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The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan Paperback – March 6, 2012
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Kim Barker was The Chicago Tribune's South Asia Bureau Chief from 2004 to 2009, much of which she spent living in and reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban Shuffle comprises her recollections of these years, but make no mistake: this is not your parents' war correspondent's memoir. In fact, to hear this charismatic debut author tell of life in war-torn Kabul during these years, you'd think it was a more-or-less non-stop party. Journalism is famously known as a business for which "if it bleeds, it leads," and with a fresh war raging in Iraq, Barker initially faced long stretches of relative quiet. As a result, an absurd, often promiscuous subculture grew up among her fellow reporters. (Think M*A*S*H with a dash of Catch-22.) Of course, it wasn't all fun, games, and the occasional heavy petting. Barker's reporting eventually brings her into contact with warlords, fundamentalists, and drug kingpins, and she does get blood on her hands (quite literally). As the action heats up and the Taliban begins slowly to regroup, she finds herself reporting on and fending off a host of unsavory types, from anonymous gropers in crowded streets to former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who woos her shamelessly, breaking all manner of internationally recognized rules of professional decorum. After five years of these "Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan," Barker finally returns to the States with a one-of-a-kind memoir, a true story that's rife with both black humor and brutal honesty about the absurdities of war. --Jason Kirk
War correspondent Barker first started reporting from Afghanistan in 2003, when the war there was lazy and insignificant. She was just learning to navigate Afghan culture, one caught between warring factions, and struggling to get space in her newspaper, the Chicago Tribune. Lulled into complacency, everyone from the U.S. military to the Afghan diplomatic corps to the Pakistani government stumbled as the Taliban regrouped. Very frank and honest, Barker admits a host of mistakes, including gross cultural ignorance that often put her in danger even as she found Afghanistan similar in some ways to Montana, her home state, what with �bearded men in pickup trucks stocked with guns and hate for the government.� She reports a string of characters: an amorous Pakistani former prime minister, a flashy Afghan American diplomat, an assortment of warlords, drug lords, fundamentalists, politicians, and fellow correspondents struck by wanderlust and plagued by messy personal lives�all of them against a backdrop of declining war coverage in declining American newspapers. A personal, insightful look at covering an ambivalent war in a complicated region. --Vanessa Bush
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Many, like me, probably will pick this book up after watching the movie Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot with Tina Fey. From that perspective I was both disappointed AND rewarded. If you've read other non-fiction accounts in the many political and military hotspots around the world, then you will most likely enjoy what is recounted here. If on the other hand 99% of what you read is fiction and you generally like to keep it light, I doubt this book will be your thing. I fall firmly into the former category and love books by journalists who are willing to go right to the edge in order to make sure the world doesn't ignore what's important. I believe Kim Barker did her best to be one of these journalists, but sadly wasn't taken as seriously (because of being a woman) both on the ground and back home where journalism of this kind was drying up.
COMPARISONS: The movie is much more linear and the scripting/story arc greatly tightened up. Plus it's funnier. On the other hand this book is so much more interesting and three dimensional than the movie, which in reality takes only about 1/3 of the book as it's source material. It also puts much more emphasis on the romantic and sexual relationships of the author, which in the book hardly happen at all. The movie almost makes these as primary plot movers, and it's obvious that they were all little more than tangential to Ms. Barker in her real life.
Towards the end of the book she basically admits that writing the book was as much a form of PTSD self-therapy as anything else. That doesn't invalidate the writing at all, but it does point out that it's not the sort of book that has a "story" or over-arching theme to follow. It's just like a lot of life and meaning isn't always easy to wring out of it. In that light, the book is definitely uneven at times, and rambles all around. But it is also honest and insightful, and an important voice against the apathy and dumbing down of US foreign journalism. It's partly an indictment against the lazy and often deadly approach the US takes to its foreign policy, though this judgment is not partisan, nor does it let the countries in question off the hook. It's because she ends up loving Afghanistan that she becomes so disillusioned by it's leaders and competing factions.
The likeness of the author's attempts at finding her way through life and the attempts of this nation's trying to do much the same is striking.
Have either succeeded?