Crisply written, chilling account of the personalities behind the emergence of the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post reporter Warrick (The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA, 2011) confidently weaves a cohesive narrative from an array of players—American officials, CIA officers, Jordanian royalty and security operatives, religious figures, and terrorists—producing an important geopolitical overview with the grisly punch of true-crime nonfiction. Initially, he focuses on Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a sullen thug who discovered Muslim fundamentalism while incarcerated in the 1990s and turned it into a framework for savagery against other Muslims. Against the backdrop of the bungled American invasion of Iraq, al-Zarqawi stoked a Sunni-Shiite civil war and normalized horrific tableaux like the suicide bombing of the United Nations mission. Soon, “Islamist media were awash in Zarqawi-inspired gore,” effectively increasing his support, until he overstepped with a hotel bombing in Jordan. Although the U.S. military killed al-Zarqawi in 2006, Syria’s civil war provided a second front for the remnants of al-Zarqawi's jihadis. His successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who transformed the group into ISIS, "was not a violent troublemaker like Zarqawi or an adventurer like Osama bin Laden." Indeed, Warrick notes, “had it not been for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Islamic State’s greatest butcher would likely have lived out his years as a college professor.” Yet, ISIS achieved rapid military success across Iraq and Syria beginning in 2013 and revived their emphasis on terrorist atrocity, with Baghdadi’s goals clear, as a U.S. official noted: “He was talking about physically restoring the Islamic caliphate in a way that nobody else did.” The author focuses on dramatic flashpoints and the roles of key players, creating an exciting tale with a rueful tone, emphasizing how the Iraq invasion’s folly birthed ISIS and created many missed opportunities to stop al-Zarqawi quickly.
Warrick stops short of offering policy solutions, but he provides a valuable, readable introduction to a pressing international security threat.
Larson (In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, 2011, etc.) once again demonstrates his expert researching skills and writing abilities, this time shedding light on nagging questions about the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915.
“Lucy,” as she was fondly known, was one of the “greyhounds,” ships that vied for the Blue Riband award for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. A gem of the Cunard fleet, she drew the cream of society, and life aboard was the epitome of Edwardian luxury. The author works with a broad scope, examining the shipping business, wartime policies, the government leaders and even U-boat construction. More fascinating is his explanation of the intricacy of sailing, submerging and maneuvering a U-boat. Gaining position to fire a torpedo that has only a 60 percent chance of exploding belies the number of ships sunk. Throughout the voyage, many omens predicted disaster, especially the publication of a German warning the morning of sailing. The British Admiralty had broken the German codes and could track the whereabouts of submarines, particularly the deadly U-20. They knew that six U-boats left base during the last week of April, and three ships sank in the same channel the week before the Lusitania. The admiralty had decided to open a safer northern channel to merchant shipping but hadn’t directed the Lusitania to use it. Larson explores curiosities and a long list of what ifs: If the Lusitania had not been late in sailing, if the fog had persisted longer, if the captain hadn’t turned to starboard into the sub’s path and if that one torpedo hadn’t hit just in the right spot, the Lusitania might have arrived safely.
An intriguing, entirely engrossing investigation into a legendary disaster. Compared to Greg King and Penny Wilson’s Lusitania (2014), also publishing to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sinking, Larson’s is the superior account.
An inspired, beautiful and absorbing account of a woman battling grief—with a goshawk.
Following the sudden death of her father, Macdonald (History and Philosophy/Cambridge Univ.; Falcon, 2006, etc.) tried staving off deep depression with a unique form of personal therapy: the purchase and training of an English goshawk, which she named Mabel. Although a trained falconer, the author chose a raptor both unfamiliar and unpredictable, a creature of mad confidence that became a means of working against madness. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” she writes. As a devotee of birds of prey since girlhood, Macdonald knew the legends and the literature, particularly the cautionary example of The Once and Future King author T.H. White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk details his own painful battle to master his title subject. Macdonald dramatically parallels her own story with White’s, achieving a remarkable imaginative sympathy with the writer, a lonely, tormented homosexual fighting his own sadomasochistic demons. Even as she was learning from White’s mistakes, she found herself very much in his shoes, watching her life fall apart as the painfully slow bonding process with Mabel took over. Just how much do animals and humans have in common? The more Macdonald got to know her, the more Mabel confounded her notions about what the species was supposed to represent. Is a hawk a symbol of might or independence, or is that just our attempt to remake the animal world in our own image? Writing with breathless urgency that only rarely skirts the melodramatic, Macdonald broadens her scope well beyond herself to focus on the antagonism between people and the environment.
Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a classic in either genre.
Former New York Times reporter Rivlin (Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc.—How the Working Poor Became Big Business, 2010, etc.) delivers a magnificently reported account of life in a broken, waterlogged city.
During Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the levees of New Orleans broke, causing $135 billion in damages, killing over 1,800 people, and leaving 80 percent of the city flooded. Most devastated were the lowest-lying (poor, black) neighborhoods. News coverage and a plethora of books have burnished the images of those days in the American psyche—the rubble and wrecked cars, the FEMA trailers, the 25,000 people stranded in the fetid Superdome, and the seeming inability of officials to act decisively to rescue black residents who could not afford to flee. Rivlin arrived early on to cover the tragedy and stayed with the story for 10 years, conducting hundreds of interviews, exploring every imaginable aspect of the “botched rescue” and recovery, and delving sympathetically into the lives of countless people, black and white, who stayed, left, or returned. Throughout the book, the author provides intimate portraits—e.g., black banker Alden McDonald, who worked tirelessly on behalf of black residents; white suburbanite Joe Canizaro, head of the official recovery commission; former Black Panther Malik Rahim, who led rebuilding efforts in the 9th Ward. This is a nightmarish story of variously powerless, incompetent, and politicking figures, from the George Bush administration, hampered by “incompetence” and “ideology,” to the “ineffectual” Mayor Ray Nagin, now imprisoned for public corruption, and, most disturbing, white blue bloods who looked forward to a city without blacks. Rivlin’s exquisitely detailed narrative captures the anger, fatigue, and ambiguity of life during the recovery, the centrality of race at every step along the way, and the generosity of many from elsewhere in the country. Although federal monies eventually helped give the city a “massive makeover,” widespread poverty remains, with only a third of houses now occupied in the lower 9th.
Deeply engrossing, well-written, and packed with revealing stories.
From servants to citizens: a nuanced study of the American Revolution focused on how the war changed the way Americans saw themselves.
Having written abundantly about the Revolutionary War, accomplished scholar Ferling (Emeritus, History/Univ. of West Georgia; Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation, 2013, etc.) employs his extensive knowledge to relay a tremendously complicated and multilayered story of the gradual embracing of ideas of independence by the once-loyal colonists. Economic incentives drove the colonists to question the relationship with the mother country. They were offended by having to pay for Britain’s chronic warfare, furnish soldiers and then endure England’s “coldhearted indifference” to matters of the colonists’ “vital interests.” Attempts by Britain to enforce imperial trade laws—by the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, one-third of England’s trade was with the colonists—only led to more alarm that Britain was scheming to take away liberties. Little by little, the colonists began to react, and Ferling takes note of certain important early firebrands, e.g.—Virginia’s Patrick Henry, Boston’s Samuel Adams, John Dickinson and his “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.” Others, such as Benjamin Franklin, emissary to London, played both sides until they were sure which way the wind was blowing. Ferling effectively shows how the colonists’ sense of themselves changed from the very bottom up. From deep in the provincial hamlets, they were organizing, training their militias and accepting more egalitarian proclivities and self-governing practices, such as freedom from the Anglican yoke. Hostilities against Britain provoked a “rooted hatred” for the mother country and a “growing sense of identity as Americans,” although the outcome was in no way certain. In fact, for many years, it looked quite bleak. Ferling impressively demonstrates how the military reality eventually galvanized the fledgling country.
A first-rate historian’s masterful touch conveys the profound changes to colonists’ “hearts and minds.”
An incisive examination of American policing, using a tumultuous two decades in Los Angeles as a lens.
Journalist Domanick (Cruel Justice: Three Strikes and the Politics of Crime in America's Golden State, 2004, etc.), associate director of John Jay College’s Center on Media, Crime, and Justice, argues that the philosophical conflicts within the LAPD convey the “larger saga of big-city American policing.” He weaves this complex narrative around several key figures—officers, administrators, civilian commissioners, and gangbangers-turned-interventionists—and events, starting in 1992 with the ugly flash point of the Rodney King beating and the subsequent riots. The LAPD was unprepared for a conflagration stoked by its reliance on paramilitary tactics in minority neighborhoods. Domanick considers this the key feature of the LAPD since the reign of martinet chief William Parker in the 1950s and ’60s. Parker’s protégé, Daryl Gates, was unapologetically provocative, promoting hyperaggressive policing during the violent crack era of the 1980s. In the post-King political wreckage, Gates was succeeded by two African-American chiefs, outsider Willie Williams and admired local cop Bernard Parks. Both failed to address the LAPD’s baroque leadership structure and aggressive tactics, and they were plagued by the flawed investigation of O.J. Simpson and the “Ramparts CRASH” corruption scandal. The city finally turned to William Bratton, the driven, ambitious proponent of statistically oriented policing who claimed credit for New York’s historic crime reductions. Bratton saw his LA appointment as an opportunity to “remake [police] culture into a community-policing model without undoing his broken-windows strategy.” Domanick paints on a broad canvas, often pausing to look at other cities’ parallel struggles with policing and crime. He adeptly balances a complex discussion, addressing both the necessity of proactive law enforcement in neighborhoods plagued by gang violence and the fundamental injustice of the “Drug War” model as applied to low-income communities. While the focus on multiple biographies can become tedious, this is a well-executed, large-scale urban narrative.
Sprawling, engrossing, and highly relevant to the ongoing controversies about policing post-Ferguson, which Domanick addresses in an epilogue.
An illuminating stroll through the decades of one of the most culturally significant streets in America.
The first book by journalist Calhoun vividly details the long legacy of artistic upheaval, political foment, demographic transformation, and resistance to gentrification along the street on New York’s Lower East Side where she grew up. St. Marks Place doesn’t submit to the easy stereotyping of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, perhaps because “hippies” and “Summer of Love” represented such a comparatively brief blip in American culture. The hippies of St. Marks preferred to be called “freaks,” with less of an emphasis on love and more on the liberation of anarchy. But as the author traces the legacy of St. Marks back four centuries, she shows how the street has long served as a magnet for radical visionaries, crackpot artists, self-proclaimed prophets, and runaways with nowhere else to go. “Disillusioned St. Marks Place bohemians—those who were Beats in the fifties, hippies in the sixties, punks in the seventies, or anarchists in the eighties—often say the street is dead now, with only the time of death a matter of debate,” she writes, and then counters, “but this book will show that every cohort’s arrival, the flowering of its utopia, killed someone else’s.” In quickly paced, anecdotal fashion, Calhoun connects the dots between Emma Goldman and Abbie Hoffman, Charlie Parker and the Velvet Underground, those who occupied the neighborhood during different decades but sustained its character as kindred spirits. While readers looking for a more thorough documentation of the Beats or CBGB might consider the narrative a little hit-and-run, the breezy approach underscores the radical, significant transformations experienced by St. Marks and leads to her engagingly personal reflection on how a child raised there might not feel much nostalgia for blocks of discarded needles, used condoms, and threats of pedophilia: “though St. Marks Place will probably always elude true respectability, the street today is safer and more pleasant than at any point in the last fifty years.”
Rather than a nostalgic lament, this revelatory book celebrates an indelible cultural imprint.
Exhaustively researched, highly engrossing chronicle of the outrageous abduction of a pair of well-known South Korean filmmakers by the nefarious network of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il.
Filmmaker Fischer carefully presents a well-documented story of the kidnapping of South Korean actress Choi Eun-Hee and her former husband, film producer Shin Sang-Ok, amid some suspicion that the two secretly defected in order to jump-start their stalling careers (though the author provides ample evidence to the contrary). After a stunningly successful moviemaking collaboration that spanned the mid-1950s until their divorce in 1974, Choi and Shin had gone their own ways by 1978. Choi was raising their two adopted children and mostly teaching acting while Shin saw his studio stripped of its license due to his wheeling and dealing. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-Il—a film fanatic who cleverly insinuated himself as the sole standing heir to his father, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea founder Kim Il-Sung, via his richly propagandistic output by the Korea Film Studio—craved validation and expertise in order to be taken seriously in the international community. Hence the scheme to kidnap the two reigning South Korean film idols, re-educate them and allow them all they needed to refashion the North Korean film industry. This is just what happened: The two stars were lured to Hong Kong—first Choi in January 1978, then Shin in September—and hustled onto a freighter and taken to Pyongyang. Isolated, imprisoned in luxury homes (Shin spent two years in prison for trying to escape), summoned periodically to Kim’s birthday parties and expected to drink heavily and be merry, the two were eventually thrown together in 1983 and directed to reignite their collaboration and marriage. Seven films later, including the Godzilla-like Pulgasari (1985)—they took asylum in the U.S. Embassy in Vienna.
A meticulously detailed feat of rare footage inside the DPRK’s propaganda machinery.
Oxford American humor columnist Key (English/Savannah Coll. of Art and Design) pens a memoir about his father, a man with “the emotional tenderness of a Soviet farm tractor.”
As a boy, the author was partial to sock puppets, calligraphy, and poems tapped out on an electric typewriter. Even so, “Pop” attempted to teach his son all the necessary outdoor skills so important to a growing boy, including contact sports, fishing, fighting, and the frequent employment of firearms to “kill shit.” (In a “Note to the Reader,” the author writes, “I have changed the names of many characters…because most of those people own guns.”) Those were the pertinent and suitable activities for boys coming of age in the environs of Coldwater, Mississippi. Key’s relationships with his loving mother, a badass elder brother, and, eventually, a beloved wife and cherished children all connect with Pop and the author’s position as the strange scion of a big man with a huge head on a red neck. The author eventually evolved from a blameless, scared kid to an innocent, scared adult as he learned the odd joy of danger and how to wear a bow tie. Pop evolved, as well, as the paterfamilias who learned to disregard his instinctive rule for human contact: men over here, women over there. Key had his basic training in American civilization, particularly as practiced in the not-so-long-ago South. His spouse supervised such matters as babies—how to make them, diaper them, and raise them—though she is never mentioned by name. Forget the touch of Jean Shepherd, the satire of Gary Shteyngart, or the dash of Dave Barry; Key’s talent is all his own, and it is solid. Consistently seasoned with laughs, this memoir is adroitly warm and deep when it is called for.
An uncommonly entertaining story replete with consistent wit and lethal weaponry.
An environmental journalist returns with a multifaceted examination of the science, the art, the technology and even the smell of rain throughout history.
Barnett, who has written previously about hydrology (Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis, 2011, etc.), has an eclectic agenda for her new work. She takes us back to the Big Bang and then moves rapidly forward, explaining in crisp, evocative sentences why Earth is our solar system’s only habitable planet. She then discusses rainfall issues around the globe before commencing her focus on individual facets of the subject. Barnett writes about historical cycles of drought and flood and how they affected the world’s principal religions—from Noah to Indian rain dances. She segues into weather forecasting, with an emphasis on the meticulous records that Thomas Jefferson kept (she returns to him at various other times). She pauses to tell us about the developments of the raincoat and the umbrella and provides a couple chapters on rain in American history—with details in one chapter about the westward migration, including the difficulties in Nebraska and elsewhere on the Great Plains. A particularly engaging chapter deals with “rainmakers,” from charlatans to scientists. The author then tries to show the influence of rain on various arts, from Chopin to Dickens to Dickinson to Woody Allen. (This topic needs an entire book of its own.) Next comes the scent of rain, the perfume industry in India, and the problems of rainwater in urban areas, with a focus on Seattle and Los Angeles. Barnett also deals with the oddities of rain (frogs falling from the sky), and she ends with some sharp comments for climate change deniers—and with a visit to the rainiest place on earth, a town in India.
Highlights the severity of some of our environmental problems with knowledge, humor, urgency and hope.
First-class account of the life and times of an essential riot grrrl and the band she helped create.
In this debut memoir, Brownstein, co-founder of the iconic punk band Sleater-Kinney, traces her evolution from the daughter of a secure but secretly unhappy home—closeted gay father, anorexic mother—to a gawky teenage rock fan and, ultimately, to becoming an artist in her own right. (She does not delve into her work on Portlandia.) The story of her life is also, inevitably, the story of her own band: meeting (and having a close but tortuous relationship with) co-founder Corin Tucker, the endless process of writing and co-writing songs and guitar leads, firing drummers (they went through three before striking gold with Janet Weiss), and the way life on the road both forges and fractures relationships. For Sleater-Kinney fans, the book is an absolute must, as it not only describes the rise of the band, but also delves into the making of every album. Furthermore, for a band in which song authorship has never been perfectly clear, Brownstein gives some insight as to who wrote what. More than that, the book is deeply personal, an act of self-discovery by a writer both telling her story and coming to understand herself at the same time. “In Sleater-Kinney,” she writes, “each song, each album, built an infrastructure, fresh skeletons.” The author writes focused and uncluttered prose, choosing the best, most telling details, as she recounts stories that show what it means to perform for the first time and what it means for a woman to be both a fan and a star in a staunchly male-dominated world.
Unlike many rock star memoirs, there’s no sense that this book is a chore or a marketing effort. It’s revealing and riveting. On the page as in her songs, Brownstein finds the right words to give shape to experience.
A collection of long-form nonfiction from GQ and New York Times Magazine contributor Paterniti (The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese, 2013, etc.).
The Telling Room was one of the most critically acclaimed books of 2013, and this carefully curated selection of features demonstrates the breadth of the author’s peculiar, personal style of storytelling. There are familiar pieces—Paterniti’s account of ferrying Einstein’s brain around the country is front and center, as is “The Fifteen-Year Layover,” which recounts the long exile of the refugee who spent 15 years at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Others are lovingly crafted portraits of interesting people like “The Giant,” whom Paterniti sought out in Ukraine after reading reports of a man well over 8 feet tall. The author has spent a considerable amount of time overseas, and he recounts his trip to China to meet the man credited with stopping hundreds of suicides on a bridge over the Yangtze River, as well as his journey in Japan following the 2011 tsunami. However, Paterniti is not limited to merely capturing great stories. Another pair of articles deliciously describes food and the people who craft it into wonderful things: the author’s portrait of Spanish chef Ferran Adriá and a similarly mouthwatering feature, “The Last Meal,” in which the author re-creates the final orgiastic meal of French President François Mitterrand. This is journalism unlike the standard fare found in newspapers and tabloid magazines and a tribute to the durability of the human spirit. In a lovely but spare introduction, the author summarizes the process of creating this collection: “If The Game was fantasy and The Work has been cold reality, in both cases they’ve come to represent, at least for me, the same underlying need to make sense of the way that love and loss, justice and devastation, and beauty and pain can fuse to make some bearable, or at least fathomable, whole.”
A crazy whim of a trip on a covered wagon turns into an inspired exploration of American identity.
Journalist Buck (Shane Comes Home, 2005, etc.) chronicles his summerlong journey across the “Great American Desert” in a covered wagon, an arduous, astonishing journey that traced the same exodus of more than 400,000 pioneers across the Oregon Trail in the 15 years before the Civil War. The author and his brother had the knowledge and wherewithal to make such an ambitious journey largely because of their upbringing in rural New Jersey, where their father, a Look magazine editor and former pilot, kept horses and wagons and took the family of 11 children on a similar, though shorter, journey into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1958. Once Buck realized he could not manage three mules and a wagon all by himself, he enlisted his big, enormously capable brother, and the two procured the authentic 19th-century Peter Schuttler wagon and three specially bred American mules (each with its own wonderfully eccentric personality) and all the necessary equipment for breakdowns and repairs. The preparations were daunting, and Buck fascinatingly walks readers through all of them, all with an eye to how the early settlers made the actual journey, from St. Joseph, Missouri, to the Willamette Valley, Oregon: 2,000-plus miles of carefully plotted trail, encompassing high desert and mountains, rivers and shaky bridges, thunderstorms, scant water, and patches of no road. Throughout, the travelers were, by necessity, required to frequently jettison supplies. “See America Slowly” was the theme of the men’s boyhood trip, a theme resurrected sweetly for this one. The journey encouraged delighted observers to shelter and feed the men and mules, often in the towns’ communal rodeo grounds, and allowed the brothers to reconnect over childhood memories and with the American land they cherished.
By turns frankly hilarious, historically elucidating, emotionally touching, and deeply informative.
New York Times national security reporter Shane compares and contrasts the trajectories of President Barack Obama and Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen residing in Yemen whom Obama ordered to be killed by a drone.
Al-Awlaki grew up in an educated Yemeni family. When his parents obtained their educations in the United States, he was born a citizen. He grew up in Yemen and returned to the United States at age 19. Obama was also born in the United States to a foreign father who was a secular-minded Muslim. Then Obama resided in Indonesia, returning to the United States at age 10. Due to 9/11, the superficial similarities between Obama and al-Awlaki became more meaningful. One would react by becoming an elected politician, the other by becoming a Muslim holy man who initially spoke for the moderate wing of his religion. But by the time Obama reached the presidency in 2008, al-Awlaki had unexpectedly become a militant calling for the death of the “infidel” Americans. Obama began to explore whether he had the authority as commander in chief of the military to send a drone into Yemen to kill al-Awlaki, even though the cleric had not been charged with a crime. By the time the book ends, al-Awlaki is dead, as is his teenage son. Shane became obsessed about learning how Obama, a former constitutional law professor, justified the drone strikes, especially given his opposition to the conduct of the war on terror created by his predecessor, George W. Bush. The author was equally intrigued by the change in philosophy adopted by al-Awlaki, which required a return to Yemen, as something of a fugitive, despite a privileged life in the U.S. In addition to following his two principals, the author examines the drone technology that gave Obama the remarkable ability to target someone thousands of miles away.
Shane's reporting is superb, and the way he frames the public policy debate makes the narrative compelling from start to finish.
A remarkable journalistic achievement from a Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Fellowship winner that crystalizes the last 10 years of global war and strife while candidly portraying the intimate life of a female photojournalist.
Over the last decade, Addario has been periodically beaten, robbed, kidnapped, shot at and sexually assaulted from one end of the Middle East and North Africa to the other. Risking her life for images that might change public policy, she ran into Taliban fighters who fired on her in the Korengal Valley, Gadhafi loyalists who imprisoned her in Libya and Israeli soldiers who abused her outside the Gaza Strip. A deadly car accident in Pakistan nearly claimed her life. Many of Addario's friends and colleagues did die during that time, while lovers faded away and family members freaked out. But such was the cost of the author’s life’s work. Told with unflinching candor, the award-winning photographer brings an incredible sense of humanity to all the battlefields of her life. Especially affecting is the way in which Addario conveys the role of gender and how being a woman has impacted every aspect of her personal and professional lives. Whether dealing with ultrareligious zealots or overly demanding editors, being a woman with a camera has never been an easy task. Somewhere amid Addario’s dizzying odyssey, she also became a mother. However, instead of slowing her down, it only deepened the battle-hardened correspondent’s insight into the lives of those she so courageously sought to photograph. “Just as in Somalia,” she writes, “when I had felt my baby moving inside me as I witnessed the suffering of other infants, I could suddenly understand, in a new, profound, and enraging way, the way most people in the world lived.”
A brutally real and unrelentingly raw memoir that is as inspiring as it is horrific.
The preternaturally curious writer about everything from the Oxford English Dictionary to volcanoes to the Atlantic Ocean (Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, 2010, etc.) returns with a series of high-resolution literary snapshots of the Pacific Ocean.
Winchester, who now lives in Massachusetts, does not do the expected: there is no chapter about the geological history of the ocean, followed by a slow chronology. Instead, realizing the difficulty of his own task, the author focuses on 10 aspects of the ocean and its inhabitants—islanders, those on the shores—and uses them to illustrate some historical points. He issues dire warnings about the damage we’re doing to the natural world and about the geopolitical forces—especially the military rise of China—that threaten us all. Occasionally, Winchester makes what seem to be odd pairings (a chapter on both a volcano in the Philippines and the rise of China) and narrative choices (a chapter on the rise of Japan accelerated by manufacturing transistor radios), and he also looks at the international nightmare caused by the 1968 case of the USS Pueblo and North Korea. No matter what the putative subject of the chapter, though, we learn a lot about the ocean: its challenged wildlife, the swirling areas of plastic debris, the Pacific Plate, El Niño, and the Pacific’s vast dimensions. As we’ve come to expect from Winchester, there are plenty of delights. A chapter on surfing has guest appearances by both Jack London and the Beach Boys; and the author examines America’s egregious abuse of islanders during aboveground nuclear testing. Deep worries abound, as well: the dying coral reefs, climate change, and military posturing of the superpowers. The author ends with a hopeful but probably doomed wish for international fraternity.
Winchester’s passionate research—on sea and land—undergirds this superb analysis of a world wonder that we seem hellbent on damaging.