This is part one of two (part two
to be published soon here) on a series on author Rajiv Chandrasekaran. This novel takes a critical look at the Green Zone, the base of civilian authority in Iraq. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was a transitional authority in Iraq following America's invasion of Iraq. Chandrasekaran doesn't truly bring politics into his writing (he doesn't take a side on whether the U.S. should or shouldn't have invaded Iraq), yet the nature of this non-fiction account is a look at the colossal failure of the civilian authority in Iraq. You can't help but sense his opinion on the mistakes they were making, one after the other. It is truly eye opening.
As the New York Times Book Review wrote, "The reality of Iraq is much more frightening than a bad acid trip, but the writing about this continuing fiasco has been cleareyed and sober, and all the more powerful for it." Chandrasekaran outlines the ineptitude and arrogance of those in charge, and the removed reality of life inside the Green Zone. The Green Zone was a total bubble, cut off from wartime realities, "where the task of reconstructing a devastated nation competed with the distractions of a Little America...Most Iraqis were barred from entering the Emerald City for fear they would blow it up." (X) Read an excerpt here to get a sense of how the book plays out; many short stories about the CPA, those who worked in it, Iraqis who tried to bring change, etc. Preluding every chapter or two is a scene of life in the Green Zone. One such scene, XI, tells the story of a young CPA staffer who typed up a joke on his computer about life in the Green Zone, sent it to a few of his friends, and by the end of the week every CPA staffer had scene it. The joke is: "Why did the Iraqi chicken cross the road?"with answers from the CPA, Halliburton (oil company), Shiite Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (extremely influential religious leader), U.S. Army Military Police, Peshmerga (armed Kurdish fighters), Al-Jazeera, CIA, and Translators. The joke-CPA response was: "The fact that the chicken crossed the road shows that decision-making authority has switched to the chicken in advance of the scheduled June 30th transition of power. From now on, the chicken is responsible for its own decisions." (282). Overall, the book gives you a clear picture of what went wrong in Iraq and lets you form your own opinions on what the United States should have done. Thanks to my dad for making me read this. Rating: ★★★★★
The story of a teenager named Elvis trying to make a life for himself outside the slum of Makoko in Lagos, Nigeria, GraceLand is a captivating (albeit choppy) story. Chris Abani is a Nigerian writer who was arrested in 1985 at the age of 18, "in connection with a politically dangerous novel" (x) that he wrote at 16. "The Nigerian government suggested that the plot of his first novel...had laid the blueprint for a political coup. He was held for six months, during which time he was beaten daily. In 1987 he was arrested again. This time he was sent to Kiri-Kiri, a maximum security prison in Lagos, where he was held for a year. During his incarceration he was tortured." (x) Torture comes up towards the end of GraceLand, forming some of the more vivid scenes of the novel. The account of torture is described so it fills all your senses, and it remains with you even after you finish the novel. Yet, as the NYT Book Review points out, "there's not enough room left afterward for the shock waves to dissipate -- it's hard to believe in Elvis's recovery, or the subsequent events." Elvis's story was interesting enough, but it was interspersed with excerpts from his mother's journal - of random recipes of Nigerian foods and tidbits of history about the Nigerian people which made the novel seem quite disjointed. Every other chapter was a flashback to Elvis's youth, which did get tiresome at times. Overall, the story of Elvis in Nigeria in 1983 was an interesting one - but it dragged out parts of the story that were uneventful and rushed the important parts. "This book works brilliantly in two ways. As a convincing and unpatronizing record of life in a poor Nigerian slum, and as a frighteningly honest insight into a world skewed by casual violence, it's wonderful. What it isn't, quite, is a successful novel." (x) I liked reading it, but I wouldn't put it on the top of my list of recommendations. However, it did open my eyes to the life of those in Lagos, one of the biggest slums in the world. It lead me to some interesting research on the subject. To me, that is a hallmark of a successful read, if it inspires my curiosity or makes me think about something I haven't spent time on before. I couldn't decide if this book was a 4★ or 3★, so Rating:★★★(★)