Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Kingdom of Their Own (Joshua Partlow)

Joshua Partlow’s A Kingdom of Their Own recaps the Karzai family’s grip on power in Afghanistan in the years following the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001.  American leadership placed their hopes for Afghanistan’s democratic success on Hamid Karzai, and Partlow tracks the complicated relationship between Hamid and the United States, as well as Hamid and his own family over the time of his leadership in Afghanistan.

Kingdom goes through great lengths to retell the story of American involvement in Afghanistan after the installation of Hamid as leader. American commitment included military support and financial resources, as well as business interests that "helped" to rebuild Afghanistan after years of destruction brought upon it by war, Soviet control in the 80’s, and Taliban control in the late 90’s.  Those business interests involved a few of Hamid’s brothers, who relocated back to Afghanistan after living in the United States for a time to help in the rebuilding process, as well as others who lined their own pockets for financial and political gain.  Partlow asserts that the United States was fighting not just insurgent terrorists but wayward and unethical Afghans and then began to fight with the Karzai administration over how to manage the various conflicts in Afghanistan.  In time, the Karzai-US relationship deteriorated to the point where the Americans were essentially persona non grata.

Partlow briefly touches on Afghanistan’s complicated tribal history to help preface the geopolitical environment in the country, adding additional meat to a thorough entrée of discussion on the billions of dollars spent propping up Hamid and (by proxy) his brothers during a bit more than a decade.  All in all, A Kingdom of Their Own  is a technical, at times wonky, book.  Nonetheless, Partlow’s well-researched work provides a critical and needed perspective on the War on Terror’s lesser known front and how both sides made many mistakes along the way.


Thursday, November 3, 2016

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (Robert Matzen)

Robert Matzen’s Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe is a detailed account of the beloved actor's military service in the Army Air Corps during World War II.  Stewart was drafted and chose to serve, pitching his developing love of flying to serve his country as part of “The Greatest Generation” of numerous military veterans who sacrificed time and their lives in various war theatres around the world.

Stewart is a favorite actor in this household, with It’s a Wonderful Life one of the films that endears us to him.  Our appreciation of Stewart and his down-to-earth demeanor led me to want to review this book.  Matzen did not disappoint, going into great detail to highlight not just Stewart’s service in the military but bringing attention to several stories on the Allied front as they served under him in England and on several bombing missions over Europe.  Sprinkled in were accounts from the German front, specifically highlighting a German Luftwaffe General’s story as the war unfolded.

Mission captures Stewart’s guarded, quiet, personality at its core and how World War II changed him and so many other men who fought in it.  He was pained by the battles and the loss of men under his watch, bearing those scars for the duration of his life.  Mission spends little of its pages devoted to Stewart’s years after World War II but does a great job of capturing the essence of Stewart and how he treated those under his command with the same respect and decency that would have made Mr. Smith proud in Washington.


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Interestings (Meg Wolitzer)

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is one of those books that get very differing opinions.  Some readers say that the characters are unlikeable so they don’t really care what happens to them very much.  It seems that you either become emotionally invested in these characters or you don’t -- there’s not much of an in-between.  I found The Interestings enthralling for about 90% of it, and then the unrealistic ending really let me down.

The Interestings are a group of friends who meet every summer at the Spirit-in-the-Woods camp.  It is here where they are free to be themselves, and when camp ends, it is understood that they are friends for life.  Readers see Jules, Ash, Ethan, Jonah, and the others grow up, get married, become successful (or not), and have children, and since they’ve “known” them since they were teenagers, it’s not difficult to root them on.  Wolitzer really spends the time developing each one of them, which is why a few events toward the end seemed like quite the cop-out to me.

However, the last few pages aren’t the be-all and end-all of The Interestings.  The best kind of realistic fiction novels are when readers can see themselves mirrored in the characters, and that’s precisely what tends to happen here.