Most recent books: Bernard Lewis’s From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East and Diablo Cody’s Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper.  Both are reports from unfamiliar cultures; in that regard Diablo is fresher.

The Lewis book is a collection of essays, thus inherently uneven and a bit repetitive.   He’s at his best when talking about Ottoman Turkey, a state he seems to really admire.  It was a major military power as late as 1683 (when it besieged Vienna); Elizabethan travelers generally found it well ordered and prosperous, and till relatively late, it had no trouble winning the loyalty of its Arab and even Christian inhabitants. 

Lewis has expended a lot of ink explaining how Muslim civilization went from being the planet’s most advanced and prosperous culture to being a backwater, which is not only important in understanding the frustration of modern Muslims, but offers a warning to any culture– say, our own– which thinks that its supremacy will be eternal.  In a few words, Islam felt that it had learned everything worth knowing about the rest of the world (and that didn’t amount to much), and just didn’t notice when the situation had changed, till too late.  A 17C Ottoman account of Christianity, for instance, depends on medieval Arab sources and covers the Roman church councils, but doesn’t have a word to say about Protestantism. 

On contemporary affairs Lewis is just a pundit, and can get things spectacularly wrong– e.g. he expected that the overthrow of Saddam would result in “rejoicing” and the establishment of a government that would “seek to resolve, not provoke conflicts” (p. 380).  On the other hand, he can delve deeper than the journalists, simply because he knows Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish, something that ought to be basic in reporting on the Middle East.

An interesting oddity: diplomacy between Turkey and the West in the early centuries was generally conducted in Italian, the only language likely to be shared by both sides.  (For centuries certain Greeks would send their children to be educated in Italy to provide a source of translators.)

 As for Diablo Cody, she’s a lot of fun; her stripping memoir is full of the same energy and wit as Juno.  And refreshingly, she feels no need at all to offer regrets or moral redemption.  (It’s an old literary tradition, dating back at least to Augustine’s Confessions, that you can vicariously enjoy someone’s depravity so long as they repent by the last chapter.)

 Still, I wish someone would offer a book deal to Ali Davis for her True Porn Clerk Stories, which is as funny and a good deal more insightful than Candy Girl.