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text 2017-03-31 23:45
Love in a not so foreign land...
A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini is a consummate story-teller and following the impact of his first novel - 'The Kite Runner' - his second was always likely to be awaited with bated breath. But, while there are plenty of examples of seminal music albums that have disappointing follow-ups, or movie sequels that never quite reach the highpoint of the original, in this book Hosseini cements his reputation as a genuinely gifted writer.

 

Once again set in Afghanistan, this story focuses on the respective journeys of two women - Mariam and Laila - and the dissection of the book into four parts helpfully describes their individual experiences, before interweaving their lives within the context of war-locked Kabul and a hinterland dominated by armed factions. Seen through the eyes of these women, this book also offers a powerful critique of a social structure, which layers disadvantage based on gender, wealth, religion, tribe, marriage,birth, language, disability, etc. The domestic violence, which they experience at the hands of their husband (Rasheed), is brutal and possible in the absence of protection for the vulnerable and a paternalistic culture which seems to regard women and children as chattels. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, the antidote to such systematic hardship proved to be the indomitable human spirit and the innate capacity for reciprocal love.

 

Almost in spite of the dire consequences of the soviet invasion and the transition to the equally destructive Taliban rule and its subsequent demise, the period covered by the book, Hosseini has managed to extricate a wonderfully uplifting tale of love in diverse forms. Positive and negative attachments to parents, the powerful but not universal instinct to protect children, as well as the strength of selfless romantic love, as distinct from pragmatic survival mechanisms, conjures up some challenging moral dilemmas for the reader. Moreover, the sisterly bonding of Mariam and Laila in an unspoken connection of damaged souls is arguably the most touching of all.

 

Amid the physical war damage and emotional carnage, the author nonetheless manages to eke out a testament to human resilience and deep-rooted optimism. However, it is the strength and resolve of the central female characters that offer most pride in the human virtues on show. My favourite quote from the book follows the mourning of Laila's brothers, when the character perceives a hierarchy in her mother's affections, "....Mammy's heart was like a pallid beach where Laila's footprints would forever wash away beneath the waves of sorrow that swelled and crashed.Swelled and crashed." In the final analysis, Laila's courage was every bit as worthy of her mother's reverence.

 

On reflection, I believe one of the most engaging factors for the reader steeped in western culture is the apparent difference in certain values, most notably in respect of women (though notably feminists would argue there is still a way to go), but also, reassuringly, common humane principles that derive from the respective civilizations. The 'otherness' is a seductive curiosity, however, it should not be overstated, for as Hosseini demonstrates, our aspirations are remarkably similar.

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review 2017-03-12 11:07
Spannend und äußerst lehrreich
Agent 6 - Tom Rob Smith

Tom Rob Smith ist vermutlich der Begründer meiner Vorliebe für politische Thriller. Sein Debüt „Kind 44“ trat in mein Leben, als ich längst genug hatte von ewig gleichen Psychothrillern. Die Geschichte des Agenten Leo Demidow, der versucht, in einem System Serienmorde aufzuklären, in dem es offiziell keine Verbrechen gab, faszinierte mich ungemein, weil der Fall eine dominante politische Ebene hat. Ich lernte viel über die stalinistische Sowjetunion, über die ich bis dahin fast gar nichts wusste. Der Fortsetzung „Kolyma“ verdanke ich mein Wissen über Gulags. Ich kann nicht erklären, warum es Jahre brauchte, bis ich das Finale der Trilogie las. Es schien einfach nie der richtige Moment zu sein.

 

Moskau 1950: der amerikanische Sänger Jesse Austin ist als Freund des Kommunismus vom sowjetischen Regime in die Stadt eingeladen. Die Geheimpolizei hat alle Hände voll zu tun, die Makel eines fehlerhaften Systems zu verschleiern. Beinahe ruiniert der Agent Leo Demidow die gesamte Mission. Lediglich die schnelle Auffassungsgabe einer jungen Lehrerin rettet die riskante Situation. Der Besuch wird ein Erfolg.
15 Jahre später fliegen Leos Frau Raisa und ihre beiden Töchter in die USA. Die Reise ist eine propagandistische Sensation. Ein gemeinsames Konzert in New York soll die Welt von der Harmonie zwischen USA und UdSSR überzeugen. Während öffentlich Einigkeit zelebriert wird, entfaltet sich im Hintergrund eine gefährliche Intrige. In ihrem Mittelpunkt stehen Jesse Austin, das alternde Gesangstalent – und Leos Familie. Der Auftritt eskaliert zur Katastrophe. Leos Leben wird binnen eines Wimpernschlags zerstört. In tiefer Trauer schwört Leo, die Verantwortlichen zu finden. Es ist der Beginn einer jahrelangen Suche nach Rache, die ihn von Russland über Afghanistan bis nach New York führt, stets auf der Spur des Mannes, der ihm alles nahm, was ihm je etwas bedeutete: Agent 6.

 

Während meiner Recherchen für die Rezension zu „Agent 6“ stieß ich auf ein interessantes Interview des Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazins mit dem Autor Tom Rob Smith. Er offenbart darin eine erstaunliche Beziehung zu seinen Figuren: „Ich setze meine Figuren unter Druck und sehe ihnen dann zu, wie sie leiden und sich allmählich verändern. Sobald eine Figur unter Druck steht, kann ich mit ihr glaubhaft machen, was ich will”. Diese Einstellung ist radikal, als Thriller-Autor aber sicher unverzichtbar. Denke ich an den Protagonisten Leo, sehe ich den Wahrheitsgehalt in Smith‘ Worten. Es sind definitiv Drucksituationen, die ihn in allen drei Bänden verändern. „Agent 6“ schließt den Kreis seines Entwicklungsprozesses. Die Ereignisse des dritten Bandes lassen ihn zu einer Persönlichkeit degenerieren, die dem Leo vom Beginn der Trilogie sehr ähnlich ist. Am Ende seiner Geschichte ist er wieder der Mann, mit dem alles angefangen hat: kaltblütig und skrupellos. Ich finde das bemerkenswert, weil Tom Rob Smith eindrucksvoll illustriert, dass man die Vergangenheit noch so tief vergraben kann, unter den richtigen Umständen holt sie einen trotzdem ein. Leo kann nicht leugnen, wer und was er ist. Für seine Familie kehrte er dem System, in dessen Namen er folterte und mordete, den Rücken. Doch als jenes System seine Familie zerstört, fällt Leo in alte Verhaltensmuster zurück, weil er glaubt, nichts mehr zu verlieren zu haben. Sein Rachedurst kostet ihn 15 Jahre, folglich umspannt das Buch insgesamt knapp 31 Jahre. Ich fand die daraus resultierenden großen Zeitsprünge schwierig, da ich mir selbst ausmalen musste, wie Leo die vergangene Zeit verbrachte und mich an die plötzlich älteren Versionen seiner Figur gewöhnen musste. Ich begriff nicht so recht, worauf die Geschichte hinauslaufen sollte, denn der namensgebende Agent 6 taucht den Großteil des Buches nicht einmal als Randnotiz auf. Ich war ungeduldig und hatte das Gefühl, der Autor käme nicht zu Potte. Mittlerweile verstehe ich jedoch, dass es Smith primär nicht um die Suche nach Agent 6 ging, sondern um die Darstellung des geschichtlichen Rahmens. Der letzte bedeutende Zeitraffer katapultierte mich nach Afghanistan im Jahre 1980. Leo arbeitet als sowjetischer Berater für das kommunistische Regime in Kabul. Ich wusste bis dato nicht, dass die UdSSR damals versuchte, den Kommunismus in Afghanistan zu etablieren. Mir war vage bewusst, dass „die Russen“ irgendwann einmal Krieg in Afghanistan geführt haben, doch die Details dieses Konflikts waren mir unbekannt. Eine gravierende Wissenslücke, die Tom Rob Smith mit hervorragend recherchierten Fakten füllte. Die Gräueltaten der Besetzung erschütterten mich. Es ist erschreckend, wie viel Blut im Namen einer Ideologie vergossen wurde. Der Ost-West-Konflikt wurde auf dem Rücken der afghanischen Bevölkerung geführt; während die Rote Armee ins Land einmarschierte, versorgten die USA oppositionelle Mudschaheddin-Gruppen mit Waffen und schürten die Gewalt. Die Bezeichnung „Kalter Krieg“ ist ein verharmlosender, makabrer, schlechter Scherz.

 

„Agent 6“ erweitert den Fokus der „Leo Demidow“-Trilogie. Während sich die Vorgänger auf innenpolitische Strukturen konzentrierten, ist das Finale auf die Außenpolitik der UdSSR ausgerichtet. Tom Rob Smith zeigt die schmutzigen, blutigen Exzesse des Ost-West-Konflikts. Dieser propagandistisch geprägte Krieg kostete Millionen Menschen das Leben – nicht nur diejenigen, die in Kampfgebieten fielen, sondern auch diejenigen, die zwischen die Fronten der Geheimdienste gerieten. Menschen wie Leos Familie. Daher fand ich „Agent 6“ sowohl spannend als auch äußerst lehrreich, obwohl ich der Meinung bin, dass dieser dritte Band Leos tragische Geschichte beendet, ohne sie tatsächlich abzuschließen. Das Ende des Finales ist offen gestaltet, sodass die Leser_innen nie erfahren, wie es dem Protagonisten ergeht, nachdem die Handlung abbricht. Ich hoffe, dass er ein Happy End erleben durfte, sehe angesichts seiner Taten allerdings schwarz für ihn. Vielleicht verdient Leo das auch gar nicht. Er ist kein Held. Er ist ein Killer.

Source: wortmagieblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/12/tom-rob-smith-agent-6
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review 2016-08-09 22:46
Review: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe - Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Overall, this book left me with a meh feeling.

 

The history and social structure of Afghanistan from the time of King Shah through September 11, 2001 was very interesting and informative. I feel I gained an appreciation for what the Afghan people have gone through with the different regimes.

 

However, the author intended (as she wrote both in the introduction and epilogue) for the story to be uplifting and positive; there were, in the author's words, enough "victims of war stories" out there. I felt that there was points in the story where there was too much positivity and not enough reality. Kamila was depicted as a saint, a warrior, and business genius; she was never taken to task for the risky behaviors she took during the Taliban years that put her life and those of her family members in danger. Also, her parents and older brother just left Kabul when the Taliban rolled in and left her and her nine sisters to stay in the house and fend for themselves. The story was just too picture perfect to be believable; it seemed a bit of propaganda from the American side of the war.

 

3 stars.

 

 

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review 2016-07-30 18:12
Ashley's War by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield - Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

If I were rating the awesomeness of Ashley White and her comrades-in-arms, this book would get 5 stars. But what I’m rating is Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s work.

This book follows a team of female soldiers who are trained to accompany the (at the time) all-male Special Forces on missions in Afghanistan as “Cultural Support Teams,” to search and question women and children, which men cannot do without offering grave insult. The name of the team may sound fluffy but their work is anything but: they’re jumping out of helicopters in the dead of night, trekking miles in full gear and sometimes coming under fire in raids intended to capture insurgents. And because at the time this book is set, in 2011, combat positions were still officially closed to women, those who signed up were the best, brightest, and most eager for combat of all the women in the U.S. military. They are a tough and impressive bunch, to say the least, and 1st Lt. Ashley White especially so.

And this is a readable and compelling story, moving quickly and with lots of dialogue; I read most of it in one day. Oddly, more than half of the story follows the selection and training process, before the women even deploy (even though their training is abbreviated compared to the standard Special Forces training), but even so, after a first chapter that describes the high-level creation of the program in perhaps unnecessary detail, it makes for a gripping read. And it’s great to see the camaraderie that quickly develops among the women, the same sort of bonds that famously exist between men who fight together. Notably in a book about an unpopular war, the policy and morality of the war itself are never mentioned, but perhaps that's true to the soldiers' worldview.

Nevertheless, this isn’t the best book it could have been. Aside from Ashley, it struggles to distinguish the women from one another. It gives many backstories early on, before the women even meet; some are later relevant to the narrative and some aren’t. Although every one of these women is amazing and incredible compared to the average person, they’re quite similar to one another: they come from military families and families that promote independence and responsibility from a young age; they’re athletic and competitive and driven as girls to prove that they’re as tough and strong as the boys; they’re tough and intense and seeking action, and thrilled to join the CSTs. And while I appreciate, ideologically, that Lemmon is focused on their strengths and careers – it’s mentioned in passing that a couple of them are mothers, or on the verge of divorce, and then it never comes up again; in general only men get this treatment in literature, while women are defined by their personal lives no matter their professional accomplishments – the author doesn’t quite seem to grasp that characters must be distinguished from one another in some way. When hearkening back to someone profiled previously, Lemmon tends to give anodyne reminders such as “Sarah, the Guard soldier and track star from Nevada,” which doesn’t actually stand out at all in this group – I don’t remember which state, sport, and branch of the military goes with which character. It’s no surprise to me that, after Ashley, it’s the Afghan-American interpreter, Nadia, who is mentioned most often by readers: not because Nadia gets more page time than Ashley’s sisters-in-arms, but because she’s far different from the rest and therefore more memorable.

The other major issue is attribution. While the book contains a lot of dialogue and accounts of people’s thoughts and feelings, the author never tells us how she collected her information. Was she present for the training (perhaps explaining why the book spends so much time on it)? If so, bringing in a journalist at the program’s inception would tell us quite a bit about the military’s view of it. When she writes from the point-of-view of a soldier who didn’t make it, did she ever meet that person or is she extrapolating from what others remember her telling them? 

Whether the author ever met Ashley is a big deal. I assumed throughout that she had, given how much she writes about Ashley's inner life, but her acknowledgments to Ashley's family make it sound as if she didn't.

(spoiler show)

Unfortunately, not only is the author never clear about this, but there are no endnotes to reference her sources for facts. This leaves me wondering just how careful the background research was. At one point, amusingly, she asserts that the sewage pond behind Ashley’s camp is “roughly the size of Lake Michigan”; while that mistake is obvious (if true, the pond would occupy nearly 10% of Afghanistan’s land area), it made me wonder if there were other errors less evident to a civilian reader.

And finally, the story ends abruptly; given that a few years passed between the end of the soldiers’ deployment and its publication, it would have been nice to know what these women did next. Maybe one of them will write her own account in the years to come. Overall, I enjoyed the soldiers’ stories and expect they will be inspirational for many, but doubt I would read another book from Lemmon.

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review 2015-09-15 07:53
Some things change just to remain the same. For students of politics, international relations, history and those wishing to be better informed.
Mission Accomplished? - Simon Jenkins

Thanks to Net Galley and I.B. Tauris for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for a review.

Like most people I read articles about politics and current affairs, but in my case I rarely read whole books about it (at least not recently). But when I got the opportunity of reading this book for review I thought it couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

Simon Jenkins is an expert on the subject and this book compiles many of his previous articles over the last 15 years, with the vantage point of time and his current reflections on the topic. He is humble enough to recognise that sometimes not even the sharpest and best informed of analysts realises the ramifications of certain events. And trying to second guess what world leaders will do by using common sense and strategic knowledge will rarely work. Making good the adage that those who don’t remember their history are doomed to repeat it, he analyses the behaviour of both the US and the UK and their military interventions abroad, in light of previous history. Considering the crisis of refugees the subject is more than current, and many of the questions Jenkins asks (why have there been American and UK interventions in some countries and not others; what role plays the United Nations; what could justify a military intervention in another country, especially when it is not supported by legal arguments; is the war on terror a real war?) are as relevant, if not more, now.

There are no great revelations in this volume but the clarity of the arguments and the analysis of an expert that has first-hand knowledge (including visiting Iraq and Afghanistan at the time) give perspective and depth to the subject. Although there are more questions than answers (and you might not agree with the conclusions and the summary Jenkins offers) this volume adds to the debate on Western interventions and will be of interest to those studying recent international politics, history, and keen on getting better informed about this subject that will continue to be a matter of international debate.

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