An important book that makes important points with which I agree, but not especially well-written. Easterly argues that Western aid organizations are...moreAn 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. (less)
I don't consider myself adequately informed about Middle Eastern politics; this book therefore served as a great introduction to one of its most impor...moreI 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. (less)
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 trad...moreAn 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. (less)
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 ho...moreI 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. (less)
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,...moreThe 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. (less)
This book is called The Soccer War, but it actually consists of Kapuscinski's diary-like firsthand accounts of several different Third World war zones...moreThis 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. (less)
King Leopold's Ghost covers a historical atrocity not well covered in the Western history books, the colonization and exploitation of the Congo by Bel...moreKing 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. (less)
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 f...moreA 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.) (less)
A travel book in which author Eliza Griswold visits sites of modern Christianity-Islam conflicts. The first half covers Africa (Nigeria, Sudan, Somali...moreA 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. (less)
This edition of Machiavelli, published by Barnes & Noble, includes The Prince in its entirety, two letters to friends, and excerpts from The Disco...moreThis 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. (less)
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, befor...moreI 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. (less)
A great, poignant autobiographical comic about author Marjane Satrapi's experience growing up halfway between Iran and Europe. The drawings are flat,...moreA 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. (less)
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 involv...moreWow - 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. (less)
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 Lade...moreA 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. (less)
Should have been an article or maybe a series of articles. A somewhat repetitive account of the many things that the Coalition Provisional Authority d...moreShould 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). (less)