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Since 1973, when President Richard Nixon and Congress created the all-volunteer force as an alternative to conscripted military service, there has been a division between the American public and the military. Less than one-half of 1% of our population currently serves on active duty. And as the public has watched the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue on for years after 9/11, they have become more uncertain than ever about U.S. missions.

But active duty and retired military personnel have become more uncertain too. In an enlightening new book, Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America's Misguided Wars, a diverse group of veterans who volunteered and served in those wars tell us what they saw, did and learned. In these original essays, selected by co-editors Andrew Bacevich and Daniel A. Sjursen for their candor and eloquence, the contributors share their reasons for deciding to serve, why they became disillusioned and why they now feel the need to speak out about “military policies that they deem ill advised, illegal, or morally unconscionable.”

Erik Edstrom, a West Point graduate, was an infantry platoon leader in Afghanistan, where he “saw the systematic dehumanization and devaluation of Afghan lives on a regular basis. . . . It's one of America's deepest ironies: in efforts to ‘prevent terrorism' in our country, we commit far larger acts of terrorism elsewhere,” he writes. Joy Damiani was an enlisted public affairs specialist who served two tours in Iraq. “According to the Army's official narrative,” she writes, “the war was always in the process of being won. There were never any mistakes, never any defeats, and certainly never any failures.” Buddhika Jayamaha was an airborne infantryman in Iraq. He and many others “felt that the extreme hubris of American politicians and the commentariat was responsible for the mess in Iraq.”

Bacevich, who served for 23 years in the Army, including in Vietnam, writes that “genuine military dissent is patriotic.” Any citizen who wants to better understand our country's current military entrapments will want to read this book.

In 17 original essays, U.S. veterans share their reasons for deciding to serve, why they became disillusioned with the military and why they now feel the need to speak out against its misguided policies.

“As a writer, I love change,” the award-winning journalist Eve Fairbanks notes on her website. It's a good thing, because as the author of The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa's Racial Reckoning, which outlines the depth and breadth of upheaval in South Africa in recent decades, there's plenty of change to explore. By interviewing the people who were most affected when South Africa dismantled its white supremacist institutions, Fairbanks marries the overarching story the country's turbulent apartheid history with Black and white individuals' intimate experiences before and after 1994, when so much—and so little—changed.

Dipuo grew up in Soweto, a treeless, impoverished township of Johannesburg. It was strictly segregated during the years of white-minority rule but became increasingly politically active during the 1970s, as did Dipuo. “We were always told: Freedom first,” she remembers. Her daughter, Malaika, was 2 years old when their world became racially integrated. Malaika started going to a formerly white school, which Dipuo told her was so she could be “empowered, loose, and free” when she grew up.

Christo is the son of a successful white farmer. He joined the South African military at a young age, becoming one of the last fighters for apartheid even as it crumbled. When the laws around security force engagements changed, he simply wasn't told. So when he shot and killed a Black man during a reconnaissance mission, he suddenly found himself charged with murder. 

Unable to find work in Johannesburg, Elliott became a chicken farmer. The farm's former white owner had left it in ruins, overrun by antelopes, but Elliott strove to succeed against impossible odds, inspired to prove that Black Africans could be farmers, too, in a country where most land was owned and farmed by white people. 

As Fairbanks vividly demonstrates, South Africa's complicated past continues to define the lives of Black Africans, white Afrikaners and immigrants from formerly colonized African countries such as Mozambique and Angola. The Inheritors covers a lot of ground, capturing Black heroes like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, as well as castigated white politicians like Frederik Willem de Klerk. She also examines how the rest of the world has handled racism and colonialism before and after 1994, including Angola's own liberation in 1975 and the ongoing turmoil in 21st-century America. Glimmering throughout is the humanity she manages to find in all of it.

For the inheritors of these seismic changes, distrust and guilt can go unburied, and hope, progress and mutual respect can prove elusive. There are lessons here for readers the world over, especially as South Africa joins the global marketplace and as the U.S. continues to grapple with the human cost of racism. Fairbanks compels us to pay attention, learn and, above all, care.

Humanity glimmers throughout Eve Fairbanks' portrait of South Africa's turbulent apartheid history.

Memory is already a slippery thing. And when it's tangled in family lore and embedded in a country's violent history, it can prove even more elusive. When Ingrid Rojas Contreras was in her 20s, living far away from her native Colombia, she suffered a head injury and became a terrified amnesiac. Desperate to retrieve her memory and understand the dreams and ghosts that plagued her, she set out for her family's hometown of Ocaña, Colombia, to find the facts of her family's history. (Mami heckled her daughter's use of the word facts: “Can you believe the girl is going to Ocaña to look for facts? To Ocaña! In a family like ours? With the quality of our stories?”)

In Rojas Contreras' enthralling memoir, The Man Who Could Move Clouds, she finds the historical and genealogical facts she's looking for, but the stories her family reveals are far more powerful. In fact, they are magical, especially those involving Mami and her father, Nono, who could move clouds “for farmers who needed rain.”

In a dream Rojas Contreras had—the same dream her Mami and two aunts also had—her dead grandfather, Nono, made it clear to her that he wanted his remains disinterred, and so the author's journey from Chicago to Colombia began. Nono was known as a curandero, or homeopath. He was sought after as a healer and feared as a mystic, endowed with “secrets” such as communing with the dead and foreseeing the future. When Mami fell—or was pushed—down a well as a child, he saved her life, and she seemed to inherit his powers. Rojas Contreras' head injury also left her with “secrets,” such as the ability to appear in two places at the same time. In her large Colombian family, none of these skills seemed strange, though some members saw them as blessings and others feared them as a curse.

Rojas Contreras' acclaimed first novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, introduced the fraught landscape of Colombia in the late 20th century, when assassins and kidnappers thrived while parents struggled to keep their children safe. Now, in her deftly woven memoir, she makes this history more immediate and personal, with prose that in itself is enchantingly poetic.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras makes the recent history of Colombia immediate, personal and magical, with prose that in itself is enchantingly poetic.

By the mid-20th century, Pablo Picasso’s paintings and sculptures were turning heads in France and Germany, ushering in cubism, a new artistic style that challenged older styles. At this same moment, American art was dominated by a devotion to realism and the old masters, and therefore resistant to and repulsed by the “modern art” of Picasso. In 1939, that all changed when the newly opened Museum of Modern Art in New York City held an exhibit titled “Picasso: Forty Years of His Art,” featuring pieces that two Americans, who never met, worked tirelessly to make available to the public. Hugh Eakin’s Picasso’s War tells the scintillating tale of how John Quinn, Alfred H. Barr Jr. and others brought Picasso’s work to America and changed the face of American art.

Irish American lawyer Quinn championed modernist novels and poetry and avant-garde art, introducing Americans to William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot, as well as to Marcel Duchamp’s painting “Nude Descending a Staircase.” A great collector, Quinn had a “growing aversion to what he called ‘dead art,’” Eakin writes, and wanted to promote painters and writers who could “express the values and forces of his own time.” Although he personally never understood cubism, he believed that “American art needs the shock that the work of some of these men will give.” After he met Picasso, the artist started reserving his best work for Quinn, who built a modest collection. Quinn dreamed of opening a museum devoted explicitly to modern art, since the Metropolitan Museum of Art excluded such art as “degenerate.” He never saw his wish come true, however. He died of cancer in 1924.

In 1926, Barr took up Quinn’s vision for such a museum, aided by wealthy patrons who shared Quinn’s hope. Three years later, Barr opened the Museum of Modern Art using pieces from Quinn’s collection, striving to build a collection of premier work by the most important modern artists. He worked incessantly to open a show devoted to Picasso, but he was hampered at several turns by challenges from Parisian art dealers and even by Picasso himself. By the late 1930s, though, as Adolf Hitler’s campaign against so-called degenerate art ramped up and museums and galleries in Paris began removing and hiding certain paintings, Picasso and his dealer, Paul Rosenberg, tried to get as many of the artist’s paintings as possible to America. Such forces enabled Barr to put on his 1939 Picasso exhibit and to secure a place in the American cultural world not only for Picasso but also for the Museum of Modern Art, which flourished following the Picasso exhibit.

Eakin’s rapturous storytelling makes Picasso’s War a spellbinding, page-turning read about this illuminating chapter in cultural history.

Hugh Eakin’s rapturous storytelling makes Picasso’s War a spellbinding, page-turning read about the fight to bring Picasso’s art to America.

Families separate for many reasons, but when war rips them apart, their longing for one another can be especially acute. Sometimes family members completely lose contact with each other, never knowing if the other is living or dead. In her riveting Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden, Zhuqing Li narrates the dual biographies of her aunts, who were separated by the Chinese Civil War.

At the center of Li's story is the Flower Fragrant Garden, the idyllic setting where sisters Jun and Hong grew up in relative security in the early 20th century. Li writes that the compound was “one of Fuzhou's biggest and richest homes. . . . The main building was a grand, two-story red-brick Western-style house rising from the lush greenery of the rolling grounds. A winding path dipped under the canopy of green, linking smaller buildings like beads on a necklace.”

In 1937, during Japan's war with China, the sisters were forced into exile and left their garden behind. Then, in the political turmoil that followed the war with Japan, Jun and Hong followed different paths, separated by the Nationalist-Communist divide that erupted after the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949. Jun moved to the Nationalist stronghold of Taiwan, where she became a successful teacher and later a businesswoman whose acumen brought her to America. Hong became a prominent physician on China's mainland, “famous as a pioneer in bringing medical care to China's remote countryside, and later the Ôgrandma of IVF babies,' in vitro fertilization, in Fujian Province.”

Hong left her family behind completely as she embraced her life in the new People's Republic of China, but Jun longed to reunite with her sister. In 1982, the two met again for the first time in 33 years, and through their conversations, Jun began to understand the reasons Hong had to pledge her unwavering support to the Communist party in order to survive. After that, the two sisters never met again. Jun died at 92 in 2014 in her home in Maryland, and in 2020, where the book ends, Hong was still seeing patients in China at the age of 95.

In Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden, Li eloquently tells a moving story of her aunts and their resilience throughout one of China's most fraught centuries.

Zhuqing Li tells the moving story of her aunts, separated by the Chinese Civil War, and their resilience throughout one of China’s most fraught centuries.

Every year, the BookPage editors must once again ask the question: What, exactly, does “summer reading” even mean? Here are our definitions, in literary form.

The Season

I devour lighthearted, escapist romances and mysteries during the summer. Basically, if it can hold my attention despite all the distractions of a packed pool or a sunny park, it’s going in my tote bag. However, to keep my brain from snapping in half when I inevitably turn to more challenging books in the fall, I also make sure to reach for a few weightier yet still seasonably appropriate titles. Kristen Richardson’s history of the debutante is my gold standard. Impeccably researched but unabashedly glam and gossipy, The Season describes gorgeous gowns and high society queen bees with the same inquisitive rigor it applies to unpacking the intersections of race and class. In its various permutations, the debutante tradition encapsulates cultural ideas about femininity and its value; depending on the context, it can be regressive or liberating, stifling or affirming. (The chapter on African American debutante balls alone is worth the price of admission.) Make this your afternoon poolside read, and you’ll be the most interesting person at dinner later that night.

—Savanna, Associate Editor

Deacon King Kong

When my yard is alive with bugs and birds, when they’re screaming and singing and zipping through the trees, I want a book that crackles with that kind of electricity, like Deacon King Kong. Set in 1969 Brooklyn, James McBride’s seventh novel opens in the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing projects where, in broad daylight, a 71-year-old alcoholic church deacon known as Sportcoat shoots the ear off a 19-year-old drug dealer. That seemingly gritty opening leads into an affectionate village novel that follows a multitude of characters, including congregants of the Five Ends Baptist Church, a lovelorn police officer and an Italian mobster known as the Elephant. As readers learn the truth about Sportcoat’s actions, they also follow foibles and treasure hunts and slapstick party scenes. No one’s the “bad guy,” not even the mob bosses or dirty cops. The dialogue is some of the best you’ll ever read, and many scenes are gut-bustingly funny. Summer is a joy, and so is this book.

—Cat, Deputy Editor


I am not a great lover of summertime. The heat, the dirt, the bugs—all of it sends me indoors with a glass of lemonade. This makes a book like Group by Christie Tate my perfect summer read. I tore through this book on vacation last year, using every moment alone in the empty, air-conditioned house to fly through a few more chapters while everyone else was outside. Tate’s memoir of the years she spent in an unconventional group therapy setting ranges from salacious to vulnerable to truly touching. All she has to do, her new therapist tells her, is show up to these group sessions and be honest—about everything. Sexuality, food, relationships, family, death—everything. As Tate slowly opens up to her fellow group members, she builds real friendships for the first time and learns to defuse the shame and low self-worth that had kept her from making authentic connections during her first 26 years. Perfect for a weekend trip or plane ride, this book’s got heart, hope and enough juicy confessions to keep you turning the pages at lightning speed.

—Christy, Associate Editor

All That She Carried

Whether I’m traveling across the world on a plane or installed under an umbrella on the beach, summer adventures inspire me to decenter screens and their attendant distractions. This means I have the capacity to focus on books that reward a reader’s careful attention, like Tiya Miles’ National Book Award-winning All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. Miles, a historian and MacArthur Foundation fellowship recipient, uses a single artifact—a simple cotton sack given to a 9-year-old child named Ashley by her mother when Ashley was sold to a different plantation—to offer insight into the often undocumented lives of Black women. As she traces the journey of Ashley’s sack from its origins in 1850s South Carolina through the Great Migration and to its eventual discovery at a Nashville flea market, Miles honors the strength of family ties and finds creative ways to fill gaps in the historical record. This book will make you both think and feel, providing a reading experience to remember.

—Trisha, Publisher

The Diviners

There is nothing I want more in the summer than a big honking series. (Especially if it’s complete. No cliffhanger endings for me!) I want to dive into a fictional world for as long as possible before coming up for air, and Libba Bray’s quartet of novels about supernaturally gifted teens solving mysteries in New York City during the Roaring ’20s fits the bill to a T. The series opener is replete with positutely delicious period vernacular and horrors both imagined (a murderous ghost resurrecting himself with body parts carved from his victims) and all too real (“color lines” at jazz clubs where Black Americans perform on stage but aren’t allowed to enter as customers). The Diviners is exactly the sort of tale I love to stay up into the wee hours of hot summer nights reading—which is good, because in Bray's talented hands, some scenes are so terrifying that I wouldn't be able to turn off the lights anyway.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor

Any book can be a beach read if you put your mind to it.

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