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What Foreign Policy Staff Read in 2015

FP staff share some of the best books they read in 2015.

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From novels set in Italy, India, and New York to deep dives into African gun-runners and an exploration of the world’s most hated apostle, Foreign Policy staff read books this year that made us laugh, cry, and rethink how we see and understand art, conflict, religion, and humanity. Below, select FP writers, editors, and events staff share some of the best books they read this year — and why they think you should pick up copies of them too (even if they weren’t necessarily published in 2015). 

Cameron Abadi, Senior Editor.

Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life, by Stephen Parker.

This wasn’t the most elegantly written book I read this year — its comprehensiveness was occasionally tedious — but it was the most revelatory. Brecht, a writer and thinker central to modern German culture, is peripheral at best here in the United States. Stephen Parker forces you to wonder why, and the most plausible answers aren’t very flattering. Maybe it’s because we simply can’t understand the political upheaval — from the Weimar Republic to decades in exile during World War II — that Brecht’s work, poetry, and theater emerged from and responded to. Or perhaps it’s simply because the language gap is too wide — that what’s compelling in German won’t necessarily be so in English translation. Either way, we’re missing out on a lot of great art.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Assistant Editor, Tea Leaf Nation.

The Study Quran, multiple editors. 

Shelves at any local Christian bookstore are stacked with Bibles containing commentary, textual analysis, and historical explanations to aid those hoping to understand the sacred Christian text. But a similarly annotated Quran, the holy book of Islam, has been unavailable for English-speaking Muslims — until now. Published in November, The Study Quran is more than 1,900 pages of text, commentary, exegetical essays, and maps. But it’s a testament to the times that such a dense scholarly undertaking could become so controversial – the work has inspired breathless articles like “Could this Quran curb extremism?” as well as hateful skepticism online. The decade-long project is itself ecumenical – it’s drawn from both Sunni and Shia sources – and it represents a vision of a global and inclusive Islam; the editor-in-chief is an Iranian-born intellectual, it’s funded in part by King Abdullah II of Jordan, and one of the contributing editors is a woman. (It’s even available for download on iTunes.) “The best way to counter extremism in modern Islam,” said the editor-in-chief, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “is a revival of classical Islam.”

Preeti Aroon, Copy Chief.

13 Men, by Sonia Faleiro.

Two social justice causes compete with one another in this work of narrative nonfiction about rape in India: women’s rights and tribal rights. The pseudonymous “Baby” falls in love with a man who’s not of her tribe; she is punished for her forbidden love, she says, by being gang-raped by 13 men. But her indigenous tribe has long been severely marginalized, and the tribe’s chief claims “someone powerful convinced her to lie” as a way to further marginalize the tribe. After you finish reading this 71-page e-book (perfect for passing time while on a plane or in an airport), you’ll be pondering what to think when separate social justice causes seem to be at odds. (Note: I wrote a review of this e-book in March for the Aerogram.)

Christian Caryl, Editor, Democracy Lab.

St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate, by Karen Armstrong.

One of the world’s leading scholars of religions presents the page-turning biography of the man who may have transformed the world more profoundly than just about anyone else. By placing the apostle back into his historical context, Armstrong shows why many conventional views of the man are dead wrong – and why we still live in a world that owes far more to his legacy than we usually recognize.

Stephanie Cherkezian, Director, Events.

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah.

A novel about the emotional bond between two sisters may not immediately stand out as a Foreign Policy book pick for 2015, but there is more than meets the eye with this powerful story. The novel opens up in France at the beginning of World War II, and shows war from the perspective of two very different women and their journeys for survival. The Nightingale reminds the reader that the human spirit can lift us up in even the bleakest of times while also weaving us through the well-known narrative of WWII but this time through a whole new angle. Warning: grab the tissues because this one is a tearjerker.

Seyward Darby, Deputy Editor, Print.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara.

A Little Life isn’t just one of the most captivating books I read this year—it’s one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read, period. The massive novel (more than 700 pages) tells the story of Jude, an orphan who as a child endures horrible sexual, emotional, and other abuse, the effects of which he grapples with over many decades with the support of a bevy of (mostly male) friends. The book isn’t perfect; in fact, it’s messy and often jarring. (It is also guaranteed to make you gasp and cry, even yell.) But that, it seems, is the point: As the writer, 2015 FP Global Thinker Hanya Yanagihara, said in a recent interview with the magazine, “I tried to take risks in this book… to write as if I didn’t know what I wasn’t allowed to do.” What’s more, the arc and structure of the story—and even single sentences—seem to reflect Jude’s ever-precarious mental state: It’s sometimes tidy, but in other moments, Jude loses control. A Little Life may not have anything to do directly with foreign policy. But it is a fascinating, ambitious effort to depict an extreme pole of the human condition we all share, and which shapes how we treat one another.

Yochi Dreazen, Managing Editor, News.

J, by Howard Jacobson.

Even by the standards of dystopian fiction, this novel makes for a haunting, nightmarish, and timely read. Set in the near future, Jacobson writes of an unnamed country (clearly modeled on his native Britain) that was the location of a Holocaust so successful that the nation’s Jews were eradicated — but so, in an act of forced forgetfulness, was any discussion of that mass genocide itself. The citizens of the crumbling country instead refer to the atrocity as the “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.”  In a conversation with me earlier this year, Jacobson told me he believed mass violence against the Jews of Europe was possible and even probable because of the violent anti-Semitism among a portion of the continent’s Muslims, economic woes, rising nationalism, and the growing campaign to delegitimize Israel in a way that often veers into attacks on Jews themselves. We all obviously hope he’s wrong. This book is a terrifying, if intentionally exaggerated, vision of what could happen if he’s right.

Ty McCormick, Africa Editor.

The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business, by Alex de Waal.

Essential reading for those who wish to understand why insurgencies seem to drag on interminably in much of Africa. There is no honor in the “political marketplace” de Waal describes, only gunslinging “entrepreneurs” whose allegiance is ever shifting to the highest bidder. Not surprisingly, the former Darfur peace negotiator is at his best when he describes the infuriating wars in Sudan and South Sudan, where perverse incentive structures have encouraged ever-smaller groups of rebel-bandits to take up arms with the aim of securing a cash payout. It’s a sobering read, but the most convincing framework I’ve seen for understanding regional dynamics.

Siobhán O’Grady, Staff Writer.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.

It’s hard to imagine that just one American writer could have enough expertise in mollusks, precious stones, and radio signals to weave the three obscure topics into a brilliant, lengthy novel set between Germany, Russia, and France during World War II. But somehow, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See manages even more than just that. The intricate story, set during the Nazi invasion of France, follows Werner (a German orphan), Marie-Laure (a blind French girl and daughter of the locksmith at Paris’s natural history museum), and Sergeant Major von Rumpel (a dying, treasure-hunting Nazi) as the war rages on and their lives — with the help of the radio — slowly come together in an unexpected and terrifying way. The book is a painfully realistic account of how ordinary lives were so quickly altered and destroyed during WWII. But young Marie-Laure’s total blindness — and the thoughtful ways Doerr makes her sightless life accessible to his seeing readers — offers a human experience so different from most that the novel is in some ways other-worldly. His short chapters, which alternate between the different characters’ individual stories, explore the depth of family bonds, the unparallelled comfort of home, the kindness and cruelty of strangers, and the difficult moral questions normal people must encounter during wartime. It wouldn’t do Doerr’s masterpiece justice to say only that it is beautifully written. All the Light We Cannot See is so remarkable that nearly every sentence, if standing alone, could be mistaken for a line of poetry.

Benjamin Soloway, Editorial Assistant.

Beauty Is a Wound, by Eka Kurinawan.

“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” So begins Beauty Is a Wound, by Eka Kurinawan. Over the course of the novel, Dewi and her four daughters encounter “incest, murder, bestiality, rape, insanity, monstrosity, and the often vengeful undead,” as the author writes on his website. Influenced by Don Quixote, magic realism, ghost stories, and Indonesian pulp fiction, the novel tells an amusing, alluring, tragic tale that sprawls over decades of Indonesian history. Published originally in 2002 as Cantik Itu Luka and available in English for the first time this year, Kurinawan serves as way into the small body of Indonesian literature in English and a part of the world too often overlooked by outsiders. Foreign Policy named the author a 2015 Global Thinker.

Alicia Wittmeyer, Europe Editor.

The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante.

Definitely read Elena Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan Novels series for the story of Elena and Lila, the friends at the core of the books, whose relationship inspires some of the most true-to-life depictions in fiction of both the ugliest and most noble feelings women can have for one another. (The Story of the Lost Child, the last of the novels, was just published in English this year.) But read them as well for the way they tell the story of post-war Italy: The books, which span six decades and are centered around a Naples slum, are also about who has power in Italian society and who doesn’t, about how to get it, and how to wield it. They cover territory ranging from language to leftist movements to the Camorra, all in a way that will keep you up too late at night because you need to know how these women’s lives unfold.

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