James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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The World Next Week: Books to Read This Summer

by James M. Lindsay
June 27, 2013

(Andy Clark/Courtesy Reuters) (Andy Clark/Courtesy Reuters)

The World Next Week podcast is up. This week, Bob McMahon and I took a break from our regular discussion of next week’s news to kick off the summer with some reading recommendations.

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Bob and I began by discussing recent books by CFR fellows. They have produced six so far this year. The books are all terrific. And I’m not just being a homer. As you can see below, they are all earning superb reviews:

Abrams, Elliott. Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (2013). The Washington Post writes that Tested by Zion will be “catnip for anyone interested in diplomatic history or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Bhagwati, Jagdish N and Arvind Panagariya. Why Growth Matters: How Economic Growth in India Reduced Poverty and the Lessons for Other Developing Countries (2013). The Wall Street Journal writes “The authors’ deep compassion for the poor, gimlet-eyed view of India’s checkered economic past and genuine concern for its future shine through on every page.”

Boot, Max. Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (2013). Publishers Weekly hails Invisible Armies as a “sweeping, well-written, and comprehensively documented history of guerilla war.”

Kurlantzick, Joshua. Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government (2013). The Global Times applauds Democracy in Retreat as a work that “removes the blinders so we can move forward in ways that promote democracy more effectively.”

Levi, Michael. The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future (2013). The Associated Press praises The Power Surge for being “a welcome relief to melodramatic debates over energy.”

O’Neil, Shannon K. Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead (2013). The San Antonio Express-News calls Two Nations Indivisiblegroundbreaking.”

Steil, Benn. The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order (2013). The New York Times says The Battle of Bretton Woodsshould become the gold standard on its topic.”

I deliberately left out one book that came out of CFR this year. Bob did the honors of discussing the smart book that our boss, Richard Haass wrote:

Haass, Richard N. Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order (2013). The National Interest writes that “Foreign Policy Begins at Home should delight realists. His [Haass’s] strong case that we should put our own house in order is neither isolationist nor declinist. On the contrary, he persuasively shows that United States continues to be the indispensable nation.”

Bob and I also discussed terrific books by non-CFR authors that we have read recently. Bob flagged two books that he enjoyed reading:

Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs (2011). Bob says that Isaacson captures Steve Jobs, the man who revolutionized interaction with technology, with information compiled from more than forty personal interviews and countless conversations with those who knew him best.

Seierstad, Asne. The Bookseller of Kabul (2004). Bob was mesmerized by the story that Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist, tells of a bookseller and his family in Afghanistan. By focusing on a family Seierstad paints a portrait of modern Afghanistan, including the daily hardships faced by women and the historical struggle to keep books accessible to the people of the country.

Two books that I read recently and liked a lot are:

Fullilove, Michael. Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the War and into the World (2013). From September 1, 1939 until December 7, 1941 the United States remained at peace while war raged in Europe. Fullilove, the executive director of the Lowy Institute, explores how FDR used the talents of four advisers and the man who tried to beat him in the 1940 presidential election, Wendell Willkie, to prepare the United States for a war that he knew had profound consequences for America’s national interests. The chapter devoted to Willkie’s diplomacy illustrates just how much American politics has changed since the Good War and the Greatest Generation.

Isaacson, Walter and Evan Thomas. The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (2013). The Wise Men came out back in 1986 and was reissued this year. It’s a fascinating study of six men who advised Harry Truman and helped lay the foundations both of modern American foreign policy and the current world order. It’s also the tale of a social order and policymaking process that no longer exist.

Bob and I also discussed the books that are on our reading lists this summer. Bob has plans to read:

Atkinson, Rick. The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (2013). The final book in Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy begins with D-Day and follows the perspectives of World War II participants, from political leaders to soldiers on the battlefield, as they march into Western Europe intent on securing freedom for all.

Carroll, Rory. Comandante: Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela (2013). Carroll investigates the reign of Hugo Chavez, a man who garnered both devotion and hatred but maintained power while Venezuela was falling to pieces.

Caryl, Christian. Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century (2013). Weaving together five major events in 1979, Caryl underscores their importance of events that year in shaping the modern world by ultimately ending the Soviet Union and accelerating globalization.

Fergusson, James. The World’s Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia (2013). Fergusson explains how Somalia, a failed state increasingly serving as a harbor for terrorists and suffering from seemingly endless civil war and famine, poses a threat to international security.

Freeland, Chrystia. Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (2012). Freeland examines inequality by following the incredible rise of the “global super-rich,” following oligarchs from around the world who have amassed enormous new fortunes in growing economies.

Packer, George. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (2013). Through an examination of the changing lives of typical Americans, Packer draws attention to the good and the bad of the changing institutional and economic landscape.

Here are the six books I hope to read:

Boo, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Under city (2012). Boo is a former staff writer for the New Yorker staff and Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Washington Post. (She won it in 2000 while at the Post for exposing the horrifying conditions of Washington, DC’s group homes for the mentally retarded.) She has also won the so-called MacArthur Genius Award and a National Magazine Award. With a résumé like that, it’s no surprise that the book that Boo wrote about the three years she spent observing the Annawadi slum on the edge of Mumbai’s International Airport won the National Book Award, or that it has been called a “jaw-dropping achievement,” “extraordinary,” and “riveting.”

Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2013). Next year marks the centennial of what was once called the Great War and is now known as World War I. So I need to brush up on the pressures and politics that produced a war that Norman Angell famously predicted could not happen and that tragically set the stage for the even more horrific World War II. More than 25,000 books and articles have been written on World War I, so I have a lot to choose from. Clark, a professor at Cambridge University, tracks what happened in the decade leading up to Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia, the act that set a seemingly inevitable war into motion. Andrew Moravcsik in Foreign Affairs called The Sleepwalkers a “compelling examination of the causes of World War I deserves to become the new standard one-volume account of that contentious subject.” That’s good enough to get The Sleepwalkers on my summer reading list.

Hardin, Blair. Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West (2013). In late April I had the good fortune to be in Seoul to hear Hardin, a former New York Times and Washington Post reporter, give a book talk. He had me hooked in the first minute. Escape from Camp 14 tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have escaped from a North Korea prison camp. You may not have heard much about North Korea’s prison camps. They are large, force people to live in horrifying conditions, and have been operating for twice as long as the Soviet gulags. Shin was born into one such camp, endured nightmarish treatment, and saw both his mother and brother executed. His story is on one level a tale of endurance and courage. On another level, it is an indictment of the international community that has largely looked the other way when it comes to what North Korean leaders have done to their people.

McMeekin, Sean. July 1914: Countdown to War (2013). Whereas The Sleepwalkers looks at Europe in the decade before it went to war, July 1914 looks at the continent’s final month of peace. McMeekin, an independent historian, portrays the outbreak of war not as an inevitable tragedy but as the consequence of the provocative actions of two of the major protagonists—no, not Germany and Austria, but Russia and to a lesser extent France. That’s not the conventional wisdom, at least not for people who aren’t historians. Contrarian histories can be the most illuminating.

Taliaferro, John. All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt (2013). John Hay started his political career as the private secretary to President Abraham Lincoln and it ended with his service as secretary of state for President Theodore Roosevelt. If you ever took a course on American foreign policy, he is the man who called the Spanish-American War “a splendid little war” and crafted the “Open Door Policy” in China. In all, Secretary Hay’s life tracks the rise of the United States as a great power.

Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August (1962). Few history books have had the impact that The Guns of August had when it was published a half century ago. Reviewers loved it, readers bought it, and the Pulitzer Prize committee gave it the Prize for General Nonfiction. President John Kennedy liked The Guns of August so much that he gave a copy to British prime minister Harold Macmillan in the hope it could help them avoid the mistakes that plunged Europe into war. Subsequent historians like Sean McMeekin have poked holes Tuchman’s historiography, but that’s the nature of writing history: you learn more as time goes on. I’m a big fan of reading (and re-reading) the classics, and The Guns of August is the classic I intend to read this summer.

Bob and I will report back after Labor Day on how well we did in getting through our summer reading list. (Early returns: Immediately after taping the podcast I flew off to Asia. Long books are good for long flights, so I used my time at 37,000 feet to read The Guns of August, finishing it just as we landed at Dulles this afternoon. Whatever Tuchman got wrong about World War I—I’ll know exactly what after I read Clark and McMeekin—she writes beautifully, making historical figures like the Kaiser and Czar Nicholas come alive. And I challenge you to name a historian who has written a better opening chapter of a book.)

To help us get started on our reading lists, Bob and I are taking next week off to celebrate the Fourth of July. Everyone have a great Independence Day. We will be back to our regular podcasting on July 11.

What books are you planning to read this summer? Leave your suggestions in the comments box below.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Glenn Kessler

    These are all great books, many of which I have read (Boo’s book was the best I read last year) or hope to read.

    I have one suggestion to add to the list: “Bolivar,” by Marie Arana. This is the first full-scale English language biography of Simon Bolivar, and it is beautifully written and rigorously researched. Every page comes alive with both the era and his remarkable personality.

  • Posted by Richard de Villiers

    “Guns at Last Light,” “The Power Surge” and “Why Development Matters” are all on my list but I am taking the opportunity to delve into events from 150 years ago. I just purchased Allen Guelzo’s “Gettysburg” and will finally get around to reading “Vicksburg 1863″ by Winston Groom. A random buy in the bargain bin put “The Last Gunfight:The Real Story of the Shootout at the OK Corral…” on the list and I hope to to finish Conrad Black’s “Flight of the Eagle” although I see that one having to wait for the fall. I did quickly consume Revolutionary Summer by Joseph Ellis to get in the 4th of July mood.

  • Posted by Christopher McKnight Nichols

    I would suggest adding Fredrik Logevall’s superb and path-breaking Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (Pulitzer Prize winner this year, see: http://www.amazon.com/Embers-War-Empire-Americas-Vietnam/dp/0375504427) to the late summer list.

  • Posted by Alec Rogers

    I really enjoyed this podcast and discussion.

    Note that a few more “origins of WWI” type books are headed out this fall by big names – Max Hastings (Catastrophe 1914) and what looks lito be the WWI origins back to end all WWI origins books (at 880 pages) by Margaret Macmillan (The War That Ended the Peace).

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