Milton she was the temptress, the reason for man’s descent from heaven to hell. ‘There you are,’ these religious women would say. ‘We women are sinful. We are misleaders of men. That is why we should all stay home and be veiled.'”

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).