Best Political And Current Affairs Books Of 2008

Sandstorm In Iraq
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Upon finishing a nonfiction book, one should ideally jump up and, with the fervor of a Soviet dissident passing samizdat in a dark corner, give the book to a friend with a wholehearted, "THIS you've got to read!"

All of these top selections for recent history touch on themes iterated and reiterated during summer stump speeches and which, if exit polling is to be believed, resonated strongly with voters in November. Now that the political season is over, the many lessons embedded in these works can and should inform agendas in the to-be-convened 111th Congress and Obama White House. That, and mastering them will instantly place you among the guests most well-versed in current events at the office holiday party.

'The Forever War'

Dexter Filkin's 'The Forever War'
The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins, hardcover, 384 pages

Leading readers through a series of gory and ghostly vignettes from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins creates a brilliant panorama that sometimes aches with ennui and other times drips with blood. Careful neither to sentimentalize nor to glorify, Filkins is less tour guide and more projectionist, preferring to mount each reel of his illuminating narrative and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. In an almost caricatured version of strait-laced Gray Lady reportage, Filkins returns us, routinely, to the precarious comfort of the Times's Baghdad bureau and upright prose, only to drag us back into the scorching morning light and violence perpetually ablaze in his theater of war. Read a full review here

'An Imperfect Offering'

James Orbinski's 'An Imperfect Offering'
An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the Twenty-First Century, by James Orbinski, M.D., hardcover, 448 pages

Orbinski, former president of the International Council of Doctors Without Borders, takes readers from hellhole to hellhole on a post-Cold War tour of the developing world, chronicling the devolution of states suddenly thrust into dysfunctional self-sufficiency after decades of superpower patronage. Unflinchingly apolitical (a disavowal that almost becomes a political act in itself), the good Dr. Orbinski dodges AK-47 bullets and machetes in Chechnya and Rwanda; treats sundry diseases all but eradicated in the West, such as diarrhea and dysentery in Peru and the Congo; pleads in Somalia with warlords, some more reasonable than others, that treating someone labeled "enemy" is not equal to killing someone labeled "friend." There are no easy answers in An Imperfect Offering, only cobwebby conflicts — that many Americans missed in post-Berlin Wall euphoria — stitched together with the common thread of human misery.

'Nixonland'

Rick Perlstein's 'Nixonland'
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, by Rick Perlstein, hardcover, 896 pages

This is not a baby-boomer's history book, although boomers can and will enjoy it. Unlike, say, iconic activist-author Tom Hayden, Perlstein can't "take his readers back" to the '60s; he wasn't born until 1969. But because he wasn't present at the creation of "Nixonland" — the black-and-white, hip-versus-square sociopolitical divide that Nixon and his potent public relations machine conceived and exploited — Perlstein can describe and interpret from a more cerebral, less visceral viewpoint. He can, for example, coolly deconstruct media coverage of the 1965 Watts riots. Refreshingly, Perlstein writes as one who's interested in, not seethingly angry with, Nixon's colossal influence on latter-day American politics. We meet young versions of William Safire, Roger Ailes and Pat Buchanan, Nixon's PR gurus, and while each is given credit for his respective role in the invention of Nixonland, none is cast as a right-wing bogeyman bent on ruining America. Bright but not lurid, Nixonland is cinematic in scope and style, rewarding for both its sweeping narrative and painstaking detail.

'The Dark Side'

Jane Mayer's 'The Dark Side'
The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, by Jane Mayer, hardcover, 400 pages

Sooner or later, someone will ask the United States en masse, "So, what did you do during the war?" He'll mean the War on Terror, and the answer will be found in The Dark Side. This is the nauseating story of the evolution of the CIA and Pentagon's post-Sept. 11 detainee interrogation policies. Blood is measured in puddles and pools, and beneficent psychological know-how is turned curdlingly evil. Still, it is a story that needs to be told, much as a contemporary German still visits — and remembers — Auschwitz. Mayer's book is a starting point for investigations into the War on Terror, a solid work of journalism that lays waste to any insipid assertion that "We do not torture." The horrifyingly rational, albeit morally indefensible, legal justifications for American torture, juxtaposed with detailed reconstructions of the torture itself, provides a frightening contrast between the clean theory of policy (neatly typed opinions filed with the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel) and the appalling reality of practice. Read a full review here

'The Bin Ladens'

Steve Coll's 'The Bin Ladens'
The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century, by Steve Coll, hardcover, 688 pages

To great fanfare and controversy last year, the late Norman Mailer offered up The Castle in the Forest, a novelization of Adolf Hitler's formative years. No such conversion from nonfiction to fiction is necessary with the story of the 21st century's Public Enemy No. 1 and his family. It's a better-than-fiction, multigenerational epic. While scrupulously tracing the family line of Saudi Arabia's version of the Rockefellers, Steve Coll also delivers an outstanding narrative of contemporary Saudi history. Readers can be forgiven for oohing and ahhing at the myriad ways both the Al-Saud and bin Laden families found for spending unimaginable riches (pink-and-green hued palaces, falconry, "ultralight sport aircraft") and for puzzling over the countless well-lubricated relationships between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Most fascinating, perhaps, are the descriptions of the Cold War rigidity and petroleum addiction that motivated American decisions directly and indirectly responsible for the creation of the terrorist network that stalks us today.

Books Featured In This Story

The Forever War
The Forever War

by Dexter Filkins

Hardcover, 368 pages | purchase

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Purchase Featured Books

  • The Forever War
  • Dexter Filkins
An Imperfect Offering
An Imperfect Offering

Humanitarian Action for the Twenty-First Century

by James Orbinski

Hardcover, 431 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • An Imperfect Offering
  • Humanitarian Action for the Twenty-First Century
  • James Orbinski
Nixonland
Nixonland

The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America

by Rick Perlstein

Hardcover, 881 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • Nixonland
  • The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
  • Rick Perlstein

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