Monday, December 30, 2013

Books in 2013: A Personal Selection

During a year in which I published one book, The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair (Zed Books), and finished another, the forthcoming In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico (Lyons Press), I also got a fair amount of reading done. As has become something of a yearly tradition, here are the books that made the biggest impression on me in 2013.

Oblivion: A Memoir by Héctor Abad

This work of non-fiction by one of Colombia’s best-known novelists is the moving and painful story of his father, Héctor Abad Gómez, an idealistic physician who was slain by right-wing paramilitaries in 1987 for his work on behalf of the country’s poor and disenfranchised. In the story of his family and of his father, Abad manages to evoke the as-yet-unresolved struggles of an entire country.

Book of Clouds by Chloe Aridjis

A dreamlike and often eerie depiction of a young woman adrift in Berlin, this first novel by the Mexican writer Chloe Aridjis bodes for great things in the future.

The Corpse Had a Familiar Face by Edna Buchanan

An essential bit of Miami noir, this memoir was first published in 1987, the world this book by a former Miami Herald crime reporter depicts was wistful and vanishing (and quite dark) even then. It was a world where much of Miami Beach was still populated by retirees rather than club kids and where journalism was made up largely of regular working stiffs like everybody else and the idea of a journalism “school” was letting someone getting their hands dirty on a tough beat rather than further lining the coffers of  elite universities. “Once a sleepy resort that shut down during the off season,” Buchanan writes, “Miami now copes year-round with concentrations of everything corrupt, bizarre or dangerous from everywhere in the world.”

The Accidental President of Brazil: A Memoir by Fernando Henrique Cardoso

A presidential memoir that is actually more engaging before the subject becomes president, this book by Brazil’s 34th president is most interesting in its depiction of the long, arduous struggle that often diffuse democratic forces there waged against a durable military dictatorship. An interesting portrait of statecraft and democratization. 

Comandante: Hugo Chavez's Venezuela by Rory Carroll

A penetrating and tragicomic look inside the country that Hugo Chávez ran from 1999 until his death this year, this book by the Guardian’s former Caracas correspondent, examines how Chávez created something unique in the country, “an authoritarian democracy...a hybrid system of personality cult and one-man rule.” Examining how, after a failed 2002 coup attempt, Chávez fell ever-more under the spell of Cuban leader Fidel Castro (“The Cubans took us over” states a former ally glumly), Carroll examines how the Cubans supplied revolutionary manpower in exchange for cheap Venezuelan oil, with Cuban doctors pouring into the country to provide their services in the slums , but soon enough returning to Cuba, moving on to work in Bolivia or defection to Colombia or the United States. Their clinics were abandoned, as government officials sought care from elite private hospitals. Roads, bridges and factories all crumbled due to mismanagement and lack of maintenance. And as Chávez’s revolution went along, Venezuelans killed one another in ever greater numbers, with Carroll finally concluding that “the revolution inherited grave social problems and made them worse.” Required reading for anyone interested in modern Latin America. You can read my review in the Miami Herald here.

The Mind of the South by W.J. Cash

A curious amalgam of history, sociology and journalism, this pioneering 1941 work by South Carolina native W.J. Cash lays bare some of the attributes and many of the deficits of his native region, including an exaggerated (and easily offended) sense of honor, a florid religiosity and a maudlin sentimentality focused on a mythology of a past that had never in fact existed. Cash witheringly analyzes “the cult of the Great Southern Heart” that ceaselessly attempted to recast the pre-Civil War era south as “the happy country,” and asserts that the south’s view of itself and the outside world was a “tribal complex” which he compared to fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. As with the writing of the great historian John Hope Franklin, the book also serves as a reminder of how, for decades after the Civil War, the Democratic Party was the party of white supremacy, built on white poverty, a commitment that only began to change under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman during the 1940s. Essential reading.

Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado

An immigrant’s memoir as much as a drug war thriller, this book is the heartfelt and affecting story of a Mexican native son who crossed to El Norte with his family’s dreams and then returned to Mexico as a reporter, only to watch a long hoped-for democratic transition descend into a mire of drug-related violence.

Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia by Steven Dudley

As peace talks between the government of Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) rebel group dragged on throughout much of 2013, perhaps few observers watching them, hoping for a breakthrough and a political opening, realize that the FARC already had a political opening. The Unión Patriótica, a political party founded by the FARC in 1985 in the midst of negotiations with the government of then-president Belisario Betancur, in fact contested elections around the country for several years. That is, before they were all but wiped out by a savage extermination campaign launched by right-wing death squads collaborating with the Colombian military, and undermined by the wild-eyed paranoia and authoritarianism of FARC leader Jacobo Arenas (who died in 1990). The story of of the UP’s creation and extermination forms the crux of this book by veteran Latin American journalist Steven Dudley (who co-founded InSight Crime, a joint initiative of American University in Washington DC, and the Foundation InSight Crime and currently serves as its co-director). The book’s style can at times be distractingly repetitive, but there are still sobering lessons here about the difficulty for Latin America’s oldest and largest rebel group to “come in from the cold” and why Colombia’s long war may not be over yet.

In Evil Hour By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

For a writer who had such such progressive, even utopian, dreams in the political realm, Colombia’s most famous author could certainly have a rather misanthropic view of human beings themselves, and nowhere more so than in this 1962 novel originally titled Este pueblo de mierda (This Town of Shit) but finally published as La mala hora and translated into English as In Evil Hour. Centering around the intrigues of a small Colombian town and a series of poison pen letters posted in public places, the book is a fascinating insight into the beginnings of one of the 20th century's most important writers.

Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost by Paul Hendrickson

Overlong and sometimes given to trying to copy its subject’s distinctive prose style, this book by journalist Paul Hendrickson focusing on events connected to Ernest Hemingway's 38-foot fishing boat named Pilar is still moving and troubling, particularly when looking at Hemingway's slide into instability, mental illness and eventually suicide and the wreckage this left for his family. Often moored in Key West or near Havana (where she now rests), the Pilar was the vessel that shuttled one of America’s greatest writers through some of his most pivotal, and often happiest, moments, and Hendrickson has found a compelling new angle to cut through the Papa myth and see the troubled and acutely sensitive man behind it.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal: 1932-1940 by William E. Leuchtenburg

A fascinating depiction of the extraordinary political skills and accomplishments of one of our greatest presidents, who took the helm of the ship of state at one of its moments of greatest need.

The Death of a President: November 20–November 25 by William Manchester

Key scenes that have faded away in the mists of history - the political infighting that brought John F. Kennedy to Dallas, the chaos at Parkland Hospital following the shooting, the vigil at the airport in Washington as the plane bearing the president’s body landed that cool, damp November night - are brought vividly to life in this excellent book by William Manchester on Kennedy's November 1963 assassination. Other aspects of the story, such as the poisonous right-wing hatred of the president that found Dallas at its epicentre and the pivotal role Ethiopia's Haile Selassie played during Kennedy's funeral and after are also presented to great impact.

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail  by Óscar Martínez

This book by a reporter for El Salvador’s El Faro website is a terrific example of what fearless enterprising reporting can accomplish, tracing the grinding and danger-filled journey of Central American migrants from the Guatemalan border all the way through Mexico and to the border with the United States, the promised El Norte so close and yet so far behind a border wall and across scoring desert and treacherous rivers Martínez does a stellar job of humanizing the immigration debate in the stories of the men and women willing to risk everything for the chance at a better life and the predators that dog them every step of the way.

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