The Disunited States of America

An alternate history novel about an America in which the union didn’t happen and states are independent.

This is another ebook from the Tor.com promotion.

The Disunited States of America is an alternative history book which takes place in late 21st century where the articles of confederation fell apart and no US constitution was agreed. So the states stayed independent.

It is a book targeted to teens and adolescents, which in itself I didn’t find to be a problem. However, as a result of that, the author avoids any cursing by the characters. Even that I was okay with, except that the author actually mentions in the text that a character said something unmentionable. After a couple of such mentions, it just annoyed me.

Farthing

A murder mystery set in an alternate history where Britain made peace with Nazi Germany and the US never entered the war, this is a good, fun novel.

Courtesy of Tor’s promotion of free ebooks, I got Farthing by Jo Walton, which was nominated for a Nebula as well as for Campbell award.

It is an alternate history novel in which Britain makes peace with Nazi Germany in World War II. It is a mystery about the murder of a politician who was instrumental in the peace negotiations with the Nazis.

It is a good, fast read with the murder mystery and the country house in the foreground but politics and the ramifications of the peace deal are also present. I finished it in a single reading session.

Old Man’s War

This first novel by John Scalzi is a gripping story of a 75 year old who joins the colonial army to help humans colonize space.

I had been meaning to read Old Man’s War ever since I found out about it on John Scalzi’s blog since he writes so well there. But I had too many books on my reading list and I never got around to it until I found out about the features and offers with Tor’s new website.

we’ve got a little “holding page” currently at the tor.com URL, where we’re urging people to sign up as preregistered users. In exchange for their advance support (and their permission to email them our newsletters) we are, For A Limited Time, sending them links through which they can download free, un-DRMed digital editions of various recent Tor books in a variety of formats. For instance, if you sign up now, you can download The Outstretched Shadow by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory; in a few days, that will go away but you’ll be given the opportunity to download Farthing by Jo Walton. Since we’re rotating books in and out of the program at a fair clip, the earlier you sign up, the more free books you’ll score.

And this is how I got the Old Man’s War ebook, along with a dozen others and continuing.

This was also my first experience of reading a book on my Treo. While I won’t read long works on my PDA/phone, I found reading short novels pleasant.

Old Man’s War is the story of 75 year old John Perry who joins the Colonial Defense Force and battles aliens around the universe in his new, young, green body. It is well written and interesting throughout and reminds me somewhat of Robert Heinlein.

John Scalzi’s first novel, Old Man’s War was nominated for a Hugo award in 2005.

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.