It’s becoming habit that I wait well into the new month before I share the list of books I read the previous month. Which, as I always say, makes it hard to write about the books I read six weeks earlier. I’ve been doing this over 10 years, and I still always put off writing my summaries until well after I have finished the book. Old dog, new tricks, etc.
So some quick words about five of my most recent reads, including the book I finished while on vacation in June.
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr. One of my sisters-in-law was reading this over the holidays. I read the jacket blurbs and was intrigued. It takes place before and during World War II. Radio, specifically shortwave radio (one of the great passions of my youth), is integral to the story. And the cover was stamped with the various awards the book garnered, including the Pulitzer. Couldn’t suck, right?
Right. This is a brilliant, gorgeous book. I love how Doerr slowly spins out the stories of his two main characters: a blind girl growing up in France and an orphan in Germany whose genius is being able to understand electronics and math without formal education. On their own, either character could carry a novel. But together, as their lives slowly bend toward each other, touch for a moment, then separate, they turn this into a story worthy of all the hype. Doerr’s language is sumptuous and lyrical. The story is wonderful. This is nearly the perfect book.
The Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season – Barry Svrluga. A quick baseball read by the former Washington Post beat writer for the Washington Nationals. Svrluga’s focus is on “the grind” of the big league season. How the players, players’ families, management staff, scouts handle the rigors of the Major League season, which stretches from spring training in February deep into October.
It’s interesting, but also feels like exactly what it is: a book based on newspaper articles. The chapters read like extended pieces for the Sunday edition of the Post. They hit the high points of the subject, but there’s not a ton of depth to them.
The Only Rule Is It Has To Work – Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller. A much better baseball book. In this one, Lindbergh and Miller, who write and podcast for Baseball Prospectus, took over the Sonoma Stompers, an independent league team, last year in hopes of testing some of their sabermetric theories. While they had the full support of ownership, they did have struggles along the way from the manager and some players, who bristled at the idea of people who had “never played the game” telling them how to construct the roster, the lineup, the rotation, and when to use certain strategic moves.
Lindbergh and Miller take turns writing chapters, which gives the book a nice ebb-and-flow, as they were not always on the same page. Their Effectively Wild podcast is always enlightening and funny, and that spirit carries over to their writing. Even if you don’t give a damn about sabermetrics, this is yet another fantastic, season inside-type baseball book.
A Foreign Country – Charles Cumming. I jumped over to Cumming for my espionage thriller of the month. He’s a Brit, so his books are generally based in Britain and more modern than some of the other authors I’ve read recently. This is no exception.
The new director of MI6 – who is the first woman to earn the post – has disappeared, and an agent that was forced into retirement because of political pressure about the treatment of Afghani prisoners is secretly brought in to track down his old mentor and friend. The agent quickly tracks her down, but stumbles into a hidden element of her past that he must decide whether to share with their colleagues at the risk of ruining her career. And the explanation for her disappearance soon turns into the discovery of a spy war with a quasi-ally that could blow up the war on terror.
This is a good, taut, exciting read.
No Good Men Among the Living – Anand Gopal. Finally, another book that brought home many awards. American reporter Gopal spent a great deal of time in Afghanistan over the past decade. As the country devolved into lawlessness, and with the Taliban making strong gains, he looks into exactly what went wrong with the US mission there that caused this to happen.
He focuses on three people: an ally of the US, a Taliban commander, and a neutral party who just wanted to live her life, along with a few ancillary characters, to show how the country changed following the US invasion in 2001. Conventional wisdom is that Afghanistan fell into chaos after the US had to pull troops out before the Taliban was completely defeated because of the invasion of Iraq.
Gopal argues that the mission failed because of a fundamental American refusal to understand how Afghanistan worked. The Bush administration and the military leadership did not understand how power in Afghanistan is deeply tied to ethnic/regional group membership and that broader political loyalties are extremely fluid and based on pragmatism as much as ideology. The US automatically rejected local leaders who had ties to the Taliban, even if they had only done so to protect their local interests and quickly pledged loyalty to the post-invasion government. The US was also focused on a body count (Not necessarily dead bodies. Prisoners were just as important.) The savvy local leaders picked up on this and accused anyone who was a rival of being Taliban, which often earned them a quick trip to US custody and even Guantanamo.
All this combined to turn many local leaders who could have been valuable allies to the US into true Taliban sympathizers.
The book also paints a bleak picture of the future of the country, as corruption is rampant in the national government and there is little hope of changing those patterns.
The US was successful in driving Al Queda from Afghanistan and removing the Taliban from power. By those measures, our invasion was a success. But everything that came after has been a disaster.