January 17, 2018

Third World poverty and economic development: a reading list

Third World poverty: The White Man's Burden by William EasterlyThe emergence of new nations out of a colonial past was one of the most significant developments of the 20th Century—if not the most important of all. Their uneven struggle to attain the comforts and possibilities of life to be found in Europe, North America, and Japan continues to loom large in the 21st Century. As a consequence, a fair proportion of my reading the past two decades has been about these issues.

Much of what is written about development in what is variously called the Third World, the Global South, under-developed countries, or developing nations is self-serving and less than useful as a guide to understanding the true issues involved. The underlying reality is that since World War II the countries of the “West”—more recently, and more accurately called, the Global North—have invested a total of more than $2.5 trillion in “foreign aid” (as it’s popularly known in the USA) or “official development assistance” (or ODA, as it’s termed elsewhere). You might think that investments of that magnitude would have produced dramatic improvements in the quality of life for the billions of people who live in poverty. However, the truth is appalling: there is precious little to show for this outpouring of aid other than the most obvious advances in education and public health. These are, indeed, substantial. But there is no evidence that anything approaching comparable advances have been engineered in ending poverty.

Here are some of the best books I’ve read in recent years that cast light on this reality. Some of them directly address the issues surrounding foreign aid. Others illuminate the backdrop to those issues. But I don’t pretend this list is comprehensive in any way. It’s simply a starting-point. I’ve listed these books in alphabetical order by the authors’ surnames. Where I read a book recently enough to have reviewed it online, the title links to that review.

Banerjee, Abhijit, and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. PublicAffairs, 2011

Two development economists assess the impact of a wide range of development programs in alleviating poverty through randomized trials. They conclude that most aid programs have not been designed with a rigorous understanding of the behaviors and needs of the poor or how aid affects them.

Bing, Eric C., and Marc J. Epstein, Pharmacy on a Bicycle: Innovative Solutions for Global Health and Poverty. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013. 

The authors assert that most poor outcomes in healthcare “are caused not by lack of effective medicines or medical know-how. The ability to prevent and treat many of these diseases inexpensively has been available for a very long time. But getting the right remedies to the right people in the locations where they are needed, in a way they will use them, and at a cost they can afford is continually a challenge. This is not a scientific problem. It’s a business challenge.”

Bornstein, David, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Much of the social change taking place today in the world’s poorest countries is a result of the work of the venturesome folks called “social entrepreneurs”—and Ashoka, the USA-based organization that supports them by the thousands. This book profiles nine of the better-known Ashoka Fellows, demonstrating the role of local leadership in making the world a better place.

——, The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Muhammad Yunus gained global fame when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, but the story of his decades of dogged efforts in Bangladesh—and of the immense organization he built—is much less well known. This book demonstrates how home-grown solutions to development programs are often superior to anything imposed on developing countries by the international community.

——, and Susan Davis, Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2010.

The three short chapters that constitute Social Entrepreneurship ask and answer the most fundamental questions that any reader unfamiliar with the pursuit of social change might ask, first clarifying the definition of social entrepreneurship, then examining the practical challenges practitioners face, and finally “Envisioning an Innovating Society.”

Clark, Gregory, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. Princeton University Press, 2007.

Clark puts the question of economic development in historical perspective, dispelling long-popular myths about the supremacy of the West.

Collier, Paul, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. Oxford University Press, 2007.

An economist analyzes why the 50 nations that are home to the poorest one billion people are failing. The fault lies in civil war, dependence on extractive industries, and bad governance.

Collins, Daryl, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, and Orlanda Ruthven, Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day. Princeton University Press, 2009.

The findings of a series of detailed, year-long studies of the day-to-day financial practices of some 250 families in India, Bangladesh, and South Africa, including both city-dwellers and villagers.

Diamond, Jared, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking, 2005.

A fascinating exploration of the historical influence of environmental factors in the failure of “developing countries”—and a sobering perspective on the prospects for development breakthroughs in much of today’s overpopulated world.

Easterly, William, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Penguin Press, 2006.

This the best book that tackles the issue head-on and makes the clearest case for an explanation of the question posed in its title. Easterly argues that existing aid strategies have not and will not reduce poverty, because they don’t seriously take into account feedback from those who need the aid and because they perpetuate western colonial tendencies.

———, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. Basic Books, 2015.

“The conventional approach to economic development, to making poor countries rich is based on a technocratic illusion: the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements . . . The technocratic approach ignores what this book will establish as the real cause of poverty — the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights.”

Elkington, John, and Pamela Hartigan, The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World. Harvard Business Review Press, 2008.

Two of the world’s leading experts on social entrepreneurship describe examples from virtually every area of interest in development, from healthcare to education to poverty eradication. The book is most rewarding in its presentation of vignettes of individual social enterprises, including interviews with many of their principals.

Govindarajan, Vijay, and Chris Trimble, Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere. Harvard Business Review Press, 2012.

This is the book that the author of The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid—now, unfortunately, deceased—should have written. Two business professors have formulated a concept they call “reverse innovation” that is the key to doing business in those emerging markets that excited Prahalad’s lust.

Guha, Ramachandra, India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.

In global perspective, the greatest challenges to narrowing the inequities among nations lie in sub-Saharan Africa and India. This history of the subcontinent after independence helps to convey the complexity of the issues faced by change agents in the world’s second most populous nation.

Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

The most dramatic portrayal of the legacy of colonialism I’ve ever read. The author is one of today’s premier popular historians.

Kamkwamba, William, and Bryan Mealer, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope. HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.

The astonishing story of a brilliant, self-taught young man in Malawi who demonstrated the vast potential that underdevelopment leaves behind.

Kidder, Tracy, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. Random House, 2003.

Farmer is often publicly described as a secular saint for his selfless work bringing world-class healthcare to the interior of Haiti, the slums of Lima and Boston, the prisons and towns of Siberia, and many other challenging environments around the world.

Kristof, Nicholas D., and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Knopf, 2009.

It is impossible to tackle the issue of economic and social development without considering the central role of women: it’s become a truism in the field that the education and empowerment of women is the surest first step toward meaningful social change. Nick Kristof, a long-time New York Times columnist, is one of the world’s most incisive observers of the daily reality lived by people in the Third World. Previously, Kristof and WuDunn reported jointly from China for the Times.

Mehta, Pavithra, and Suchitra Shenoy, Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2011 

The Aravind Eye Care System, based in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, has had an outsized influence on the treatment of eye disease throughout the world. Pavithra Mehta, a grand-niece of Aravind’s founder, tells the astonishing story of this extraordinary institution, illustrating the potential for indigenous development that shuns outside support.

Moyo, Dambisa, Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

A Zambia-born economist asserts that aid is not only ineffective—it’s harmful. She believes aid money promotes the corruption of Third World governments and the dependence of their citizens. She advocates that an investment approach will do more to help reduce poverty than aid ever could.

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk, Anchor, 2013.

Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, the man behind the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, has gained a reputation as one of the world’s leading experts on ending global poverty. This excellent biography unmasks the reality behind Sachs’ unwarranted fame.

Polak, Paul, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006.

Polak argues that neither donations, national economic growth, nor big business can end poverty. Instead, he advocates helping the poor earn money through their own efforts of developing low-cost tools that are effective and profitable.

——- and Mal Warwick, The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013.

In my humble opinion, this book, which I coauthored with Paul Polak, takes up the challenge laid out by C. K. Prahalad in his much better-known book—and delivers, where his book didn’t.

Prahalad, C. K., The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.

In this paean to the multinational corporations of the world, the late C. K. Prahalad, one of the most celebrated management consultants of recent times, presents a host of case studies about the potential of business to foster development while increasing profits. Although the general proposition is roughly on track, most of the case studies fail to illustrate the strategy laid out by Prahalad.

Sachs, Jeffrey D., The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. Penguin Press, 2005.

Here is the cheerleader’s polyannish case for large-scale development assistance. Useful as a counterpoint to Bill Easterly’s White Man’s Burden, which far better reflects my own experience in developing countries.

Schwartz, Beverly, Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2012.

Hiding behind the abstract title of this book is an engrossing account that might better have been subtitled “How Ashoka Fellows Spread Innovation Throughout the World.” The author was Ashoka’s marketing director for eight years.

Sinclair, Hugh, Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic: How Microlending Lost Its Way and Betrayed the Poor. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012.

“Some microfinance is extremely beneficial to the poor, but it is not the miracle cure that its publicists would have you believe. Microfinance has been hijacked by profiteers, and we need to reclaim it for the poor. The problem is not with a few rogue operators, alas, but with systemic flaws that permeate the sector.”

Sullivan, Nicholas P., You Can Hear Me Now: How Microloans and Cell Phones Are Connecting the World’s Poor to the Global Economy. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2007.

Grameen Telecom is much less well known than the grassroots bank that spawned it. This intriguing story is a great case study of the long-familiar “leapfrog effect” that allows underdeveloped countries to advance rapidly by skipping over the use of technologies long dominant in the West.

Wrong, Michaela, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower. HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

No consideration of Third World development is complete without taking official corruption into account. This story, which focuses on one courageous Kenyan man who tried to expose corruption, brings to light some of the complications it poses.

Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism (2009), by Muhammad Yunus.

Yunus argues that modern-day capitalism is too narrowly defined, particularly in its emphasis on profit maximization. By including social benefits in the equation, he believes that markets and the poor themselves can alleviate poverty. His argument implies that any social business must be subsidized by philanthropic contributions.

January 11, 2018

The 10 most memorable nonfiction books of the decade

most memorable nonfiction: The Revenge of Geography by Robert D. KaplanI’ve found the first 10 of the books listed here to be the most memorable nonfiction of the last 10 years, but the 15 others are hard to forget.

To put this list in perspective, these 25 books represent less than 2% of the approximately 1,500 books I’ve read (or at least tried to read) over the past decade. (I’ve finished reading and reviewing about 1,000 here.) However, these are all nonfiction. I’ve read fewer than 400 nonfiction books over the same period. So, my choices may look a little less selective.

The 25 books included here are grouped in two categories and listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names within each category.

The 10 most memorable nonfiction books

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander – The New Jim Crow: reexamining mass incarceration in America

How the country’s criminal justice system has been warped to the point of non-recognition by a series of Presidential actions, Congressional legislation, and Supreme Court decisions; and the catastrophic consequences of this sequence of events for our cities, our African-American and Latino communities, and ultimately all of ourselves. Read the review.

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly – By William Easterly: why economic development happens (or doesn’t)

“The technocratic approach [to economic development] ignores what this book will establish as the real cause of poverty—the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights.” Read the review.

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg – The Doomsday Machine: Daniel Ellsberg’s dramatic second act

Before Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, he had planned to reveal an even larger store of top secret documents exposing the hidden truths about our nuclear plans. Now, based on his own extensive notes, research on the issue over six decades, and declassified files from the 1950s and 60s, Ellsberg is belatedly fulfilling his promise to bring the enduring nuclear threat to the forefront. Read the review.

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings – A revisionist history of intelligence in World War II

Hastings contends that breakthroughs in deciphering codes by the British, Russians, and Americans contributed far more decisively to the successful outcome of the war than any missions undertaken by spies. And, except in Russia from 1943 onward, the efforts of Resistance movements in Europe were even less significant. Read the review.

Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II by Arthur Herman – World War II: when America was united in common purpose

Two extraordinary men—William S. Knudsen and Henry Kaiser—are the stars of this story, business impresarios who marshaled the stupendous numbers of men and women and the unprecedented mountains of raw materials that supplied the U.S. and its Allies with the weapons of war. Read the review.

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate by Robert D. Kaplan – From Robert D. Kaplan, a thought-provoking view of world politics

The Revenge of Geography is crammed with thought-provoking analysis—about the influence of geography on European history, about the role of megacities in our future, about changing demographic patterns, and about the impact of latitude on the fate of nations. Read the review.

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin – The shocking reality behind the secret US war on “terror”

“A jaw-dropping [total of] 1,074 federal government organizations and nearly two thousand private companies [are] involved with programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in at least 17,000 locations across the United States—all of them working at the top secret classification level.” Read the review.

Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld – J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan, and the violence in 1960s Berkeley

J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan were personally and directly engaged not just in monitoring but in managing the secret government campaigns that helped raise the temperature to the boiling point again and again in Berkeley. Read the review.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – The dark history of mid-century medical research

“Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry. More than twenty years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same.” Read the review.

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government by David Talbot – When America’s secret government ran amok

“In the name of defending the free world from Communist tyranny, [CIA Director] Allen Dulles and his big brother [Secretary of State John] Foster Dulles would impose an American reign on the world enforced by nuclear terror and cloak-and-dagger brutality.” Read the review.

The 15 runners-up

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass – Nixon, Kissinger, and the genocide history has ignored

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo – A searing look at poverty in India that reads like a novel

The Summit: Bretton Woods, 1944: J. M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy by Ed Conway – Bretton Woods: clashing personalities determined our economic history

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick – The stories told in “Nothing to Envy” make clear why politics matters

Engineers of Victory: The Problem-Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War by Paul Kennedy – The problem-solvers who won World War II

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson – Why the U.S. failed to speak out against the rise of Hitlers Germany

Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy – Understanding globalization, from the ground up

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer – How the Koch brothers are revolutionizing American politics

Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy – Aravind: a social enterprise with impact to match Grameen Bank

The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee – A cancer researcher looks at the disease most of us fear above all

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country by Gabriel Sherman – Roger Ailes: the man who built Fox News and divided America

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman – The story of autism, brilliantly told

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles – The first robber baron and the emergence of the corporation

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright – Scientology revealed in a definitive investigative report

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf – Biography of a genius: the man who invented ecology

January 4, 2018

Jussi-Adler Olsen’s captivating Department Q thrillers

Department Q thrillers: The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-OlsenSince 2007, Danish thriller writer Jussi Adler-Olsen has written seven bestselling novels in his ongoing series about Department Q at police headquarters in Copenhagen. All the principal characters in their own ways are misfits. Detective Carl Mørck has antagonized almost everyone else in the department and been exiled to the basement to head the new cold case unit. His assistant, Asaad, allegedly a Syrian immigrant, has a mysterious but doubtless violent past. The unit’s secretary, Rose, appears to suffer from dissociative identity disorder (“multiple personalities”). However, as a team they’re almost unbeatable.

The Keeper of Lost Causes (2007) — Superb Scandinavian noir from Denmark

Department Q is formed at the insistence of a member of Parliament. But Carl learns that his boss is skimming off most of his budget to subsidize the homicide bureau. He extorts an assistant to clean the basement and make coffee for him. Thinking he will get even with Carl for blackmailing him, the head of homicide assigns a seemingly clueless Syrian refugee named Assad as the assistant. But it doesn’t take long before it’s clear that Assad is capable of much more than cleaning floors and making coffee. Read the full review.

The Absent One (2008) — A twisted tale of murder in Denmark

The file of a case from 1987 has mysteriously landed on Carl’s desk: a double homicide that the police consider solved because the confessed murderer has long been in prison. No one can explain to Carl how or why the file showed up on his desk. Since Carl is afflicted with an overwhelming desire to do the exact opposite of what he’s told to do, he insists on pursuing the case even when his boss, and his bosses’ boss, the chief of police, demand that he set it aside because it has already been solved. Read the full review.

A Conspiracy of Faith (2009) — A captivating tale of religious fanaticism, blackmail, and serial murder

Carl is attempting to find an interesting case to explore when a mysterious message in a bottle literally turns up. That message, we know, was written by a teenage Danish boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who was being held captive along with his older brother in a boathouse on the shore of a fjord north of the capital. It was a desperate, last-minute plea for help—and it was written 13 years ago. Read the full review.

The Purity of Vengeance (2010) — Forced sterilization, fascists, and serial murder—in Denmark

While investigating the unexplained disappearance of four people in 1987, Department Q takes on a politically fraught case involving a powerful fertility doctor who is widely rumored to have performed a great many abortions over the years, most of them not just illegal but unknown to the women. The doctor is a clever and articulate spokesperson for the new Fascist party and is steadily gaining adherents through frequent television and radio interviews. Read the full review.

The Marco Effect (2014) — Child soldiers, bank fraud, and eccentric police in a Danish thriller

In a region of Cameroon populated by people outsiders call pygmies, a Danish development project has gone off the rails. Then, shortly after a visitor from the Danish foreign ministry is glimpsed on a visit, the local liaison between the project and the Danes is brutally murdered. Back home in Denmark, one of the foreign ministry officials involved in the project goes missing. We’ve learned that a senior official in the ministry and top executives at a Copenhagen bank are involved in a massive fraud. Meanwhile, troubles mount for a 15-year-old boy who is enslaved as a thief and a beggar by a band who style themselves Gypsies. We know there are connections among all these circumstances. But Carl Mørck doesn’t. Yet. Read the full review.

The Hanging Girl (2015) — From a bestselling Danish author, an intriguing detective novel

In 1997, a beautiful 19-year-old schoolgirl is killed by a hit-and-run driver on a road near the school she’s attending. Somehow, her body is throw up fourteen feet into a tree, where it remains hanging until a local police officer discovers her days later. The officer plunges into an obsessive investigation into her murder that spans nearly two decades. In the process, he drives his wife and son away and alienates everyone else around him. Now, in 2014, he calls detective Carl Mørck of the famous Department Q in Copenhagen in hopes Carl will take up the case. Carl, predictably, rude as ever, hangs up on him. Of course, we readers know well that Department Q will, in fact, take on the case. Read the full review.

The Scarred Woman (2016) — The latest addition to Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series

Like the six books that preceded it, it tells the story of how the small team in Department Q takes on several homicide cases simultaneously and discovers—lo and behold!—that they’re all connected. In the process, all three of Detective Carl Mørck’s “assistants,” Asaad, Rose, and newly assigned Gordon, manage to infuriate and astound him in new and sometimes highly creative ways. It’s just possible, we might guess, that all three of them are at least as smart as he is, if not more so. Read the full review.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

December 28, 2017

13 eye-opening books about terrorism

eye-opening books: Top Secret America by Dana PriestI haven’t made a special study of terrorism. Still, I’ve read a baker’s dozen books in recent years that cast light on the subject. Seven are nonfiction, six fiction. I’m listing them below, alphabetized by the authors’ last names within each category. Each author’s surname is followed by a link to the book’s review.

The fictional accounts I’ve included can be as revealing as the real-world analyses. Alex Berenson, author of the John Wells series, is a former New York Times reporter who knows the Middle East intimately. John le Carré’s understanding of British espionage and the world in which it operates is legendary. And Dame Stella Rimington’s Liz Carlyle series reflects her decades of experience in MI5, capped by her years as the agency’s first female director.

Nonfiction

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary—The Islamic perspective on history

The number of Muslims who participate in terrorism is vanishingly small when measured against a global population of nearly 7.5 billion. Even the number who sympathize with them is extremely limited. Most of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims tend to view history along the lines of the balanced and moderate perspective in this book. Read the review.

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti—Drones, mercenaries, and targeted murder: the new CIA strategy

To “end terrorism” after 9/11, the US military establishment gained trillions of dollars in new spending, and our intelligence agencies mushroomed in number and size. Even more important, the White House profoundly changed the rules under which both the Pentagon and the CIA operated. Read the review.

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin—The shocking reality behind the secret US war on “terror”

The authors’ research came up with a jaw-dropping 1,074 federal government organizations and nearly two thousand private companies involved with programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in at least 17,000 locations across the United States—all of them working at the top-secret classification level. Read the review.

Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power by David E. Sanger—The surprising emergence of Barack Obama’s secret wars

President Obama engineered a massive increase in drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; the country’s first-ever (known) use of cyberwarfare in a targeted attack on Iran’s nuclear program; and the ever-growing use of Special Forces in operations such as the murder of Osama bin Laden. Read the review.

Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker—Understanding the secret American campaign against Al Qaeda

In the course of the past decade “the government’s force of professional counterterrorism analysts has grown from a group small enough to know each other’s phone numbers to a vast army linked by supercomputers processing thousands of bits of data in nanoseconds.” And, by no means incidentally, spending tens of billions of dollars in the process. Read the review.

Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA by Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister—A truly amazing story about Al Qaeda, and it’s real

What makes Morten Storm’s story unique is the extraordinary amount of audiovisual evidence and electronic communications he collected during his time as a spy, which both corroborate his story and enrich his account. Read the review.

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick—A well-informed history of ISIS

There are heroes as well as villains in Black Flags. Jordan’s King, Abdullah II, is at the top of the list of heroes for his prescience in foreseeing the inevitable consequences of the Iraq invasion and his ongoing pleas to the U.S. government to avoid the great mistakes it made there. Read the review.

Fiction

The Faithful Spy (John Wells #1) by Alex Berenson—Al Qaeda from the inside out: a thriller filled with suspense

John Wells is the only CIA operative ever to succeed in infiltrating Al Qaeda. Now, after a decade undercover in Afghanistan and Chechnya, he finally appears to have gained the confidence of the group’s top leaders. Summoned to an audience with Ayman al-Zawahiri, Wells is dispatched to the USA to play a key role in a terrorist plot to rival 9/11. Read the review.

The Secret Soldier (John Wells #5) by Alex Berenson—Jihadis, the Saudi royal family, and an American soldier-spy

Alex Berenson’s espionage novels about American soldier-spy John Wells are timely and topical. They invariably give the reader an intimate, insider’s look at the U.S. intelligence establishment. And they reflect Berenson’s extensive travels as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times as well as his superior research skills. Read the review.

The Prisoner (John Wells #11) by Alex Berenson—Going undercover for the CIA in ISIS

To uncover the identity of a mole in the CIA, John Wells must revert to his terrorist identity, contrive to be captured by American forces in Afghanistan, and then rendered by the CIA to a black prison site in Bulgaria. There, his assignment is to befriend a fellow prisoner, a senior officer in ISIS who can identify the mole. Read the review.

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré—John le Carré’s latest, about anti-terrorism, is brilliant

Acting in secrecy, a British government official engineers a joint UK-US anti-terrorism operation in Gibraltar in partnership with a shady American financed by Texas-based evangelical Christian activists. A combined force of handpicked British Special Forces and mercenaries in the employ of a mysterious American defense contractor execute the plan under cover of darkness. Disaster ensues. Read the review.

Incendiary by Chris Cleve—A wrenching portrait of the human cost of terrorism

In an open letter to Osama bin Laden, a devastated young mother relates the impact of a massive terrorist attack on a soccer game in London where her husband and young son have died. The book’s four sections cover events in the spring, when the attack occurs, and in the succeeding summer, fall, and winter of one terrible year, perhaps the worst in London’s history. Read the review.

Secret Asset (Liz Carlyle #2) by Stella Rimington—An engrossing novel about British counter-espionage

A notorious radical Pakistani imam surfaces in Britain. The inter-agency Counter-Terrorist Committee swings into action, mobilizing MI5 (the Security Service), MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service), GCHQ (Britain’s NSA), the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard), and the Home Office (Britain’s Justice Department). Read the review.

December 21, 2017

Olen Steinhauer’s brilliant Yalta Boulevard cycle set in Eastern Europe

Yalta Boulevard cycle: Victory Square by Olen SteinhauerIn addition to the five novels in his splendid Yalta Boulevard cycle, Olen Steinhauer has authored to date the Milo Weaver trilogy (The Tourist, The Nearest Exit, An American Spy) and three standalone novels. But to my mind the five-book series that begins with The Bridge of Sighs is his best and most important work.

The Bridge of Sighs (2003) — A fully satisfying murder mystery set in post-war Europe

It has been three years since the Second World War ended, leaving his country in still in ruins and under the rule of a one-party Communist government headed by Comrade Mihai. The despised Germans and their sympathizers have been driven out or executed, but their legacy taints daily life at all levels of society. Just 22 and fresh out of the police academy, Emil Brod reports for duty to the homicide department in The Capital, only to be thrown, unaided, into investigating the murder of one of the country’s leading citizens.

Read the full review.

The Confession (2004) — An historical thriller set under Communism in Eastern Europe

We view the watershed year of 1956 through the eyes and the troubled mind of Ferenc Kolyeszar, a policeman in a fictional Eastern European country. Kolyeszar is a novelist as well as a policeman, having published a well-received novel about his experiences as a soldier resisting the German occupation at the outset of World War II. Now 37 years old, he is writing The Confession to chronicle his shattering experiences at home and at work against the backdrop of fateful world events . . . Read the full review.

Olen Steinhauer 2010

Olen Steinhauer, 2010

36 Yalta Boulevard (2005) — Inside the mind’s eye of Eastern European Communism in the 1960s

It’s 1966, and Brano Sev is now nearing 50. A World War II partisan fighter turned secret policeman, Brano has been working for months on the assembly line at a factory as punishment for an espionage scandal that erupted after he was sent on assignment to Vienna. Without warning, his superiors pull him out of the factory. temporarily reinstate him as a major in the security service, and send him off to his home village, where he is to investigate why a defector has suddenly returned to the village and what he’s planning to do . . . Read the full review.

Liberation Movements (2006) — Love, betrayal, and terrorism behind the Iron Curtain

Mystery piles atop mystery in this fourth installment of Olen Steinhauer’s five-novel cycle of life behind the Iron Curtain. The previous books were set in decades past, the post-war 40s, 50s, and 60s. In Liberation Movements, the action takes place in 1968 and 1975, relating two seemingly unconnected stories that only much later merge, raising yet more mysterious questions . . . Read the full review.

Victory Square (2007) — A powerful tale of life in Eastern Europe during the fall of Communism

Victory Square is the fifth and final novel in Steinhauer’s Eastern European cycle, and in some ways it’s the best. Steinhauer, an American who has lived for extended periods in several countries in the region, spent months, perhaps years, meticulously researching the fall of Ceausescu’s regime in Romania. That history forms the basis of the events that unfold in the novel in 1989-90 . . . Read the full review.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included. Take a look, too, at 15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others).

December 14, 2017

The magical Lisbeth Salander novels

Lisbeth Salander novels: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg LarssonTo date (December 2017), a total of five novels have been published in the Millennium Series originated by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. Larsson wrote the first three in a projected series of ten before suddenly passing away at the age of fifty in 2004. The three books were published posthumously beginning in 2005. By March 2015, the series had sold an aggregate of eighty million copies worldwide.

Shortly afterward, by arrangement with Larsson’s publisher, another Swedish author, David Lagercrantz, picked up the baton. At this writing, he has added two books to the series. All five titles feature the unforgettable anti-heroine, Lisbeth Salander, “the girl,” investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and the staff of Millennium, the magazine where Blomkvist works.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005)

Here’s Amazon’s take on this novel: “Harriet Vanger, a scion of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, disappeared over forty years ago. All these years later, her aged uncle continues to seek the truth. He hires Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently trapped by a libel conviction, to investigate. He is aided by the pierced and tattooed punk prodigy Lisbeth Salander. Together they tap into a vein of unfathomable iniquity and astonishing corruption.” My recollection of the book from more than a decade in the past is that it lived up to its over-the-top reviews. I loved the novel.

Stieg Larsson, author of the first three Lisbet Salander novels

Stieg Larsson, author of the first three Lisbet Salander novels. Credit: A&E’s Biography.

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006) — Lisbeth Salander stars again in an engrossing murder mystery

You have never met anyone like Lisbeth Salander, the “girl” in the title — guaranteed. Lisbeth is a tattooed, waif-like young woman with a brain of gargantuan proportions, an eidetic memory, an unsurpassed mastery of the Internet, and a mysterious past. In this unlikely but engrossing story of murder and corruption in the dark corners of contemporary Sweden, Lisbeth’s past is revealed in an encounter reminiscent of the games played out in the bowling alley of the gods. Read the full review.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2007) — The captivating third entry in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series

Salander, one of the most extraordinary characters ever to inhabit the printed page, is one of a large cast that includes the author’s fantasy doppelganger, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist; Mikael’s colleagues at Millennium magazine; Lisbeth’s employer and members of his staff; a hefty number of police officers; a crew of secret agents; assorted prosecutors, social workers, and attorneys; Swedish Cabinet members; and a large group of baddies, including the thugs who hang out in a motorcycle club and two members of Lisbeth’s own family. You might think that such a motley crew of characters could never fit within the confines of a single volume, much less come across as real people. Not so here. Well, maybe not real people. But the novel works. The suspense will raise your blood pressure. In a word, Hornet’s Nest is unputdownable. Read the full review.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2015) — More than 10 years after Stieg Larsson’s death, Lisbeth Salander returns!

Lisbeth Salander is Sweden’s answer to Wonder Woman, Stephen Hawking, Kevin Mitnick, and Mike Tyson all rolled into one five-foot, 98-pound package. She can debate the finer points of quantum mechanics and number theory with the world’s top physicists and mathematicians, hack her way into the most secure computer system on the planet, punch out a gang of the meanest, nastiest bikers you can imagine — and she has an evil twin. In other words, Lisbeth Salander is completely unbelievable. Yet this novel, and the three that preceded it, are crafted with such skill that you’ll probably get so caught up in the sheer complexity and suspense of the story that you won’t even think about how unlikely it all is. Read the full review.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (2017) — Stieg Larsson’s “girl” is back: the Millennium series continues

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye. All the earlier entries in the series rushed from action to action in an almost dizzying fashion. In Eye for an Eye, there are too many talky passages. At times, the story becomes tedious, and Stieg Larsson’s girl becomes hard to recognize. If I weren’t so bound to the Millennium series, I might well have put the book down before I reached the halfway point. Read the full review.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

December 6, 2017

The 15 best books of 2017 (plus 34 others)

Best books of 2017: Shattered by Jonathan Allen and Amie ParnesHere are my choices for the 15 best books of 2017. All were published in English in the United States from November 2016 through November 2017. They’re arranged within each section below in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Every title is linked to my review.

At the bottom of this post, I’ve listed 34 books I feel merit honorable mention.

Nonfiction

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes

A searing account of the 2016 election that centers most of the blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss on the candidate herself and the people surrounding her.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

The astonishing story of a woman whose seminal work in developing the science of cryptology and identifying Nazi spies in World War II has only recently been recognized.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

Then the richest people in America, the Osage of Oklahoma became the victims of a series of brutal murders in the 1920s by neighbors bent on stealing the oil wealth under their land.

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present by John Pomfret

To an extent that is only dimly understood, the histories of the US and China have been deeply intertwined ever since the founding of the republic.

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

A lexicographer with a wicked sense of humor gives an inside look at the making of the most popular dictionary in America.

Mysteries and thrillers

A Single Spy by William Christie

A Soviet agent sent undercover in Nazi Germany proves that “a single spy in the right place and at the right moment may change the course of history.”

The Late Show by Michael Connelly

The author of the long-running series of bestselling detective novels featuring Harry Bosch introduces a new leading lady, destined to have her own series.

A Divided Spy (Thomas Kell #3) by Charles Cumming

A retired MI6 officer plots to avenge the murder of his lover by the KGB colonel who had undermined his work over the years.

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

The iconic British spy, George Smiley, hovers in the background as a younger MI6 officer who had worked with him during the Cold War confronts a lawsuit about their work together.

The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter

The Georgia-based novelist who writes the Grant County and Will Trent series of crime thrillers probes the depths of depravity that touch a family of lawyers in rural Georgia.

Trade fiction (including science fiction)

American War: A Novel by Omar El Akkad

This debut novel tells the haunting, dystopian tale of a second American civil war set late in the twenty-first century.

Defectors: A Novel by Joseph Kanon

An American book publisher visits Moscow to edit the memoirs of his brother, who had defected to the Soviet Union decades earlier and joined the KGB.

Autonomous: A Novel by Annalee Newitz

In a future dominated by artificial intelligence and biotechnology, a military robot seeks to gain autonomy while on the hunt for a “patent pirate” who illegally manufactures medicine.

After Atlas (Planetfall, A) by Emma Newman

A police officer in the 22nd century investigates the death of a religious cult figure under the tight control of the company who has enslaved him.

Testimony: A Novel by Scott Turow

The author of the bestselling Kindle County courtroom dramas shifts his attention to the Hague and the war-crimes trial of a notorious Bosnian military leader.


Okay, now let’s get real. Nobody, and I mean nobody, including the army of reviewers who contribute to the New York Times Book Review, can possibly identify the “best” books published in any year. Believe it or not, more than one million titles were published in the United States alone in the most recent year for which statistics are available (2013). Some 304,000 titles were issued by “traditional” publishers in the US, and another 184,000 in the UK. In other words, in a single year, publishing companies brought out nearly half a million titles in just two of the biggest English-language publishing markets. (The numbers for India were substantially smaller.) And that’s only the data for traditional publishers. Self-published titles (in the US alone) numbered more than 700,000. So, don’t believe anyone who claims they’ve identified the “best” books of the year.

One other thing: reviewers are selective. I’m especially so. I don’t read cookbooks, poetry, romance novels, collections of short stories, self-help guides, or books about sports, art, philosophy, vampires, zombies, ghosts, or a dozen other topics that don’t come readily to mind. I do read mysteries and thrillers, science fiction, popular “serious” fiction, humor, and nonfiction about history, world affairs, biography, politics, science, and business. Broadly speaking, my reading falls into three categories: mysteries and thrillers, trade fiction, and nonfiction. Those are the three categories I’ve used above.

In a given year, I read about 200 books. Now, I recognize that speedreaders may consume far more than that. But I’ve tried speedreading, and I don’t like it. It’s not really reading: it’s mining for information. That may work for lawyers, scholars, or others reading with specific ends in mind. But it’s not fun, at least not for me. And I only review books that I’ve read from beginning to end.

Now you know.


Here, then, are the 34 books I thought were also excellent but warrant only honorable mention. As above, they’re all linked to my reviews.

Honorable mention

I’ve reviewed 21 recently published nonfiction books in the last year, all of which are good but not quite good enough to make the list of five top reads above.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen

Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age by Leslie Berlin

The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan

Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes by Richard A. Clarke and R. P. Eddy

Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It’s Taking Us Next by Luke Dormehl

Megatech: Technology in 2050 edited by Daniel Franklin

Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green

A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order by Richard A. Haass

Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together by Van Jones

Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us by Sam Kean

The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire by Stephen Kinzer

Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street by Sheelah Kolhatkar

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

One Nation Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau

The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham

The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone by Brian Merchant

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston

Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory by Elizabeth Rosner

The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World by Brad Stone

The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future by Vivek Wadwa and Alex Salkever

The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World by Sharon Weinberger

During the past year I’ve read and enjoyed the following nine mysteries and thrillers in addition to the five top reads listed above.

Wolf on a String: A Novel by Benjamin Black

Origin (Robert Langdon #5) by Dan Brown

Two Kinds of Truth (Harry Bosch #20) by Michael Connelly

Vienna Spies by Alex Gerlis

The Rooster Bar by John Grisham

The Dry: A Novel by Jane Harper

Righteous (IQ #2) by Joe Ide

The Dime by Kathleen Kent

The Crow Girl: A Novel by Erik Axl Sund

Here are four books I classify as trade fiction (including science fiction) that I found worthy of mention, in addition to the five top reads in this category above.

Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson

Tool of War (Drowned Cities #3) by Paolo Bacigalupi

A Column of Fire (Kingsbridge Saga #3) by Ken Follett

The Collapsing Empire (Interdependency #1) by John Scalzi

November 30, 2017

The Quirke series of Dublin crime novels from Benjamin Black

Quirke series: Christine Falls by Benjamin BlackBenjamin Black is the pen name of Irish author John Banville, who is widely regarded as a consummate stylist of the English language. He won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for his fourteenth novel, The Sea. Banville insists that he writes the Quirke series of Dublin crime novels for the money, but it’s difficult to detect any evidence that he doesn’t give those books the same care he lends to his “serious” fiction.

Christine Falls (2006)—Corruption and mayhem in Dublin and Boston in a superior mystery novel

The woman whose name is on the cover of this engrossing tale of murder, betrayal, and corruption on high has arrived in Quirke’s morgue, deemed a suicide by the police. When Quirke comes across his brother-in-law, Malachy Griffin, doctoring the records of the young woman’s death, he develops an irresistible urge to examine the case more closely. Naturally, he finds that the reason for the woman’s death was anything but suicide . . . Read the full review.

The Silver Swan (2007)—A suspenseful novel that will keep you guessing until the end

Like many of the best crime writers, Black focuses on character, atmosphere, and language as much as on plot. The sure hand of a master stylist is very much in evidence in The Silver Swan. You’ll see it in the dialogue, where the individual speech patterns of his characters are distinctive, and in his lyrical descriptions of Dublin in the rain. If you read this book to the end, you might think you’ve gotten to know Quirke, and you may like him. You might also have a sense of Dublin, even if you’ve never been there . . . Read the full review.

Elegy for April (2010)—1950s Dublin: murder and the Church

Elegy for April is the third of Black’s seven novels about the alcoholic pathologist in 1950s Dublin whom we know only as Quirke. These novels explore the tight grip of the Catholic Church on Irish society and the crimes so often committed in her name. Quirke, though he has no official role as an investigator, is drawn into what usually prove to be murder cases by virtue of his family’s involvement . . . Read the full review.

A Death in Summer (2011)—Murder in Dublin, and an unconventional sleuth who solves the case

The “death in summer” that gives this tale its title is the shotgun beheading of a ruthless Dublin businessman who leaves behind a French widow, a sister, and enough enemies to populate an Agatha Christie whodunit. However, despite a plethora of suspects, Quirke and Hackett, his collaborator in the Garda (the Dublin police), focus on those closest to the deceased. As the investigation unfolds, Quirke dives deeply into the complex relations within the victim’s family and becomes romantically involved with the widow . . . Read the full review.

Vengeance (2012)—Benjamin Black’s Quirke series: Is it “serious literature?”

In the Quirke novels, Banville comes to grip with the Irish elite, the underlying tension between Catholic and Protestant, the dead weight of the Church, and the veil of history. Quirke and his police collaborator, Inspector Hackett of the Garda, invariably find themselves caught up in the often violent conflicts roiling Dublin’s elite society. In Vengeance, two families are locked in combat for three generations, one Protestant, one Catholic, as partners in one of the country’s biggest businesses. The mysterious death at sea of one of the partners triggers an investigation by Quirke and Hackett that leads them to uncover long-hidden family secrets . . . Read the full review.

Holy Orders (2013)—From Benjamin Black, a mystery to savor for its gorgeous prose

The sixth of Banville’s novels (writing as Black) about the tortured Dublin pathologist who appears to be named only Quirke is a textbook example of dazzling prose. Any reader looking for nonstop action and sheer excitement won’t find them in Holy Orders. Black is concerned more with character development and scene-setting than with the usual conventions of the mystery genre. The story involves Quirke, his daughter Phebe, and his pal Inspector Hackett of the Garda in a complex plot with Irish “travelers” (called “tinkers” in Ireland) and a passel of very unpleasant priests and their enforcers . . . Read the full review.

Even the Dead (2015)—Dublin’s answer to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson?

Quirke and Detective Inspector Hackett bear not the slightest resemblance to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. But they have come together once again because a young man thought to have been a suicide has instead, apparently, been murdered. In the 1950s, Ireland is the same poor country it had been for centuries, long before the recent boom that first lifted its economy into the heights of prosperity and then sent it crashing below. In “this mean and mendacious little city,” as Quirke thinks of it, alcohol almost invariably fuels social interactions, and alcoholism is rampant. In this setting, the Catholic Church reigns supreme and untouchable—and yet when Quirke and Hackett deduce that the Church is somewhere in the background of this latest murder, they don’t hesitate to take it on, all-powerful or not . . . Read the full review.

I have also reviewed two other John Banville books published under his pseudonym, Benjamin Black:

If you enjoy fiction that illuminates the past, check out 75 readable and revealing historical novels. You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

October 25, 2017

My 6 favorite dystopian novels

favorite dystopian novels - this perfect day by ira levinIn my new book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction, I review 62 dystopian novels, nearly all of which I’ve read and reviewed recently. Over the years, the total number I’ve consumed probably approaches 100. So, I feel comfortable putting forward the list of my six favorite dystopian novels.

Here goes, in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. If I’ve left out one or two of your all-time favorites, or if you simply detest one I’ve included, let me know. You can do so by using the contact form at the bottom of this post.

Feed, by M. T. Anderson

In M. T. Anderson’s terrifying future world, people access all their news, advertising, education, games, “m-chat,” and money through implants in their brains—not just embedded chips but multipurpose devices that are fully integrated into their nervous systems. This is the “feed” of the title. A powerful future version of Virtual Reality allows people to experience novelty and excitement at any time without special equipment—and without pausing for reflection. Corporations are the dominant force on the planet. Climate change, pollution, and overfishing have killed the oceans. Past wars have left a blanket of radioactive dust all across the surface. Human settlements on Earth exist underground under domes to shield people from the intolerable heat and unbreathable atmosphere. Massive numbers have migrated off-planet to the moon, Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and nearby star systems. This is truly a dystopian society.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

The frightening world depicted by Margaret Atwood in the MaddAddam Trilogy is the product of catastrophic climate change, runaway genetic engineering, and . . . something else that only becomes clear much later. Whatever it was that happened was so severe that Atwood’s protagonist in the first of these three novels, a young man named Jimmy who now styles himself as Snowman, believes he is the only human being left alive on Planet Earth. In Oryx and Crake, Book #1, we enter the future world of Atwood’s cruel vision shortly after the Waterless Flood, which virtually exterminated the human species. Climate change has wrought havoc on Planet Earth, confirming the most pessimistic projections of the early 21st Century. It’s not a pretty picture. Book #2, The Year of the Flood, takes us back to the years preceding the Flood, when the conditions described in Oryx and Crake came about. We learn the nature of the Flood, and how it came to be. Finally, in Book #3, MaddAddam, we encounter once again the principal characters of the first two books and follow them as the future grimly unfolds. Most of the action is compressed into a few months following the calamity of the Flood

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl is the first of (now) four novels in Paolo Bacigalupi’s Drowned Cities cycle. It was followed by The Drowned CitiesShip Breaker, and Tool of War. These four outstanding novels depict a grim future long after the oceans have drowned many of the world’s great cities. Strictly speaking, only the last three constitute a series in a formal sense. But the scenario they illustrate is the same. In the first three books, most of the action takes place in and near Bangkok in the 23rd century; later, the action moves to the Drowned Cities of the North American East Coast. Sometime in the past, the oceans have risen 20 feet or more, and the city of Bangkok is just one of a handful of coastal cities that survive only because a visionary Thai king built an enormous seawall, dikes, and pumps to hold back the waters of the annual monsoon. Genetic engineering has run amok around the globe, and the Thai Kingdom is one of few countries, perhaps the only country, still resisting the “calorie companies,” powerful food-exporting corporations headquartered in the American Midwest and in China. Having killed off virtually all traditional sources of food—and hundreds of millions of people—with genetically engineered plagues to increase their leverage in the market, the calorie companies hungrily eye Thailand and its own independent success in creating new fruits and nightshades capable of resisting the ubiquitous plant-killers. In this grim environment, so long removed from the 21st century, one character “wonders if it was really better in the past, if there really was a golden age fueled by petroleum and technology. A time when every solution to a problem didn’t engender another.”

This Perfect Day by Ira Levin

Centuries in the future, the people of Earth live under the control of an artificial intelligence called UniComp. The result is a worldwide society free of war, hunger, crime, and violence of any sort. “Hate” and “fight” are swear words. The world run by Unicomp is dedicated to efficiency above all else. The population of the planet is kept steady at eight billion through rigorous control of the birth rate and through emigration to colonies the Family has established on other planets. It’s inefficient to grow and prepare a variety of foods, so everyone’s nutritional needs are met through an unchanging diet of totalcakes. To suppress undesirable behavior, everyone submits monthly to chemotherapy “treatments”; otherwise, they will get “sick” and demonstrate aberrant behavior. This is the world Ira Levin describes in his superb science fiction novel, This Perfect Day.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. wrote scores of short science fiction stories but only one novel that was published during his lifetime. In fact, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) was a reworked version of three short stories that spanned thousands of years of human history following a nuclear holocaust. Divided into three parts, each corresponding to one of the short stories, the novel describes the efforts of the monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz to preserve scientific knowledge for use in the future once humankind is capable of understanding it once again. The monks worship Saint Leibowitz, a Jewish engineer working for the American military at a base in the Southwestern US. Leibowitz had anticipated all-out nuclear war and a return to dark ages by hiding books in safe places after the war ended. He was betrayed, martyred, and then eventually named a candidate for sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church. But about all that remains of Leibowitz’ life is a shopping list, which is treated as a holy relic by the monks. The books have been lost. Part One, “Fiat Homo” (“Let There Be Man”), is set in the 26th Century, when Leibowitz is canonized following the discovery of the shopping list and other handwritten notes. In Part Two, “Fiat Lux” (“Let There Be Light”), 600 years later in 3174, the new Dark Age is ending. A few scholarly residents of the region are beginning to recreate rudimentary electrical technology. Part Three, “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (“Let Thy Will Be Done”), is set six centuries later in 3781. Once again, humanity possesses nuclear energy and is now populating extra-solar colonies. Nuclear war threatens once again. Of all the science fiction I read as a boy, A Canticle for Leibowitz stands out most vividly in my memory. 

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

In the post-apocalyptic world of this wonderful novel, a National Book Award Finalist, there are no functioning cities. A devastating disease known as the Georgian Flu has killed off nearly all the world’s people. Survivors have scattered over the countryside, some of them coming together in communities of at most a couple of hundred people. Someone has set up a Museum of Civilization in an airport lounge, displaying mobile phones, electronic games, credit cards, and other artifacts of lives long gone. This is a world fraught with danger. In the years immediately following the collapse, many survivors walk for hundreds of miles in search of food and other resources. Distrust leads many to kill anyone who approaches them. Meanwhile, feral humans rove the earth, preying on travelers unable to defend themselves. Soon, madness takes hold of many, and would-be prophets begin to collect followers, imposing their will through force on anyone they encounter.

You’ll notice of course, that the most familiar titles don’t appear on this short list. The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and other high-profile examples of the genre are a mixed bag. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is excellent, though I found the world she imagined in Oryx and Crake (and the other novels in the MaddAddam Trilogy) to be more engaging and ultimately more thought-provoking. As I remember the other well-known titles, none of which I’ve read in recent months, I don’t think any of them is as evocative as the six novels I’ve listed above. And perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising: Brave New World was written in the early 1930s, 1984 in the 1940s, and Fahrenheit 451 in the 1950s. The authors couldn’t possibly have foreseen the world we live in today, much less how to write in a way that contemporary readers would find truly relevant.

Are the six books in my list the six best dystopian novels of all time? Of course, that’s a matter of opinion. Feel free to disagree with me.

You might also be interested in some of my other favorite dystopian novels. See A brief look at 15 important dystopian novels. You may also be interested in My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

October 19, 2017

Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels

Bernie Gunther novels - A Quiet Flame - Philip KerrPhilip Kerr’s series of historical novels featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther span the years of Hitler’s rise to power, German rearmament in the 1930s, World War II, the post-war years in Germany, and the flight of top-ranked Nazis to South America. Twelve Bernie Gunther novels have been published to date. A thirteenth, Greeks Bearing Gifts, is due to be issued in 2018.

Top Nazis figure in every one of these novels, and his portraits of them are convincing. His protagonist, ace homicide investigator Bernie Gunther, is in some ways a standard-issue tough cop like those who populated the crime fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. He’s a big guy who can usually take care of himself in a fight. He’s cynical—what used to be called a “wise guy”—who is prone to run his big mouth far more often than he should. He repeatedly finds his way to the beds of beautiful women. And, of course, he is brilliant at his work.

But Bernie serves a larger literary purpose. A social democrat who never consented to join the Nazi Party, he’s a foil for the never-ending parade of high-ranking Nazis he meets in the course of his investigations. Bernie isn’t just a non-Nazi; he’s openly anti-Nazi, and he doesn’t care who knows it. Somehow, improbably, he has managed to survive more than two decades in conflict with the Nazi leadership. His consummate skill as a detective saves him every time.

Below are the dozen Bernie Gunther novels that have appeared in the series to date. You can access what I’ve written about them by clicking on the link to the right of each review.

  1. March Violets (1989), set in 1936: A vivid snapshot of Nazi Berlin
  2. The Pale Criminal (1990), set in 1938: A serial killer in Nazi Germany
  3. A German Requiem (1991), set in 1947-48: Another excellent novel in the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr
  4. The One from the Other (2006), set in 1949: An anti-Nazi detective in Hitler’s Germany
  5. A Quiet Flame (2008), set in 1950: An eye-opening detective novel about Nazis in Argentina
  6. If the Dead Rise Not (2009), set in 1934 and 1954: From Hitler’s Germany to Batista’s Cuba
  7. Field Gray (2010), set in 1954, with flashbacks over 20 years: Bernie Gunther’s life in flashbacks
  8. Prague Fatale (2011), set in 1941: A hard-boiled detective in Nazi Germany
  9. A Man Without Breath (2013), set in 1943: Mass murder in the Katyn Forest
  10. The Lady from Zagreb (2015), set in 1942-43 and 1956: Cynicism and romanticism in Nazi Germany
  11. The Other Side of Silence (2016), set in 1956: An exciting chapter in the Bernie Gunther saga
  12. Prussian Blue (2017), set in 1939 and 1956: In Philip Kerr’s latest, Bernie Gunther confronts top Nazis and the Stasi
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