BOOK REVIEWS 6.22.11

By on June 21, 2011

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The Taliban Shuffle
Kim Barker
Longtime foreign news correspondent Kim Barker takes readers behind the scenes of the War on Terror in The Taliban Shuffle, a memoir/travelogue that serves as a good primer on how America let the war in Afghanistan get out of hand. Barker also offers an honest and often humorous account of the challenges and personal tribulations she dealt with in blind pursuit of international news and her career.

Working for the Chicago Tribune, Barker, a native Montanan, spent seven years covering the war in Afghanistan, a country that seemed familiar to her. “It had jagged blue-and-purple mountains, big skies, and bearded men in pickup trucks stocked with guns and hate for the government. It was like Montana – just on different drugs,” Barker writes. She arrived in the war-wracked Central Asian country two years after the U.S. invaded and swept the Taliban out of power and she lets the reader tag along as she covers the conflict.

Barker is endlessly entertaining as she regales the reader with tales of journalistic daring-do and introduces us to some of the region’s most powerful people, warts and all. It’s fascinating to observe as she reveals all that goes on between the lines of an article in a newspaper’s “World” section: the connections made and severed, the bureaucratic tape negotiated, the cast of colorful ancillary characters, and the unflattering details about central ones, left out when a journalist sits down at her typewriter.

Barker mixes personal recollections – about her flailing love life, the dangers she faced in the field, her relationships with other journalists and her overseas fixers – with insight into what was happening in Afghanistan while the world, and the U.S. especially, was focused on Iraq. Spoiler alert: Afghans were getting pissed.

Though a talented journalist, Barker often has difficulty choosing an analogy, resorting to a litany of similes and metaphors that drown her meaning. And yes, this is nitpicky, but she uses the conditional progressive tense way too much. The simple past would have sufficed.

Considering that Taliban Shuffle clocks in at just under 300 pages, Barker makes room for a surprisingly in-depth background on the war as it has played out in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the stories of debauched Kabul nights and behind-the-scenes-with-a-foreign-correspondent adventures serve to break up the denser, meatier stuff.                                                                                             – Benjamin R. Bombard

After The Quake: Stories
Haruki Murakami
In light of the recent earthquake, the Revolutionary Book Club looked to Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s foremost fiction writers, for insight into the Japanese experience.

In his collection After the Quake (2002), Murakami illustrates in six short pieces of fiction, the individual realities of civilians in Japan after the 1995 earthquake in Kobe. The stories range from two people discussing Jack London around a beach campfire to a well-spoken super-frog who visits an ordinary man to save Tokyo. While the quake does not directly factor into the plot, it’s a shadow that looms over the characters.

On June 13, the book club pondered Murakami’s choice not to directly discuss the quake in his stories. Instead, he used it as a subtle thread. In the first story, a wife writes to her husband, “You are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air.” This sentiment conveys the daunting pressure of a wasted life, the acknowledgement of impending death and the overwhelming emptiness felt in the lives of Murakami’s characters.

Club members noted that the quake functioned as a way to garner reactions rather than provide plot development. Emotions were not expressed openly, but slipped out in uncomfortable situations. Satsuki, the main character in “Thailand” expresses to her taxi driver her hatred for opera music after her bitter divorce.

In “All God’s Children Can Dance,” Yoshiya avoids a marriage proposal from his girlfriend, using the fabled story that he was the son of God as an excuse.

In these circumstances, the characters were relatable because of their awkwardness – people are strange and those strange circumstances often arrive in normal life. Murakami even goes as far as to tell us when he is using a circumstance as a metaphor – and the group appreciated it.

Ultimately, the group felt that Murakami’s surreal and existentialist prose brought the reader from the utter emptiness of modern life (in Japan or anywhere it seems) to a hopeful end.

In “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” the second to last story, the gigantic frog may have been a figment of Katagiri’s mind, but he served a purpose – to give meaning to the everyday and to the every-person. The stories progress from the most dejected to more encouraging.

As Katagiri speculates, “I’m an absolutely ordinary guy.  […] I’m going bald, I’m getting a potbelly, I turned 40 last month […] Why should a person like me have to be the one to save Tokyo?”

We couldn’t help but wonder the same thing.
– Marisa Schweber-Koren


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