Category Archives: Humanities

Book Review: George W. Bush’s Decision Points

Three questions people kept asking me when I told them I was reading George W. Bush’s Decision Points:

– “Why?” My answer: I was eleven years old when Bush was elected, and he was our president through most of my teen years. I barely remember Clinton. Bush’s presidency ultimately shaped my political views, and it resulted in my fascination with learning more about the American political system.

– “I didn’t know he could write. Can he?” My answer: Well, technically, he can. He wrote a book. His technique is limited and it’s not profound by any measure, but it’s a book. I’d like to say, “It’s not like he was Harvard educated!” But he was. Not as a writer, though!

– “Is it any good?”  My answer: I didn’t hate it.

Bush’s Decision Points offsets much of the vitriol directed at him during his eight-year presidency. Rather than filling the 477 pages of his memoir with disparaging remarks about his critics in the media or the Democratic Party, he explains, sometimes humorously, the triumphs and failures of his decisions. He reflects upon his judgments, the media’s portrayal of him, and controversial topics. Though there are portions of the book that are defensive, he is highly self-critical and explains where he could have made better choices. Decision Points is, for the most part, chronological, but the focus of this memoir is chronicling how he dealt with expected and unanticipated events. He does this in fourteen chapters: Quitting; Running; Personnel; Stem Cells; Day of Fire; War Footing; Afghanistan; Iraq; Leading; Katrina; Lazarus Effect; Surge; Freedom Agenda; Financial Crisis.

For Bush critics, many of the chapters should be of interest. His chapters “Stem Cells”, “Katrina”, and “Financial Crisis” were particularly interesting. After reading such chapters, it is clear the president is held accountable for events out of his control. For example, in “Katrina” Bush explains that the 1988 Stafford Act places direct responsibility of natural disasters at the local and state levels. This requires the governor of any given state to request aid from the federal government, and in the case of Louisiana, the local officials did not make any request. With the inefficiency of the local government, Bush wanted to send federal troops to Louisiana, but another law, the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, prevented him. Ultimately, Bush deployed federal troops without law enforcement authority, but the delay in his action was greatly criticized.

Bush’s memoir does not serve as an apology for those seeking it. He does write, however, “I believe I got some of those decisions right, and I got some wrong” (476). For a presidency that some view as a “failure”, Bush tries to clarify his decisions surrounding the circumstances of events such as 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, and the financial meltdown.

Book Review: Robert Rand’s Tamerlane’s Children

“Uzbekistan.”

“Pakistan?”

“No, Uzbekistan. It doesn’t even border Pakistan.”

This interchange about Uzbekistan is not farfetched for people beyond Uzbekistan’s borders.  For the average Westerner, the “-stans” (Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) of the world are a complete mystery. After September 11, 2001, Americans were quite aware of Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent, Pakistan (because of its shared southern border), but most of the former Soviet countries are still unknown to Americans. There are, after all, countries that exist between Russia, China, India, and Europe! One such country is Uzbekistan. Home to Central Eurasia’s largest population (around 30 million), Uzbekistan has played a major role in the Global War on Terror. For that reason, among many others, it’s time to start picking up books on Uzbekistan, like Robert Rand’s Tamerlane’s Children: Dispatches from Contemporary Uzbekistan.

I was quite pleased to find Rand’s book immediately before taking off for my second trip to Uzbekistan. Tamerlane’s Children proves an entertaining read, especially during the two-day trek from Atlanta to Tashkent (via Amsterdam and Istanbul, thanks to Delta, KLM, and Turkish Airlines). Rand lived and worked in Uzbekistan for three years (2001-2004) as a freelance journalist. His text is divided into two parts: first, seven chapters about various subjects, which include 9/11, Amir Timur, love, and cotton; part two has “dispatches” (diary-like entries) and a chapter on Andijon. Each part of this book serves as an illustration of contemporary life in Uzbekistan. He concedes in the introduction that the book is not a comprehensive description of Uzbekistan, but aspects of daily life he found most interesting. For anyone who hasn’t traveled to Uzbekistan, Rand’s accounts make the country seem like an extremely frustrating and sometimes backward place, which is why it may be off-putting to some. His accounts are, however comical, sometimes harsh. That isn’t to say, though, that these maddening aspects of Uzbekistan are all encompassing. The country is fascinating, beautiful, and enchanting. After all, that’s why I keep returning!

There are a few shortcomings in Rand’s book. All of his personal accounts are from Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital. There is virtually no information about other major cities, like Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, or even Timur’s birthplace, Shahrisabz.  Contemporary life in Uzbekistan is not simply life in Tashkent! Additionally, Amir Timur (Tamerlane, or Timur the Lame), the “father” of Uzbekistan, is the namesake of this book. Rand mentions that he has taken poetic license in naming the book “Tamerlane’s Children”, since modern Uzbeks don’t descend from Amir Timur. Rand includes an insightful chapter on Islam Karimov’s decision to have Amir Timur as the national hero, but the overwhelming response from people Rand interviews is that they feel no connection to Amir Timur as a “father”.  Amir Timur, portrayed as a feudal villain in Soviet historiography, has replaced Soviet heroes, like Lenin and Marx.

The last sections of Rand’s book, however, absolve him of the text’s shortcomings. His interview with Craig Murray, Britain’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan is very revealing. The last chapter on Andijon is concise, and it explains much of the controversy surrounding the 2005 events. Most of all, Rand’s text is entertaining. For example, he writes in his entry for the 7 January 2002, “The police pulled over the car I was riding in today because, they said, I was wearing a seat belt. Nobody wears seat belts in Uzbekistan. The cops thought I had buckled up as a safety precaution because the driver had been drinking. Why else would someone buckle up?” (130). For a book about a country not many Americans are familiar with, Rand’s serves as a great introduction with its brief, succinct descriptions.

Book Review: Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) is a quick, light read for anyone bogged down with real-world problems. Rowling’s attempt at the mystery subgenre of Mayhem Parva introduces the readers to limited settings in London, eccentric yet oddly normal characters, and a “domestic mystery” in an alleged murder.

Rowling’s protagonists, Cormoran Strike and his temporary secretary, Robin Ellacott, repeat the trope of a disheveled detective and his quick-witted Girl Friday with a contemporary, fame-obsessed twist. Strike, a wounded former military officer is paired with Robin on the day a major case is brought to his private investigative office.  John Bristow approaches Strike to investigate his late sister’s murder. Bristow’s sister, Luna Landry, is a beautiful supermodel whose sudden death is believed by all to be suicide. Strike, initially convinced that Landry committed suicide, takes on the case, and thus ensues the mystery of the plot.

The novel is eerily reminiscent of stories from TMZ, the celebrity news website. Strike, whose own celebrity roots imparts the plot with the rejection of celebrity life, knows exactly the personalities of the rich, famous, and unhappy that he needs to investigate. He and Robin spend the majority of the plot interviewing Luna’s dysfunctional family members, high fashion insiders, and hip-hop royalty. For those interested, this novel lends itself quite nicely to literary analysis through gender and pop culture studies.

Though the novel’s climax is somewhat predictable, The Cuckoo’s Calling provides us with a new set of captivating characters that promise an amusing ride through the glitz and glamour of London’s upper class.