The Atlantic's editors and writers share their favorite titles—new, classic, or somewhere in between—from a year of reading.
The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II by Charles Glass
High school seniors this year were in kindergarten when the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001. An entire generation of Americans has known nothing but America’s endless commitment to the war on terror, or terrorism, or whatever government officials are now calling our current fight against extremism. Patriotism, jingoism, the glorification of combat, is all these young people have ever known, and it is at a time like this in a nation’s history, especially this nation’s history, when counterviews are essential.
That’s precisely what Charles Glass delivers with his book about deserters in World War II. Glass’s work is a reminder—and it seems we always need one—that war is hell, that it wreaks havoc not just upon the bodies but upon the minds of young men, and that America has traditionally done a terrible job of addressing the psychic trauma of battle. Following three soldiers during World War II, Glass shows us a side of combat the military has tried to hide.
Some young men go to war and act heroically, and others do not. We make celebrities of the former and we sweep the latter under the rug. I have lost track of how many books I have read about World War II, but I had no idea how extensive the problem of desertion in the European theater was or what lengths American and British officials went to thwart it. Glass’s accounts of the battlefield courts-martial are particularly chilling, especially in an age when so many of us are engaged in a debate over the use of military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay. So are Glass’s narratives about the conditions of battle that cause some men to simply walk away from their comrades in arms, and the front lines. Deserters doesn’t glorify the men who stopped fighting the Germans, but it helps explain why they did what they did. And that’s a lesson today’s America would be wise to absorb.
—Andrew Cohen, contributing editor
Tenth of December by George Saunders
A funny thing happened when I read Tenth of December. Lots of funny things, if I'm being honest, although I hesitate to confess how often I laughed at the deadpan horrors concocted by George Saunders, certified genius. It's a kind of laughter I'm ashamed to admit, a nervous chuckle that lives somewhere between empathy and dread. It's the way I would laugh when I was little, if a friend tripped on the playground and scraped his elbows raw. Now I only laugh that way when I read—and it happens every time I read a story written by Saunders.
Tenth of December is peppered with these wicked bouts of comedy, which buttress the grim tales Saunders uses to define his anxieties about class, power, and gratification. "The Semplica Girl Diaries" proposes a culture where the wealthy purchase third-world immigrant girls as lawn decorations, bound together with fine wire pierced through their skulls. "Puppy" bumps a neurotic, well-to-do housewife against a poor mother who chains her mentally ill son to a tree. These stories are not happy. But that doesn't mean they are meant to discourage, either.
Why? Because Saunders excels at a kinder sort of satire. His wit is neither caustic nor cruel, and for all of his concerns about our society, he is no pessimist. He just prefers tough love. Tough as it may be, though, it shines like no other. The simple philosophy of it all appears in "Escape From Spiderhead," an alarming story about a pharmacological prison: "Every human, at birth, is, or at least has the potential to be, beloved of his/her mother/father," he writes. "Thus every human is worthy of love."
In other words: Love each other. Always.
—Chris Heller, associate editor
Don't Point That Thing at Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli
I can’t say with a straight face that this was the best book I read this year – I can’t, in fact, say much of anything with a straight face about this book– but it was the most unexpectedly delightful book I read, the greatest escape. A friend pressed it into my hands; he’d never heard of it before, either, he told me, but he'd devoured it and now I surely would, too. The title is, of course, bizarre, and it seems to tell you nothing, though it turns out to signal the sensibility coiled inside – brisk, superior, decadent (what sort of thing, exactly?), a kind of venomous hybrid of P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler, both of whom Bonfiglioli invokes. (The author died in 1985; this novel -- forgive me, those seeking a worthy book of 2014 -- was first published in 1972). The story? Well. Our narrator is Charlie Mortdecai, a successful London art dealer, a lover of fine clothes and professional wrestling, a snob about furnishings and sexual positions, a thief and a smuggler. The name Charlie, he suspects, was an act of vengeance by his mother against his father, but Mortdecai he likes: “a touch of ancientry, a hint of Jewry, a whiff of corruption – no collector can resist crossing swords with a dealer called Mortdecai, for God’s sake.” He cheats at Gin Rummy with his landlady, Mrs. Spon; he drinks a good deal; he has a mysteriously sophisticated knowledge of guns and ammunition. He describes his valet, Jock, as “a sort of anti-Jeeves: silent, resourceful, respectful even, when the mood takes him, but sort of drunk all the time, really, and fond of smashing people’s faces in. You can’t run a fine-arts business these days without a thug and Jock is one of the best in the trade.”
Mortdecai may or may not have stolen a Goya – OK, he did steal it – but a secret, sadistic, lawless branch of the British police is onto him, in the person of Martland, a cunning schoolmate of our anti-Bertie. Mortdecai’s plan is to con Martland into giving him a diplomatic passport so that he can ship the Goya, hidden in the roof liner of a restored Silver Ghost Rolls Royce, to a lunatic millionaire named Milton Krampf in the American West. Perfectly sensible, right? Nevertheless, it all works, at least until it doesn’t, and eventually things begin to fall apart, perhaps for Mortdecai -- you'll have to find out for yourself -- but certainly, toward the end, for me. No matter. The man wrote like this (I pick a passage almost at random):
"Mrs. Spon rounded on him and Told Him Off. I had heard of her talents in that direction but had never before been privileged to hear her unlock the word bag. It was a literary and emotional feast: Martland withered visibly. There is no one like your gently nurtured triple-divorcee for really putting the verbal leather in. ‘Wart on the tax-payer’s arse,’ ‘traffic-warden’s catamite,’ and ‘poor man’s Colonel Wigg’ are just a few of the good things she served up but there was more – much more. She swept out at last, in a cloud of ‘Ragazza’ and lovely epithets. She was wearing a suede knickerbocker suit but you’d have sworn she twitched a twelve-foot train of brocade away from Martland as she passed him.
"'Golly,' he said when she’d gone."
Golly, indeed. You'll want to tell your friends, too.