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The Rise of Islamic State, Touch and I Am Radar

Where did ISIS come from? How do we feel? And some quantum fiction

By Mark Diston, 7 Mar 2015

Page File El Reg bookworm Mark Diston pores through publishing's latest tomes. Seasoned journo Patrick Cockburn details the fall out of the war on terror. David J. Linden takes us on a tour of one of our lesser-regarded senses and Reif Larsen bewilders with his latest work of fiction.

The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution

I use the liberal press in the UK for my daily two minutes of hate, yet amongst the dismal undergraduate worldview there are a few exceptional commentators. The Independent may have been running The Ten Best Sex Toys for longer than The Mousetrap's been in the West End for, but it has a pair of Middle East correspondents who are a cut above the average.

There is Robert Fisk, the author of The Great War for Civilization, who has lived in Beirut for years and maintains a steady stream of informed journalism. Then there is Patrick Cockburn, who was virtually a lone Cassandra in warning the world about the advances of ISIS before their lightning victories last summer.

Cockburn had already completed a book about the return of jihadists which had been overtaken by circumstances. The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution is an updated version of his previous work which was made obsolete by events in 2014.

He begins by recalling the ISIS defeat of Iraqi army and their occupation of Mosul, the major event that finally brought the organisation to world attention. He takes us to the origins of the war on terror and how ISIS came to be:

“The war on terror for which civil liberties have been curtailed and hundreds of billions of dollars spent has failed miserably… because it did not target the jihadi movement as a whole and, above all, was not aimed at Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two countries that fostered jihadism as a creed and as a movement.”

The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution

He goes on to say: "28 pages of the 9/11 commission report about the relationship between the attackers and Saudi Arabia were cut and never published."

Cockburn adds elsewhere that no Saudi citizen had been charged with supporting terrorism abroad since 9/11, adding that “a reason for waterboarding Al-Qaeda suspects was to extract confessions implicating Iraq rather than Saudi Arabia.”

He describes how after the American invasion of Iraq and subsequent campaign of de-Ba'athification led to a Sunni uprising, particularly in Anbar province, the large desert region that adjoins Syria and how this had died down after “The Sunni Awakening” – a tribal counter-offensive against the jihadists.

A sectarian Shia government in Baghdad – which progressively isolated the Sunni heartlands – followed by the US troop removal and the Syrian civil war all combined to bring about the founding of the Islamic State.

Cockburn astutely compares the situation in Iraq and Syria to The Thirty Years War in seventeenth century Europe. The schisms, the ultraviolence, the ignorance and bigotry of the religiously deranged… plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The situation in Iraq is best described by one of Cockburn’s interviewees who says: “I never imagined that ten years after the fall of Saddam, you would still be able to get a man killed in Baghdad by paying $100.”

And the future for ISIS? “People who relate to their opponents largely through snuff movies are unlikely to be in a mood to compromise.” Plenty of blood and fire then. The Rise of Islamic State is an important and revealing book which is essential reading to those who wish to dig deeper than the headlines and the soundbites.

Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution book coverAuthor Patrick Cockburn
Title The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution
Publisher Verso
Price £5.99 (Paperback), £5.00 (eBook)
More info Publication web site

Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind

David J. Linden is an American professor of neuroscience and the author of The Accidental Mind. His book latest book, Touch, is about that most neglected of senses and is subtitled: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind

Text, unless you are blind, is not the most tactile of mediums and there were times in this book when I was wondering if the subject wouldn’t be better as a documentary, but at least this way there is no dispute about the music.

David J. Linden has an open modern style and admits to provoking a non-scientific couple into a Fifty Shades Of Geometry S&M session with a compass point. We also learn of the author’s faux pas with an ear plug mistaken for a nipple …

We have guest star interventions from Tarantinoesque heroines ... but alongside the titillation comes the torment. We get jargon to the point of parody: “Recent work has shown that the primary somatosensory cortex can also be activated by caress and that the degree of activation can be modulated by social-cognitive factors like the perceived sex of the caresser, information that is presumably received from non-somatosensory brain regions…”

David J. Linden, Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind

You can feel your own brain regions shutting down around this point. This book veers too much between the overfamiliar, Acronyms Anonymous and PhD LCD hell thanks to lines such as “novel drugs that selectively block MrgprC11 or NPPB receptors or GRP receptors …”

This is a layperson’s book which relies too much on sci-speak.

From Braille through sexual response and pain, we are given a tour of all things sensory, including a Pakistani family that feel no pain end up having predictably short lifespans. We are introduced to the biology of touch, cells with names like classical musicians I know I will almost certainly forget: Meissner, Merkel, Ruffini, Pacini – all beneath the skin and responsible for the sense of touch. David Linden goes on to describe the incredible work of Louis Braille who conceived and wrote his “touch” language whilst still a teenager.

We are then introduced to a woman who, following a dose of shingles, gets an itch on her head which she scratches down to the bone of the skull, which leads us into a digression into the science of itching and scratching. It is then explained why only some brain-damaged and schizophrenic individuals can tickle themselves while the rest of us have to look elsewhere.

Linden leaves us with a slushy new-age farewell: “Whether it involves the electric touch of romantic love, the unsettling feeling of being watched, the relief of pain from mindful practice or the essential touch that newborns need to thrive and communities need to cohere, the transcendent aspect of touch prevails when we understand that these feelings flow from the evolved nature of our skin, nerves and brain. Ultimately the biology of touch shows us that the natural is as deeply human and humane as the supernatural.”

This is a rather divided work in that it is part textbook, part Discovery Channel and veers between the two modes repeatedly. Linden takes us from his own bed into impenetrable paragraphs of acronyms and jargon. It is a subject which should be better treated on screen... just don’t mess up the soundtrack or overdo the graphics.

David J. Linden, Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind book coverAuthor David J. Linden
Title Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind
Publisher Viking
Price £16.99 (Hardback), £9.99 (eBook)
More info Publication web site

I Am Radar

Reif Larsen is an American author best known for The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. I Am Radar is his second novel and would seem to be a novel about quantum entanglement.

The eponymous hero is born black and is turned white for no apparent reason and is just one of many characters in this novel who are neither deep nor interesting enough to carry the erratic storyline, which follows nuclear physicists – or is it an experimental theatre group? – in a jaunt around the trouble spots of the world. The point being?

“When you can’t find something,” she said, “it may as well not exist.”

I’m all for a little experimental fiction and I Am Radar is, in places, both thought-provoking and well written, as in this observation of a Belgrade street woman: “She had the eyes of a child. She was a vagabond. A miscreant. Did others now see him this way too? When they passed him in the street, did mothers pull their children closer and avert their eyes?” It is also insightful at times: “You don’t seem like an American to me, you’re too good at listening.”

Reif Larsen, I Am Radar

As the author says: “Everything that you do affects another person, even if you never meet him,” and “if it is not documented, it never happened”.

The main problem with this book is that it skips all over the place. Besides Radar, we have a host of characters whom the author alights upon but does not investigate at any great depth. The action seems to unfold with no purpose, reason or meaning.

For instance, take the Serbian nationalist who says “I keep telling you we come from a great people ... we’ve just lost our way, that’s all.”

He seems to be playing a cover version of Heraclitus in this phrase: “It occurred to Danilo then that all rivers were the same river.”

And a line stolen surely from Alec Guinness in The Bridge Over the River Kwai: “I see the Japanese are as fastidious with their documentation as they are with their own mortality.”

Phnom Penh, Kinshasa, Sarajevo and more, all melt into one quantumly-entangled text that overwhelms the cast of ham actors. Evidently, there is always an excuse for experimentation: “If you grow too comfortable with your book, I say dismantle it. Put it in a paper bag and heave it out the window... You have to clear the decks before you grow complacent ... change is the only force that keeps us alive.”

This book is forever moving and never changing – the concept is interesting, the characters much less so. The storylines within I Am Radar are mundane, yet hint at the infinite and are ultimately very long-winded and hard to read.

Charles Bukowksi used to pine for writers whose lives were more interesting than their works. I Am Radar gives the impression of an author who has studied and absorbed all of the tricks and theories of literary modernism, yet his observations fall short of drawing from life any coherent themes. ®

Reif Larsen, I Am Radar book coverAuthor Reif Larsen
Title I Am Radar
Publisher Harvill Secker
Price £18.99 (Hardback), £9.98 (eBook) on sale 26 March
More info Publication web site

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