Books. Is there no end to the making of them? Well, yes, apparently there will be. More and more volumes these days make their fleeting appearances only as spectral electronic transmissions, beamed down from the Starship Amazon into plastic receptacles, where they may be deleted at the whim of the publisher or a random electromagnetic pulse generated by a nuclear jousting match somewhere in the Negev.
I prefer books as tangible objects to smell, annotate, dog-ear, shred, roll joints on (in an age without double-album sleeves) and re-sell when the wolf is at the door. I like books that can jam doors, insulate walls, press wildflowers, smash windows and burn (and not merely melt) in the campfire. Try that with your Kindle or i-Phone.
It’s beyond rational debate that the three most important books of 2015 were all published by CounterPunch: Michael Hudson’s unflinching autopsy of the financial crisis, Killing the Host; Ron Jacobs’s groovy memoir of the cultural politics of the 1970s, Daydream Sunset; and Diana Johnstone’s savage indictment of Hillary’s Clinton’s blood-soaked foreign policy resumé, Queen of Chaos.
Still, looking back on a year’s worth of reading, I was at little astonished at how many books have stayed on or near my desk, within arm’s length for repeated reading, quoting and disputing. Here are meaty 10 books, those artifacts of another era, from an otherwise dreary political year that continue to linger in my mind. Get your hands on them now, while they’re still making them.
American Slave Coast: a History of the Slave Breeding Industry by Ned Sublette and Constance Sublette (Chicago Review Press)
This sprawling and unsparing history of the American slave-breeding industry may be the most important book of the last decade. It is a vividly written, painfully documented alternative history of the grim origins of the political economy of the American republic. As the Sublettes convincingly demonstrate, the heinous truth is that from the earliest days the American economy was driven by slavery and the most profitable business in that abominable enterprise derived from the manufacturing and sale of new slaves.
Kill Chain: the Rise of the High Tech Assassins by Andrew Cockburn (Henry Holt)
Kill Chain may be the best history of drone warfare yet written. But Cockburn goes far beyond that, giving us nothing less than a complete dissection of the Pentagon’s fanciful pursuit of technological killing machines, from the multi-billion dollar Stealth con job to remote-controlled warfare. Cockburn demolishes the myths of “surgical strikes,” “smart bombs” and “targeted killings” and exposes the depraved bureaucratic doctrine that promotes push-button assassination.
Kissinger’s Shadow: the Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman by Greg Grandin. (Metropolitan Books)
In acidic prose, Greg Grandin compiles an unimpeachable indictment of Kissinger’s bloody record and its malignant legacy. Grandin gets extra credit for getting this book out while Kissinger still breathes. The old butcher will go to his grave knowing that his crimes have been exposed for all to see.
Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Slahi and Larry Siems. (Back Bay Books)
If we’re going to have standardized education this country, then immediately after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every American high schooler should be required to read from Slahi’s harrowing account of his Kafkaesque confinement in Guantánamo, despite never having been charged and ordered released by a federal judge, an order defied by the US government. This is a book that is worthy of Dostoevsky.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. (Graywolf)
In this strange, risky and intimate exploration of love, motherhood and gender-morphing, Maggie Nelson, a poet and cultural critic in southern California, grapples with the changes in her own body through pregnancy as her partner undergoes sexual reassignment surgeries and testosterone hormone injections therapy. Forget Caitlyn Jenner, The Argonauts is a challenging and uncompromising account of a family coming to grips with radical transformation.
SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (Liveright)
A wry and caustic counter-history of Rome that forsakes the tedious retelling of battles and imperial plots to probe the darker and more occluded precincts of the Imperial city, from the economics of Roman slavery to the political position of women and the machinations of the first transnational bureaucracy that expanded inexorably as emperors came and went.
Stoned: a Doctor’s Case for Medical Marijuana by David Casarett, MD (Current)
A meticulous, careful and unbiased assessment, written by a physician who treats the terminally-ill, of the efficacy of marijuana as an herbal remedy for a wide-range of physical and psychological ailments that should go a long way toward redeeming this maligned and benign plant.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (Riverhead)
One of the most thrilling novels I’ve read in the last five years. Marlon James’s spiraling Dickensian romp, which orbits around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, provides a gripping, wide-screen portrait of Jamaica as the nation attempts to liberate itself from the shackles of its colonial history. I finished it and plunged right back into it the next week.
Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (Doubleday)
Beatlebone is a manic novel about art, escape and living on the edge of mental breakdown. But just who’s breakdown? Is it John Lennon’s, as he flees NYC in 1978, for a mystical island off the coast of Ireland? Or the obsessed writer on his trail, stalking him, even as the reader knows that another stalker, this one with a gun, waits back in New York in the cold shadow of the Dakota. A truly remarkable novel, written in an unforgettable voice.
SOS: Poems 1961-2013 by Amiri Baraka. (Grove)
This is an essential and comprehensive collection of the most revolutionary, provocative and urgent American poetic voice of the last 50 years.