Reader’s Corner: Afghanistan Book Business Booms

Only two out of five Afghans can read. But those who can are snapping up as many books as they can. In a country where foreign aid budgets and cheap imports have destroyed many local businesses, publishing is flourishing. Kabul alone has at least 60 bookstores and close to two dozen publishers (up from a mere two during the Taliban years).

Per the Times recent dispatch from the frontlines of Afghan bookselling:

In a turbulent, troubled society, curling up with a book has become the best tonic around.

“I think in any environment, but perhaps especially places at war, book reading creates a pause from day-to-day life and isolates a reader from their surroundings while they’re buried in a book,” said Jamshid Hashimi, who runs an online library and is a co-founder of the Book Club of Afghanistan. “This is powerful anywhere, but in a place like Afghanistan, it can be a means of emotional survival.”

Interestingly, many recent bestsellers have been Afghan translations of books by Westerners about Afghanistan, such as Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars and The Envoy, Zalmay Khalizad’s memoir about serving as American ambassador in Kabul.

Screening Room: ‘War Machine’

One of the biggest feature film plays yet attempted by Netflix, War Machine is an Afghanistan War satire based in part on Michael Hastings’ nonfiction book The Operators. Brad Pitt (who also produced) plays a hard-charging general loosely based on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, though reportedly his character was eventually fictionalized to avoid legal hassles.

War Machine debuts this week on Netflix and in select theaters. My review is at PopMatters:

Things kick off in 2009, when McMahon, aka “The Glenimal”, charges into Kabul like George S. Patton’s less patient twin. Surrounded by a platoon of intensely loyal hangers-on, McMahon is looking to repeat the success he had decimating insurgent networks in Iraq. A cannier movie would have stood back a bit and allowed the audience to get sucked in by the presence of McMahon’s West Point, Ranger school, Yale graduate, warrior with a degree, armored carapace of confidence before making apparent his pride-blinded cluelessness…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Books: ‘The Way of the Knife’

Predator drone operators at Balad Air Force Base in Iraq, 2007
Predator drone operators at Balad Air Force Base in Iraq, 2007

Suddenly, about midway through the twelfth year of the post-9/11 conflicts, America decided to have a conversation about drones and the forever war. Books and op-eds were written, opinions voiced. Then all that was forgotten.

book-wayofknife-mazzetti-cvr-200In April, though, Pulitzer Prize-winner Mark Mazzetti delivered The Way of the Knife, a precise little guidebook to all the secretive ways that America has been waging war without borders or oversight just about anywhere in the world we darn well please.

My full review is at PopMatters; here’s part:

When people of the future look back on America’s first wars of the 21st century, they will study the flash-bang invasions and slow-death occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq in the decade-and-a-half following 9/11. Lessons to be learned are many and complex, though occasionally quite simple. Don’t invade countries without an exit strategy, for example. Avoid using vengeful locals or untrained and unsupervised National Guardsmen to run prisons; that would be another. Train at least a few guys to speak something besides English—preferably the langue of the country they’re occupying.

It’s less clear what lessons will be gleaned from America’s third undeclared and so-far nameless war; since we’re still right in the middle of it…

You can buy The Way of the Knife anywhere. Here’s an excerpt.

New on DVD: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty

zerodarkthirtydvdBetween the various Navy SEAL books and films flooding the market, Mark Bowden’s riveting The Finish, and the all the video games crafted around Special Ops strike teams, you’d think commando fatigue would be setting in. That wasn’t the case with Zero Dark Thirty, which comes out on DVD and Blu-ray today.

My full review is at Film Journal International:

Zero Dark Thirty (military jargon for a half-hour after midnight) is an epic take on the Central Intelligence Agency’s hunt for the 9/11 mastermind. Working on a dusty Afghanistan forward operating base, Maya (Jessica Chastain) then shifts to analyzing the intelligence from the American embassy in Islamabad… As the casualties mount and the years tick by, the shell-shocked Maya’s worldview narrows down to a millimeter-wide slit that recognizes only her quarry. The film recounts the agonizingly particular step-by-step analysis of baffling and contradictory information. It just as convincingly relays the sickening sense of urgency in the hunt, a fear that after all the bombings and rhetoric and fear and war, their quarry may simply get away. “We are failing… Bring me people to kill,” seethes Maya’s CIA superior…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

zero-dark-thirty1Between the various Navy SEAL books and films flooding the market, Mark Bowden’s riveting The Finish, and the all the video games crafted around Special Ops strike teams, you’d think commando fatigue would be setting in. Hopefully that won’t be the case once Zero Dark Thirty hits theaters:

Zero Dark Thirty (military jargon for a half-hour after midnight) is an epic take on the Central Intelligence Agency’s hunt for the 9/11 mastermind. Working on a dusty Afghanistan forward operating base, Maya (Jessica Chastain) then shifts to analyzing the intelligence from the American embassy in Islamabad… As the casualties mount and the years tick by, the shell-shocked Maya’s worldview narrows down to a millimeter-wide slit that recognizes only her quarry. The film recounts the agonizingly particular step-by-step analysis of baffling and contradictory information. It just as convincingly relays the sickening sense of urgency in the hunt, a fear that after all the bombings and rhetoric and fear and war, their quarry may simply get away. “We are failing… Bring me people to kill,” seethes Maya’s CIA superior…

Zero Dark Thirty opens in limited release on Wednesday, expanding wider over the several weeks to follow. It’s already been racking up awards from critics’ groups and attracting controversy over its depiction of CIA torture of prisoners; watch for it when the Oscars are announced.

My full review is at Film Journal International.

You can see the trailer here: