Review of reviews: Books

What the critics said about the best new books

Review of reviews: Books

Book of the week

The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine

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by Yaroslav Trofimov

(Doubleday, $26)

Twenty-eight years ago, on the first dawn of a new century for Islam, gunmen marched to the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, shoved aside the imam leading the morning prayer, and fired shots into the air. As 100,000 startled pilgrims listened, a new voice crackled from the mosque’s loudspeakers. A redeemer of the faith had arrived, they were told; the apostates who ruled all of Saudi Arabia were about to be confronted. At that moment, armed followers of the man at the microphone were racing to shut the mosque’s 50-plus gates and to seize its seven minarets, the highest points in the city. Once the rebels’ snipers held them, all of Mecca was theirs. “Don’t blame yourself” if you’ve never heard of this seminal moment in the recent history of the Middle East, said Peter Birnie in The Vancouver Sun. On Nov. 20, 1979, most of the West was preoccupied with the two-week-old American hostage crisis in Iran, and Saudi Arabia’s royal family subsequently did “everything it could” to obfuscate news about the siege. The Saudi regime eventually crushed the revolt with the help of U.S. helicopter pilots and poison gas supplied by France, said Thomas W. Lippman in The Washington Post. Only the youngest surviving rebels escaped public beheadings. Yaroslav Trofimov’s gripping new book thus represents “a remarkable feat of reporting.” The veteran Wall Street Journal reporter somehow pierced the Saudis’ wall of silence to recreate—in vivid, bloody detail—this crucial chapter in the rise of global jihadism. “Saudi management of the Mecca affair was catastrophic,” said Michael Young in Though the royal family quickly convinced top clerics to issue a fatwa against the rebels, many religious purists, including a young Osama bin Laden, were horrified by the violence that the government unleashed inside Islam’s holiest site. Worse, the royals bent to the clerics’ demands for long-term monetary support and a vast rollback of social freedoms. The events Trofimov describes not only haven’t been forgotten in the Middle East, said Jen Itzenson in Portfolio, they have “inspired today’s generation of terrorists.”

Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease

by Gary Taubes

(Knopf, $27.95)

Americans need to rethink most of what they’ve been taught about diet and exercise, says science journalist Gary Taubes. Despite what the government has been saying for the past 40 or 50 years, cutting fat from your diet won’t help you shed pounds or extend your life expectancy. Exercising won’t burn off those love handles, either. The best evidence available today indicates that public health officials bought into some flimsy hypotheses in the 1960s and have been mindlessly repeating them ever since. If we really want to know why Americans are overweight, Taubes says, scientists need to be willing to consider that future generations could be better off saying yes to butter and bacon and no to Stairmasters and bread. It’s “bizarre” how bad some expert advice on diet is, said John Tierney in The New York Times. When surgeon general C. Everett Koop labeled ice cream a health menace equivalent to tobacco some 20 years ago, he unwittingly revealed himself to be a victim of what social scientists call an “informational cascade.” As Taubes shows, the whole “fat is bad” theory started with a 1953 heart-disease study whose findings should have helped clear fat of blame. Instead, a single prominent researcher championed the opposite conclusion and started a groundswell. Soon, almost every nutritionist in the country believed it. Taubes is certainly brave to stand up to conventional wisdom, said Gina Kolata, also in the Times. It’s just not clear that his own theory about weight gain provides a better answer. Taubes suspects that refined carbohydrates are the real killers at the dinner table, said Scott Gottlieb in The Wall Street Journal. Refined carbs—particularly sugars and sweeteners—trigger dramatic surges in insulin, the hormone that governs fat accumulation. Though Taubes cares too much about good science to suggest that he’s positively identified the culprit behind recent rises in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, he makes “a fascinating case.” Consider just this one fact from a book that’s almost overloaded with them, said Tony Miksanek in the Chicago Sun-Times. The typical American of the early 1800s ate 178 pounds of meat each year. Today, meat consumption is about the same, but the average American has tacked on nearly 150 pounds of sugars and sweeteners.

Novel of the week

The Almost Moon

by Alice Sebold

(Little, Brown, $24.99)

Alice Sebold’s second novel is an insult to the paper it’s written on, said Lee Siegel in The New York Times. With 2002’s best-selling The Lovely Bones, Sebold proved that she could “write profitably and callously and sunnily” about a 14-year-old’s rape and murder. With this follow-up, she invents a middle-aged narrator who has just suffocated her 88-year-old mother and is cool with it. The book will no doubt sell briskly, but the story it tells is “so morally, emotionally, and intellectually incoherent” that market calculations don’t explain it. Apparently, Sebold actually believes that she’s created a sympathetic sociopath. The Lovely Bones itself suffered from a few “weirdly discordant” shifts in tone, said Ron Charles in The Washington Post. Yes, “Sebold can still write beautiful, haunting scenes,” and she does so in several places here. Yet her attempts to get inside her killer’s head too often produce nonsense psychology. “Is there a literary prize for most cringe-worthy sentences in a single work of fiction?” said Jocelyn McClurg in USA Today. The competition could begin with our heroine’s words as she clutches her murder victim’s sagging breast: “A surge of lust shot through me as I held it, as pure as an infant’s appetite.”

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