The Looming Tower

On September 11, 2001 I was 14 years old and largely disinterested in politics. Aside from the quick rundown of the headlines on the morning news, I didn’t pay much attention to the world at large. I was intensely self-absorbed, as most teens are at that age. My own life felt so overwhelming that I didn’t have time to worry about the rest of the country.

Then came the a.m. announcement that the towers had fallen, that we were under attack, and that people were dead. Something was changing, but I didn’t know what and I couldn’t know how much.

Today, I’m happy to say I’ve become a moderately well-informed adult, even if I’m still far from as knowledgeable as I want to be or, perhaps, as I should be. Yet when I look back on the War on Terror, I once again find myself realizing that I don’t know why we’re here, and that I don’t really know how any of it happened. But this is the central question that Lawrence Wright’s 2006 book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 attempts to answer.

In order to get to the bottom of it all, we start at the beginning:

“This is the man, then—decent, proud, tormented, self-righteous—whose lonely genius would unsettle Islam, threaten regimes across the Muslim world, and beckon to a generation of rootless young Arabs who were looking for meaning and purpose in their lives and would find it in jihad.”

A perfect description of bin Laden, no? Except Wright isn’t talking about bin Laden. He’s talking about Sayyid Qutb, a man who I’d never heard of until I picked up this book. A 1950s Islamist radicalist, Qutb is Wright’s patient zero, so to speak. Angry, conservative, and anti-modernism in almost all its forms, Qutb’s writings seem to be the domino that start a horrifying chain reaction.

In just the first chapter, we can already see that the road leading to 2,977 dead Americans and our longest war is longer than I ever expected. Wright’s book was beginning to answer questions I didn’t even know I had.

When we look at Looming Tower through the lens of a post-Arab Spring world, a world Wright couldn’t have begun to imagine yet, it tells us so much more. It explains (although briefly) the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, how radicalism spread from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, and the trail of assassinations and regime changes leading up to those that would be overthrown in 2010.

When I finished it, I would describe the book to friends as “the most balanced a book about 9/11 written by an American could be.” What I mean is that it’s obvious that the author was affected by the tragedy in 2001. It’s obvious that he believes violence against innocent civilians is unjustifiable, that radical Islam is misguided, and that al-Qaeda was wrong. Common thoughts, but also largely secular, Western thoughts. At the same time, Wright isn’t shy about pointing the finger where it’s due.

He shines a light on bureaucratic bumbling by the CIA and FBI, our failure to recognize an obvious threat, and the irreparable mistakes of the US Military and the Clinton administration in the Middle East. There were even moments when key anti-American players are assassinated, but the bloodshed is so terrible that I couldn’t help but feel empathy, not elation. And that’s something I deeply appreciated about the book. It’s not blindly pro-American just because we happened to be the victim of this one particular tragedy.

By the time I reached the end of the book, my understanding of bin Laden, the attacks, and the war had increased tenfold. So many questions were answered, but at the same time there was still so much more I wanted to know beyond the falling of the towers. 2006 feels so long ago at this point—so much more has happened. It’s easy to imagine a sequel, another few hundred pages explaining how we got from there to here, filling in the rest of the picture. But for that, we’ll just have to wait.

[This was re-edited from a review originally posted on November 13, 2013.]

Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath turned 75 this year. I remembered seeing a blurb on NPR’s website announcing that their book club would be trying to read it before its 75th birthday on April 14, and I contemplated trying to keep pace well enough to meet that goal with them. Unfortunately, I was still wrapping up The Secret History and knew that Grapes of Wrath just wasn’t the sort of book I could get through while juggling another novel. If I was going to read it, I’d have to do it on my own.

I’m not sure, exactly, how it slipped through the cracks of my literary education, but it remained off reading lists in high school and through all of college and more or less off my radar of interest until very recently.

It’s part of the canon. It’s a Pulitzer prize winner. It’s penned by a Nobel laureate. If that can’t help push a book onto your “to read” list, nothing can.

I think what surprised me the most about Wrath was just how much I loved it. And I loved it. The alternating chapters foreshadowing the miseries to come for the Joad family, the way it simultaneously reminded you that you were reading just one story out of many as well the story of many.

The only other book to really speak to me on the same level when it comes to understanding this part of American history is the significantly less famous Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer. In a way, it’s the perfect companion piece to Grapes of Wrath. While Wrath takes you through the Dust Bowl and the California migration, Waiting for Nothing shows you the cities and the flop houses and the lonely men riding the rails with nowhere to go.

But back to Steinbeck.

His language feels both sparse and rich, simplistic and complicated, and maybe it’s those nuances that made it such a slow, but satisfying read. Unlike East of Eden, which seemed to emotionally gut-punch me with every turn, Wrath was a more physically enjoyable read as well. For some reason with East of Eden the themes of love and death just really wrecked me to the point that I think that book took me four months to read. I loved it deeply in the end, but still. It was rough. Grapes of Wrath wasn’t so unsettling, but at the same time I think I loved it more.

What resonated the most strongly with me were Steinbeck’s chapters discussing the way a bank is more than a man. I think in this post-recession, post-bank-bailout world it’d be hard for those chapters not to resonate.

“The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”

You can see it in that one quote. The staying power of Grapes of Wrath is strong. It’s getting to the heart of something and that something really, truly does feel deeply American to me. It’s hard for me to put exactly what that is into words, though.

This is what I can say:

It’s been 80-some years since the Dust Bowl and the Depression and 75 years since the first publication of Grapes of Wrath and the book exists as an echo reminding us not just of where we’ve been, but where we are.