The most fascinating book I’ve read about surveillance and its crushing effect on political dissent is Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone. Based on the real story of a working-class German couple who left a trail of anonymous postcards throughout Berlin calling for civil disobedience against the Nazis, the book is a page-turning spy thriller, love story and moving testament to the human capacity for small acts of breathtaking courage in the face of relentless repression. The couple, Otto and Anna Quangel in the book, are tracked by Gestapo agents who come to believe they must represent a vast network of underground resistance. Far from sentimental, the novel shows the Quangels to be unsophisticated and even inept, though no less heroic for their flaws and the futility of their mission. The ending carries the full force of tragedy. Incredibly, Hans Fallada wrote the novel in 24 days after being released from a Nazi insane asylum. Beset with severe alcoholism, he died before it was published.
I recently re-read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and it provides extraordinary, thought-provoking insight into how and why people are punished (I wrote about it a bit here). It’s particularly vital for Americans who live in a sprawling, sadistic penal state.
I recently read John Hersey’s charming novel A Bell for Adano, which chronicles an American major’s attempt to rebuild a tiny town in Sicily in the aftermath of World War II. Hersey is best known for his brief and brutal nonfiction account Hiroshima, which is timely with the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this year. I was pointed to both books by “The Storytellers of Empire,” an essay by the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie; in it, she asks why so little contemporary American literature grapples with U.S. power overseas, as Hersey at least tried to do. One recent effort of which I think Shamsie would approve is Phil Klay’s fantastic short story collection, Redeployment, about the war in Iraq.
When Octavia Butler’s character Anyanwu grew exhausted by the world, she morphed into a dolphin and spent two generations in the sea. In my ideal world, summer would be an opportunity for transmutation — a day at the beach doesn’t quite do the job of washing away a hard year of reading sad news. Wild Seed is the first book in Butler’s Patternist series — science fiction centered on a shape-shifting, usually female, usually black demi-god who draws power from caring for people rejected by everybody else. It’s fun and weird and a regenerative break from the narratives we consume every day.
In 2009, after several decades of brutal conflict, a campaign by the Sri Lankan military finally succeeded in defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam (LTTE), or as they had been known around the world, the Tamil Tigers. Gordon Weiss, a United Nations observer in the country at the time, has written a gripping account of the last days of the Tigers, as well a history of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious conflict since independence.
Replete with historical detail, Weiss’s account traces the arc of mutual antagonism between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils, which led to the outbreak of civil war in the 1980s. He does not favor either side, but instead offers a deeply informed, humane and compassionate look at the country and people of Sri Lanka. The conflict between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government was a tragedy whose terminus in 2009 has yet to be fully accounted for. Indeed, many of the grievances that gave rise to the Tigers originally have only been exacerbated in the conflict’s aftermath. Weiss’s book is not only a good starting point for understanding contemporary Sri Lankan history, but also offers a beautifully articulated insight into the human experience, written like a cipher into this conflict.
Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could somehow steep yourself in the sordid details of our dystopian authoritarian surveillance state — but in a totally fun way? Well, you can, thanks to former CIA operative Barry Eisler’s many novels. Assassination, torture, collect-it-all surveillance, whistleblowers, destruction of evidence, heroic journalists — all the things you come to The Intercept for — play a central role in Eisler’s books, but in the rollicking form of action-packed thrillers with guns and sex and dramatic tension and bad guys and even a few good guys. Start with Inside Out from 2010, inspired by the CIA’s destruction of its own torture tapes. I say this, by the way, only in part because Eisler names one of his characters after me — it’s a very minor one, mind you, not remotely of the stature of “legendary black ops veteran Colonel Scott Horton” or any number of other journalists whose stories Eisler riffs off with obvious delight. I hear his next novel features a fictional reporter for The Intercept — and a blimp. So save room in next summer’s beach bag for that one.
As a child, I spent what seemed like the forever part of each summer at my grandparents’ house in a small town in Central Texas. It was hot, there was no air conditioning and not much to do. In order to assuage my general despondency during this annual “vacation,” my mother would take me to a used bookstore, housed in an old Victorian home just off the town square. Old and dusty hardcover Nancy Drew novels were my mainstay.
And then, when I was about nine or so, I came across the book that to this day remains my all-time favorite: To Kill A Mockingbird. My mom found it in the stacks. She said to me, you should read this. I was skeptical: What’s it about, I asked. A little girl, an alleged crime and a man wrongly accused, is what I remember her saying.
Harper Lee’s groundbreaking tale of life, race and the law in the American South mesmerized me: I was compelled and horrified and indignant. It opened my child’s eyes to the larger truth — that people are mean, stupid. And that good and righteous people exist and they can change the world. And, importantly, that what we believe to be the truth isn’t always so.
It’s been decades since the impenetrably long and hot Texas summer when I first read Lee’s novel. And nearly every summer since, I’ve pulled it out and immersed myself anew in a story that remains poignant, relevant and haunting.
Author Keith Feldman traces the transnational relationship between Israel’s existence, the treatment of Palestine, and American imperialism. Indeed, according to Feldman, American racial capitalism is inherently linked to Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Both are rooted in the failure of liberal democracy to address racial supremacy and the negative consequences of capitalism.
My all-time hands-down favorite book on surveillance is Timothy Garton Ash’s The File: A Personal History, about his return to Berlin after reunification, when he is allowed to look at the file the Stasi kept on him while he lived in East Berlin as a student. Garton Ash tracks down the people who informed on him, as well as officers who handled his file, and asks the natural question: Why? It’s a deeply thoughtful book.
The strangest thing about many liberals is their attachment to the idea that human beings can and should be more rational than emotional — especially since if you disagree with them about it, you’ll find out that their attachment to the idea is extremely emotional. Moreover, this seems to be true among members of liberal, technocratic parties all over the world, which suggests it has something to do with cognition in general. Drew Westen, who’s a psychologist and neuroscientist, explains why reason without emotion is essentially impossible for humans, how emotion almost always swamps reason, and what that means for politicians (or really anyone) who want to communicate with and persuade other people.
In the postscript to the paperback edition, Westen says that many Democratic politicians have read this book, but I can’t see much evidence that they understand and use what he’s saying. They seem just as boring as ever. Maybe that’s a good thing, since it makes it harder for them to manipulate us, but Republican politicians definitely do understand and use it.
Was Britain’s class-based society to blame for failing to uncover one of the greatest double agents in history? Former foreign correspondent Kim Philby, head of counterintelligence efforts against the Soviets, attended the right school and belonged to the same clubs as his fellow MI6 officers. Operating in a cozy circle of trust — and bonding over a love of cricket — he was above suspicion. The charismatic Cambridge spy betrayed not only his country, but also his best friend — a fellow MI6 officer — along with the head of CIA counterintelligence. I recommend Ben Macintyre’s superb A Spy Among Friends, based on previously classified files and told through the prism of friendship, to lovers of nonfiction, novels and thrillers alike.
A Geoff Dyer fan, I read Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush in one smooth sitting. The lanky social observer’s account of his two weeks on board the aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf with a crew of 5,000 is as funny — ahoy that British self-deprecation — as it is informative to any civilian reader.
This is a novel based loosely on the author’s real experience in India’s underworld as a do-gooder tied to the criminal elements that run Mumbai. Slightly overwrought, it’s more nonfiction than fiction, and thus a fascinating look at a world rarely glimpsed by outsiders.
It’s the book I’ve been recommending non-stop since it came out last year. In intimately tracing the story of the United States’ longest war through the lives of three Afghans, Anand Gopal provides a crucial piece of historical text that will live on its significance for decades to come. On top of that, it’s just straight-up great storytelling. Vivid, jarring and deeply reported, the book is nothing short of a masterpiece.
At the moment, I am reading Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA, a fascinating real-life insight into the murky world of War on Terror-era espionage. It’s told through the eyes of Storm, an oddball Danish former jihadist sympathizer who eventually switched loyalties and became a spy for Western intelligence agencies, including the CIA and its British counterpart, MI6. Storm was a one-time associate of the radical American Islamist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, and claims to have facilitated the controversial CIA drone strike in Yemen that assassinated Awlaki in 2011.
Another book at the top of my list this summer is Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police, by the excellent Guardian reporters Paul Lewis and Rob Evans. It was published in June 2013, about the same time as the first leaks from Edward Snowden surfaced, which dominated my attention that summer; I’ve been meaning to return to it ever since. It’s an important exposé about the covert methods used by undercover British police to infiltrate a variety of protest groups over the past few decades. In some cases, police spies are revealed to have stolen the identities of dead babies and fathered children under false names with unwitting female activists. The book’s astonishing disclosures contributed to a major political backlash in the U.K. over undercover policing, which earlier this year prompted the government to launch a judge-led inquiry into the tactics that have been used.
A few years ago I enjoyed the first two Edmund Morris books on Teddy Roosevelt. So I’m looking forward to reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit this summer. But for my travels in July, I plan to take a few Aldous Huxley paperbacks, and catch up where I left off last August with Saga, a comic by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples.
Little Brother takes place in a dystopia that’s startlingly similar to reality. This young adult novel has it all: terrorism and the surveillance state’s subsequent power grab, questioning authority and refusing to give up your encryption password, tear gas filling the streets of San Francisco, teenagers who fight for their freedom and privacy by hacking Xboxes and cloning RFID tags, and young love.
The sequel, Homeland, revolves around Burning Man, the hackerspace Noisebridge, a USB stick full of secret documents, and trying to make the world a better place. The afterward was written by Internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz.
This summer I’m planning to read The Business of America is Lobbying, by Lee Drutman, but for a demonstration that American politics is best understood as a continuation of business by other means, you can’t beat Robert G. Kaiser’s So Damn Much Money. Kaiser chronicles the life and times of Gerald Cassidy, a one-time aide to Senator George McGovern who went on to become “Citizen K Street,” one of Washington’s most influential and wealthy lobbyists. Kaiser shows how Cassidy, who invented the earmark, helped turn Washington into the political equivalent of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, with innovative lobbyist-traders swapping regulations and legislative amendments like pork-belly derivatives, all while raking in astronomical returns on investment.
I first encountered Simic 30 years ago while sitting in on a poetry class he was teaching at the University of New Hampshire. Remarkably, I still remember the poet (Robert Creeley) and the poem (“The Rain”) taught that day, which is a testament to the pure delight Simic exuded. I’ve followed his work ever since.
Simic is a poet, essayist and translator who immigrated to the United States from Belgrade in 1954 when he was a teenager. In addition to publishing over 30 volumes of poetry and prose, he also writes frequently (and memorably) for the New York Review of Books, in a distinctively plain but vivid style:
“Today’s news is always old news. The innocent get slaughtered and someone makes up excuses.” (“Portable Hell,” August 5, 2014)
Or this: “That’s why I’m wary of the politicians and op-ed page writers who routinely express shock and outrage at the brutal treatment of demonstrators in other parts of the world. They never seem to notice how we treat them at home or how our soldiers deal with them in the countries we’ve been occupying lately.” (“Betrayed,” March 21, 2014)
The essays in The Life of Images are from five collections spanning over 25 years of work, covering poetry, politics, history, philosophy, art and Simic’s childhood.
I love that the discovery of a document in Columbia University’s manuscript collection inspired this riveting narrative about the multiracial network of abolitionists in New York that aided Southern blacks in their bold escapes from slavery. The record reveals the names and stories of fugitives and well-known heroes like Harriet Tubman (my choice for the new face on the $10 bill). Foner contributes another history of all the people.
I’m a Slavophile at heart, so that tends to steer my summer reading to the East. I’m currently reading my friend Steven Lee Myers’s book, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin. It would be easy to reduce Putin to caricature, and many writers have done just that, but Steve, a longtime New York Times reporter, paints a nuanced portrait of the former KGB agent turned Russian president who led the country through some of its most chaotic years, achieving a measure of stability, but at the price of repression (the book comes out in September).
Other books on my list include the Polish writer Jacek Hugo-Bader’s Kolyma Diaries: A Journey into Russia’s Haunted Hinterland (White Fever, Hugo-Bader’s account of his travels to Siberia, is also worth checking out). I also recently re-read Andrey Kurkov’s absurdist classic, Death and the Penguin, a surreal portrait of Ukraine in the 1990s told through the story of an obituary writer and his pet penguin. Kurkov, one of Ukraine’s leading novelists, writes in Russian. He has written on recent political events, but it’s his poignant tale of Kiev caught in the midst of mafia wars and economic despair in the 1990s that brings into relief why so many Ukrainians supported the Euromaidan demonstrations.
David Hirst’s The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the modern Middle East and American foreign policy. It is the kind of book you won’t want to read without a pencil in hand and will never want to lend out. First published in 1977 with updates in 1984 and 2003, it is treasure trove of primary source material on Zionism from the 1880s through 9/11. Get your copy now, because it’s been out of print for 12 years.
Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East is part memoir, part history book. It is a meandering 1,136-page tome — and probably a few hundred pages too long — but I found Fisk’s strong voice and deep personal connection to the subject matter engrossing. This is a valuable read because of his ability to capture the humanity and horror of historical events so often discussed in coldly analytical and political terms. The section on the Armenian Genocide is particularly powerful.
Keeping with the thick-books-soaked-in-blood theme, I also recommend Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. In 2013, U.S. Special Operations forces operated in 134 countries worldwide. Dirty Wars offers an incredibly detailed examination of how those troops operate and never forgets to ask how their actions affect the populations at the receiving end of America’s incredible military might. I swear Jeremy did not pay me to write this.
It’s being described as a prequel-sequel, as it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird but takes place 20 years after the events depicted in Harper Lee’s famous book. It follows a grown-up Scout Finch who is now living in New York but travels home to Alabama to visit her father, Atticus Finch. They discuss her father’s defense of a black man who was being tried for raping and beating a white woman. I imagine it will be a timely read given that issues of racial and social injustice are still very much at the forefront of our national concerns.
Amitava Kumar will make you lose track of time. Pick up A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, if you haven’t already. He returns the quotidian — and the human — to the spectacle of the war on terror. (I’m excited to read his latest collection, Lunch with a Bigot, this summer.)