In 2007, when George Packer asked Iraqis what kind of government they had expected to replace Saddam’s regime, they confessed they’d never really thought about it. “They just assumed that the Americans would bring the right people, and the country would blossom with freedom, prosperity, consumer goods, travel opportunities,” Packer writes in “Betrayed,” which first appeared in The New Yorker. “In this, they mirrored the wishful thinking of American officials and neoconservative intellectuals who failed to plan for trouble.”
Packer’s new book, Interesting Times: Writings From a Turbulent Decade, due out in November, is a collection of previously published essays and reportage chronicling the stormy period from September 11 to the rise of Obama. Dwelling heavily on the relationship between the privileged and the desperate, it demonstrates Packer’s tolerance for the chaos of political unrest, in places as varied as Iraq, the Ivory Coast, Rangoon, and Appalachia. What he calls, in the introduction, V.S. Naipaul’s lack of illusions and ability to register the injustice of things could as easily apply to him.
On a recent morning, at a coffee shop in Prospect Heights, Packer touched on his early exposure to political thought: “My parents were both intense liberals,” he said with a grin, adding, “They met because they both loved Adlai Stevenson.” Raised in the ’60s at Stanford, where his mom and dad taught writing and law, respectively, he went on to study at Yale. He then spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, in West Africa. The experience led to his 1988 debut, the travel narrative The Village of Waiting. Two novels, one play, and three works of nonfiction followed, including 2005’s The Assassins’ Gate, which explored the abstract motives and glaring ineptitude of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Though much of Interesting Times was written during the early days of the War, the material feels timelessly relevant. These pieces capture the national anxiety in its raw form, without the convenience of hindsight. And they’re filled with accurate forecasts. In “On the Morning After Saddam,” written in March of 2003, he speaks with Hussein Ibish, the director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who tells him, “This war will only reinforce the Arab feeling of humiliation and impotence. It could be a giant television commercial for Al Qaeda.”
Those articles that don’t deal with the war take up similar concerns, namely the unforeseen consequences of American-style good intentions. “The Children of Freetown” features a New York prosthetist named Matthew Mirones and his quest to make artificial limbs for children in Sierra Leone whose arms and legs have been severed by rebel soldiers. Mirones succeeds, temporarily housing the children in Staten Island, but he fails to envision the next step: Should the kids return, their prostheses might simply be stolen, or it might give the rebels cause for retribution.
“Idealism is not something I want to see die out in the world,” Packer says, admitting that Mirones was a good man. “But in the aftermath of the Bush years, some people have decided that idealism is selfish and narcissistic, if not downright imperialistic.”
What many forget is that “our sense of selfless purpose,” as he describes it in the book, has also resulted in a longstanding generosity to developing nations. Adopting a jaded stance toward American naïveté, he suggests, shortchanges our country’s power to inspire the oppressed.
George Packer is a modern-day George Orwell. Like the author of Homage to Catalonia, the places he writes about are never stages for personal or ideological heroism. They are always real and full of frustrating facts that expose both liberal and conservative absolutism as reckless attempts to deny reality. Interesting Times should be read not just as an antidote to contemporary media poison, but as a testament to the values of moral seriousness in a troubled age. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pp., $30
Fall Book Picks
By David Byrne, September
Bicycle Diaries is the product of David Byrne’s 30-plus years of riding a bike around New York, Berlin, Manila, and other exotic locales. Like transcendental meditation for David Lynch, or running for Haruki Murakami, bike riding provides Byrne with a psychic boost. And though stuffed with insightful observations on urban sustainability and globalization, the book is never preachy or pedantic. Of biking, he writes, “I mainly do it for the sense of freedom and exhilaration.” Viking, 299 pp., $25.95
Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability
By David Owen, September
This wise eco-urbanist manifesto explains, among other counterintuitive facts, why Manhattan is the greenest city in the U.S. Owen, a veteran staff writer for The New Yorker, is adept at debunking the increasingly accepted notions that urban parks, ethanol, and locavorism are “green.” His portrayal of New York City as a kind of conservationist utopia amid vast rural wastefulness lands yet another blow on the myth of small-town values. Riverhead, 368 pp., $25.95
She Devil in the Mirror
By Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated by Katherine Silver, September
Bolaño once called Moya “the only writer of my generation who knows how to narrate the horror, the secret Vietnam that Latin America was for a long time.” In She Devil, Moya delineates the political and social horrors entrenched in Salvadoran life through the hilariously paranoid voice of Laura Rivera, the friend of an upper-class murder victim. The book’s biting comic tone recalls that of Thomas Bernhard, but with a warmer, gentler edge. New Directions, 160 pp., $14.95
The Bride of E
By Mary Jo Bang, October
Mary Jo Bang’s previous book, Elegy, a series of poems for her deceased son, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her newest collection, The Bride of E, is organized alphabetically, and reminds us of poetry’s indebtedness to the raw substance of letters. “B Is for Beckett” reads only “There is so little to say.” In spare, aching lines, Bang evokes distance and absence while still adhering to the heart of things—and the comforting texture of words. Graywolf, 96 pp., $22
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
By Lydia Davis, October
The Collected Stories gathers just under 200 stories by Davis, the writer whom Rick Moody has called “the best prose stylist in America.” Some stories clock in at a conventional 15 pages, while others are only two, or one, or just one sentence, as in “Away From Home”: “It has been so long since she used a metaphor!” Davis’s stories are consistently soulful and surprising, from spot-on Kafka imitations to discourses on the tenderness of dictionaries. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 739 pp., $30
The Interrogative Mood
By Padgett Powell, October
The word “interrogative” means “of the nature of a question,” and The Interrogative Mood fulfills this definition several thousand times over. Every sentence in this “novel” is a question; you don’t so much read it as let it shove and jangle you into unexpected and highly pleasurable states of mind. Powell is a master of nouveau Southern lyricism, which reflects the growing predominance of Piggly Wigglies, Walmarts, and McMansions. How this book works is beyond me, but, miraculously, it does. Ecco Press, 176 pp., $21.99
Love in Infant Monkeys
By Lydia Millet, October
The title of this outlandish short-story collection, Millet’s follow-up to her novel How the Dead Dream, comes from a scientific paper by Henry Harlow, an American psychologist known for his cruel experiments with rhesus monkeys. The title story is representative of the whole, in which celebrities (Madonna, Thomas Edison, Noam Chomsky) engage in awkward and revelatory encounters with animals (pheasants, giraffes, komodo dragons). With wit and deep pathos, Millet shows how we’ve fallen from the kingdom that animals still inhabit. Soft Skull, 186 pp., $13.95
Manhood for Amateurs
By Michael Chabon, October
If it’s true that, as Time has written, Michael Chabon is the Updike of his generation, then Manhood for Amateurs is his Self-Consciousness, Updike’s revealing memoir. The gorgeously written disclosures herein include Chabon’s daily marijuana use during the ’80s and ’90s, his affection for his ex-father-in-law, and a teen love affair with one of his mother’s friends. Styled as reminiscences on being a father, son, and husband, Manhood works as a saltier, fleshier companion to Chabon’s literary guidebook, Maps and Legends. Harper, 320 pp., $25.99
Painting Below Zero: Notes on a Life in Art
By James Rosenquist with David Dalton, October
This highly entertaining memoir by the great pop artist, known for his billboard-influenced paintings, describes the rocky transition from abstract expressionism to pop art from the inside. But its strength comes from Rosenquist’s big-hearted Midwestern storytelling. Highlights include observing de Kooning on a week-long bender, sitting in the front row before an unknown Elvis Presley, and gazing down on 1950’s Times Square from scaffolding 22 stories high. Alfred A. Knopf, 384 pp., $50
By Roberto Calasso, translated by Alastair McEwen, October
According to Roberto Calasso, the celebrated Italian novelist and essayist, the work of the 18th-century Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo was the embodiment of sprezzatura. The term is essentially untranslatable, but it comes closest to “nonchalance” or, in Tiepolo’s case, “the concealment of affectation through the mastery of craft.” Calasso brings to Tiepolo’s overlooked masterpieces the same hermeneutical zest he brought to Kafka in his 2005 novel K. The book’s 81 full-color illustrations make it worth the cost. Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pp., $40.
By Witold Gombrowicz,translated by Danuta Borchardt, November
Gombrowicz, a long-deceased Polish novelist and dramatist, is probably the most well-regarded 20th-century European writer most Americans have never heard of. Sontag, Kundera, and Updike all praised him endlessly. Written two years after Ferdydurke,his 1937 masterpiece of eloquent lunacy, Pornografia explores the carnal longings of two exiled intellectuals, who later become embroiled in an underground assassination plot. The origins of much of Kundera’s genre-bending work can be found here. Grove Press, 176 pp., $23