THE BROWSER: A quick look at recent releases

  • Updated: December 30, 2012 - 3:59 PM

LITTLE AMERICA by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, and THE ORPHAN MASTER by Jean Zimmerman

LITTLE AMERICA

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Alfred A. Knopf, 368 pages, $27)

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the crack Washington Post reporter who has covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, traces America's involvement in Afghanistan to a little-remembered U.S. aid project inaugurated in the 1950s -- abandoned in the '70s -- that was designed to transform the environs of Lashkar Gah, now the capital of war-torn Helmand Province, into a model of U.S. agricultural efficiency and community planning. It didn't work out that way.

In fact, the author argues, not much about the U.S. role in Afghanistan has worked out. "Little America" -- the title comes from an offhand remark by historian Arnold Toynbee -- would seem to be a primer on how not to run a counterinsurgency, a concept, moreover, that the author dismisses as an "ideology" foolishly embraced by the military.

The pressing issues of Afghanistan are addressed in depth and with equanimity. The surge of U.S. forces beginning in December 2009 Chandrasekaran found dismaying, arguing that President Obama "should have gone long, not deep." He should have "forced the Afghans to do more for themselves," allowing the Americans to pursue more "modest and sustainable" goals. Chandrasekaran argues his case with bountiful evidence. The problem is that the evidence itself is less than pristine, as the author readily admits, and the well-informed reader will find him- or herself debating the book's conclusions through several evenings of excellent reading.

MICHAEL J. BONAFIELD

NIGHT COPY EDITOR

THE ORPHAN MASTER

By Jean Zimmerman (Penguin, 418 pages, $29)

A serial killer is on the loose in the 17th-century Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, a gritty slice of what is now Lower Manhattan. Even after the alarm is raised, nobody has a clue who is making children disappear. Many of the victims are orphans, whose upbringing had been overseen by an unusual Dutch colonial official known as "The Orphanmaster."

One of his former charges is Blandine van Couvering, now a young woman trying to earn a living trading furs and other goods. She tries to solve the mystery with the help of a British spy and other allies, only to be accused herself. In her first novel, author Jean Zimmerman has turned out a first-rate historical mystery that also offers a glimpse into the raw beginnings of New York City.

DAVID SHAFFER, BUSINESS REPORTER

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