Spring Books in Brief
What Slate's reading this spring.
Posted Friday, May 2, 2008, at 7:07 AM
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
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.
Reza Aslan is the author ofNo god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.
Amanda Fortini is a Slate contributor.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.
Melinda Henneberger is a Slate contributor and the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians To Hear.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.