It's that time of year for bloggers to make some lists. So, with the caveat that there are a lot of 2015 books that I haven't gotten to yet, like Thing Explainer, here are my five favorites from this year.
Lynsey Addario is now an acclaimed, award-winning photojournalist and combat photographer who has worked in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and Libya (where she and several colleagues were kidnapped). But though she began taking pictures as a teenager, she never considered photography as a career until after graduating from college. At first, photography was something she did to earn money to travel around the world. Then, as she increasingly ventured into dangerous regions despite the risks and the effects on her personal life, it became her job and her calling. It’s What I Do, featuring some of Addario’s photographs, is an eye-opening memoir exploring how she became a photographer and why she continues to venture around the world to document war and injustice.
Here in the U.S., when we think of 20th century Russia/Soviet Union, things like the fall of the Romanovs, communism, and the Cold War come to mind, not World War II. As M. T. Anderson demonstrates, in order to understand what happened during the war, we do need some understanding of the Romanovs, communism, and the Cold War, but it’s also worth noting what we’re ignoring by overlooking the Soviet role in World War II: it “eventually suffered 95 percent of the military casualties inflicted on the major Allied powers (the U.S., the U.K., and the USSR)—and 90 percent of Germans killed in combat died fighting them.” An estimated 27 million Soviets, both military and civilian, died during the war, over 15% of the USSR’s population. The city of Leningrad (formerly Petrograd, formerly and now once again St. Petersburg) suffered under a German siege lasting 900 days; a million people died, and a million others went to desperate lengths to survive the freezing cold and starvation. It is in this context—the instability of the last days of the Romanovs, the rise of the Communists, then the treacherous consolidation of power by Joseph Stalin, and the suffering of World War II—that the famous composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who was alternately honored and denounced by the authorities, wrote his Seventh Symphony during the siege of Leningrad in honor of his beloved birthplace. (See also Colleen's review from earlier this year.)
I don’t remember much about how I learned about the Civil War in high school. It received a lot of attention in my textbook, I’m sure, and it’s likely that the war was described mostly in terms of numbers—of how many states seceded, of the dead, of the number of slaves who were freed—and battles. But despite the importance of the Civil War, and how it continues to reverberate to this day, what I learned didn’t really stick with me. Probably because, as historian Ari Kelman and illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm note, “Grim statistics…go a long way toward communicating the terrible cost of the Civil War, but the numbers themselves are almost too much. Our imagination balks, and we lose sight of the anguish that nearly every American felt on a level that was—and for many still is—deeply personal.” So instead of attempting to provide a comprehensive overview or explanation of the war, Kelman and Fetter-Vorm take the opposite approach. In fifteen short comics-style vignettes (fictional, but inspired by actual events and primary sources; a Notes and Suggested Reading List provides more information), they vividly reveal the experiences of average Americans—black and white, Northern and Southern—to visceral, heartbreaking effect. The graphic format makes this much more memorable than a textbook, and much more accessible and approachable than a lengthy history book.
In the 1980s and '90s, when heroin dealers from Xalisco, Mexico developed a new way of doing business in the western United States, they were constrained by a limited market. Heroin addicts need a daily fix, making them ideal customers, but most addicts were older and poorer and there simply weren't that many of them around. Flash forward to the 2010s. Now, when it comes to fatal drug overdoses, more people are dying of opiates (a category that includes prescription painkillers and heroin) than any other drug, and most of these deaths are occurring in white, middle- and upper-class populations. Headlines such as “How painkillers are turning young athletes into heroin addicts,” “Deaths from opioid overdoses set a record in 2014,” and “In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs” appear regularly. Sam Quinones investigates how three trends—the evolution of the medical community's approach to pain management; the marketing of new prescription painkillers, particularly OxyContin, which got people hooked on opiates; and the Xalisco Boys' ingenious business model, providing black tar heroin more cheaply and conveniently than black market OxyContin—quickly intersected and made opiate abuse “the worst drug scourge ever to hit the country.” Super fascinating and super timely.
On August 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced that communist North Vietnam “renewed hostile actions against United States ships…in the Gulf of Tonkin.” Though he promised that the U.S. sought “no wider war,” air strikes against the North Vietnamese were launched and the Johnson administration sought approval to expand military action. It was Daniel Ellsberg’s first day of work at the Pentagon. At the time, Ellsberg was as much a believer in U.S. action as anyone. It was the Cold War; the Domino Theory held that countries were like dominoes, and if one country fell to communism, so would another, and another, and so on. Accordingly, the U.S. felt compelled to send weapons, advisors, and troops to places like South Vietnam. But as the number of American forces in Vietnam rose and the conflict dragged on, Ellsberg grew disillusioned. He spent time in South Vietnam, went on patrols with combat platoons, and suspected that people there didn’t care who won the war, so long as it ended. More, Ellsberg had access to a top secret study that closely examined American involvement in Vietnam since 1945: the Pentagon Papers, “seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over twenty-three years.” As Ellsberg considered what he could do to help end the war, he felt the public needed to know what was in the Pentagon Papers. So in 1971, he leaked part of these classified documents to the New York Times, becoming “the most dangerous man in America” to President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and a hero to many others.
And the six 2016 books I am most looking forward to:
The Lovers: Afghanistan's Romeo and Juliet, the True Story of How They Defied Their Families and Escaped an Honor Killing by Rod Nordland, about the young couple Nordland wrote about in the New York Times (January 26)
Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune by Pamela S. Turner and illustrated by Gareth Hinds, a biography of a legendary 12th-century samurai (February 2)
Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah, who has already written about malaria in The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years (February 23)
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer, because 1) bad-ass librarians, and 2) Hammer's article in the January 2014 issue of Smithsonian magazine (April 19)
Bubonic Panic: When Plague Invaded America by Gail Jarrow, concluding her great Deadly Diseases trilogy (after Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat and Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary) (May 24)
Stiletto: A Novel by Daniel O'Malley, the sequel to The Rook (June 14)
What books make your list of 2015 favorites and 2016 books you can't wait to read?