Sep 16, 2010

On Safari With Glenn

For those of us able to find Glenn's house in the outer reaches of Novato (Peter, how long did you drive around the block?), his hospitality was far more generous than that encountered by Theroux on his return to Africa.  Glenn thought briefly about cooking an all-Ethiopian meal, and then prudence took over.  He ordered a complete dinner from a reliably excellent Ethiopian restaurant in Oakland and brought it all the way to Marin for us to enjoy.  Starting with the Tusker beer (thanks Paul and Dan) and samosas, we then moved on to Theroux's personal favorite:  a variety of entrees (in this case, chicken, lamb, lentils, and greens) eaten with a gluten-free bread wrap called injera, which Theroux likened to the taste of a dirty bathmat.  It certainly tasted fine to us, and except for a few carpet spills and aching knees (from eating native style in the living room), our meal was utterly without complaint.

The Book
Paul Theroux's return to Africa, after a 40-year hiatus following his Peace Corps stint in Malawi, proved both eye-opening and profoundly disappointing.  In Dark Star Safari, Theroux reflects upon the Africa he once knew and a new Africa overrun with NGOs whose project-driven handouts perpetuate a legacy of dependency and false hope.

Our response to Theroux's response was equally ambivalent.  Almost everyone used the word "informative" to describe this 485-page travelogue, but thereafter our opinions diverged significantly.  The book was anecdotal, insightful, superficial, repetitive, interesting, and always crotchety.  Every last one of us found the trip through Egypt as tedious as Theroux apparently did, which is puzzling given his willingness to devote 53 pages to his trip down the Nile with a boat full of ugly westerners.

Ultimately, our 7.2 rating reflected a certain intolerance for a book that came quite close to our maximum page length and yet still failed to inspire us.  We were more impressed by Paul's and Stan's African reflections than we were by Theroux's.  In an experiment that likely won't be repeated, we did a blind vote beforehand and came up with a rating a half turn lower (6.7), which suggests that our open voting system may not be as objective as we hope.

Next Up
Terry presented us with several fine options for next month, all of which address America's military experience in Afghanistan.  Our decision:  we're going to war with Sebastian Junger!

Sep 13, 2010

Terry's Picks for October

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, Jon Krakauer

From Amazon: The bestselling author of Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, and Under the Banner of Heaven delivers a stunning, eloquent account of a remarkable young man’s haunting journey. Like the men whose epic stories Jon Krakauer has told in his previous bestsellers, Pat Tillman was an irrepressible individualist and iconoclast. In May 2002, Tillman walked away from his $3.6 million NFL contract to enlist in the United States Army. He was deeply troubled by 9/11, and he felt a strong moral obligation to join the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Two years later, he died on a desolate hillside in southeastern Afghanistan.

Though obvious to most of the two dozen soldiers on the scene that a ranger in Tillman’s own platoon had fired the fatal shots, the Army aggressively maneuvered to keep this information from Tillman’s wife, other family members, and the American public for five weeks following his death. During this time, President Bush repeatedly invoked Tillman’s name to promote his administration’s foreign policy. Long after Tillman’s nationally televised memorial service, the Army grudgingly notified his closest relatives that he had “probably” been killed by friendly fire while it continued to dissemble about the details of his death and who was responsible.

In Where Men Win Glory, Jon Krakauer draws on Tillman’s journals and letters, interviews with his wife and friends, conversations with the soldiers who served alongside him, and extensive research on the ground in Afghanistan to render an intricate mosaic of this driven, complex, and uncommonly compelling figure as well as the definitive account of the events and actions that led to his death. Before he enlisted in the army, Tillman was familiar to sports aficionados as an undersized, overachieving Arizona Cardinals safety whose virtuosity in the defensive backfield was spellbinding. With his shoulder-length hair, outspoken views, and boundless intellectual curiosity, Tillman was considered a maverick. America was fascinated when he traded the bright lights and riches of the NFL for boot camp and a buzz cut. Sent first to Iraq—a war he would openly declare was “illegal as hell” —and eventually to Afghanistan, Tillman was driven by complicated, emotionally charged, sometimes contradictory notions of duty, honor, justice, patriotism, and masculine pride, and he was determined to serve his entire three-year commitment. But on April 22, 2004, his life would end in a barrage of bullets fired by his fellow soldiers.

Krakauer chronicles Tillman’s riveting, tragic odyssey in engrossing detail highlighting his remarkable character and personality while closely examining the murky, heartbreaking circumstances of his death. Infused with the power and authenticity readers have come to expect from Krakauer’s storytelling, Where Men Win Glory exposes shattering truths about men and war.

War, Sebastian Junger

From Publishers Weekly: War is insanely exciting.... Don't underestimate the power of that revelation, warns bestselling author and Vanity Fair contributing editor Junger (The Perfect Storm). The war in Afghanistan contains brutal trauma but also transcendent purpose in this riveting combat narrative. Junger spent 14 months in 2007–2008 intermittently embedded with a platoon of the 173rd Airborne brigade in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, one of the bloodiest corners of the conflict. The soldiers are a scruffy, warped lot, with unkempt uniforms—they sometimes do battle in shorts and flip-flops—and a ritual of administering friendly beatings to new arrivals, but Junger finds them to be superlative soldiers. Junger experiences everything they do—nerve-racking patrols, terrifying roadside bombings and ambushes, stultifying weeks in camp when they long for a firefight to relieve the tedium. Despite the stress and the grief when buddies die, the author finds war to be something of an exalted state: soldiers experience an almost sexual thrill in the excitement of a firefight—a response Junger struggles to understand—and a profound sense of commitment to subordinating their self-interests to the good of the unit. Junger mixes visceral combat scenes—raptly aware of his own fear and exhaustion—with quieter reportage and insightful discussions of the physiology, social psychology, and even genetics of soldiering. The result is an unforgettable portrait of men under fire.

In the Graveyard of Empires: Americas War in Afghanistan, Seth Jones

Various reviews:

No one understands the successes and failures of American policy in Afghanistan better than Seth Jones....If you read just one book about the Taliban, terrorism, and the United States, this is the place to start. (Jeremi Suri, Professor of history, University of Wisconsin )

[D]estined to become the standard text on America's involvement in Afghanistan. It is a timely and important work, without peer in terms of both its scholarship and the author's intimate knowledge of the country, the insurgency threatening it, and the challenges in defeating it. (Professor Bruce Hoffman, Georgetown University and author of Inside Terrorism )

A deeply researched, clearly written, and well-analyzed account of the failures of American policies in Afghanistan, In the Graveyard of Empires lays out a plan to avoid a potential quagmire. This timely book will be mandatory reading for policymakers from Washington to Kabul but it will also help to inform Americans who want to understand what is likely to be the greatest foreign policy challenge of the Obama administration. (Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc. and The Osama bin Laden I Know )

Seth Jones has the answer to the million-dollar question….until Seth Jones, nobody actually sought an empirical answer. Nobody crunched the numbers. (John H. Richardson - Esquire )

I've just started reading Seth Jones's book on the war in Afghanistan, In the Graveyard of Empires, which someone told me is going to be the Fiasco of that war. (Thomas E. Ricks, bestselling author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Foreign Policy )

[Jones] zero[es] in on what went awry after America’s successful routing of the Taliban in late 2001. His narrative is fleshed out with information from declassified government documents and interviews with military officers, diplomats and national security experts familiar with events on the ground in Afghanistan. (Michiko Kakutani - The New York Times )