- John le Carre, Our Game (1995) – Started in Youbou over New Year’s. On a longer trip I’ll generally pack a spy book just-in-case; a reliable place to go if nothing else is working. I’ve packed The Russia House to Youbou and back at least five times. In a sense it’s a tribute to the genre (‘in emergency: open book’) but also gives the books short shrift: is this pulp or literature? The Globe and Mail said about Our Kind of Traitor in 2010: “Let me be specific: I think Le Carre deserves the Nobel.” On the strength of Our Game I would disagree. All the long set-up pays off and such a perfect bleak end but it is also a prime example of an observation I once read that ‘Le Carre is excellent until a pretty woman wanders into one of his plots.’ He does not write women well, which only matters in a literary sense when he tries to, and the unfortunate crux of this story is a love triangle balanced on a woman who is never given space or voice – just a cipher for the protagonist’s angst. Set in England, then Moscow, then Chechnya.
- Peter Hopkirk, Like Hidden Fire: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire (1994) – The strange alliance between Germany and the Ottoman Empire to cripple India and therefore Britain during World War One. I have a pile of books about the Great Game and Central Asia and Our Game set the stage for the spring by ending in Chechnya, 1995. This is not analytical history – my quick review from January: “History that reads like a thriller” it says on the back and that is accurate – it is a blow-by-blow account of what happened and then what happened next. Lacks analysis or context. Not thoughtful but a very fun yarn. Worth reading if you are into this bit of history but not very illuminating about the world we live in or life in general.”
- Peter Balakian, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (2003) – Working through the late Ottoman world. This reads as a book about the Armenian Genocide that was send back by an editor for an American spin. Which is not a condemnation; the American philanthropic response is a fascinating case study but it reads as a postscript to the main story. This summer we walked past a commemoration of the Armenian Genocide at the Vancouver Art Gallery and there were Turks on the fringes of the crowd, holding flags and handing out slips of paper with the ‘truth.’ This is not history – this is the world, today.
- Rob Ferguson, The Devil and the Disappearing Sea: Or, How I Tried to Stop the World’s Worst Ecological Catastrophe (2003) – I finished this in Vancouver, staying at my friend Amanda’s house to volunteer in a Coquitlam by-election. The Aral Sea is nearly gone now; a sad and real coda to these bleakly comic efforts to save it 15 years ago.
Tom Bissell, Chasing the Sea: Lost among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia (2003) – Not as good as the last book, largely due to the narrators. I’m used to reading half-accounts of the Great Game in modern books but this was one of the poorest. There’s a lot I really enjoyed about this – the detail and the travel and the setting – but became fed up with the author, largely on account of his previous Peace Corps trip to Uzbekistan which I felt was a dubious underpinning for the story and frustratingly unexamined. But what a remarkable part of the world! I finished this when I was back in Vancouver for the Coquitlam by-election; I spent all day in a zone house on Westwood Plateau before watching the advance count in a Coquitlam Centre office.
- Lutz Kleveman, The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia (2003) – The Great Game never ended. I bought this in October 2009 at Left Bank Books in Seattle. I tuned into this part of the world when I took a 200-level international relations course at SFU and chose Kazakhstan as my subject. This is an excellent if brief survey of the region at the turn of the century, told country-by-country.
- Artyom Borovik, The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist’s Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan (1990) – I started Ghost Wars and put it aside quickly to read this again. Phenomenal account of the Soviets in Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s. “Afghanistan isn’t a country. And half a year has gone by since it’s been a war. For those who were there, Afghanistan is more like a prayer.” I read this first in spring 2011.
- Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004) – “And they all lived happily ever after” ; well, no. The model for Al Qaeda was the Soviet war in Afghanistan: drag the imperial power into a guerrilla war it can’t win and bleed it of money and soldiers over a long morale-crushing grind in a desert it does not understand. And due to the decision to invade Iraq – given public legitimacy by 9/11 – that is exactly what developed for the US. This is written in hindsight – we all know the end and very few players lived happily, if they lived at all – but the context is well drawn. A terrific book and well worth the scale.
- Linda Svendsen, Sussex Drive (2012) – ‘Laureen Harper fan fiction’ I read this billed as – yes! It is exactly that. Robin read this and did not like it so I read it next, as a break but still connected – this Canada is at ‘war’ in Afghanistan albeit led by PM ‘Greg’ and wife ‘Becky’ who hangs out with a faux-Michaëlle Jean as GG.
- Shawn Colvin, Diamond in the Rough (2012) – A further day-long break from Afghanistan to read Shawn Colvin’s memoir. The secret history of some of my very favourite records in 1995-96.
- Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang, The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar (2007) – I read this in 2011 after I read The Hidden War for the first time, and wrote about them both obliquely at the time. It’s all awful but most frustrating are the details about the defence department’s panic over the US. Repeatedly, the military bureaucracy warns the government that anything but total acquiescence to the Americans’ presumed plans will result in diplomatic disaster and repeatedly, the Americans reply, when queried, that they don’t care very much at all what Canada does or doesn’t do. The end result is a long and vague non-war ‘mission’ in Afghanistan to make up for the supposedly-major snub over Iraq; Canada playing sidekick to a new Great Game for a new empire.
- Kevin Patterson and Jane Warren, Outside the Line: The War in Afghanistan in the Words of its Participants (2007) – What I wrote about Canada and Afghanistan in 2011 is more apt for this book – “soldiers holding flags before puck drop at the Saddledome; Don Cherry saluting the dead each Saturday night on Coach’s Corner; a Tim Horton’s outlet opening on the base; the Stanley Cup in Kandahar. Our Prime Minister: Commander in Chief; Hockey Fan.” Nearly a decade later, this set of personal narrative from Canadians in Afghanistan – both soldiers and civilians – magnifies and clarifies the ridiculous waste of it all. Looking back, the patriotism of the era is nothing but reprehensible, for which I blame both Paul Martin’s faux-Bono humanitarian banalities and Stephen Harper’s wretched hockey-in-the-desert mythmaking.
- Tom McCarthy, Remainder (2005) – I read this in Vancouver during the BCTF AGM, while eating ramen on Denman, listening to the Blue Nile on headphones, walking west down the side streets from Burrard. I didn’t entirely like it at the time but it stuck with me and that is a good novel: weight and meaning. My friend Brenton promised me pages of notes from his reading of the same but he has not delivered. Looking back now I like it more and more. The odd sort of novel that reappears and haunts.
- Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: The US and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (2009) – There it is in the title – ‘disaster.’ The first and only book from Asia I read this spring; the only non-Imperial perspective aside from Peter Balakian on my reading list.
- Fred Wah, Diamond Grill (1996) – I read this in Youbou after finishing Descent into Chaos; when I retreat to the woods, I read about BC. I have a terrible habit of buying terrific books and leaving them to sit on the shelf for years. I bought this at PulpFiction in 2010 and I should have read it right away, and again, several times, since. The point is to read but also to remember; the book as context for life, day-to-day. This is a foundational text for the province.
- Renee Sarojini Saklikar, Children of Air India (2013) – As is this, written by my friend Renee in 2013. I read it again, better, in Youbou, this year, and will read it again, in Youbou.
- Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation (2014) – And this too, small books in Youbou. More prose poem than novel, a small and sad story that I read in one evening straight through.
Alan Furst, Blood of Victory (2002) – I bought this in 2007 on the recommendation of an SFU administrator and tried and failed to read it in July 2008 judging by the baseball ticket stub tucked inside. I picked this up and looked at it over and over until I finally bought Night Soldiers and read that right away at the end of 2010 and since then I have read one of his novels – sequentially – every year. The plots stand alone but the atmosphere builds. Blood of Victory was the wrong place to start but it works as book no. seven.
- Michael Hastings, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan (2012) – What a wretched mess. The war evolves and lands in the lap of a new president who was elected essentially on his opposition to the whole adventure in the first place.
- Jessica Hopper, Then First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (2015) – Mostly great essays about rock music.
- Don DeLillo, The Names (1982) – My favourite novel; one I have read five times since 2004 and twice in 2007. Which makes it interesting that I would be hard pressed to remember the ending or explain what plot there is. Which is why I can read and enjoy it over and over – I’m still learning it.
- Graeme Smith, The Dogs are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan (2013) – And what is Canada left with? What was the point? This was written over trips to Afghanistan from 2005-2011 and those questions become less clear with every chapter.
- Benjamin Black, The Silver Swan (2008) – I tried to read one more Afghanistan book, What We Talk About When We Talk About War by Noah Richler, to finish the month but put it aside and may yet throw it out the window. The first 35 pages are ponderous and boring enough until he asserts Canada’s innocent and virtuous history, presumably in counterpoint to its armed entry into Afghanistan and its new identity as a ‘warrior nation.’ I’m just as skeptical about the Afghanistan mission but I don’t think the country’s prior absence from similar battlefields was due to any innate goodness but rather circumstance. Nothing innocent or virtuous about this country and if that is your basic premise, I won’t read your book. Instead I wasted the end of the month with a John Banville Irish mystery.