Charlie Wilson’s War

The movie is fun to watch, but it’s the book that’s a must read.

We watched Charlie Wilson’s War in the theater. It is a movie about the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion and how Congressman Charlie Wilson and how he and CIA officer Gust Avrakotos helped the Afghan Mujahideen.

It is a good movie, but it does focus more on the flamboyant and scandalous than the nitty gritty details of congressional funding. Also, Om Puri did the worst impression of Pakistani dictator General Zia ul Haq that I have ever seen.

While I liked the movie, these deficiencies mean I can rate it only 7/10.

Watching the movie reminded me that I still hadn’t read the book Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times by George Crile that the movie is based on. So I got it from the library.

It’s a great book and I finished it as fast as I could. It reminded me more of fiction than of reality. And it scared me. The book includes a lot of details about how the Afghan war was funded and details the way Congress and its committees work behind the scenes. As someone very interested in politics, it was a bit scary to realize how something of the scale of the US funding of the Afghan war could happen with just the personal connections and chit-calling and no open debate in Congress.

My conflicted feelings towards the Afghan war don’t help matters. I was and am a fervent anticommunist and hence did support the fight against the Soviets. At the same time, those Mujahideen groups, including Ahmad Shah Massoud, were not exactly good for Afghanistan. And the Afghan war (and Zia) is a major reason for why Pakistan is in such bad shape today.

If you are interested in the Cold War, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the war on terror, CIA, or US foreign policy, Charlie Wilson’s War is a must read.

Midnight’s Children

Midnight’s Children is an enjoyable, though not great, book.

Midnight’s Children is an award-winning novel by Salman Rushdie, though Rushdie is known more for the protests and death threats against him due to his Satanic Verses.

The main character in Midnight’s Children is Saleem Sinai who’s born at the same instant as India becomes independent on August 15, 1947. His life story follows the twists and turns of national events. He even shows up in Pakistan for Ayub Khan’s martial law declaration and then later when his family is killed in a bombing raid during the 1965 war. The story then moves to the suppression of Bangladeshis by Pakistan’s security forces in 1971 and then to India again for Indira Gandhi’s emergency in 1975. Of course, Saleem Sinai plays a role in all these events.

Overall, the story is fun and covers the post-Independence history of the region. But at times Rushdie’s writing style gets annoyingly ethnic. I enjoyed the novel but wasn’t much impressed by it.

When Victims Become Killers

This is an academic book looking in detail at the history of Rwanda and its neighbors and how that led to the 1994 genocide. Despite being difficult to read due to dry writing, I recommend it highly.

When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda by Mahmood Mamdani was recommended to me by Sepoy of Chapati Mystery.

It took me forever to finish this book because it is a difficult read. The density of information is good, but there’s also the dry, academic style of writing.

Mamdani covers the big picture of Rwandan history and how that led to the 1994 genocide. His central thesis is that Hutu and Tutsi identities are basically political identities forged over the years before, during and after colonialism. Mamdani also discusses the history of the whole region (Uganda and Congo etc.) and how that affected events in Rwanda.

Overall, it is a good companion to We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch which focuses on the genocide itself.

god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Christopher Hitchens is a good polemicist and it shows in his book. This is not a book presenting research or theological discussion, but it does present forceful arguments against religion and the religious.

First of all, I like the title god is not Great which alludes to the Arabic Allahu Akbar (God is Great).

Secondly, Christopher Hitchens is a polemicist by his own admission and one should keep that in mind while reading this book. This is not an analysis of religion (going over its evolutionary origins for example) or even a high-minded atheist response to religion like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

Keeping that in mind, I actually liked god is not Great. Hitchens is a good writer. He knows how to turn a phrase and his allusions to literature references were also clever and interesting.

His case against religion is flawed but not completely wrong. There are lots of bad and evil things the religious and organized religion have done or condoned. Despite all those issues, I think we can only say that religion does not make one better or worse. This in itself is a major indictment of religion.

However, as discussed in Religion Explained, religion and religious beliefs have natural evolutionary origins and arise out of how our mind works. So religion is here to stay. Even people who do not consider themselves religious usually have beliefs that can be classified as religion.

You can read some excerpts from the book on Slate.

When I was reading god is not Great, I decided to live-blog (or live-forum) it at UrduWeb.

Spin

This is a book about the apocalypse, love, father-son conflict, ecology and the stars going out. Definitely one of the best science fiction novels written in recent times.

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson is a great science fiction novel and won the Hugo Award for Best Novel last year.

It is a story about friends growing up together as the world suddenly changes and the stars disappear. It turns out that the Earth is enclosed in a time warp so that time outside is moving much much faster than on Earth. But if time is moving so much faster, the Sun might become a red giant soon and everything (and everyone) on Earth would be dead; that’s the apocalyptic part. Then there’s conflict between a father and a son and a love story.

Overall, it has a very well fleshed out plot line and good character development.

It is definitely worth reading.

The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857

This is a great book about Bahadur Shah Zafar, Delhi and the events of 1857. It makes everything come alive. If you are interested in Indian history, it’s a must read.

The Last Mughal is about the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. It mainly covers the events of the Mutiny (or War of Independence) of 1857 as seen in Delhi.

The 1857 war of independence was basically a mutiny of Indian soldiers in the Bengal Army of East India Company. Almost all of the Bengal Army rebelled and a lot of them ended up in Delhi, nominally under the flag of the last Mughal emperor. Bahadur Shah Zafar wasn’t at all eager for the rebellion, but he did give them his blessing when the rebels came to Delhi. Interestingly, most of the soldiers were high caste Hindus from the eastern Hindi belt and not the so-called martial races of India (an idea which probably came later). The British retook India with the help of Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims, Pathans and Gurkhas etc. (here come the “martial races”) and then came the massacres and the hangings. Ironically, the British blamed Muslims for the rebellion when actually it had the support of both Muslims and Hindus.

William Dalrymple is a good writer and the book is a fun read. He creates an image of Delhi in 1857 in your mind and The Last Mughal is worth reading just for that.

For a more detailed and academic review, read Chapati Mystery where there is a great discussion in the comments too. And William Dalrymple replies to that discussion.

Dark Star

This is an interesting novel about espionage and history on the eve of World War II seen from the perspective of a Pravda journalist and spy.

Dark Star by Alan Furst is a great spy novel about a Soviet (Polish Jewish) journalist in Western Europe who gets involved in espionage.

Pravda foreign correspondent Andre Szara starts out by doing small spying tasks for the NKVD until his whole life is taken over by espionage. Then he gets involved in trying to save Jewish lives by trading some German information with the British.

It is a good spy and historical novel and a fun read. I enjoyed it very much.

Religion Explained

This is one of the best books I have read. It explains the origins of religious thought based on how our mind works. Highly recommended.

Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer is a great book about a very interesting topic.

It is a book about why most humans are religious. Pascal Boyer takes an evolutionary and cognitive psychology approach to the problem. The discussion in this book about how our mind works was fascinating enough by itself. As a parent, I found the description of how children think and how their thoughts develop as they grow to be the most interesting parts of the book.

Overall, Pascal Boyer explains the development of religious thought in humans in an easily accessible way that a casual reader can understand as well. Therefore, I would recommend this book to everyone who is interested in religion and/or cognitive sciences. I must thank Razib for suggesting this book to me and making my thinking about religion so much more coherent.

Here is an article Why is Religion Natural? by Boyer that gives a flavor of the book.

Other interesting works on this topic are:

I must note here that religion being natural does not necessarily mean that religion is true.

The Third Chimpanzee

This is a good, though somewhat dated, book about the rise of Homo Sapiens. While eminently readable and full of interesting information, I found the focus on nuclear or environmental holocaust to be a hindrance.

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal by Jared Diamond is an interesting book.

I found out about Jared Diamond when Captain Arrrgh lent me his Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies many moons ago. I loved that book. So I was expecting something great here too.

The Third Chimpanzee is about human history and how we developed the way we did. It talks about sexuality and sexual selection, language, art, agriculture, drugs, and conquest. In many ways it is a very similar book to Nick Wade’s Before the Dawn. In fact, I should have read The Third Chimpanzee first since it was written more than a dozen years ago.

The first half of the book is a good exposition of several human traits and accomplishments and efforts to trace their origin. However, late in the book, Jared Diamond turns pessimistic. As he says in the theme for the book:

How the human species changed, within a short time, from just another species of big mammal to a world conquerer; and how we acquired the capacity to reverse all that progress overnight.

This last part is what worries Diamond and what makes the book so pessimistic in tone as he discusses world conquest, genocide and the environment. His last chapter titled “The Second Cloud” is about what he terms the environmental holocaust and the epilogue is titled “Nothing Learned, and Everything Forgotten?”

While I share some of these concerns with Diamond, I am a technophile and somewhat of an optimist. Also, I think The Third Chimpanzee would have been a much better book without this focus on future catastrophes.

At Canaan’s Edge : America in the King Years, 1965-68

This is the last book on the trilogy about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement by Taylor Branch. The whole trilogy is a must-read.

At Canaan’s Edge is the last book in Taylor Branch’s trilogy about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. I read Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire some time ago.

At Canaan’s Edge covers the years the Voting rights movement in Selma, Alabama in 1965 to King’s assassination in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. It also covers the Vietnam War and the protests against it during that timeframe.

The book is very engrossing and the history of that era very turbulent. It starts on the high note of the passage of Voting Rights Act but then things become more difficult when Dr. King tries to work for the betterment of African Americans in the north. Also, the nonviolence of the times covered by the previous two books is overtaken here by riots all over the US.

Reading this whole series, I was amazed at the very human but still heroic people who made so much progress on the civil rights front in a decade. One can see how far they have gone but at the same time I could sense that there was still a lot left to be done and that was the difficult task of changing social attitudes.

Taylor Branch is a great author and he knits together a great history in this trilogy. Despite the length of these books, they never bore you. He is also good at presenting an unvarnished picture of the real world, where the heroes are flawed like regular human beings.

I would highly recommend the trilogy to anyone interested in United States history or the Civil Rights Movement.