A Lot of Good Books Published in 2013 Kept Me Awake at Night

by Chris Barsanti

17 January 2014


In This Minute but Majestic Corner of the World...

Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present by Max Boot

Max Boot’s byline is generally seen in conservative journals where he’s decrying this or that liberal position on foreign policy. Fortunately, he brings little of that editorializing to one of the greatest works of popular military history to hit shelves in the past few years. With a learned but broadly approachable take that calls to mind Niall Ferguson, Boot has produced a volume that’s both magisterial in reach and compulsively readable in execution.

Starting with the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 AD and culminating with the brushfire conflicts of today, Boot shows how time and again the same lessons for how conventional forces should fight guerrillas were learned and forgotten and rediscovered as though they’d never been thought of before. Each chapter, whether on the French Algerian campaign or the Irish uprising in the early 20th century, could stand alone as a superb thumbnail history of that war. It’s a fast and furious read, knocked out with the casual erudition of a scholar who has lost the need to show off what he’s learned.


Julio’s Day by Gilbert Hernandez

Gilbert Hernandez is usually the less flashy of the Love and Rockets brothers; Jamie’s punk-rocker love stories always by definition had a little more zip to them. But in this elegant, standalone graphic novel, Gilbert provides proof that he is every bit the artist that Jamie is, with possibly even more staying power. Here he tells the story of one Mexican-American man in the Southwest over the course of a century: 100 years in 100 pages. Julio’s story—parts of which were previously published in the Palomar series—is a tragicomic one, ranging from heartbreak to terror. It’s at once overwhelming and precise, a magical-realist fable unlike just about anything else seen this year.


The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

In this quietly shattering story, Jhumpa Lahiri manages the deft trick of standing definitively outside her characters while sketching their lives with uncommon intimacy. Subhash is the quiet older brother to charismatic Udayan, both raised by a relatively well-to-do family just outside Calcutta. While Subhash establishes a white-collar life in America, Udayan embeds himself in the fiery rhetoric of the Marxist Naxalite movement. The story that follows is circles of small tragedies and quiet epiphanies that both embrace the past and try to flee it. Lahiri’s voice is cool and exacting, like that of her professorial characters like Subhash, who finds refuge in detached New England isolation: “It was here, in this minute but majestic corner of the world, that he could breathe.”


The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

“It was the kind of cloudy night,” Neil Gaiman writes in this dream-dagger of a novella, “where the clouds seem to gather up light from distant streetlights and houses below, and throw it back at the earth.” So too Gaiman bundles up the sad moments and peculiar joys of childhood into a fabulistic tale that stirs memories readers have never had. A middle-aged man suddenly remembers an incident from his youth when a man committed suicide nearby and grisly hauntings followed. Unlike many stories of children facing the fell spirits of the beyond, though, this is less about his courage than that of Lettie Hempstock, the young girl from the curious household of hippie-like women down the way who turns out to be much more than she seems. It’s a graceful love story, a slim memory epic, and a heart-pounding adventure to nightmare places no child ever wants to go, yet firmly believes exists.


The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer

Although George Packer took his sweet time to write another book—his last was 2005’s excoriation of the American invasion of Iraq, The Assassin’s Gate—it was worth the wait. A sprawling, elegiac, John Dos Passos-inspired oral history of American decline, Packer’s book tells his story via the stories of people stuck in the morass of modern America, ranging from a poor Florida family barely getting by to an Ohio factory worker to a southern entrepreneur and a Washington lobbyist. Each of them are located at different intersections in what he calls “the unwinding” of the civic structures (unions, churches, regulatory bodies) that helped level out the inequalities of a capitalist system. What Packer finds is a society left increasingly at the mercy of organized money (what he calls the “default force in American life”) and the snake-oil balms of celebrities and demagogues. It sounds grim but this is a righteously powerful book, brimming over with the sounds and textures of life in extremis.


The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti

American troops have pulled out of Iraq and look ready to (mostly) depart from Afghanistan. But those big conflicts are just a part of the worldwide war that the country has been fighting since 9/11 and, according to Mark Mazzetti’s prescient book, it looks likely to keep fighting for the foreseeable future. Thankfully more reporter than polemicist, Mazzetti avoids the tendency of writers like Jeremy Scahill (whose Dirty Wars film and book covered the same subject at greater length but with much less insight) to hyperbolize on already discomfiting subjects. His swift chronology of drone campaigns and guerrilla conflicts in remote corners of Afghanistan and Yemen is tied with a capsule history of the sea change in American military strategy that followed 9/11. Although Baghdad would still fall to a massive ground assault, more and more the country would chase its hidden enemies by “using killer robots and special-operations troops… [paying] privateers to set up clandestine spying networks and [relying] on mercurial dictators, unreliable foreign intelligence services, and ragtag, proxy armies.” Mazzetti keeps his own opinions mostly under wraps, but by the end of the book his concern over the American public’s lack of concern about these endless ugly shadow wars is palpable.


Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier

The paradisaical lure of the Internet and its capacity for seemingly endless free goodies (research, music, communication, you name it!) is one of those mythic bubbles that computer scientist Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget) is eager to pop in this manifesto for a deluded age. He’s deeply concerned that the allure of free or cheap has blinded everyone to the hidden costs of overconcentration of power in the hands of a few digital oligarchies. He calls these companies “siren servers”, for their ability to generate massive revenues by manipulating networks, whether it’s a better search algorithm or a way to analyze and sell stocks a micro-second faster. Lanier ties his distrust of the siren servers to a Paul Krugman/Robert Reich-ian economic analysis of how digital disruption has unlocked value for new industries but helped shatter the middle class in the process. One solution to a worrying overconcentration of wealth and power? Make the myriad companies earning money off our digital track marks pay for the privilege. Lanier’s writing is so sharp-sighted and impassioned, his solutions so clear and practical, that you almost don’t realize how revolutionary it all really is.


Honorable Mentions: Fiction

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
Web of the City (reissue) by Harlan Ellison
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Honorable Mentions: Nonfiction

Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice by Karen Houppert
The End of Power by Moises Naim
The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz
This Town by Mark Leibovich

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