The best books about political violence

1 authors have picked their favorite books about political violence and why they recommend each book.

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The Killing Wind

By Tan Hecheng, Stacy Mosher (translator), Guo Jian (translator)

Book cover of The Killing Wind: A Chinese County's Descent Into Madness During the Cultural Revolution

A searing account by a retired Chinese journalist of the impact of social unrest and factional clashes in a rural area of central Hunan province in the late 1960s during the Cultural Revolution. Tan’s haunting account starts with his memories of passing through this area around the time the events he goes on to recount as a young journalist decades before. With research and investigation, he finds that the quiet but unsettling place he remembers witnessing was in fact consumed by murder and bloodshed. Some of these events he documents. A book that describes but does not judge, making its impact even more powerful.


Who am I?

I have been working on China as a student, teacher, diplomat, business person, and academic since 1991. 
Currently, professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, my work involves trying to understand how the country’s deer and more recent history has created the remarkable country that we see today. I have written over 20 books on modern China, and lived there in total 5 and a half years. I have visited every single province and autonomous region, and have lectured on China in over 40 countries, across four continents.

I wrote...

China

By Kerry Brown,

Book cover of China

What is my book about?

China is poised to become the world’s largest economy in the next decade. But its great struggle to modernise has been one of tragedy, conflict, and challenge. From the first attempts to introduce Western ideas into the country two centuries ago, China’s long march to global primacy has been above all an epic fight to renew an ancient country and culture.

Sinologist Kerry Brown traces this quest for renewal through the major moments of China’s modern history. Taking the reader on a journey that includes war, revolution, famine, and finally regeneration, he describes concisely and authoritatively where China has come from, and where it is heading as it achieves great power status. This is a story that is no longer just about China, but concerns the rest of the world.

Violence in War and Peace

By Nancy Scheper-Hughes (editor), Philippe I. Bourgois (editor),

Book cover of Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology

The editors of this volume are two of the most important and influential medical anthropologists in the world and major scholars of violence. In addition to collecting a set of useful texts on violence, the introduction to the volume is a piece of writing that I have returned to many times.

Who am I?

I am a biblical scholar who has become a historian of violence because I could no longer ignore the realities of the present or my own past. I write of violence for my childhood self, who was bullied for a decade and used to run away from school.  I write of it for my grandfather, who was born of exploitation.  I write of it for my African-American wife and daughter, in the hopes that I might contribute to the elimination of hierarchies that threaten their dignity and sometimes their lives.  Doing this work is not just intellectual for me—it is a memorialization and a ritual of healing. 


I wrote...

Violence and Personhood in Ancient Israel and Comparative Contexts

By T.M. Lemos,

Book cover of Violence and Personhood in Ancient Israel and Comparative Contexts

What is my book about?

In the first book-length work ever written on personhood in ancient Israel, I reveal widespread intersections between violence and personhood in this society and the wider region. Relations of domination and subordination were incredibly important to the culture of ancient Israel, with these relations often determining the boundaries of personhood itself. Personhood was malleable—it could be and was violently erased in many social contexts. This study exposes a violence-personhood-masculinity nexus in which domination allowed those in control to animalize and brutalize the bodies of subordinates.

Unthinkable

By Jamie Raskin,

Book cover of Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy

U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin was not only inside the Capitol on January 6 when it was stormed, he had just tragically buried his 25-year-old son the previous day. His book, a cathartic exercise for himself and a shocked nation, drills down to the heart of what happened, showing in graphic detail how violent and terrifying that day was from an insider’s perspective. 

As a former constitutional law professor at American University who later became a Trump impeachment manager and member of the U.S. House Select Committee investigating the attack, Raskin eloquently explains the underlying events and issues that led to the violent breach. He argues forcefully why the former president himself must be held accountable before the country can begin a crucial, difficult healing process.


Who am I?

I was born in Washington, D.C., in a hospital not far from the U.S. Capitol. I remember being awestruck walking through its halls on tours as a kid. As a journalist, I covered some hearings and interviewed Congress representatives and staff there. The attack on January 6, 2021, was more than a breach of a landmark, historic building representing the top legislative body in the country; it was an assault on the fabric of democracy itself. A tragic crime occurred there that left several people dead and many injured, both physically and emotionally. We must hold everyone involved, especially those at the top who planned this invasion, accountable for what occurred that day.


I wrote...

Operation Chaos: The Capitol Attack and the Campaign to Erode Democracy

By Kevin James Shay,

Book cover of Operation Chaos: The Capitol Attack and the Campaign to Erode Democracy

What is my book about?

In early 2020, Team Trump executed Operation Chaos, a little-known dirty trick ploy to disrupt Democratic Party primaries.

After the election was called for Joe Biden, Trump and allies put pressure on Vice President Mike Pence to overturn election results through Operation Pence Card, where Pence would send results back to states when he oversaw the ratification in Congress on January 6, 2021. Operation Occupy the Capitol, where Proud Boys, militias, party activists, top Trump advisers, and even Trump himself conspired to stop the legal process in Congress by taking over the building while Trump lawyers attempted to force state legislators to change election results. Trump and his operatives liked to use military-style, code names for their dirty campaigns. But no matter what they called it, the result was chaos.

We Need New Names

By NoViolet Bulawayo,

Book cover of We Need New Names

Having lived in poverty and forced to grow up fast due to the hardship of life, what makes this book tragic is that when Darling the child protagonist arrives in the US, the land she dreamed of, she misses ‘home’ and her dreams don’t come true. Recommended for the author's narrative verve and its general overview of Zimbabwe through the lens of the less privileged. The lesson for me was that material comfort does not guarantee happiness. 


Who am I?

My name is Ellen Banda-Aaku a writer from Zambia and the UK. I have been writing – mainly for young adults - for many years. My latest YA book The Elephant Girl which I have co-authored with James Patterson is due in July 2022. A memorable book for me is one that haunts me long after I turn the last page even though it’s fiction. Whilst the books mentioned here are very different, I have linked them in that they have child protagonists who go through a lot of suffering through no fault of their own. That is what makes them tearjerkers.


I wrote...

Patchwork

By Ellen Banda-Aaku,

Book cover of Patchwork

What is my book about?

Lusaka 1978. Pumpkin is 9 years old. Her fashionable mother is the queen of Tudu court, but beneath the veneer of respectability that her father's money provides lies a secret that threatens their whole world – the tall, elegant Totela Ponga is a drunk. And when pumpkin’s father – the wealthy businessman JS – discovers her mother’s alcoholism it sets in motion a chain of events that come to define the rest of her life. 

Weaving together the stories of three generations of women, this novel is a patchwork of love jealousy and human frailty set against a backdrop of war and political ambition. This book is about how childhood experiences influence who an adult becomes. Patchwork was shortlisted for the Commonwealth book prize in 2012. 

Wave of Terror

By Theodore Odrach, Emma Odrach (translator),

Book cover of Wave of Terror

Hidden from the English-speaking world for more than 50 years, this panoramic novel begins with the Red Army invasion of Belarus in 1939. Ivan Kulik has just become headmaster of school number 7 in Hlaby, a rural village in the Marsh of Pinsk. Through his eyes, I witnessed the tragedy of Stalinist domination where people are oppressed, randomly deported to labor camps, or tortured in Zovty Prison in Pinsk.

The author’s individual gift that sets him apart from his contemporaries is the range of his sympathies and his unromantic, unsentimental approach to the sensual lives of women. His debt to Chekhov is obvious in his ability to capture the internal drama of his characters with psychological conciseness.

This historical novel serves as a stern warning against adopting socialism in America.


Who am I?

My father retired from the Marines before he married my mother. Sadly, he was more drill instructor to me than father. He never shared with me his experience on Okinawa, yet he was proud of his service. He kept in touch with several marines and attended many reunions. It was only after Dad’s death that I discovered With the Old Breed. Eugene Sledge told me everything my father withheld from me, and why he was the way he was. Today, Dad would be diagnosed with PTSD. Thus began a quest to read other accounts of wartime experiences, as soldiers and civilians, which led me to write A World Without Music.


I wrote...

A World Without Music

By J. Conrad Guest,

Book cover of A World Without Music

What is my book about?

Can a Gulf War veteran suffering PTSD find the music to make his life worth living?

Reagan returns from the Gulf War haunted by horrific images of a dead marine he brought back from the desert. Seeking refuge from his nightmares in a jazz quartet in which he plays bass guitar, fifteen years elapse and he has a one-night fling with Rosary, a young woman he meets at a gig. When his ex-wife comes back into his life, Rosary’s obsession turns into a fatal attraction. With help from Tom Wallach’s ghost, the daughter Wallach never met, and a friend who is much more than he appears to be, Reagan discovers he must let go of his tortured past if he is to embrace the future.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

By Jason Stearns,

Book cover of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa

The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s civil wars have claimed 5.5 million lives since the mid-1990s, but most people have never heard the stories of those who died. Stearns is an academic who spent years in the DRC researching how and why communities that once lived side by side could descend into brutal violence. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to better understand how intercommunal conflict can turn neighbors into enemies, ethnicity into a weapon, and school children into genocidal street gangs. I spent two years living in DRC reporting on human rights abuses, and found Stearns’s treatment of his subjects and their personal histories arresting, respectful, and deeply humane. 


Who am I?

As an author, humanitarian, and diplomat, I’ve seen firsthand how the everyday brutality of civil wars and ethnic conflicts is often overlooked in favor of statistics: 100,000 displaced; 500 arrested; 7 villages torched. In places like Myanmar, Ethiopia, Congo, Nigeria, and Bangladesh, I have tried to use human-centered reporting to bring a magnifying glass to the effect of these tragedies on everyday people. By focusing on the stories that most of the world would rather turn away from, I think we have a better chance to understand, and ultimately prevent, these violent political and social upheavals. 


I wrote...

Until the World Shatters: Truth, Lies, and the Looting of Myanmar

By Daniel Combs,

Book cover of Until the World Shatters: Truth, Lies, and the Looting of Myanmar

What is my book about?

Bum Tsit has a problem. In Myanmar’s far north, he is caught between the insurgent army his family supports and the business and military leaders his career depends on. Soon, he must choose a side. Phoe Wa lives in a very different Myanmar. He is a young migrant who has come to Yangon to pursue his dream of being a photojournalist. At a time when the government is jailing reporters and nationalist voices are on the rise, he believes that he has a responsibility to educate the public about his country’s problems. 

Until the World Shatters interweaves Phoe Wa and Bum Tsit’s stories to present a definitive portrait of Myanmar’s politics and people, taking readers deeper into its world of secret-keepers and truth-tellers than ever before. 

Betrayal

By Jonathan Karl,

Book cover of Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show

There are numerous books out about Donald Trump’s final year as president. This one by veteran ABC News Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl provides the most detailed insider account of what led up to the Capitol attack and what exactly occurred that day. Karl gets key administration officials and even Trump himself to talk on the record about what happened from their perspective. There aren’t many interviews from unnamed sources, which leads to a more accountable and authoritative work.


Who am I?

I was born in Washington, D.C., in a hospital not far from the U.S. Capitol. I remember being awestruck walking through its halls on tours as a kid. As a journalist, I covered some hearings and interviewed Congress representatives and staff there. The attack on January 6, 2021, was more than a breach of a landmark, historic building representing the top legislative body in the country; it was an assault on the fabric of democracy itself. A tragic crime occurred there that left several people dead and many injured, both physically and emotionally. We must hold everyone involved, especially those at the top who planned this invasion, accountable for what occurred that day.


I wrote...

Operation Chaos: The Capitol Attack and the Campaign to Erode Democracy

By Kevin James Shay,

Book cover of Operation Chaos: The Capitol Attack and the Campaign to Erode Democracy

What is my book about?

In early 2020, Team Trump executed Operation Chaos, a little-known dirty trick ploy to disrupt Democratic Party primaries.

After the election was called for Joe Biden, Trump and allies put pressure on Vice President Mike Pence to overturn election results through Operation Pence Card, where Pence would send results back to states when he oversaw the ratification in Congress on January 6, 2021. Operation Occupy the Capitol, where Proud Boys, militias, party activists, top Trump advisers, and even Trump himself conspired to stop the legal process in Congress by taking over the building while Trump lawyers attempted to force state legislators to change election results. Trump and his operatives liked to use military-style, code names for their dirty campaigns. But no matter what they called it, the result was chaos.

Dune

By Frank Herbert,

Book cover of Dune

Again, this book is in most ways clearly SF—space travel, zappy ray guns, force fields—but the sandworms are straight out of Kaiju movies or dragon stories. The force field technology means that the most important fights are hand-to-hand with bladed weapons, and Herbert’s protagonists are the prophesy-believing tribesmen who live close to the land and hold fast to their ancient traditions. And it’s also full of mystical, high-flown metaphysical philosophy, most of which I could happily crib for use in a fantasy novel. In short, it’s not really SF, it’s Lawrence of Arabia with lasers and witches.


Who am I?

Science Fiction, which used to be used to market all kinds of fantastic fiction (including The Lord of the Rings) was first subdivided into marketing genres like SF, Horror, and Fantasy. In recent years, those genres have been sliced into even smaller portions—into sub-genres like Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, Fantasy of Manners, Cyberpunk, and so on. The reasons that happened? We’ll save that for some much longer conversation. I’ve been a fantasy and science fiction writer for more than thirty years, and a reader and fan of the genre for longer than that—since childhood. My books have been New York Times and Sunday Times bestsellers, and they’re published in more than two dozen languages.


I wrote...

Into the Narrowdark

By Tad Williams,

Book cover of Into the Narrowdark

What is my book about?

The High Throne of Erkynland is tottering, its royal family divided and diminished. Queen Miriamele has been caught up in a brutal rebellion in the south and thought to have died in a fiery attack. Her grandson Morgan, heir to the throne, has been captured by one of Utuk’ku’s soldiers in the ruins of an abandoned city. Miriamele’s husband, King Simon, is overwhelmed by grief and hopelessness, unaware that many of these terrible things have been caused by Pasevalles, a murderous traitor inside Simon’s own court at the Hayholt.

Meanwhile, a deadly army of Norns led by the ageless, vengeful Queen Utuk’ku, has swept into Erkynland and thrown down the fortress of Naglimund, slaughtering the inhabitants and digging up the ancient grave of Ruyan the Navigator. 

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