In his lyrical prose poem “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” Dylan Thomas recalls that the gifts he found under the tree fell into two categories: useful and useless. The useful ones, like “mittens made for giant sloths” and “zebra scarfs of a substance like silky gum,” sound awful. The useless ones are delightful: “bags of moist and many-colored jelly babies and a folded flag and a false nose and a tram-conductor’s cap and a machine that punched tickets and rang a bell.”
During good times we have the luxury to embrace what is useless and fun. This holiday season, though, Americans are deeply worried about the future. The times call for sober reflection. It is a year for useful gifts — not the unwelcome kind Dylan Thomas received, but ones that illuminate our world so we can do more than just despair. Those can best be found at your nearest independent bookstore. Amid the avalanche of misinformation that has shaped 2019, some fine new books appeared. Any one of them would suit a friend or relative who considers enlightenment to be among the most gratifying of gifts.
Climate change is the overwhelming threat facing humanity today, and the crusading journalist Bill McKibben confronts it passionately in “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” McKibben is not just a commentator whose writing is as lovely as it is illuminating, but also a tireless activist. That means he cannot fall into the hopelessness that sometimes seems to be the only logical response to our failure to address climate change. He is outraged, but his book is also a blueprint for practical action.
If there is a second-biggest threat to our world, it may be escalating hostility between the United States and Russia. Anti-Russia passion now runs so hot in Washington that any politician who suggests better relations is instantly stigmatized as a puppet of the Kremlin. Scholars, however, may venture where politicians fear to tread. One who has been studying Russia for half a century, Stephen F. Cohen, tries to call us back from the brink in “War with Russia?: From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate.” Be careful giving this book to anybody who regularly watches CNN or MSNBC, it may cause apoplexy.
Even if we manage to avoid nuclear conflict with Russia, war will certainly shape our future. It has become a permanent part of American life. Is that because President Obama’s peacemaking efforts have been undermined by his successor? On the contrary, Jeremy Kuzmarov argues in his sweeping indictment “Obama’s Unending Wars: Fronting the Foreign Policy of the Permanent Warfare State.” Obama had notable successes in Iran and Cuba, but this book argues that he promoted war around the world, guided by “his colonialist assumption that America and its institutions were superior.” It is the beginning of what will certainly be a long reassessment of Obama’s foreign policy record.
What brought the United States to the point where it considers itself the arbiter of the world? Two centuries of imperial experience, Daniel Immerwahr tells us in “How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States.” From the Trail of Tears to the Drone War, it presents the story of our country’s expansion quite differently from the way you learned it in school.
For a bracing story of Middle East intrigue that recreates one of the most astonishing attacks of modern history, try Joan Mellen’s “Blood in the Water: How the U.S. and Israel Conspired to Ambush the USS Liberty.” The story is still hard to comprehend: In 1967 Israeli planes attacked an American warship in the Mediterranean, killing 34 sailors, and President Lyndon Johnson decided not to protest. This book, which is likely to become the definitive account of that attack and betrayal, explains why.
For those on your gift list who prefer to learn about the world in a gentler way, try two very different memoirs by gifted writers who deftly navigate the passage between outrage and acceptance. I have a personal connection to both of them. In “What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance,” the American poet Carolyn Forche tells how she became immersed in the civil war in El Salvador during the 1980s. Her guide and best Salvadoran friend, Leonel Gomez, was a wonderful fellow who was also my guide and best Salvadoran friend in those days. I envy her for having reached so deeply into his multi-faceted soul.
The last time I saw my Turkish friend Ahmet Altan, a journalist and author of popular detective stories, he was speaking at Harvard. I still remember one line from his talk: “Wherever there is a state, there is violence.” His own subsequent fate illustrates his point. A Turkish court has sentenced him to life imprisonment on the absurd charge that during a TV appearance the night before the failed 2016 military coup, he sent “subliminal messages” to plotters. Altan is a wise and gentle man. In his new memoir, “I Will Never See the World Again,” he makes clear that prison has not dulled his wry appreciation of life. “Reality will sweep you away like a wild flood only if you submit to it and act as it expects you to,” he concludes. In scary times, that insight is a useful gift indeed.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.