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Book Review: Decision Points by George W Bush

No matter your opinion of George W Bush, the 43rd President of the United States, a lot of momentous events happened during his eight years in office; from the controversy of his election to 9/11 from Iraq and Afghanistan to Katrina and TARP. Getting his perspective on them is worthwhile and that is exactly what Decision Points offers, his take on the most important decisions of his term.  There is a brief biographical introduction but the focus is on critical decisions not a chronological or traditional autobiography.

What struck me most while listening, however, was how unique Bush’s experience was. The son of a president wrestling with what it means to be a successful president; dealing with the consequences of his father’s actions in Iraq; an awareness of the traps of perception and politics, and the circumstances of history, that prevented your dad from being re-elected even as you seek re-election; never getting the chance to have a clear winner declared on election night yet assuming the presidency; on and on it goes.

Whether you think him and idiot or mis-underestimated, evil or just squishy, well-intentioned or badly served or all of the above at different times, what a unique historical figure.

If you are a policy wonk or have a philosophical bent you might be frustrated by the lack of detail and the often simplified arguments provided. For the vast majority of the book the tone and style is relentlessly pragmatic. Bush faced decisions and he made them based on his principles, instincts and the advice of experts and staff. He lays out his thought process and rational but rarely seems willing to wrestle with deeper issues or more philosophical conundrums (the role of government, the efficacy of foreign intervention, the problems of a security state, etc.).

The central role of faith and family in his life, his confidence in his ability to make decisions and in his team, and his dry sense of humor all shine through however. An interesting historical perspective without much deep insight or literary flare.

A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi

A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi is not the typical book that I read. It is set in a war-torn country, but it is nothing about war.  It’s a story about women in Afghanistan and how they survive in a male-dominated society.

A bit about the plot from the publisher:

For two decades, Zeba was a loving wife, a patient mother, and a peaceful villager. But her quiet life is shattered when her husband, Kamal, is found brutally murdered with a hatchet in the courtyard of their home. Nearly catatonic with shock, Zeba is unable to account for her whereabouts at the time of his death. Her children swear their mother could not have committed such a heinous act. Kamal’s family is sure she did, and demands justice.

Barely escaping a vengeful mob, Zeba is arrested and jailed. As Zeba awaits trial, she meets a group of women whose own misfortunes have also led them to these bleak cells: thirty-year-old Nafisa, imprisoned to protect her from an honor killing; twenty-five-year-old Latifa, who ran away from home with her teenage sister but now stays in the prison because it is safe shelter; and nineteen-year-old Mezhgan, pregnant and unmarried, waiting for her lover’s family to ask for her hand in marriage. Is Zeba a cold-blooded killer, these young women wonder, or has she been imprisoned, as they have been, for breaking some social rule? For these women, the prison is both a haven and a punishment. Removed from the harsh and unforgiving world outside, they form a lively and indelible sisterhood.

Into this closed world comes Yusuf, Zeba’s Afghan-born, American-raised lawyer, whose commitment to human rights and desire to help his motherland have brought him back. With the fate of this seemingly ordinary housewife in his hands, Yusuf discovers that, like Afghanistan itself, his client may not be at all what he imagines.

The book is wonderfully written with great descriptions of the scenery and the characters. For example, Hashimi uses great imagery to describe the landscape – dry, brittle plains that go for miles and towns stuck amidst the plains and valleys in the mountains. Although I do not know much about Afghan culture, I do know a good story. Hashimi engages you and keeps your attention.

Hashimi writes in a way that you can sympathize with Zeba and her fellow inmates. In male-dominated societies, it appears next to impossible for women to be treated fairly. Zeba and her fellow inmates seem destined for a lifetime of imprisonment or death for their “crimes.” But, hope, whether it is in the form of a fellow inmate being released or the continuation of the trial without a conviction is seeded in among the despair.

Hashimi also brings another angle to her story – that of an ex-pat Afghan who comes back to Afghanistan to do some good. Yusuf has been heavily influenced by his American upbringing, but he still has a pull toward the Afghan culture. He wants to bring American equality and justice to an Afghanistan that is in many ways backward – corrupt and heavy-handed toward its treatment of women.

As mentioned earlier, Hashimi brings great descriptions of Afghan village life. You can see in your mind’s eye the narrow streets surrounded by walled houses. How the world is shut out behind steel doors that protect the families, but also keep them isolated. This is the life for hundreds of thousands of women scattered in hundreds of villages throughout Afghanistan.

The book is excellent with its excruciating look at women in Afghani society.

Swimming with Warlords: A Dozen-Year Journey Across the Afghan War by Kevin Sites

Afghanistan – a land of beauty and untold tragedy, a place where armies of mighty nations have been humbled. These are some of the thoughts that I have of the country that has vexed so many for such a long time. Kevin Sites seeks to illuminate readers about the people of Afghanistan in his book Swimming with Warlords: A Dozen-Year Journey Across the Afghan War.

The book follows the route that Stiles took in 2001 when the U.S. invaded – going from north to south. Stiles compares and contrasts 2001 and 2013 Afghanistan. He fills the book with quirky stories about his experiences with the Afghani people. For instance, the book’s title comes from a time when Sites was traveling and met a powerful warlord. In the middle of a war zone, they took a swim in a river – a very surreal experience.

Although many of the stories seem random, together they describe a people who are trying to find their way in a war that is tearing apart their country. These stories bring a deeper understanding of the Afghani people and their plight. Through his stories, Sites creates a connection between the reader and the Afghani people.

Sites also conveys the hopes of a people trying to modernize and the frustrations of corruption. For example, Sites writes about the plight of women – the fight that professionals have to be recognized in a male-dominated society – the fight not only for recognition, but sometimes the fight to stay alive by avoiding assassination (many outspoken professional women are killed because they are critical of the male-dominated society).

The book is an excellent look at how much Afghanistan has changed since 2001 and how much more needs to change before it is a modern society.

The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

For a variety of reasons I won’t go into, I have been restless and having trouble finding books that really grab me.  Looking for something different I decided to buy The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya.  I can’t recall if I had read some positive reviews of the book or it just caught my attention at the bookstore.  But it seemed to offer something different from my regular reading and a perspective that might challenge me.

Publishers blurb:

Following a desperate night-long battle, a group of beleaguered soldiers in an isolated base in Kandahar are faced with a lone woman demanding the return of her brother’s body. Is she a spy, a black widow, a lunatic, or is she what she claims to be: a grieving young sister intent on burying her brother according to local rites? Single-minded in her mission, she refuses to move from her spot on the field in full view of every soldier in the stark outpost. Her presence quickly proves dangerous as the camp’s tense, claustrophobic atmosphere comes to a boil when the men begin arguing about what to do next.

While I enjoyed the book for the most part, and found much of the writing well done, it just seemed to be trying to hard to be literary and topical. I kept waiting for something that would tie the threads together or offer larger insight, clarity or perspective but it never really delivered.

Taliban: The Unknown Enemy

Taliban: The Unknown Enemy



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