Posts Tagged ‘Phil Klay’

The Top 12 List of the Favorite Fiction I Have Read in 2020


This being the year of the lockdown, I had time to read a couple of lengthy doorstop novels (‘The Maias’ and ‘Life A User’s Manual’) just like I used to do before I began writing regular blog posts. Also this year I discovered that there was some amazing fiction from the past which I had missed previously.

Click on either the bold-faced title or the cover image to see my original review for each work.


The Maias’ By Eça de Queirós (1888) – ‘The Maias’ is a jaunty vastly pleasurable trip in mid-to-late 19th-century Lisbon, Portugal society with some lively quick-witted companions. Readers new to Eça de Queirós can start with the short novella ‘The Yellow Sofa’ to determine if you like his style of writing or not.


‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar (2020) – ‘A Burning’ is a vivid powerful novel which focuses on one of the major crises in our world today, racial hatred. ‘A Burning’ is a world-changer if enough people read it and take it to their minds and souls.




‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell (2020) – A most intense depiction of family life and death in the late 16th century. Imagine an entire novel about William Shakespeare that contains not one line from his plays or his sonnets.




‘Tyll’ by Daniel Kehlmann (2017) – ‘Tyll’ is a sometimes light, sometimes black comedy which entirely suits the Thirty Years War. This novel is fascinating at the sentence level, a real accomplishment for both the author and the translator. Daniel Kehlmann brings a smart playful quality to his fiction that makes his writing well nigh irresistible.


Missionaries’ by Phil Klay (2020) – ‘Missionaries’ is a novel about the United States’ never-ending, misbegotten wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, and now Yemen. It is most focused on the drug wars in Colombia. ‘Missionaries’ opened my eyes to what is really happening in this world. It is a novel that will change your entire worldview.


‘Woe From Wit’ by Alexander Griboedov (1823) – From the very first words in the prologue of this verse play in four acts you can tell that it is going to be sharp and special:

Fate’s a mischief making tease,

That’s her character in brief,

a fool is blissfully at his ease,

a man of spirit comes to grief.


‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman (2017) – Someone could argue that the story in ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ is not very sophisticated. I do not see sophistication as a necessary or even desirable attribute of literature. Rather I see stating situations as simply and clearly as possible as one of the hallmarks of good literature, and that ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ does. Eleanor Oliphant’ is a poignant and affecting story.


‘Hurricane Season’ by Fernanda Melchor (2016) – ‘Hurricane Season’ is not for the squeamish or easily offended. The characters in this novel tell the truth about some very rough things. They are angry and the words they use are coarse and direct. Read ‘Hurricane Season’ if you are brave and honest enough to take it.



Other People’s Love Affairs’ by D. Wystan Owen (2018) – These eloquent stories go deeper into the circumstances and the psyches of their main characters than most stories do. People in them almost connect but not quite. This is a collection of short stories which will move you if you are willing to be moved.


‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid (2020) – ‘Such a Fun Age’ is a novel with a light touch that captures the dialogue of people socializing, whether it be a group at a party or dinner or just two people alone. Rather than an individual character contemplating a problem or situation, we get the interplay of many voices. What this novel really excels in are exchanges between groups of young women, whether young mothers or young single women. Kiley Reid’s enthusiasm for her story rubs off on the reader.


Indelicacy’ by Amina Cain (2020) – ‘Indelicacy’ is a powerful novella about creativity. Can a woman who cleans toilets and mops floors for a living have strong ambitions to be a writer? ‘Indelicacy’ answers that question with a resounding “Yes”. ‘Indelicacy’ is a novel about the struggle to create. One gets the impression that Amina Cain carefully chose each precise word in this unusual novella ‘Indelicacy’. It is a work that captures you on a visceral level rather than an intellectual level, which is always a good thing.


‘Life A User’s Manual’ by Georges Perec (1978) – I just cannot leave this novel off my year’s best list even though at times I loathed, loathed it and at other times I loved, loved it.






Also this year I read two excellent works of non-fiction – ‘The Splendid and the Vile’ by Erik Larson and ‘Chronicles: Volume One’ by Bob Dylan.





My favorite collection of poems in 2020 is ‘Failing Heaven’ by Charles Behlen.










‘Missionaries’ by Phil Klay – It Opened My Eyes


‘Missionaries’ by Phil Klay   (2020)  –  404 pages

‘Missionaries’ is a novel about the United States’ never-ending, misbegotten wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, and now Yemen. It is especially about the drug wars in Colombia. ‘Missionaries’ opened my eyes to what is really happening in this world. The United States has inserted themselves into the local battles in these countries with little understanding of what’s going on, like the war in Vietnam. This is about the new kind of wars the United States is fighting in the 21st century, wars that never end.

‘Missionaries’ is a novel that will change your entire worldview. It is an example of how fiction can provide more meaningful information than non-fiction and provide it in a more enjoyable and palatable form.

In Columbia, the United States has been heavily involved in the conflict since its beginnings, when in the early 1960s the U.S. government encouraged the Colombian military to attack leftist guerrillas in rural Colombia. This was part of the U.S. fight against “communism”. Besides the military, the United States also encouraged right-wing paramilitary groups to fight the guerrillas. These paramilitary groups soon developed into ruthless violent vigilantes, and they also became heavily involved in the illegal drug trade of cocaine and other substances themselves.

Here is what happens when a man is chainsawed in half in the public square of a small village.”

Now US private mercenary army companies such as Academi (formerly Blackwater) and Dyncorp recruit former members of Colombian paramilitary groups to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere because these guys have no qualms about killing or torturing people.

Even military people tend to hold mercenaries in contempt.”

In ‘Missionaries’, four narrators tell the interlocking stories in Colombia of the coco growers, the narcotics dealers, the Colombian army, and the paramilitary groups. And overseeing it all are the US Special Forces with their drones, a “higher level of badassery”. Most of the people who have been killed or tortured in these drug wars in Colombia do not belong to any of these groups but instead have been civilians. Shoot first and don’t ask questions later. It was not unusual for a former Colombian military officer to turn paramilitary operator, then turn narcotics dealer.

By relating the stories of each of the main characters up until then, Phil Klay has found a fascinating way to bring us up to speed on his intricate yet tragic story. And then ‘Missionaries winds up with a rousing scary thrill ride.

And now there is the war in Yemen, “one half war and one half extermination”, which the journalist in ‘Missionaries’ refers to as “the most fucked-up war we’re engaged in right now”.

‘Missionaries’ goes a long way to explain why the United States wound up with a nasty corrupt authoritarian fool for its President.


Grade:   A



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