Foreign Policy Book Recommendations: Summer 2022 – Foreign Policy
As the days get longer in the Northern Hemisphere, with the first official day of summer approaching on June 21, Foreign Policy staffers and columnists are diving into summer reading. Below, you’ll find some of the best novels, historical nonfiction, and short stories we’ve picked up recently, from a gothic tale set in the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence to a modern science fiction classic with plenty of grist for policy wonks.
Isabel Cañas (Berkley, 352 pp., $27, May 2022)
It might seem odd to recommend a gothic horror novel as a summer read. But the heavy, oppressive fear that envelopes the tragic characters whose lives play out under the scorching Mexican sun in Isabel Cañas’s novel The Hacienda feels that much more cloying on a sultry, humid day.
The book follows the story of a young woman whose father has recently been executed and her house burned down in the bloody aftermath of Mexico’s War of Independence. With her status and prospects ruined, she impulsively marries a wealthy, handsome owner of a vast hacienda and moves to his estate in the Mexican countryside—despite his previous wife dying there under mysterious circumstances. The woman soon finds herself tormented by supernatural forces that seem to have infected the hacienda, and with her increasingly domineering husband away at the capital, she turns for help to the young (and handsome) local village priest.
If much of this sounds familiar, that’s because it traces many of the same plot points as Daphne du Maurier’s gothic classic Rebecca. Yet Cañas uses that tale as the skeleton around which she builds a unique story that explores themes of classism, colorism, and colonialism—with the Mexican Inquisition thrown in for good measure—that feel authentic to the novel’s time and place. It’s a spooky read, so make sure to read it in the bright summer sunlight.
Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War
Howard French (Liveright, 512 pp., $35, October 2021)
I’m starting this summer by finishing Howard French’s Born in Blackness. If you studied international relations in North America, you probably learned a lot about the United States and Europe, a bit about Asia or the Middle East, and almost nothing about Africa and its role in modern history. If so, reading French’s lively, well-written, and sometimes passionate account can begin to remedy that deficiency. It will also force you to think about a host of uncomfortable questions, such as the intimate role that slavery played in the rise of the West. (To indulge my taste for espionage thrillers, I’m also taking John Le Carré’s posthumously published Silverview and Chris Pavone’s The Expats on vacation. Kindly don’t tell me how either one ends.)
—Stephen M. Walt
The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis
Amitav Ghosh (University of Chicago Press, 336 pp., $25, October 2021)
When in the 1620s Dutch traders and military men discovered the joys of cooking with nutmeg, found growing in abundance on the newly colonized Banda Islands, it mattered not one whit to them that the chain of volcanically formed isles off Indonesia were already owned and occupied and that the precious spice was grown and harvested by means carefully practiced for centuries. The Dutch slaughtered most of the Bandanese, seized or burned to the ground their properties, and set to work harvesting mace and nutmeg on a scale suitable to reap great profits in the far-off Netherlands.
So begins a tale of colonialism, devastation of natural order, extinction, and climate change written—as is always the case with the prolific Brooklyn-based novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh—with astonishing elegance and breathtaking interlaced historical research and metaphoric musings. With his prior book of climate change essays, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Ghosh proved himself one of the greatest essayists of our time. Using the deeply researched nutmeg saga, Ghosh goes further in The Nutmeg’s Curse, redefining the very form to give us a masterpiece that is at once philosophy, history, literature, and most importantly, a siren’s call about the future of humanity and the planet we have ravaged.
Ultimately, Ghosh argues, the species Homo sapiens can no longer assume that all that lives and grows on Earth, from its aromatic nutmegs to its towering ancient redwoods, is simply there for one species’ taking—to be plucked for pleasure or profit, devastated carelessly or willfully, in acts that reflect the greatest cruelties of colonialism carried out with, as he terms it, “apocalyptic violence.”
Elaine Hsieh Chou (Penguin Press, 416 pp., $28, March 2022)
It has been a weird few years for American academia. First came the COVID-19 pandemic, which thrust the idyll of campus life into the Zoom ether, only to be followed by a baseless conservative smear campaign against anti-racist education that has won elections, forced K-12 schools to ban scores of books, and left educators from marginalized backgrounds fearful about their professional futures.
To find a shred of humor in any of this is difficult, but it’s something Elaine Hsieh Chou manages deftly in her debut novel, Disorientation. Although Chou does not engage directly with current events or real-life political figures, she sets her tale at a fictional university in Massachusetts, where broader culture wars over race and academia loom large. The book’s protagonist is a Taiwanese American doctoral student initially uninterested in campus politics. But when a shocking revelation about the subject of her dissertation—a revered Chinese American poet—forces her to dig deeper into his origins, she begins to reflect on her own identity on a campus where the East Asian studies department is overwhelmingly white.
Both deeply moving and rivetingly funny, Disorientation is a master class in satire with surprises around every corner. It is a roaring meditation on the ivory tower and Asian American identity that does not mince words about anyone in its illustrious cast of characters. Chou’s first foray into fiction left my mind sharp, my heart full, and my belly weak from laughter.
Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution
R. R. Palmer (Princeton University Press, 448 pp., $24.95, April 2017)
In 1941, historian R. R. Palmer published Twelve Who Ruled, a history of the Committee of Public Safety, which in 1793 plunged the French Revolution into terror. It was a piercing moment in which to tell the story of the world’s first experiment with totalitarianism. Like Soviet Communism (though not Nazism), the Reign of Terror sprang from noble ideas: democracy, the people, and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea of “collective will.” Yet it was in the name of “the people” that churches were desecrated and thousands of civilians fell to the guillotine. No man was purer than committee member Maximilien Robespierre, the “Incorruptible”; yet he sent his own friends to their death before he himself was executed. At times, Palmer writes, the revolution was democratic, but it was never liberal and rarely compassionate.
Twelve Who Ruled was meant as a popular book, and it has remained popular ever since. Although men like Robespierre or fellow revolutionary Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just turned the stone face of perfect justice to the world, Palmer shows them sitting around a green baize table in the Tuileries Palace, arguing, scheming, and signing state papers deep into the night. The French say, “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner.” (“To understand everything is to excuse everything.”) But not, perhaps, in this case.
Blood Feast: The Complete Short Stories of Malika Moustadraf
Malika Moustadraf, translated by Alice Guthrie (Feminist Press, 136 pp., $15.95, February 2022)
In Malika Moustadraf’s “Death,” as a young boy struggles with his schoolwork, his mother tells him: “history is easy. It’s just the same lessons repeating themselves over and over.” This final story in Blood Feast, a new English-language translation of the Moroccan feminist writer’s collected stories, juxtaposes an onslaught of miserable news with the rhythms of daily family life, a juggling act that will likely feel deeply familiar to today’s readers.
“Death” is thought to be the last story written by Moustadraf, who died in 2006 at only 37 years old after struggling to access treatment for her kidney disease. Alice Guthrie’s thoughtful new translation from Arabic welcomes English-speaking readers into Moustadraf’s Casablanca, brought alive by her deeply sensory—sometimes revoltingly so—descriptions of life in the city. Here, we meet women fighting to take back control of their lives by any means necessary, whether through communal trickery, running away from home, or escaping into a digital affair. The combination of Moroccan cultural specificity with universal themes of longing, resentment, helplessness, and empowerment makes for a compelling and rewarding read.
Robert Sproat (Faber & Faber, 239 pp., May 1988, out of print)
Chinese Whispers is an extraordinary novel. I’ve lost track of how many times I have lent it to a friend only to have to buy another copy because, unsurprisingly, it never boomeranged back. As George MacDonald Fraser does with the British classic Flashman Papers, author Robert Sproat draws on fictional historical documents, the “whispers” of the title, to tell the story of Genghis Khan’s ambition for world domination.
As we gallop along on his conquest from the Mongolian steppe to the drawbridges of Eastern Europe, we marvel at the charisma of the Khan; the loyalty, skill, and cruelty of his terrifying hordes; and the hubris of those foolish enough to defy his emissaries’ offers of peace in return for total subjugation. The price for such stupidity was annihilation—and the ruins of formerly great cities such as Merv (now Mary in modern-day Turkmenistan) serve to this day as a reminder of just how devastating the Khan’s wrath could be. It is an enthralling and witty telling of Europe’s lucky escape—would we all be speaking Mongolian today if the horsemen of the 13th-century apocalypse had not turned home? This brilliant book is a reminder that, as military strategist Antoine-Henri Jomini said, “so long as there is mankind, there will be war.”
Four Treasures of the Sky: A Novel
Jenny Tinghui Zhang (Flatiron Books, 336 pp., $27.99, April 2022)
“I am beginning to realize that in this place called Idaho, which they call the West, being Chinese can be something like a disease,” narrates the protagonist of Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s debut novel, Four Treasures of the Sky.
Set amid the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the only U.S. federal law that has ever prohibited an entire nationality from entering the country, Zhang’s novel follows a Chinese girl as she’s kidnapped in a fishing market in Zhifu and shipped off in a bucket of coal to the American West. In gorgeously rendered prose, she finds her way in San Francisco and then Idaho as anti-Chinese violence grips the United States.
It’s hard to read Zhang’s novel—one that recalls a history long forgotten by many Americans—without feeling time contract between then and now and wondering at how little has changed amid ongoing waves of deadly anti-Asian racism today. And that’s just as Zhang intended. In recent years, she writes in the author’s note, “it became even more vital for me to remind people … of what the United States was and still is capable of.”
Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F.
Stefan Aust, translated by Anthea Bell (Oxford University Press, 480 pp., $34.95, April 2009)
Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, the 1985 bestseller about the West German Marxist terrorist group that called itself the Red Army Faction, is a gripping chronicle of an extraordinarily fraught and frightening chapter in West German history. Although Andreas Baader, one of the militant group’s leaders, was a lifelong petty criminal, virtually all the other members of the Red Army Faction were students whose far-left activism grew ever more radical—so radical that they crossed the line into terrorism, committing a string of assassinations and bombings. The story, which was translated into English in 2009 by Anthea Bell, is of course about West Germany in the 1970s, but it’s also a cautionary tale about radicalism gone awry and, thus, a chapter from which we can draw lessons today.
A Time to Love and a Time to Die: A Novel
Erich Maria Remarque, translated by Denver Lindley (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 432 pp., $17, June 1998)
Many FP readers are likely more than familiar with German author Erich Maria Remarque’s justly famed novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). However, his novel set in the waning days of World War II, A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1954), is not nearly as well known. Yet it remains a poignant account of how a soldier who has been given two weeks of leave from the Eastern Front returns to his hometown to discover that his home is in ruins and his parents are nowhere to be found. However, a former high school girlfriend is still around. Amid nightly air raids, chronic food shortages, and the machinations of local Gestapo goons, they rekindle a romance. Once again, Remarque demonstrates his extraordinary ability to capture the grimness and terror of everyday life in a small town ravaged by war.
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes
Tamim Ansary (PublicAffairs, 416 pp., $18.99, April 2010)
Recently, one of my daughters and I were in a bookstore—yes, they still exist—in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. When we met up after about 30 minutes of browsing, I had Van Halen’s first album (in vinyl!) in my hand, and she was carrying Tamim Ansary’s 2009 bestseller, Destiny Disrupted. She said, “This looks great. You might be interested in it as well.” My daughter was correct on both accounts.
What I, we, and practically everyone with whom I attended high school and college think of as “world history” is actually the history of the West. Ansary’s insight, which he carries through in easily accessible prose, is the “parallel history” of the Islamic world. The book is divided into 17 chapters, beginning with a discussion of the area that would later come to be known as the Islamic world through the important markers of the history of Islam and the world it made. It is a great story that has been told before—but without Ansary’s wit and charm. Enjoy!
—Steven A. Cook
In the Time of the Butterflies
Julia Alvarez (Algonquin, 352 pp., $16.95, January 2010)
A timeless read on the power of political dissidence, Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, first published in 1994, follows the true story of the four Mirabal sisters—three of whom were assassinated in 1960 for their work fighting Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Set during the height of Trujillo’s rule, Alvarez details the power of women leaders during a revolution primarily dominated by men. Readers of FP’s Latin America Brief especially will enjoy this fictionalized dive into one of the most influential yet unspoken tyrannies in the Western Hemisphere’s history.
Collapse: The Fall of The Soviet Union
Vladislav M. Zubok (Yale University Press, 576 pp., $35, November 2021)
This new take on the unexpected collapse of the Soviet empire, by an eminent Soviet-born historian, zooms in on the economic failings and pressures that drove the collapse. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, often portrayed in a heroic light in Western accounts, comes across as a petulant fool-saint in Vladislav M. Zubok’s telling; naively optimistic about the Soviet Union’s prospects for reform and so committed to his vision of the system, he created fatal weaknesses at the center instead of taking the power needed to keep the nation together. In Collapse, Zubok depicts a fateful coalition of idealists, grifters, and thugs that ended up shaping the disastrous 1990s, when the Russian economy and quality of life cratered, creating the ideal conditions for the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the viciously dangerous and fatally weak Russia of today.
Klara and the Sun: A Novel
Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf, 320 pp., $28, March 2021)
Kazuo Ishiguro is a master at crafting intricate dystopian societies that are both enchanting and horrifying, and his latest novel is no exception.
In Klara and the Sun, readers see the world through the curious eyes of Klara, an earnest young robot who is just beginning to understand her place in the world. Hopeful and eager to please, she is overjoyed when she is finally purchased by a family—although why, and for what future, are questions that will force the reader to grapple with a disturbing reality. Through Klara’s lens, Ishiguro deftly explores issues of class, love, and what it means to truly live. The result is a haunting tale that will stay with you for months.
The Collapsing Empire
John Scalzi (Tor Books, 336 pp., $25.99, March 2017)
Every so often, even the biggest foreign-policy nerds need to set down their tomes on political theory and read something that’s just plain fun. Enter The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. A master of sci-fi action and parody, Scalzi has created a universe far in the future in which humanity travels through space via a wormhole-like series of portals called the Flow. The intergalactic empire that follows—known as the Interdependency—is set up so that no one world can survive without, or dominate, the others thanks to their mutual dependency.
From this universe emerges action, adventure, political scheming, brewing warfare, and a healthy cast of lovable (and hateable) characters. The Collapsing Empire, the first in a series, is an immensely enjoyable read with plenty of grist for wonks: How could powers go to war when they’re mutually dependent? How can smaller worlds outmaneuver their bigger, better-armed rivals? Why are some key players in the Interdependency denying that the Flow they rely on could be unstable and at risk of collapse when the evidence is staring them in the face? (Climate change, anyone?)
In tackling these themes and more, Scalzi offers a perfect escape from our own messy world while staying relevant to all the things that FP readers love.