Today marks the first official day of summer, which means that we here at YPFP are hitting the bookstores (or, perhaps, simply Amazon) in pursuit of the perfect summer novel or memoir. We asked staff to send us descriptions of recommended books they have read, are currently reading, or hope to read. Peruse at your leisure, and be sure to leave a comment letting us know which books should, or should not, have been included on the list. Happy reading!
Jarrel Price, President
I’ve recently started Daniel Brook’s A History of Future Cities, which examines how four cities (Dubai, Mumbai, Shanghai, and St. Petersburg) have sought to balance the forces globalization and Westernization. Driving past the many buildings and monuments in Washington that clearly take their inspiration from great European cities has helped me rethink my quick judgment of Peter the Great, who tried to reconstruct Amsterdam when he built St. Petersburg. When I finish the book, I hope to have some new thoughts on what to expect from this century’s megacities.
Oren Litwin, Political Risk Fellow
Generally I don’t seek out books by journalists, with the exception of Robert Kaplan and the profoundly overlooked Jane Jacobs; but in this case, Tuvia Tenenbom’s book Catch the Jew! was recommended to me as the most important book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I would read in a decade. Naturally that caught my attention, so I ordered the book and am about to crack it open. Tenenbom impersonates a German reporter, Israeli journalist, or Palestinian activist to get access to actors across the region, and hears what all sides say when they think they are among friends. No one comes out unscathed, and I’m looking forward to reading it.
Jake Nelson, Gender in Foreign Policy Discussion Group Co-Chair
Amidst the daily deluge of news stories on racial justice in the United States and violent terrorist incidents abroad, I constantly think back to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, which does as good a job making sense of today’s world as it did for the world of the 1960s––that is to say, it makes clear as much as it makes unclear. The same book that inspired Malcolm X and Che Guevara, that analyzed the effects of colonialism on the mind, and that, perhaps most famously, advocated for violence as a means of cathartic liberation from the colonial oppressor, is so effective because its descriptions of life under colonialism––”a world compartmentalized, Manichaean, and petrified”––reveal fundamental aspects of human nature, domination, and resistance that apply as much to the present as they do to the past. If you want to read one brilliant man’s depiction of the fraught desperation of the colonial condition and his chillingly compelling argument for violence as a means of escaping it, consider returning to Fanon, as I repeatedly have, to find as many answers as you do questions.
Natalie Fuchs, Director for Discussion Groups
I’ve just started Robert D. Kaplan’s Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucuses. I’ve always loved Kaplan’s work and find his insights really stimulating. The book was actually published in 2000, but I find it fascinating to see how his observations and analysis have played out over the past 15 years. A lot of what he writes is a retrospective on the impact of different empires in the region, whose effects can still be readily seen in events in the present day. He paints a really vivid picture of the landscapes as well, which makes for an awesome summer read spent daydreaming about exotic travel.
Eric Stimson, Editor, Programming Department
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo, by Michela Wrong. I decided I wanted to read a book about the Congo, because it’s so fantastically weird in a depressing way. I chose this book, and it doesn’t disappoint. Wrong was there for the dismal ending of Mobutu’s regime, and her experiences retelling how it all collapsed are riveting. But she goes back to discuss the beginnings of his rule (and even further back to talk about King Leopold), giving the reader a good idea of why Zaire failed so spectacularly. Some of her anecdotes vividly portray what happens when the state gives up even the pretense of caring about its people and they are left to fend for themselves in a dog-eat-dog world.
The Lost Continent: Europe’s Darkest Hour Since World War Two, by Gavin Hewitt. I also wanted to read about the euro crisis, and this is a great crash course in it. Hewitt makes it clear how fundamentally flawed the Eurozone is and the struggle between countries grappling with economic collapse and countries determined to set an example in an atmosphere of flagrant fiscal irresponsibility. It’s not dry, and often goes into the human costs of the Eurozone recession. There’s also great insights into the euro crisis’ protagonists, from Angela Merkel to the always creepy Silvio Berlusconi.
Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation, by Elizabeth Pisani. The author, who had experience as a journalist in Indonesia in the Suharto era, returns to the archipelago and takes a yearlong journey from the tip of Sumatra to obscure specks in the sea far to the east. She goes into the struggle between Java and the outer islands, the effects of decentralization, the role of religion, mining, deforestation, and makes the wrenching change of modernization that Indonesia is undergoing very clear. She has a deep affection for the country and its warm-hearted people and it’s infectious; she also has a wry sense of humor. One of those travel books that both informs on the academic level and makes you want to pack your bags and go backpacking.
Cameo Cheung, Managing Director, Communications & Advancement
Madame Secretary, by Madeleine Albright. As the first woman to serve as Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright shares her insights and reflections on her experience becoming a foreign policy professional. Her stories blend the personal and professional, more authentically speaking to the true experience of her time in Washington and traveling the world representing the United States of America.
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Dr. Randy O. Frost and Dr. Gail Steketee. We all have things that fascinate us. Some people like reading travel blogs; some people like watching Ancient Aliens; some people read about cognitive processing disorders. I like understanding motivation, why people do things, especially unusual things. As a respected psychologist, Dr. Randy O. Frost sheds light on the phenomenon of compulsive hoarding in America. Long thought a fringe subset of obsessive-compulsive disorder, hoarding is explored as a behavior distinct from its cause.
Morgan Herrell, Editor, Charged Affairs
This summer, before I go back to school. I’ve been trying to get through my own personal reading list. If you’re interested in contemporary Russia and would like a less wonky take, I would highly recommend Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, by Peter Pomerantsev, an exploration of how “the President” wields media to warp an entire society, taking ordinary Russians along for a surreal ride. If you’d like to read more about how Russia got to that point, I’d point you towards The Whisperers, by Orlando Figes—a fascinating, often heartbreaking, account of Soviet citizens’ personal and family lives under Stalinism, which I would argue still has great relevance to understanding that country today.
For satire that will make you think, my must-read of the summer is Look Who’s Back, by Timur Vermes—you’ll either, like me, think it is side-splittingly funny and thought-provoking, or at the very least find it an interesting reflection on where we are in terms of remembering World War II and the Holocaust. A controversial bestseller in Germany, the plot of Look Who’s Back runs that Hitler wakes up—in Berlin, in 2011, with no idea of how he got there—and proceeds to become a YouTube sensation.
I hope you enjoy these books, and benefit from them as much as I have.
Luke Drabyn, Blog Manager, Charged Affairs
While I am generally not a fiction enthusiast, I highly recommend the critically acclaimed—and, indeed, Pulitzer Prize winning—All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. This is a beautifully crafted, and poetically written, tale of two children growing up in both France and Germany during the height of World War II. Werner, with snow-white hair and sky-blue eyes, is an orphan with a remarkable knack for fixing and designing radios. Marie-Laure, a blind French girl and daughter of an expert locksmith, is infatuated with biology, and more specifically, with Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. This book will simultaneously break your heart and restore within you a sense of unyielding optimism and hope.
Presently, and more appropriately, I am reading Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy, by Moises Naim, a former editor of Foreign Policy. Naim does an astonishing job supplying facts and figures on an area of study that is inherently obscure. Momentous events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unprecedented interconnectivity that is globalization have changed the nature of various kinds of illicit trade, ranging from human trafficking to drug smuggling. While published in the early 2000s, this book will be relevant well into the foreseeable future.
After Illicit, I am looking forward to diving into Robert Gates’ Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. Gates chronicles his experience working under Presidents Bush and Obama, and battling both terrorists abroad, and perhaps more frustratingly, his own government.
Samantha Amenn, Director of Publications, Charged Affairs
I am currently reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence has always been a hero of mine since I watched David Lean’s movie: Lawrence of Arabia with my Dad. After reading his Revolt in the Desert (which is the shorter version of Seven Pillars of Wisdom) and given the disaster the Middle East has turned into, I thought it would be a good idea to read Lawrence’s full account of the making of the modern Middle East. I am about halfway through the book and just finished reading his meticulous argument on why guerrilla warfare was the best tactic for a small, sparsely armed, but deeply dedicated insurgency. He also makes an interesting point of stressing that the reason guerrilla warfare was preferable over the conventional warfare favored by the Turks and the English, because the Arabs actually valued life and, since they were such a small force, every death was deeply felt unlike in the Turkish and English armies. He argues that guerrilla warfare, done right, actually minimizes the number of causalities suffered by the insurgency. It is also fascinating to see Lawrence’s love of the Bedouin, his contempt for the Turks, his disgust over the allies’ treatment of the Arabs, and his own guilt over his role during the ‘great Arab revolt’. It is funny when one considers the impact the book had on how the world viewed the Middle East and how his book most likely encouraged others to have their own adventures in the Middle East, even though he prayed “that men reading the story will not, for love of the glamour of strangeness, go out to prostitute themselves and their talents in serving another race” (pg 29)
After that I am planning to read Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright. Again given the tension in the Middle East and given the current nuclear talks with Iran, I thought it would be interesting to read about the Camp David Peace Accords. Thirteen Days in September is one of the New York Times Book Review best ten books of the year and was also highly recommended by the Guardian, so I’m expecting it to be a good read. The book focuses on Jimmy Carter, Menachim Begin, and Anwar Sadat and chronicles their efforts during the thirteen days of negotiation. I am hoping it will, not only be a fascinating discussion of a major historical event, but also a penetrating analysis into the psychology of the three men and explore what it takes to create peace.