Saturday, October 20, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Casual Vacancy

Published in Daily Times / 20 Oct 2012

Author: J.K Rowling
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Published under the Title: What Happens in Pagford

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Someone drops dead in a golf club. A malicious rumour mill kicks into action. A silent war brews somewhere in the Council.

And because this is not a whodunit doling out cocktails of conspiracy at the door, there will be no big reveal at the end. J.K. Rowling’s latest book — ‘The Casual Vacancy’, uses the demise of one Barry Fairbrother to pry into the soul of a quaint looking town called Pagford.

The battling citizens loom in view, caught in a stormy sea of addiction, abject poverty, class divide, domestic abuse, molestation, moral deviance, apathy and social injustice. Fans still under the spell woven by heroic wizards and witches might be ill prepared for the culture shock that awaits them beyond the gates. The reigning queen of fantasy returns to the world of fiction tilling an arid field for inspiration. Her new stomping grounds are more familiar, if less idyllic.

Racial slurs are hurled back and forth. Relationships crumble. And biases run deep.

The story maintains a steady pace jogging by the morose scenery taking its three-act circus along with it through the dark and twisted tunnel but without the proverbial ‘light at the end’. Prejudices are not just limited to the Sikh family found at the receiving end of the ‘Paki’ slur. They also extend to Fields residents caught in a crass spider web of crime and passion. To one resident ‘Pagford shone with a moral radiance’; and the estate of Fields ‘was nothing more than a physical manifestation of ignorance and indolence.’ Both sides of the picture get screen time. These excursions probe the depth of human emotion and the frail bonds that bind them together in a joint inferno of misery.

Those waiting with bated breath for the harsh lighting to dissolve into something softer, less intrusive are carried aloft built-in tragic currents of adolescent angst and mediocre minds. Barry as member of the Parish Council and a champion of underdogs serves as true North for the not so thriving community. His untimely exit resets the course taken by the Parish of Pagford already on the warpath with the city of Yarvil.

The void left by his demise opens up a position and a chance to pawn off Fields, an unwanted settlement, home to young Krystal Weedon with a junkie mother in tow. Standing in the midst of all this are rattled residents haunted by the very slanderous ‘Ghost of Barry Fairbrother’, a modern day menace safely ensconced in cyberspace that puts their political ambitions in jeopardy. Being with these characters is exhausting. One walks away with relief instead of the usual regret. This morbid portrait balances its multi-story arc on a sound platform from where it can stun society and create a stir.

The central storyline is devoted to the spectacle surrounding the election. Rowling delivers blistering attacks on society before circling back to the island of crushed dreams. The outlines might give off an exciting aura but the Pagford chronicles come in just one colour: a dank shade of grey. It takes a while for the events to fall into focus. Eventually these interconnected pathways loop around to form a coherent pattern. Those familiar with Rowling’s previous work will need to readjust their expectations. Her latest creation draws upon gallows humour; its glossy surface marred by the vileness that sears deep into consciousness. Having lived on benefits (welfare) for a while, she can claim to have some insight into the abyss.

Rowling’s transition to the world of adult fiction may seem effortless. Here all the unpleasantness hinted at in her fantasy world is magnified. None of the enchantment is. Every now and then, however sporadic gleams of brilliance emanating from within serve as reminders of the genius at work.

Despite its solid debut on the bestseller chart, the reviews have been mixed. Her first adult novel is an expose that hits all the difficult notes; from the mean spirited, unbecoming contours of the provincial life to the deep fissures caused by political and racial divide. It can be stashed at the back in the R-rated aisle because of its unflinching portrayals, explicit content and refusal to switch reality with sugar-coated alternates. While the author is to be commended for daring to experiment with such a drab colour palette, venturing out into this chamber of horrors requires nerves of steel. Mercifully, Rowling’s next book will be for children.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: No Easy Day : The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden

First Published by Daily Times / Oct 06, 2012

Authors: Mark Owen & Kevin Maurer
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Published under the Title: Signed, SEAL(ed) and Delivered



The men who paid Pakistan a hurried visit in the dead of the night typically do not leave calling cards. Or talk shop with strangers. And they are expected to shun the limelight. One broke the commandment recently. As a member of the SEAL Team 6 — Naval Special Warfare Development Group or DEVGRU, Mark Owen (not his real name) had been in the downed ‘helo’ (helicopter) — the one Pakistanis discovered lying in their backyard.

His book provides a valuable timeline of events leading up to ‘Operation Neptune Spear’ in Abbottabad (or ‘Abababa’ as they insist on calling it), cutting through the official haze. With 13 consecutive combat deployments to his credit, the author paints a group portrait of America’s finest that had been handpicked for the job in an attempt to overturn the media-created hype. He calmly reasons, “If my commander-in-chief is willing to talk then I feel comfortable doing the same.”

The story is told in short bursts, as if Mark had already imagined the film version. The split screen narrative that draws upon his personal experiences spreads out the tension. Details of the audacious raid are kept for the finale. Names have been changed and particulars of ongoing missions scrubbed. The author claims to have taken care to protect the TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures) used, adding that this is not the book for anyone looking for secrets.

The Department of Defence (DOD) disagrees.

Their insistence that the book “contains classified and sensitive unclassified information” (whatever that means) and the subsequent gag order on employees probably spurred the sales and sent interest soaring.

'No Easy Day' is the most anticipated book of the year even if it does not get high marks in the editing department. A typical day in the life of a SEAL is rendered in high definition. Readers waiting with bated breath for the scene to shift from the training grounds to the Abbottabad compound come upon scenes that underscore an ordinary life hard-wired to a high-octane drama.

When they are not hunting down terrorists or doing rock-drills, the SEALS are knee-deep in red tape. Mark is frustrated with a changing system that works against them and for the enemy. He grumbles at the “pages of Power-point” that it now takes to get a mission approved. About enemy tactics and its evolving nature, he observes how their foe started hiding the weapons, “knowing we couldn’t shoot them if they weren’t armed”.

A little further down however, he admits that the terrorist mastermind, despite being forewarned, was taken down unarmed in the end. There was no final stand. Owen attributes this to a lack of conviction on bin Laden’s part. Since this was sold as a “kill or capture” mission in the briefing, his version of events come under heavy scrutiny. Mark’s story will make it clear they had no choice. The author of Black Hawk Down challenges these assertions in his new book due out soon. One news source reveals that Obama had plans of putting the al Qaeda leader on trial had he surrendered and that the SEALS did have a choice.

The team along with ‘Cairo’ — the trusty combat assault dog — marched away from the resultant controversies with a Presidential Unit Citation. Despite all the plaudits heaped upon them, the author is no fan of the administration. In the CBS interview, Owen admits that the SEAL team refused to tell President Obama who took the kill shot. In the book, he shrugs off the title of ‘Chosen Ones’. “We were available to conduct the needed rehearsals to sell the option to the decision makers at the White House...it came down to being at the right place at the right time.” He uses the stage for a serious examination of the constricting environment and a beautifully flawed bureaucratic setup.

It is an orderly march to the grand finale that creates a context for the events of May 2011. It will not tell readers why they got away scot-free, just that they did. It will tell them how close they came to blowing the mission or the compound for that matter. Their resident EOD tech was prepped to blow up bin Laden’s so-called mansion instead of their crashed helo. While the contingency plans handed to them drew snickers from the SEALS, knowing that they did not have a clean getaway will raise quite a few Pakistani eyebrows. The visiting SEALS made a small pit stop to refuel while the Pakistani F-16s were on the hunt.

Owen does not stray far from the script but a certain CIA analyst with her 100 percent certainty is given special attention. Any Pakistani involvement in connecting the trail of breadcrumbs leading to bin Laden is tossed away. A nation being raised on a steady diet of drone attacks might amuse itself with the knowledge that the Defence Secretary favoured air strikes to avoid “violating the sovereignty”.

'No Easy Day', despite the self-imposed censorship clause, provides plenty of edge-of-the-seat moments, oh-no-they-didn’t situations and at least one spoiler that might violate the DOD’s ‘classified’ clause. The team’s ability to tag enemy fighters because of the Taliban’s fondness for a certain type of footwear perhaps should not be advertised. The enemy can read after all; blowing up girls schools is just a side business. Owen also mentions ‘Ali’, the Pashtun-speaking CIA interpreter. One speaks Pashto and is a Pashtun and not the other way around.

The author who has since left the service appeared heavily disguised on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Despite all these precautions, his identity was revealed. We now know him as Matt Bissonnette. SEAL Team 6’s job description was typically ‘hostage rescue, infiltrating enemy countries, ships, naval bases and oil rigs’ and eventually counter-proliferation of WMDs. Ever since the hunt for bin Laden ended in that infamous compound, the team’s crowning achievement has apparently doubled as a campaign slogan for the administration.


Earlier this year the site was razed to the ground. But the dust has yet to settle from Abbottabad-gate. This gripping first person account serves up the saga of the SEALs with the requisite fireworks minus the pageantry. It still works.

Images Courtesy of:
http://i.i.com.com/cnwk.1d/i/tim/2012/09/04/en_0904_pelley_480x360.jpg

http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2011/5/4/1304502818707/US-navy-Seals-on-a-night--007.jpg

http://timenewsfeed.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/rtr2lzq1_comp.jpg?w=455&h=341&crop=1

http://www.boston.com/partners/greader/prfmkt/images/27pakistan_photo.jpg