Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Looming Tower, Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

This winner of the Pulitzer Prize had us talking. While it wasn't the light read that most of us prefer this time of year we did think it was worth the read.

This non-fiction gem by Lawrence Wright explains the history of (or rather the development of) Islamic fundamentalism, the origins of al-Qaeda, and the (our words) criminal breakdown between U.S. agencies that failed several times over to stop the horrific events of 9/11.

Wright gives us a reference list of the cast of characters, but even with this tool it is daunting to follow all the folks who influenced and impacted bin laden (no capitals for that guy) and his ominous rise to leader of this organization.

As a counter point to bin laden the reader is introduced to an individual so interesting that he seems fictional. One of the key FBI players responsible for investigating the Embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, John O'Neil is so colorful and interesting in his personal life that he makes a complex and tragic foe to bin laden, who in spite of his unique interpretation of the Koran believes himself to be righteous.

This book is by no means easy to read, the history is long and complicated and the failures at every turn to stop the growth of al-Qaeda and their misguided displays of "revenge" are maddening. Hind side is 20/20 - but Wright is unforgiving in his critisim of the failures of our government agencies.

Next up... Book of the Year!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Wow, usually I'm johnny-on-the-spot with the book group recaps but not this month. Please forgive the posting if it seems vague and too high level.

So, we finally met on the correct night, after some good natured ribbing about calendars and personal updates we got to it.

Snow, by Orhan Pamuk is the tale of an exiled poet who returns to Kars, his home town in Turkey to cover an uncomfortable story that the locals and government would prefer remain untold. During his journey an epic snow storm isolates the town and a "military" coup takes place. Ka, the poet is an observer, but manages to get very involved in all the activities and (we thought) recklessly influences events without much thought to the consequences.

Ka is overcome with the return of his gift for poetry during his time in Kars and Orhan taunts us with conceptual descriptions of poem after poem. While not a huge fan of reading the poetry of others, the lack of any Ka's poetry in Snow is a disappointment that I'm sure is intended.

While the book resulted in a lively discussion we had some complaints. In spite of the fact that the book jacket touts a rave review from John Updike (The New Yorker) that states the book has "suspense at every dimpled vortex..." we were less than thrilled with Orhans style and how he managed to kill the suspense the moment it started to build. He builds a moment where the reader is anxious to read how the events will unfold, but before the story lead us to the answer, Orhan uses the narrator to give it away.

As a fictional example, a character injured in an accident and the doctor will be in to tell him the prognosis. Will he ever walk again? Will he be able to walk down the isle to marry his one true love? Suspense, suspense.... this is where Orhan would drop a line like "Ka, in extraordinary pain, waited anxiously to learn if he would ever walk again. He never would." COME ON MAN, give us a few moments to agonize over the suspense you built!

Another (albeit much more minor) complaint is the inconsistent use of the first person narrator. The story is told third person until page 180-something when we start to hear the narrator talk about "I" and his role in the story. It was jarring. We hoped that it was a translation issue.

These items aside, we enjoyed the read and were pleased to see a novel about Turkey. The backdrop of the coup was a good device to describe the complex inner workings of this community. The isolation of the town by the snow was also an interesting metaphor for Ka's struggle with his belief in God.