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The 5 best books of 2016

best booksI’d already written up my list of the 10 best books of the year when the editors of Berkeleyside asked me to supply them with a list of my five top picks. (I’ll post the longer list next week.) Picking just five is a tough assignment, to put it mildly. But here goes, gritting my teeth all the way. All these books were published in 2016 or late in 2015.

Homegoing: A Novel, by Yaa Gyasi

In a searing exploration of the history of slavery, an African-born American woman traces the story of a Ghanaian family over more than two centuries through the lives of two branches of its descendants, one in Ghana, the other in the United States.

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, by Max Hastings

A British historian’s revisionist view of military intelligence in World War II,  debunking the many myths that have inspired dozens of books and taking their exaggerations down a peg with a long-lacking sense of perspective. In short, Hastings demonstrates that virtually all human intelligence (“humint”) was useless.

The Sympathizer: A Novel, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A Vietnamese-American won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with this complex novel of the Vietnam War, viewing the conflict from those who took part both in the South and the North. It’s a perspective unfamiliar to most of us and could only have been written by a Vietnamese-American. The book is crammed with insight, and it’s beautifully written.

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, by Steve Silberman

A science journalist traces the history of autism throughout the twentieth century, when it first became the subject of close study. It’s a fascinating story of myths and misunderstandings long held both among psychiatrists and the public. The psychiatric profession does not come off well in this telling.

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by David Talbot 

A veteran investigative journalist explores the time in the 1950s and 60s when the CIA ran amok, assassinating foreign leaders and intervening in the affairs of other countries in the belief that the USSR was bent on world domination. The focus is on the legendary CIA Director, Allen Dulles. You won’t think more highly of him if you read this book.

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