The world today is noisy with news. We’re yanked from one story to the next with hardly a moment to pause and reflect. Anger sometimes simmers just beneath the surface of those making – and reporting – the news. It’s tiring, and I’m not sure we’re on a path to wisdom.
What can you do? Take a deep breath. Try to gain a broader perspective on our historical moment through some of the best current books about national and international affairs.
Today’s post offers nine books to read over the course of twelve months (summer is for summer reading, of course!). Seven of the nine books offer thoughtful consideration of foreign and domestic hot spots. Two offer updates on the state of current scientific knowledge. All books are written for the general reader, no advanced degree required.
I’ve selected them after reading book reviews from a wide variety of sources. I’ll be reading the books from January through December 2018 and posting reflections. Please join the conversation!
Here we go…
Russia hasn’t been so hot since the Cold War. What’s going on behind the headlines? Marsha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia explains. A Russian-American journalist, Gessen brings an insider’s perspective to Putin’s Russia. The Future is History recently won the 2017 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
From the Judges of the National Book Award: “The Future is History charts the coming-of-age of four Russians born in the early 1980s, just as the Soviet Union was opening up, and follows them from the optimistic peak of reform through the resurgence of authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin. Writing with the verve and empathy of a novel and the depth and perspective of an intellectual history, Masha Gessen diagnoses Russian society with ‘recurrent totalitarianism,’ a chronic disease that was once in remission, but has lately resurged.”
North Korea’s Kim Jong Un demands our attention with his missiles. Other voices are emerging from the black hole of his regime as well. Understanding our historical moment requires understanding the kind of government that is still possible in this day and age. A good place to start is Hyeonseo Lee’s The Girl With Seven Names: Escape from North Korea.
“If the author’s escapes reach the pace and intrigue of any modern thriller,” writes the Toronto Star, “almost more compelling is the quiet vulnerability of her childhood entrapment. Beyond imaginable restrictions such as state-controlled television and banned Internet, Lee’s description of growing up in North Korea depicts a citizenry held hostage. Two examples include the restrictive ‘songbun’ caste system that decrees a family’s prospects based on their loyalties to the regime and an educational structure rooted in propagandist hero-worship. ‘Whenever the Leaders were mentioned, the teachers adopted low, tremulous voices, as if they were intoning the names of living gods,’ writes Lee.
Mandatory attendance at public executions and participation from childhood in weekly ‘life purification time,’ where students (and later coworkers) are made to rat out fellow citizens for the most minor of offences, reinforced the air of suspicion and paranoia. “The formula was to open the session with a commandment from Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il and then stand up and accuse the child who had violated it,” writes Lee.
…’Leaving North Korea is not like leaving any other country. It is more like leaving another universe,’ she writes.”
The Girl With Seven Names, one trusted reader-friend tells me, is not a literary masterpiece, “but the story is amazing.”
“It’s a window onto North Korean reality that I could scarcely believe,” says another. “More accurately, I was shocked by my own lifetime ignorance of it. We hear a lot about how crazy Kim Jong Un is, but not about how crazy it is to live in his country. Made me very grateful for freedom.”
North Korea and Russia get a lot of press, but China may pose the most important foreign policy challenge for our times. Graham Allison, a Harvard professor, considers this in Destined for War: Can America and China Avoid Thucydides’ Trap?”
From the publisher: “China and the United States are heading toward a war neither wants. The reason is Thucydides’s Trap, a deadly pattern of structural stress that results when a rising power challenges a ruling one. This phenomenon is as old as history itself. About the Peloponnesian War that devastated ancient Greece, the historian Thucydides explained: ‘It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.’ Over the past 500 years, these conditions have occurred sixteen times. War broke out in twelve of them. Today, as an unstoppable China approaches an immovable America and both Xi Jinping and Donald Trump promise to make their countries ‘great again,’ the seventeenth case looks grim… Yet, stressing that war is not inevitable, Allison also reveals how clashing powers have kept the peace in the past – and what painful steps the United States and China must take to avoid disaster today.”
Islam is a religion of peace. Islam is a religion of war. Maybe it’s neither, maybe it’s both. Either way, it can’t be ignored. Begin this month with a short and meaty read, Islam and the Future of Tolerance by Sam Harris and Majeed Nawaz.
“The reform of Islam is shaping up to be the most important issue in political ideology of the twenty-first century. This honest and intelligent dialogue is a superb exploration of the intellectual and moral issues involved,” writes Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature.
“It is sadly uncommon, in any era, to find dialogue based on facts and reason – but even more rarely are Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals able to maintain critical distance on broad questions about Islam. Which makes Islam and the Future of Tolerance something of a unicorn. Nawaz and Harris discuss Islamism and jihadism from a historical as well as a philosophical angle, with no trace of sentiment or dogma. Most conversations about religion are marked by the inability of either side to listen, but here, at last, is a proper debate,” concludes the New Statesman (12-18-2015).
Following the theoretical debate, dive into a more personal work, Arab-German journalist Souad Mekhannet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad.
“When we talk about radicalization,” writes The New Yorker, “the narrative moves from vague discontent to extremism – a journey spurred by alienation, discrimination, and poverty. In the Arab-German journalist Souad Mekhennet’s new book, ‘I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad,’ an enthralling and sometimes shocking blend of reportage and memoir from the centers of jihadi networks in the Middle East and North Africa, Mekhennet interrogates those assumptions, which don’t always hold true… Mekhennet says that she is someone who narrowly escaped being radicalized herself – owing to the influence of her involved parents and family friends. Instead, she turned to uncovering what motivates the most fervent of believers in jihad, and how they became so unrepentant.”
Take a break for summer reading!
In September and October, we’ll turn to two pressing domestic matters. First up is Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2016.
“Dreamland“ is the result of relentless research and legwork on the part of Quinones, as well as his talented storytelling,” writes the Christian Science Monitor. “The opiate addiction epidemic was caused by a convergence of multiple, seemingly unrelated factors, and Quinones takes these narrative strands and weaves them together seamlessly… One of the finest narrative and journalistic accomplishments in this book is Quinones’s portrait of this drug-dealing network [the “Xalisco Boys”] whose members are both business paragons and criminal geniuses. They all come from a poppy-growing region of Northwest Mexico and sell black tar heroin, which is cheap, potent, and easy to make. Their dealers are paid a salary, so they have no incentive to dilute their product to maximize sales. Since violence almost always draws the attention of cops, the dealers seldom carry guns… And they have a customer service ethos that matches Apple’s or Trader Joe’s, along with a delivery policy similar in spirit to “Domino’s 30 minutes or less: ‘Did a customer feel overcharged? Was the driver late? You’ll get free extra heroin next time.’”
The worst journalism covers complicated matters as if they were simple. “Mass incarceration” has received more than its share of heated, simplified coverage. James Forman brings a powerful corrective to that conversation with his book Locking Upon Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” recently named by The New York Times one of the Ten Best Books of the Year in 2017.
“A former public defender in Washington,” writes The New York Times, “Forman has written a masterly account of how a generation of black officials, beginning in the 1970s, wrestled with recurring crises of violence and drug use in the nation’s capital. What started out as an effort to assert the value of black lives turned into an embrace of tough-on-crime policies – with devastating consequences for the very communities those officials had promised to represent. Forman argues that dismantling the American system of mass incarceration will require a new understanding of justice, one that emphasizes accountability instead of vengeance.”
To wrap up the year, we’ll read two books that explore the state of human knowledge in two important areas – our genes within and the stars above. A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived,” by Adam Rutherford, brings us up to date on the latest in genetic research, both its possibilities and limitations.
Rutherford writes in an engaging, understated, sometimes slyly humorous style that draws you in immediately. The Guardian calls his new book “popular science writing at its best.”
From Amazon (highlighting A Brief History as an Amazon Best Book of October 2017): “Our obsession with where we come from has recently leapfrogged past the genealogy efforts of retired relatives to mail-in DNA tests that can provide the broad strokes of our genetic makeup for less than $100. But, as Rutherford points out in his intriguing exploration of humankind, DNA tests offer only a sensationalized peek at our roots, and the tangled, still-evolving truth is far more fascinating. Armed with his disarming British wit, Rutherford delves into the migration, interbreeding and isolation, and extinction of hominid branches that has shaped the modern human…. Challenging the simplistic thinking bolstered by the media, Rutherford adds both nuance and the thrill of excitement to viewing our species through a wider, stronger lens that can now see deep into our past.”
At the most wonderful time of the year, we’ll travel to outer space, to the frontiers of scientific thinking about the universe. Neil deGrasse Tyson – host of the popular show Star Talk – is the perfect tour guide in Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.”
“Substituting down-to-earth wit for unnecessary jargon, Tyson presents ideas in clean, straightforward language and allows for the awesome nature of the universe to impress itself on readers unadorned. Also compelling is the author’s contagious exuberance for his field, which he has consistently demonstrated throughout his writing and TV careers,” writes Kirkus Review.
Nine books over twelve months to cover hot spots in human affairs and human knowledge is a necessarily limited World Tour. But nine books of sustained attention to these topics promise a refreshing engagement with the world.
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Today’s post originally published at Styleblueprint.com.
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