Stories from post-9/11 Afghanistan as told through the stories of individuals, primarily two Taliban fighters and a woman forced by circumstance intoStories from post-9/11 Afghanistan as told through the stories of individuals, primarily two Taliban fighters and a woman forced by circumstance into the cloistered life of a housewife. Chronologically it picks up where Ghost Wars left off, but its ordinary-people's-eye-view is a little more reminiscent of (the more Iraq-focused) The Forever War. The reporting by author Anand Gopal is great, though the writing doesn't pack quite the literary punch of those books (which I acknowledge set a very high bar).
It is too simplistic to describe this book as "the US fucked up the invasion" or "Afghanistan is a tough place." The lessons I draw from it are:
- The very real distinction between the Taliban and al-Qaeda was not appreciated by the US. I imagine this is still the case today for some people. - Popular support for the Taliban and their noxious brand of fundamentalism often came from ordinary Afghanis' desire to be able to step outside without getting shot at. When the US invaded with the promise of another regime where you could step outside without getting shot at, many Afghanis, including rank-and-file Taliban, were ready to surrender and sign up. As this promise failed to materialize and as the US became perceived as a source of violence rather than a savior from it, some of these converts turned back to the Taliban. - When relying on local intelligence, the US needs to ensure that it is not used as a weapon to fight unrelated local battles on behalf of its intelligence providers. Although this is not stated in the book, I surmise that this comes from either not having had a well-defined plan or not having communicated it down the chain of command.
Gopal's reporting really gives you a great view of what it's like to be an ordinary person in Afghanistan after 9/11, just trying to scrape by. I do think that the book could have been slightly improved by adding more background on high-level Afghanistan-US politics interwoven with the individually highlighted stories; it would be neat and eye-opening to see how decisions at central command or the machinations between major players like Karzai, Dostum, Hekmatyar, etc. ended up impacting the lives of ordinary citizens. But overall a good, informative addition to the discussion on this part of the world. ...more
History of al-Qaeda that runs from the births and childhoods of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri through 9/11 and the weeks thereafter. It remindHistory of al-Qaeda that runs from the births and childhoods of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri through 9/11 and the weeks thereafter. It reminded me of Steve Coll's The Bin Ladens, but with more focus on Osama in particular, less discussion of the patriarch Mohammed bin Laden and the family relationship with the Saudi royal family, and also much more on Zawahiri, who is one of the two main characters here. Informative, but a little undistinguished in its writing style, which lacks the punch that I'd need to elevate this to five stars.
Particularly insightful for me: laying the groundwork by discussing Qutb and his time in the US (I don't know much about him), showing the evolution of thought in bin Laden and Zawahiri (especially bin Laden) as they grew older, a clear layout of how bin Laden moved from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan to Sudan and then back to Afghanistan, and the coverage of Abdullah Azzam and bin Laden's relationship with him. It's really impressive how much of a training ground the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan became for future radical Islamists. Less good: discussion of the FBI and CIA and John O'Neill, which I found to be a little boring. ...more
A good collection of wartime short stories, with one standout, "Money As a Weapons System." Most of the stories carry themselves on the writing qualitA good collection of wartime short stories, with one standout, "Money As a Weapons System." Most of the stories carry themselves on the writing quality and the humanity of the characters, who often show both dislikable and redeeming qualities, as real people do. Many of the stories take place from the point of view of a different rank of soldier, many of whom see very little of combat, and the aforementioned best story actually unfolds from the point of view of a civilian.
The natural comparison is "The Things They Carried, but for Iraq," but I think this comparison is overstated. The Things They Carried (and I read it many years ago, so sorry if I'm remembering it poorly) was about the horrors of a combat zone, a viscerally vivid sense of dread and inhumanity from being dropped thousands of miles from home into a world where you might die at any moment. Iraq wasn't the same, at least as it's been presented to me (I didn't serve). It was a massively asymmetric battle where the invasion experience of war came not in the clash of ground forces but in occupation and reconstruction.The soldiers in the book are not fighting as armies traditionally do, but are battling small pockets of militants and insurgents who often cannot be clearly distinguished from innocent civilians. There is room for people with desk jobs.
What made "Money As a Weapons System" my favorite of the stories was its depiction of this aspect of modern warfare. The things that the narrator has to deal with when organizing the reconstruction effort are more like the corporate world than anything else, with office realpolitik and difficult "co-workers" and passive-aggressive email cc-ing (a bleakly hilarious moment). This is a new face of war we haven't seen before, oriented around "soft power" and with far more complex and unclear goals than "annihilate the enemy."
Other stories are well-written but without the fresh originality of a new take on war. The closest is perhaps "Psychological Operations." "Redeployment" and "War Stories" were also good. ...more
An event that was surely thrilling, terrifying, and heart-pounding in the first person gets served into a poorly written memoir. There is no depth toAn event that was surely thrilling, terrifying, and heart-pounding in the first person gets served into a poorly written memoir. There is no depth to the writing, partly because of the authorial decision to heavily emphasize personal emotion and grit, and partly because of the relentlessly Manichean attitude that permeates the narration. Maybe I'm being too cerebral, but when I read a book it is almost always with the goal of learning something or making me think about an idea presented. For me, this book accomplished neither. Marcus Luttrell is a professional soldier, not a writer, so the guy I'm really going to blame is his collaborator Patrick Robinson, who should have done better.
The book is roughly split into two halves, the first covering SEAL training, and the second covering the disaster in Afghanistan which cost the lives of several SEALs and from which Luttrell emerged the titular "lone survivor." The first half is better, but still disappointed. I know that SEALs are not only physically strong, but tactically skilled and resourceful, and I would have greatly preferred that to be emphasized. Instead we're mostly given a series of trials in which the victorious trainees make it by giving "110%," with emphasis on just how much the recruits endured. I'd rather learn about the finer differences between firearms, or how to find hiding spots in different forms of terrain, or how to treat different wounds in a pinch on a battlefield (Luttrell, as a medic, should have been able to talk a lot about this). We get some of this, but much more about pain and gain and "do you have what it takes?!" It's boring after a while.
The second half is a firsthand account of the disaster. It is exciting but whenever it's not recounting events, it falls back into repetition: praising his teammates, describing the agonies of his injuries, thinking about the courage of his friends and family back home, the occasional mildly amusing wisecrack. There is only a mild amount of factual detail, much less than can be learned through other books and articles about our involvement in Afghanistan. And there is editorializing, which gets more severe in the second half and which there is no way of getting around. Luttrell sees the world in black and white, with only heroes and villains and nothing in between. He regularly criticizes those who criticize the war effort back at home, which as far as I can see stems from an inability to imagine that the heroes could be doing the wrong thing. He bears particular venom for the Geneva Convention. As he is someone who gets shot at as a result of wartime laws and conventions, I have a lot of personal sympathy, but he never nuances his views by thinking at a higher scope than his immediate mission (what is the importance of Ben Sharmak?), or by establishing why he thinks the cost of innocent lives are worth the mission at hand, or anything further other than, we're the heroes, and these guys that higher command have pointed out to us are the villains. Maybe the ability to narrow your mind is necessary to carry out these kinds of operations. If that's so, all fine and well and continued respect to them as they risk their lives, but I won't read books written by them in the future.
I personally have no affiliation with anything military and in many ways fit the stereotype of the liberal elitist that Luttrell disparages. I hope readers of this review will not presume that my personal biases dictated my attitude towards the book - in fact, I do respect the military (some of our problems in the Middle East seem to have come from American civilian leaders incorrectly overruling its military leaders), and I think it's really great to read things written from different viewpoints. I tried to come into this with as neutral a stance as possible. It's still one star. ...more
Excellent, haunting, unflinching look at the US conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (mostly the former) in the years after 9/11. These are personal essaExcellent, haunting, unflinching look at the US conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (mostly the former) in the years after 9/11. These are personal essays, loosely organized correspondences from the battlefields seen through Filkins's eyes. He spends time with all sorts of people: American soldiers, Iraqi and Afghani civilians, local warlords, international politicians. His writing is crisp and direct, with short and forceful sentences that cut straight to the point. Everything is focused on describing, recounting, telling; there are no asides and no editorials or judgments other than in what he brings to the reader's attention.
Many great chapters, but the standouts were:
"Proteus," about Ahmad Chalabi. This is the first thing I remember read about Chalabi that didn't make him out to be a villainous rascal (some fault him for leading the US astray about WMDs). He is here portrayed as shrewd, hardworking, and practical - still rascally, and maybe a touch of the villain, but a much deeper and more nuanced character than I'd realized. The chapter-ending anecdote about Chagall is amazing.
"The Man Within," about an American commander, Col. Nathan Sassaman, that is terrible and soul-crushing and sums up all of the problems with the Iraq War in a single story arc.
"Jang," set during the US's routing of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but focuses on the complicated, shifting alliances and relationships between factions and how it impacted ordinary people. Great stories about some double-crossing and side-switching, some amusing episodes of how civilians reacted to the fall of the Taliban, a sad story about a young Taliban captive. I was impressed to learn that the warlord Dostum, portrayed as a no-nonsense battle-hardened tough guy, is alive and well and is the current vice president of Afghanistan. If you didn't already know how complicated Afghanistan is, this chapter will enlighten you. ...more
A really eye-opening book about the history of genocide in the 20th century. I tend to be a dispassionate, cold logician when it comes to policy argumA really eye-opening book about the history of genocide in the 20th century. I tend to be a dispassionate, cold logician when it comes to policy arguments, and this book tends to go more of the righteous-anger route, but it was so well written that it won me over. I think it is particularly important for people to read now, in the wake of the disastrous wars in the first decade of the 21st century, to remind us that the US is still capable of doing great deeds and that pure isolationism is far too easy, lazy, and morally weak of a stance to take.
Samatha Power reviews (in the following chronological order): the Armenians in Turkey, the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, the Kurds in Iraq, and Muslims in the Balkans twice, with the initial Serbian conflict and Srebrenica sandwiched around the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda. The focus is on the modern (post-WWII) genocides - the Armenian and the Holocaust sections are primarily to lay background about Raphael Lemkin and the invention of the word and the legal idea of "genocide." (It's not a book you would pick to get a broad overview of the Holocaust, though it is useful as a broad overview of the other genocides it covers.)
The structure of the coverage of each genocide is similar: historical backdrop and reporting on the events leading to the killings, detailed description of Western responses, and eventual resolution. The second of these three is what makes this book different from other history/geopolitics books. Power repeatedly highlights patterns in Western responses (nicely drawn through with the "futility, perversity, jeopardy" motif) that explain how diplomats turn the other way or convince themselves that it is not yet time for aggressive countermeasures. Although this book is about Western responses and some of its arguments are predicated on the US's position as reigning world superpower, I think the historical patterns Power observes are valuable for anyone to learn. The reactions of people when confronted with genocide are not uniquely Western, but universally human, and in fact one thing I've gotten out of this book is that simply to recognize the severity of the problem is a good part of the way to behaving heroically.
The one complaint I have here, putting my logician hat back on, is that there is insufficient attention to decision-making protocol. Suppose you are a government official confronted with the possibility of genocide. How do you decide when is enough evidence that you must act? Where do you make the call to push for military action instead of diplomacy? Despite some warning signals (which I think may have been picked out after-the-fact, as they always can be), it does seem to me that the transition from a civil state with an undercurrent of ethnic distrust/hatred to an outright genocidal state can be quite rapid and discontinuous. How do you deal with this?
Nevertheless, a great book overall, and well worth your time. ...more
An initially pleasant little spot of storytelling that goes nowhere in particular and drags aimlessly towards the end. I'm not sure why it won the BooAn initially pleasant little spot of storytelling that goes nowhere in particular and drags aimlessly towards the end. I'm not sure why it won the Booker.
This is a human interest book of sorts, driven by the emotional interactions of the characters: Sai and Gyan, Sai and the judge (and the judge's past), Gyan and his schoolmates, Biju and his father the cook. As such, the characters need to be at least somewhat compelling. But I found myself by and large uninterested in them. Sai is a generic "good guy" heroine. The judge is a gruff old man who suffers over his past. The cook is a big-hearted simpleton. There's no three-dimensionality, no humanity behind these portraits, and most of the characters do not grow or change at all. Lola and Noni, the cook, and even the judge and Biju (I found his chapters repetitive) end the pages not so different from how they began.
The inevitable conflict introduced between Sai and Gyan felt really abrupt and contrived to me. Chekov's gun for love stories: if you introduce a couple in the first act, there had better be a wedge between them by the third.
Finally, I found myself a little irritated at one of the messages in the book. Leaving home is heavily associated with suffering, in particular if it involves actually leaving India (with the exception of the minor character Saeed). The one closure in the book is a homecoming. So I guess not only is there no place like home, but you should never leave it in the first place? Keep to where you're from? I don't know what to say to this except "No." ...more
Should have been an article or maybe a series of articles. A somewhat repetitive account of the many things that the Coalition Provisional Authority dShould have been an article or maybe a series of articles. A somewhat repetitive account of the many things that the Coalition Provisional Authority did wrong in Iraq. It's a valuable exposé, but after 20% of the book I'd already digested the fact that incompetence and unpreparedness were rampant, and yet the book continued to tell me the same story for the remaining 80%.
Real value comes not from merely reciting the facts, but from illustrating ideas from which we can learn:
- Should we never have been here to begin with? If so, the focus of the book ought to be how that happened, with the Green Zone failures mere symptoms of the greater problems set in motion beforehand.
- A common problem is that people with inadequate experience or skills (few Arabic speakers, for instance) were put in charge in Iraq. How did this happen? Was it an overly idealistic adherence to a neocon dream that blinded Washington leaders to reality? Was it corruption that allowed politicians to sneak in unqualified favorites? Did Washington underestimate the importance of the occupation? How exactly was it that Iraq could simultaneously have been so important to our government and so carelessly treated?
- Was the problem too much centralization, or not enough? The book portrays Bremer as imperious and somewhat foolhardy, suggesting it was an error to put so much control in one person's hands. But another common issue was conflict between different American groups (i.e. civilian vs. military, or policymakers in different spheres). So maybe the problem wasn't enough? Or if it was sometimes too much and sometimes not enough, how do we tell this stuff so we can do better in the future?
The book mostly stops at illustrating the problems, not at showing the root causes. And it does so in somewhat unmemorable fashion (it's honestly hard for me to remember exactly what happened just days after reading, other than that it was all sorts of bad). ...more
A very good book; not quite up to the incredibly high bar set by Ghost Wars, but that's hardly a condemnation of any sort. A biography of the Bin LadeA very good book; not quite up to the incredibly high bar set by Ghost Wars, but that's hardly a condemnation of any sort. A biography of the Bin Laden family, with particular attention paid to Mohamed, the creator of the family fortunes as a construction magnate in Saudi Arabia, Salem, Mohamed's oldest son who guided the company from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, and Osama, who begins life as a shy, almost nondescript middle child in a very large family and gradually turns against the Saudis, the West, and the rest of his family.
I think Steve Coll is a better reporter than chronicler. The best parts of the book are when he describes concrete events or delineates the numerous interested parties and factions across the Middle East and their relationships with each other. (The latter is something Coll is especially good at, given the incredible complexities of the region. I've always felt that whoever said that your enemy's enemy is your friend never studied Middle Eastern affairs.) The biographical color is all right but sometimes tends towards blandness. Mohamed, Salem, and the other bin Ladens exhibit fairly minor change over time, at least in Coll's depiction (we understand, Salem was a playboy). Osama is the only major player where we get to see a real shift in personality, and consequently his personality sketch is far and away the best.
There's a lot here that the average person does not know but should know about current affairs, and it's written in a very straightforward, clear style, so I recommend this book for most people. ...more
Wow - every 20-30 pages of this book something happens where you say to yourself "I can't believe that happened." Ghost Wars is a history of US involvWow - every 20-30 pages of this book something happens where you say to yourself "I can't believe that happened." Ghost Wars is a history of US involvement in Afghanistan from the anti-Soviet uprising in the 1980s up to the day before the WTC attacks. I think it's essential reading for anyone to understand what's going there. There are so many twists and turns, so many parties involved and alliances forming and breaking, and so many dollars and arms changing hands. If it were written in a more literary style about less well-recognized events, you might be excused for thinking it was some kind of spy novel.
The biggest lesson of all is that the Middle East never was and never will be an "us against them" story. There were and are the Taliban, al Qaeda, Afghan communists, Massoud's Northern Alliance, Saudi royals, Iranians, the CIA, the Defense Department, the State Department, Soviets, countless mujahedin warlords, etc. At various points many of the parties involve either change their allegiances outright or shift their focus from one enemy to another. And embedded in every friendship was some difference of motive, to the point where one's friend's friend could easily be one's enemy.
In any case, the book was really amazing, a touch on the wordy side in its efforts to be comprehensive but that's all. Through exhaustive research, Steve Coll gives you an omniscient, bird's eye perspective, giving a steady authorial guide through the geopolitics by sprinkling a little history with a careful recounting of the events and quotes from people on all sides. You can really see the clashing motives, the decisions made and left unmade, and a steady unfolding of events towards the crushing ending.
The book stops short a day short of 9/11 but sadly provides a hard finish that is all the worse because everyone knows what is to come next. The quote on the cover, from the NYT, is spot on: "...makes the reader want to rip the page and yell at the American counterterrorism officials... and tell them to watch out." If your knowledge of American involvement in the Middle East and South Asia is murky and vague like mine was, this book will have your eyes about a million times wider when you finish. ...more
A great, poignant autobiographical comic about author Marjane Satrapi's experience growing up halfway between Iran and Europe. The drawings are flat,A great, poignant autobiographical comic about author Marjane Satrapi's experience growing up halfway between Iran and Europe. The drawings are flat, relatively simple and sparse, like a child's, and thereby reminding you at all times that you are seeing complicated, emotional, sometimes terrible and sometimes wonderful things through the eyes of a youth. (The story extends from Satrapi's childhood through her early 20s.) The simplicity is the joy and the book speaks to you with its heart on its sleeve.
I don't have a lot more to say, as there's really no point in recapping Satrapi's life story; the life story is the point of the book, it's about growing up. That she does half of it during a revolution in her home country and half of it adapting to a strange new Western country makes her story more unique and exciting than most. But the book relates experiences that everyone can understand as well; thus a story about her parents' friends tortured in prison is juxtaposed with Satrapi trying to outdo her friends, and Iran's crackdown on women's attire is mixed with details of how women let bits of their personality show through what they could wear.
I'm sure part of my enjoyment of Persepolis was simply hearing any life story told from such a different perspective than my own. Nothing I can do about that; in the end, the reader is who he is, and maybe someone else from a less fortunate background might not find it so interesting. But I think on top of that that the story is told very well, honestly and poignantly and kindheartedly, and that much should make it worthy of anyone. Read and enjoy. ...more
Thoughtful, surprised me with how good it was. I think it's easy to approach this book with skepticism bordering on prejudicial opposition, because aThoughtful, surprised me with how good it was. I think it's easy to approach this book with skepticism bordering on prejudicial opposition, because a title like "The End of History" is clickbait, even if the text couches this in terms of a specific Hegelian definition of "History." Or maybe you associate Fukuyama with what you consider to be discredited neoconservative foreign policy of the early 2000s (I'm guilty on this count; I've since learned that he had turned against the Iraq war by 2004).
Fukuyama's argument (made in 1992, when this book was published) is not that no more significant events will occur in humanity's future, but that there has been a historical trend towards the adoption of liberal democracy, that this is unlikely to be reversed, and that the end of the Cold War signified the end of one of the last major holdouts in human history against such a political system. He cites observed history, the general prosperity brought by liberalism, and inherent weaknesses in either left- or right-wing totalitarian states, and he argues that humans have a strong innate drive for recognition and perception of self-worth that is only adequately supplied by liberalism's respect for individual rights.
I don't know if I always found his arguments convincing, but he definitely made me consider them closely. There is a mixture of historical and philosophical argument, and I appreciated the former more, and thought the latter was a little overweighted. There is considerable discussion on the last idea above, human desire for perception and self-worth (the book uses the term thymos). Fukuyama does acknowledge religious fundamentalism (particularly Islamic) and nationalism as two major competing ideologies that could continue to raise trouble for liberal democracy. The thymotic arguments are a positive argument for liberal democracy and were well-written, but the fact of the matter is that religious fundamentalists and nationalists have and continue to exist, and if the "end of History" implies that these will not be serious long-term competitors, I'd like to have seen more negative arguments as to why that will be the case. Relatedly, I'd also liked to have had more discussion as to why people seem to be willing to sublimate their thymos when participating in movements such as these. The historical analysis, where we see evidence of the liberal democracy trend and its concomitant economic prosperity, is a bit of an antidote to this issue, and I think an improved approach would be to weight content more towards history and contemporary political analysis.
Fukuyama often cites Hegel, Nietzsche, and Kojève, none of whom I've read before. While I think he tried to ensure that the book was still understandable without having read them, it did always feel like I was missing out on some of the ideas as a result. ...more
I picked up this book because of the rather striking epigraph in The Blind Assassin. This is a book about Iran during the last days of the Shah, beforI picked up this book because of the rather striking epigraph in The Blind Assassin. This is a book about Iran during the last days of the Shah, before he was toppled and replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Ryszard Kapuscinski is an openly literary writer of nonfiction; the back cover says that he "brings a mythographer's perspective and a novelist's virtuosity" to his subject; his Wikipedia article mentions Adam Hochschild describing his work as "magic journalism," in comparison to fictional magic realism. So you have to take that into account when you pick him up - don't expect a dispassionate retelling of the facts. But if you accept this then you have a pretty decent book o your hands.
The story is told through a series of vignettes, like peeling through a memory, or seeing paintings at a museum. Some are extremely vivid. The one that sticks with me most is when Kapuscinski meets a man who was tortured by the Shah's secret police in cruelly creative fashion: he is strapped to a chair that gradually moves towards a white-hot iron wall until he admits wrongdoing. While retelling his story he breaks down crying and pleads, "God... why have you chastised me with such a terrible deformity as thinking? Why have you taught me to think, instead of teaching me the humility of cattle!"
The vignettes are excellent but Kapuscinski sometimes oversteps the bounds of his abilities. He is a great storyteller but not a great analyst. For example, when he directly describes what he believes to be the Shah's vision of a Great Civilization, the writing is weak and a bit outlandish. But when he gives a concrete instance of the Shah's ambitions, describing the Shah's splurge on infrastructure and subsequent massive waste from horribly inadequate planning, it is a memorable and funny story.
A very short book that you could read in a day. ...more
This edition of Machiavelli, published by Barnes & Noble, includes The Prince in its entirety, two letters to friends, and excerpts from The DiscoThis edition of Machiavelli, published by Barnes & Noble, includes The Prince in its entirety, two letters to friends, and excerpts from The Discourses. The Prince, naturally, takes center stage. I think of Sun Tzu's The Art of War as the stereotypical businessman's nod to the classics, but I found this to be more enjoyable and relevant. It feels provokingly sensible even today, almost 500 years after it was originally written, to anyone whose job involves managing people and vying with rivals for superiority.
Some describe Machiavelli's philosophy as "the end justifies the means," which is accurate at times. But I think a fairer assessment of him is that he is a realist with a dim view of human nature. The term realpolitik comes to mind. The Prince is not about justifying whatever goal you want to achieve, but specifically about gaining and maintaining power and sovereignty and acknowledging that this can involve deception and suspensions of traditional morality.
I particularly recommend the sections on avoiding contempt and hatred, which Machiavelli says, and I agree, is a fatal flaw for a prince. (And wherever you see "prince" or a similar term you can read "manager" for our modern workplace.) A ruler has to show strength but in a balanced way, as too little or too much will make him despised by his people. I also recommend the first few chapters, regarding hereditary princes versus princes who obtain power by conquest; while this sounds on first glance like it would have aged poorly, I found that it analogized well to workplaces where a manager is promoted from within versus where she is hired from elsewhere.
The first of Machiavelli's letters, "The Life of Castruccio," espouses a similar philosophy to The Prince but isn't as well written. The second letter, to Francesco Vettori, is very short and is more of a historical supplement. The excerpts from The Discourses also are similar in nature to The Prince but are better than "Castruccio" and provide some sharp observations on the role of religion and traditions. (Make a show of obeying them even if you don't believe them, as they instill order and confidence.)
The introduction and endnotes, supplied by Prof. Wayne Rebhorn at UT, are clear and offer the reader the depth of understanding that you'd want to see out of all ancillary material. Rebhorn emphasizes historical context, describing the wars and politics and rulers of Europe in the 1400s and 1500s and how they shaped Machiavelli's life and thoughts. ...more
A travel book in which author Eliza Griswold visits sites of modern Christianity-Islam conflicts. The first half covers Africa (Nigeria, Sudan, SomaliA travel book in which author Eliza Griswold visits sites of modern Christianity-Islam conflicts. The first half covers Africa (Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia) and the second half covers Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines). Griswold visits some places of very intense conflict and fierce religious beliefs, and consequently her stories are almost inevitably interesting. However the book did not succeed in going any further than simply presenting stories; there was no theme or idea to take away other than to open one's eyes to these parts of the world.
I liked the Africa half of the book better. Here the divide of the tenth parallel corresponds to geographic changes across which people came to lead different ways of life, including different religions. In Nigeria and Sudan this separation leads to some great concrete examinations between how Christianity and Islam coexist. In particular see the discussion of the relationship of Western evangelicalism and Christianity in these parts of the world (the Canaanland megachurch, Franklin Graham's hospital). The tenth parallel theme becomes more strained in Asia; Malaysia and Indonesia are both south of the tenth, so the line doesn't meaningfully divide those countries. Here you get some interesting stories (the Burnhams and their captors, Ibnu Ahmad's odd career trajectory) but I didn't feel that the stories added up to a coherent whole - just stories after stories.
I'd still recommend this for anyone not already familiar with these parts of the world; the countries discussed in this book cover about 8% of the world's population and include some of its most destitute, and I think wealthy Westerners really should be aware of just how tough and broken things are out there. But after finishing this I'm left looking for more material on these places that is written just a bit better. ...more
A personal account of the author Mehta's return to Bombay/Mumbai, the city of his youth, and its sprawling culture. He follows and interviews people fA personal account of the author Mehta's return to Bombay/Mumbai, the city of his youth, and its sprawling culture. He follows and interviews people from many walks of life: cops and gangsters, bar dancers, actors, hoi polloi, and weaves in anecdotes from his own life into a sort of tribute and love letter to the city and its powerfully urban way of life.
For me the book started off excellently and went on more or less a straight-line decline to merely decent by the end. When Mehta jumps from character to character quickly, his writing becomes almost textured with richness, like looking at a tapestry with so many details that you get lost in it all. The sections describing the politicians, cops, and gangsters are like this. In contrast, when he focuses at length on one person things are not as good, such as a blandly readable 30-page passage at the end about a convert to Jain asceticism. The chapter on Monalisa is a great example of this, as there are parts where Mehta jumps around between Monalisa and the other people in her life, which I found enjoyable, and there are parts where he sets his attentions only on her, which while still good were less so.
Be warned that there are lots of words in Indian languages; if you are not already familiar with them you may find you need to read this with the Internet at hand. (I always wondered why authors who use so many foreign words in English-language books don't include a glossary.) ...more
This book covers the war that can be roughly marked from the end of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide (the genocide is not covered much, as for sure it wouldThis book covers the war that can be roughly marked from the end of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide (the genocide is not covered much, as for sure it would require another book) that eventually led into a wild multinational war in the DRC. On Wikipedia they are listed as two wars, the First and Second Congo Wars, with the former covering Mobutu's deposition and the second covering the subsequent conflict between Rwanda/Uganda against their once-allies in the DRC and their foreign supporters, mainly Angola and Zimbabwe.
I consider this an important topic for Westerners to learn about. Even the well-educated among us know quite little about exactly what goes on there, seeing terrible images and hearing terrible stories when humanitarian issues flare up but learning little about exactly who is fighting whom and why. Consequently the violence loses its human face -in our minds we chalk it up to "it always happens there."
Unfortunately, this book is very challenging to follow for someone who isn't already familiar with the geopolitics of Africa. Though certainly impassioned, the structure of the book is too much of a recitation of events, like a very long and more emotionally charged encyclopedia, and with what I consider to be too much effort to give every faction its mention. Of course the subject itself is immensely complicated, but I think if you are to attempt an ambitious survey of a challenging topic, one of your major responsibilities as an author is in fact to strategically select historical narratives rather than making sure every last thing gets a mention. If that's an unacceptable level of simplification then perhaps this subject would be better served through separate volumes covering specific subtopics (maybe this book's bibliography has some helpful ideas).
Its wide range of material covered makes it a good book to have on your shelf and refer to when something comes up in the news. But it has some shortcomings in its ability to teach the reader about what is happening. ...more
King Leopold's Ghost covers a historical atrocity not well covered in the Western history books, the colonization and exploitation of the Congo by BelKing Leopold's Ghost covers a historical atrocity not well covered in the Western history books, the colonization and exploitation of the Congo by Belgium around the turn of the 20th century. It offers a very clear and readable account that is consistently engrossing and easy to follow even for those with little or no prior knowledge about the Congo.
The book's greatest forte is that there is little wasted writing: most of the historical detail is "value-added," either in strengthening arguments, descriptions and imagery, or at least in simple entertainment value (some of Leopold's family history comes to mind). The book's structure is driven biographically, presenting the Congo story through the personal histories of Leopold, Morel, Sheppard, Stanley, and others. The author Adam Hochschild does well in wringing the color out the often-colorful personalities involved while jumping smoothly from thread to thread as the events in one person's life lead us to the events in another's.
The one thing preventing me from giving this book a fifth star is Hochschild's annoying tendency to intermittently insert little biases and interpretations through his choices of phrasing. For example: imagining someone's emotions, reading too much into a single quote, reading into a person's physical appearance and projecting this onto their personality (Casement, Stanley). It's not a big problem, but it is irritating enough that I do consider it a real knock on an otherwise excellent piece of journalism. ...more
This book is called The Soccer War, but it actually consists of Kapuscinski's diary-like firsthand accounts of several different Third World war zonesThis book is called The Soccer War, but it actually consists of Kapuscinski's diary-like firsthand accounts of several different Third World war zones, with only one chapter about the 1969 El Salvador-Honduras conflict. Most of the book is actually about Africa (Ghana, Algeria, and the Congo in particular). Kapuscinski seems to gravitate naturally towards places of insurrection and violence, and it is a miracle that he died in old age a few years ago and not much earlier.
The writing is forceful and vivid, but often spastic. Kapuscinski tries to embed the reader into the Third World much as he embedded himself. Because he was a fearless reporter who seriously attempted to immerse himself in local culture, his approach yields some fascinating stories. In particular, he is keenly aware of potential differences between how Westerners and locals might view the same situation, and he tries hard to communicate the native way of thinking in his writing.
Unfortunately sometimes the book suffers from a lack of back-explanation and context, perhaps because Kapuscinski tries to embed the reader too directly. I don't often say this - I prefer my prose to err on the side of terseness - but this book could have benefited from being longer (it is quite short). If you are willing to look things up as you read, you can overcome this shortcoming to some degree, but I'm sure it would have been better if Kapuscinski did it himself.
My favorite essays were "The Burning Roadblocks," about a risky trip through Nigeria, and the eponymous "The Soccer War." I also found the first few chapters to be markedly worse (less thoughtful and more confusing) than the others. ...more
The Prize is an awesomely comprehensive history of oil and a convincing demonstration of how oil is inextricably tied to all parts of global politics,The Prize is an awesomely comprehensive history of oil and a convincing demonstration of how oil is inextricably tied to all parts of global politics, economy, culture, and everyday life. Starting with mid-19th century Pennsylvania and ending with the 1990s Gulf War, author Daniel Yergin takes us across an incredible array of historical events and introduces us to a wild cast of adventurers, businessmen, revolutionaries, politicians, and kings. Oil has played such a pivotal role in the last 150 years that I don't think you can understand our world today without understanding some of its history; this book is a great place to start.
The beginning of the book that explores the wild early days of "wildcatters" drilling for "gushers" is good fun, but where The Prize really starts telling you something about the modern world is when we enter the World War period. Yergin argues that oil was a critical aspect of the Allies' victory in WWII and the postwar economic boom, becoming such a critical part of Western life that it funneled tremendous political leverage into the hands of its producers. At Suez, in Saudi Arabia, in Iran, and at OPEC summits, you can see both Western powers and oil producers struggle to contain price, production, and profits while trying not to overplay their hands (which happened sometimes to both sides). Though the book is clearly dated, as it does not cover 9/11, the Iraq War, and the sustainable development movement, the diplomatic and economic battles on its pages do not feel in essence different from what you read about in the news today. And so while this book is a bit old it does not feel obsolete in the least.
One criticism you could level at this book is that it is a bit too sympathetic to corporate interests. In the Kissinger-ian tradition of history as the "memory of states," this book tends towards being an account of major corporations, governments, and the elite, with only the occasional jaunt into the everyday man's life. But those who have played pivotal roles in oil's history have often ended up being the great and famous (and infamous) men of world history itself, and so such a bias is not easy to completely escape.
Superb, very readable, also very long so be prepared (it's almost 800 pages not including endnotes and such), but totally worth it. ...more
I think too many people will find it easy to rubber-stamp a favorable opinion on this book and talk about how terrible the Rwandan genocide was and hoI think too many people will find it easy to rubber-stamp a favorable opinion on this book and talk about how terrible the Rwandan genocide was and how this account really brings it to life. This overlooks the fact that this is honestly not a well-written book; just because it is a book about a historic atrocity still insufficiently understood by the West does not make it good.
The biggest shortcoming is that the book does not look deeply enough into the motives of the killers. The biggest takeaway of the Rwandan genocide for me was that people who were friends and neighbors for years were suddenly able to turn on each other in abrupt and gruesome fashion. What drives an individual person to do this, and what makes simmering ethnic conflict among a population "tip" over into an extremely rapid genocide? I was hugely disappointed by what I thought was a very inadequate treatment of these questions.
Instead, most of the book is a recounting of horrors. These can be quite powerful when Gourevitch cuts himself out and lets the Rwandan survivors tell their own stories, the same way that some documentaries are best when the narrator/director steps out of the picture. When Gourevitch steps back in, it's annoying and actually detractive from the sheer power of the Rwandan story. I wanted to swat him back out. This is particularly evident in his excessively starry-eyed depiction of Paul Kagame. Even if it is accurate, Gourevitch's account of him bleeds so much hero worship that a) it's a little off-putting, just tell his story without the flourishes and his heroism will come out naturally! b) I can't take it seriously because it doesn't seem to make a real attempt at being unbiased.
In the book's favor, it makes some very interesting points about the misdirection of Western relief and the paralysis on "apolitical" aid agencies that everyone should read and understand. A sub-essay extracted out of this book on how the West messed up Rwanda even more than it already was on its own would easily get five stars from me. It does also track over the basic history of the conflict and does embed it in the history of neighboring African governments; explaining this kind of thing is where the narrator can help a lot and I wish the author had tried for more here and less elsewhere!
Another big flaw the book has, which could easily be patched up in a new printing run, is that it has no index. ...more
An engrossing read that follows the medical history of Lia Lee, a second-generation Hmong child struck with severe epilepsy, and the clash of her tradAn engrossing read that follows the medical history of Lia Lee, a second-generation Hmong child struck with severe epilepsy, and the clash of her traditionalist family against the scientific methods of American medicine. Lia's story is perfect because she is a child, too young to make medical decisions for herself and consequently situated uncomfortably at the juncture between her parents' right to nurture her as they see fit and the state's obligation to protect her life. Anne Fadiman's writing is excellent most of the way, observant and exciting, but it runs out of steam towards the end, turning from a great analysis of a cultural divide into a somewhat corny celebration of "spiritual" Eastern traditions that could only have been written by a Westerner. Still a no-doubt recommendation.
I'm a man of reason and logic, so I view this book not as a suggestion that formalized scientific medicine and spiritual healing go hand in hand (I place full stock in the former and zero in the latter), but as an analysis of what I think of as the "resetting password" problem. In theory, security systems that require periodic resets of their users' passwords are safer than those that do not. In practice, though, it is a great hassle for users to keep resetting their passwords, and so they resort to generating them in patterns and/or writing them down on a pad of paper, both of which make the system drastically less secure. The takeaway is that we should design systems with realistic human behavior in mind, even if that would be suboptimal under some other (unrealistic) assumptions of human behavior.
Likewise, in order to treat patients from other cultures properly, Western medicine must take into account how they will react to instructions, rather than treating them according to a preconceived pattern of behavior that might be more typical of other Westerners. As is noted by Lia's doctors in retrospect, this may have meant that Lia should have been treated in a way that one would consider slightly suboptimal for a born-and-raised American patient. The prescriptions might have been simpler, or perhaps some time at the outset might have been devoted to making the family feel more comfortable about the medical practices. Even if it translated to a delay in treatment or some other type of suboptimality, it would have helped in the long run, especially given that Lia's illness was a chronic one.
It is this kind of meta-thinking about medical treatment that made the book interesting. I don't suppose I'll ever care very much for alternative forms of medicine or anything of that nature, and although Lia's story does imply positive things about traditional Hmong healing, I remain of the view that these types of activities' best service is to put the patient at ease and to facilitate compliance with his or her doctors. But of course the views that count are not mine but the doctors' and the patient's, and the patient's most of all. You don't go to war against disease with the patient you wish you had, you go to war with the patient you've got. ...more
I don't consider myself adequately informed about Middle Eastern politics; this book therefore served as a great introduction to one of its most imporI don't consider myself adequately informed about Middle Eastern politics; this book therefore served as a great introduction to one of its most important facets, the relationships between Israel, the PLO, Lebanon, and Syria over the last quarter century. Friedman is informative and written for the reader who is not already familiar with such things, and does a great job covering a lot of bases.
The book is at its best when playing the role of the reporter, clearly explaining names, places, and events. The political analysis is often insightful and does a good job holding the outside reader's hand through the cultural twists of the Middle East, though it does sometimes run amok with over-stretched analogies. The real reason I docked it the fifth star, though, is that Friedman's writing style, while conversational and very easy to follow, also gets impossibly annoying at times. He keeps on introducing argumentative points by saying "I am convinced..." and he goes on extended runs where he imagines hypothetical speeches, conversations, and reactions (this is related to his runaway analogies) that are just completely uncompelling writing.
If you can get past that, though, this book has a whole lot to offer for a Middle East newbie looking for a broad introduction. ...more
An important book that makes important points with which I agree, but not especially well-written. Easterly argues that Western aid organizations areAn important book that makes important points with which I agree, but not especially well-written. Easterly argues that Western aid organizations are failing in their mission to lift up the world's poor because they are too focused on their own utopian ideals rather than smaller, more practical and achievable goals, and are not held adequately responsible for their successes and failures.
I agree. The mindset that the West can come into poor countries and fix things for them has plagued Western aid efforts for a long time. It seems quite old-fashioned when you read the Kipling poem from which the book takes its title, until you remember that this is essentially what we have continued to do this very decade in places like Iraq. I am a great disbeliever in grand schemes to fix everything all at once - it is far better to focus on a specific goal at a time.
Unfortunately the middle segment of this book, where Easterly marshals evidence to support his points, does not make for very good reading. Easterly has a somewhat repetitive style of writing, particularly when criticizing the aid organizations for their bureaucracies. The first chapter is excellent, and the overview of post-colonial history in the Third World is interesting, although somewhat tangential. The rest could have been shortened by a good deal. ...more