December 30, 2008

Lightning reviews

From time to time I want to start posting some "lightning reviews" of books I have read recently (and perhaps some other material I have viewed/heard, as well). This is a bit of a writing exercise, intended a) to get me to read more; b) to get me to blog more by actually writing something about everything I read; and c) to exercise my mental muscle by forcing me to say everything I want to in about 250 words and half an hour. So, with no further ado, here are the first three.

Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf, 2006)

Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were relatively unknown prior to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, and even so it was the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000 that made them household names. Of course, it was the 9/11 attacks that turned them into Public Enemy #1 in the public consciousness. But few people probably know where these people came from, who could plan or execute such an audacious terrorist attack on the West.

The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright tracks the history of al-Qaeda, primarily through the intertwined stories of four people: bin Laden himself, of course, the son of a Yemeni construction mogul, who fought alongside the Mujahedeen and Afghanistan, but transferred his hatred from the Soviets to the U.S. after the Saudis permitted the latter to establish bases on their soil during the 1991 Gulf War; Ayman al-Zarqawi, medical doctor, co-conspirator in the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, and leader of the terrorist faction al-Jihad, which later merged with bin Laden's al-Qaeda; Prince Turki, the head of Saudi intelligence who had been a friend to bin Laden, but was later compelled to confiscate his passport and expel him from Saudi Arabia; and John O'Neill, the FBI special agent who fought tenaciously to get the Bureau to recognize the threat al-Qaeda posed, only to die in the destruction of the World Trade Center. Wright began researching The Looming Tower almost immediately after 9/11, and his narrative is woven together from hundreds of interviews conducted with many principal figures. This book is well worth reading for its insight into the principal newsmaker of our day.

Francis A. Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the 20th Century (IVP, 1970)

As influential as 20th-century theologian Francis Schaeffer is, it's easy to dismiss his cultural critique as dated. After all, not only did he die in 1984 - before most current university students were even born - but his peak period of influence was in the 1960s and early 1970s. He was writing about hippies, fercryinoutloud! But of course that would miss the extent to which Schaeffer's prophetic voice continues to be heard. Schaeffer sparked the evangelical Protestant concern with activism, particularly on the abortion issue, for example. His books remain in print, and his students, such as Os Guinness, continue to speak as he did.

And when you read the following, from The Church at the End of the 20th Century, you would think he had a contemporary student newspaper in front of him and was reading the headlines:

[The New Left] derives from what, as i said, Ginsberg pointed out: Someone needs to make the posters. . . . It explains the change in the campus revolution from Winsconsin and Columbia onwards. . . . One of the leaders of the Sorbonne revoluation spoke over the French radio. Another student called up on the phone and said, "Give me a chance to speak." But the answer was "No, just shut up - I'll never give you a chance to speak." The same thing is happening wherever the New Left takes over . Here is the complete opposite to the origianl Free Speech movement - a few hundred tell thousands they must be still. (p. 32)

Schaeffer sounds like he could be talking about Stalinist student unions and campus speech codes. He being dead yet speaketh, indeed.

Overall, The Church at the End of the 20th Century is an analysis of the church's response to the intellectual and social Zeitgeist of the late 20th century. The culture might have changed, but the issues are still the same. Well worth reading, but if you're unfamiliar with Schaeffer, I suggest reading two earlier books first, The God Who is There, and Escape from Reason, which lay down the philosophical and theologial framework for all his later writing.

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Harper Regency, 2000)

Chef Anthony Bourdain's book Kitchen Confidential might discourage you from ever wanting to eat out again, but it shouldn't. This tell-all memoir-cum-exposé of the food-service industry details Bourdain's career (often fueled by an excess of drugs and alcohol); a few tips on the things you need to cook like a pro or why you should never order the fish special on a Monday; and character sketches of some of the more colorful characters he has worked with. The oddest of these is "Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown," an eccentric and highly litigious baker with a dubious immigration status and a preternatural flair for making delicious varieties of sourdough bread. A novelist couldn't invent characters like this. On the other hand, Scott Bryan, chef of the New York restaurant Veritas, is praised as an excellent chef and the consummate professional - a foil for the markedly wilder Bourdain.

If you've seen Bourdain's travelogue program No Reservations, then you know from his profanity-laced commentaries that he advocates for simple, unpretentious local fare prepared simply with regional ingredients. Conversely, in Kitchen Confidential he seems to have a speical hatred for the celebrity chef; one oblique reference to Emeril Lagasse labels him a "schlockmeister with a catchphrase and his own line of prepared seasonings." Bourdain is the anti-celebrity chef, albeit one with his own TV show. I wonder if he grasps the irony.