For what happens next, or before everything happens again

The History of the Peloponnesian War
by Thucydides
(Penguin Classics, 1954)
Covering much of the famous war between the Greek States, the themes are uncannily relevant: doctrines of preemption, achieving empire through default, the odd psycho/social effects that war brings upon a people, asking questions about the role of justice in empire. Thucydides’ work pushes the reader to think beyond simplistic conspiracy theories into a morally unsettling territory about the complexity of ideology, conflict, and war politics.

The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956
by A. Solzhenitsyn
(Perennial, 2002)
Inspired by the author’s experiences (Solzhenitsyn was convicted as a Marxist, imprisoned and exiled) under the Soviet Communist regime, The Gulag Archipelago contains doggedly detailed arrests, tortures, and kangaroo court trials that create a disturbing yet graphic portrait of the state-within-a-state mechanics of repression. A scary look at what happens to a society that constantly tells itself it is under siege. For those fans of sci-fi dystopias, this is dystopia made real.

A Dance to the Music of Time (Third Movement)
by Anthony Powell
(University of Chicago Press, 1995)
One hesitates to single out the penultimate trilogy of this twelve-volume masterpiece—context is everything—but those readers who have circled Powell’s incomparable Dance may be induced to join by the experientially veritable, deftly observed World War II. The first half-dozen books establish narrator Nicholas Jenkins’s web of acquaintances, and in their diverse intersections ring true to the nature of time, memory, and life. If the war sequence—The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art, and The Military Philosophers—casts an inevitable pall, it doesn’t seem to turn things upside-down: here is boredom, punctuated by comedy and gossip. But this third movement does contain a scene of horrible, sudden finality: a Blitz toll so absurdly specific that it beggars reason at the same time it implicates fate. The coincidental calamity leaves the reader bereft—indeed, nearly howling—and remains the high-water-mark of Powell’s entire fictional universe.

Any Human Heart
by William Boyd
(Knopf, 2003)
Reading a bit like a redaction of Powell, Any Human Heart is both a supreme entertainment and an appealingly unkempt account of one man’s trawl through the twentieth century. Though these journals of the fictitious author and art dealer Logan Mounstuart are unsparing and frequently hilarious, it’s his wartime captivity, and his devastating discovery upon release, that lie at the heart of the more antic matter.

A Higher Form Of Killing
by Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman
(Random House, 2002)
This book is best avoided if you live in an American city prone to orange alerts. For those beyond the bull’s-eye, however, Harris’s work is an addictive examination of chemical-biological warfare from its conception in 1915 to present day. You will be floored by the Germans’ use of giant clouds of chlorine gas during WWI. One seven-foot cloud annihilated 2,000 British troops in twenty minutes. The most disturbing revelations in the book chronicle the chemical and biological testing done on humans both in America and Britain during the Cold War.

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