A harrowing, deeply researched look inside a country riven by a brutal, long-running dictatorship that would rather destroy the country and its people than relinquish power.
To understand Bashar al-Assad’s use of lies and terror to subjugate his people, journalist Dagher, who spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Syrian civil war, for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times (he was expelled from Syria in 2014), looks first at the regime of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who established the violent playbook. Hafez and his right-hand man, Mustafa Tlass, seized power in 1963 and created a dreaded secret police force, brutally eliminating all opponents and inklings of opposition. Assad's second son, Bashar, who was enlisted as successor only when his “golden knight” older brother was killed in a car wreck, assumed power in 2000 upon his father’s death. He was packaged as a “reform” leader, and he was courted by world leaders especially after 9/11 as the lynchpin in fighting Islamic terrorism in the Middle East. Meticulously and systematically, Dagher shows how the glamorous front concealed the truth: Assad was behind the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005; he was enjoying the full support of Hezbollah and Iran; and, when the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, he employed the murderous tactics of his father across the country. His support by Iran and ultimately Russia allowed him to remain in power by presenting the Syrian civil war as necessary in defeating the Islamic State. Dagher scored a highly valuable source for this work, Manaf Tlass, son of Mustafa, who was, as the familial roles played out, Bashar’s own right arm in the early years of his rule (he defected to France in 2012). Besides insiders, the author interviewed numerous opposition leaders who endured terror and torture to challenge Assad’s dictatorship yet “must surrender to the fact that there’s nothing we can do if the entire world wants Bashar to stay.”
A riveting chronicle from a courageous journalist who was there to witness and report the truth. A book that should deservedly garner significant award attention.
The award-winning journalist sharply illuminates how he exposed Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual predator.
Along the way, Farrow (War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, 2018)—a New Yorker contributing writer who has won the Pulitzer Prize, National Magazine Award, and George Polk Award—offers a primer on investigative journalism, a profession that he is well on the way to mastering. For this book, he writes, he drew “on interviews with more than two hundred sources, as well as hundreds of pages of contracts, emails, and texts, and dozens of hours of audio.” As the son of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, the author has wrestled for years with allegations of sexual assault in his own family, leveled by his sister Dylan against their father. During his investigation of Weinstein—and later, multiple high-level sexual predators within NBC—Farrow had to fend off complaints that he was too close to the story. Along the investigative path, the author sought insight from his sister and relied on the steadfast support of his partner. Though Farrow and his producer believed their pursuit of Weinstein had the blessing of the top brass at NBC, they gradually learned that Weinstein was using his massive influence to sabotage the investigation. Consequently, the author took his work to the New Yorker, where editor David Remnick provided a venue for him to present his story. Ultimately, Weinstein was arrested. In addition to chronicling his work on the Weinstein project, Farrow also discusses the transgressions of Donald Trump and Matt Lauer. At times, the book is difficult to read, mainly because Weinstein, Trump, Lauer, and other powerful men victimized so many women while those who knew about the assaults stayed quiet. Nonetheless, this is an urgent, significant book that pairs well with She Said by New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. Both books are top-notch accounts filled with timeless insights about investigative journalism, on a par with classics from Seymour Hersh and Bob Woodward.
A journalist experienced in reporting from Asia penetrates the secrecy of North Korea about as well as humanly possible.
Fifield, the current Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post and former Tokyo chief for that publication, focuses on Kim Jong Un, the third consecutive leader from the same family to subjugate the citizenry since the partition of Korea after World War II. The author has no direct access to Kim Jong Un (very few do), who was only 27 when he succeeded his father as supreme leader. Because of the outlandish and relentless North Korean government propaganda about the divine origins of the family’s three generations, treating the leaders seriously can seem like an exercise in dishonesty. In addition, the cartoonish physical appearance of Kim Jong Un often gives rise to cruel satire. Refreshingly, Fifield avoids the temptation to treat him less than seriously. Despite his presiding over a police state, the malnutrition of most North Koreans, the bluster, and the “decrepit kleptocracy that was his inheritance,” Fifield understands that the young despot has improved conditions for the citizenry. Partly due to the spotlight that President Donald Trump has shined on him, the North Korean dictator has received sustained attention on the global stage, a phenomenon that the author documents beyond the superficial daily headlines. Most of Fifield’s sources have justified reasons to despise the North Korean family dynasty, but her strong journalism skills allow her to separate the wheat from the chaff of biased sources. At times, she brings herself into the narrative, but she does so judiciously. There is some comic relief with the entrance of such odd characters as former professional basketball player Dennis Rodman, who “loved the adulation he received” when he visited North Korea. Fifield is also good at explaining the personal obsessions that define Kim Jong Un’s dual-level dictatorship, with the top level reserved for the North Korean supporters upon whom he has bestowed lavish wealth.
A compelling mix of biography, cultural history, and political intrigue.
Wrenching, highly personal accounts of 9/11 and its aftermath.
Former POLITICO and Washingtonian editor Graff (Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan To Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die, 2017, etc.) returns with an impressive feat of organization, editing, and balance. He begins the story early in the morning of 9/11, proceeds through the entire day, and then follows up with comments from people about the ensuing weeks, months, and years. He spent three years collecting stories from a wide variety of people—survivors, responders, politicians, witnesses, family members—and then assembled the pieces into a coherent and powerful re-creation of the attacks on the twin towers, the Pentagon, and (perhaps) the Capitol, an attack that failed when the passengers aboard Flight 93 fought back, their plane crashing in a Pennsylvania field. Some of the storytellers’ names are well known—e.g., Katie Couric, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Laura Bush—but most of them are not. Graff also does an admirable job of maintaining focus on the personal stories and does not drift off into political commentary—or engage in placing blame—or arrange the material so that some of his interviewees look good and some bad. Pretty much everyone emerges looking good, from President George W. Bush on down the political ladder—not to mention the stunning heroism of the fire and police departments and the unnumbered, and sometimes nameless, others who rushed to help. Graff excels at re-creating the anxiety and terror of that day: What is happening? What’s next? Who did this? Most affecting of all, of course, are the accounts of those who survived, the responders who struggled to help (and who lost so many of their colleagues), and the families who learned a loved one would never be coming home. Pair this with Mitchell Zuckoff’s Fall and Rise (2019) for a full, well-rounded perspective on this monumental tragedy.
Readers who emerge dry-eyed from the text should check their pulses: Something is wrong with their hearts.
In April 1986, a massive accident destroyed a reactor at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station near the town of Pripyat, now a ghost-town tourist destination, in Ukraine. The disaster sent a radioactive cloud across the Soviet Union and Europe, triggered pandemonium and coverups, involved thousands of cleanup workers, and played out at a cost of $128 billion against the secrecy and paranoia of Soviet life at the time. In this vivid and exhaustive account, Higginbotham (A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite, 2014), a contributor to the New Yorker, Wired, GQ, and other publications, masterfully re-creates the emotions, intrigue, and denials and disbelief of Communist Party officials, workers, engineers, and others at every stage. He takes readers directly to the scene: the radioactive blaze, the delayed evacuation of residents from the apartment buildings in “workers’ paradise” Pripyat, the treatment of the injured, and the subsequent investigation and “show trial” of scapegoats in a tragedy caused by both reactor failings and operator errors. Drawing on interviews, reports, and once-classified archives, the author shows how the crash program of Soviet reactor building involved design defects, shoddy workmanship, and safety flaws—but made “sanctified icons” of arrogant nuclear scientists. Higginbotham offers incisive snapshots of those caught up in the nightmare, including politicians ignorant of nuclear physics, scientists “paralyzed by indecision,” doctors treating radiation sickness, and refugees shunned by countrymen. We experience the “bewildered stupor” of the self-assured power plant director, who asked repeatedly, “What happened? What happened?” and watch incredulously as uninformed citizens hold a parade under a radioactive cloud in Kiev. At every turn, Higginbotham unveils revealing aspects of Communist life, from the lack of proscribed photocopiers to make maps for responders to the threats (shooting, relief of Party card) for failure to obey orders.
Written with authority, this superb book reads like a classic disaster story and reveals a Soviet empire on the brink.
Half a century after the fact, a cold case in Northern Ireland provides a frame for a deeply observed history of the Troubles.
In 1972, though only 38, Jean McConville was the mother of 10, trying to raise them on a widow’s pension in a cloud of depression—a walking tale of bad luck turned all the worse when she comforted a wounded British soldier, bringing the dreaded graffito “Brit lover” to her door. Not long after, masked guerrillas took her from her home in the Catholic ghetto of Belfast; three decades later, bones found on a remote beach were identified as hers. These events are rooted in centuries of discord, but, as New Yorker staff writer Keefe (The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream, 2009, etc.) recounts, the kidnapping and killing took place in the darkest days of the near civil war between Catholics and Protestants. Another Belfast graffito of the time read, “If you’re not confused you don’t know what’s going on,” and the author does an excellent job of keeping an exceedingly complicated storyline on track. At its heart is Gerry Adams, who eventually brokered the truce between warring factions while insisting that he was never a member of the IRA, whose fighters killed McConville. “Of course he was in the IRA,” said an erstwhile comrade. “The British know it. The people on the street know it. The dogs know it on the street." Yet, as this unhappy story shows, one of the great sorrows of Northern Ireland is that naming murderers, even long after their crimes and even after their deaths, is sure to bring terrible things on a person even today. Keefe’s reconstruction of events and the players involved is careful and assured. Adams himself doubtless won’t be pleased with it, although his cause will probably prevail. As the author writes, “Adams will probably not live to see a united Ireland, but it seems that such a day will inevitably come”—perhaps as an indirect, ironic result of Brexit.
A harrowing story of politically motivated crime that could not have been better told.
A massively reported deep dive into the unparalleled corporate industrial giant Koch Industries.
In 1967, Charles Koch inherited from his recently deceased father the leadership of a medium-sized, nearly invisible industrial conglomerate based in Wichita, Kansas. Charles would build the conglomerate into an entity so sprawling, profitable, and politically powerful that it seems to defy all reason. “Koch’s operations span the entire landscape of the American economy,” writes business reporter Leonard (The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business, 2014). “The company’s story is the story of America’s energy system, of its blue-collar factory workers, of millionaire derivatives traders, corporate lobbyists, and private equity deal makers.” Brother David shared ownership and participated in management of the company, which never sold stock to the public. Another brother challenged Charles by filing lawsuits but, over the decades, finally pulled back. The fourth brother never became involved in the operation of the business. As the author shows, the Koch brand does not appear on consumer products. Rather, the brothers became multibillionaires by controlling oil and gas production, paper products, derivatives trading in multiple commodities, engineering services, and much more. At first interested in influencing electoral politics to aid Koch Industries’ profitability, Charles eventually expanded the corporate presence inside state legislatures and the U.S. Congress partly for ideological reasons. Labeling Charles’ political philosophy is impossible, but there is definitely a kinship to libertarianism, with an emphasis on capitalist free markets untrammeled by government intervention. Charles opposed almost every policy of President Barack Obama and then battled various Donald Trump initiatives for entirely different reasons. Leonard is especially skilled at explicating the politics as well as at delineating how Koch Industries dominated industrial sectors, with natural gas extraction via fracking a timely recent example. This impressively researched and well-rendered book also serves as a biography of Charles Koch, with Leonard providing an evenhanded treatment of the tycoon. Leonard’s work is on par with Steve Coll’s Private Empire and even Ida Tarbell’s enduring classic The History of the Standard Oil Company.
Wired contributor Ratliff (editor: Love and Ruin: Tales of Obsession, Danger, and Heartbreak from the Atavist Magazine, 2016), the co-founder of Atavist Magazine, digs deep into a story that seems utterly appropriate to the computerized, globalized, transnational age. The protagonist is Paul Le Roux, a Zimbabwe-born computer programmer. Having moved from South Africa to Australia and later to the Philippines, he discovered early on that cyberspace was a frontier in which to grow rich serving humankind’s lesser instincts: pornography, trolling, gambling, addictions of various kinds. Eventually, as the author foreshadows in an opening salvo of incidents, he founded a crime network with many nodes across the world, one with hired killers, corrupt doctors, software specialists, and countless other players. One branch began by selling painkillers under the flimsiest of medical screenings: A customer would type in a complaint that she had back pain, a doctor would sign off, and drugs would arrive in great quantities, with one small-town Wisconsin pharmacist alone filling 700,000 illegal prescriptions and being paid millions in return from a Hong Kong bank account. Killings followed as Le Roux stretched his hand to North Korean methamphetamine manufacturers, international mercenaries, Colombian cartels, and black-ops hackers. Writes Ratliff, each of these pieces “seemed like a kind of message from an adjacent reality that few of us experience directly”—a reality that ended in a massive counter-operation on the part of the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies, bringing down long prison sentences and massive fines. “In 2013,” writes the author, “UPS paid $40 million to resolve federal accusations of knowingly shipping drugs for illegal online pharmacies.” Sifting through detail after nefarious detail, Ratliff serves up a taut narrative that limns a portrait of a sociopath whose powers were most definitely used to evil ends.
A wholly engrossing story that joins the worlds of El Chapo and Edward Snowden; both disturbing and memorable.
A longtime CNN Africa reporter delivers a close-up report on the Chibok girls, attempting to bring their story “full circle” and “resurrect public interest in this mass abduction.”
On April 14, 2014, the extremist group Boko Haram stormed into a predominately Christian school in Chibok, Nigeria, and kidnapped 276 schoolgirls. This event triggered worldwide press coverage, but as the months wore on and the girls didn’t return home, the world’s attention turned elsewhere. Fortunately, award-winning journalist Sesay—the former host of CNN Newsroom Live From Los Angeles who spent more than a decade reporting on Africa for the network—didn’t forget this story, and she offers a compelling, empathetic tale that focuses on the lives of four of the Chibok girls and their immediate family members. The author, who grew up in Sierra Leone and Britain, intertwines her thoughts and feelings regarding the kidnapping with the history of the region, the political, social, and economic events that gave rise to Boko Haram, and the personal accounts of Priscilla, Dorcas, Mary, and Saa. Sesay’s attention to detail places readers with the girls under a giant tamarind tree, one of their many naturally made prisons deep in the Sambisa forest, where they scrounged for food and water and fought off the constant demands of their captors to convert to Islam. Although many of the girls did convert and have not been heard from since, a greater portion remained steadfast in their Christian beliefs. The author also explains what the Nigerian government has done to find the missing girls. She notes that, in the beginning, many Nigerians believed the abduction was “no more than an elaborate hoax with political objectives.” The joyous homecoming of 21 of the Chibok girls in 2016 prompted Sesay to compile her notes on this fascinating and emotionally charged telling of the girls’ story, which will hopefully put those still missing back into the limelight.
Rich details and dedicated, courageous reporting create a powerful tale of faith, love, and loss.
Moving reportage by an American journalist who embedded with the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service and with Kurdish peshmerga forces fighting the Islamic State group.
Coming from Brooklyn, George Polk Award–winning journalist Verini—a National Geographic contributing writer and frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine—was determined to serve a kind of “penance” when he arrived in Baghdad in the summer of 2016 for the first time; he was ashamed that he had been “too scared” to go to Afghanistan fresh out of college after 9/11. This time, he traveled in the wake of the Iraqi army as it moved on IS, which had captured Mosul two years before and declared a triumphant caliphate led by insurgent Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Throughout the taut narrative, Verini brings us vivid and often heartbreaking stories of everyday Iraqis, occupied and humiliated for eons, enduring yet another war “that nevertheless would not be happening, at least not in this way, if not for the American war that preceded it.” The invasion of Mosul was conducted by the Counter-Terrorism Service, which “had put the first real puncture in the [IS] defenses” in 2016, as well as multiple divisions of the Iraqi army, the Iraqi federal police, and international forces. The official end of combat, in Mosul, occurred in July 2017. Verini’s account is startlingly candid and informed, and the author has clearly benefited from some years of distance. He manages to effectively convey the complicated mess on all sides: American, Iraqi, IS. After the months of fighting, Mosul “looked as though a vindictive god had wiped his hand across the city.” In the battle, writes the author, “twelve hundred Iraqi soldiers were killed,” and while “no one will ever know how many civilians died, it was certainly in the thousands.”
A deeply thoughtful boots-on-the-ground work about a topic that many of us have stopped thinking about.
A meticulously delineated, detailed, graphic history of the events of 9/11 in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania.
Working at the Boston Globe as an investigative journalist, Zuckoff (Journalism/Boston Univ.; 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi, 2014, etc.) spent months after 9/11 publishing pieces on the tragedy’s victims and their families and friends. He decided to revisit the personal sagas so that future generations of readers will fully understand this watershed moment in American history. The author divides the book into three sections: what happened inside the cabins and cockpits of the four hijacked planes; what happened on the ground at the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania countryside; and reports on what happened to some of the survivors after 9/11. Zuckoff mostly avoids references to the hijackers’ possible motivations as well as speculation on why the government failed to halt the sometimes-amateurish terrorist plot despite multiple warnings from alert sources. The author also eschews lengthy commentary on the massive reduction in civil liberties in the U.S. as governments at all levels implemented drastic policies to halt future terrorist attacks. In each of the three sections, Zuckoff offers a cross-section of widely representative individuals and then builds the relentlessly compelling narrative around those real-life protagonists. Despite the story’s sprawling cast, which could have sabotaged a book by a less-skilled author, Zuckoff ably handles all of the complexities. Even readers who might normally balk at reliving 9/11 and its aftermath are quite likely to find the accounts of gruesome deaths, seemingly miraculous survivals, and courageous first responders difficult to set aside for an emotional break. In two appendices, the author provides a “timeline of key events” and a list of “the nearly three thousand names as they appear inscribed in bronze on the 9/11 Memorial in New York.”
Zuckoff did not set out to write a feel-good book, and the subject matter is unquestionably depressing at times. Nonetheless, as contemporary history, Fall and Rise is a clear and moving success.