book review

“Looming Tower” Audiobook Leaves An Impression

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
Written and Narrated by Lawrence Wright
Random House Audio 2006
16 Hours & 31 Minutes

Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is a book that political science professors will be assigning to freshmen for the next twenty years or more. When discussing my interest in counter-terrorism with a professor, my callow sophomore self off-handedly said “I’d like to write a book about the intelligence failures that led to 9/11.” His response was “That’s already been covered pretty thoroughly.”

Undoubtedly, my professor was referring to Wright’s comprehensive work, which is the closest you can come to reading the 9/11 Commission Report as a narrative.

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The counterterrorism studies section of my bookshelf. Sassy refused to appear in this photo for obvious reasons. 

This is a book I meant to get to for some time, listening to it in fits and starts since. I was finally spurred on by the release of a Hulu miniseries to finish the audiobook during my commute over the last month.

The enormous breadth and depth of The Looming Tower–spanning seventy years and covering everything from the nuances of Medieval Islamic philosophy to the geography of tiny Egyptian villages–becomes something of a liability when translated to an audio format. Read by the author, the text is read exactly as intended in an even, yet never boring, voice.

However, as the text covers dozens upon dozens of names, many with variable English spelling, I found myself wishing I had bought the physical book for future reference. Jumping from topic to topic and time to time, there is a disjointed, but not disorderly, quality to the book. Perhaps this is just a fault of perception in my visually-focused brain.

In a book this detailed, it is difficult to draw out favorite or most important moments, but I will try.

First: the importance of diversity, or even just an understanding of the world, in national security.

Before 9/11, the FBI had less than ten Arabic speakers. A particularly affecting moment is when Ali Soufan, then a young FBI agent, cracks the lone survivor of the Nairobi embassy bombers in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A practicing Muslim who was born in Lebanon, Soufan debates the failed suicide bomber in Arabic on the Quran and Islamic law, eventually forcing the bomber to admit he has murdered innocents, many of them fellow Muslims going about their daily lives.

The bomber then tells everything he knows about the structure and membership of Al Qaeda.

Second: if there was ever a title of deep meaning, it is this one.

On a cursory glance, the tower of the title refers to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Indeed it does. However, it is also a reference to a Quranic verse and Bin Laden’s perversion of it. In a video message to the nineteen hijackers, Bin Laden quoted this verse as an oblique reference to the specifics of the plot, ignoring its actual meaning.

The verse (4:78)  reads, in Ahman Zaki Hammad’s wording, as:

Wherever you may be, death will overtake you at the pre-ordained time–even if you are in lofty towers.

And continues with:

Yet if any good comes to them, they say in their wavering hearts: This is from God!
But if any harm strikes them, they say: This is from you, O Muhammad!
Say to them: All things are decreed from God.

In the larger context of the passage, it is clear this refers to the limits of mortal life and God’s sovereignty over the universe. Jewish and Christian readers will find a similar sentiment expressed by Job, who acknowledges God’s control over all things even in adversity:

Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back again.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away: blessed be the name of the LORD!
Job 2:21

The verse from Surah Al-Nisa’ ends with an admonishment that could well be turned against fundamentalists of all faiths:

What is with these people that they can hardly understand any discourse?

Putting aside my very amateurish exegesis, the conclusion of The Looming Tower singles out one personal tragedy from all the horrors of the 9/11. It is the eerie coincidence of this one tragedy that sticks with me even more than Wright’s detailed research and strong prose. He seems to have provided some of the strongest evidence yet that there is a Providence to the world.

If not a benevolent Providence, at least, then, Fate with a bitter sense of irony.

3.5/5 stars: A very strong book in research and storytelling, but maybe not the best fit for an audio format.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: You know what’s going to happen and there’s nothing you can do about it, much like the law enforcement officials profiled in the book.
2/5 ick-factor: Despicable human beings of many flavors. 

Conspiracy theorists, raving Islamophobes, and ISIS trolls will be summarily banned and digitally keelhauled.

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Bargain Bin Mystery #2: A Book So Bad It Makes Me Want to Cry

Dead Man’s Puzzle
A Puzzle Lady Mystery
Parnell Hall
Worldwide Mystery
2009

I tried.

I tried so hard.

I tried so hard to say something nice about this book.

But I couldn’t.

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“What the fluff is this?”–Sassy

It is one of the worst things I have subjected my reading eyes to.

One. Of. The. Worst.

Thank God I only bought it as part of a $5 bag of used paperbacks from Brookline Booksmith. (The Booksmith is awesome and in no way responsible for the poor quality of this book, by the way. Nor does the Booksmith in anyway sponsor or promote this blog).

I almost worry this review is going to get me sued.

I thought for sure this was a first-time novel of an artist whose work never again saw the light of day. I was surprised to learn the author has a wide following. The reasons for that escape me, but to each their own.

Let’s start with the premise of Dead Man’s Puzzle. A detective novel has to have a conceit, something quirky about its detective that makes him/her/them ‘unusual’ as a detective.

Cora Felton is a serial monogamist, recovering alcoholic, and sudoku expert who makes her living as the creator of a nationally syndicated crossword puzzle column.

As I am breaking into the series in the third book (and am breaking “out” of the series as soon as this review is done), I have no idea how this bizarre arrangement came about. I only know the fraud is perpetuated by Cora’s niece, the actual crossword constructor.

Needless to say, Cora is a spectacularly unsympathetic protagonist. I don’t need my heroes to be angels, but I do need some reason to like them. Cora’s relationships are poorly defined, even though numerous minor characters appear in useless subplots; her history and motivation are sketchy. Everything Mr. Hall does in describing her and presenting her internal monologues just makes me dislike her more.

The only time I had some sympathy for Cora was in a spare, brief paragraph describing her temptation to drink again, with the reasons for the urge (stress) and the reasons for her resistance (the shame she would feel in front of her niece) clearly outlined (246). It’s a very human moment for a character who otherwise comes across as a rather obnoxious wooden board.

The style of the writing is the thing that most makes me recoil from this book. The prose thinks it is so. darn. clever.

I know I’m not one to talk, but bear with me.

Consider the following, from an early chapter, which is right about where I stopped having hopes for the book. Notice the poor construction of that first sentence in particular. That medial comma is just bugging me.

Cora got out of the car, faced a rather exasperated-looking Chief Harper. ‘All right,’ she said, ‘you got me.’
‘Didn’t you see me behind you?’
‘That was you?’
‘Yes, that was me. Why didn’t you stop?’
‘Why didn’t you use your siren?’
‘I don’t use the siren unless I’m making an arrest.’
‘You’re not arresting me?’
‘For what?’
‘For whatever you’re not arresting me for.’
‘I’m not arresting you for anything.’
‘I guess that covers it.’ 
(14)”

Razor blades. Like razor blades to the mind’s eye, reading that. And it goes on like that for three-hundred pages.

It’s like a computer tried writing in the style of Jane Austen. While all the wordplay, all the sass that should make it funny is there, there is something dead about the execution that makes it fall more-than-flat. It also has very little to do in advancing the plot or readers’ understanding of the characters.

I had to force myself to pay the bare minimum of attention to each page. Even when I tried very hard to understand this book, I could not tell you what was going on.

The “story” (and I use that term loosely in describing the chain of events recorded on these cheaply printed pages) begins with Cora’s niece leaving on honeymoon, meaning Cora has to find other ways to perpetuate the fraud she commits on her devoted readers.And then a little old recluse gets murdered and leaves crossword puzzles of his own design as the only clues.And then all his poorly-characterized and largely unnamed relatives show up.

And then some…and….actually, I no longer care.

0/5 stars: Why is this even in print? I’ve read better fan fiction.
0/5 ‘fraidy cats: Fear and concern would presuppose emotional investment in this book, of which I have none.
1/5 ick-factor: Readers are subjected to superfluous descriptions of abysmal housekeeping. 

“Bullied to Death”: Brutal Topic, Respectful Narrative

Bullied to Death: A Story of Bullying, Social Media, and the Suicide of Sherokee Harriman
Judith Yates
WildBlue Press
Released 10 April 2018

This is a hard one to read, folks.

Ms. Yates is not to blame, except in that her gaze is unsparing, the scope of her research unafraid. Ms. Yates tells the story well, but it is the story of a child’s miserable life and rending death.

In September 2015, fourteen-year-old Sherokee (pronounced like “Cherokee”) Harriman stabbed herself to death in a public park, in view of a group of teenagers who had been tormenting her earlier that day.

(more…)

“Isaac’s Storm” A Far-Too-Timely Masterpiece

Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
Erik Larson
Crown Publishers 1999
273 pages of text, 323 with notes

As wind shook my apartment on Thursday, as the cyclone passed overhead, I forgot for a moment if I was in Boston, with snow pelting against the windowpanes, or in Houston, with rain, trees, and shingles threatening to break through the plywood covering our windows.

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View of my neighborhood. Likely thoughts of driver: “Screw this.” 

Watching footage of dumpsters and ice floes streaming through downtown, and hearing news that parts of New Hampshire will be colder than Mars tonight, I decided it was time to delve into a disaster book.

“And in a single day and night of misfortune…
the island of Atlantis sank beneath the sea”
-Plato, Timaeus

I grew up on the flat, hot, humid coastal plains of Texas. A favorite summer destination for my family was Galveston, the barrier island about an hour south from Houston on I-45. When rain threatened our day on the beach, or we were already too sunburned for our own good, one of our indoor activities was a locally produced documentary film about the Great Storm of 1900. As a child, I was fascinated and horrified by the story of how an unanticipated September hurricane killed at least 8,000 and knocked Galveston from its position as Queen City of the South. It remains the deadliest disaster in U.S. history in terms of human lives.

That is my only complaint about the book I am about to review. For historical accuracy, the subtitle should conclude “the Deadliest Hurricane in American History.” I understand that the publisher had to sell copies, however.

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Sassy-approved. 

Isaac’s Storm is a work of nonfiction that centers on Isaac Cline, the chief weatherman of Galveston in September 1900, husband, father, scientist, and upstanding citizen. While nonfiction, Isaac’s Storm rises to narrative and descriptive heights that most fiction authors only dream of reaching. Without burdening readers with cumbersome and slow backstory, Erik Larson recreates Isaac, his family, his fellow-citizens, and his time with a historian’s scrupulous attention to detail and novelist’s gift for characterization and conjecture.

For anyone who has visited Galveston, or lived on the Gulf Coast, you will be transported by descriptions of “the susurrus of curtains luffed by the breeze” and “the thudding…caused by great deep-ocean swells falling upon the beach” (8).

The Galveston of 1900, so vividly resurrected by Larson, is a cosmopolitan city, the Ellis Island of the South, home to large communities of German and Jewish immigrants, as well as a (relatively) respected and protected African-American community. Among the most memorable characters Larson introduces is Rabbi Henry Cohen. This pillar of Galveston’s community, revered by his congregation and Gentiles alike, was marital counselor, expeditionary to Southern Africa, and single-handed rescuer of maidens from captivity in a local bordello.

Seriously, he went in swinging and carried the kidnapped woman out on his shoulder to freedom. Someone needs to make a movie about him.

Larson interlaces these human, variable, lively accounts of daily life with brutally objective descriptions of the storm as it forms off the coast of Africa and moves inexorably (and yet inexplicably) towards Galveston. These sections are set apart by black borders along the page; one is tempted to think of Victorian mourning borders on stationery.

Consider Larson’s ecstatic, almost pornographic descriptions of cloud formation:

“It began, as all things must, with an awakening of molecules. The sun rose over the African highlands east of Cameroon and warmed grasslands, forests, lakes, and rivers, and the men and creatures that moved and breathed among them; it warmed their exhalations and caused these to rise upward as a great plume of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, the earth’s soul The air contained water: haze, steam, vapor; the stench of day-old kill and the greetings of men glad to awaken from the cool mystery of night. There was cordite, ether, urine, dung. Coffee. Bacon. Sweat. An invisible paisley of plumes and counterplumes formed above the earth, the pattern as ephemeral as the copper and bronze veils that appear when water enters whiskey” (19)

Poetry. Absolute poetry.

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The binding is beautiful, too. 

Isaac’s Storm is, above all, a tale of hubris. A naive confidence that Galveston would never fall victim to a hurricane, bolstered by Cline’s per-order report to local businessmen that the city was safe; an imperialist belief that brown-skinned Cuban forecasters could not possibly know more about hurricanes than the newly-formed Weather Service’s Washington office; a last-ditch hope perhaps this house would survive the sixteen-foot storm surge when hundreds like it had not been spared.

The most salient forensic aspect of the book comes in the aftermath of the storm. Without refrigeration, electricity, DNA, dental records, or fingerprints, the people of Galveston attempt to identify and bury their dead with dignity.

Those attempts, for the most part, end rather ghoulishly.

Isaac’s Storm closes with its original 1999 conclusion, which raises the specter of global warming and its impacts on hurricane formation. Larson ponders how “a curious quirk in the New York-New Jersey coastline…[could allow] even a moderate hurricane on just the right track to drown commuters in the subway tunnels under Lower Manhattan” (273).

In the years since the publication of Isaac’s Storm, Galveston and the United States as a whole have seen numerous tropical storms and hurricanes, among them: Allison (Galveston/Houston, 2001); Charlie (Florida, 2004); the deadly Katrina (New Orleans, 2005); Rita (East Texas, 2005), which proved that you cannot evacuate 2 million+ people from Houston in an orderly fashion; Ike (Galveston/Houston 2008), which I remembered as the winds whipped my apartment last night; Sandy (NJ/NY 2012), which did flood the tunnels of Manhattan; and this damned most recent hurricane season of 2017, with Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria, which have devastated Puerto Rico, Florida, and the City of Houston.

If Mr. Larson were to provide a new foreword to his masterpiece, it should be one sentence:

“You were warned.”

5/5 stars: a nonfiction masterpiece, vivid, cinematic, and brutally timely
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: as other critics, quoted on the dust jacket, have noted, you will fear the sky for days afterwards
4/5 ick-factor: 8,000 bodies in the Texas summer heat. Use your imagination; Larson will leave nothing to it. 

Mini-review: I bought this book at the Galveston Bookshop, one of my favorite places in Texas and, consequently, the world. Stop by to enjoy their great selection of used books and new local-interest/local-author titles, as well as their fair and convenient pricing and credit system for selling your own books. I was able to redeem credit, stored in their system, from two years or more ago when I visited over my Christmas break. Isaac’s Storm is available there for $19.95 USD.

(This promotion was done freely and at my own instigation. Seriously, I just love the Galveston Bookshop)

Ackerman’s “Trotsky” Enjoyable…Except for the Errors

Preface

It’s been a hard few weeks for me, hard for me to face the blank page and (in my own mind, at least) provide some wit or wisdom to anyone who might read this blog.

Me? I, myself, am fine. The news has been deplorable, even more than usual. People in my social circles, including close friends, have been suffering terribly.

But, I remember I promised reviews of my summer reading, and remember that writing for you always makes me feel better.

With that said, let’s talk about violence.

Since Monday was the anniversary of Trotsky’s death (by ice ax, not by ice pick, see Fig. 1) he gets to go to the front of the review backlog line.

The story of his murder is one for the ages. I should feature it some time.

Fig. 1–Know your weapons. This will be on the quiz.


Ice ax. Similar to weapon used to kill Trotsky. (Wikipedia)


Ice pick. Still deadly, but not used on Trotsky. (Wikipedia)

The Book

Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution
Kenneth D. Ackerman
Counterpoint Press
2016

Even before the book begins, you can tell Ackerman is not a historian or political scientist.

And, for the most part, it works well.

Ackerman is a New York lawyer who has set his hand to retelling that great city’s history. Trotsky is his second work, chronicling the ten weeks the Russian radical, expelled from war-torn Europe for anti-war writings, lived in the Bronx with his common-law wife and their two children.

I sort this as relevant to true-crime fans because 90% of what Trotsky and his comrades had done in their lives up to this point was illegal. There is also plenty of spy intrigue and conspiracy going on separate from their plan to overthrow the capitalist order.

For “serious” historians of the Russian Revolution, (and trust me, I’ve read them) this period of time gets maybe two pages in a 900-page book. To see so much effort put into a generally-ignored period is like seeing your favorite canon characters in a spin-off movie of the best kind.

For anyone not familiar with Trotsky, Ackerman’s book is a gentle introduction in a novelistic tone.

For anyone not partial to Trotsky, the book is still enjoyable for its portrait of Gilded-Age New York, a time of optimism and social ferment. As the Russian Marxist exiles write and argue, separated from the horrors of WWI by an ocean, oblivious to the wars they will soon begin, even the most cynical reader has to admit there is at least a slight charm to their idealism.

Ackerman’s passion for the project shows even from the dedication, which is to his grandparents, who “fled Poland for America as a result of the 1920 Soviet Russian invasion…led by the then Soviet people’s commissar for military and naval affairs, Leon Trotsky.”

Yeah, spoiler alert: the Bolsheviks win. Next spoiler: Trotsky still ends up losing (see Fig. 1 above).

But passion does not save Ackerman from some egregious factual, or editing, mistakes. One of these, which still makes my eye twitch thinking about it, comes early in the book. Introducing Lenin to readers on page seventeen, Ackerman includes a quote from a contemporary…a quote about Trotsky.

A quote about Trotsky that is a fairly well-known quote about Trotsky.

(For clarity’s sake, this quote is the one that describes Trotsky as stalking around the speakers’ dais like “a bird of prey.”)

I forgive Ackerman these few…infuriating…slips because of his genuine commitment to the book, which shows forth in a novelistic, bubbly style.

3/5 stars: a nice popular history…the errors in which make this thesis survivor histrionic.
1/5 ‘fraidy cats: This is the
Downton Abbey of my summer reading.
1/5 ick-factor: I suppose it depends on your political leanings.

Update: Mr. Ackerman reached out to me in the comments to very graciously thank me for catching the error with the quote. He says it will be corrected in the next edition of the book. I thought his thoroughness deserved recognition immediately after my initial critique.