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The Good Soldiers

David Finkel


The Good Soldiers
David Finkel


The idea of a journalist embedding himself within an American unit in Iraq to write a longform piece about them is far from original. But nevertheless, Pulitzer Prize-winner Washington Post editor David Finkel’s record of Battalion 2-16’s 15-month engagement in a miserable section of Baghdad’s Sadr City slum is an epic accomplishment. Starting in April 2007, the 2-16 moved into Sadr City as part of the surge that was attempted to win back parts of Iraq that had previously been ceded to insurgents. The fighting that followed in the sewage-choked alleys was unpredictable and punishing—and Finkel does his level best to deliver to the reader the choking, grinding, hopeless horror of it all. When the battalion’s first soldier is killed, it’s jarring and saddening. When the second one dies, it’s worse. They all get worse after that. By the time Finkel leaves the 2-16, the emotional weight of what these men have had to overcome is nearly impossible to bear, particularly when set against the murky sense that their sacrifices may well have been for naught. Perhaps the best book yet written about the Iraq War, and one of the greatest, most shattering books about war, period. Chris Barsanti


 

 



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The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965

Sam Stephenson, W. Eugene Smith


The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965
Sam Stephenson, W. Eugene Smith


Sam Stephenson’s exhaustive, exhilarating volume is neither photography album nor jazz book, but some beautiful hybrid. In 1957, photographer W. Eugene Smith dumped his well-paying Life gig, left a family in the ‘burbs, and moved into a vermin-infested multi-floor loft in Manhattan’s Flower District, where the likes of Thelonious Monk jammed late nights amidst the druggies—and Smith recorded it all until 1965. He miked the multi-floor loft for sound and obsessively photographed everything happening inside and even out the window. The black-and-white photos range from gorgeously etched, deep-shadowed portraits of musicians in mid-swing to on-the-fly street life shots that echo the best of city portraitists like Brassai and Atget. The brief sections of the tapes transcribed here reveal a mix of the dramatic and mundane, since Smith seemingly never turned the tape recorders off. Stephenson’s book just scratches the surface of Smith’s archive (some of the music can be heard at the Jazz Loft Project website), but still creates an immersive portrait of mid-century Manhattan cultural life at a time when high was meeting low and getting on quite well. Chris Barsanti


 

 



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The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories

Robert B. Strassler


The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories
Robert B. Strassler


Though written in the fifth century BCE, The Histories is a powerful and vivid narrative even today, buoyed by Herodotus’ strong voice and the tenacity with which he dissects and evaluates each bit of information he encounters. The primary topic of The Histories concerns the emergence of the Persian Empire under the kings Cyrus and Darius and their influence and impact on the Hellenic world. Herodotus is not a single-minded writer, however, and displays a wide-ranging interest in the entirety of the known world. His epic digressions include lengthy ethnographies, geographical studies, relations of local color and legends, and political analysis. The Histories is a brilliant tour of the ancient world, impressive in its scope, surprising in its deftness, and captivating in its emotional power. All these strengths are present in the original text; what The Landmark Herodotus achieves is an amplification of the power of the original work, through the painstaking collection and reader-friendly deployment of supporting materials and contemporary views that put Herodotus’ efforts in their proper context. Michael Patrick Brady


 

 



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Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents

Minal Hajratwala


Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents
Minal Hajratwala


It’s hard enough tracing your family’s lineage over several generations without it becoming even more confusing by geographical dispersion, as well. If you add an attempt at writing your own story and ruminations on cultural and sexual identity, then you have a smorgasbord of ideas. Or you have Minal Hajratwala’s debut, Leaving India. From one lens, this is a thoroughly well-researched biography of a family from the Western Indian state of Gujarat, who sought economic prosperity by venturing abroad—to South Africa, Fiji, New Zealand and afar. But, what makes Hajratwala’s book so extraordinary is how she seamlessly weaves her own narrative in as well, but not in a way that distracts the reader. Rather, Leaving India provokes relentless introspection about individual identity, as a simple point along the spectrum that is representative of our families’ histories. The book forces you to reconsider your own problems or adjustments in light of your parents’ stories and those of the greater family. As Hajratwala writes, “Each time we move, we must leave something of ourselves behind; perhaps then the map of a Diaspora consists, like a constellation, mainly of gaps.” Shyam Sriram


 

 



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The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

David Grann


The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
David Grann


Percy Fawcett, an intrepid British explorer and member of the Royal Geographical Society, adventured, researched and mapped the depths of the Brazilian Amazon early in the 1900s. Fortunately blessed with a rather strong constitution, Fawcett survived tropical diseases, wily predators, and even hostile tribes that weaker men frequently succumbed to. Yet on one particularly secretive journey in 1925, Fawcett, along with his son and his son’s best friend, did not return. Bearing similarity to Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, David Grann’s The Lost City of Z combines Fawcett’s obsessive quest for the fabled El Dorado with Grann’s own hesitant preparation and quest into the jungle to gain more insight into Fawcett’s disappearance. Countless explorers had failed at finding Fawcett before, but Grann’s research and journey provides new insights not just about Fawcett, but about the possible past existence of a magnificent civilization in the wilds of the Amazon. Sachyn Mital


 

 




Lit
Mary Karr


Memoir is for voyeurs. We read other people’s life stories with a mind much like the long, drawn-out version of rubbernecking at a car wreck. These tales wouldn’t get published unless something terrible happened, right? Well, lots of terrible things have happened to Mary Karr. The first two installments of her autobiography, 1995’s The Liar’s Club and 2001’s Cherry, recount a childhood and adolescence for which the word “hardscrabble” might have been coined. But inevitably, we reach the age where things stop happening to us and we start bringing things upon ourselves, and this is Karr’s journey in Lit. A clever title for a young wanna-be writer who also happens to be an alcoholic, Karr’s tale of her failed marriage and birth of her son, her descent into daily drinking, and her path to sobriety and spirituality, is just as fascinating and unsentimental as her first two books. This is not to say that it won’t make you cry. Lit is a clear-eyed account of how a logic-loving intellectual comes to faith, and how a perpetual victim comes to forgiveness and acceptance. You don’t have to be any of these things to enjoy the ride, but if you are, then there are words in these pages that might stay with you for the rest of your life. Jennifer Cooke


 
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