I have a much shorter commute since I moved from Chicago. This change has both merits and demerits. Obviously, all else being equal, it’s better to spend less time on a bus or subway, if you can help it. On the other hand, less time on the bus and/or subway also means less reading for fun. It’s taken me a while to get through the books listed below. Anyway, here are my thoughts on these books, arranged in alphabetical order of the authors.
Empires of the Indus: From Tibet to Pakistan, the story of a river by Alice Albinia
Really lovely read, this. Part political history, part travel diary, part long form essay, it’s just a beautifully rendered story about the Indus, its past, its future, the people who’ve relief on it for millenia, the civilizations it’s spawned, the wars its seen, how its drying up in Sindh, what China’s uber-development model means for it, and a gazillion other things I’m forgetting. I really enjoyed this. You should buy it and read it.
Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi by Steve Inskeep
Gotta say, I was a bit underwhelmed by this. Maybe it’s because I was so, so looking forward to it that it couldn’t match my expectations. After all, I’m always on the lookout for books and articles about Karachi, mainly because it so rarely receives serious, sustained treatment from academics or journalists.
My main critique of the book is that it doesn’t really dive into Karachi the way one might expect the author to. There are, broadly speaking, two ways one can provide a great deal of depth. One is by studying extensively the academic scholarship on a region or phenomenon, and then placing one particular subject in that context. The other is by spending lots and lots of time with locals, living and breathing their lives, and writing up ones impressions after that.
I thin Inskeep goes for the latter option but it’s just not as powerful a story as I would’ve hoped. For instance, it really pales in comparison to Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City on Mumbai, in which I felt Mehta really got to know the characters inside out which in turn allowed the reader to know the characters inside out. There’s a superficial feel to the whole thing.
The one area where Inskeep definitely deserves credit is explaining how Karachi developed as a geographical construct at the neighborhood level. That’s something you don’t really see out there. But I found most everything else about the book quite meh.
Football against the enemy by Simon Kuper
I’m generally very interested in how socio-political identities form and are mediated through existing institutional and social structures, so this book was right up my alley. It’s concerned with how football matters beyond the pitch, and how the sport interacts with identities and socio-political cleavages. Why does Barcelona mean what it does to Catalunya? Why is Rangers-Celtic such a serious rivalry? What role did football play in the unification of South Africa post-apartheid?
I liked this book for the most part, but there was something throughout it that kind of bothered me., Kuper takes as a given the existing explanations for why football matters to a certain populace, rather than problematizing it and being skeptical of what he’s told by locals. It’s just something that gnawed at me throughout. I would also add that the chapter on Argentina and how its military junta (mis)appropriated football to their ends is fair enough regarding the facts, but there’s something about the tone. Kuper is a Briton writing in the early 1990s, with (presumably) the memory of the Falklans war fresh in his mind, and it’s very clear that he adopts mainstream British attitudes toward Argentina and Argentine football.
Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark
Thrill a minute, this book. Before I say anything else, I’d like to commend the authors for meticulously tracing about forty years of records, statements, archives, letters, memos and god knows what else to put this together. It’s incredibly well-researched and kudos to the authors for that.
This book is not just about A.Q. Khan, though he obviously features prominently in it. One thing that caught me by surprise (amongst others) is the extent to which the Reagan administration did Pakistan’s bidding in the 1980s. I mean, I knew they looked the other way and stuff while we were producing nukes. I had no idea how that process actually played out, until I read this. You won’t believe some of the shenanigans those guys were up to: covering up CIA findings, picking fights with other agencies, putting the Pentagon and State at odds with other arms of the U.S. government, knowingly lying to Congress about Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities, destroying careers and lives…it’s all there. And it’s quite unbelievable.
There’s obviously a lot of information on the Pakistan side as well, so this is a very valuable resource for anyone doing research in the areas of nuclear proliferation, acquisition, and the nuclear balance in South Asia. One thing worth noting is how crazy and nutty and evil Generals Hamid Gul and Mirza Aslam Beg come across. They’re the type of characters only the Zaid Hamid types like at the best of times, but even against the baseline of low expectations, they come across really badly. Their antics from around the time Zia died/was killed to about halfway through Nawaz Sharif’s first term really have to be read to be fathomed.
Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven
This book caused a lot of angst amongst people I respect and admire in the Pakistan intelligentsia but I didn’t quite understand why. Is it too favorable to the military’s point of view? Yes, undoubtedly. It puts a halo around their head in a way that most liberal types probably don’t appreciate. But I do think the extent of his generosity to the khakis has been overstated; this certainly doesn’t read like a 500 page Ejaz Haider column, if that’s what your impression is.
I recall when it came out that someone (sorry, I forget who) made a really big deal about Lieven using “democracy” in quote marks to talk about Pakistan. Well, the reason is very clear, and Lieven sets it out in the first few pages of the book: democracy does not imply constitutionalism or liberalism, and so while Pakistan may be a procedural democracy, it has a ways to go to become anything resembling a rights-based constitutional state. That’s all the point of the quote marks was, as I understood it.
There’s plenty Lieven either gets wrong or doesn’t cover at all, but his central point — that patronage is the oil that greases the wheels of the Pakistani socio-political system, and that this is both a blessing and a curse — is well taken. I would also commend him for getting out of Islamabad and Lahore, walking the streets and talking to “ordinary” Pakistanis, which very few foreigners do when writing about Pakistan.
The overall point I would make is that this book is aimed at a very specific audience: the OSD or State Department Pakistan-Desk staffer or the New York Times op-ed writer who thinks Pakistan is on the verge of collapse any minute now. He is trying to disabuse them of that notion. And he does a fairly good job of it. If you don’t know Pakistan very well but would like to learn more, this book is a decent place to start because it covers a lot of bases. It doesn’t cover any one area very well but that’s to be expected of a book of this type.
Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President by Edward McClelland
This book’s narrative ends in 2004, so if you’re looking for any insight into Obama’s run-in to the presidency, you should look elsewhere. No, this book is about Obama’s time as an Illinois State Senator, and in particular his story in Chicago — from his time as a lawyer to community organizer to politician (one of the lessons of the book is those three professions, at least in the way Obama practiced them, are not so different as they first appear).
I really enjoyed this one. It gives you really valuable insight into one of the central questions about Obama as a politician, that is, the mismatch between his soaring rhetoric and his incrementalist style. I know it’s said that politicians “campaign in poetry and govern in prose” but Obama really takes that to the extreme, and this book gives some answers as to why. It traces his political development, and shows that throughout his life (at least until the presidency), Obama’s main challenge has been to convince middle-class, moderate voters that he is not a liberal elitist in love with himself and his fancy Harvard law degree. As a consequence, he extends a hand to his opponents to convince them of his good intentions, even when they are uninterested in compromise. Moreover, his accomplishments in the Illinois Senate, limited though they are, were as a result of his adhering strongly to his oft-cited “don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good” thing.
There’s a lot of lessons here for people who wish to understand Obama, the man and the politician. I’d recommend it pretty strongly if you’re at all interested in the subject matter.
Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Singh
Honestly, I don’t remember much about this book, given I read it about 4-5 months ago. One thing I do recall appreciating was that it was a lot less technical than (a) Singh’s other book I’ve read, The Codebook, and (b) what I expected. It’s mostly just the story of Fermat’s Last Theorem, which as Wikipedia will tell you, states
no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than two.
It goes into the ups and downs Andrew Wiles faced while proving the theorem, thought to be one of math’s toughest problems. Can’t say too much else about it, I’m afraid (though I have to say I was a teeny tiny bit disappointed that Wiles turned out to be a regular dude; I always like to imagine professional mathematicians as crazy guys with long hair who live with their mother and eat only cheese, kinda like this guy).