It’s the middle of October and my bookself doth overfloweth with far too many excellent recent releases which all seem to tie back into conflict. If you are looking for a non-fiction read this month, here’s are some recommendations; from a war-correspondent looking for work-life-romance balance in Kabul, to a woman who mobilised a nation for peace, to John Birmingham deciding to be very unpleasant to most of the planet. Enjoy.
The surreal one – The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker
If you’ve ever wondered what war reporters do to wind down in the evening and who the hell they find to date, this is the book for you. Kim Barker started as a new war reporter in Afghanistan in 2003, when the war there was a side story to Iraq and her pieces were constantly side-lined by other bigger, better, more glamorous wars. While she learnt over the next few years (very slowly, and occasionally through hilarious errors) to navigate Afghan culture and a world often without electricity the stories grew from a forgotten war to what would become the front line of the so-called war on terror.
While she was learning the ropes, Kim dined with warlords and war reporters, managed to self-sabotage every romantic interest she met, dealt with an amorous Pakistani former prime minister, and got far too tangled up in the complicated and neurotic love lives of other ex-pats. As the conflict gradually escalates, Kim chronicles the reality of a job that involves dealing with danger and deprivation on a daily basis and how you gradually became acclimatised and maybe even addicted to a life on the edge of conflict.
If you are looking for an in-depth political analysis of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this is not the book you are looking for. But if you’re interested in how war correspondents and peace-keepers work and, more importantly, live and love in a war-torn land, Taliban Shuffle is a fascinating, funny and often surreal look at the reality of life as interloper in a growing war zone.
The uplifting one – Mighty Be Their Powers by Leymah Gbowee.
This is not a traditional war story. It is about an army of women in white standing up when no one else would—unafraid, because the worst things imaginable had already happened to us…. You have not heard it before, because it is an African woman’s story, and our stories are rarely told.”
Leymah Gbowee wanted to be a doctor but when civil war erupted in Liberia, the conflict tore apart her life and dreams. Years of fighting destroyed her country and claimed the lives of relatives and friends. Gbowee survived the civil wars but became a young mother, trapped in an abusive relationship, without the resources to free or even sometimes feed herself.
Mighty Be Their Powers tells how she changed her own destiny and the destiny of her nation. An impoverished mother of 4, she trained as a trauma counsellor, working among girls and women raped by militiamen and those militiamen themselves. In 2003 she mobilised women from across Liberia’s highly-polarised ethnic and religious divides into a peaceful protest calling for an end to Liberia’s brutal 14-year civil war. Her book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War is both the story of those protests, which led to Gbowee being awarded a Nobel Peace laureate, and of her own struggles with the price that her activism demanded of her personal life and her family.
The not quite non-fiction one – Without Warning by John Birmingham
So my last recommendation is not non-fiction but an alternate history that blends reality with sci-fi to pretty much put the entire world in peril. John Birmingham is not, by his own admission, a very nice man when it comes to the world he builds for his characters or what happens to them once they are there.
“I do terrible things to characters. I try my best to build them up, give them lovable quirks, amusing back stories, make it so you just want to be their friends and know you’ll miss them when the last page is read. Then I shoot them in the throat, or crash the plane into the ground at 1000kmh, or break up their marriages, or … well, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but yeah.”
His most recent series opens in 2003, just before the Gulf War starts, with the disappearance of almost everyone in the USA. Birmingham was inspired to write it after hearing someone say the world would be a better place if the United States disappeared, and – while you can make up your own mind on that one – this page-turner presents a vivid and terrifying picture of one way events could unfold in the USA simply ceased to be.