The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century, by Steve Coll. In the past four years, New Yorker writer Steve Coll has published two amazing books about America’s misadventures in the Islamic (and Islamist) world—first Ghost Wars and now The Bin Ladens, which is one of the most enthralling family stories ever written.
Coll had the insight to recognize that the Bin Ladens embody the most important conflicts of our age. Tribalism, nationhood, Islam, Islamism, secularism, modernity, and technology—the Saudi family struggles with all of them. He begins with Mohamed Bin Laden, who rose from tribal poverty in Yemen to the right hand of the King of Saudi Arabia. After his death in 1967, Mohamed’s dozens of children spread the family fortune around the world, struck deals with American elites, and also gave us the world’s most notorious terrorist. Coll paints vivid portraits of many of Mohamed’s 29 sons but two in particular: Salem, who led the family after his father’s death, a party-hopping, nocturnal daredevil who longed to marry a French woman, a German, a Brit, and an American—all at once; and Osama, the overlooked, soft-spoken, glory-seeking troublemaker.
Coll gets inside Saudi Arabia like no reporter before him, uncovering facts about Osama’s finances and family relationships that even the CIA missed. There’s a wonderful interlude about the brothers investing in a satellite phone company at the very moment Osama realizes sat phones are the perfect tool to run his global terror network. Particularly rich in detail is Coll’s explanation of Osama’s radicalization, from the Muslim Brotherhood teacher who promised to play soccer with Osama and his schoolmates but taught them the Koran instead to the way in which Osama’s increasing fundamentalism at first helped the family by reinforcing its Islamic bona fides with conservative Saudi royals, then caused huge trouble when Osama started blowing things up. —David Plotz
The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It, by Jonathan Zittrain. The Internet blossoms into something more powerful and fantastic every couple of months because it’s a generative technology, writes legal scholar and activist Jonathan Zittrain, open to modifications from a wide group of people. Like other generative technologies—the PC, Windows, the Firefox browser—the Internet unleashes unexpected innovations from unanticipated corners, thereby enriching us all. Example: When Jobs and Wozniak invented the Apple II, nobody had any idea that somebody would come along and create a killer application like the spreadsheet. (On the downside, generativity makes spam, viruses, and spyware possible, too.)
Zittrain worries about a growing countertrend: Nongenerative devices, such as the iPhone and the Xbox, which are born locked down. Because a nongenerative device can be adapted or improved only by its creators, it dead-ends the processes of discovery and invention that have typified the last three decades of computing. Zittrain fears that the freedom to create that we take for granted will vanish and be replaced by a world of “sterile appliances tethered to a network of control.” Unless we resist. —Jack Shafer
Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, by Fred Burton, and A Case of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammed Hanif. Spy memoirs, like pornography, appeal to readers who crave novelty rather than originality. Connoisseurs of both genres will tell you that sticking to the well-worn formula is a virtue, and, in that sense, Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent is very virtuous indeed. Fred Burton tells the story of his years in the Diplomatic Security Service with a mélange of brand names (three in the book’s second sentence alone), clichéd emotions, and studiously displayed stoicism. (Protecting the homeland impinges on family life, but so it goes.) Still, he supplies just enough scoop on his role chasing terrorists to keep things interesting.
One of the cases Burton describes is his investigation into the 1988 downing of Pakistani President Gen. Zia-ul-Haq’s plane. As far as he’s concerned, the KGB did it. Mohammed Hanif’s first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, explores the death of Gen. Zia in a far more entertaining and original way and offers a very different culprit. The main protagonist, Pakistani Air Force Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri, seems too obsessed with his silent drill squad to be responsible for the assassination, but other suspects abound: Shigri’s perfume-wearing bunkmate Obaid, resourceful laundry man Uncle Starchy, pot-smoking American Lt. Bannen, perhaps even a mango-loving crow. Or did a higher power intervene? Hanif’s book is sexy, subversive, and magical, a soaring counterpoint to Burton’s earth-bound realm of facts. —June Thomas
God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency From John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, by Randall Balmer. I am surely the sort of reader the author had in mind: a left-leaning believer tired of the assumption that those two words don’t go together. Yet the book didn’t work for me because it seemed so biased against believers on the right. And if Balmer lost me, I’m not sure what choir he is preaching to.
He begins promisingly, with a sprightly refresher course on the anti-Catholic bigotry JFK faced as a presidential candidate. (“I think it’s so unfair of people to be against Jack because he’s Catholic,” Jacqueline Kennedy said of her husband during the 1960 campaign. “He’s such a poor Catholic.”) Yet Balmer’s assumption that the religious right is not motivated by faith at all but only by politics is exactly the sort of bullying claim on the moral high ground that I’m so weary of. And his narrative is highly selective. For instance, he argues that Roe v. Wade “was not the precipitating cause for the rise of Religious Right” and instead traces it to another court case, Green v. Connally, which found that church (and other) schools with discriminatory policies are not entitled to tax-exempt status. Interesting, but why cite as supporting evidence the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention initially shrugged over Roe—only to leave out the fact that abortion was one of the major reasons for a subsequent revolution within that church? After a while, all the gratuitous little digs begin to grate: “Beverly LaHaye started a new organization, Concerned Women For America, in 1979,” he writes, “claiming that she resented the assumption on the part of feminist leaders that they spoke for all women.” Claiming? Here’s my claim: Balmer’s credibility seems compromised, even to a true believer like me. —Melinda Henneberger
A Pocket Full of History: Four Hundred Years of America—One State Quarter at a Time, by Jim Noles. It was nearly a decade ago that Caesar Rodney first galloped across a Delaware quarter; later this year, when King Kamehameha takes his rightful place on Hawaii’s, the U.S. Mint’s State Quarters program will be complete. By all accounts, it’s been a great success. A Mint survey cited recently by the Times claims that nearly half of Americans collect the coins “in casual accumulations or as a serious numismatic pursuit.” As a not-entirely-casual accumulator—I got a little worked up when I finally found the strangely elusive Indiana —I figured I’d be an easy mark for Jim Noles’ new study of the series.
Noles divides the book into 50 chapters, decoding each coin’s iconography in a short historical essay. For some states, this approach makes good sense. I’ve always admired the understated beauty of the Connecticut quarter, but it wasn’t until Noles filled me in on the rollicking tale of the state’s Charter Oak that I fully appreciated its pluck as well. More often, however, Noles’ essays do little to illuminate the coin at hand. Nebraska’s quarter, which depicts Chimney Rock, inspires a detailed account of that geological formation, complete with a meditation on its Native-American name—Elk Penis.
Noles only hints at the far more interesting stories of how the states arrived at their varied designs. In Michigan, a 25-member gubernatorial commission reviewed more than 4,300 proposals … then chose a map of Michigan. Other states, though forced to fight through just as much red tape, came up with elegant, often surprising symbols: Iowa selected a Grant Wood schoolhouse; Alabama chose Helen Keller. Noles tantalizingly mentions, in passing, that before deciding on a bridge as its emblem, West Virginia entertained the idea of honoring Anna Jarvis, the woman who invented Mother’s Day. There’s a fascinating case study in federalism in these quarters—and a window into the dreams and insecurities of the 50 states—but Noles, sadly, is too distracted by arboreal and geological history to notice. —John Swansburg
The Post-American World, by Fareed Zakaria. Despite the somewhat alarming title, this is a book, as Zakaria states at the outset, “not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else.” With that caveat, Zakaria launches into a far-reaching analysis of how globalization has resulted in a fundamental shift of power—political and economic but not military—away from American dominance and toward the rising powers of China and India, the first- and second-fastest growing economies in the world. And while much of the data in the book has been cataloged and discussed at length in a number of recent publications (I prefer Parag Khanna’s The Second World), Zakaria’s strength lies not in striking new ground but in offering a lens through which to understand America’s role in a globalized world.
It is time for America to abandon its hyperpower ambitions and instead learn to act as an “honest broker”—a referee of sorts—between the powers that may one day overtake it (much as Britain has done). In the future, Zakaria argues, America’s most vital export will be the universal ideals upon which the country is founded—ideals that can form a kind of hub around which the rest of the world can gather—but only if we ourselves are committed to live by those very same ideals, regardless of whatever threats we may face. So far, we’ve had a pretty lousy start on the future Zakaria imagines. —Reza Aslan
Last Last Chance, by Fiona Maazel. This debut novel is several books at once: a wacked-out farce about families, a critique of contemporary culture, and a welcome addition to a heretofore male-dominated streak of apocalypse narratives (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jim Crace’s Pesthouse, Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestowne, and so on). The story is told by Lucy Clark, the eldest daughter of a Centers for Disease Control doctor who kills himself after a batch of so-called “superplague” disappears from a lab on his watch. Suddenly the focus of national scrutiny, the Clark women—Lucy; her mother, Isifrid; her 12-year-old half-sister, Hannah; and her grandma, Agneth—must learn to cope with negative attention while preparing for the (possibly) impending pandemic. Each woman seeks comfort where she can: Hannah chooses Christian Identity (read “white power”) summer camp, Grandma gets into reincarnation theory, and Lucy and her mother both choose drugs.
It’s a fast-moving book full of insight and surprise, and Maazel’s prose is at least as compelling as the story itself. She writes with a kind of ecstatic swagger—freewheeling and cocksure, intelligent and loopy and funny as hell. “[I]t’s not that I’ll be at a funeral and laugh because it’s funny. I’ll just laugh. And maybe, from strain of withholding laughter, I will get aroused. And maybe, from horror of arousal, I will get a headache that hurts so bad, I’ll end up crying anyway.” I relished every page. —Justin Taylor
The Story of Forgetting, by Stefan Merrill Block. When the mother of 15-year-old aspiring scientist Seth Waller is diagnosed with a rare strain of Alzheimer’s disease, he devotes his summer to “empirical investigation” of the illness. Bumbling and intellectually overconfident, he tries to make sense of his mother’s genetics by researching her family, which she refused to discuss. Block interweaves Seth’s efforts with two other stories: a C.S. Lewis-type fable about a fantastical, amnesic land called Isidora and a memoir by a hunchbacked Luddite who (in a plot twist never wholly explained) lures his brother’s wife to bed by masturbating outside her window in a tree. The hunchback and his unlikely paramour conceive a girl; his brother, back from Cold War Army service, raises the girl as his own. Seth struggles with his mother’s oblivion and the boilerplate anxieties of high school; the elderly hunchback struggles with his secret paternity—and so on toward a satisfying, not-so-unexpected denouement that draws the three stories together.
The province of ailing-parent literature is hardly underpopulated, but The Story of Forgetting earns its claim to the territory. It’s fast-moving and raw without being emotionally heavy-handed: Block’s characters share despair through apathy and awkwardness, not fireworks. Granted, less-fraught passages often stall into cliché (on New York: “four miserable years of temp work in the strange city of sneers and dirt and car horns”) or else an unfortunate third-drink brand of philosophizing. (“Was science, in fact, advancing toward anything? Or was it giving more intricate form to a hopelessness as old as human history?”) But the novel’s energy outweighs its familiarity and fuzziness; Block tells an emotionally demanding tale with honesty and charm. —Nathan Heller
The One-Strand River: Poems, 1994-2007, by Richard Kenney. Richard Kenney’s big new book of short poems took him 14 years to write, and the best poems make the wait worthwhile. They are encyclopedically informed (especially in the sciences) yet warmly personable and richly worked (even ornamented) despite their small scale. A sonnet called “Hydrology: Lachrymation” begins, “The river meanders because it can’t think” and then investigates “lesser weather systems … troubling the benthos where the ice caps shrink.” Kenney (who won a MacArthur “genius” grant 20 years ago) makes the concerns of a comfortable middle-aged West Coast writer— married love, parental love, parental fears, ecocatastrophe— not only vivid but quirky, even bizarre, in part by drawing on the pleasures of rhyme. Addressing his infant daughter in lines that mimic her unrest, Kenney is cute but not cutesy, a genuine charm: “You are nothing if not a little otter./ You are a murmurous moon-miss of a wriggle./ You are one burped girl/ and no other.” Not all the poems are so much fun; the first and the last quarters of this capacious collection, though, show good-humored depths no other poet now has. —Stephanie Burt
Everyday Drinking, by Kingsley Amis. An editor’s note to this omnium-gatherum of Amis’ notes on potation observes that the author was not just a drinker but “a drink-ist,” making this volume a dipsographical classic. Amis teases the brain with a 30-part quiz (“How did the bubbles get into the champagne in the first place?”) and relays such seductive recipes as Evelyn Waugh’s Noonday Reviver (big shot of gin, half-pint of Guinness, ginger beer) with a drollery that even a teetotaler will savor. He further offers the overindulger practical knowledge in a chapter on having been drunk, which includes instructions on treating both the physical and metaphysical hangover. For the P.H., Amis prescribes vigorous sex, copious water, and unsweetened grapefruit; for the M.H., a special regimen of literature or music. “A good cry is the initial aim,” he writes, recommending Sibelius’ incidental music for Pelléas and Mélisande, which “carries the ever-so-slightly phoney and overdone pathos that is exactly what you want in your present state.” —Troy Patterson
The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry, by Adam Kirsch. What makes a poem modern, and what makes a modern poem a work of art? These are the questions that animate The Modern Element, a critical survey of contemporary poets—from John Ashbery to Jorie Graham, Philip Larkin to Richard Wilbur—by Adam Kirsch. With this volume, Kirsch, whose smart, muscular, and at times acerbic criticism has been dazzling and infuriating readers for a decade, steps into a distinguished line of literary essayists. He derives his title from a Lionel Trilling essay; he writes in the accessible, generalist vein of Edmund Wilson; and he builds his own definition of modern poetry on the one advanced by T.S. Eliot in “The Metaphysical Poets.” Eliot defined the modern poet, Kirsch writes, “not as his age’s interpreter but as its exemplary specimen or willing victim.” For Kirsch, “a good modern poem,” which is to say a meaningful or significant poem, can be written only by “poets who put themselves generally at risk in their work”—technically, emotionally, intellectually—and who avoid the “fraudulent self-exposure” and “otiose experimentalism” too many writers fall back on.
Kirsch employs these criteria—sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly—in evaluating the poets in this collection. His approach seems especially relevant now, when so much poetry reads (and is read) as journaling or therapy. Poets who, in Kirsch’s estimation, merely transcribe raw perceptions get the gloves-off treatment: “[Sharon] Olds has no interest in abstracting from the contingent details of her life to a larger, more universally valid idea or symbol.” Kirsch values discipline and rigorous craft; he abhors “mental laziness.” Yet he also objects to the deliberate obscurity that has become so fashionable in poetry. (Kenneth Koch is “close to [John] Ashbery in his ability to sound like sense without always making it.”) But even at his most astringent, Kirsch, a poet himself, exhibits an understanding of the emotional demands of writing: “It means hollowing out one’s self, in order to allow all the bitterness and joy of life to take up residence there and find expression.” —Amanda Fortini