Each year about this time, in some venue or another, I try to think back at the books I’ve read that went beyond “useful” (nonfiction) or “amusing” (fiction) and wound up being “memorable.” My criteria tends to be eccentric, but then you’ve found your way to my blog, so you already know that.
Anyway, I’m no religious zealot, but I do like a nice Christmas stocking and have spun the dreidel in my day, too. So, what follows are a couple of suggestions for those you love at the holidays. And remember, wonderful as a digital download may be for your wallet, nothing says “I love you, writers who don’t get paid enough” like the good old, dead tree edition. Looks a lot better under the tree, too.
1. The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square
By Steven A. Cook
So, first, full disclosure: Steve’s a friend, a funny, decent, and insightful guy who manages to retain those qualities in spite of his full emersion in the creativity-killing milieu of the think tank. In his case, it’s the Council on Foreign Relations, the best of them in many ways, and to its credit, Steven has been afforded the kind of access to this subject that no journalist could match.
From his wanderings on the Arab streets of Cairo (and dozens of other Arab and Turkish towns), Cook brings the revolution to life. But he does so with the depth of knowledge of someone who has understood the dynamics of Egyptian—indeed, Arab autocracy—for years.
His earlier book, Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria and Turkey, is a much more academic look at these three important regimes. I was happy that I read it when Tunisia and then Egypt sparked what we now call the Arab Spring. Cook’s shares my optimism about these events (a good indication of his take is his Foreign Affairs article, Arab Spring, Turkish Fall) but without the parachute journalists hyperventilation about revolutionary fervor. Great, great book.
2. Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda
By Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker
It is more than Beltway fashion that has banished the phrase “Global War on Terror” intelligent conversation. Counterstrike, written by two veteran New York Times Pentagon correspondents, goes a long way toward explaining this lexicological exile. Indeed, GWOT doesn’t even appear in the book’s index; rather, Schmitt and Shanker make quick work of the the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and focus instead on the reaction of the gigantic military-intelligence complex when it dawned upon senior Bush administration officials that the U.S. was losing not one but two wars simultaneously.
This realization struck various figures at different moments—indeed, here Rumsfeld, in spite of his culpability, might actually have been ahead of the curve. Given that some of his former Bush administration colleagues remain in denial, it is striking to consider that Rumsfeld, as early as October 2003, was already warning Iraq would be a “long, hard slog.” But, collectively, it would be fair to say that by 2006, with American casualties once again spiking in Afghanistan and Iraq, reassessments of the narrow military strategy applied to both places were underway.
It is here that Schmitt and Shanker shine. The book is filled with amazing and, more importantly, professionally sourced accounts of the exploits of U.S. Special Operations Forces as the pace of their missions picked up in response to the failure of the initial, under-resourced “regime change” approach of earlier years. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the authors contend, the U.S. performance had been both good and lucky in its war against al Qaeda, which, with its failed shoe and underwear plots and loss of support among Muslims, was unlucky and not so good. Luck, however, could not be the basis of counter-terrorism policy. At some point, the authors say, some equilibrium outside the battlefield had to be sought—something akin to the old successful Cold War policy of deterrence.
For more of my own take on this topic generally, here’s a post from October on my Roubini Global Economics blog (Last Days of Rome). But or the definitive story on how the war against al-Qaeda has progressed—and progressed it has of late—Counterstrike is a great read and filled with “holy shit” moments.
This has been a year of reading furiously for me—since I wrote a book myself, research took up a good deal of my reading time. Happily, one of the last books I hit upon was this gem from Robert Guest, currently the business editor of The Economist and formerly the anonymous author of the “Lexington” column.
Guest’s last book, The Shackled Continent, looked with intelligence at the coming opportunities in Africa, a continent associated in the American mind with brutal civil conflict, corruption and famine. All this remains present, but Africa’s GDP also grew faster last year than any continent on Earth. Guest saw this coming earlier than most.
His latest book looks at the enormously important effects of global migration—mostly legal, mostly for intellectual and economic advancement. The “sea turtles” he speaks of are Chinese who go to America or Europe for advanced degrees and then go home to lay the eggs that bear economic fruit. It works in the other direction, too—Americans (like me) who have spend significant time abroad come home and bring unique insights to their careers in the U.S. This is a good news story of globalization, mostly, and it should be weighed more carefully by those down in Zuccotti Park who see globalization as pure evil, or others who would like to build a wall around the USA and trust God or (God forbid!) Rick Perry to see us to the promised land.
4. Brazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed
By Larry Rohter
Two things, one fortunate, one not, brought me to this excellent account of the next American superpower. The first was the need to include something intelligent about Latin America on my Bard College syllabus; the second was a short period this summer that I spent at Group SJR, a smallish marketing shop that wanted to launch some serious, non-marketing websites. Brazil was one topic, and so boning up before launch was a necessity.
Alas, the Brazil site is not to be—SJR pulled the plug on the project and I moved (happily) on. But Brazil is, as the title of Rohter’s smart book says, “on the Rise.” Understanding what that means in Brazilian terms, however, is important.
The second largest country in the western hemisphere will not rise easily – indeed, its rise has been predicted for a century at least. Cultural challenges, a very rigid labor market, powerful anti-Yanqui sentiments and deep, pervasive poverty and ignorance all remain to be overcome.
But nearly unmatched natural resources—including new offshore energy discoveries—and an increasingly talented and ambitious middle class, wedded to world-class banking and manufacturing sectors, have turned the tables. Brazil will never be the lockstep U.S. ally that some neocons apparently dream of; but Brazilian democracy is a force to welcome onto the world stage, even if Brazilian society continues to struggle with human rights abuses and criminal violence in the slums of its cities. This, too, can be overcome.
Lighter stuff that’s worth a mention:
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
By Isabel Wilkerson
Wonderful, colorful and heart-rending account of the 20th century’s movement of blacks from the South to the North. I expected tales of woe in Wilkerson’s descriptions of the horrors that drove blacks out of the south, and of the not-so-warm welcome they received amongst us Yankees. But the great thing about this book was the tales of those who survived it all and thrived.
Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost 1934-1961
By Paul Hendrikson
This author deserves an award for market strategy—he hit three of my loves in one book—Hemingway’s writing, boats, and deep sea fishing. Made me want to read Islands in the Stream and The Old Man and the Sea again—and again.
Keith Richards: My Life
By Keith Richards with James Fox
Either Keith Richards is an amazing writer or James Fox should be knighted. One way or another, besides the great detail (Beatles and Stones actually were friends; drunken, drug-crazed Rolls-Royce drives through Europe), the real pleasure here is the language. Every moment sounds as if you’re in a conversation with “Keef.” Love it. Thanks kids (for the Christmas present).
The Sublime Engine: A Biography of the Human Heart
By Stephen and Dr. Thomas Amidon
At one erudite and informative, written by a novelist and a heart surgeon who happen to be brothers, I loved this book.
A Secret Agent
By Joseph Conrad
A Confidential Agent
By Graham Greene
Both of these were pulled from the bookshelf at the little Vermont inn where I take my kids skiing every New Year's. (The Summit Inn—stay away, it’s mine). Anyway, it was great re-acquainting myself with these two giants. Greene at his pulpy best; Conrad his usual brooding, brilliant self.
Do your bit for consumption.