Here's an idea: Take the publishing advances currently being offered to pop-memoirists for concepts like Subaru Dreams: The Year I Stopped Driving and Started Living, and spend 'em instead on sending would-be memoirists to write about living in war zones. That way—instead of learning once again that driving is bad and urban farming is rewarding—we might end up with a few memoirs that actually make the US a more informed place, instead of just a more self-satisfied one.
Of course, not just anyone is competent to write about world affairs in the concise, relatable way that Kim Barker does in The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Also, a few casualties are to be expected.) But still, doesn't that seem like a more worthwhile project than, say, Final Flush: Adventures in Toilet-Free Living?
Barker's new book about her experiences as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Pakistan shares certain elements with other modern memoirs. There's a bit of romantic angst, some occupational anxiety, some soul-searching over what it is that makes her feel really alive. But dramatically foregrounded are the conflicts she's covering as South Asian bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune: bungled American operations in Afghanistan; the shifting balance of power between the Afghan government, warlords, and the Taliban; corruption, protest, and political assassinations in Pakistan.
Barker speaks with authority about the events unfolding around her, but she introduces a personal element to these world affairs that makes the material feel accessible, engaging, and fresh—no small feat, when she's covering a war that's been going on for over a decade.
In 2003, she embeds with American soldiers in Afghanistan; they look like "unbeatable futuristic fighting machines... in the middle of a 15th-century dusty souk." The foreign community in Afghanistan is described as "Kabul High," with cliques, intrigues, and heavy partying reminiscent of nothing more than an American high school. And in Pakistan, she experiences first-hand the exuberance of lawyers' protests against President Pervez Musharraf, only to feel her optimism crushed by the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Maybe it's a newspaper writer's tic, but Barker prioritizes the movement of her story over its language—her narrative's just fine, her adventures and relationships compelling, but her jokes often fall a bit short. A typically clunky line: "Like a bad 1980s hair band, complete with long wild locks and black eyeliner, the Taliban had mounted a comeback this spring." These flourishes establish a perspective that's frank and irreverent, but stop just shy of funny. (Of course, the blackest humor is earned through experience—perhaps it's unfair to expect Barker to translate the humor of a war zone to a reading public who has only experienced Afghanistan from the safety of a pre-paywall New York Times.)
One of the book's throughlines focuses on the newspaper industry itself. War journalism is by definition an uncertain, dangerous gig, and as the internet's influence kneecapped print media, plummeting newspaper revenues and industry-wide layoffs only added to the instability of Barker's life. There's an irony to this, though, that works in Shuffle's favor: Barker gained her know-how and perspective while on the Chicago Tribune's dime, writing the stories expected of an old-media foreign correspondent, but her book works thanks to a distinctly new-media approach. Barker doesn't pretend she doesn't have a bias, and she doesn't pretend not to care about the people and situations she's writing about. The Taliban Shuffle represents a perfect balance of old media expertise and new media style.