I think this may actually be my favorite of the many books I've read about Central Asia. Ansary is just the right combination of snarky and serious, cI think this may actually be my favorite of the many books I've read about Central Asia. Ansary is just the right combination of snarky and serious, compassionate and sarcastic, to paint a rich picture of the region's many contradictions that is accessible to North Americans but deeply respectful of Afghan culture without being an apologist, I feel, in any way. I was left with the sense that I finally just barely begin to "get" this region and these cultures. I'm sure that impression is illusory -- but man, it is intoxicating. I also want to say that, at times, the writing is stylistically gorgeous. I listened to the audiobook, which the author read, and I think that added to my enjoyment. (No more wondering if the narrator is pronouncing Afghan names correctly!) Highly recommended....more
I liked many things about this book, even if I find fault with its style at times. It reflects a very interesting set of experiences that are not toucI liked many things about this book, even if I find fault with its style at times. It reflects a very interesting set of experiences that are not touched on in most other books about Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the prose comes across as credulous and wide-eyed.
It also seems at times like an advertisement for Operation Enduring Freedom and the policies of the GWB administration. I was extremely turned off near the end when there's this passage of breathless, rapturous raving about the main character meeting Condoleeza Rice and how awesome that is. I have no idea if this author is in the Bush orbit if she merely seems that way because she's (obviously) portraying a better environment for her interviewee post-Taliban than during the Taliban. Given that the author is known as a writer on feminist issues and women's studies, I suspect she's not a Bush fan, so I think this sentiment I perceived is probably an artifact of narrative convenience (and my own distaste for GWB's gang). Regardless, I wish the author had expanded on her very few statements near the end that question the aspects of corruption and neocolonialist ideas within the international aid network. I suspect the book might have a slightly different ending if it were written a few years later, after it became clear that the war has failed utterly to provide lasting peace.
Importantly, most works about Afghanistan barely touch on women's experiences, or merely trot them out as a disempowered group to be pitied in a way that is virtually dehumanizing. At the very least, this book sets out to provide a useful counterpoint to the "pity party" much of the world seems to want to have for Afghan women -- when the world bothers to pay attention at all. The book does concretely show women taking action in one of the most repressive regimes, which is refreshingly Feminist by its very nature.
Too often, authors writing about Afghanistan talk about Afghanistan as if its women were sort of a "thing" off to the side of the serious manly discussion about politics and insurgencies and bolt-action rifles. This book is exactly the opposite of that, and so I applaud it. Most important to me are the details of how women lived under the Taliban, which is vividly described and really expanded my understanding of the region.
I also want to acknowledge that the author's treatment of ethnicity in Afghanistan is informed and illuminating. It is far from in-depth, but as an essentially first-person account (it's actually in third person, but by that I mean it's a "personal" account) it provides an important sense of what it means to be a woman of Tajik descent in an Afghanistan ruled by the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. So much Western writing about Afghanistan seems to gloss over those divisions or to portray them from the point of view of Western diplomats, as if the various ethnicities of Afghanistan are pieces on a chessboard. I found the Tajik-Afghan perspective subtly important here....more
I really enjoyed this book on the "Russian oil wars" between Putin, the Yeltsin-era oligarchs, and Western energy companies. The situation is terrifyiI really enjoyed this book on the "Russian oil wars" between Putin, the Yeltsin-era oligarchs, and Western energy companies. The situation is terrifying not because Putin is some sort of Darth Vader, but because it becomes agonizingly clear how little international resource development generates any real benefit for the average person; it's all a battle among the super-rich, be it in Russia, the U.S., the C.I.S., China, India, Africa or elsewhere.
I suspect Petrostate would be a bit dry for the average reader, but I found it fascinating. I've read elsewhere that the author may have misunderstood or misconstrued some of the technical details of petroleum and natural gas extraction and production. However, on the political stuff his details and references seem spot-on. I disagree with other reviewers who accuse Goldman of Russophobia; I think he praises Putin repeatedly for many of the things that Putin is good at. And given the nation that Putin inherited (following the incredibly corrupt Yeltsin years), I think there is much to admire about the man. But that doesn't change the fact that in international business terms Russia is now a de facto gangster state, or that Putin has essentially created a corrupt nationalized industry for the benefit of the few. There are huge ramifications for the balance of power not just in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, but across the globe. To be frank, this is some scary shit, even if you loooooooooooove Russia. I wouldn't be thrilled if U.S. business was exhibiting this kind of unchecked power...except, oh wait, it has tried, hasn't it? Mind-bogglingly scary stuff in this book. Looking ahead 20 years, I am not thrilled about the world that the next few generations of Americans *or* Russians is likely to inherit....more
I was prepared to dislike this somewhat enormous 2004 book on the CIA's involvement in Afghanistan, mostly because many other writers of books in thisI was prepared to dislike this somewhat enormous 2004 book on the CIA's involvement in Afghanistan, mostly because many other writers of books in this general topic area CAN'T SHUT UP ABOUT HOW FRIGGIN' GREAT IT IS. It is so often referenced in other books about the developments related to 9/11, Al Qaeda and military involvment in Iraq and Afghanistan that it's practically ubiquitous, and every time someone mentions it they have to mention it's oh-so-great. I was prepared to despise it, because I'm that way. Oh well. I was hugely disappointed by the fact that I have to stand somewhat in awe of it; it really is an impressive document. It's not one of those "compulsively readable" histories like Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower, Stephen Kinzer's All the Shah's Men, Mark Bowden's Guests of the Ayatollah, or Matthew Brzezinski's Red Moon Rising -- or even the same author's The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in an American Century, but it's completely packed with lots of information about obscure Afghan and American turns of fate that must have been kind of a bitch to get. It's meticulously referenced, and the afterword details all the ways the author feels he screwed up -- categorizing the corrections to the second edition, basically. Those are fascinating because they illuminate the way in which motivation in political history is difficult to gauge and may change from generation to generation or even year to year -- in particular, in this case, with the release of the 9/11 Commission's final report. In at least one case, for instance, discussion of using drone strikes was misplaced in the original text by a YEAR, because of a misrepresentation or mis-remembrance on Clinton's part, which was later corrected by the Commission. To his credit, Coll corrected it and called it out in the afterword. The overall events are (in broad strokes) nothing I didn't already know, but the specific machinations were fascinating and in far greater detail than I have seen represented elsewhere.