Over the past few summers I’ve been making my way through the Empire Trilogy by J.G. Farrell. These books have it all: the wit and romantic intrigue of great English novels; characters to love, hate, pity, and laugh at; feuds and uprisings leading to horrifically gruesome clashes and blood-soaked justice. Each one is set in a different country — Troubles takes place in a crumbling hotel catering to rich Englishmen in County Wexford, Ireland; The Siege of Krishnapur in a fictional colonial British town in India; and The Singapore Grip in that city as it faces an invasion by the Japanese army. All the books share the same preoccupation: the decaying British empire, which is like a character in itself — smug, arrogant, dissolute, intoxicated with power but beset with anxiety, unable to ignore the terrifying signs that its time is almost up.
— Betsy Reed
The best detective novels typically feature admirable but flawed heroes searching for truth in a gritty, crime-ridden city. Now suppose the flawed hero is a former Ba’athist police inspector and the place is post-invasion Baghdad. In Baghdad Central, Elliott Colla, who teaches Arabic literature at Georgetown University, turns the modern detective novel on its head by placing the action in the middle of America’s doomed efforts to remake Iraq’s police and security forces after the 2003 invasion. Muhsin al-Khafaji, a poetry-loving former police inspector, is initially mistaken for the three of diamonds in the famed “deck of cards” (used to help U.S. forces hunt down Iraq’s most wanted) and then recruited by the Americans to help remake the country’s gutted police force. Filled with misguided American bureaucrats and murdered translators, Baghdad Central reminds its readers at every turn of the human cost of war for Iraqis.
— Sharon Weinberger
Last summer, I took my first real time off of work in many years and rediscovered the pure joy of reading fiction. My favorite book was recommended by our editor-in-chief, Betsy Reed, on last year’s reading list: Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. It was superb and remarkably prophetic in understanding the times in which we live, despite being set in Germany during World War II. It has much to say about surveillance and the power of the state.
What I have to offer this year is a book I stumbled upon quite by accident about five years ago when I found myself in a remote place with no computer or phone and a lot of time. It is World War Z by Max Brooks. Before you groan and tell me how awful the Brad Pitt film was, let me tell you: I agree. It was total shit — and it bore almost no resemblance to the brilliant book upon which it was supposedly based. Technically, World War Z is considered a “zombie book,” but if it were, I probably would not have read past the first chapter. It is so much more than that. It is about how different societies confront pandemics. It imagines a world ravaged by a rare strand of what is initially believed to be rabies and how nation states, weak and powerful, large and small, confront it.
There are some amazing concepts — North Korea orders all citizens to have their teeth removed; the U.S. predictably believes it can declare a military war on zombies; Cuba and Israel implement quarantines. One of the most entertaining aspects of the book is how the elite in the U.S. become the most vulnerable and pathetic. Their workers — the people who do construction and plumbing and manual labor — are more fit for survival during the apocalyptic events than those who underpaid them and systematically took their labor for granted. There is also an awesome little subplot of a bunch of B-list celebrities stuck in a mansion where they are filming a reality show; one of them seems based on Puff Daddy, or whatever he goes by these days. If you haven’t read it or were turned off by Brad Pitt being chased by CGI-created zombies who run as fast as cheetahs, pick it up.
— Jeremy Scahill
In the post-modern newsroom of Domani (Tomorrow), nobody actually produces any “content” that readers will ever see. A collection of disrupted journalists is building a newspaper that the billionaire Commendatore may or may not care about. Plunged into the abyss of meaningless work, hack writer Colonna falls into the arms of Maia, who teaches him a thing or three about the disaggregated life, while their colleague Braggadocio pursues conspiracies about Mussolini’s survival in hiding. Umberto Eco’s final novel combines history, mystery, and satire, but no connection to The Intercept.
— Margot Williams
Noble Prize-winning Wislawa Szymborska’s Map: Collected and Last Poems was published in 2015, just a few years after the Polish poet’s death. I read Szymborska because of her perfect, plain language. I read her because she never shouts, she doesn’t judge, she isn’t right, and she isn’t wrong. Her poem “There Are Those Who” describes exactly what her work isn’t:
“They set their stamp on single truths,
toss unnecessary facts into the shredder
and unfamiliar persons
into previously designated files
They think as long as it takes,
not a second more,
since doubt lies lurking behind that second.”
And the poem tells you exactly what her work is: a quiet perspective on a chaotic, maddening, heartbreaking, and finely discerned world.
— Lynn Dombek
One of the books that stayed with me this year is Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World. It’s a brief, crisp novel — something you can finish in a day. But it conjures a landscape. Of feeling, colors, people. A journey. Recently translated into English, Herrera’s central character, Makina, moves at the intersection of language, nation, family, and capital — destabilizing many of the easy lines drawn between us.
— Josh Begley
I picked this up before a road trip across Jamaica because I love using novels as guide books, but this is so much more than a masterful tribute to this beautiful, brutal country (though it is that, too). It’s an epic portrait of very much nonfictional Cold War politics, postcolonial violence, and the creation — for U.S. interests — of the war on drugs. Spanning across decades and countries, it has it all: corrupt CIA agents, bragging journalists, ghosts of slain politicians, Bob Marley, and rival gangs in 1970s Kingston and 1990s New York City. It’s not brief, and I lost count of the killings by the end of the first few chapters, but it’s the best book I’ve read this year.
— Alice Speri
This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, The Sympathizer takes us from the fall of Saigon to the Vietnamese refugee community in Southern California and back. Written in lyrical, often humorous prose, the book follows a Eurasian “bastard” sleeper agent inside the South Vietnamese government and government-in-exile. An epistolary novel in the form of a confession to the Communist commandant at the camp where the agent ultimately ends up, no one and no party looks good here, but it is a surprisingly enjoyable ride.
— Lynn Oberlander
Cobb’s novel about French soldiers in World War I is a masterclass in describing how military leadership, almost by definition, fails those in its charge. Cobb, an American who fought in the war, describes its senselessness for soldiers and a fate that condemns enlisted and junior officers to the whims of vainglorious generals. David Simon has cited this novel as a blueprint for The Wire — enough of a recommendation for me — and he writes an introduction to the latest edition. The novel was also adapted for a film of the same name by Stanley Kubrick.
— Matthew Cole
Aldous Huxley’s final book, Island, doesn’t win points for subtlety, but neither did his most famous novel, Brave New World. As heavy-handed as Huxley’s writing may be, few authors can create such fascinating worlds that bring political and philosophical ideologies to life. If Brave New World is one side of Huxley’s vision of the world — a dystopian hellscape where the government controls every aspect of society — Island offers the opposite: a slice of utopia in the fictional Pacific island of Pala, where inhabitants live in peace by blending the best of Eastern and Western philosophies. The island of Pala is a beautiful reminder of what humanity could have looked like if colonialism and capitalism never came to pass.
— Travis Mannon
This book by a former Bloomberg reporter is richly reported and examines the flamboyant, uber-powerful and often-crazy billionaire class that has arisen, and now dominates, political and cultural life in the world’s fifth most populous country. It’s extremely entertaining and compelling on its own terms, but it also potently illustrates how billionaires generally — in the U.S. and the Western world — have amassed extraordinary power with virtually no accountability. Particularly with the political crisis engulfing Brazil, the imminent Olympics, and the struggle for the political soul of that country, Cuadros’s book is a must-read.
— Glenn Greenwald
Like many people, I found my way to the incredible work of Svetlana Alexievich after she won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. This book is a collection of oral accounts that illuminate the disaster of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and raise some disturbing parallels with our current venture there. But what really got to me is the way Alexievich uses women’s voices; it’s so uncommon in writing about war. This summer I’m looking forward to reading her newly translated book Secondhand Time.
— Cora Currier
In Border Cantos, Richard Misrach turns his camera on the increasingly militarized and haunted landscape of the Southwest border country straddling America and Mexico. Misrach’s images of camera towers and the strangely discontinuous segments of the border fence alternate with desperate signs of flight: backpacks, shoes, toothbrushes, wallets, underwear, and baby dolls litter the dusty trails that wind through the deserts and mountains of the border zone. Scarecrow-like effigies, constructed of clothing and other artifacts discarded by migrants, rise up as reminders of the thousands who did not survive.
— Roger Hodge
The military and political relationship between China and Pakistan is one of the least examined yet most consequential geopolitical alignments in Asia. This book offers a deeply researched look at the history of these countries’ strategic ties, as well as the dynamics that have deepened their cooperation in recent years. Andrew Small is a genuine expert who draws on a range of primary source materials and interviews from the region to sketch the outlines and future direction of this alignment. He manages to do so in a way that’s accessible and engaging, which makes this book a must-read for those interested in China, Pakistan, and the dynamics of America’s forthcoming “Pivot to Asia.”
— Murtaza Hussain
If you wind up on Dr. Judy Melinek’s autopsy table, it’s pretty obviously not a great thing. For starters, you’re dead. But more to the point, you’ve met a demise that left questions in its wake. Certainly, the criminal justice system deals with lots of death — much of it violent and untimely. But understanding death, and particularly its manner and cause — two questions that medical examiners like Melinek are charged with answering — are crucial to the system and key to deciding which deaths are in fact the result of crimes.
In her book, Melinek (who authored the book with her husband, Mitchell) takes her readers inside the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner and into the details of the training that turned her into a medical examiner. Melinek is both intense and empathetic as she relates the stories of how the New Yorkers who wound up on her table met their demise; her retelling of the effort to identify the deceased in the wake of the 9/11 attacks is especially revealing. But Melinek is also witty (she’s a great follow on Twitter — @drjudymelinek) and blends intensity with humor in a book that takes readers on an entirely absorbing ride through the forensic science behind life and death.
— Jordan Smith
Earlier this spring, I picked up a copy of Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, by journalist Joby Warrick, in hopes of better understanding the formation of the extremist group that has dominated international headlines in recent years. I was not disappointed. Black Flags, which earned Warrick a Pulitzer Prize not long after I started reading it, offers an immensely readable account of how the Jordanian-born fanatic Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the U.S. invasion of Iraq came together to lay the groundwork for the terrorist organization we know today. While no single book could be expected to capture that entire tale, Black Flags, particularly in its earlier sections, makes important contributions to filling in a crucial period in the ongoing history of the war on terror.
— Ryan Devereaux
It’s been evident for some time that America’s key institutions, and its core ostensible principles, are rapidly eroding. The brunt of this degradation is borne overwhelmingly by the nation’s marginalized, poor, and powerless communities. This book provides a comprehensive look at the effects, where police are shooting unarmed minority citizens, and their drinking water is literally poisoned. How this can happen in the world’s richest country is both a mystery and a disgrace. This book seeks to solve the former while sounding a clarion call about the latter, and it succeeds in doing both. It’s a sometimes depressing read, but that’s necessary medicine. And it will constantly energize you and never bore you.
— Glenn Greenwald
Anthropologist David Vine chronicles how the Pentagon’s archipelago of 800-plus military bases worldwide has become an end unto itself — costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and achieving very little. Vine tells stories of the human cost of this global military presence — of an entire civilization forced off its island home, of sex-trafficking markets that service U.S. bases, and even of the Pentagon’s tendency to contract with the violent Sicilian mafia.
— Alex Emmons
Is it possible that the particularities of coal extraction and transport — and not, say, the grip of Enlightenment thought — enabled modern mass democracy? That’s the premise of Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy, which argues that the unique ability of coal workers to bring industrial society to a halt gave crucial leverage to their egalitarian demands. The transition to oil, on the other hand, established a global supply chain far more amenable to oligarchic control. Intercept readers will enjoy Mitchell’s detours through the international monetary system, the global arms market, and the U.S.’s erratic embrace and disavowal of various fundamentalist regimes in the greater Middle East.
— John Thomason
It’s not a coincidence that more people approve of torture when you call it “enhanced interrogation,” or that “targeted killing” has a better favorability rating than an assassination campaign. George Orwell attacks political phrases of this sort in his famous essay Politics and the English Language — an essential annual re-read for any consumer of the news. Orwell uses examples from his times (“bombing colonial villages” becomes “pacification”) to show that when newspapers adopt these expressions, they creep into our vocabulary and manipulate the way we think about government.
— Alex Emmons
“American racism will take some of our lives while holding others of us up as exemplars of success,” Smith writes in the introduction to Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, describing a framework that reduces black figures to either “martyrs” or “tokens.” Who might Trayvon Martin have grown up to be, he asks, had he lived to define himself on his own terms? Smith brings sharp cultural analysis to events from LeBron James’s “decision” to the election of Barack Obama and draws on defining moments from his own coming of age to open up conversations about black male identity.
— Andrea Jones
It was a hot summer night in Las Vegas. Thousands of hackers flooded the city, excitedly making party plans for the first night of DEF CON 23, the world’s largest annual hacker convention. But a small group of friends and I skipped out on partying that night in favor of something better: A new episode of Mr. Robot had aired the night before, and we were dying to know what happened. Mr. Robot is a cyberpunk television drama about a socially anxious, paranoid, delusional, drug-addicted, and incredibly talented hacker who, along with the anarchist hacktivist collective fsociety, works to delete the world’s debt. As a computer security engineer myself, I’m excited about Mr. Robot because it’s pioneering a brand new genre of hacker shows, where all of the vulnerabilities and exploits are authentic, and all of the tools are familiar to those of us who dabble in Kali Linux. The second season premieres July 13 in the U.S.
— Micah Lee
The best dystopian fiction is uncomfortable to consume because of what it shows us about the present. This British series explores the dark side of technology that either already exists or could in the near future. A common theme is public humiliation mixed with private turmoil. Each episode could stand alone as a short film, with a different cast and theme. It’s a disturbing piece of satire that shows how technology can be used to destroy privacy, decency, and relationships.
— Rubina Fillion
Bernardo Bertolucci’s exploration into the psychology of political affinities recounts the unraveling of Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a fascist sympathizer and member of the secret police in Mussolini’s Italy. Under the shadow of the rise and fall of Mussolini’s dictatorship, Clerici’s ambivalence toward the very political system he defends — and even kills for — provides a rich and visually singular examination of personal and societal conflict under surveillance and oppression. An all-time great of 1970s Italian cinema, The Conformist is as awe-inspiring as it is historically transcendent.
— Miriam Pensack
The Lives of Others
My colleague Peter Maass wrote an excellent piece about an NSA analyst-turned-in-house philosopher who was initially skeptical of surveillance but came to embrace full observation. The Stasi agent at the center of The Lives of Others has the opposite journey: Gerd Wiesler monitors a potentially subversive writer whose apartment is bugged, Wiesler eventually learns, only because a senior government official covets the writer’s girlfriend. Over the eavesdropping period, Wiesler learns as much about himself and the state to which he has pledged allegiance as he does about the writer whose privacy he invades.
— Charlotte Greensit
Netflix’s political drama House of Cards has been a hit since its premiere in 2013. But fewer Americans know about its ’90s British antecedent, the three-part BBC miniseries of the same name. Both series show the brutality of realpolitik through the eyes of a monstrous (yet infuriatingly charming) main character. Both of these men treat bewitched audiences to sly wit through the fourth wall, at the expense of their woefully inadequate colleagues. But while Netflix’s House of Cards is more melodrama than anything else, the BBC’s version provides a deep and often heartbreaking look at the impacts of neoliberalism, something largely ignored by American television in general. Much like the BBC series’ sole American character, the American remake is simple, loud, bloated, without subtlety — albeit undeniably entertaining to watch.
— Moiz Syed
Eye in the Sky is the first major cinematic release I’ve seen that attempts to confront the many legal, moral, and ethical issues raised by drone technology. It was directed by Academy Award-winner Gavin Hood, who assembled a strong cast that includes Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, and Aaron Paul (yes, Jesse from Breaking Bad). The movie revolves around a single fictional incident involving a group of al Shabaab militants who are tracked down to a compound in a busy district of Nairobi, Kenya. The militants are high on Obama’s “kill list,” but there’s a quandary: Among the group are British and American citizens. There are also many innocent bystanders in the vicinity, including young children. As a U.S. drone equipped with Hellfire missiles scans the scene from above, high-ranking British and American officials debate the political consequences of approving a strike and argue over whether it would be legal and moral to do so.
There are some factual weaknesses in the storyline – a British military officer is in command of American drone pilots, which is unrealistic, as is the prospect of a U.S. drone attack in the middle of Nairobi. But nitpicking aside, the movie is well-delivered and effective, humanizing a debate about drone warfare that is often overly abstract and technocratic.
— Ryan Gallagher
Game of Thrones
All websites are legally required to talk about Game of Thrones, and I’ve been assigned to bring The Intercept into compliance. By far best thing about the show is its depiction of how people seek power (mindlessly and mechanically, like a robot flower growing toward the sun) and what power’s like after the glorious moment you seize it (boring and horrible). The subtlest moment of this went by so quickly in the second season I’ve never seen anyone mention it. Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf son of the richest lord in the country, describes how his brother was made the youngest Kingsguard in history and his sister became queen at 19 — yet because Tyrion’s father hated him, he put him in charge of his city’s drains and sewers. But that’s a fantastic, fascinating job, a trillion times better than being a knight or royalty. You get to think both abstractly and concretely about something of visceral, immediate importance to thousands of people — and Tyrion’s great at it. To me, Tyrion’s story will always be tragic because he doesn’t recognize this and gets willingly sucked back into the pointless, idiotic struggle for power.
— Jon Schwarz
This remarkable documentary from Patricio Guzmán — the great Chilean filmmaker whose most famous work, The Battle of Chile, gave a close-up look at the CIA-backed coup that deposed Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973 — follows two groups of people looking into the past in the country’s Atacama Desert: astronomers who search the skies for clues to the origins of the universe using powerful telescopes, and relatives of political prisoners disappeared by the Pinochet regime in the 1970s, using their hands to scrape the dry earth for the remains of their loved ones.
— Robert Mackey
Les Blank’s insistently joyful documentaries serve as an antidote to the worsening news that overwhelms our various screens. He takes the rhythms of everyday life as his primary focus: His biopics of musicians are as much about daily routines in odd corners of America as his film about garlic (Garlic Is as Good as 10 Mothers) is subtly musical. The 14 films collected in this boxset explore the streets of New Orleans and the depths of bayou country, gatherings of hippies and Polish-American polka dancers, and the craft of conga percussionists and country fiddlers with warmth, wry humor, and humanity.
— Talya Cooper
Don’t watch the trailer, don’t read any reviews — except this one! — just walk blindly into this underwatched 2015 indie gem. Director Anna Mastro, writer Paul Shoulberg, and lead Andrew West deliver a tale of a young man who is confident he knows every earthly being’s place in the hereafter but ends up re-evaluating his place in the present. The film’s evolving plot concludes with a deeply moving message and ends up being far more relevant to the lives of its viewers than it has any right to be.
— Zaid Jilani
Drop what you’re doing and watch Occupied, a 10-part Norwegian political thriller that’s a combination of The West Wing and The Parallax View set in Oslo. In the near future, Russia gradually takes over Norway for its oil reserves. Norway’s prime minister and a variety of other characters (a reporter, a chef, a bodyguard) have to decide whether to collaborate or take to the forests in rebellion. You’ll even like the design aesthetic of this drama — cool Scandinavian. Even better, it’s based on an idea from the novelist Jo Nesbo.
— Peter Maass
Most TV shows and movies in the spy genre are boringly predictable. The Night Manager is a bit different, and that’s why I enjoyed it. The
six-part British miniseries, produced by the BBC and starring Tom Hiddleston, is based on a 1993 John le Carré novel. It has all the characteristics you’d expect from a le Carré yarn: There’s a sociopathic megalomaniac, a crusading young spook, thuggish mercenaries, murder, explosions, a dangerous romance, etc. But it has been updated and set against a modern geopolitical backdrop — the Arab Spring is playing out in the background — and it has a bit more nuance and detail than conventional British spy productions. Unlike the Bond franchise, for instance, which always portrays the British government as a relentless force for good, The Night Manager tells a more complex story, with corrupt elements inside the intelligence community conspiring to help sell weapons to despots in the Middle East. As the narrative develops, an internal power struggle within the government unravels, which makes for compelling viewing.
— Ryan Gallagher
Elio Petri’s 1970 film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is a classic satire of a police state, in which a high-ranking Italian officer decides to test the rule of law by committing a murder and leaving a clear trail to himself. It is a dark, bizarre study of bureaucratic and psychological power, set to a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone (of Spaghetti Western fame).
— Cora Currier
Queue up a few Intercept articles and play Anohni’s Hopelessness. Read the Drone Papers to the tune of “Drone Bomb Me” (“Let me be the one — the one that you choose from above”). For Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith’s ongoing coverage of the Richard Glossip fiasco, try “Execution” (“Pleease don’t have mercy … Sometimes a feeling is reason enough”). And with “Manufacturing Terror,” a story about an environmental activist enamored with his FBI informant, you’ll want the track “Watch Me” (I know you love me because you’re always watchin’ me — daddy; Protectin’ me from e-vil; Protectin’ me from ter-ro-rism”). No electronic pop could better match the act of reading about state-sponsored killings by the pool.
— Alleen Brown