The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts tells two stories: first, how the hero of the book managed to gather together hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts that had been hidden around Mali after the Timbuktu empire crumbled, and how, just went years later, he (and many others) fought to secrete them out of Timbuktu ahead of Islamist extremists eager to destroy anything that did not correspond to their very peculiar interpretation of the Quran. The book manages to describe the flourishing of Timbuktu in the 1500s, the patient search to obtain the manuscripts from people who were quite doubtful that they would be safe outside their hands (and were right about that!), the quest for funding to restore the manuscripts, and the hair-raising evacuation of the library. While the critics seem to hail the evacuation, I found the earlier sections just as fascinating.
United States of Jihad tells the story of several American citizens (out of several hundred investigated by the author) who committed terrorist attacks in the US and overseas. Some are well-known, like the Tsarnaevs brothers who struck at the Boston marathon, others almost anonymous. It also describes the efforts of law enforcement to catch and ideally prevent would-be terrorists from acting in the first place.
The book is in turn chilling and reassuring. Chilling because it seems quite easy to gain the skills to build bombs or plot attacks. Chilling, also, because the authorities appear at times comically unable to follow up on leads and use the systems in place properly. But most of it is strangely reassuring, as large-scale terrorist operations find it very challenging to continue to operate under scrutiny.
Guantánamo Diary is the extraordinary diary of a Guantanamo prisoner, a Mauritanian man whose international travels sadly put him in the wrong place at the wrong time, just ripe to be imprisoned by the US government and tortured. It’s not an easy tale to read, as the violence is shocking when told from a personal point of view, even if accusations of torture at Guantanamo are not new. It is also literally difficult to read a text that has been heavily censured, although the censoring is so inept that, after a few dozen pages, it becomes effortless to string together full sentences. For instance, it seems that censors do not want us to know that there are female interrogators, so the moment one arrives on the scene, all pronouns are blacked out. Makes it rather easy to follow!
The tale from hell is tough, but the author also recounts many personal stories about his family and his younger, free days that keep the diary intimate and show his great sense of humor and his immense psychological strength. Why keep him in prison when no charges have been filed?
Can one write a very funny book about the Guantanamo Bay prison that still manages to expose the seedy and shameful underbelly of the war on terror? From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant is that novel, written as a sham confession of a Filipino would-be fashion designer who finds himself accused by proxy because a terrorist has financed part of his fashion design operation. So he is interrogated repeatedly and not always legally and asked to confess, but what can he confess apart from fondness for women, fabrics, and style? There are moments when the fashion design blog sounds a bit over-rehearsed, and a couple of factual errors (speedometer needle on a Prius?) but it’s a hilarious story with a very sober message.
Europe’s Angry Muslims: The Revolt of The Second Generation tries to do two things, one that’s very successful, the other one not so much. The success is in describing the muslim communities in the UK, Germany, and France and highlighting the strong differences between them by showing how the immigrants come from very different countries, how the host countries have different attitudes towards integration, and how the immigrants’ customs and treatment influence what happens to the next generation. It’s fascinating to see how few similarities there are between the muslim communities of these three countries.
The not-so-successful part is when the author attempts to determine why the UK has bred many more islamic terrorists than the other two countries, even though integration is apparently more successful there in many ways. The reality is that there are so few terrorists that the apparently large differences of scale between the UK and continental Europe are purely based on chance (this is the mathematician speaking here). It’s interesting that I have not been lucky finding a good book on this topic.
Every book needs a good editor, and it seems that Talking to the Enemy missed out on that chance. As a result, it’s a sprawling and messy affair, frustrating to the reader or at least to this reader, although it highlights some solid ideas here and there that we wish would be applied by international diplomats and state leaders. For instance, Islamist terrorists are not drawn from fundamentalist muslims and often exhibit a surprising lack of knowledge of the Koran. Terrorism is often mixed with run-of-the-mill criminality, since money is required to run operations. To fight terrorist networks requires understanding their code of honor, and often symbolic gestures are more important than apparently obvious economic or political concessions. And publicity for terrorist attacks is what keeps the public afraid; deaths caused by terrorism are tiny.
But other aspects of the book seem almost silly. For instance, the author comes back again and again to the idea that terrorists belong to the same social networks and share the same occupations such as playing soccer together. Wouldn’t that be true of Democrats? Parents of young children? Avid crafters?
The Lake Shore Limited is the story of the relatives of a 9/11 victim and their assorted lovers, drawn together by a play that includes a terrorist attack. I suppose such a contrived setup could work, with a light hand — but, alas, the hand is heavy, so that the characters goes on for dozens of pages before slowly spitting out the little secrets they are holding, secrets that had become quite clear to the reader several chapters earlier. The scenes of uniformly successful sex, regardless of the participants, help cement the unnaturalness of the entire enterprise.
In brief: I didn’t like this book.